Sermon by Request #1 - The Lord's Prayer

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Today’s sermon is based on one the Bible studies I did last year, since one of you asked that I translate some of those into sermons. Since this is the beginning of the year, I thought I would start with something easy and familiar, the Lord’s Prayer. It appears in two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke. We just heard the Matthew version. This is one part of scripture that most Christians have memorized. That is good, but it also means that we don’t give much thought to what we are saying when we recite it. We go into automatic mode, and miss some of its more subtle and deeper meanings. So today, I want to take a good look at it, line by line, and talk about what it meant back then, and what it can mean for us now.  

Let’s start with the first section. “Our Father, who art in heaven. “

So, we start in heaven, where God lives. Things are good in heaven.   There is justice and joy. Then, after this preamble, the prayer asks for the goodness of heaven to come down to earth. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.” So, after addressing God and establishing that God is sacred, hallowed, the prayer makes its first request – please make the Earth more like heaven. Ok, so how should that happen? In the rest of the Bible, we hear that one day in the future, Jesus will come down to Earth on a cloud to initiate the judgement of the living and the dead, and then will make a new heaven and a new Earth. That’s one way heaven will come down to Earth. But is that what happens in the Lord’s prayer?  

No, instead, the next line is this one: “Give us this day our daily bread.”  

Very down to Earth. Basic survival. Give me food. Straight out of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where the first need is physiological. Don’t let me starve, give me food today. No Jesus on a cloud, but a request for food. That’s our hint that in the Lord’s Prayer, if earth is going to be more like heaven, that change is going to happen within us, the people who are praying. And we will need to be fed properly to do that.

The next line is also very earthbound. “And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors”    

Money. Back then, like now, lots of people were in deep debt. The Romans were overtaxing the people.   They taxed the land you owned, the animals you had in the stable, and the people, too. Very easy to get in debt, and so people borrowed money from each other. So, the prayer’s second earthly request is about debt.

The third request is about temptation. “And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.”  

What kind of temptation? Not much in life has changed. Back then people could be tempted to have sex with someone other than their partner, or to steal from someone, especially if they were struggling financially.   Christ is addressing people who are mostly poor farmers and fishermen and housewives, living on the edge. The temptation to get a little more pleasure or physical goods was high.  

So, when people first heard this prayer that Jesus suggested, He spoke in terms they could understand. Food, Money, Sex. Temptation. Real down to Earth stuff. In fact, not much has changed. Studies today find that the top things that couples argue about are sex, money and how to communicate. [1] In murder investigations, the top motives still include lust, money and hatred, which is a failure to forgive. [2] Like the people who heard this prayer, we are still struggling with these same basic problems.  

Jesus is a brilliant teacher because he always starts right where people are, but He doesn’t stay there. The whole point of this prayer is the wish that Earth could be made more like heaven in our lives. So, Jesus starts with three things we know well, but He doesn’t stop there. Take a look at the second line: “And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors;”  

The debts of others is easy to understand. But how can we owe God money? That makes no sense. So whatever debt means here, it must be something else when talking about our relationship to God. That same ambiguity applies to the daily bread we’re to ask for. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says these words just before he gives the sermon on the Mount. In that famous sermon, he says: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air: they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matthew 6:25-34).  

Jesus is saying that if God feeds the birds, God will feed you. They don’t ask to be fed, you don’t need to ask, either. Throughout the Bible, God makes it clear that the Earth has been set up so everyone will be fed, whether they believe in God or not. When God replies to Job, he says who are you to question my decisions? Are you the one who feeds the ravens when they cry (Job 38:41), do you feed the lions ( Job 38:39)?  

In the Bible, God will feed everyone, so there is no point in asking for our daily bread in the Lord’s prayer. The final clue about what is going on comes from the Last Supper. Remember that Jesus said to his disciples that after his death each time they eat bread, they should remember Him. The bread is symbolic of the spirit and wisdom of Christ. That’s what is happening in the Lord’s prayer. The gospel was written around the year 85. Everyone hearing it had been taking communion for years. They know that when Christians hear the word bread, it doesn’t just mean physical bread, it also means spiritual bread, the spirit and wisdom we get from Christ.    

This prayer is about helping us to change how we live so our lives can be better, and the lives of everyone around us can be better. To make earth a bit more like heaven. That sounds like a tall order. We are all creatures of habit, and habits are hard to change. This is the 8 th of January, and some of you may have made new year’s resolutions. How are those going, eight days in? Anyone make any, show of hands? In the chat people said x, y, and z. Studies have found that the top new year’s resolutions are exercising more, eating less or better, and saving or making more money and going on trips. [3] Studies have also found that most people fail to live up to their resolutions. By March, most people have failed. Making new habits is hard even when it is something as simple as going to the gym or eating fewer desserts. In The Lord’s Prayer, we are asking to make Earth more like heaven, an even taller order. So how do we do that?  

God is a very good psychologist. God knows how humans behave better than anyone. So, the very first thing this prayer asks for is strength. Strength to behave differently. Give us this day, every day, spiritual bread, spiritual strength to change our ways.  

Next, the prayer talks about our debts. Not just financial debts. The prayer asks God to forgive us our debts to God. That can’t mean money. At the end of the prayer, Matthew has inserted this line, so we don’t get confused: For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. The debts are not primarily financial in the Lord’s prayer, they are moral. They refer to sins, trespasses.  

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us – that is what the debts line really means. As Jesus often does, he uses everyday language and concerns, like food and money, to talk about deeper levels of meaning. In this case, debts are sins. But the thing about debts and sins is that they are always in the past. We can only forgive people for what they have already done. So, this line is saying, if you are going to make your life better, like a new year’s resolution, you are going to have to let go of things in the past that are holding you back. In a new year’s resolution, you have to make a break with the bad habits of the past – give up the smoking, the drinking, the spending money on things you can’t afford. To go forward, you can’t let the past rule you. In moral terms, to go forward, we need to let those grudges go from the past. If we can forgive those who have sinned against us, then God will forgive us for the ways we have acted badly. That’s part of what it means to bring heaven down to earth. We need to be forgiving the way God is forgiving. We need to stop dragging the bitter past into the present. Ok, so give us this day the spiritual strength we need to make our lives better, help us let us let go of bad habits and grudges from the past.  

Next: lead us not into temptation. Temptation is always about a future act. We may feel temptation in the present, but the act will happen in the future. Give us the spiritual strength to resist making our future look like our past.   Note that the prayer in this more symbolic reading is all about what happens in our head and hearts. Give us spiritual strength to stop ruminating about the past, and help us as we struggle in our minds with the temptation to do something unwise.   The Lord’s prayer sounds like it is about concrete earthbound things – bread, money, sex, and other temptations. But the way we change our lives starts inside us, in how we think and feel. It is really a very psychological prayer. It knows that to make Earth more like heaven means getting our minds into a more heavenly state. Thoughts and feelings come first, then action.  

Give me that spiritual bread every day because I am going to struggle with my past every day, and I will struggle with temptation every day. Most people don’t find the willpower to follow through on new year’s resolutions. The Lord’s Prayer understands that and says, if you want to change, you will need help. There’s only one condition: that you follow God’s lead. Be more heavenly in your head. Be forgiving, even when that feels like the hardest thing in the world. It will not be easy. That’s why you need to ask for help, every single day. That is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that you are ready to join God is trying to bring a little bit of heaven down here to Earth. It can be done. God’s will can be done, on earth as in heaven, and it starts with each one of us. And God will help us do it. If we can adopt new habits on our own, using our own willpower, imagine how much more can be done if we ask for God’s help. And God wants to help us.  

We just have to ask.