Sunday, 28 July 2013

Teacher, teach us how to pray...

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

28/7/13 11.00am

Luke 11:1-13  He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples."  2 ¶ He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.  3 Give us each day our daily bread.  4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."  5 ¶ And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;  6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.'  7 And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.'  8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.  9 "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?  13 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!"

Genesis 18:20-32   Then the LORD said, "How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!  21 I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know."  22 ¶ So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.  23 Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?  25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"  26 And the LORD said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake."  27 Abraham answered, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.  28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there."  29 Again he spoke to him, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it."  30 Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there."  31 He said, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it."  32 Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."


One day, some disciples asked their teacher, ‘Teacher, teach us how to pray.’ And their teacher told them: ‘It’s easy, you just pray your deepest desires before God, because that which you most desire will most surely give shape to the world you are bringing into being’. The disciples replied, ‘Teacher, could you be a bit more specific?’ And their teacher told them: ‘You should pray today that the world above becomes the world below, that the world beyond you becomes the world beneath you.’ The disciples asked a third time, saying, ‘Teacher, could you say that again?’ And the teacher told them as clearly as he could: ‘You should pray the coming kingdom until kingdom come.’

Then the disciples decided to try another tack, and they asked their teacher, ‘Teacher, teach us why we should pray’ And the teacher answered with a riddle, saying to them: ‘You should pray because Mummy now walks the dog every morning’. And the disciples started to think they were never going to get anywhere, but one last time, they said to their teacher, most earnestly, ‘What?’

And he told them a story,  which went something like this: ‘Christmas was over for another year, the turkey had been eaten, the drink has been drunk, and the presents had been well received by the children. Except for little Megan, who was still unhappy. It wasn’t that she didn’t like her Hello Kitty three wheeled scooter, and it wasn’t that she didn’t like her Peppa Pig makeup set. But they weren’t the little puppy she had set her heart on. For months she had looked longingly at every puppy they had passed in the park. She had put posters of puppies on her bedroom wall, and talked about how people with puppies apparently lived longer and had happier lives. She had carefully written to Father Christmas, asking for nothing except a puppy of her own, which she would walk every day, and feed, and love for its whole life. She had even promised that it would be the last thing she would ever ask for if she could only have a puppy for Christmas.

And they had so nearly bought her one, but then they knew that it would be hard work, and daddy had a new job and was working long hours, and mummy wanted to go back to work now the children were at school, and who would look after it during the day, and who would take it for morning walks when Megan was struggling to get ready for school in time as it was. And so they hadn’t bought her one, thinking that by next year, she would have set her heart on something else. But Megan didn’t waver, she started getting up earlier sometimes, to prove she could do it. She started saving some of her pocket money to put towards the costs of a puppy. She seemed to grow up, to become more responsible. And next year she got a puppy for Christmas, and it was hard work, and it was expensive, but it was also lovely, and Megan was very happy. But she still struggled to get up early, and so Mummy now walks the dog every morning’.

And the disciples looked at each other, and they looked at their teacher, and they waited, patiently, for an explanation. And the teacher said, ‘If even Megan’s parents, who didn’t really want a dog, gave her one because she kept asking, how much more does your father in heaven long to give you desires of your hearts.’

‘It’s like I told you already: ‘When you pray, you just pray your deepest desires before God, because that which you most desire will most surely give shape to the world you are bringing into being’. ‘You should pray today that the world above becomes the world below, and that the world beyond you becomes the world beneath you.’ ‘You should pray the coming kingdom until kingdom come.’ And the disciples pondered long and hard on the teacher’s words, because they still found the whole idea of praying something that they really struggled to understand.

And I don’t think we’re any different, are we? Which of us truly understands prayer? Which of us truly knows why we should pray? Which of us truly knows how we should pray? These are difficult questions, and there are no straightforward answers. But there may be helpful perspectives, and one perspective that has stayed with me over the last week, as I’ve been pondering the subject of prayer, has been the idea that prayer ought to tell us more about the nature of God than it tells us about ourselves. I think what I’m getting at here,is that when we pray, our focus should primarily be on God, rather than on us.

Often when we come before God in prayer, particularly prayers of intercession or petition, we quite rightly bring our concerns before God. However, the danger here can be that we also come with our own solutions in mind, and so then we seek to pray those solutions into being. And danger of this, is that any attempt on our part to persuade God to do what we want him to do is actually an attempt by us to create God in our own image. Or, to give it it’s theological title, it is to engage in the sin of idolatry. Prayer is not about us getting God to do what we want him to do, because prayer like that is focussed on us, and not on God. We do not pray to make things happen in the way that we want them to happen, because that is an attempt to use spiritual means to manipulate the universe according to our will. Or, to give it it’s theological title, it is to engage in the practice of magic.

Prayer is not about us bargaining God into submission to our will. Rather it is an exploration of the nature of God in order that through our prayers we might align the fallen world that we inhabit with the revealed nature of God.

Let’s think for a moment about our Old Testament reading, where Abraham has his infamous engagement with God about the number of righteous people necessary to save the city. Abraham’s conversation with God about the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah isn’t the story of a hostage negotiator, talking down an unpredictable and violent terrorist. Rather, it’s a story designed to explore the very nature of God, and which specifically pushes the boundary of God’s capacity for mercy in the face of human sinfulness.

The picture that emerges from this ancient story is of a God who is, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, ‘more attentive to and more moved by those who obey than those who do not.’ [1] The God of Abraham, it seems, is not an indiscriminately wrathful deity in the style of other ancient near eastern gods. Rather, he is a God of justice and also a God of righteousness and mercy. The act of prayer on the part of Abraham is not Abraham seeking to control or limit God’s actions but is rather an exploration by Abraham of the nature of God when God is confronted with the hellish depths of human sinfulness.

I’m certainly not proposing to get into a long discussion this morning on the nature of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it is worth noting in passing that they are not primarily sins of sexuality, but rather are sins of injustice, irresponsibility, inhospitality, and indifference.

What Abraham discovers, possibly to his surprise, is that it is within the nature of God for righteousness to override evil. And having discovered this, he has no need to push his questioning to the final step, and ask of God, ‘If only one righteous person be found…?’ because he has already received his answer. One righteous person can indeed save the city of sinners. It doesn’t take a Lot, if you’ll pardon the pun, to save Sodom.

And this insight that one righteous person can be the salvation of many is something that Paul returned to in his letter to the Romans, where he said: “So then, it goes like this: just as the result of one man’s transgression issued a verdict of ‘guilty’ on all human beings, so one man’s righteousness issued in a verdict of ‘not guilty’ and of life. To put it another way: just as that single man’s disobedience resulted in many peoples being made sinners, so, because of that other man’s obedience, those many people are made ‘not guilty’, or ‘righteous’.”[2] The one righteous man, for Paul, was of course Jesus Christ, in whom the righteousness of God was made fully known.

What Abraham discovered through his prayer was the same thing Paul discovered through his encounter with Jesus Christ, which is that God’s nature tends towards mercy. God’s desire is for the release of the human world from the destructive forces of evil. The one righteous man, Jesus Christ, is sufficient to spare the whole world from God’s judgment against sin.

And those of us who pray to God through Christ Jesus, are entering into God’s great work for the salvation of the world, because in prayer we align ourselves  with his in-breaking kingdom of righteousness and peace and in prayer, the desire of God that the world be transformed becomes our own desire that the world be different, not on our terms, but on the terms of the kingdom itself. And so the coming kingdom breaks in upon this world of sin, and justice and righteousness are found once more upon the earth; as the humble are lifted high, as sinners are forgiven, as the poor are fed, and as debts are cancelled. And so we find ourselves back at the Lord’s prayer joining our hearts and minds and voices with the longing of God; and when we pray together, we long together for a world transformed.

When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, he told them to start with God: ’Father, hallowed be your name.’ If the starting point for prayer is us, our needs, and our desires, then our prayers can become idolatrous, or sorcerous. But if we start with God, then we begin to pray with our eyes fixed on the true centre of the universe, and our prayers find balance because they are offered to the one in whom all things hold together.

All other principalities and powers, whether external to us or within the confines of our innermost being, are relativized when we declare the holiness of God. In many ways, the opening line of the Lord’s prayer is one of the most politically potent phrases in all of human language, because it poses a direct challenge to all other claims on human allegiance. And this is the where Jesus taught his disciples to begin.

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. The prayer for the coming kingdom is crucial: It has been said that the phrase ‘your kingdom come’ is at the heart of intercessory prayer,  with everything else just commentary. And in so many ways I think this is true. We can pray for many things, we can bring all our concerns, big and small, significant or petty, we can bring our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our failings, and in each case, we pray, fervently, ‘your kingdom come’. There are times where we don’t know what to pray for. What do you pray, for the person in the latter stages of a long and debilitating illness? What do you pray, when confronted with the horrors of war, the starvation of millions, the tragedy of loss, or injustice that seems unresolvable? Sometimes, there is nothing else to say, except to give voice to a longing that the kingdom of God break in upon the earth, a kingdom where tears are dried, where hope is rekindled, and where lives find their true value before God.

The prayer for the coming kingdom aligns our desires with those of God, as we relinquish our own sense of the way the world should be, and grasp for, and long for, the world which God is bringing into being. Jesus rejected the temptation to take possession of all the kingdoms of the earth, and so we are called to join all our desires with his longing for a new earth.

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. The prayer for the meeting of human need is a legitimate request. It is not right that people are hungry, it is not right that people cannot feed themselves or their children. It is a crime against humanity, and a sin against God. None of what we own or eat is ours by right, and a prayer for enough food to eat today is a prayer that asks us in turn to play our part in ensuring that others have the same.

A few weeks ago, a number of us were part of the ‘IF’ campaign march here in London, joining our voices with those of many others, of many faiths and none, to call for equitable redistribution of food among the people of our planet. This vision is a long way from reality, but if, ‘IF’, there is sufficient will, it can surely, largely, be achieved. But it will only happen if, ‘IF’, people lay aside their personal or national self-interest, and start to think of the other as equally human to themselves.

The gift of bread is a gift from God: whether it be manna in the wilderness, or bread broken for you for the forgiveness of sins, or bread shared with the starving, or bread on the table of the messianic banquet to which all are invited, the sharing of bread is the giving of the gift of life. In the Lord’s prayer, the context for the request for enough food, is the proclamation that God is at the centre of the universe, and a commitment to seeing the kingdom break in upon the earth. And it is only when self is removed from the centre of our world that the other becomes humanised. And it is only with the humanisation of the other that the will emerges to act to see the prayer come into reality. Prayer, you see, has the capacity to restructure the world, because in prayer we speak into being an alternative narrative, to the selfish, idolatrous, sorcerous narratives that can otherwise so dominate our lives.

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. The fusion here of the language of sin and debt is interesting and profound, and it gives us a perspective on sin that can easily be lost. Sins are to be thought of as debts against God, and the forgiveness of sin is to be equated to the forgiveness of a debt. The root cause of all sin is, I think, idolatry. It is when we displace God from the centre of our lives that we act in ways that place ourselves out of kilter with God and it is when we place our own selfish desires at the centre of our lives that we incur debts to the one who created us to be free. And so we ask for forgiveness, that we might be free again, no longer living under the obligation to repay, no longer living with the uncertainty of the penalty of defaulting on the debt. But from our own forgiveness must spring acts of forgiveness to others. Where we are owed, we must forgive, just as we have been forgiven.

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial. As Jesus says in Mark’s gospel, at his own time of trial, ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ (Mk 14.38) None of us know how we will react if we face our own time of trial, none of us knows what pressures might unlock our weaknesses, and expose our frailty. And so we pray to be spared, and in our prayer we express our hope that if we are called to face the time of trial, we will find strength in Christ who was himself tested in every way as we are. (Heb 4.15)

So then, how should we pray? It is as the teacher said to his disciples: ‘When you pray, you just pray your deepest desires before God, because that which you most desire will most surely give shape to the world you are bringing into being’. ‘You should pray today that the world above becomes the world below, and that the world beyond you becomes the world beneath you.’ ‘You should pray the coming kingdom until kingdom come.’






[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 172.
[2] Romans 5.12-21 – translated by Nicholas King.