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Teach Us How to Pray

2021-3-2 | Pastor Stacey Littlefield

As Pastor Kurt alluded to during Sunday’s message, in our journey through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we are not covering his teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. So, we thought it would be good to include some thoughts on this section in a newsletter article.

The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6.9-13) is set apart by its uniqueness. It occurs in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and sums up the teaching before and after in the context of how we are to pray. That is, when we pray and live according to what is prayed in the Lord’s Prayer, we find that we are obeying the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew 6.5-8, Jesus warns us not to pray for show or to think we can impress others (or God!) with our many words in prayer. After all, who do we think we’re kidding? God already knows what we need even before we ask. For a fuller treatment of what is going on in these verses, please listen to Pastor Kurt’s sermon from this past Sunday.

And it is at this point that Jesus offers us what we call “The Lord’s Prayer”—a Kingdom prayer, divided into two sets of three requests. The first set is all about glorifying and honoring God. The second asks God to supply our human needs. 

In his book, The Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight thinks Jesus took a particular Jewish prayer and reshaped it for his own purposes. Over and over in the NT we hear various forms of Jesus’ own version of the Shema, an ancient daily prayer of Judaism, which McKnight calls “The Jesus Creed”. In Mark 12, for example, Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is and he responds: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

If McKnight is right (and I think he is), the Lord’s Prayer reshapes traditional Jewish prayers, with the commandment to love God and love others as the model. The first set of three requests is about our love for God (hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven); the second set is about love for others (give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our sins as we forgive others, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil). It is a prayer for our needs, of course, but note the “us” language of the prayer. It’s about the needs of others, too.

We are also to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” These two requests will be most fully answered in the end times, when God’s reign will be full and complete. But we are being too restrictive if we limit these requests to the end times, alone. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the present, as well as the future.

The Lord’s Prayer is not merely a prayer or the form of a prayer we are to pray to God. It is a prayer designed to shape us. It is a prayer we pray for ourselves and others—a prayer for the community of faith, rather than just the individual—that we become Kingdom people.

The first thing we ask for in this second part of the prayer is that God give us our daily bread. There is an allusion here to Israel of long ago, being led out of slavery in Egypt. When God provided them with Manna, they were given explicit instructions not to gather more than they needed for that day. 

What God calls us to do is trust him to provide our needs each day, without worrying about whether or not we will have enough for the day after that, just as he did with ancient Israel. Praying for daily needs is a way to acknowledge that our dependence is on God, not on our ability to store up great wealth and provisions for the future.

One question I am often asked is whether or not, in v.12, Jesus is suggesting that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven by God. In another place in Scripture, in Matthew 18, Jesus makes a similar comparison, telling us in parable form that if we do not forgive others we will not be forgiven. There, the debtor is forgiven a large sum of money by his master, but then goes out and has someone who owes him much less thrown into prison. The first servant has been shown mercy, but he refuses to show mercy to another. This unmerciful servant is thrown into prison for his failure to forgive the smaller debt. And Jesus finishes off the story saying, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart" (18.35). As he often does, Jesus exaggerates his statements to make sure we understand how important it is to forgive others. He reiterates this in the verses immediately following the Lord’s Prayer, too (vv.14-15).

Once again, we do not take Jesus literally, but we do take him seriously. If we were to take Jesus literally here, it would undermine the whole point of the gospel message—that the gift of salvation is a gift and not something we are able to earn by our own works. John Stott put it this way, “This certainly does not mean that our forgiveness of others earns us the right to be forgiven. It is rather that God forgives only the penitent and that one of the chief evidences of true penitence is a forgiving spirit. Once our eyes have been opened to see the enormity of our offense against God, the injuries which others have done to us appear by comparison extremely trifling. If, on the other hand, we have an exaggerated view of the offenses of others, it proves that we have minimized our own.” (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p.78)

Some ancient scholars have suggested that the entire gospel message is contained in this brief prayer—that God set a plan in motion where we could find forgiveness (and learn to forgive others), reach out to the practical needs of others and stand, with Jesus, against evil. Either way, the mission of God is very much present in this prayer. If we live our lives according to the Lord’s Prayer, we are doing the will of God; we are bringing the Kingdom of God; we are giving ourselves to all aspects of his mission, the here and now and the eternal.