In this week’s gospel reading a disciple says to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and we hear what Jesus did in response.
Our gospel reading this morning always reminds me of a holiday we had when I was very small. We were travelling as a family on a coach for our summer holiday to Gorleston-on-sea, which is near Great Yarmouth. Like most small children I wanted to know when we’d arrive. Unlike most small children I didn’t repeatedly ask, “Are we nearly there yet?” I was far too intelligent for that, and since I knew from an early age that my Father knew everything I kept asking every few minutes, “How many miles are there still to go?” My Father, with infinite patience – he never once told me to be quiet – would tell me exactly how many miles there were still to travel – each time giving me a figure one or two miles less than the previous answer. I was so impressed that, despite the lack of any signposts, he always knew the right answer. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that he wasn’t quite as all-knowing as I had thought and had just been guessing to keep me happy.
Today’s gospel reading tells us so much about the relationship between our heavenly Father and his children. The disciples came to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Such a simple request! Teach us to pray! So simple a request that perhaps we wonder why on earth they needed to ask. They have been with Jesus for some time now, they were all faithful Jews so prayer would have been a part of their life, so why ask Jesus to teach them to pray! Surely they could already do it! But they had seen Jesus at prayer, and they had seen that his prayers gave him something special. The disciples were really asking Jesus to share that special something – Lord, teach us to pray.
What, exactly, were they asking? Teach us the right words? Teach us the right posture? Teach us the right way to hold our hands? Teach us the right time of day? Teach us what to pray about? Teach us how to praise. Perhaps all of those things! At any rate, as devout Jews they attended the synagogue every week and they already prayed. But there was something in the way that Jesus prayed that made them realise they had so much to learn. Lord, teach us to pray!
When we need help to pray we often resort to set prayers, and often particular prayers will become special to us, meaningful. There are of course special prayers that have endured the ages because of their beauty and their power. The words just speak to us. Take this prayer, for example, of John Henry Newman:
Support us, O Lord, all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.
Those words have been used for generations because they touch a deep place in people’s lives. The words are, indeed, beautiful, but the real beauty is the meaning behind the words. There are many well-known, beautifully written prayers, that we can use – I’m sure you will have your own favourites. A well-worded prayer has a special power, and we will all know prayers that have played a special part in our own prayer lives. But it’s not the same as speaking to God using your own words – they’re somebody else’s words. We need to be open to God and to be able to speak to him, and yet so often we find it so difficult to express ourselves. Like the disciples most of us find that prayer does not come naturally. And just as Jesus taught the disciples, so he teaches us, to use simple everyday words to a God who is as close to us as any loving, human parent.
Lord, teach us to pray! Like the disciples we know that Jesus prayed. Like the disciples we can see the power that his prayers gave him. Like the disciples we would like Jesus to teach us to pray. Prayer does not come to us naturally. We want to know how to do it better. We have questions about how to do it right. Lord, teach us to pray – to pray like you did. Give us the right words to say! Let us know whether we should pray silently or aloud! Tell us whether to sit or stand or kneel! Give us some magic words, such as “in Jesus’ name,” that will make our prayers always effective! Tell us whether to pray in the morning or the evening! Tell us whether to pray in church or at home! Can we pray while at work? Can we pray while driving a car? Can we pray for a parking place? Is God concerned with the trivia of our lives? Lord, teach us to pray!
Jesus answered by giving the disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Some people have suggested that we might better call this the Disciples’ Prayer, because Jesus created it for the disciples to pray. This prayer is found in two places in the Gospels – here in Luke and in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew’s version is longer and more familiar, and includes a couple of phrases that Luke does not record. And Jesus begins by teaching the disciples about the God to whom they will pray. And the most important word in this prayer is the first word, “Father.” In Matthew’s version of this prayer, Jesus says, “Our Father.” Luke just starts the prayer, “Father.” In either case, the important word is “Father.” It tells us something wonderful about God. Good parents love their children. Good parents take care of their children. Good parents protect their children. Good parents provide for their children. Good parents are accessible to their children – they can talk to their parents.
When Jesus teaches us to begin our prayer with the word, “Father,” he is teaching us who God is. He is teaching us that God wants to do good things for us – that God loves us – and wants to take care of us – to protect us – to provide for us. God is accessible to us. We can talk to God. And no matter what we ask, and even we we keep asking the same things over and over, God is infinitely patient and will always respond, just like my own father did on that holiday journey when I was a child.
And then Luke records how Jesus goes on the give us words to pray:
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins.
Do not bring us to the time of trial.
But the most important thing that Jesus teaches us in this prayer is the first word, “Father.” If we are praying to our heavenly Father, we do not have to come in fear. We don’t have to come expecting that we must know secret words – magical words – special words – as if there is some special way of praying in order to get what we want, in order to have our prayers answered. If God is our Father, we can begin our prayer with the expectation that God is on our side – that God wants the best for us.
Jesus goes on to say, “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” That sounds as if God will provide us anything we want. Just ask, and God will give it. However, it isn’t that simple. We have tried it, and know that it does not work that way. We have prayed for things that we did not get.
The opening word of that prayer, the word, “Father,” is the explanation. Does a good parent always listen to their children? Of course they do! Does a good parent always give a child what the child wants? Of course not! A good parent gives the child food and clothing, but a good parent also puts limits on things. Does a good parent give a child a bicycle when there is no safe place to ride? Does a good parent give a child a dog when there is nowhere to keep it? Does a good parent give a child the keys to the car before the child has a license? Does a good parent give a child permission to stay out all night when they are too young? The word, “Father,” teaches us that God loves us and provides for our deepest needs. It also explains why not every prayer is answered as we ask.
Milward Simpson, a former governor of the state of Wyoming in the USA who died in 1993, wrote an article in which he told of flying in a plane that developed problems in flight. The pilot announced that they were going to try an unscheduled emergency landing. Simpson took his wife’s hand, and together they recited words that had become an important part of their faith-walk together. The words were these:
The light of God surrounds us,
The love of God enfolds us,
The power of God protects,
And the presence of God watches over us;
Wherever we are, God is.
Neither Simpson nor his wife believed that these words would keep the plane in the air. Instead, these words declared their confidence that, as Simpson put it, “living or dying, we are in God’s care.”
That is what it means when we address God as Father, that living or dying, we know we are in God’s care.
hallowed by your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.