How many of you have read any of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia books? I recently read one of the lesser known books in the series, The Horse and His Boy. The boy is a young slave named Shasta, who is running away to the land of Narnia. At one point he finds himself alone, traveling through the woods in a strange place, struggling in cold, dark, and windy conditions. While Shasta has time to think and dwell on his circumstances, he starts to cry and feel sorry for himself, even complaining out loud. He says, “I do think that I must be the most unfortunate boy that ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me.” Have you ever felt that way? Sure, we all have.
In Shasta’s case, while he complains in the cold and dark, he is startled to hear the sound of heavy breathing alongside him. He had already braved two lion attacks and knew some nasty giants were in the area, so this new threat terrified him. Lewis writes, “Now that he really had something to cry about, he stopped crying.” What happens next is a conversation between Shasta and what he calls the Large Voice. At one point, Shasta says, “You’re not – not something dead, are you? Oh, please – please do go away. What harm have I ever done to you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world!”
After recounting all the reasons why he has suffered to think himself unlucky, the Large Voice disagrees. Then the voice declares that he himself was behind all of Shasta’s unfortunate circumstances, but then he shows how those were to help Shasta along. Then the voice reveals himself, saying, “I was the lion,” the one behind the attacks and many other events in Shasta’s life. C. S. Lewis describes what happened next:
Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, not that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him: Yet he felt glad too…A golden light fell on [him] from the left. He thought it was the sun. He turned and saw, pacing beside him, taller than the horse, a Lion…It was from the Lion that the light came. No one ever saw anything more terrible or beautiful….The High King above all kings stooped toward him. Its mane, and some strange and solemn perfume that hung about the mane, was all round him. It touched his forehead with its tongue. He lifted his face and their eyes met. Then instantly the pale brightness of the mist and the fiery brightness of the Lion rolled themselves together into a swirling glory and gathered themselves up and disappeared. He was alone with the horse on a grassy hillside under a blue sky. And there were birds singing.
Shasta’s encounter with the Lion – Aslan, the King of kings – did not so much change his circumstances as it did his perspective on them. He no longer felt sorry for himself and looked at his misfortunes in a different light. This is a beautiful picture of what happens when we encounter God through prayer. Encountering God through prayer changes us. With that in mind, turn in your Bibles to Matthew 6. Our text for today is verse 9, but we will set the stage by reading verses 5-9. If you recall Pastor Mark’s previous messages on the Sermon on the Mount, then that’s good, because this is still that same sermon from Jesus! It actually spans three chapters in Matthew’s gospel. We’re beginning a series that examines what we know as The Lord’s Prayer. About this prayer, Warren Wiersbe writes, “This prayer is known familiarly as ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ but ‘The Disciples’ Prayer’ would be a more accurate title.” It was designed for us, Jesus’ disciples, to be a guide for how to pray. Follow along now as I read Matthew 6:5-9.
5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
And this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Be sure to avoid prayer pitfalls
The start of Jesus’ instructions are more on what not to do. We have to be sure to avoid prayer pitfalls. You might have guessed this already, but when Jesus says hypocrites, he was referring mostly to Pharisees. Then again, some people undoubtedly watched them and tried to copy their loud prayers. I don’t even think Jesus is coming down on the people for this. Their main, public example of prayer came from people who loudly prayed to gain attention.
So what is the first piece of advice? Don’t put on a show. I remember when I was in high school and college looking for that special someone. Every now and then I met a girl and was sure she was the one. I had to get her attention. Make her like me. So what would I do? If she and I were in a room full of people, it was too intimidating to actually talk to her. But what I could do was talk to other people near her and loudly try to sound witty or funny or smart. It looked like I was talking to one person, but if you were observing me, I was really trying to put on a show for my hoped-for soul mate. Do you remember doing that sort of thing? It sounds a little silly. This is exactly what the hypocrites would do that Jesus mentions. But for them it was not just silly; it was sinful. In speaking to God himself, they were really ignoring God and trying to impress people. God was just a stepping stone for social capital.
The next prayer pitfall is a warning to not forget something important. Do pray privately. If we are going to pray – if we are going to connect with God like Shasta did with Aslan – we need to set aside time involving just God and us. Jesus uses a special word for room that meant store room. In many cases it was the only room in the house where a person could go and shut the door. It often contained more valuable items, so it was an inner room, away from all the fuss. It was where a person could find alone time with God. Most of us don’t have to go to the storage room, but we do need to find that space where we can get alone. It reminds me of War Room, where a bedroom closet was cleaned out and dedicated for the purpose of prayer. The point is less about a closed door and more about an opportunity to get alone with God. Maybe that’s a closet, or maybe it’s your living room at 5:00 a.m. But do pray privately.
You might wonder why Jesus doesn’t want us to pray publicly. Actually, he does want us to, but in this case, he is addressing private prayer. Public prayer is important, and we have many recorded public prayers in the Bible. If you are following Jesus’ advice, then, you will be sure to pray privately always, even if you pray publicly sometimes. Private precedes public.
Jesus provides one more pitfall to avoid: Don’t be too wordy. Jesus mentions babbling pagans who thought their abundance of words would increase their chances of answered prayer. This is what the Stoic philosopher Seneca spoke against, saying people were “fatiguing the gods” (Epistulae Morales 31.5). Some would mention the names of several gods in hopes of landing on the right one who would answer. They would tell of the favors they had done for God to persuade him to answer. There was a belief in a magical formula of words – sometimes these were literally babbled syllables – that would cause God to answer. Other times, they vainly repeated phrases in hopes of convincing an answer to prayer. This was also practiced by the Jews, many of whom recited eighteen formal prayers three times a day. God isn’t fatigued by our many words, but he isn’t impressed by them, either. Jesus tells us that God already knows what we need before we ask him.
By the way, long prayers are okay, but excessively wordy prayers are not. We can and should have times of concentrated, focused, persistent, and even lengthy prayers. The point in all of these is that we must pray with sincerity. Wiersbe writes, “With some people, praying is like putting the needle on a phonograph record and then forgetting about it. But God does not answer insincere prayers.” Think about it. When someone has a request that they bring to you, do you want a lot of empty words and flattery? No, you want a simple request from someone who trusts you and has come to you for help in some way. “I hear you are good with spreadsheets, and I wanted to see if you could give me some help,” they might say. Sure, you are happy to help. You don’t them to come up here, push me out of the way, and go on a long diatribe: “Wherefore the spreadsheet hath met its highest fulfillment in thee and thine own fingers worketh wonders in it, and knowing mine own faithfulness to thyself, I hereby acknowledge and request thine assistance – which will be of inestimable value – on these pivot tables, which utterly vex me!” We don’t want that. Jesus reminds us to simply come to God with sincerity.
Be sure to start prayers right
At this point, Jesus tells us how to pray. We will look at the first part, meaning we want to start our prayers in the right way. There is a difference between how you should pray and what you should pray. What Jesus has given the church is a beautiful example prayer mainly for private use. What we have done with it is made it an exact prayer mainly for public use. Imagine for a moment how poor we would be if our God did not take the time to show us how to pray. The sheer fact that God the Son taught the disciples how to petition God the Father is one that should cause sheer delight! It has been recorded in God’s word for our benefit today, along with examples from the written prayers of many saints. This tells us that right prayer practices matter to God. At first glance that might seem like an affront to our own individualism, a violation that our expressions to God be forced into some kind of mold. But no, God has given us the structure of a trellis that our vine of prayer can climb and blossom and thrive. It allows us to rise higher in our prayer life than could be accomplished on our own. The instructions reveal God’s care for prayer, whereas a lack of instruction would convey indifference to our requests. If God did not care much for our prayers, he wouldn’t bother giving us instructions on them.
But doesn’t God delight in any heartfelt prayer from us? Yes, he certainly does, yet we can fully appreciate the need to grow in our prayer life as we mature in Christ. Our prayers should reflect an ever-deepening understanding of God, how he operates in our lives, our faith in him, and our deepening relationship with him. A parallel is the parent’s willingness to listen to the whiny expressions of a two-year-old, while holding the ten-year-old to a higher standard. The older, more mature children ought to know how to express themselves with a little more composure and understanding of the world around them.
Talk to God as our Father who loves us
The first step to starting right in prayer is to talk to God as our Father who loves us. Jesus did not begin with the generic title for God. No, he called him Father. This ran contrary to prayer practices of the time. People didn’t think to address God in this way. If you look into the Old Testament, there are many references to God as our Father.
- Isa 63:16 “For you are our Father…you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from old is your name.”
- Deut 32:6 “Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?”
- Mal 2:10 “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?” God declares himself Father of the king,
- 2 Sam 7:14, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son,” even declaring it in adoptive terms in
- Ps 2:7, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’”
- And Ps 68:5 “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.”
Why is it significant to call God Father? It establishes that we belong to God as his creation. Isa 64:8 “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” There is a direct link established regarding our utter dependence upon God to mold and shape us, directing our very purpose in life. We seek what he wants of us and try to fulfill it, knowing that in that we will find the most satisfaction in life. In our culture today we often seek fulfillment first and then try to see how we might fit God’s plans in along the way. But how many times to we pursue something that we think will bring happiness only to find it empty and unfulfilling? Why then would we attempt to find our purpose and fulfillment outside of God?
Martin Manser notes several implications of our understanding of God as our Father.
- He is both our Creator and provider (1 Cor 8:6; Acts 17:24-28).
- He shows love and compassion (Hos 11:1; Ps 103:13; Jer 3:19; 2 Cor 1:3);
- He exercises his providence and care (Ps 68:5; Mt 6:26, 31-33; Lk 12:29-31; Mt 7:11; Lk 11:13);
- He disciplines and corrects (Dt 8:5; Prov 3:11-12; Heb 12:5-6);
- He has an intimate relationship with believers (Mt 6:9; Lk 11:2; Jn 20:17; 2 Cor 6:18; Gal 3:26; 1 Jn 2:13);
- He adopts believers into his family (Jn 1:12-13; Rom 8:14-17; Gal 4:5-7; 1 Jn 3:1).
Furthermore, Manser notes the results found in us:
- In terms of character, children are to reproduce the Father’s likeness, Mt 5:48;
- there is unity, as one Father means one family (Eph 4:3-6; Mal 2:10; Mt 23:9; Eph 3:14-15);
- we are related to Jesus Christ (Mt 12:50; Mk 3:35; Lk 8:21; Rom 8:29; Heb 2:11);
- and heirs of the Father’s kingdom (Rom 8:17; Lk 12:32; Gal 3:29; Col 1:12; Tit 3:7);
- and we believers are to revere the Father (1 Pet 1:17; Mt 6:9; Lk 11:2; Eph 3:14)
Imagine if Jesus had addressed God merely as creator or judge or ruler or king. The portrait of our relationship with the Father would be vastly different! Instead we are provided a term that is less a title as it is a relationship. And we relate to God as we would to a father. While God is father to all in a universal sense as our Creator, he specially adopted us to be his children when we came to saving faith in him through Christ. That requires a willful, binding initiative on God’s part for us.
Many of us have had excellent earthly fathers, which leads to a natural, loving connection with the idea of God as our heavenly Father. Some, however, have experience primarily pain through their earthly fathers. When they hear of God as their Father, they are more likely to recoil than rejoice. But there is a seed of hope even here. Their own experiences inform what a father shouldn’t be, which highlights some concept of a father who is very much unlike what they experienced. In that is a ray of hope for them to understand God as the Father they should have had; more to the point, he is the Father they do have if they have come to saving faith. The adoption of Christians by God is the key to understanding this transition from an evil father – the devil – the loving Father – God.
In the foreword to Russel Moore’s Adopted for Life, C. J. Mahaney writes, “I was adopted when I was eighteen years old. I wasn’t an orphan, the way most people think of that term. I wasn’t an abandoned child. But I was in a condition far more serious: I was a stranger to the family of God, a slave to sin, and an object of the justified wrath of God…And if you are a Christian, if you have trusted in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross for your sins, you too have been adopted. It would have been extraordinary enough for God simply to redeem us, to forgive our sins, to declare us righteous. But he does not stop here – he makes us his children (Gal. 4:4-7). Christian, if you have ever wondered whether God loves you, wonder no longer.” This should comfort all of us, regardless of how good our earthly father is or was. For those with negative experiences, consider that there is more than one spiritual father mentioned in the Bible. Satan is the father of all those who do not belong to Christ. As Russell Moore puts it, “Our birth father has fangs.” So talk to your adopted Father, who loves you.
Remember God’s position in heaven
When we pray we must also remember God’s position in heaven. Switching from God as our Father, Jesus declares that he is in heaven. Having both Father and in heaven right next to each other produces a wonderful result. Thomas Tehan and David Abernathy write, “
[T]here is a combination of intimacy and immanence as well as of God’s transcendence. It reveals a dramatic new relationship made possible between God and people and reminds us of the nature of our relationship to God. There is a mixture of confidence in God as Father and of humility and reverence as the one in heaven. As Father, God is concerned for the needs of his children, and as the one in heaven he is all-powerful to meet those needs. The believer prays with confidence because God as Father is willing to hear, and with humility because God is in heaven and has the right and power to answer. 
We pray knowing that God is in heaven. That’s his location. Us? We are on earth. That means God’s perspective is infinitely greater than ours; his authority outstrips ours; his control supersedes our own; his strength outmatches ours; his abilities outshine ours. A prayer with this included will acknowledge the precedence of God’s prerogative and not our own. We pray dependent on God and his own divine prerogative. It is easy to tell God what we need and try to make God understand what is best, but God doesn’t need our input on this. As our loving Father, he wants to know our heart, but as God in heaven he already knows. He is sovereign; he is in charge. When it comes to God, Father really does know best.
Karen and I just returned from an amazing trip to Germany. We were part of the Land of Luther Study Tour, retracing events in Martin Luther’s life that led to the Protestant Reformation. October 31 will be the 500 year anniversary of the start of that, and I will be leading a series counting down to that date to help us see the significance of that. Stay tuned there. We visited the town of Eisleben, where Luther died on February 18, 1546. He was traveling away from his wife, and his health was in decline. It’s possible that he had suffered a heart attack already. When his wife, Katie, heard about this, she wrote to him with concern and wanted to make sure he was well cared for. Luther’s reply – probably aware that he was nearing the end of his life – included these words. “I have a caretaker who is better than you and all the angels; he lies in a manger and nurses at his mother’s breast, yet he sits at the right hand of God, the Almighty Father.” Luther knew the heavenly throne of God was one to be trusted. At the end of her own life, also realizing the divine perspective of God in heaven, Katie Luther wrote to a friend, “I will cling to Christ like a burr on a dress.” God on his throne in heaven is our ultimate caretaker.
Put a priority on God’s holiness
We have seen thus far that God is our Father and that he is sovereign. The final words we’ll look at today emphasize God’s holiness. “Hallowed be your name.” When we pray, we must put a priority on God’s holiness. The way this phrase is constructed is a direct parallel to “your kingdom come” and to “your will be done.” These make up a trio of requests. Taken together, these align the one praying with the holiness, glory, and will of God. Before any personal request is even made, a request for God’s glory is made. Or for the maturing Christian, the first personal requests express one’s heart for God’s holiness, glory, and will above all else. Martin Lloyd Jones shares, “It expresses a deep desire for the honor and glory of God, such that the whole world would bow in adoration before God.” H. M. Ridderboss states that this request “expresses the desire that God’s honor and glory would shine forth undimmed throughout his entire creation world.” I am reminded of a practice that some people have suggested at our church fellowship meals, which will be starting again very soon. The suggestion is to eat dessert first. I’ve heard some say that if for some reason you were to die before the meal was over, you at least got to enjoy dessert. Don’t save the best for last in case you can’t enjoy it. It’s the same idea for this prayer. It’s saying, “If I only get the first few words of my prayer out, I am going to make sure I pray for God’s holiness to be made known.”
Jesus mentions God’s name being holy, but this is a way of saying every part of who God is. God’s holiness is described as “the quality…that sets him utterly apart from his world, especially in terms of his purity and sanctity.” God’s nature is holy. God’s dwelling-place is holy. His character his holy. His word is holy, and he himself is uniquely holy above all else. We find holiness in his righteous action. We see it in his patience and love and provision and blessing. His holiness impacts our worship. And it reveals our sin. When we pray for God’s name to be made holy, we are requesting that his existing holiness would be evident throughout the cosmos and among the peoples, and we start firstly with our own awareness. If we want to pray for God’s holiness to be known in the world, we had better start with ourselves.
We don’t make God holy. We become aware of his holiness.
On Monday our country found itself in the path of an extraordinary astronomical event. As you are aware, there was a total solar eclipse. The moon passed directly in front of the sun and provided the opportunity to see something very rare. We start using odd, uncommon terms like penumbra and path of totality. In order to view a solar eclipse, you have to be in the right spot. Some of you traveled to get there and see the rare site that no photograph could ever fully convey. It has to be experienced in person and at a very specific location.
When you think about it, the Lord’s Prayer is a lot like a solar eclipse. We have to put ourselves in the right position to experience God in his glory as our Father, in heaven, petitioning an awareness of his utter holiness. When we do, we see something beautiful, much more beautiful than a total eclipse. More beautiful even than C. S. Lewis could describe when he mentioned the “swirling glory” of the pale mist and fiery brightness of Aslan. We encounter God in prayer, and when we do, it changes us. It changes us because we see who he is more clearly, which allows us to see ourselves in light of God’s fatherhood, sovereignty, and holiness. So as we launch this series on prayer, I’ll ask you this. Are you encountering God in this way? Have your prayers become dry? Stale? Infrequent? Are you ready for a change? Perhaps it’s time to renew your prayer life. For some, you have never experienced this sort of prayer, because you have never truly been adopted by God as your heavenly Father. To do that, you only need to pray simply, like this. “God, I want you to be my Father, not the devil. I turn from everything that holds me back and trust in Jesus to save me from my sin. Amen.”
 Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).
 Russell D. Moore, Adopted for Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009), 12.
 Ibid, 28.
 Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).