There are times when I feel like Rodney Dangerfield. I don't get no respect.
I have a friend who likes to call me in the middle of a weekday morning, when I'm studying at home. He'll say, "I hope I didn't get you out of bed. I realize this isn't a Sunday."
I have another friend who likes to put in the old needle. He says, "You ministers have it made. If it's a good day, you can get up and do a little studying and make a few calls. If it's a bad day, you can just turn over in bed and say your prayers."
I'm a bit defensive about all of that. I said to my friend, "You've told me two things by your comment. First, you don't know much about the ministry. Second, you know even less about prayer."
Over the years, my success in prayer has been more intermittent than persistent. There have been times when I have gotten hold of the hem of the garment, but I have not always been able to sustain the grasp. One thing I know for certain: you don't turn over in bed and say your prayers.
To confess to you that I have had a struggle sitting at the feet of Jesus is something I do with a great deal of embarrassment. Because when I read the New Testament, I discover that in the ministry of our Lord, prayer was absolutely crucial. For me, prayer is preparation for the battle. For Jesus, it seemed to be the battle itself. For Jesus, prayer was like running the marathon, and ministry was like going to receive the gold medal. Prayer was like taking the final examination, and ministry was like going to receive the diploma.
Where did he shed great drops of blood? It was not at Pilate's hall. It was not as he staggered under the load of the cross up Golgotha's hill. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that with strong cryings and tears Jesus made his petitions to God.
Had I had been there in that hour of his agony and watched the way he suffered, I would have despaired of the future. I think I would have said, "If he's behaving this way when all he's doing is praying, what in the world is he going to do when he faces a crisis? It's too bad he can't be like his three sleeping friends. They found a spiritual peace in the midst of the storm." But when the crisis came, Jesus went to the cross in triumph. It was his three friends who fell back and fell away.
"Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples" (Luke 11:1).
That's why I think it's significant to turn to Luke 11:1. We are told that after Jesus completed a period of prayer, one of his disciples, evidently a spokesman for the group, came to him and said, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples."
In that request, I find at least two things. One is that John, in his discipleship program, put a strong focus on prayer. Second, it was what Jesus' disciples asked him to do for them.
They had been with him almost two years. They had a front seat when he stood to preach. They had watched him minister. As far as we know they never came to him and said, "Lord, teach us to preach." They did come and say, "Teach us to pray."
We usually ask of someone else the best that person can give us. We ask of a banker. "Teach us to invest." We ask of a professional golfer, "Teach us to putt." We ask of a scholar, "Teach us to do research." When Jesus' disciples came to him, they said, "Lord, teach us to pray."
Because prayer was crucial in his ministry, Jesus wanted it to be vital in theirs. He responded to the request by giving them what we call "The Lord's Prayer."
There's a way in which this prayer is misnamed. It is a prayer that Jesus himself could not have prayed. One of its major petitions is "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Jesus Christ, Son of God, without sin, could never with integrity have made that request.
Instead, I think we might call it "The Disciple's Prayer." It is a model prayer. It serves us in prayer in the same way that an outline serves a preacher as he prepares to preach. It tells us what we are to pray for, and it gives us the order of the requests.
When we pray, we are to start with the Father.
Jesus says when you come to pray you are to say, "Father."
That single word sums up the entire basic relationship of the Christian faith: when we come to the Creator of the universe, we are to address him as "Father." It is also the answer to the philosophers' question: Is the universe friendly? When we say "Father," we are affirming that at the heart of the universe there is not only ultimate power, but there is ultimate love.
Not everyone can honestly address God as Father. We are only able to do it because of Jesus, who taught us to pray this way. Jesus assures us that there is a Father and that we can come to him as a child comes to a father in the family. We as Christians can call God our Father. But not all of God's people have that privilege.
In the Old Testament, God is addressed as Father only seven times. In every case, it is the entire nation of Israel speaking to God that way. As far as we know, there was never a time when Abraham or Moses or David or Daniel went to the quietness of their room, fell on their knees, and dared to speak to God that way. When you turn to the New Testament, however, 275 times or more we are told directly or indirectly that when we bow before the sovereign majesty of the universe the word that should come easily to our lips is Father.
A few years ago, the world's most complicated clock was displayed for the first time in the town hall in Copenhagen, Denmark. It took forty years and a million dollars to build. The clock was accurate to of a second every three hundred years. The ten faces of that clock told the time of the day, the day of the week, week of the month, the month of the year, the year of the century, and tracked the movements of planets and suns for 2,500 years. There are parts in the clock that will not move for 2,500 years.
But there was something disturbing about the clock: it is not accurate. It loses of a second every three hundred years. How do they know that? That clock in the town hall in Copenhagen, Denmark was measured against the clock of the universe, with all of its myriad parts, from atoms to suns to planets to stars. But that clock is so accurate that every clock on earth is measured against it.
Three hundred years ago the deists looked up at the universe and were overwhelmed by what they saw. They were so in awe of the mechanism, they lost the God who put it together. God became a soulless face to them. No one prays to a soulless face. You do not have communion with a law or sit at the feet of a first principle. You do not say "O, Ground of Being, hallowed be thy name." You do not say, "O, Ultimate Source, give us this day our daily bread."
Jesus says that in prayer the word that should come easily to our lips is Father.
As you address the heavenly Father, you will notice that the prayer divides into two parts. First, Jesus says when we talk to the Father, we ought to talk to the Father about the Father. First of all, talk to him about himself and then talk to him about the family.
When we talk to the Father, we are to say, "Father, hallowed be your name."
In the Near East, names have a great deal of significance. When a parent names his child, he doesn't name the child after a rich Aunt Agnes or wonder if the initials will look good on the luggage or whether the first name rhymes with the last name. Usually a child is named after a certain virtue with the hope that the child will grow up to the name.
Sometimes when a person goes through a crisis, the name changes. You see a reflection of that in the New Testament. When Jesus first came to Cephas, he found him a pretty shifty, sandy fellow. But he saw in Cephas what others may not have seen. So, Jesus changed his name to Rocky, because he knew that Peter would be like granite.
When we pray, "Hallowed be thy name," we are speaking about God's character, and we are asking that in our lives God will be God to us. We will not try to whittle him down to size. We will not try to manipulate him. God's name will be honored in the way we pray and the way we live. He will not be embarrassed.
Sometimes when we listen to the babblings we address to heaven in the name of prayer, we find some of them very close to blasphemy. We sometimes pray as though God were deaf or as though God were stupid or as if God had to be motivated in order to come to the side of the angels.
Sometimes if you listen to the way we pray, we discover there are other names on earth that we respect more than his: names of friends or family. Are there names that you fear more than his? What about political leaders who seem to hold destiny in their hands?
But Jesus says when you pray, first say, "Father, hallowed be your name"—in my prayers and in my living God will be God to me, and I'll not whittle him down to size.
If the Lord's Prayer is to be an outline of prayer, of the things we are to pray for, it's significant that there is no prayer request here for our own personal spiritual lives. Something that I pray for most often doesn't seem to be here. When you look at the Scriptures, the focus of the spiritual life is not inward. It is not the probing around your soul to try to get yourself to be more dedicated.
But the focus of the spiritual life in the Scripture focuses on God. When it is the desire of your life that God will really be God to you, that he will be honored, reverenced, respected in your life, that's where the spiritual life begins. It begins when we say, "Lord, in my prayers and in my life, may you be God to me."
After we talk to the Father about his person, we speak to him about his program.
Jesus says, having talked to the Father about his person, speak to him about his program. Pray, "Father, your kingdom come."
Someone once said that if you are writing a biography, you really ought to start with a person's death, not a person's birth. Everybody is born and didn't really have much to do with that. The question is not how you began; the question is how you end.
If that's true in the life of an individual, it's certainly a question we must ask about history. Is history a tale told by an idiot, scrawled on the walls of an insane asylum—sound and fury signifying nothing? Emerson said history is just the biography of a few men. Is history going anyplace?
The answer of the Bible is that history is God's story, and it is moving towards that great, event, that great messianic kingdom that has been promised throughout the Old Testament. It is that kingdom where Christ will come back and rule. It is that kingdom that shall move on to eternity. At that time men and angels will join to sing his praises, and every knee on earth shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. That's where history's going.
All of the Bible points forward to that great, event. You open the pages of Scripture and read that the evening and the morning were the first day. Out of the darkness there came the light. Out of the wanderings came the promised land. Out of a bad Friday came resurrection Sunday. After the tribulation will come millennium. Often in the darkness. When we are most filled with fear, we look forward to that day. We pray, "Your kingdom come."
It follows logically that if I pray that for all people everywhere, I must pray that for myself now. What use is it to pray about God's glorious triumph if today in the small, of earth I occupy, Jesus Christ does not rule in my life? If I am really sincere about wanting God's kingdom to come, then it seems to me that I will do everything I can to bring everyone I touch into glad submission to his rule and reign. And I'll be willing, if necessary, that all these little kingdoms that mean so much to me will be torn down, so that Jesus Christ shall reign.
So, before you pray for anything else, Jesus said, talk to the Father about his person and about his program.
After talking about the Father and his program, we talk to him about the family.
Having spoken to the Father about the Father, Jesus says we can talk to the Father about the family, all of us together.
He says we can pray, "Give us each day our daily bread." We can ask him for provision.
Obviously, when Jesus talks about daily bread, he's talking about the basic necessities of life. If Jesus had been speaking to a group of people in the Orient, he probably would have said, "Give us this day our bowl of rice." In talking to Italians it would have been "our pasta."
It's interesting that the word translated "daily" or "each day" is a word that is used in the Bible only in connection with the Lord's Prayer. It is not used outside the Scriptures, in classical Greek literature. The word was a mystery, and translators guessed at it, and usually guessed right. But several years ago on a piece of papyri they found a woman's grocery list out of the ancient world. On that list there were several things that were perishable. And next to each item she had epiousios—enough for the day.
In our culture, where we have freezers full of food, we hardly take this seriously, but in most of the world, it's a basic request. If we pray this prayer, we are asking God to provide our needs as we serve his kingdom. We are acknowledging that for our bread, our threads, the things we need, we will turn to God, and he will supply.
Notice that the request is in the plural. "Give us this day our daily bread." American culture puts a great emphasis on individualism. When we pray, we often pray for me, my wife, my son John, his wife, "us four, no more." If you pray this in the community of Christians and God gives you two loaves and your brother none, you cannot assume that you have one loaf for eating and the other loaf for storing. If you have prayed together for daily bread, then if you have two and he has none, you have one for eating and the other for sharing.
When you talk to the Father about the family, pray, "Give us this day our daily bread."
We can also ask the Father for provision and for pardon: "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us."
I think those two requests are linked: give us and forgive. I don't have any problem remembering to pray for daily bread. My stomach rumbles; I know I'm hungry. It is easily forgotten that I also need daily pardon. When I think of hunger, I ought to think of forgiveness.
Augustine called this the terrible petition. For it's not just forgive us our sins, but forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. There is a link between the way I am willing to forgive others and the forgiveness I ask of the Father in heaven.
If we really pray that in sincerity, then we are revising our estimate of ourselves downward and admitting that we are sinful persons. We're admitting that there is a pollution in our lives. When we admit that about ourselves, we're better able to understand the foibles of others.
You see how close to blasphemy it is to come to God and say, "You who are holiness, forgive me my sins. But this person has offended me, and I am so holy, and I am so righteous that it is unthinkable that I will extend forgiveness to that person. People who do that are . You can no more get forgiveness from a person than you can get apple juice from a stone slab.
Instead, we might pray, "Lord, deal with me as I have dealt with others. She has offended me, has hurt me badly. And, Lord, I just don't want to put up with it. Lord, deal with me as I dealt with her."
Or "Lord, he's betrayed my trust. He's gone back on a commitment he made, and I'm wounded by that. But Lord, it's not nearly as bad as the way I've gone back on commitments I have made to you. Lord, you deal with me as I deal with him."
It's not saying that God forgives us because we forgive. He forgives as we forgive, because we are members of the family. Part of being in the family is that we are part of a forgiven fellowship. Knowing the forgiveness of God gives us an opportunity and a motivation to forgive others.
Finally, Jesus says when we talk to the Father about the family, ask him for protection. "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."
If we don't ask for this, is God going to lead us into temptation? It's a difficult question. I take it as what grammarians call a litotes—state something negatively in order to say something positive.
A couple of months ago I was having lunch in one of those New York delicatessens. Right next to me were two women, evidently Jewish. One was describing to the other the young man her daughter was going to marry. He had completed medical school and had a good practice. He came from a very good family, and she would marry into prestige and wealth.
The other woman listened to all of this and said, "He's not objectionable, is he?" No, he wasn't objectionable. Stating negatively, she was saying positively, "Boy, she's got a good catch."
Go to the New Testament. "He who comes to me I will in no wise cast out." The negative is stated to emphasize the positive. When we pray, "Lead us not into temptation," we are saying, "Lord, you have the power to take us past the traps that Satan has placed in our way. We depend upon you to do that."
But, let's face it, if it weren't here in the Lord's Prayer, very few of us would pray "Lead us not into temptation." A young woman walking through a shopping mall in Denver wore a sweatshirt that said, "Lead me not into temptation. I can find the way myself." Someone said, "If you pray, 'Lead us not into temptation,' God might answer your prayer and make life a drab and dull affair."
No, we like temptation. We fantasize about it. That's why we read certain books and watch certain films. What we would like is to dance and not have to pay the orchestra. We usually don't want the consequences.
This is not just a prayer, "Lord, keep us from being naughty girls and boys." This is to recognize that the enemy of our souls would destroy us if he could. And what he wants to do is to separate us from God, to convince us that God is not a Father but an enemy, that our little kingdoms matter, that our names have to be established, that we have to go out and hustle to get our daily bread—and forget about temptation. In doing that, the enemy separates us from God. The temptation is the alienation of our souls.
When we pray to the Father that we will be delivered from temptation, what we're really praying is, "Lord, when I've got the inclination to sin, keep me from the opportunity; when I have the opportunity to sin, keep me from the inclination." Behind the temptation is the tempter, a grim and evil force, a personality whose aim is to destroy us.
When you talk to the Father about the Father, talk to him about his program and his person. When you talk to him about the family, talk to him about provision, pardon, and protection. When you pray say, "Father."
When our children were small, we played a game. I'd take some coins in my fist. They'd sit on my lap and work to get my fingers open. According to the international rules of finger opening, once the finger was open, it couldn't be closed again. They would work at it, until they got the pennies in my hand. They would jump down and run away, filled with glee and delight. Just kids. Just a game.
Sometimes when we come to God, we come for the pennies in his hand.
"Lord, I need a passing grade. Help me to study."
"Lord, I need a job."
"Lord, my mother is ill."
We reach for the pennies. When God grants the request, we push the hand away.
More important than the pennies in God's hand is the hand of God himself. That's what prayer is about. When you go to God in prayer, the name that should come easily to your lips is "Father."
Dr. Haddon Robinson is the Harold Okenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at GConwell Theological School. His text on preaching is used in over 90 seminaries and Bible colleges.
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.