Proper 12c, July 24, 2016

July 25, 2016

The Language of Prayer

Luke 11:1-13


1 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!”


A preacher appears at the pearly gates. He knocks on the door and is greeted by St. Peter in a cordial manner, but he’s told to take a seat in the reception area, and that there would be a short wait before he could see the Lord. While he’s waiting, he hears a knock at the door, and when St. Peter opens the door he sees St. Peter give this guy a big hug and he ushers him straight into the mansion. The preacher is a bit put off by the situation, and he can’t help but say something to St. Peter. He points out to St. Peter that he had spent his entire life doing his best to preach the gospel, and he doesn’t understand why the other guy was welcomed with so much more enthusiasm. St. Peter assures him his good work has been acknowledged and that he has a room in the big house, but he points out that his preaching had a tendency to put people to sleep, while that New York City taxi driver had consistently moved his riders to pray with great urgency and sincerity!


The necessity and the mystery of prayer – that’s what we’re thinking about this morning. The disciples themselves weren’t entirely clear about the practice of prayer, and that’s what moved them to ask Jesus about it. What they asked is sort of amusing to me. They seem to be feeling a little deprived. Apparently John the Baptist had instructed his disciples on how to pray, and they wanted Jesus to do the same for the them. We don’t know what John was teaching his disciples about prayer, but Jesus responded to their request in a clear but brief manner.


He gave them a straight answer, and he included an illustration to emphasize God’s interest in relating to us, but Jesus isn’t very instructional. I wish they had come back at him with a few follow up questions. Does it matter how we sit? Does it matter where we face? How long? How often?


Jesus offered some basic instruction about how we are to direct our hearts, but he didn’t get specific about the technique of prayer.


On another occasion he told his disciples not to pray like the guys who made great productions of their prayers, but Jesus didn’t really elaborate on how we should practice prayer. Jesus responded to this request for instruction by telling his disciples what they should desire. He didn’t talk about prayer as if it is a skill to be acquired. Jesus spoke of prayer as if it is a language that we are to learn. It’s as if prayer is the language that proceeds from our hearts, and he provided us with instruction on what it is that our hearts should be saying.


This is difficult business if you ask me. It’s not that hard for me to control what comes out of my mouth, but it’s not so easy for me to direct the impulses of my heart. Of course Jesus didn’t preface his answer by saying that it was easy. Jesus just gave them an answer, and then he gave an illustration of how important it is to be persistent in prayer – which is probably a way of saying that it takes a lifetime to learn to pray.


This is not to say that there isn’t some practical advice in the instruction that Jesus provided. The brief way in which Jesus said to address God is probably in contrast to the elaborate way that devout Jews of the day were taught to address God. In that day there was a prayer called The Prayer of Eighteen Petitions, which devout Jews were instructed to pray three times a day and it began with the phrase:


Blessed are You, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the

great, mighty and revered God, the Most High God who bestows

loving kindnesses, the creator of all things, who remembers the good deeds of the patriarchs and in love will bring a redeemer to their children’s children for his name’s sake. O king, helper, savior and shield.


Now that’s a beautiful phrase, and it’s one that devout Jews continue to pray three times a day, but you might say Jesus was eliminating a few layers between us and God when he instructed his disciples to just say Father.


This “Prayer of Eighteen Petitions” not only uses many words to address God, it uses many words to address every circumstance that humans find themselves in. It certainly was a sign of devotion for people to recite the prayer a couple of times each day, but Jesus was doing something significant when he taught his disciples a prayer that you can just about say with one breath. I’ve moaned a little bit about the lack of specifics Jesus provided in regard to technique, but it’s very clear to me that in a significant way Jesus was trying to eliminate the burden of many words when he gave this instruction in regard to prayer.


The prayer that Jesus taught condensed many words into a few essential phrases. What we have in our scripture today is an abbreviated form of what we call and recite as the Lord’s Prayer. It’s even a bit different from what we find in the Gospel of Matthew, but there aren’t significant differences. What we have here is the most condensed form of the prayer that Jesus taught, and here is what he seems to be saying that we should train our hearts to express:


When we say:

Father, hallowed be thy name: We are to think of God as being more intimate than exalted. God wants to be loved more than revered.



When we say:

Thy kingdom come: We are to have reverence for God and desire for God’s order to be established on earth. It’s God’s kingdom that we should pursue and we need to be careful not to confuse our own selfish pursuits with God’s kingdom.

When we say:

Give us each day our daily bread: It’s not unreasonable for us to desire the necessities of life, but we don’t need to be overly concerned with laying up treasures on earth.

When we say:

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us: We make mistakes, and we do harm to others, but by acknowledging our mistakes we can be forgiven. We also must learn to practice forgiveness toward those who have caused us harm or have somehow become costly to us.

When we say:

And do not bring us to the time of trial: It’s not unreasonable for us to seek deliverance from those things that cause us trouble or do us harm. And it’s important for us to avoid putting ourselves in positions that cause harm to our bodies, minds, or souls.


I love the way in which Jesus condensed the essentials, and what we have here is what Jesus considered to be the critical issues of life. It is as if Jesus was saying that these are the desires that should fill our hearts and be reflected in our lives.


It’s a simple prayer, but it’s not so easy to train our hearts. There are some substantial and fundamental obstacles to this heart-training business, but I’m not without hope because we aren’t without help.



God is there for all of us, and God can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. God wants to open doors for us and fill our hearts with redeeming desires.


I’m wishing Jesus had given us some kind of special technique for accessing the wisdom and power of God to transform our lives and repair our wounds, but there isn’t any kind of secret prayer sauce. Jesus didn’t reveal any kind of hidden code, but he did tell us what we need to do if we want to live in communion with God, and it’s very simple. He told us to pray with persistence.


It’s not complicated. If we want to gain access to the riches of God we need to spend time opening our hearts to God. This is not to say that there’s some kind of formula for getting what we want from God. Jesus didn’t include that clause in the prayer that he taught. He didn’t say we should ask God to grant us whatever we want. He told us to love God. He told us to seek sustenance. He told us to ask for forgiveness and to forgive others, he told us to pray for deliverance from the time of trial, and he told us to be unrelenting in this exercise of prayer.


I don’t believe God grants us whatever we want if we are persistent in our petitioning of God, but I believe our efforts to pray are always rewarded by God. Knock, and the door shall be opened – what’s behind that door is likely to be different from what you want or expect, but it will be good. I believe the more we make ourselves available to God the more in tune we become to the will of God. I believe the blessing of prayer is the blessing of becoming closer to God.


In some ways I don’t think we can keep ourselves from praying. As someone once said, As long as there are math tests there will be prayer in school,! But there’s a way of praying that’s much more fruitful than sporadic outbursts of immediate needs. Jesus sought to give focus to our time of prayer. Jesus wanted us to learn the language of spiritual growth. He wanted us to learn what to seek for ourselves and for others. He didn’t teach us magic words, but he pointed us in the direction of life, and the more we align our lives with those words the more we become aligned with God.


The good news is that we aren’t alone in this world. We have a God who cares for us more than a loving parent. God isn’t as easy to touch as a living parent, but the love of God remains when those we love the most pass away. This is a hard world, and none of us are immune from the pain of live. Jesus never said we would avoid suffering if we would follow him, but what he offered can sustain us in those times of great pain and loss. In fact it’s in such times that the love of God can become the most evident.


God speaks a language that is more mysterious than we can ever fully learn, but the more we get quiet and seek to hear those loving words the more we are able to discern what God is saying. God has a profoundly good message for all of us, and by the grace of God we will get quiet enough to hear it.


Thanks be to God.




One Response to “Proper 12c, July 24, 2016”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    Key phrase for me was “get quiet enough to hear it”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: