Assumed audience: Theologically-orthodox Christians, or folks interested in things that theologically-orthodox Christians think.
I preached a sermon from the following manuscript at Waypoint Church in Colorado Springs on May 29, 2022. (It was not recorded, or I would share the audio as well.) I offer the manuscript here in hopes that it will be encouraging to someone!
Good morning everyone. Let us pray.
I don’t know about all of you, but my heart is heavy this week. The world is full of hard things, grievous things — war, economic turmoil, horrific and senseless violence again and again. My hope is that as we look at this passage, as we consider how our Lord taught us to pray, it will encourage us — not in a simple way, necessarily, but in a true way, in the way that we need. And the way that works is that we see God as he really is — not as he is in our imaginations, but as he really is; not as he is in our fears, but as he really is — :
God — who made all things, God who is the judge of the living and the dead, God who is holy and dwells in unapproachable light, God who has no beginning and no end, God who loves justices and hates evil — this God calls us to himself and tells us to come to him with our prayers. He has called us friends; and he is with us and dwells in us as his temple; and he is our Father.
So let’s look at this prayer.
Jesus was praying, and his disciples asked him, when he was done: “Teach us to pray!” They knew John the Baptist had taught his disciples how to pray, and they clearly felt the need to learn. They didn’t know what to pray, or how to pray. That’s a feeling I’m familiar with. Maybe you too. Because what he taught them is not what I go to naturally when my heart is troubled.
The very first thing Jesus taught them to pray is: “Father, hallowed be your name.” That is: May your name be set apart. May it be kept holy. May people reverence your name. He tells us to pray, from the start, for people to think of God “with appropriate reverence and honor” (as one commentator I read summarized it). Why should we pray for people to reverence God? Don’t jump ahead to the easy answer of “because God deserves it”. That’s true; he does deserve it — but why is that what we pray for? It’s not as if God needs us to keep his name holy. He is not codependent with humans.
And yet, this is a constant refrain in Scripture. Again and again, God tells Israel why he is doing something, and it sounds like this from Ezekiel 36:
And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
He will vindicate the holiness of his name, and refuse to let it be treated as anything but holy — by Israel or by the rest of the nations. So: why? Because, again: He does not need our worship. A god who needed that wouldn’t be God.
No, the real God, the Triune God — Father, Son, and Spirit — is perfectly satisfied in the Trinity, because the Trinity is in its very essence eternal goodness and love and joy. Perfect. We exist because the goodness of God, the love of God, the joy of God overflows into creation — free, unnecessary, for the joy of it. It overflows into creating people in his image: people who can participate in his boundless goodness and love and joy. And that is the key.
Why does Jesus teach us to pray: “Father, hallowed by your name”? Because it’s what we need. Or rather, said better: it’s who we need. We need our hearts to reverence God. Now, that raises a further question: if God does not need us to reverence him… why did he create us so that we need to reverence him? The answer is: it couldn’t actually be any other way. The question itself is confused.
God is good. God is love. God is joy. God is light. God is life. So if he made us not to reverence him, not to look at every other good thing and see them as a pointer to him, he would be withholding goodness and love and joy and light and life from us — because he would be withholding himself from us. There is no other source of goodness floating out there that God is demanding that we only access through him. No: God is goodness; goodness exists in the very being of God. All other goodness is derived from him. The fact that we are made for him is not divine self-absorption. It’s divine self-gift. Being made for God means being made for ultimate goodness. love. joy. light. life.
This is hard for us for two reasons — First, and most fundamentally, it is hard because the essence of our fallen, broken state is the denial of God’s goodness, is searching for good everywhere but in the only one who is goodness itself. Second, though, even for Christians, whose minds are being renewed, we don’t have any positive analogies here. We can’t look around and say, “The way this thing and that thing relate are the way God and I relate, at least a little bit.” A tree is a good thing, but a tree is not goodness itself. Parents, and children, and spouses, and friends are good, but they are not goodness itself. Only God is. The only analogies that help here are negative analogies — like C.S. Lewis’ idea of a boy who refuses to come away from the puddle in his sandbox because he cannot imagine a beach or an ocean. That’s us, trying to understand what the goodness and love of God are like compared to every bit of goodness and love we experience apart from him.
So we pray: “Father, hallowed be your name,” because when we reverence God’s name, we are people who are turned back to goodness Himself. Jesus is teaching us to pray for ourselves to be who and what we are meant to be: his. And that is what the whole prayer is: us asking God to provide what we need… above all, himself.
“Your kingdom come”: we are asking for him to make things right in the world. God made us for him, so that we would experience infinite love and joy and life. And we… we rebelled. We brought ruin into the good world God had made. We turned our backs on him. We spat in his face — a few chapters after this literally spat in the face of the God-man. We tried over, and over, and over again to build our own kingdoms.
That ranges from literal kingdom building and violent invasions; to politics; to the little fiefdoms we try to build in our own lives. Angling for that promotion, no matter the cost. Choosing our own interests over our children’s — or, as we age, over our parents’. We choose, over and over again, to be king and queen ourselves instead of letting God be king. And the result is ruin. We ruin ourselves; we ruin each other; we ruin the world.
So Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come” because our kingdoms are awful. They are sites of abuse and violence, of injustice and oppression. What we need, what we desperately need, is for our rebellious kingdoms to get toppled and for God to come into the world and make things good again. But that isn’t an abstract prayer for the world “out there”: it is a prayer for human hearts — that we would give up on all of our schemes to get what we want, and become people who act justly and love mercy. We cannot do this ourselves. So we pray for it.
“Give us each day our daily bread.” To pray that way is to turn away from thinking that we can take — from the earth; from each other — what we need. It is to abandon the idea that we can make for ourselves — ex nihilo, out of nothing — what we need. And to confess our dependence on the one who made us. Whatever job we do to earn that bread, and wherever that grain was grown that makes up the bread: it’s a gift.
Does any one inquire, why we ask that bread to be given to us, which we call OUR bread? I answer: It is so called, not because it belongs to us by right, but because the fatherly kindness of God has set it apart for our use. It becomes ours, because our Heavenly Father freely bestows it on us for the supply of our necessities.
Calvin reminds us that we get to say “give us each day our daily bread” because our Father gives generously. And so we ask for it every day from our Father. it’s a gift. So we pray that he will turn our hearts to him, that in the act of eating we will remember that all we have is from him and designed to point us back to him.
But then we must confess that we have often not trusted God to provide for our needs. Instead, in our own kingdom-building, we have taken instead. In every way imaginable, we have taken. We have abused the earth instead of stewarding it. We have used each other as things instead of seeing in each other the holy image of God. We have left undone things we should have done, and done things we should not have done. Jesus teaches us to pray “forgive us our sins” because we need forgiveness.
But what of the second half of this line in the prayer:
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
Do you forgive everyone is indebted to you? Have you? People who reverence God, who want to see his kingdom come… forgive: because God forgives. Now, you might say, “Hang on, this says ‘forgive us, because we forgive’.” Is this a place where we have a bargain, where we have to hold up our end or else God won’t forgive us? The answer is: no: this is not because we earn forgiveness by forgiving, but because we show by forgiving that we are following God’s ways and have given up on our own — that we know that we ourselves are sinners in need of much forgiveness and so forgive the little things others have done to us.
Again: we pray that we would be those who imitate God, who are his image as we were meant to be.
“Lead us not into temptation.” This is not the only place this phrase shows up in Luke. Jesus tells his disciples in the garden before his betrayal — repeatedly: “pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Instead, they fell asleep. Because, as Jesus told them in the garden: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And this is exactly our experience of the world, right? Paul’s description in Romans 7 is an all-too-familiar feeling: that we do the bad things we want not to do, and the good things we do want to do, we find ourselves unable to do.
And we know that God sets the course of our lives. So we pray that he will keep us far from temptation — because if he doesn’t, we’ll fail. We know that, left to ourselves, we go straight back into our world-ruining rebellion. We will muck it up. But God will keep us. So we pray to be kept.
That’s the whole prayer. It’s short. But it points us to what we need: most of all, God himself, and therefore for his rule in the world instead of our own rebellion, for his provision instead of our own greed, for his forgiveness instead of our spite, for his deliverance instead of our folly.
Our passage doesn’t stop with the end of the prayer, though. The disciples had asked Jesus, “Teach us to pray” — and he knew they needed (we need!) to know more than the words to say: we need to be encouraged to pray, because we are weak and we often doubt. So he tells two negative analogies — dis-analogies, you could call them: to help us feel and remember that God is good and will answer this prayer.
The first dis-analogy is to a friend, a neighbor, who is — understandably — annoyed at being awakened in the middle of the night… but because you keep banging on his door, gives you the thing you need. Jesus’ point here is that God isn’t like that friend. And so: to be encouraged. The friend might give you some bread because you won’t leave him alone. God gives us the bread we need each day because he loves us.
That helps a little, I think, when we struggle to believe what Jesus says here:
…ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
That doesn’t always feel true. It hasn’t always felt true to me over the past few weeks. But it’s true. God gives us what we need. And why wouldn’t he? Remember, we exist because of the overflow of God’s goodness and joy and life into free and joyful creation. He delights to give us good. That’s why he made us.
Sometimes his answers don’t look how we want — but they are in fact, his answers, and they are good. I was originally going to preach this sermon last November… and then I got COVID. I did not understand God’s timing. But finishing preparing this sermon over the last two weeks, I understand a little better now. For the things going on in my own life, for the things going in the world, I needed to hear this word now.
That’s what the second dis-analogy tells us as well. There are, no doubt, fathers who would think it was funny to hand their kids a snake instead of a fish. “Oh, sorry, it had scales, close enough! Hahaha.” And there are, worse, fathers who instead of providing life for their kids by giving them food, bring ruin and death: a scorpion instead of an egg. No one calls fathers like that “good”.
But Jesus doesn’t just call those fathers evil. “You who are evil,” he says — to us, to the ones who would never do that kind of thing — , “know how to give good gifts to your children. How much more your Father in heaven?” Now, I try to give good gifts to my daughters. My daughters’ birthdays are this weekend, and we tried very hard not to do the equivalent of giving them a scorpion instead of an egg. One of them asked for a brownie instead of cake… we didn’t give her a brick! But even as a Christian father who wants to be a good picture of Christ to my children, even on my very best day… I’m not good like God is good. Again, God’s goodness far, far exceeds ours.
And Jesus wants us to see that we have a truly good father. So when we ask, confident that we will receive, because he is actually good, what is it that Jesus promises the Father will give us? Himself — of course! — himself. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Remember: God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — eternally one God in three persons who are: — goodness — love — joy — light — life. The promise is God himself.
In closing, I want to encourage you to pray this prayer. Not just to make it a model for your other prayers. You should do that, too: this is a good guide for our prayers. But we should also pray this prayer often: it’s the prayer our Lord taught us. Around the year 100 A.D., some early Christians put together a book called The Teaching of the Apostles (the “διδαχή”), and it quotes the Lord’s prayer and encourages people to pray the Lord’s prayer — three times every day. They knew they needed to be formed by this prayer. And so do we. So that when weeks like this one come, and we don’t know what to pray… well, we do know what to pray. With that in mind, I thought it would be good if we joined God’s people throughout the last two thousand years and prayed this — together, the way our Lord taught us to. [If you would put up the slide?] Please pray aloud with me:
Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.