14 June 2020
Rosebery Park Baptist Church, Boscombe, Bournemouth, UK
I think most of us have been following the news about the racial conflict in the United States following the death of George Floyd in police custody. Yesterday, there was a large ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstration in Brighton.
What do we, as Christians, think about this? Would we, for example, join a demonstration like this?
Near enough five years ago, on June 17, 2015, a 19-year-old white man went into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine people who were having a Bible study.
Ten days later, a lady called Bree Newsome, daughter of a Baptist preacher, thought something should be said. She climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina State House and removed the Confederate flag.
She was then arrested.
Did she do right? What do you think?
On July 9, the South Carolina state legislature voted to permanently remove the flag from the capitol.
Two years later, a journalist interviewed Bree Newsome.
Interviewer: I read that you recited the Lord's Prayer and Psalm 27 when you were taking the flag down. Tell me about that.
Bree Newsome: I had no doubt about the decision that I had made at the time, but that didn't mean that I was oblivious to how dangerous it was and so it really did require faith on my part. I very much believe that God called me to scale the flagpole that day and I believe that God would bring me safely down. But faith is something that we practice, so even in that moment just praying and staying focused and calling out to God was very important.
Bree Newsome said that she prayed to God, that he would give her courage to act and keep her safe.
We’re in a series on prayer. Last week we looked at the story of Gideon. The Israelites were being oppressed by the Midianites. They prayed to God. God told Gideon to take down an idol. Gideon did that, and then God proceeded to deliver Israel.
We pray. We also need to act. And we need to pray that God will give us courage to act.
** MAIN TALK. THE LORD'S PRAYER, PART 1
Today we have our second talk in our mini-series on prayer, and we’re turning to the Lord’s Prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer is actually quite topical. Because of coronavirus we have to wash our hands for 20 seconds. To judge how long 20 seconds is, you can sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice. Or you can say the Lord’s Prayer – and everyone will be impressed by how pious you are!
The Lord’s Prayer also occasionally gets into the news for another reason. Schools sometimes say the Lord’s Prayer in assemblies, and sometimes, non-Christian parents object. In 1985 three parents whose children attended a school in Ontario, Canada, won a decision saying that the reciting of the Lord’s prayer, with non-Christian children opting out by sitting in the hallway, violated the Charter of Rights. After that, all Ontario public schools had to stop saying the Lord's Prayer. Very sad!
I hope as we reflect on the Lord’s Prayer this Sunday and next, we’ll see something of what a wonderful prayer it is. It’s the prayer we most often say in church and at home. We may say it in the form we find in the Bible, or we may use it as a model, a pattern to follow. But this prayer not only teaches us how to pray, it also teaches us about our relationship with God.
I’m going to look at verses 5-9 this week and then 10-15 next week.
THE THEME IS HYPOCRISY
Let’s dive in! In most English Bibles, verse 5 starts with ‘and’. That follows the Greek, which also starts with ‘and’. Jesus is clearly continuing to talk about something! If you look back over the preceding verses you can see that Jesus’ general theme is avoiding hypocrisy.
Prayer is one of three examples Jesus gives of where hypocrisy can be present, and it’s the example he spends most time on.
Jesus’ first example of where hypocrisy can be present is giving to the needy. That’s in verses 2-4. Giving has to be genuine, not to look good.
His second example of where hypocrisy can be present is prayer. That starts at verse 5. Jesus first talks about hypocrisy in prayer, then he has a little digression and talks about prayer more generally.
His third example is fasting. We won’t look at that.
The theme of hypocrisy comes up a lot in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is talking about hypocrisy here. In Matthew 23 he calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites six times. In total, Jesus speaks about hypocrites 13 times in Matthew’s gospel! Jesus clearly doesn’t like hypocrisy one little bit. In case you’re not sure what hypocrisy is, the dictionary tells us that it means, ‘The assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, with dissimulation of real character or inclinations.’
JESUS SAYS, 'WHEN YOU PRAY'
Before we move on, let’s observe that Jesus says three times, ‘when you pray.’ He takes it as a given that his disciples pray.
Suppose I tell you that one of my hobbies is running. You ask me, ‘How often do you run?’ I say, ‘Never.’ Do you sense some inconsistency?
Suppose I tell you, ‘I’m a Christian. I’ve accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour. I have a relationship with Jesus.’ You ask me, ‘How often do you pray?’ I say, ‘Never. I never talk to Jesus, and he doesn’t talk to me.’ Do you sense some inconsistency?
There is a sizeable group of people who apparently don’t see any inconsistency. In the past four years, three surveys have been carried out in the UK to find out how Christians pray. Each survey has found that about 30% of people who say they are Christians in the UK say they don’t pray.
Are these people really Christians? It isn’t my job to judge. But I find it difficult to imagine. Faith is at the heart of Christianity. It’s the basis of our salvation. If a person doesn’t pray, surely it means they don’t have faith. If they don’t have faith, surely that means they are not Christians! Jesus says, ‘when you pray’, not ‘if you pray.’ Jesus’ followers pray.
THE HYPOCRITICAL PRAYER
As we’ve seen, Jesus’ theme is hypocrisy. He’s spoken about hypocrisy in giving and now he talks about hypocrisy in prayer. I don’t think it’s complicated. This is what he says:
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Jesus has two commands here. The first is, ‘you must not be like the hypocrites.’ It’s a strong command.
The hypocrite seems to be praying to God. But it’s a façade. He’s making himself out to be good, and he’ll fool some people. Jesus says, ‘Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.’ The hypocrite will get praise from men. But that’s all he’ll get.
I think this can be a danger in a church setting. The minister is leading prayers. He knows he’s praying to God. But he’s also conscious that the congregation is listening. He wants his prayer to be eloquent. He wants the congregation to think well of him. A young Christian is in a meeting and there’s an invitation to pray out loud. He’s conscious of the rest of the group. He wants to make a good impression. So, he prays in a certain way, to make himself look very pious.
That’s what we must not be. How can we avoid it? We come to Jesus’ second command. Jesus switches from ‘you’ in the plural in verse 5 to ‘you’ in the singular in verse 6. Jesus’ instruction relates to individual prayer, not praying with others, for example in a synagogue or church. He says, ‘When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.’ Jesus wants us, when we pray, to go into our room and shut the door.
If we are in a place where no one sees us, no one even knows we’re praying, then we are clearly not praying to be seen by men! There are other benefits too. God is great and awesome. He is worthy of our full attention. And in our room, on our own, we’re much less likely to be distracted.
So far, in this section, Jesus’ theme has been hypocrisy. But now he continues on the subject of prayer. After that, he’ll come back to hypocrisy, in relation to fasting. He gives one more negative example and then comes to the positive example – the Lord’s Prayer.
THE BABBLING PRAYER
Jesus now tells us:
7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."
This is the English Standard Version. The old 1984 version of the NIV had, ‘And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans.’
I like that word ‘babble.’ However, no one knows what the Greek word that it translates really means. John Stott says this is the only place this Greek word is used in the Bible, and it isn’t found anywhere else in Greek literature. It looks like Matthew invented it! Words are invented all the time, so it wouldn’t be so strange if Matthew had invented it.
Why should we not babble? I can think of two forms of babbling. One kind of babbling is when words are just mechanical. We reel off a formal prayer without thinking at all about what we’re saying. Our minds and mouths are disconnected. Memorized prayers can lose their meaning because we have said them so many times. That can even happen to the Lord’s Prayer!
Another kind of babbling is when we think we need to use lots of words. Perhaps a similar thing is the idea that, in order for prayer to be effective, we need to mobilize a huge number of people to pray. It’s certainly good if God’s people are united in prayer. And we want to pray in faith. But there is nothing to indicate that the sheer number of people who are praying will make a difference, any more than the number of words we use.
When I was preparing this talk, I came across a story which expressed the idea really well. A man’s daughter was injured in a road accident. She was in a coma for many months. The man mobilized prayer support from all around the world. But eventually a friend told him that he didn’t need to batter at God’s door. God knew the need. So, the man just committed the situation into God’s hands. His daughter died, and he accepted it.
We don’t communicate better with God by using more words. God knows what we need before we even open our mouths.
THE CHRISTIAN PRAYER
'Pray then like this'
We are now going to go on to Jesus’ pattern for how a Christian should pray. Jesus starts off by saying (verse 9): ‘Pray then like this.’
This is a really basic point. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Pray this.’ He says, ‘Pray LIKE this.’ He’s not telling us to pray the Lord’s Prayer exactly as he gave it to us. He intends it to be a model, a pattern, for us to follow. My wife and I pray together every day. We use a few different patterns. Sometimes we use ‘STOP’, which stands for Sorry, Thank you, Others, Please. Sometimes we use ‘ACTS’, which stands for ‘Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.’ But the format we use most often is the Lord’s Prayer. It isn’t just because Jesus told us to follow this pattern. We both really like it.
You may not know that there are actually two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible. There’s one in Matthew and one in Luke, and they’re slightly different. It suggests that Jesus taught this prayer format on more than one occasion and used it as a pattern. He mixed things up a bit. We can do the same – that’s the idea of a pattern!
The prayer has six sections. The first three are related to God’s honour, God’s kingdom and God’s will. The second three are related to our needs, our forgiveness and our protection.
'Our father in heaven'
Jesus starts with ‘Our Father in heaven.’ You might think that we have the word ‘abba’ here. But we don’t. Matthew simply uses the Greek word for father, ‘pater.’ When I was young people would occasionally refer to their dads as ‘pater.’ I don’t think people use the word ‘pater’ now. However, whether it is abba or pater, the point is the same. Jesus is teaching us, his disciples, to relate to God as father. But we can’t stop there! Jesus continues. He says, ‘Our father IN HEAVEN.’ At one level, God is father. He’s with us; he lives us, just like I live with my wife and children. He is immanent – God with us. But God is also in heaven. He is transcendent – he transcends the limits of this material universe. It’s mind-boggling. God, who created the universe, is inviting us to address him as ‘father.’ That means that he sees his relationship to us as father. Human fathers are not always the greatest, but we know that a good father cares for his children. God is certainly a good father, and he certainly cares for us.
'Hallowed be your name'
Before we finish, I’m going to look at the first actual prayer in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘hallowed be your name.’
This phrase is a bit tricky for a lot of us. Firstly, we struggle with the word ‘hallowed.’ It isn’t a word we use very much in normal English. People occasionally talk about ‘hallowed ground’, but there aren’t many other situations in which we use the word. The word ‘hallowed’ sounds like ‘holy’, and it’s related to it. ‘To hallow’ can mean to make something holy, but here it means to respect or honour something as holy. Secondly, we struggle a bit with the phrase ‘your name.’ In the Bible ‘your name’ can mean simply, your name, such as Simon or Jane. It can mean ‘your reputation’, just as it can in normal English. God told Abraham, ‘I will … make your name great.’ Third, it can mean God. There’s a good example of that in John 17. In verse 6 Jesus says, ‘I have made YOUR NAME known to those whom you gave me from the world.’ That’s the way the NRSV translates it. But the Good News version simplifies it. It says, ‘I have made YOU known to those you gave me out of the world.’ I think that’s fine. When Jesus says ‘I have made YOUR NAME known’, he means, ‘I have made YOU known.’ ‘Your name’ is a way of referring to God. We find it all through the Bible.
So ‘hallowed be your name’ means to honour God as holy, to treat God with reverence and awe. How can we do that? There are lots of ways. When we listen to God, obey him, thank him, praise him and serve him, we honour God. If we take the Lord’s prayer as a pattern to follow, then when we pray, ‘hallowed be your name’, we can expand on it and pray for God’s name to be honoured in any of these ways. And note: ‘hallowed be your name’ is passive. It doesn’t tell us who should hallow God’s name. We should pray that we will honour God. But we can also pray that our church, our community, or our country will honour God.
Next week we’ll look at the remaining five sections of the prayer.