Last Christmas I received a gift which I have enjoyed more and more each day. Ben and Sarah and her family gave me an Amazon Echo Dot, which answers to the name of “Alexa.” It took a couple weeks to it get up and working but now I am reaping the benefits. For instance, when I ask for a weather report, I get an instant briefing for my locality. I can get news briefings, the word of the day, this day in history – all kinds of good things! I especially enjoy the link with Amazon Music so I can play albums and playlists. All I have to do is ask Alexa, who was at my beck and call, ready to do all that I command!
Sometimes I treat God the same way that I treat Alexa. “God, I have this problem. I’d like you to deal with for me.” “Lord, we need XYZ, can you get it for us!” Sometimes, if I’m feeling pious and polite, I would even say “please.”
Although not particularly reverent, there is some biblical warrant for prayers of this kind. Paul does instruct us to “let your request be known to God.” (Phil. 4.6). When I read the rest of the passage, I find there’s a little bit more to it. Taken in context, it reads: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
There is a lot of rich instruction in these verses, but my focus is on how I should approach God. Here, at the very least, I am taught that I should make requests with thanksgiving (acknowledgment of the Lord’s past blessings), trusting God for present and future needs.
When I turned to the Psalms, however, I see many times when the God-inspired writer boldly and bluntly pours out his hurts and needs before his God. So, among other varieties, there are Psalms of petition, penitence (repentance) and even frustration, when the author empties his emotions before the Lord in confusion and bewilderment. “Oh LORD, how long…? In all this, however, there is always a reference and recognition of the greatness and majesty of Almighty God.
There is one passage in the New Testament where God is directly addressed. It occurs in Luke 18.13: But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Even here respect for God is evident.
God is gracious and attuned to our prayers. He does hear and answer when we call out to him. This does not mean however he is pleased to hear us on our own terms, especially when we are rude or presumptuous. In fact, the Bible abounds with instruction regarding how we should address our God.
The Old Testament reflects great admiration and even fear in approaching God. This is not to say that there is not a closeness between the Lord and his people. There is! Further, there is a noticeable shift when we come to the New Testament. This is because Jesus has both modeled and instructed his people about approaching God as Father.
Jesus unashamedly and frequently spoke of God as his Father. He addressed him as Father, even holy Father. Jesus came to do his father’s will and not his own. In the garden of Gethsemane and facing the agony of the cross, he cried out, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” As readers, we are not surprised that Jesus, the Son of God, should address the Almighty as Father.
We should be amazed, however, that Jesus instructed us at his followers to address God in such a familial way. But he did. Matthew’s gospel reports an extended teaching session of Jesus, frequently called The Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus instructs his followers how to pray. After several teaching points, he states, “Pray like this…” He goes on to give what we call the Lord’s prayer. Again in Luke’s gospel, after his disciples have observed him, praying they ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus responds, “when you pray, say…”
So, the Lord’s prayer occurs in two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke. It is called the Lord’s prayer, not because he prayed it, but because he gave it to his followers. It is his gift to us.
Although I grew up with this prayer I don’t recall ever praying it in the worship services of our church. We avoided anything that could be seen as liturgical, although we had an “order of worship”, which never varied – never varied. The extemporaneous prayers seemed to be predictable and repeated week after week. At the same time, each school day began with a brief Bible reading and a reciting of the Lord’s prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. Things were different in public schools (back then!). It was not until I was in college and attending the college church that I was introduced to the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed as an element in public worship. Nevertheless, everyone knew about the Lord’s Prayer, even if we didn’t utilize it.
Various theological and historical reasons have been offered in defense of avoiding the use of The Lord’s Prayer. One of the most popular is that prayers which are offered repetitively become meaningless. That is, rote prayers are not thoughtful (thought-out) and become empty words.
But to me, none of these objections supersede the clear instruction of the Lord Jesus to his disciples: “When you pray, say…” And “Pray like this…”
“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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:7–13, ESV)
Jesus has given us both a prayer to be prayed in the pattern to be used for praying. For the next several blog posts, The Lord’s Prayer will be our subject.
I think there is great wisdom in repetitive elements in worship. Chiefly, the so-called rote saying of the Lord’s Prayer and even the Apostles’ Creed, become ingrained in our memory. This is a very good thing. There are many times in life when trauma, fatigue, confusion, medicine and other factors cloud our memory and thinking. At such times, I have found a great comfort to draw upon these precious treasures. I can be assured that Jesus is pleased when he hears me pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Alexa may entertain me, but only God, my Father, will sustain me. Join me in calling out to him using the words that Jesus taught us.