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And When You Pray: The Hardest Prayer to Pray

02 Jul

(a sermon for  July 2, 2017, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Matthew 6:9-13 and Colossians 1:9-14)

“Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Two brief sentences contained within a single verse of Matthew’s gospel that are considered by theologians and biblical scholars to be the second and third petitions of the Lord’s Prayer; and yet it’s a sentiment that just kind of flows together as one as we quickly repeat the words on any given Sunday morning (“thykingdomcomethywillbedoneonearthasitisinheaven”), to the point where we might not notice, much less wholly understand what we’re saying!  And that’s unfortunate, friends; because it’s precisely at this point in our praying the Lord’s Prayer that things, as they say, get real.

It has been aptly suggested that there are essentially three levels of prayer; and how and when you and I transition from one level to another says a great deal about our own personal and spiritual growth.  Now, the first level of prayer is very basic and, well, very self-oriented: these are prayers that we say quite naturally as children, and which sometimes continue on as adults; where God is the heavenly giver of all good things, and you and I are the ones placing the orders!  It’s “O Lord, please give me a pony!”  It’s “O God, I don’t ask you for very much, but could you please, please, please not let the teacher call on me today because I didn’t do my homework and I’m not prepared!”(That’s the kind of school prayer that will always be with us, friends!) It’s “O Lord, help me get this job today… let me get the car I really want at a price I can afford… please, God, won’t you make this person I’m about to ask out on a date say yes?”

And on it goes; not that it’s inherently wrong to pray these kind of prayers (sometimes they even work out!); it’s just that as we live and grow and reach a deeper understanding of God, we do begin to realize that prayers like that can be a little frivolous, not to mention materialistic; that God’s not to be seen as merely some cosmic Santa Claus, and that just maybe our prayers to our Lord really ought to be a little bigger than that.

And therein lay our transition to the second level of prayer.  We still ask for God to give us what we’re asking for, it’s just that now we’re asking for things like life and health and food; for comfort and healing and strength in the midst of sickness and sorrow; for insight and clarity in times of discernment; for the inspiration we need to make good and right decisions regarding employment, relationships or any other number of challenges we end up facing in this thing we call life.  We are literally and spiritually asking that God “give us this day our daily bread,” and by the way, we’re also praying that those around us might be given that bread as well.

I dare say that this “second” level of prayer is the place where the most of us dwell in our spiritual lives; and I do mean that as a compliment!  It’s the place where we are profoundly aware of God’s abiding presence in our daily lives; it’s where we begin to truly understand that God’s Holy Spirit is alive and moving in and through all his people in ways that are transformative and empowering;  it’s where we are moved to truly love our neighbors as ourselves; and it’s how we as the church are, as the Rev. John Dorhauer, our General Minister and President in the United Church of Christ, said in a speech yesterday at our General Synod in Baltimore, equipped to be “one of the greatest agents of social transformation that this world has ever known.”

The truth is that many of us, as we say in our communion liturgy this morning, who “confess Jesus as the Christ and who seek to follow Christ’s way,” might well spend the whole of our spiritual journeys at that level of prayer.  And that’s not a bad thing; I mean, there’s communion with our Lord, there’s great spiritual depth; it’s good and nurturing, and brings us hope, and comfort and strength.  And moreover, we discover that life is not all about us, but about reaching out to others in Jesus’ name, and seeking to live together in a just and loving community.

So spiritually speaking, you see, this second level of prayer is fineexcept…

… there’s this third level of prayer; a higher level, but one that’s more difficult. And it’s all summed up in what might be the hardest prayer of all to pray: those two simple and yet all-encompassing phrases, “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done, one earth as it is in heaven.”

Thy will be done! Think with me for a moment about the sheer weight such a prayer; for it represents the polar opposite of those level one, “give me what I ask for” prayers, in that God’s intent and desire for our lives and our are placed at the forefront rather than our requests and petitions; we’re not asking God to change his will, nor are we asking God to bless ours.  We are coming to the Lord God and saying, whatever you wish, whatever you desire, whatever you plan for my life and for this world, O God, so might it be according to your will!

The thing is, friends, we pray this prayer every Sunday and at nearly every gathering we have as God’s people:  “Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We know the sound and the flow of the words; but the question is, how many of us truly understand what that means?  How many of us are willing to give up the control that we at least like to think that we have over this life, and to surrender ourselves, our lives, the lives of those we love, and the well-being of our very world and willingly place it all in the hands of God; trusting God and God alone to care for us and bring us into his kingdom?   That’s what makes this the hardest prayer to pray; for in doing so you and I are forced to shed this notion, seemingly part of our human nature and reinforced again and again by the popular culture that we are so-called “self-made” men and women, and instead live wholly unto the truth that we are God’s children, precious and chosen, and subject to God’s will for our lives, and not our own.

“Your will be done on earth:” I love what the Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, has written about this particular petition of the Lord’s Prayer; he writes that these words bring us right back “to the pew where we sit, to the shop where we work, to the relationships where we struggle to be responsible, to the place where we try to serve.”  That’s because when we are faithfully living unto God’s will rather than our own, there is going to be a strong and essential connection between that decision and everything else we do here on earth. “A cry to the God of salvation leads us in God’s name to our neighbor in need” because, writes Long, “a plea for the heavenly God to save empowers to be earthly agents of reconciliation.”

To put this another way, for us to surrender our priorities to those of God doesn’t mean we’re surrendering altogether.  This is borne out of our text this morning from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, in which the Apostle, perhaps writing from prison and toward the end of his life, tells these newly minted Christians that “we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understand, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.”   Paul’s prayer for them is that they be filled with strength and joy and purpose and patience in their lives and living, bearing fruit “in every good work” even as they continue to grow “in the knowledge of God.”  Make no mistake; what Paul is saying here is that the spiritual journey begun by these believers in Colossae is only at its beginning, and likewise, their discipleship in doing the will of God in the name of Jesus Christ is a work in progress; much, as it turns out, like the kingdom of God itself!

There’s a reason, I believe, why those two petitions – “thy kingdom come,” and “thy will be done” – follow one another so closely in this prayer that Jesus teaches us to pray.  Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God are central to his message and “good news,” but if you read through the gospels, you’ll find that there’s this dichotomy of thought to what he says about that kingdom.  On the one hand, Jesus says again and again that the kingdom is already here in the midst of us, by virtue of Jesus himself; and yet Jesus also says that this promised kingdom will, but has yet to emerge in its fullness.  And so it is a work in progress, this blessed kingdom to come; and when you and I pray, “Your kingdom come,” we are also humbly and yet boldly praying that God’s will be done for the sake of that kingdom.  We are asking God to bring that kingdom to fruition; so that God’s reign of love and justice and peace and true prosperity will be extended to all of God’s children everywhere.  But above all, we are praying that this all important work of the kingdom might be furthered in and through you and me, so that God’s will might be wholly and wonderfully done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Anyone who’s ever had to do so, in any fashion, knows just how hard it is to “let it go.” As I alluded before, as people we’re simply not wired that way; even as we pray to God for life and health and food, even as we ask God to bless others in Jesus’ name it is tempting and much easier for us to try to keep our own handle on things.  But isn’t it also true that it’s when we do “let it go” that we’re enabled to truly experience the wonder and adventure of life?  I think of our children learning to ride a bicycle for the first time; how it was only when they decided to have us stop running beside them and let go of the bike they could experience the incredible sense of freedom that the two-wheeler could provide.  Or how it was, not too many years later, to let go of those same children so they might be able to build lives of their own as adults.  For that matter, how it felt for us to let go of old fears and apprehensions so that we might be ready to engage in the next great adventure that life sets before us! Indeed, so much of what makes life meaningful and fulfilling has to do with letting go with that which holds us back from being who we really are; and so it is with our walk with the Almighty. To release from our own grasp the need to do everything “our way” ultimately keeps us from living and walking in God’s way; and what an adventure we’d be missing!

For you see, for us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” not only shows forth our true allegiance to God in Christ, it also means that we are participating in the greatest adventure of all: the gospel’s good news that God’s kingdom is already at work among us and is coming, soon and very soon, in all its fullness.

And so let us not be afraid to pray this amazing, wonderful, utterly hard prayer that Jesus has taught us; placing ourselves and this world in God’s hands… for even now, and even right here, the kingdom comes!

And thanks be to God for it!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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