The Greatest Prayer - Week One

This week I am beginning a new sermon series on the Lord's Prayer entitled, "The Greatest Prayer."  The title of the series is borrowed from the excellent book by John Dominic Crossan of the same name that was just recently published.  Crossan is a progressive theologian, and I struggle to find agreement with much of what he asserts about Scripture and Jesus.  He does, however, raise some thought-provoking questions about the structure, purpose and role of the Lord's Prayer that got me thinking.  

Here's the thing... do we even pay attention to what we are saying when we pray the Lord's Prayer?  I think that most of drone through it with everyone else in church just to move on to the next thing. But, as Crossan asserts, the Lord's Prayer is a revolutionary prayer.  It's the sort of prayer that is dangerous to pray and mean it. 

When I was in the eighth grade I had a Speech class where we had to deliver a variety of speeches, including the recitation of classic poems.  With feeling.

I chose to recite Edgar Alan Poe's, The Raven for one of the many assignments that year.  After spending a certain amount of time memorizing it, I found that I could recite it fairly quickly if I didn't really think about what I was saying.

My rolling through this poem with scarcely a breath did little for the imagination of the hearers, and even less for the gangly eighth grader in braces who stood before them rattling it off like an auctioneer.  My Speech teacher urged me to learn more about the poem, to study why Poe wrote it.  He also wanted me to slow down and think more clearly about what I was saying.  Once I did I discovered I was able to speak with feeling that was borne out of a new understanding. 

I did find this recording of Christopher Walken reading The Raven.

One of my great regrets in life is that I did not fully know the genius of Walken when I was in eighth grade or I would have definitely done my best Walken imitation as I recited The Raven. 

There was no real point to that last bit.  I just wanted to include it.  

We need to begin here...

What is prayer?  Is it something I do because it's tradition--Like praying in church, or before a meal?  Is it something I do when I am in trouble or I need something from God?  Maybe it's a "conversation" with God that I need to keep up in order to maintain our relationship.  

Crossan defines prayer like this: "Empowerment by participating in and collaboration with God."

English translation: Prayer doesn't just change things it changes us.

When we pray, extraordinary things happen.  We begin to see the connected nature of the Body of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit when brothers and sisters in Christ bear one another's burdens.  We begin to see the way that God is working in the world.  And perhaps more importantly, we start to see how we can join God in becoming the answer to our own prayers.

So what about the Lord's Prayer?

Jesus told his disciples, "When you pray, pray like this..." and then he gives them the most incredible prayer ever prayed.

You can read it by clicking HERE

The structure of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray is similar to other Jewish prayers.  This shouldn't surprise anyone---Jesus was, after all, Jewish.  He began the prayer with the word "Abba," which is a term of endearment for God that is similar to "Daddy."  This was not a way that Jewish people in the ancient world typically began their prayers, although there were some instances where they did.  The prayer doesn't mention Jesus at all, and it's not prayed in his name, which is curious since this is a prayer essentially claimed exclusively for Christian worship.

Have you ever wondered why some Christians say, "Forgive us our debts," and others say "Forgive us our trespasses?"  The use of "debts and debtors" in the Lord's Prayer is actually a literal translation of the word hoba, which means debts.  The use of "trespasses" can be traced back to the Wycliffe, Tyndale and Coverdale translations of the Bible, which used that translation rather than "debt."  Does it really matter?  Not really.

1st Century Christians actually used the Lord's Prayer as a private prayer they prayed three times a day.  But this wasn't exactly what Jesus had in mind when he taught it to his disciples.

In Luke's Gospel, the Disciples come to Jesus and ask him, "Teach us to pray..."  It was the custom in those days for a rabbi to teach his disciples a prayer that was unique---just for them.  They were wanting something private that was different from the public prayers of worship that were part of their Jewish faith.  Interestingly, Jesus gave them a prayer that couldn't possibly be prayed individually.  There aren't any "I's" at all in the Lord's Prayer.  This is a prayer for a community that provides us with a vision of our life together.

This is a "Disciples Prayer," however.  You can't really know what you are praying when you pray the Lord's Prayer unless you first fully enter into Christian discipleship.  As we say in our church, "First you know Jesus and then you show Jesus.

The very first line of the Lord's Prayer is the main topic of this particular sermon.  "Our Father, who art in Heaven..."

The point is simply this:  The rightful place of God is FIRST. 

As I stated earlier, the use of "Abba" reveals an intimate personal relationship between Jesus and God.  I realize that there are many people who don't have a very good relationship with their father.  Maybe their dad abused them, or was cold and distant.  Maybe their father was a strict authoritarian.  To these folks, the use of "Father" here is not all that helpful.  How about this instead: "the one who forgives, and knows how to give good gifts to his children.  In Isaiah 64:8 we have a vision of God that is grounded in the language of a loving parent and a gentle Creator.  No matter what we do, we can return to God, and God will return to us.

The first line of the Lord's Prayer confirms that this a God Centered Prayer.  It doesn't begin with us.

The "who art in Heaven" part of this first line is vital.  It is only when God is given his proper place that all other things fall into place.  In Deuteronomy 32:6 Moses speaks to the Hebrew people in a tone of astonishment at how they forgot that God is loving AND powerful.  It's like he says, "How could you have dared to let God slip from first place in your life?"  When God is FIRST everything else will somehow fall into place right where it should.

So what does this look like for us as we ponder the implications of really praying that first line of The Greatest Prayer with feeling? 

When God is first we discover that we have the ability to be "right" with others.  We can forgive others and accept what we cannot change in them.  God being first gives us perspective to put our relationships in their proper order.
When God is first we also have the courage and ability to lead a self-less life.  We no longer desire to always have our way or to put ourselves in front of everything and everyone in our life.
When God is first we have a deep, abiding desire to keep God's commandments.  So many times people say, "Christianity is just all about rule-keeping."  I would argue that for the Christian who begins with God first, Christianity is all about a love relationship.  And when you love someone, you desire with all of your heart to do what it takes to keep your relationship fresh, exciting and intact.

As you pray The Greatest Prayer this week, remember that as you say "Our Father, who art in Heaven..." you are saying, "God, your rightful place is FIRST."

Then get ready for some awesome, life-changing and incredible transformation.


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