Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Teach us to pray

July 27, 2013

Pentecost 10 – 2013

Luke 11:1-13

Marian Free 

In the name of God who taught us to pray. Amen.

 

“Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, when you pray say:

“Father, hallowed be your name,

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

There is a lovely story, probably apocryphal, about the Lord’s Prayer. The story concerns three hermits who had taken themselves off to a rather inhospitable island to spend time in prayer. One day the Bishop of the district thought that he should visit them. On arrival he asked them how they prayed. Their response was that they repeated the words: “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us.” The Bishop thought that that was good, but that he should teach them the Lord’s Prayer. Together they spent the remainder of the day rehearsing the Lord’s Prayer line by line. When at last the Bishop was sure that the three had memorized the prayer he got into his boat to make for home. He had gone only a few yards out to sea when he noticed the hermits wading through the ocean calling him to return. They had forgotten the prayer already. At that point the Bishop had to accept that the prayer with which they had become so familiar was sufficient for them. giving them his blessing he went on his way.

I imagine that for many of us, that story is a little hard to believe. For many of us the Lord’s Prayer serves as something like a mantra, words that we can repeat without thinking. It has been a comfortable easy prayer to say for as long as we can remember and because it is the prayer that Jesus taught us, it can be an excuse not to say any other prayers. Not that that is a problem if we grasp the depth and the challenge of what it is that we sometimes say so glibly.

Because I have preached on the prayer so often I thought that this Sunday I would seek some help from someone else. For those of you who will only read this on-line, I will try to give the gist of the discussion. I will call my discussion partner “May”

“Give us today our daily bread”

May began by saying how important “give us today our daily bread” was to her. For May it is a reminder of the thousands of people throughout the world who do not have enough to eat and therefore also a reminder of how fortunate and privileged we are in that we never have to think about where our next meal is coming from. More than that, May said that it challenged her to trust God – not to worry about what the future might hold. I picked up on the fact that May had understood the petition in two different ways – a challenge to care for our neighbour and a challenge to live in the present. Trusting God is not as easy as it seems. We are often consumed with events of the past or focussed on the future. Having confidence that God has our best interests at heart is liberating and allows us to pay attention to the present moment rather than to allow it to be clouded by what has gone and what is yet to come.

“Forgive us our sins”

Perhaps not surprisingly, May found this to be of great comfort. Knowing that her sins were forgiven was liberating and reassuring. However there is something about this line that is troubling to me: “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. Does that mean that our being forgiven depends on our first extending forgiveness to others? But it says: “for we ourselves forgive”, May responded. Then she saw my point, the bible from which she was reading (the NRSV) does use those words, but the words which our prayer book uses are those that cause me to ponder. We were intrigued by the different translations and the different slant that put on the phrase but agreed that we needed to do some homework before we could take that part of the discussion any further.

“Save us from the time of trial”

That led us to the next phrase which caused May some disquiet. She prefers the former version: “Lead us not into temptation.” Her reason being that she does not have a dualist faith. May believes in one God who has no competition. For her that means that God (not an alternative power) is responsible for everything. I had to agree that it was a powerful argument and that there are times when we are either guilty of or in danger of giving the devil equal power to that of God, or of forgetting that on the cross Jesus defeated evil once for all. Compelling as May’s argument was I had the advantage of having recently read Hebrews chapter 12 which states explicitly that God does not lead us into temptation

Where to go from there? Neither of us accept dualism (two equal but competing powers) and both agree that people are sometimes tempted, or that we do the wrong thing. For me it comes back to creation and the fact that God gave humankind free choice. Free choice means that we sometimes (often), behave in ways that are not consistent with Godly behaviour. It could be argued that God’s gift of free choice, leads us into temptation which would support May’s view. However, the new translation: “Save us from the time of trial”, has another meaning, one which is also scriptural – that God will never allow us to be tested beyond what we are able to bear. Fortunately, for most of us in the West this phrase is never really tested but we trust that God will not let us to experience more pain, more grief or more hardship than we are able to cope with and that our trust and confidence in God will get us through the worst that life can throw at us.

That seemed like the end until I pointed out that perhaps the most powerful part of the prayer for me was the idea of God’s name being hallowed – the place at which the prayer begins. For me that line is a reminder of Moses and the burning bush, a challenge to take off my shoes in the presence of a power so awesome, so beyond my imagination that I cannot put a name to it.

Too often I think, we take God for granted, we become over familiar. We might not use God’s name in vain, but there are times when I at least am thoughtless and casual in the way I name or speak of God. I don’t always think about what I am invoking when I speak of or to God. The “hallowing of God’s name takes me back to the relationship between Moses and God, which, though familiar, was also overlaid with an awareness of the awesome power and presence of God which Moses only dared approach because he was commanded so to do. I am reminded too of the cautiousness of our forbears in faith, the Jews who refused to use God’s name but referred to God using an alternative expression which is best translated “Lord”.

 

This concept is best expressed for me in the words of an alternative “Lord’s Prayer” which can be found in the New Zealand Prayer book which seems an appropriate place at which to finish.

 

Eternal Spirit,

Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

Source of all that is and all that shall be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Loving God in whom is heaven:

 

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

The way of your justice be followed by the people’s of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom

sustain our hope and come on earth

 

With the bread that we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the power of the glory that is love. Amen.

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Will God indeed dwell on earth?

June 1, 2013

Pentecost 2 2013

1 Kings 8

Marian Free

 In the name of God who is always with us and yet always just beyond our reach. Amen.

“But will God indeed dwell on earth with us?” These words spoken by Solomon at the dedication of the Temple never cease to amaze me.  The most extravagant Temple has just been completed and as Solomon begins the prayer of dedication, he admits that it will not be a place that will be able to hold God.

When Israel journeyed through the wilderness the Tablets of the Law were kept in an ark, which in turn was kept in the Tent of Meeting. Every time the people broke camp, the Tent would be dismantled and whenever they stopped it would be erected. Even when the Israelites finally settled in the promised land, the Tent remained the place in which they worshipped. It was not until David became King that anyone thought to do anything different.

Having finally settled in Jerusalem, David built himself a magnificent palace. However, it was only when his own home was completed that David realises that while he has furnished himself with somewhere splendid to live, God still (figuratively at least) lives in a tent. He determines to rectify the situation and build a Temple for God.  Initially the prophet Nathan encourages David in that plan, but that same night the prophet is given a message for the King. “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel. Have I ever asked: “why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7:7).  God, it appears, does not require a house.

That would seem to be the end of the story, however, according to the Book of Kings, David was prevented from building a Temple not only because God rejected the idea, but also because he was constantly engaged in conflict and not settled enough to carry out a building project. So it was that when Solomon was established as king and the nation was at was peace, Solomon began the process of building the Temple of his father’s dream. Apparently the building was a huge undertaking. Solomon is said to have conscripted 30,000 men to work on the building in shifts of 10,000 a month. On top of that there were 70,000 labourers, 80,0000 stonecutters and 3,3000 supervisors, not to mention the various artisans who carved the timber and cast the bronze.

It is hard to imagine the wealth and extravagance of the building. According to the Book of Kings, both the interior and exterior were overlaid with gold including the floor. The pillars were bronze every surface appears to have been covered in carvings. All the vessels were bronze or gold as were the candlesticks, snuffers, basins and so on.

At last the Temple is complete and the day of dedication arrives. All of Israel is gathered to witness the ark being brought up into the Temple and Solomon begins to address the people: “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”

The King continues by explaining why he has built the Temple and praising God for the covenant that God has made with David to establish David’s house forever. It is then that the King appears to be pulled up short. The God of Israel is unlike any other God, there is no God like him in the heaven above or on earth below. It seems that as Solomon utters those words he is reminded that no Temple, no matter how splendid or lavish it is sufficient to contain God. The God whom he addresses simply cannot be confined by four walls. All the effort and all the expense that has been poured into the Temple will not be able to keep God in one place or to make God answerable to the people.

That said, the exercise of building the Temple has not been a waste of time. God may not be able to be contained, but that does not mean that the Temple has no purpose. Solomon sees that it can provide a place in which the people can strengthen their relationship with and dependence on God. It can be a place in which they address their concerns to God, seek forgiveness or ask for God’s help. Solomon’s prayer turns in this direction as he asks that God’s eyes be “open day and night toward this house” and asks that God will respond to the prayer of the people, hear their cry and forgive them when they ask.

Throughout the ages, those who believe have built places of great beauty in which they can worship God. Whether they be Cathedrals or Parish churches, built by Kings or by the people, they represent  – not an attempt to restrict God – but a desire to demonstrate through the construction of a place of worship, love of, faith in and gratitude towards God. God cannot be contained even by the highest heaven – let alone the grandest structures that we can erect. God cannot be manipulated or cajoled, or bound to us by anything other than God’s love for us. We cannot force God’s hand through strength or weakness.

We can however continue to trust in God’s love and God’s presence with us and reach out in prayer and worship, in penitence and gratitude, in our churches and in our day-to-day lives confident that God will hear and respond. We can continue to offer God our very best – not to ensure that God is obligated to us, but to demonstrate through such offerings our thanksgiving and praise.

Jesus’ baptism

January 13, 2013

Baptism of Jesus – 2013

Luke 3:15-18, 21-22

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who through our baptism anoints us calls us to serve. Amen.

You will have noticed that not only is this morning’s gospel brief, but that only two of the five verses specifically refer to Jesus’ baptism. Further, though this may not have been obvious if you were listening and not reading, the gospel consists of two sets of disconnected verses from Luke, chapter 3. Those who prepared our lectionary have joined a small section of John’s preaching with the actual baptism of Jesus. Though not linked by Luke, together these verses give us some insight into John’s understanding of Jesus.

In this context, John’s preaching focuses on three things: God’s wrath (associated with the final judgement), how to live (to avoid God’s wrath) and John’s predictions about the Christ (who is associated with God’s wrath). In response to the wondering of the crowd, John the Baptist makes it clear that he is not the Christ. He goes on to list a number of points to back up his claim – the one who is coming will be more powerful than he. He, John, is so far removed from the Christ that he would not even be able to perform the lowliest of tasks for him. He is baptizing with water, the Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John may be preparing the people for judgement, the Christ will carry out the judgement (the winnowing fork is in his hands). John expects that the ministry of the Christ, will in other words, be far superior to his own.

John’s preaching is addressed to “the crowds” – to those who have come out from Jerusalem to hear him and to be baptised. Interestingly, Jesus is not mentioned as one of their number nor even as someone who comes out to hear John. It is not until Luke has reported John’s imprisonment by Herod that we discover that Jesus was baptised though it is not clear by whom or why. If the gospel’s chronology is correct, John is already in jail when Jesus is baptised. This raises a number of questions. Why record the story at all? Was someone other than baptising and if there was why doesn’t Luke tell us who? Was Jesus baptised by one’s of John’s disciples. We will never know.

It has to be said that Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism is tantalizingly stark. It provides some detail but gives no explanation or interpretation of the events. What we learn from Luke’s gospel is that Jesus was apparently baptised after everyone else (perhaps not by John whom Herod has locked up), he is praying when the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends bodily as a dove and a voice from heaven declares Jesus to be God’s beloved Son. So much information is crowded into two sentences (one in the Greek)! Jesus’ reaction to the extraordinary occurrences is not recorded nor is that of the crowds who presumably witnessed something. Such dramatic events are reported in a matter of fact manner, completely lacking in commentary or explanation.

A comparison with Mark’s gospel (Luke’s source) reveals that some features of this account are unique to Luke – in particular the fact that Jesus is praying, that Luke omits to say from where Jesus came and implies that it is not John who performs the baptism of Jesus. Mark’s gospel identifies Jesus’ baptism as the moment at which it becomes clear who Jesus is. Luke does use the baptism as a transition to Jesus’ public ministry but he does not link the two events in Jesus’ life – one does not lead to the other. At this point in Luke’s narrative he has no need to explain Jesus’ call and mission. He has already established Jesus’ identity in his birth narrative. In contrast to Mark, in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel Jesus has already been announced as “Saviour, Lord and Messiah and as Son”. The presence of the Spirit in his life has been plain since his unique conception. Jesus’ call is not new, as a teenager in the Temple, he seems very aware of who he is and of his relationship with God.

While Luke includes a report of Jesus’ baptism, his purpose is different from that of his source. It seems that in writing about the event, the author of Luke is concerned first and foremost to demonstrate divine approval of Jesus and of his ministry. When this reference to the events surrounding Jesus’ baptism are seen in the context of the rest of Luke’s gospel two other factors become obvious. One is the place of prayer in Luke’s gospel. Jesus prays before all his significant actions (before choosing the disciples for example). A second is this – there are two occasions in Luke’s gospel on which a voice from heaven affirms Jesus and reveals God’s approval of him and of his ministry. Both occasions mark a significant change of direction in Jesus life and ministry. After his Baptism Jesus begins his public ministry and after the second occasion – the Transfiguration – Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem and to death.

Luke appears to use Jesus’ baptism as both a turning point in Jesus’ life, but also as an opportunity to inform the readers that Jesus is no ordinary person but one approved by, chosen by and set apart by God and that God is affirming his choice and his delight in the chosen one.

Each gospel is written with a particular audience in mind and each gospel tells us a little bit about the author. We honour the text best when we try to understand what is going on behind it. Often that is only our most informed guess, but if we try to get a sense of why the story was written as it was we get a deeper and richer understanding not only of the story, but of its development. A better comprehension of the different ways in which the evangelists understood and reported the accounts of Jesus’ life helps us to understand the differences, to realise that there is more than one way of looking at things and gives us the tools to enter into debate with those who are skeptical or have yet to believe.

The gospel writers did not just blindly write down what they heard from others. They considered the information at hand and reflected on the best way to share that with the world. We can do no better than to follow their example.

 

 

For the commentary on the Gospel I am heavily reliant on Fitzmyer, Joseph. The Gospel According to Luke I-IX. New York: Double Day and Company, 1979, though I take full responsibility for the way in which I have used the material and the conclusion drawn.


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