Sunday, June 7, 2015

Teach Us to Pray (Matthew 6.5-15)


Sermon by: Robert Austell; June 7, 2015
Text: Matthew 6:5-15

:: Sermon Audio (link) 
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

:: Some Music Used
Hymn of Praise: "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" (arr. Austell)
Song of Praise: "Speak, O Lord" (Getty/Townend)
Offering of Music: "Blessings" (Laura Story)
Communion Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Sending: "Our Father in Heaven" (Wyse)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Video - "Lord's Prayer Series Intro"


:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf): 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.


Today we are starting a new series that will take us through the summer. We say it almost every Sunday; it’s one of the most familiar things to nearly every Christian on the planet. We are going to study the Lord’s Prayer! Today I’m going to introduce and give an overview. Next week we will take a break to celebrate and be led by our high school graduates in worship. Then, we will work through the Lord’s Prayer one phrase at a time throughout the summer, using other scripture to dig in and understand what each phrase means.

You may remember or know that the Lord’s Prayer appears in two different books of the Bible. It can be found in Matthew 6, which is the text we are using today and this summer. It also appears in Luke 11. I chose the Matthew text because it has a more complete version of the prayer as well as some explanatory material before and after it. Matthew’s account is also in the midst of a long stretch of Jesus’ teaching (the “Sermon on the Mount”); and Matthew doesn’t interrupt that with any commentary from the disciples. So Luke’s more bare-bones account does have one bit of information I want to mention as we start.

Luke tells us that the disciples saw Jesus praying and they went to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John (the Baptist) also taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1) That’s my goal for this series: that God would “teach us to pray” through Jesus’ own teaching and example prayer, and through the other scriptures we will explore. We do a lot of praying in church. But how often do we take time to study prayer and grow in that practice. My hope is that as we move through the summer, you will experience a deeper and richer prayer life and feel more connected to God through the practice of prayer.

Seek Attention (vv. 5-6)


Today I mainly want to focus on Jesus’ teaching in the verses leading up to prayer itself in Matthew 6. He has been talking about showy religion; he describes that in the beginning of chapter 6 as “practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed…” (v. 1) He warns against giving to be seen in vv. 2-4, then moves on to praying to be seen in vv. 5-6.

Both giving and prayer were core practices of Jewish faith. But here in the tail end of the “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus has been pressing the point that keeping the spirit of the religious Law is as or more important than externally keeping the letter of the Law, he makes the same point about giving and prayer. Don’t do either to be seen; that’s not the point. Do them to obey and honor your Heavenly Father, who not only sees the thing done quietly, but also sees your inner motivation and intent.

So Jesus warns, “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for the love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen…” (v. 5) Rather, he says, “When you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret…” (v. 6)

Does that mean we are to never pray in public, but only alone when no one but God knows? No; bottom line Jesus is teaching what he has been teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in the preceding chapter: what matters most is what’s going on in your heart. Don’t seek attention for yourself to demonstrate your religious awesomeness. Pray simply and honestly and for God’s sake, not the sake of what people might think.

Said even more simply: don’t make a big deal about it. Jesus (and Paul) encourage us to pray frequently – all the time – about matters big and small. But that doesn’t require an announcement over the loudspeaker: “Robert is about to pray; Robert is now praying.” Just do it; eyes open, eyes shut; talk to the Lord. He is your audience and no other.

It’s not unrelated to our worship music. It is not our desire to seek attention for the musicians either. But neither do we confine music to singing alone in the car. It is often a community activity, but we want the ATTENTION to be on God, not on us. So it is with prayer.

When we get to the Lord’s Prayer, we’ll see how God-focused it is: “Our Father… hallowed be YOUR name; YOUR kingdom come; YOUR will be done.” (vv. 9-10) Even when we get to the petitions, they are not self-serving, but God-focused: “help us live in obedience to you, forgiving as we’ve been forgiven.” (v. 12)

Vain gods vs. Father God (vv. 7-8)


In verse 7 offers a specific caution against “using meaningless repetition”; he adds, “they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.” It may be that this is one more example of seeking attention. It’s a variation of the loud public pray-er; this one repeats the same words and phrases over and over and over. It may be an immature way of seeking attention.

It is also possible that Jesus is offering another kind of warning. In his day there was a kind of praying to the Greek or Roman gods that consisted of saying the same words and phrases over and over, in hopes that the god or gods would pay attention. It’s a kind of “magic formula” thinking. The gods are busy and not interested with your mortal life, but if you perform a certain kind of ritual with your words, you will summon the attention of the god or gods and be heard. I think that’s what Jesus is describing (and warning against) here. And it’s no good. God isn’t looking for magic words and phrases. God is already listening and looking; he wants YOUR attention. Jesus adds, “Do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (v. 8)

And what a radical concept in any time or place (but especially in the midst of ancient Greek and Roman culture and religion); God is personal? Like a loving Father? Prayer is talking with Him and not a mindless ritual? And just look at how Jesus then starts his example prayer: “Our Father who is in heaven.” Zeus was no personal god; the gods of Olympus were not listening and looking at human lives. They were a vain lot. But the God of Israel; He is personal. He is ‘Father.’ He doesn’t want meaningless words and phrases, but wants you to pour out your heart.

I remember a key shift in my own prayer life. Growing up we always said a prayer before we ate a meal. Early on it was the “God is Great” prayer, but later it became, “Thank you for this food; please bless it to the nourishment of our bodies and our bodies to your service. Amen.” Nothing wrong with that; it’s a lovely, simple prayer. But I noticed over time that we said it faster and faster, words blurring together faster than an auctioneer. And one particular time – who knows, maybe I had read this passage – I was struck at how meaningless and “magic formula” it was said in that way at that speed. And I said something to my parents.

About that same time, I heard or discovered the idea of telling God we love Him in our prayers. I think it might have been the influence of the song, “I Love You Lord,” but it was not a way of praying that I had heard anywhere growing up. It gave prayer a personal and connectional aspect, what you might expect if you were really talking to a good and loving heavenly Father. It’s just one example – and that, too, can become trite and formulaic. But it’s an example of prayer being REAL and PERSONAL and God-focused rather than done in a way that draws attention to ourselves.

An Example to Follow (vv. 9-15)


Finally, we get to the prayer itself. We aren’t going to dive into it today – we have all summer for that! But what I do want to note is that Jesus doesn’t say “pray these words”; he says “pray in this way.” This is an example, a pattern, to follow. And this summer we will want to not only learn what each word and phrase means, but how we can incorporate this pattern and prayer into our lives of faith.

So, we aren’t just to address God as ‘Father’ when we pray; we are to come to understand what it means to have a Creator who has revealed Himself to us as Heavenly Father. That may not only change the way you pray; it may change the way you worship and sing and give and serve. We don’t worship, sing, give, and serve a distant, unknowable God; we have a Heavenly Father God. And Jesus makes clear in his teaching leading up to the prayer and in the few verses after it that prayer is a reflection of how we live out our faith in our lives. So, I hope our summer focus will have that effect, too!

Finally, I’d also note that Jesus didn’t offer us a comprehensive pattern to follow. There are things to pray and ways to pray that he didn’t include that are taught elsewhere in scripture (just read through some of the Psalms!) So, for example, there is no lament (sorrow) expressed in the Lord’s Prayer. But Jesus wasn’t being exhaustive; he was giving us a starting place to grow and deepen and learn. My hope is that this will be a launching pad for your own prayer and that we will grow together as we learn from Jesus this summer. Amen.



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