Agree or disagree: Everyone prays. Obviously, prayer is one of the distinctive features of the world’s biggest religions. Five times a day Muslims fall on their faces in the direction of Mecca in prayer. Buddhists meditate, Catholics call out to the virgin Mary and departed saints, and orthodox Jews dutifully recite the Hebrew Scriptures. But the desire to pray doesn’t seem to be limited to religious people either. The White House hosts an annual prayer breakfast. When tragedy strikes, public figures tell us that their thoughts and prayers go out to the victims. When an athlete scores a touchdown or hits a homerun, they point to the heavens – as if God were the world’s #1 sports fan. Does everyone, religious or not, pray?
Jesus seems to think so. Three times in these verses Jesus uses the phrase: when you pray. When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites…when you pray, go into your room [and] close the door…when you pray, do not keep on babbling like the pagans. Jesus is speaking to disciples, so he assumes that they pray. But he also says that pagans, hypocrites, and unbelievers pray. So in one way or another, it’s safe to assume that everyone prays. The universality of prayer among all kinds of people is pretty solid evidence that only a fool denies the existence of God. (Psalm 14:1) But even though prayer is universal, true prayer is not. In these verses Jesus teaches that not everything called prayer is truly Christian or truly heard by God. When you pray, he says, don’t pray like everyone else does; take care how you pray and remember to whom you pray.
Jesus assumes that his disciples pray. Is he right? On the average day, how often do you turn off the TV, put down the smart phone or tablet, lay aside the book, find a quiet place, take a deep breath, and open your heart to your Creator, Savior, and Lord? Jesus assumes that we pray, but we often find ourselves too busy, too distracted, too tired to pray. Our failure to pray – and our lack of desire to pray – is just another tell-tale sign of sin’s destructive effect on our lives. We usually think of sin in terms of doing things we shouldn’t. But the fact that we often lack interest in using God’s gift of prayer shows that sin has twisted us in on ourselves and turned us against God. That’s why God actually commanded prayer and threatens eternal punishment for those who neglect prayer. On Mt. Sinai, God declared: you shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. (Exodus 20:7) What does this mean? Luther explains: We should fear and love God that we do not use his name to curse, swear, lie or deceive, or use witchcraft, but call upon God’s name in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks. (SC)
God makes it clear that prayer is an important part of a believer’s life. But he also wants us to take care in how we pray. By introducing the Lord’s Prayer with a list of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ regarding prayer, Jesus warns that not all prayer is pleasing to God. Jesus tells his disciples not to be like the hypocrites who pray to be seen by men, but to pray in secret where the only one who will hear us is God. He tells them not to keep on babbling like pagans who must ramble because their gods are nothing more than lifeless lumps of wood or stone. Rather, God-pleasing prayer is simple, private, not long-winded, and is rooted in the knowledge that God knows our needs even before we ask.
Ok, don’t be like hypocrites or pagans, do pray in private with simple, everyday language; check. I doubt that any of us have been tempted to stand on a corner of State St. and pray to be seen by a crowd, so what do these words mean to us? The most obvious danger for us is to recite the Lord’s Prayer mindlessly. That kind of prayer is no better than babbling in God’s eyes. But today, there’s another, less obvious danger. In the first century, the synagogue and the street corner were the public gathering places – where people could be seen and heard. Where do people go if they want to be seen, noticed, commended and applauded today? That’s right, social media. How many people post and tweet saying that they are praying for this or asking God for that? Why do they do that? It’s hypocrisy. It’s not Christian prayer directed to God, it’s standing on the corner to be seen by men. For those who desire to be seen by men rather than heard by God, Jesus’ warning stands: they [will receive] their reward in full. They may be noticed and praised by other people, but they can expect nothing from God. When you pray, don’t be like the Kardashians. Don’t be like the blogger who stands on the corner of the internet to be seen and heard by the world. Don’t be like those who pray to a god no bigger than Twitter. Why? Because you know better. You know that God doesn’t need to read your post, because he can read your heart. That’s why we take care in how we pray, because we remember the God to whom we pray.
Who is this God? Jesus identifies him as Our Father in heaven. With these words, Jesus throws open the gates of heaven itself. So important is this address that we will consider each word individually. Jesus invites us to call God our Father. This was how God always intended it to be. This was what Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden when they walked and talked with God. But the Fall changed everything. Instead of humbly and shamelessly coming to God, they hid from him. They feared him. They hated him. The Fall had so twisted their minds that they did everything they could to avoid talking to a holy God. Since then, every human is born with that attitude toward God. By nature we don’t want to talk to him, we try to hide from him, we fear him, we hate him – because when we look at him we see how sinful we truly are.
Until one baby, born in the town of Bethlehem, shattered the mold. From the beginning his relationship with God was different. He was conceived, not by a man, but by God the Holy Spirit. As a twelve year old, there was no place Jesus would rather be than in [his] father’s house. (Luke 2:49) 18 years later, at his baptism, the Father spoke from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22) From the angel’s announcement of his birth to his final cries from the cross, Jesus was God’s perfect Son, and God was Jesus’ trusted Father. For the first time since Eden, the world was able to see the kind of relationship God desires to have with his children; not one of distrust and hostility, but one of perfect trust and love.
The remarkable thing – the good news for us – is that Jesus invites us to call his Father, Our Father. How can we, confessed, miserable sinners call God our Father? Because Jesus was not only the perfect Son, he was also our perfect substitute. When Jesus was baptized, he bound himself to us, he submitted himself to God’s law and took our sins on his shoulders. He carried those sins all the way to the cross, where he paid for every one of them with his blood. Our sins of neglecting prayer or of praying mindlessly; our sins of praying to be noticed by men instead of by God; our sins of viewing prayer as a last resort instead of a daily necessity – Jesus paid for every last one of them. So that now we don’t have to be afraid to approach God’s holy throne but can approach him with the same confidence that a child approaches his father. As Paul said: For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15)
When did this change happen? Quite simply, when you were baptized. When you were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God made you his child. Prayer is not the sole possession of pastors and prophets – in Baptism God gives this privilege to all regardless of age, sex, nationality, language, intellect, wealth or any of the other factors our world uses to divide us. And that leads us to the next word: Our. When God makes us his children, he unites us, he makes himself OUR Father.
That’s the incredible thing about prayer. When we pray as our Savior teaches, we stand with Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, David and Solomon, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and all of God’s children – past, present and future. When we say “OUR Father,” all of the things that divide us disappear as we are united as undeserving sinners praying to a gracious God. When we say “OUR Father” we remember that God wants us to pray for more than our own personal wants and needs, he wants us to pray for all of his children, and to pray that more sinners would be drawn into his family.
Finally, Jesus tells us that our Father is in heaven. Does that mean that God is far off, distant and uninterested? No. Psalm 115 explains that because Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. (Psalm 115:3) God is not limited to 140 characters to answer your prayers. He is not bound by time or space or an internet connection. He reigns in heaven. He rules the earth – for you, for me, for the Church. Christian prayer is not a Hail Mary to an unknown or impotent being. Christians pray to the almighty, all-knowing, ever-present God in heaven.
Our Father in heaven knows that things are not right here on earth. He knows how sin corrupts everything he intended to be for our good. And he promises to help and restore his children even now. Does that mean that God will give us whatever we ask? No. No matter how cute Levi is, not even I will give him everything he wants. Wise fathers only give their children what is good for them. In fact, by teaching us to pray to our Father in heaven, Jesus is hinting at the kinds of things God wants to give us – things that are more heavenly in nature than earthly. But that is a sermon for another time. One of my college professors summed up the words of the address this way: “Every time you begin the Lord’s Prayer you should be reminded that you’re praying to the one who is eager and able to help.” (Joel Fredrich)
In one way or another, everyone prays. Idolaters pray. Those who worship the idol of social media appear to pray – some of them hundreds of times a day. Jesus takes it for granted that believers like you and I pray. Accept your Savior’s invitation. Pray, as Paul says, on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Ephesians 6:18) Take care how you pray. Don’t think that the world has to see it for God to hear it. Don’t ramble. Don’t thoughtlessly recite the words. Because you know better. You know the God to whom you are praying. He is Our Father in heaven. He looked for us and found us. He sent his Son to wash away our sins. He knows what we need better than we do. He promises to hear us, has the power to help us, and will give us only what is for our eternal good. In Jesus’ name. Amen.