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July 24, 2016


Before I retired and when I used to teach confirmation classes – in the Lutheran church, that's a two-year programme with kids in about grades 7 and 8 – I would sometimes have the students each contribute one sentence to a group prayer. They didn't do this easily. One could almost suspect that this was an activity which they didn't practise a great deal on their own. Perhaps not a lot of prayer goes on in our world, in spite of the fact that our leaders often talk about prayers when some disaster has occurred, as in, “our thoughts and prayers are with,” and here you can name the group. To talk about prayer, on these occasions, seems, often, to be just a way of expressing sympathy and concern.

I often find myself, as a pastor, called upon to be the official pray-er at various functions, perhaps because it is assumed that pastors, by virtue of their office, have the right words, or a special right to approach God, or some direct pipeline to heaven. I suspect the reason is more because others feel uncomfortable about praying aloud in public. While most of us have little difficulty carrying on a conversation with other people, when it comes to talking to God we may be strangely silent.

Why is this? Maybe we have the wrong understanding of prayer, that it's only for times of great need, or that it should be practised only by the most holy, or that it must be expressed in precisely the correct theological terms or in articulate and eloquent language. Or maybe we think of God as remote and unapproachable. Who are we to bother him with our troubles, or who are we to think that he would care about us? Or perhaps we just haven't learned to pray. Like Jesus' original disciples, we come here today with the request, "Lord, teach us to pray." We need to ask not only that he will teach us how to pray, but that he will teach us to pray, to use this wonderful privilege of communicating with the all-powerful and compassionate Lord.

As members of God's special people, the Jews, Jesus' disciples undoubtedly already knew a lot about prayer. Jews were used to praying. They had special prayers for every occasion and circumstance, so the disciples were asking Jesus for more than instructions in the mechanics of prayer. They saw how important prayer was in the life of their Lord and how Jesus used it to remain in close communion with his Father and receive strength for his mission, and they wanted to experience the same kind of intimate connection with God.

For us too, learning to pray is not just learning the mechanics of prayer or memorising a repertoire of prayers for use on appropriate occasions. Jesus' response to his disciples tells us that the request, "teach us to pray," is really asking that he will teach us to develop a confidence in God, so that we will trust God and call upon him in all our needs. Prayer is really just communication with God, and communication, even between two people, is part of a relationship. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray not only by giving them a model prayer, but by teaching them what God is like and how he wants them to regard him. This suggests that when we have trouble praying, it is our relationship with God which needs attention.

Jesus begins his instruction about prayer this way: "When you pray, say: 'Father'." In Aramaic, the language which would have been used by Jesus and his disciples, the word for father is “abba,” which is a child's term, like “daddy.” That was not generally the way the Jewish people were used to approaching God. Even Abraham, who was able to talk with God face to face, was overwhelmed at the awesomeness and majesty of God and he recognised his inadequacy and his audacity in daring to ask anything of God. When Abraham pleads, for instance, for the preservation of Sodom, he acknowledges the great gap between himself and God as he says almost in surprise at his own boldness, "Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes" (Gen. 18:27).

 God is the almighty ruler of the universe of whom we stand in awe and who is so far above us that we are not worthy even to come grovelling to him, but Jesus taught and exemplified a new understanding of God. He encouraged his disciples to understand God, not as one remote and removed from their existence, but as one who could be known as intimately as their own loving parents. In Jesus, God has come to us and has given us the right to call him "Father." Jesus transforms the fatherhood of God from a theological doctrine into an intense and personal experience by teaching his disciples to pray to God as the Father whose pleasure it is to give his children the kingdom.

Jesus expands on this new relationship with God with a parable and with a comparison between earthly fathers and the heavenly Father. A sleeping householder is awakened by a friend who comes seeking to borrow three loaves of bread, because a friend of his has arrived unexpectedly and the duty of hospitality places upon the host a solemn obligation to provide for his guest, whatever the hour. Therefore, even though it is late, the host goes to his friend to ask for the loan of three loaves.

Since families would all sleep together in one room, probably with some animals as well, to get up would cause inconvenience and disturbance. The sleepy householder would have to stumble over his children and remove the timber that locked the door, all with considerable effort and noise, so he answers, "Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything." The request will be granted, however, Jesus says, not because of friendship but because the one making the request is shameless enough to ask and refuses to take no for an answer. The householder has been awakened; he might as well get up and get his friend, who has the audacity to come asking at this hour, what he needs so that he can get back to sleep.

Jesus does not mean to suggest that God is like the sleepy householder and that he must be awakened and cajoled into giving us what we need. We, however, are to be like the friend who comes knocking and be bold and totally shameless about our requests, for God, in contrast to the sleeping friend, is willing and anxious to hear and respond to our prayers. We can bother God with our needs. We are invited and even commanded to ask, seek, and knock, for God will hear and respond, says Jesus.

Jesus continues, "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" In other words, if even highly imperfect earthly parents, with all their faults, do not play cruel games with their children but give them what they need, how much more does God stand ready to respond to his children's needs and give the greatest of all gifts, his Holy Spirit, his on-going presence and power, to those who ask him. Jesus invites us to ask, because God is a good and loving parent who wants to give us his best gifts and whom we can know as intimately as our own earthly parents. Therefore, ask, seek, knock!

So many times, of course, we have asked and not received, we have searched and not found, we have knocked and the door has not been opened. We have prayed for loved ones and still we have lost them to sickness or senseless accidents. In spite of our fervent prayers for peace and justice in the world, daily we hear reports of terrorism, war, and injustice. If God is a loving parent who desires to give us what is good and life-giving, why do so many prayers seem to go unanswered?

 The best explanation we have for that is not that God is uncaring or unable to help, but that we continue to live in a fallen world where, although Jesus has won the ultimate victory over the powers of evil through his death and resurrection, there continue to be forces opposed to God's will and the battle against evil rages on. Paul, in Romans, speaks of the whole creation “groaning in labour pains until now,” as we await that glorious day when all will be set right again.

Nevertheless, we are assured that God is on our side and will bring us safely through whatever we encounter, that God does not play cruel tricks on his children, that we are invited into a relationship with a loving God who wants to give us life and who continues to work tirelessly for our redemption and the redemption of all creation. And since this parent is as approachable as a loving earthly parent, we do not need to worry about bothering him, about taking up his valuable time, about using proper and eloquent language, or about expressing our need in precise and understandable terms. The heavenly Father knows us far better than any earthly parent; he knows what we need even before we ask, and he invites us to bring all our joys and sorrows to him, the one who truly understands us.

I like the style of prayer modelled in the movie "Fiddler on the Roof." There, the main character, Tevye, simply carries on a continuing conversation with God as he goes about his daily routine. He questions God, he argues with God, he asks for God's help, and he expresses his confidence in God, all in a very conversational style, as if he were talking with a friend walking with him. That's the kind of God we have, someone to whom we can pour out our most intimate concerns, someone to whom we can turn when there is nowhere else to go, someone to whom we can bring whatever needs we have, confident that we will be heard and understood, even though we don't always get the answer we want or expect.

"Lord, teach us to pray." We ask not only that our Lord will teach us how to pray, but that he will teach us to trust him, to use the wonderful avenue of communication we are given with the Lord of the universe, to dare to approach him with our needs and concerns, and to live as his beloved children all of our lives. Amen.

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