To learn to pray, know who you're praying to
Colossians 2: 6-15, Luke 11:1-13
These 13 verses, just 260 words in total, are Jesus’ direct response to the disciples’ direct request, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. And we know his response well.
And it’s interesting to notice how Jesus chooses to reply.
Sure, he gives us some words to use when we pray, but he spends more time telling us about the God that we are praying to.
It’s as if he’s saying that we can spend all our time getting the right words in the right order, but if we‘re not clear who it is that we are offering those words to, and what he will do with them, our prayers might well be misdirected.
If, for instance, we thought that God was basically angry, and that we needed to constantly placate him and please him, our prayer life might end up being full of grovelling, and we might feel we need to constantly be on the watch for divine punishment.
Or if we thought that God is pretty remote from day to day life, off in his heavenly study somewhere and best not disturbed because of all the weighty stuff on his mind, we might become self-reliant, not wanting to bother him, and we might end up not praying much at all.
Or, if we thought God was interested in holy stuff - like church and vicars and bible study, but not in the things we do at home, at work or out in the community, we might think that praying is only for ‘holy’ people, and that we should only really do it for an hour on Sunday.
Or if we thought God might be there, but that he might not, we might find our prayers were infrequent and hesitant and largely concerned with things that don’t matter that much anyway.
If you want to learn how to pray, you need to know who you’re praying to.
And so Jesus, in his utterly brilliant way, when asked ‘teach us to pray’, answers both questions at the same time. How do we pray and who are we praying to?
And it’s the latter that I want to concentrate on just now. Not so much, what does Jesus tell us about how to pray, but what he says about who we’re praying to, and what He’s like.
Here are four things that Jesus tells us, in those 13 verses, about the God we are invited to pray to:
That he is an intimate Father; that he is holy and other; that he is a generous provider, that he welcomes our shameless persistence.
First that he is an intimate Father. Abba is the word that Jesus uses when he says ‘Our Father’. It’s not used anywhere else in the bible about God. The closest we have is the word Daddy or Dad. That’s how Jesus addressed his Father and his invitation is for us to do the same.
Maybe you had, or have, a great Dad, and the idea of God as Abba is a delight. Maybe your relationship with your Father was more mixed, or difficult, and the idea of God as Dad is harder. But God, Jesus tells us, sets the standard for Fatherhood. He is everything a Father should be.
So God, Abba, Dad, is involved and engaged, known and knowable. He is a father who keeps us safe, who cares about us and for us, who picks us up when we fall, who sits alongside us when we’re unwell, who mops our brow and wipes our tears. He has endless patience and is ready to listen when we babble about our excitements, wrestle with our questions and pour out our hearts with our sorrows.
He’s a father who teaches, who wants us to grow up with the resources we need to live well. He’s proud of us, and is always looking for reasons to say ‘well done’, ‘great job’, ‘I love you.’
He’s always available. Always present. He is Abba. Dad, daddy. He is our intimate Father.
And, second, He is also holy and other. After acknowledging him as Dad, we’re to pray, ‘Hallowed be your name’. Hallowed, means ‘holy’. Set aside. Different. God is present and intimately involved, but he’s also entirely beyond and utterly other. He is not tame and ‘nice’ and he’s not like us. He’s holy, dangerous, pure power, dazzling light, overwhelming glory. He is awesome in wonder, majestic in splendour and everything in heaven and earth belongs to him.
Intimate and holy. Present and beyond. Abba and Almighty.
That’s who we pray to.
Third, he is a generous provider. We are to ask for three things to happen, says Jesus, and for one thing not to happen. We’re to ask for God’s kingdom to come, for daily bread to be given and for forgiveness, so that we can forgive in turn. And then, we’re to ask that temptation be kept from us.
And the story that follows makes it clear that these things are available, and abundantly available. That we’re to ask God for his kingdom, for bread and for forgiveness because he is just waiting to give them to us. Like a father, who longs to give his child a gift, we’re to ask, knowing that God is waiting, with a beautifully wrapped present behind his back, itching to hand it over, knowing all that needs to happen is for us to ask - ‘Please Abba, can I have my present now?’
And there are specific gifts that he wants to offer. Kingdom, bread, forgiveness.
The kingdom is God’s rule - how things are when they’re how God wants them to be. He longs to bring us into the kingdom and for us to bring the kingdom into the world. Your kingdom come.
The word for ‘daily bread’ is an unusual one - in fact this is the only time in the New Testament that it’s used. It’s almost as if Jesus made it up, and scholars debate the best translation. It could mean, the bread we need each day - please keep on giving us what we need. It could mean, enough bread for today and no more. Which could make it a call to trust God with every day. It could mean, bread that is necessary for existence, which would imply a more ‘spiritual’ understanding of bread. Or it could mean, give us tomorrows bread, today. Which would mean, ‘the bread which is promised to all in the future, Lord, give it to us today. Give us a taste of the kingdom and don’t make us wait until heaven’.
What those all share is the call to pray for God to be provider. To be the one that we are dependent on - for each day, for our practical and spiritual needs, for a hopeful future brought into the present.
God is a generous provider.
God is intimate father, holy and other, he is a generous provider. and, fourth, he welcomes our shameless persistence.
The point of the story about the neighbour who knocks on the door in the middle of the night, is that even if your average person doesn’t want to get up and give bread to someone hammering on the door when everyone’s asleep, he will do it to shut the banging up. If that’s what we’re like, how much better will God’s response be? How much more wholehearted will God, who is our holy Abba, our generous provider, be?
So says Jesus, continue to ask, keep seeking, carry on knocking. Because God is so much more willing than we are to give away what he has. So be shameless in your prayer and be persistent.
That’s what Jesus tells us that God is like.
He is intimate father;
He is holy and other;
He is longs to provide for us generously;
And he welcomes our shameless persistence.
And if that’s what God is like, then how we’re to pray falls into place.
We should pray in the same way we would speak to a Dad - and to the very best Dad that we can imagine. With confidence, honesty and total trust.
And we should pray knowing that God isn’t ours to manipulate or win over. He is entirely holy, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Unchangeable, uncorruptable, unflinching in his purpose. We should pray knowing that he will do what he needs to do, simply because he is God.
And we should pray so that we become more dependent on God, who is our generous provider.
And we should pray persistently and without worrying about what others think.
Because if you want to learn how to pray, you need to know who you’re praying to.