Beckett: Sermon – Lessons of Lent: Prayer

Date: March 16, 2022
Festival: Lenten Midweek 2
Text: Matthew 6:5-13
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI
Appointed Scriptures: Jonah 2; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28; Matthew 6:5-13
Sermon Hymn: LSB #771 Be Still, My Soul, before the Lord

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Introduction: Why Do We Pray?

Last week, we examined how God’s people fast during times of spiritual distress and other times for self-discipline to prepare for ministry and that you spend the time you would be eating in prayer and lament, just as the prophets, kings, and disciples did before us, calling upon the name of the Lord for strength and deliverance. So, tonight, we meditate on prayer.

But let me first ask you this: Why do we pray? It is always good to think about why we do the things we do, especially those things that make us distinctly Christian. The world mocks prayer. When a tragedy happens and we Christians say we will pray, they mock us, saying prayer doesn’t do anything and that we should rather do practical things to help people. To put the best construction on things, I think their criticism has some truth to it. There are Christians who use prayer as an excuse to be lazy and not love their neighbour. Even worse, some don’t pray at all, even when they say they will. Both these Christians and the scoffers, however, misunderstand prayer as an excuse not to do anything.

We pray that the Lord’s will be done, and as we do so we also do the Lord’s will, which is to love our neighbour. For example, we’ve been praying for the Ukrainian people, and as we do so we also give to some relief efforts; and as the neighbouring countries are doing—such as Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—taking in refugees. So, the Christian who prays but doesn’t love his neighbour is a hypocrite. But the person who mocks Christian prayer is also a hypocrite, because they will say new age pagan things like, “Sending you good vibes,” whatever that means. Perhaps they think prayer is nothing more than that.

So, again, why do we pray? And what is prayer? I believe we have no better explanation than Luther’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer in the Large Catechism. He writes that prayer is God’s command, so we pray because God commands it. As we read from the Gospel earlier, Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray; indeed, He gives us the words to pray especially when we cannot find the words. The Old Testament Scriptures, such as the Psalms, are replete with commands and exhortations to call upon the name of the Lord, which “is nothing other than to pray” [LC, Part 3, 6]. The Second Commandment teaches us not to misuse God’s name, which means there is a right way to use His name. As Luther explains in the Small Catechism, the right way to use His name is to “call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.” By calling upon God’s name in prayer, we honour His name.

So then, God encourages us to use His name in prayer, which means no Christian’s prayer is ever useless and should never be despised. We tell ourselves that we are not holy enough or worthy enough for God to hear our prayers, but this is a clever tactic of the devil who does not want you to run to the arms of your heavenly Father to find refuge and strength. Prayer is like a drawing that a child brings to her father. When she draws a picture and brings it to her father as a gift, he does not reject it and tell her how ugly it is and neither does he compare it to the paintings of brilliant artists like Van Gogh, Salvador Dalí, or Monet. Instead, he adores it, kisses her on the forehead, and hangs it in his office.

In the same way, we bring our prayers to our heavenly Father, which the Scriptures call our spiritual gift. When we bring our prayer to the Father, He does not reject this gift and tell us how ugly and simple it is and neither does He compare it to the eloquent prayers of Augustine, Luther, the apostles, or even your pastor. Rather, He treasures it, and, as Jonah’s prayer tells us [Jonah 2:7], He “hangs” it in His holy sanctuary, so to speak. God’s command to pray, then, is not like the Ten Commandments—”do this or else.” Rather, the command is an invitation to be His children. So then, because the Lord Jesus has taught us how to pray to our Father, it would benefit us to briefly go over each of its petitions.

Intro: Our Father, Who Art in Heaven

We begin the Lord’s Prayer with, “Our Father,” which those two simple words tell you everything you need to know about prayer. The word “our” tells you two things. The first thing it evokes is the communion of saints, as we confess in the Creed—that you belong to the community of saints who all pray to the same God and Father. That’s why Jesus teaches us to begin with, “Our Father,” not “my Father.” Christianity is not a private faith. It therefore teaches you the second thing, which is that you’re not alone when you pray. Even though you pray in your closet or in your bedroom, you are praying with the saints both dead and alive.

And the word “Father” tells you who you pray to. When you pray, you do not enter the courts of God the Judge; He is not there for judgement. Rather, you enter His lap; He is there to protect you and to guide you. And, again, He does not judge the eloquence of your prayers, as though you need to dress it up with fine jewelry to make it worthy before Him. He accepts them because you are His dear children, as a father lovingly accepts his child’s art. Yet even though our earthly fathers can help us understand something about God our Father, He is our heavenly Father, which means He is infinitely greater than any father we have because He is infinitely rich in grace, mercy, and love.

1st Petition: Hallowed be Thy Name

Next, we pray, “Hallowed be Thy name,” which we pray not as if it’s not already holy since His name is holy in and of itself, but we pray “that it may be kept holy among us also” [SC]. That is, we pray that God help us keep His name holy upon our lips and in our lives. To put it another way, we pray that He help us live as His godly children. Just as we would not want to shame our earthly fathers and so taint their name, so we do not want to shame our heavenly Father and taint His holy name. We pray that we do not use God’s name to lie or to deceive and that we do not live wicked lives. Rather, we pray that we use His name to praise Him, pray to Him, and give thanks, and to lead us in a godly life as we repent of our sins.

2nd Petition: Thy Kingdom Come

The second petition we pray is, “Thy kingdom come.” Just as with the first petition, to quote Luther, God’s kingdom “comes of itself, without our prayer. Yet we still pray that it may come to us, that is, triumph among us and with us, so that we may be a part of those people among whom His name is hallowed and His kingdom prospers” [LC, Part 3, 50]. But what is God’s kingdom? It is nothing other than what He sent His Son—the Prince of Peace—to bring, which is “righteousness, life, and salvation against sin, death, and an evil conscience” [para. 51]. To put all this in a single word, when we pray for God’s kingdom, we pray for His grace. This is likely contrary to what we think we pray for in this petition.

One of the main reasons the Jews did not believe Jesus was their promised Messiah is because they expected the Messiah to restore Israel’s theocracy—to deliver them from the Roman government and reinstitute the State of Israel as it was in the Old Testament with the Messiah to reign as their King on earth. But Jesus didn’t bring this kind of kingdom. Instead, the kingdom He inaugurated was the kingdom of grace, which is His righteousness that brings forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation and therefore makes you righteous, that is, right with God.

In the same way, some of us might think we are praying for America to become a “Christian nation” again (even though it never was), or to restore the State of Israel. Some even think Jesus’ 1,000-year reign means He will reign as King on the earth for a literal 1,000 years, just as the Jews were expecting. But just like them, they will be vastly disappointed. As Jesus showed and taught quite clearly, God’s kingdom is not earthly but heavenly.

So, when we pray this petition, we ask that God’s grace would come to us, which has a threefold meaning. First, we pray that His grace come to us now, which it comes to us whenever we receive His Word & Sacraments since they deliver God’s grace; second, we pray that His eschatological grace come, which is the Sword of the Spirit that destroys evil but also His grace that raises us from the dead to bring us into the new creation; and third, in Luther’s words, “We pray that many may find entrance into the kingdom of grace… be made partakers of redemption… and be led to it by the Holy Spirit” [para. 52]. So, we also pray for our enemies.

3rd Petition: Thy Will Be Done on Earth as It Is in Heaven

Next, we pray that God’s will be done. As with the other petitions so far, God’s will is done without our prayers, but we pray that His will be done among us also. As the SC says, “God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature… and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die.” So, when we pray God’s will be done, we pray against the evil plans of the devil, the world, and our flesh. This petition, then, is perhaps the hardest to pray because as we typically approach prayer for ourselves (or for others), when we pray that God’s will be done, we are also praying against ourselves!

But alas, it’s for our own good! For although the Old Adam in us has been drowned in Baptism, he is a good swimmer, and he clings on to our flesh for dear life trying to drag us back into the mucky swamp of the devil. The devil, therefore, despises this prayer, for he knows he is utterly powerless against the will of God. God’s will is so powerful that He willed the death of His Son to miraculously be the death of Death itself as well as the authority that sin and the devil had over His dear children. Therefore, we should, as St. Paul says, “pray without ceasing” [1 Thess. 5:17], for the devil will not cease to tempt the will of our flesh.

4th Petition: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

In the fourth petition, we pray for our daily bread. Again, God graciously gives us our daily bread without our prayers, but as the SC says, “we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realise this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” To pray for our daily bread, then, is not only to ask for our daily needs such as food, drink, job, money, good health, and so forth; we also pray that we recognise God’s providence graciously comes even without our prayer and therefore give Him thanksgiving. Our prayer, then, is like a thank offering that rises as incense before the Lord, and it is a pleasing aroma to Him.

5th Petition: Forgive Us Our Trespasses as We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us

The fifth petition is probably another one that’s difficult for us to pray. We pray that God forgive us our trespasses, which may be easy at times and quite difficult at other times. For as the Old Adam clings to us, the devil will convince us that we are not worthy of God’s forgiveness—that we do not deserve it. But deserve has nothing to do with it! And, again, it’s not as though God does not forgive us without our prayer, but as Luther writes, we pray “that we may recognise and receive such forgiveness” [para. 88]. That is, we recognise that God graciously and freely forgives us our sins, which we receive in the Word & Sacraments.

In Absolution, we recognise that the pastor has spoken forgiveness to us by the stead and command of Christ Himself. In Baptism, we recognise that the Holy Spirit has washed away all our sins without exception. And in the Lord’s Supper, we recognise that our ascended Lord, Jesus Christ, comes down to us Himself in His body and blood in a mysterious way. We hear, we physically touch, and we consume His forgiveness. Your feelings are not more powerful than the Word of God that delivers to you forgiveness of sins.

The devil might try to convince you that you are not worthy of forgiveness, and he will convince you with your works and feelings. He’ll tell you, “You haven’t produced enough fruits of repentance. You keep falling back into that sin. You don’t feel forgiven, so you must not be!” And so on. But the devil is a clever liar! It’s true that nothing you can ever do or feel will make you worthy before God, and it is precisely because you cannot make yourself worthy that God Himself makes you worthy! He does this through faith in Christ. And Jesus said that faith as small as a mustard seed is powerful enough to move mountains [Matt. 17:20]. So, if we wish to quantify our faith—which is a futile endeavour—know that even such minuscule faith is enough to receive Christ’s forgiveness.

And just as difficult in this prayer is that we forgive others. Praying for God’s forgiveness might be easy enough, but we don’t like that second part. We receive God’s unmerited forgiveness and yet require that others merit ours. In the first petition, we pray that God’s name be hallowed on our lips, but if we neglect forgiveness for our neighbour and place requirements on them as a heavy yoke, we make God into a liar. As Luther writes, “Just as we daily sin much against God, and yet He forgives everything through grace, so we, too, must ever forgive our neighbour who does us injury, violence, and wrong, shows malice toward us, and so on” [para. 94]. For when we were God’s enemies, He delivered to us such unmerited forgiveness; Christ therefore commands us to love and to forgive our own enemies in the same way as a testimony to His grace. Otherwise, we make Him out to be a liar and His name is not hallowed on our lips.

6th Petition: And Lead Us Not into Temptation

Next, we pray that God lead us not into temptation. This does not mean that God tempts us to sin, but we pray that God deliver us from the temptation “of the flesh, of the world, and of the devil.” For example, we pray against “unchastity, laziness, gluttony and drunkenness, greed and deception,” defrauding our neighbour, and so on [paras. 101-102]. The Old Adam in us suffers many kinds of lusts, the world encourages such lusts, and the devil smiles with crooked teeth. We pray, therefore, that God in His Holy Spirit lead us to recognise these temptations and to resist them. And as we saw a couple weeks ago in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness [Luke 4:1-13], God’s Word gives us the power to renounce and to resist temptation through His Holy Spirit, who is always with us in the wilderness of our temptations.

7th Petition: But Deliver Us from Evil

Lastly, we pray that God deliver us from evil. Interestingly, when Jesus teaches this prayer in Greek, the word for “evil” is not a noun but an adjective. Grammatically, this is called a substantive adjective, which is a descriptive word that is used to replace a noun in a sentence. To translate this literally, then, would be, “But deliver us from the evil one.” Our concluding petition is not just a prayer against evil in general but against the evil one himself, the devil. It is as if all the petitions are summarised in this final one, for as Luther says, it is the devil “who hinders among us everything that we pray for: God’s name or honour, God’s kingdom and will, our daily bread, a cheerful good conscience, and so forth” [para. 113].

This final petition also has a dual meaning. First, as the SC teaches, “We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.” That is, we pray that God deliver us from evil while the earth remains and while we live. And we pray that God finally deliver us from the evil one when our last hour of life comes. This He also does in the Word & Sacraments, whether days or hours or just moments after receiving His means of grace. For since God willed that Jesus’ death on the cross destroy Death itself, so He wills that our deaths shall rise in victory in a resurrection just like Jesus Christ’s [Romans 6:3-5].

We therefore also pray this final petition eschatologically. In this petition, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus”—for Jesus to inaugurate His kingdom of grace that will send the evil one and his minions to the fiery pit of Hell for all eternity, whereas you and I shall drink from the River of Life and eat from the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem to descend in the clouds with Christ our King, to whom be all the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

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