Do our prayers sound like the Lord’s prayer? Notice I am not asking if we pray the Lord’s Prayer itself, but rather if our prayers reflect it. Jesus did not say “pray this,” but rather “pray in this way.” Do our prayer requests sound like the requests found in the Lord’s prayer?
In twenty-three years as a pastor, having received many prayer requests, and having attended many prayer meetings, the number one prayer concern that has shown up is for good health. This is not surprising as health is so important. Surprising, however, is that though Jesus was known for healing many, many people, when he taught us to pray, he did not teach us to pray for good health!
What are the first prayer requests Jesus put before us to pray about?
hallowed be your name.Matthew 6:9-10 (NRSV)
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
We may find that our prayers often begin from a self-centred place. Indeed we might not even feel like praying until something happens to us that causes us to go looking for help. It is not wrong to pray out of our needs, for the Psalmists often do, therefore we are in good company. We cannot pray, however, as Jesus taught us to pray and stay in a self-centred place. When we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, we learn to focus on God and God’s agenda for the world.
What does that agenda look like? What does it look like when God’s will is being done? The Bible teaches us what life in the Kingdom looks like. Let us take just two examples:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.Amos 5:21-24 (NRSV)
In the kingdom of God, people experience justice and righteousness. Far too many empires have been marked by the opposite.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’Matthew 25:34-40 (NRSV)
In the kingdom of God, even those considered as “the least” are valued and helped. Far too many empires have oppressed their people rather than helped.
We sometimes have a negative reaction to the idea of a “kingdom.” We want democracy! In Bible times, however, a kingdom was considered a good thing, a safe place. You did not want to find yourself on your own, defenceless against marauders who lusted after your possessions, your land, and your family members. You wanted to belong to a people who could stick together and be stronger together. It was even better if the people you belonged to had a good army, and a good king. The king of a kingdom was supposed to take care of the people and ensure their safety. In fact kings in ancient times were often referred to as shepherds.
In the Kingdom of God, people are taken care of. God is our shepherd. There is a good king indeed, one who is concerned for the welfare of his people.
We cannot pray as Jesus taught us to pray and stay in a self-centred place. We will focus on God’s kingdom and the good king’s love for all kingdom people. We will focus on others, and God’s concern for them.
If there is a focus on self here as we pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it is on how we might be part of the problems of this world, rather than the solutions. It is on how we might be supporting the empires of this world, rather than advancing the Kingdom of God. Let us consider these words from the Apostle Paul:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.Romans 12:2 (NRSV)
There is a word for being transformed in one’s mind: repentance. The New Testament Greek word behind our English word “repentance” literally means to have a change of mind.
Did you know that repentance can become self-centred? It becomes self-centred when our line of thinking is nothing but “I repent so that I can go to heaven.” Such assumes that the greatest problem to be solved is the disruption in my relationship with God, which will negatively impact my future. It is all about me.
Repentance runs much deeper than that. It is not just about negative consequences of sin for ourselves. Let us read again the passage from Amos above and consider how the injustice and unrighteousness was negatively impacting others. Let us read again the passage from Matthew 25 above and recognise the potential for positive and negative impact on others. Repentance is part of a growing relationship with God, yes, but it is also about leaving behind the old ways of empire and their negative consequences in the lives of others, to live instead in God’s kingdom ways, which have positive consequences. Repentance is not just about me getting to heaven, but about God, through me, making life a little more heavenly for everyone around me.
When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” we will want to be aware of the old empire ways which harm others. When we do go to a self-focused place, we will consider if we are living in old empire ways, we will consider our impact on others. We do not want to stand in the way of God’s coming kingdom. Far from standing in the way of the experience of God’s kingdom, we will be ambassadors for God’s Kingdom.
Jesus became for us the ultimate example of living out the prayer, of becoming the answer to the prayer for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done. Jesus’ life was an example of helping people, until of course his kingdom principles got him into trouble with the empires of the world, the Jewish leadership, and the Roman leadership, each trying to protect their own interests, each seeking to advance their own agendas. Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, on the night he had to decide between fighting the bullies, or flight from them, said “not my will, but thy will be done.” He chose the cross.
At the cross we saw how things work on earth. We saw how empires work. We saw the best man the world has ever known beaten up, mocked, and crucified as empires tried to hold onto their power. At the cross we also saw the ultimate example of things happening on earth as they do in heaven. We saw, and still see today, God’s love and grace overwhelming the powers of hatred. At the cross we saw an answer to the prayer “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As we learn to pray that prayer, we will learn to pick up our cross and follow.