Taking Prayer Seriously
Matthew 6:5-13 | Ephesians 1:15-23
Prayer is complicated. There is probably no part of the Christian faith that is at the same time so universally valued and respected, and at the same time so diversely understood, or openly not understood. We all pray – some of us regularly, in a disciplined pattern, some of us more randomly, in response to the situation around us. We pray here in worship, we pray in meetings, we pray, perhaps, at meal times, at bedtimes, as we walk, as we drive, before (and during) difficult situations. We pray at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Even many of our public events still incorporate a formal prayer – the start of each day in parliament, school assembly, meeting of cubs.
Even amongst those who are not part of any community of faith, most people say that they pray, at least occasionally, even if they at the same time admit they don’t know whether there is anyone to hear their prayer.
Prayer is pervasive, even in our post Christian society. How much more so, then, amongst the Jews of Jesus’ day. Jesus’ disciples would have grown up with prayer; in the home, in the synagogue, throughout society. As, indeed, would Jesus himself, and the author of Matthew’s gospel.
So in our gospel reading today Matthew places Jesus’ teaching about prayer right in the heart of his teaching about life; about how we treat one another, how we respond to difficulty, to need, to oppression, to those who hurt us and those who we hurt.
In the middle of the sermon on the mount, which, in Matthew’s gospel really plays the role of a new Torah, the Jesus law, as it were, Matthew gives us Jesus’ teaching on prayer. If you look up the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s gospel, you find a different context: there, the disciples come to Jesus and ask him ‘teach us to prayer, as John taught his disciples’. But here, Jesus’ speaks to the crowd.
And the thing that strikes me most powerfully about the prayer don’ts and do’s that Jesus gives them is how closely Jesus ties the way we pray into the life that we live. The Lord’s prayer is found here at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ teaching on prayer reflects all of his teaching about how we live. If you think about the major themes of the sermon on the mount, they are here in the prayer.
Jesus’ rejection of religious hypocrisy and show; and there it is in Jesus’ first don’t – don’t pray for show, that’s not what it’s about.
Or the sermon’s emphasis on a simplicity of faith, of simple good over complex rules – there it is ‘don’t heap up words, keep it simple’.
Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God? It’s there in the first few lines – “your Kingdom come”.
Don’t worry about food and clothing – consider the lilies, your Father knows what you need – “give us this day our daily bread”
The need to forgive one another as we seek forgiveness for our own faults? “Forgive us as we forgive”.
Prayer, the way that Jesus teaches it, isn’t something that is a separate part of life, it’s not a religious thing to be contrasted with the ordinary things of life.
Prayer for Jesus is something integrated deeply into the nuts and bolts of everyday life.
And so in giving his followers a particular prayer, a set of words that they can use, Jesus is not telling them the things that God needs to hear – for as Jesus says, God already knows what you need, what you want to ask for. The Lord’s Prayer isn’t a set of statements that God needs or expects to hear from us, but words that we need to speak. Words that remind us, as we intentionally focus our hearts and minds and emotions on God, of what our God is like and who our God has called us to be, how our God has called us to live.
Even the opening words: “Our Father” – No “O Lord my God”, as so many of the psalms begin; not “Holy and mighty one” or “God of Abraham and Isaac” – just “Our Father”. We pray these words, not like we address an email, to make sure it gets to the right God, no, we pray these words because we need to say them, to remind ourselves of who, and whose, we are. To remind ourselves every time we pray of the amazing gift; that we have been made children of God.
And turning to Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Church, we see that that is what he prays for his brothers and sisters in the faith:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe
One thing you have to say about Paul – he didn’t pray small. Not for him prayers that they might “be aware of God’s presence with them” or “know God’s comfort”.
Not that there is anything wrong with such prayers – sometimes that is exactly what those we pray for need – but I do wonder if we lack – I know I often lack – the courage to pray big. To do the audacious ask. To pray like it made a difference.
Paul prays with that his fellow believers will have an ever deeper understanding, an ever deeper vision and revelation, of the God who has called them. He prays that they may come to know God, he prays that they may know the hope to which they have been called, the riches which are held in store for them, and the immeasurable greatness of the power of God. That they might know (and knowledge, for Paul, as for any Jew, was a matter not of intellectual assent but of personal experience) – that they might personally know the power which raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
So we have these two strands of teaching about prayer: that prayer can be an ordinary, everyday part of life, deeply embedded into who we are and how we live and what we do; and that at the same time, prayer can be extravagant, visionary, spectacular.
Prayer is the unbounded power of God found in everyday words about everyday life. And isn’t that, in the end, just the miracle of the incarnation written over again? That at the heart of our faith stands the almighty, eternal, creator god, in the form of the everyday – in human form, in the waters of baptism, in the bread and wine we come to share.
In prayer we bring the spiritual into the secular. In prayer we stand in the gap between what is and what should be. In prayer we take in one hand the things of this world and in the other the things of heaven and we hold them together.
That is something worth doing.
Something worth taking seriously.