This post is excerpted from my sermon this past Sunday, February 1, 2015.
“Lord, teach us to pray.”
That’s how Luke’s Gospel introduces the prayer that we today call the Lord’s Prayer: Jesus’ disciples so moved by Jesus’ own praying that one of them asks Jesus to teach them to pray.
And so Jesus does. He gives his disciples a prayer to pray. But it is also a pattern for prayer, a way of praying. It highlights the attitudes and perspectives we should have in prayer, it sketches out the kinds of things we should focus on in our prayers—and in our lives.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer thoughtfully and patiently, we find ourselves becoming more and more aligned with Jesus, more and more in tune with Jesus’ way of seeing things and doing things. We not only learn how to pray in the way of Jesus, we are also shaped by this prayer into the image of Jesus.
Centered on God, Focused on God’s Kingdom
Jesus begins his prayer by centering on God:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Prayer is directed to God. It’s not merely inward reflection or meditation—as helpful as those things can be, and as much as those things can even be a part of prayer. But prayer itself is centered on God, not ourselves, not our world. It is a looking to God, turning our thoughts toward God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
This is a very personal prayer. Jesus called God “Father,” “Abba.” That’s an Aramic word that both young children and grown-up children used to refer to their fathers. It’s a term of endearment, a term that combines affection with respect. Calling God our Abba, our Father, highlights the fact that prayer is a very personal thing: we as persons relate to our Creator as a person.
But this is also a collective prayer, even a universal prayer. You see this throughout the Lord’s Prayer: it’s not “my Father,” it’s not “I” and “me” throughout. It’s “our Father,” it’s about “we” and “us.” This loving Creator is the mothering Father of us all on earth: all humanity, every nation, every tribe, every culture, in every time and place.
If “our Father in heaven” highlights this as a universal prayer to the Creator, “hallowed be your name” emphasizes that our Creator is the God of ancient Israel in particular. In the Old Testament, God’s “name” is YHWH, and this name was viewed as sacred, never to be used “in vain,” that is, in empty, meaningless ways (Exod 20:7).
But this idea is not just about God’s name being special, as if there’s something magical about the name YHWH. It’s a way of saying that God himself is holy: God is utterly unique, completely unlike anything or anyone else. It’s a reminder that we are not merely praying to someone who is like us, only bigger and better; we are praying to God, the one in whom and through whom and for whom we exist.
The whole prayer is God-centered: it’s a prayer to YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the everlasting I Am, who is the personal, loving Creator of all peoples. Jesus calls us to center our prayer on this God, the one true and living God.
But the prayer is also kingdom-focused.
The kingdom of God is the consistent theme of Jesus’ teaching. His miracles are like signposts pointing to God’s kingdom. Everything Jesus says and does is connected to the kingdom of God. Indeed, his whole mission given by God was to be the Messiah, the promised King, to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, to establish God’s rightful reign as King over all things, a reign characterized by love, life, justice, and peace—true shalom.
And so it’s no surprise at all that, after that opening address to God, Jesus’ prayer begins and ends by referring to God’s kingdom.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done.” These are equivalent phrases: God’s “kingdom” is God’s “will”; God’s kingdom “coming” is God’s will “being done.” God’s will for all things is flourishing life, a life filled with love and peace—and this is exactly what God’s kingdom is all about.
“On earth as it is in heaven.” The biblical authors can use the language of “heaven” or (more often) “the heavens” to refer to the sky above us in contrast to the earth below. However, when they speak of God in connection to “heaven,” as here, the word “heaven” is more about being in God’s immediate presence, wherever that might be.
Here’s the point of Jesus’ prayer, then: it suggests that God’s reign, God’s will for justice and peace, is eternally evident in “heaven,” in God’s immediate presence, but it is not always evident on “earth,” in human experience and human history.
This explains a lot, doesn’t it? We long for life and love because God is life and love—God’s kingdom, God’s will, is fully manifest in his presence, for which we are created. Yet we don’t always experience flourishing life and genuine love because there are things about the human condition—sin and evil—that keep us from fully experiencing the life and love of God.
But here’s the thing: Jesus has planted the seed of God’s kingdom in the soil of earth, and it is growing slowly but surely until it will be fully present on earth, like a mustard seed growing into a plant that provides shade for all. And this is what we long for, what we pray for, what we strive for.
Concerned with Provision, Forgiveness, Protection—for All
The Lord’s Prayer is God-centered and kingdom-focused, all the way through. This means that when we get to the petitions at the heart of the prayer we’re still centered on God and focused on God’s kingdom. Provision, forgiveness, and protection—these are kingdom matters, wrapped up in God. And again, note the “us” in all these: provision, forgiveness, and protection are not just for each of us individually, but for us collectively, as Jesus’ followers and as a human race.
Give us this day our daily bread.
The Greek word for “bread” here is a rare word—in the New Testament it’s only found in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s so rare no one is sure exactly what it means, but it probably has the idea of “what is necessary.” It’s not talking about extra things, luxuries in life, but life’s most basic necessities: food, water, clothing, shelter.
Using the word “bread” to translate this rare word is not a bad idea. It evokes a particular story that can help to appreciate what Jesus is saying here: the story of the ancient Israelites, wandering in the desert, collecting manna, bread from heaven, each day. God only gave them enough for one day at a time: if they tried to save it for two days (apart from the Sabbath) the manna spoiled.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” In other words, “God, give us just what we need, just when we need it.”
Again, though, remember the collective “we” here. We don’t all get just what we need, just when we need it. The reality is that some of us get more than we need and others less. But God does give us, collectively, just what we need. We have a responsibility to each other, then: when we have more than we need, we are called to share with those who do not have what they need; and when we do not have enough, we are encouraged to accept generosity from those who have more than enough.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
We often separate out God’s forgiveness of our sins with our forgiveness of others’ sins against us. But Jesus brings them inseparably together. “For if you forgive others their trespasses,” Jesus goes on to say in Matthew’s Gospel, “your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Strong words! We cannot expect God to forgive us if we don’t forgive others. Hard words! But we need to hear them. Just as God has forgiven us so freely, so largely, so also are we called to forgive others: family, friends, strangers, even enemies.
If you think about it, this is just another angle on the Greatest Commandment. Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” But he’s quick to point out that there’s a second commandment attached to it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God is inseparable from love of others. Likewise, forgiveness from God is inseparable from forgiveness for others.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
We think of this as “temptation,” and most of us probably think of being tempted to do some private, personal sin. But the word here is more general than that. It means “trial” or “testing, not just “temptation”—it’s any weakness we may have, any hardship we may endure, any wrong desire we may experience.
This points to the reality of sin and evil in the world—in our own hearts, yes, but also the larger and wider sins and evils that are out there. Not just inward sins like lust, but social sins like materialism, systemic evils like racism, natural evils like cancer. These are all wrong, they are all outside God’s kingdom, God’s will, and so we pray for God to protect us—each of us, all of us—from these wrongs, or at least to preserve us through them.
Provision, forgiveness, and protection. These are at the heart of Jesus’ prayer, they’re at the heart of God’s kingdom. And these are the things our world so desperately needs. Provision for all of humanity’s most basic needs, not hoarding what we don’t need but sharing with all. Forgiveness of harms done against each other, not perpetuating the cycles of violence and vengeance. Protection from suffering and evil, especially for the most vulnerable, the most innocent in our world.
Centered on God, Focused on God’s Kingdom
Jesus’ prayer ends right where it began, centered on God, focused on God’s kingdom:
For the kingdom and the power and the glory
are yours forever. Amen.
We think these are ours, or we strive to achieve them. Having power over other people, over our circumstances. Our will being done, getting things our way. Receiving honour, fame, glory for how great we are, how good we are.
Yet these things are God’s, not ours. And it’s a good thing, too, because we humans have shown time and again that whenever we build our own kingdoms or pursue our own power or seek our own glory, we only increase the evil and suffering of this world.
God shows us a different way in Jesus: building a kingdom through self-giving love for the other, through weakness and humility. And it is only in this way that a kingdom can be built that will last forever, a kingdom of love, and life, and justice, and peace.
May God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Starting with you and me, right now, following in Jesus’ footsteps, shaped by this very prayer.