I have never met the Queen, never even been to a Royal Garden Party, but I know there are rules about talking to the Queen. You address her first as “Your Majesty”, and then as “Ma’am”. You don’t try to hug her or touch her. You don’t ask questions. You mind your ps & qs. You don’t talk about politics.
And I think a lot of people think that praying to God is a bit like talking to the Queen. You call God “Lord”, “Almighty God” or some other grand title. You keep your distance and don’t get too close. You don’t mention anything that might be distasteful or even personal. You mind your spiritual ps & qs.
NO! No, No, No, No, No! That’s not it at all!
Abraham sussed that out. God tells Abraham that he’s going to wipe out Sodom because it’s such a wicked place. And Abraham starts negotiating with God. Maybe, he says, maybe not everyone is wicked. If 50 residents of Sodom were righteous, would you, God, still wipe out the whole place. And God agrees that if 50 people had remained righteous, he would stay his hand. And Abraham says, what if there weren’t 50 but 45 righteous people, and so God agrees to 45. And Abraham talks God down to 40, then 30 and 20 and 10. That negotiation is prayer. Abraham knows he’s being cheeky – he apologises for it. But he does it anyway.
Prayer is a conversation with God, who made us and loves us and wants to engage with us. Prayer is bringing things before God and asking God for help or blessing – and it includes the ordinary stuff of life as well as the big things of politics. Prayer is also about enjoying things with God and enjoying God’s presence with us. Tell God when a sunset is utterly gorgeous. Tell God when you are sad because there is a beggar on the side of the street. Tel God when you are feeling miserable. Tell God when something has happened that makes you happy. Talk to God about everything.
Jesus prayed. He would sometimes pray all night, talking to his Father, being with him. So one of the disciples asks him, “Lord, teach us to pray”. And Jesus teaches them a prayer. And we, of course, call it the Lord’s Prayer, and we use it in pretty well every public service as well as in our private prayers.
The Bible gives us two versions, in Matthew and Luke, and it’s Luke’s version we have today, which is shorter, simpler and more direct.
Jesus teaches his disciples to call God “Father”. He uses an Aramaic word “Abba”, which is a bit like calling God “Dad”, but is also a term of respect. So there’s something there about a relationship with God. Prayer is an expression of the relationship with God who is our Heavenly Dad, and it helps that relationship to grow and flourish. The Jews of Jesus’ day and the Jews of today, our neighbours up the road, pray in Hebrew. And Muslims pray in 7th century Arabic. They have a special language for prayer. Christians can pray in any language. We don’t have special words or formulas for prayer. You pray like you’re talking to your father.
I was talking to a Moslem woman once. She told me that she had been encouraged to read the Gospels and found there that Christians were God’s children and could call him Father, whereas in the Koran, Moslems were God’s slaves. She said she prayed to God as Father and it made all the difference. She was later baptised as a Christian.
“Hallowed be your name” is a way of talking about the holiness of God, God who is right and good. When we pray, we recognise who is God is. And then we pray that God’s Kingdom might come – that is praying that our world will flourish with God being in charge. That means we have to be involved. For God’s Kingdom to come, we need to discern – through prayer – what God’s Kingdom is like, to acknowledge it, pray for it and work for it. It is asking God to make it happen, but recognising that God will make it happen through us.
You might think the next line is more obvious: the version we heard just now was “Give us each day our daily bread”, but it’s not as straightforward as it looks. It was written in Greek and includes a word that doesn’t appear ANYWHERE ELSE, and scholars have had to struggle to get to the heart of the meaning. Some people think it is a prayer that we have enough bread to eat today, or enough bread for tomorrow. Others think it is a prayer that we have enough bread to survive on, but no more, while still others think it is a prayer that we have the bread we need. Another scholar thinks it is a prayer that we don’t have to worry about where our food will come from, that we don’t have to worry about being made redundant or become deprived of the means to buy food.
But, note that it is a prayer for bread and not cake. It is not a prayer that we have all the consumer goods that we think we need. And the prayer is for our bread, not my bread. The bread we receive is for the benefit of all of us, not just our own benefit. Which is why bringing food in for the Gateshead Community Food Coop or the Foodbank is a way of sharing our bread.
The Lord’s Prayer moves on to pray for forgiveness. We need forgiveness every day as we need food every day. Forgiveness enables us to stay as God’s friends even when things go wrong. Forgiveness allow us to remain in community, even when we fall out. God forgives us, and we forgive those who hurt us. They go together.
And finally, Luke’s version of the prayer ends with the last petition, to save us from the time of trial, though in the version we say in church, we usually ask for deliverance from temptation. This is more about the things that will test us on the spiritual journey, the things that happen in life that push us to our limits and show up who we really are, and how shallow, and how deep our weaknesses are. It is when we see ourselves in this way that we are ashamed and can turn to Christ in sorrow and in need, so that Christ can help us.
We can learn a lot from the Lord’s Prayer. When I was younger, I used to base all my prayers around it, using each line to guide me into prayer.
The important thing, though, is to pray, in whatever way. Lord, teach us to pray! Just do it.