Oct. 15, 2017: The Small Catechism - The Lord's Prayer
Sermon Series – The Small Catechism – Prayer & The Lord’s Prayer
Zion, Baltimore. October 8, 2017
What is the nature of prayer? What’s its point? What’s its purpose? These are some of the questions I would like to explore today as we consider The Lord’s Prayer.
Prayer begins with perception. It begins with the perception that God is personal and present in the world. “Faithful” prayer grows out of what the Jewish theologian Martin Buber called the “I-Thou” relationship. Not only do we know God as forgiver and friend, but in faith the Spirit inspires our will so that we want to be in tune with God’s will. Praying and doing are, therefore, inseparable. Talking with God – or at God – is a useless exercise if this “I-Thou” relationship is not expressed in real life.
Let’s contrast the prayer of faith with what we might call the prayer of “unfaith.” Lots of people pray, but prayers can be spoken and yet be entirely divorced from faith.
There are egotistical prayers, where people try to secure a favorable response from God. It has a strong magical element to it. People think that prayer “works” if the right words are said and the mind doesn’t wander, or if you get the “right” people to pray for you.
It’s something that I, as a pastor, encounter again and again. That people feel that my prayers, because I’m a pastor, are somehow different from their own.
Faith is seen as a quality which influences the outcome of prayer. Faith healers, therefore, can accuse unfortunates of “not having enough faith” if they aren’t healed. Faith becomes a magical quality which influences the outcome.
It seems like every few years there’s some kind of new research designed to determine whether prayer "really works." Maybe you’ve heard of Franklin Loehr’s The Power of Prayer on Plants, a series of experiments with two plants, one prayed over and one not, with the claim that the "prayed over" plant grew bigger and hardier. If this is true, maybe it is because of all the extra carbon dioxide.
C. S. Lewis responded to this approach by saying, then why not pray over one of two people who are both mortally ill from the same disease and see who survives?
This is not to say that the prayer doesn’t do much. But The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that prayer is not a means of changing events.
The opposite of egotistical prayers are fatalistic prayers, where one comes to the conclusion that things just happen whether one prays or not. It’s what we might call a deterministic approach. If we don't have a satisfactory answer as to why things happen, it’s simply that we haven't discovered it yet. So, why bother to pray? We develop an overly-intellectualized approach to prayer, so that if it isn't answered, we aren't disappointed. Prayer, then, may be seen simply as submission to God's will. Or, prayer is seen as having subjective value. It doesn't change things, but it changes me. We become "The Little Engine That Could," puffing along, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." Sometimes this takes the form of "educational prayers" in church, where we inform God that the budget is in trouble, in order to sway those who are listening.
The Law has only judgment for both of these approaches to prayer. Egotistical prayer is idolatrous magic. Fatalistic prayer makes God a prisoner of his own system.
From the perspective of the gospel, prayer is an aspect of our participation in the struggle between the kingdom of Christ and the powers of evil. The universe is the scene of the struggle between God and the powers of evil, and we are involved in that struggle.
The gospel proclaims that in Jesus Christ we are rescued from God's wrath and the rule of evil. In Jesus Christ, you and I are God's daughters and sons. It is this gospel which determines the nature of Christian prayer.
Most people think of prayer as a cosmic vending machine. I put my $1.50 worth of prayer into the divine prayer machine and God responds with an answered prayer and a bag of chips.
Another way to put it is that many people think of prayer as a parabola - like the arc of a ball thrown into the air. I throw a prayer upwards and God drops the answer down.
Martin Marty in The Hidden Discipline, his commentary on Luther's Large Catechism compares prayer with an inverted parabola. We receive all things from God's hand, and we respond in faith as God's child.
This is praying in the name of Jesus, to be able to say, "Abba Father." When we pray for healing, or daily bread, we are glorifying God and God’s work in the world. It is to recognize that our healing is in God’s hands, and all that we have is from God’s hand.
Prayer is our participation in the ordering of the universe. Faith knows that God still works in the world. Luther says, "God is in the things." And God works through our participation when he gives us the assurance of his presence and commits us to a life of servanthood in the world. Praying and doing are inseparable, because God works through us. We are God's hands and feet at work in the world.
We commit ourselves to God's purposes in every dimension of life. Prayer is "practicing the presence of God," and if God is present in all things, then every area of life is sacred. In prayer we glorify God’s work in the same moment that prayer calls me to work in the preserving and redeeming process.
That is what the Lord's Prayer is all about. Jesus' message is that God's rule has broken into this world, and we are to see this in faith. We are to live "as though" God's rule is really happening.
Therefore, as Martin Marty says, prayer is "in spite of." In spite of sin and death and evil, we believe that, in Jesus, God has won the victory for us. God is preparing a usable future for us, because we see God's hand making that future kingdom happen now.
Let’s walk through the Lord's Prayer for a few moments, sharing some of Martin Luther's and Martin Marty's insights: We pray, Our Father who art in heaven. Actually, Jesus was more intimate than that. He called God “Abba”, the equivalent to “Daddy”. Through Jesus we know that God is our parent and friend.
Father, your name be holy Among us, Luther stresses. We sense your holiness as we gather around Word and Meal, and practice your presence in the believing community and in all of life.
Your kingdom come. That implies, as Marty says, "a large enough prayer to a large enough God for a large enough life." We are asking for everything all at once. "Your kingdom come." Lord, you rule! Now rule in, with, and through us.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is not resignation, but commitment that our acts be consistent with God's will. As Marty says, "Someone's will is going to be done. It may as well be God's."
Give us this day our daily bread. We acknowledge God as source of all earthly goods. As Luther says, that includes peace and harmony among all people. Others may live and eat with no sense of thanks, because they think that what they have is theirs, earned by the sweat of their brow. When we pray for daily bread, however, we are recognizing and thanking the Giver of the gift. We are announcing that "there is a God in the world."
This petition also expresses our care for our sister and brother. We are a "eucharistic" people. Luther, in a different setting, says that in Holy Communion we are united with all Christians of all times and places. We must, he says, share the same concern as the human body does when it suffers for the littlest stubbed toe. The whole body is in pain and comes to its rescue. We see God "in the things" and in all people, just as we see Jesus in bread and wine. This petition is to love our neighbor as God's child and to be committed to the person in need. We share our daily bread.
And forgive as we forgive. Luther stresses that it is not due to our forgiving that God, in turn, forgives us. But if God forgives first, then why pray this at all? Marty points out that it is only when we forgive, that we can experience the new life. To be in Christ, to share in the new creation, we forgive others, and we surrender all thought of vengeance to God.
And bring us not to the test. We pray that God not let us be tested more than we are able to bear. But that was precisely what Jesus faced when he cried, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Of course, God did not abandon Jesus, but raised him from the dead. Likewise, he will not abandon us, but raise us from the dead. The person who says this prayer is with Christ in the middle of the world. We still face the enemy, but prayer can resist and drive him back.
Save us from the evil one. Jesus personalizes evil here, giving it its name. Jesus calls him "the evil one." Maybe we’re sophisticated and modem and we’ve abandoned the idea of an evil being with horns and hoofs wearing a red union suit. Regardless of our attitude, in this world the drama of evil is so real that the devil has a personal character. We saw that this past week in Las Vegas. The demonic is personal, because he takes on personhood in people.
We believe, though, that the kingdom, the power, and the glory are in the hands of the God, to whom we are committed. Marty concludes that the Lord's Prayer is not a lullaby or "going to sleep music." It’s a call to action. The person who prays it knows its hidden reality. "We may not look protected; but we are."