Sunday, October 26, 2014

Freedom, Simplicity, Honesty, and Humility: the Human Side of Prayer

Matthew 6:9-13 “The Lord’s Prayer”
October 26, 2014
Preached at Newberg Friends Church, Newberg, OR

The simplicity of this prayer speaks honestly of the simplicity of our approach to God.  Acknowledge God as Father, acknowledge that God is immediately present, acknowledge that God is holy in character. Welcome the coming of God as King and present ourselves as ready to do God’s will. Ask simply for what we need for the day. Ask for forgiveness and to be able to forgive. Ask for protection from pain, trouble, and evil.

So simple, and all we need.  And at the same time, the apex of teaching from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, about who we are in relationship to God. Jesus invokes the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Law, the Prophets, and personal stories in this simple prayer.  I think it will temporarily defamiliarize it for us and thus enrich our experience of it to hear the echoes from the sacred texts that Jesus read. I have adapted some of these to speak directly to God as prayers.

Our Father
Jesus's scriptures spoke of God as our Father.

Psalm 68:4-5 We sing to You, God, we sing praises to Your name; we extol You, the God who rides on the clouds, by Your name YAH, the One Who is and Who makes things happen, and we rejoice before You. A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, are You, God, in Your holy habitation.  (NKJV, modified per Howard Macy)

Psalm 103 Bless the LORD, O my soul; and with all that is within me, I bless Your holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul; I do not forget all Your benefits: the God Who forgives all my iniquities, Who heals all my diseases, Who redeems my life from destruction, Who crowns me with lovingkindness and tender mercies, Who satisfies my mouth with good things, so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s. You, LORD, execute righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed…You, LORD, are merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. You will not always strive with us, nor will You keep Your anger forever. You have not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is Your mercy to those who fear You; as far as the east is from the west, so far have You removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so you, LORD, pity those who fear You. For You know our frame; You remember that we are dust. … LORD, You have established Your throne in heaven, and Your kingdom rules over all. (NKJV)

Isaiah 63:15-16 Look down from heaven, and see from Your habitation, holy and glorious. Where are Your zeal and Your strength, the yearning of Your heart and Your mercies toward us? Are they restrained? Doubtless You are our Father, though Abraham was ignorant of us, and Israel does not acknowledge us. You, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from Everlasting is Your name. (NKJV)

Isaiah 64:8 O LORD, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand. (NKJV)

In heaven
When we say “our Father in heaven”—what does that exactly mean?  I have always felt myself to be directing my prayer “up there” somewhere.  But Dallas Willard tells us in The Divine Conspiracy to look at the places in the Old Testament where God speaks “from heaven” which show us “that heaven is here and God is here, because God and his spiritual agents act here and are constantly available here” (69). Willard directs our attention to Jacob’s dream of the ladder going up to heaven in Genesis 28, and particularly this verse:  And behold, the Lord stood over and beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac…by you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed and bless themselves (AMP). Our Father who is in our atmosphere, in Whom we live and move and have our being, Who “speaks out of thin air” (Willard) is a more helpful way to understand “in heaven.” 

Hallowed be Your Name
The Name of God refers to the entire character of God, all God is known for.  The prayer we pray is that the person and character of God will be revered and known as holy. We very likely underestimate the grandness of God when we get used to being God’s family. Just to give us a picture that depicts that grandeur, here is a description from the prophet Ezekiel while in Babylon with the Jewish captives.  He saw “a whirlwind coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire…Above … was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone; on the likeness of the throne was a likeness of a man high above it. Also from the appearance of his waist and upward I saw, as it were, the color of amber with fire all around within it; and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, fire with brightness all around. Like a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.  So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of one speaking. (Ezek. 1).  Bright light, fire, wind, rainbow, and someone with a human shape towering above him on a toweringly high throne.  Hallowed be thy name, amen! Let us admire and tremble at Your greatness, O God, and treat You with respect and humility.

Immediately out of our awareness of the holiness of God, the perfection and wholeness of the same being who also gives us life and speaks to us out of thin air, comes the prayer that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

What does God’s Kingdom look like in the Hebrew Testament?

Psalm 89:5-9, 11, 13-16, 19-22, 26, 35-37 The heavens will praise Your wonders, O LORD; Your faithfulness also in the assembly of the saints. For who in the heavens can be compared to the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened to the LORD? God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints; all those around You hold You in reverence. O LORD God of hosts, who is mighty like You, O LORD? Your faithfulness also surrounds You. You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, You still them….The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; the world and all its fullness, You have founded them. … You spoke in a vision to Your holy one, and said: …”I have found My servant David; with My holy oil I have anointed him … The enemy shall not outwit him, nor the son of wickedness afflict him… He shall cry to Me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.’” (NKJV)

Here is one picture from the prophet Isaiah: Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, who will teach us God’s ways, and we shall walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. God shall judge between the nations and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2).

Ezekiel shows us how God’s will is done in heaven: The living beings, the cherubim, four faces, four sets of wings, ready to rush off in whatever direction God tells them to do what God wants, accompanied by the wheels rimmed with eyes, which roll beside them wherever they go—that’s what it looks like in heaven.  Worship, listening, instant obedience.  In this prayer we commit to humility before God: we do not use God; God uses us.

Give us this day our daily bread
We have a picture of daily bread in the exodus narrative miracle of manna. In
Exodus 16, when the Hebrew people had left Egypt and were walking through the desert, they became hungry, and they murmured against Moses and God. God in graciousness sent them quail in the evening and manna bread to gather in the morning.  This prayer remembers the daily provision of God in the past and humbly requests similar provision in the present.  It is humble and temperate in what it asks for.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
This prayer extends the principle that restrained vengeance: Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:23-25).  This defines and limits what is owed for an injury. Jesus takes us into the territory of generosity by teaching us that our forgiving what is owed to us goes hand in hand with God forgiving what we owe to God.

Two clear examples of forgiveness from the Hebrew Testament: After Jacob defrauds Esau of his first-born blessing, Esau swears he will kill Jacob as soon as their father Isaac dies. Jacob flees the country.  When he returns decades later, Jacob hears Esau is coming to meet him. He sends ahead of him many gifts to placate Esau, and even places his wives and children ahead of him to receive Esau’s vengeance.  Jacob cannot evade the meeting, however, and to his surprise, Esau runs to embrace him and kisses him. They weep together.  Then Esau returns all Jacob’s gifts to him because Esau has all he needs already.  Esau deserves all kinds of credit for being a class-A forgiver (Genesis 33).

We can see forgiveness also operating in the life of David when he is on the run from Saul (I Samuel 24).  Saul has tried again and again to kill David, whose popularity and anointing are a threat to Saul’s kingship. David and his warriors/bandits hide out in wild places, and here is what David prays when he is hiding in a cave. Psalm 142: I cry out to the LORD with my voice, with my voice to the LORD I make my supplication. I pour out my complaint before You; I declare before You my trouble. When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then You knew my path. In the way in which I walk they have secretly set a snare for me. Look on my right hand and see, for there is no one who acknowledges me; refuge has failed me; no one cares for my soul. I cried out to You, O LORD: I said, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living. Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low; deliver me from my persecutors, for they are stronger than I. Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise your name; the righteous shall surround me, for you shall deal bountifully with me.” (NKJV, adapted)

Saul pursues David to the wilderness of Engedi, and while there, goes aside into a cave to relieve himself, as the Amplified Bible puts it with some degree of restraint.  As Saul is in this unguarded moment, David and his warriors line the darkness at the back of the cave, watching.  David’s men whisper to him, “God has delivered your enemy into your hand. Kill him!” Instead, David cuts off a bit of Saul’s robe. When Saul reenters the light of day, David follows him out, bows to the ground, and shows Saul the bit of cloth.  “See, my father, see the skirt of your robe in my hand! Since I cut off the skirt of your robe and did not kill you, you know and see that there is no evil or treason in my hands.  I have not sinned against you, yet you hunt my life to take it. May the Lord judge between me and you, and may the Lord avenge me upon you, but my hand shall not be upon you….May the Lord be judge and judge between me and you, and see and plead my cause, and deliver me out of your hands.” And then Saul wept, and he replied to David, “You are more upright in God’s eyes than I, for you have repaid me good, but I have rewarded you evil…Therefore may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done for me this day.”

David’s honest prayer to God makes it possible for him to respond to Saul in a peace-making way, deferring judgment and justice to God. We have no need to hide our anger and even our hatred of our enemies from God, who sees our hearts.  Much better to express it to God as colorfully as we need to and then trust God to judge between us and those who have done us harm.

Lead us not into temptation
The very provision of God in the wilderness, the quail and the manna, was a trial of the wanderers. God said to Moses: I will rain bread from heaven, and the people will go out and gather it at a certain rate every day and I will test them, I will prove them, to see whether they will do as I direct them. God left the nations of Canaan in the land that the Israelites settled to test them, to prove them. Out of this context, Jesus teaches us to pray instead along the lines of the writer of Proverbs, who prays: Remove falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny You and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God. (Prov. 3:8-9). Both abundance and scarcity test us, and each has its own temptations.

Deliver us from evil, from the Evil One
The Psalms are chock-full of prayers for deliverance from evil—from persons who want to harm us, from our own tendency to do evil, and from evil itself.

Psalm 25:19-20 Consider my enemies, for they are many; and they hate me with cruel hatred. Keep my soul and deliver me; let me not be ashamed, for I put my trust in You.
Psalm 17:13 Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword, with Your hand…
Psalm 39:7-8 And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You. Deliver me from all my transgressions; do not make me the reproach of the foolish.
Psalm 116:3-5 The pains of death surrounded me, and the pangs of the grave laid hold of me; I found trouble and sorrow. Then I called upon the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I implore You, deliver my soul!” Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yes, our God is merciful.
Psalm 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

My hope today is that we will sense the richness of the stories and poetry and prophecy that echo through this simple prayer, and that we will pray with greater freedom, simplicity, honesty, and humility as a human creature addressing a divine Creator, a God Who chooses to be in loving and tender relationship with us and Who is near to us at all times, Who hears our wails and our hurrahs, and Who is close enough to hear our whispers and even what we cannot speak.