March 13, 2011

"Learning to Live, Learning to Pray"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Series: The Sermon on the Mount
The Good and Beautiful Life: Jesus’ Vision for a New World
Matthew 6:5-13; 7:7-11

Prayer is the primary practice that connects us with the One who made us.  It comes in too many forms to count.  It was crucial to the life and ministry of Jesus.  So often in the gospels we see Jesus retreating from the crowds to be alone with God.  He needed prayer for strength to overcome temptation and for guidance to be who he was created to be.  His life was so infused with prayer that his life became prayer.

I.                      Prayer in Jesus’ day - praying the hours

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers guidance for our prayer life. 

Jesus said, “When you pray . . .”  There is an expectation from Jesus that his disciples will pray.  In Jesus’ day, devout Jews prayed three times a day, often in public; sometimes in the synagogue, commonly praying aloud while standing.  They were engaging in the ancient practice of praying at certain hours during the day.  It’s been called among other things “praying the hours.”  We first read about it in Psalm 119.  The psalmist says, “Seven times a day will I rise to pray your name.”  In some monasteries, the practice of praying seven times a day is still observed.  It has been narrowed to four in most monasteries.

There are guides for those of us who live outside monasteries to pray the hours four times a day - morning, noon, evening, and night.  And only twice a day if that’s where you need to start.  Robert Benson’s book, In Constant Prayer,1 is part of the Ancient Practices Series we are working through, and it is a very helpful guide in the practice of praying in this way.

It is a way of praying rooted in the psalms.  It gives us words for prayer when we don’t know what to pray and helps us expand our prayer life beyond our own words.  It can also serve as an inspiration for our own prayers.  One priest said, “Say the words of the ancient prayer, and listen for the prayer of God that rises in your heart.”  However we do it, we must pray.

II.                    Praying to be seen by others.  Praying in secret.

Jesus brings up the question of motive when praying.  Jesus said, “When you pray, do not pray in order to be seen by others.”  There’s nothing wrong with going to a religious place for prayer.  But what is your intention?   If you pray in order to be seen by others, then you have your reward.  The true reward of prayer, intimacy with God, will not be yours.

A few of us were in here on Friday preparing the sanctuary for worship.  And while working, Margaret Graves boldly confessed to me that one Sunday morning she did the Prayers of the People, and when done, felt proud about the good job she had done.  She then proceeded to tumble down the steps on her way back to her seat.  She had her reward.  The heart matters.

III.                   Jesus says be persistent - ask, seek, knock - and God will answer

Jesus calls us to persistence in prayer:  Keep on asking, seeking, knocking, he says, and the desires of your heart will be given you.  These words raise all kinds of questions about who God is, and what prayer is, and what we should pray for, and how God answers prayer.

Many of us don’t like to ask for help.  We are often ashamed of our needs, our neediness, for it reveals the myth of self-sufficiency in which our culture immerses us.  But Jesus says, “Speak your need, and speak it without shame.”

Jesus says God’s fundamental posture toward you is one of favor, pleasure, blessing, generosity who wants to give you what you need, and knows what you need before you ask.  Luke’s version of today’s text says the thing God promises always to grant in response to our prayer is the one thing we need most, the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God in our lives.

James says “Sometimes you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, unwisely (James 4:3).  It is helpful to remember these words of Jesus about asking, seeking, and knocking were said in the context of praying for God’s kingdom to come.  Jesus has just told us to seek first the kingdom of God.  Is this our hope when we pray?

V.                    The Lord’s Prayer as our guide to prayer

“Ask, seek, knock” is best understood if we pray it from inside the Lord’s Prayer.  This is what we pray, how we ask, seek, and knock. 

The Lord’s Prayer.  Millions of Christians pray it every Sunday all over the world.  In praying the hours, The Lord’s Prayer is included each time we pray.  This Fall, from mid-August through November, we will be moving phrase by phrase through this great prayer in the hope that its profound depths take hold of us.  Today, an introduction to The Prayer.

Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against those who pray thinking God will hear them for their many words.  This prayer has only 57 words.

Hopefully today and later this year, rather than simply repeating the words of The Lord’s Prayer, we will learn to pray it boldly and daringly.  In The Book of Common Prayer, the traditional introduction to The Lord’s Prayer reads, “As our Savior Christ has taught us, we dare to say . . .” or  “. . . we are bold to pray . . .”

Do you ever think of praying this Prayer as a bold and daring thing to do?  Has the praying of The Lord’s Prayer ever caused you to feel uncomfortable?  If you perceive that the Christian life is only about being at peace or that prayer is all about getting what you want and receiving comfort for your soul, you will run and hide from a Prayer like this.


(1) Learning to pray is in a very real sense learning how to live.  Our prayers express and help shape the way we live and the way we believe.  Genuine prayer does not allow us to separate prayer from the way we live.  If our praying has any meaning at all it will affect the way we live.  The Lord’s Prayer challenges us to a particular way of living.  It reminds us of an agenda larger than our own: the kingdom of God and the will of God.  It reminds us of our dependence upon God for bread, forgiveness, and help with temptation.  Learning to pray has everything to do with learning how to live.

What is your prayer life like?  Does it consist only of words spoken while riding down the road?  Is your prayer life limited only to this hour of worship on Sunday mornings?  Or to times of personal crisis?  Does it have anything at all to do with how you live your daily life?

We are not capable of living life in this world the way God intends apart from a dedication to the life of prayer.  Our souls are desperately in need of time alone with God, away from the noise and activity that cloud our lives.  We must be still long enough to hear a Voice beyond all the other voices, a Voice that will lead us as we seek to engage the world.  The purpose of prayer is to teach us how to live and enable us to live by connecting us to the One who made us.

(2) The Lord's Prayer expresses in a remarkable way our most basic beliefs as Christians.  It presses us to ask ourselves what we believe about God, ourselves, and our world.  Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers, wrote that The Lord’s Prayer was a summary of the whole gospel.  And I think he’s right.  In fact, as we search for Christian unity, The Lord’s Prayer perhaps offers an expression of faith around which all Christians could unite.

(3) The Lord’s Prayer has always held a significant place in the life and worship of the church.  Did you know that in the early centuries of the church The Lord’s Prayer was considered to be so precious that nobody was even allowed to learn it until the very end of the three year training period before being baptized.  I think The Lord’s Prayer would serve well as a guide in teaching people what it means to be Christian.  We learn how to be a Christian by learning how to pray this Prayer.


The Lord's Prayer also serves as a model for our praying; it teaches us how to pray.  In Luke’s version of The Prayer (which is a bit shorter than Matthew’s version), Luke presents The Prayer as an answer to a prayer.  The disciples came to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  It was the custom in those days for a rabbi to give his followers a brief form of prayer, and the disciples want Jesus to teach them.

Jesus said, “Pray this way.”  And though the words are important Jesus gave us more than words; he gave us a guide to prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer has been rightly called “The Model Prayer,” because it gives form to our prayers.  And from this Prayer we can frame new prayers.

So what is it about this Prayer that makes it so important as a model for our own praying?

(1) First of all, notice how the prayer is structured: The prayer begins with a focus on God then moves to address our needs.  There is a tendency for our prayers and our faith to be oriented around ourselves and our needs and what God can do for us. 

Tony Campolo tells of the time his little boy walked into the living room just before going to bed and said, “I’m going to bed!  And I’m going to be praying!  Anybody want anything?”

God desires that, like a child, we share our needs in prayer (“ask, seek, knock”), but to orient our prayer lives around ourselves and our needs and our wants is to miss the point of prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray and live differently, more maturely, than that.

We are given a model.  Following an intimate yet reverent address to God “Our Father who art in heaven,” the first three petitions concern God: God’s name, God’s kingdom, God’s will.  The second three petitions concern our needs: our bread, our sins, our struggle with temptation and evil. 

The Lord’s Prayer calls us to attend first to the honoring of God’s name, and the coming of God’s Kingdom, and the doing of God’s will.  And then we are called to see ourselves, our needs, our desires in the light of God’s purposes. 

In your prayers, start with God’s agenda for the world and what bothers you won’t own you like it currently does.  Place your concerns in their proper perspective of God’s desire to remake the world and see if what you want still has the same power over you.  What if we did this everyday?  The Lord’s Prayer teaches us how to properly order our prayers, and provides us with the major concerns for which we need to pray.

(2) There is a phrase at the heart of this model prayer that says something very important about the nature of prayer itself:  “ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.”  This prayer does not leave our heads in the clouds longing for the next life.  This prayer says that everything about prayer must be rooted and grounded in real life here on earth: daily bread, forgiveness of sin, temptation and evil, the will and kingdom of God, and the honoring of God’s name.  Prayer is a very earthy thing to do.

(3) This Prayer also models good praying in that The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of the Church for the world.  The Lord’s Prayer is not an “I” prayer; it is emphatically an “our” prayer.  In this prayer we are taught to pray, not as individuals, but as members of the Church.  It is not a prayer for me; it is a prayer for us.  When I come to God in prayer, I do not simply come before a God who is my private God here to meet my private needs.  This Prayer teaches me to pray as a part of the Church for the world.

Yes, I need daily bread, but so do all people.  So we pray “Give US this day OUR daily bread.”  I need forgiveness, but so does everyone else.  So we pray “Forgive US OUR trespasses.”  I need deliverance, but we all do.  So we pray, “Lead US not into temptation, but deliver US from evil.”  The pronouns of this Prayer are all plural:  “our” and “us.” 

This prayer is about relationships.  The God to whom we pray is the God who gathers us all together as brothers and sisters.  God is “OUR Father.”  There are no fences of race, class, nationality, or denomination in this Prayer.  And that is the importance of praying this Prayer in worship - to remind ourselves that God transcends the distinctions of race, color, nationality, culture, and language.  And if we pray long enough, maybe we will transcend them too.

The Lord’s Prayer draws us away from the individualism that characterizes so much of contemporary Christianity and reminds us we are part of the human family, we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God, we were created for community with each other, and we are to work and pray for the betterment of all humanity, not just work and pray for ourselves.  The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of the Church for the world.

(4) But that doesn’t mean it cannot be helpful to us personally.  It can.  The Lord’s Prayer calls us to bring all of life - past, present, and future - to God in prayer.  The prayer of forgiveness - to forgive and be forgiven -  is to lay our past before God and the things we’re still carrying around.  To ask for daily bread lays our present before God, the daily concerns that weigh us down.  And we lay our future before God by praying to be delivered from temptation and evil.

The Lord’s Prayer provides form to our prayer life.  It connects God’s agenda with human need.  And it encompasses the whole world.

(5) The Lord’s Prayer teaches how to pray and how to live.  To learn how to pray is to learn how to live.  And this Prayer does both.  It reminds us that our lives are to be lived by an agenda not our own: an agenda Jesus called the Kingdom of God.  We pray for that kingdom to come in our midst.  And rather than seeking to make a name for ourselves we pray for God’s name to be honored in our lives.  We pray for God’s will to be done because we know our wills are often turned inward and tainted by our own sinful desires.  We acknowledge our failures and cast ourselves into the arms of God’s grace to be forgiven and to forgive.  And we pray for help in the midst of temptation and plea to be delivered from the evil that surrounds us, including the evil we’re all capable of committing.


Prayer is not just a private matter, nor is it a passive activity; prayer is a cry for God to act in our lives and in our world, and it is a commitment to involve ourselves in God’s work.  Columnist Ann Landers once wrote quite a provocative dialogue.  It went like this:

“Sometimes I would like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine, and injustice when he could do something about it.”

                        “Well, why don’t you ask him?”
                        “Because I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.”

Our world is not one where we sit back and watch God work.  God has entered into a relationship with us and with the world and God invites us to participate in that work in the world.  And we enter that relationship through prayer and through the activity of our lives.

A church out in Texas has a group of people called “The Headliners.”  They meet for prayer once a week and bring with them a clip from the newspaper regarding some issue in their community that they can pray for.  And after praying for that particular situation they talk about ways they can involve themselves in being the answer to that prayer.  If they read of someone being burned out of their home, they pray for them and then contact them to see how they can help.  That’s prayer teaching you how to live.

The Lord’s Prayer connects us to the world in the most concrete and unrelenting ways.  It reminds us what all prayer is supposed to be.  In the words of Karl Barth, “To fold one’s hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”  Praying this Prayer is to have “your little life (and my little life) caught up in the purposes of God for the whole world.”  It is to have your life bent toward God when all you thought you were doing was repeating a little prayer.

Conclusion: A dedication to a life of prayer

Would you dedicate your life to prayer this Lenten season?  If not ,why not?  Let me close by paraphrasing Robert Benson who says:

      We who will get up and walk, or even run miles in the morning, not to mention those of us who are not willing to wait for there to be enough light to see the bottom of the flag or for the frost to go away before we tee off, we who will get up before dawn to read the paper and drink our coffee, or get up for all kinds of reasons, including some good ones, we will not, cannot, do not rise in the morning to greet the dawn with a song of praise on our lips, as did those who went before us.

      We who will stay up late to watch a basketball game or John Stewart and Steven Colbert (though all three are close to religious programming); we who will TiVo enough must-see television that we have to stay up late to keep up, we who will not go to sleep without reading, we who will burn the candle at both ends and in the middle if we can figure how to get it lit, we will not end our days with praise and worship and confession and blessing.

      We plan time for the things that need to be done.  We have Palm Pilots. We make grocery lists and honey-do lists.  We set our alarm clocks and we program our TiVos.  If we’re going to travel, we sort through Priceline; if we’re working some big event, we put a checklist on the refrigerator.

      We would not dream of trying to do anything in our lives that really matters to us, large or small, without making a list or two or twenty-seven, and checking it twice a day.  We say if we do not write it down, we will forget to do it.  However, one of the things we are reluctant to make lists about and plan for is our spiritual lives.

     We say that our spiritual lives are important, even most important to us, but we make no plan to nurture it.  We are unwilling to leave anything in our lives that matters to us to chance except the way that we live out our lives in communion with the One who gave us life in the first place.

      For me to say that I do not have ten minutes to say morning prayer or evening prayer is so lame it is embarrassing.  It is really embarrassing when I say such a thing about my communion with the One whom I claim to love more than anything or anyone else.2

      Do those words have something to say to you?  Will you dedicate your life to prayer this Lenten season?  Do you have the boldness, the courage, to do so guided by this Prayer?

1.  Robert Benson, In Constant Prayer, Thomas Nelson, 2008
2.  Benson, 63, 77-79, 89-90