N.b. Someone complained to me after church this week that my sermons are always too short. Too short? Who ever complains that a sermon is too short? Not me.
The disciples watch Jesus praying and they ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Lord, teach us to pray? Now, that is a really odd request. After all, the disciples (and Jesus!) were Jews, and daily Jewish prayer was already by that time a highly ritualized art form. When Jesus lived, as today, Jews had three scheduled times for daily prayer, with set prayers for each of these liturgical hours. Good Jews learned these prayers by heart as small children and prayed them three times a day, day in and day out, until the day they died. In addition there were prayers for Shabbat, for services in the Synagogue, for ritual occasions, for sacrifices, weddings, circumcisions, and all of life’s events and occasions. In other words, the disciples were not men new to prayer. They prayed all the time.
But still: “Lord, teach us to pray,” they ask. Despite being seeped in ritual Jewish prayer from birth, despite knowing countless prayers like the backs of their hands, despite praying when they rise and when they eat and when they lie down, they still want to know: Lord, how do we do it?
Maybe they had the sense that they weren’t quite doing it right – they had prayer performance anxiety. Maybe they wondered, like we do, why so many of their prayers didn’t produce the expected results. Did they, too, know the pain of answered prayers?
But I think it was really this: when they saw Jesus praying, they saw his special, direct connection to God, and thought to themselves: wow, we want that. They saw Jesus talking to God like a Father, like a beloved confidant and friend, and thought: how does he do that? They saw how Jesus could walk and talk and live and breathe in communion with God all the time, and thought: we want to be as connected to God as he is. So they ask him.
Now, the people who follow Jesus around in the Gospels ask him a lot of questions: Lord, where are you going? Lord, what must I do to be saved? Lord, why do you speak in parables? Lord, how often do I have to forgive someone who sins against me? Lord, what will be the signs of your coming again? Lord, who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Now, frankly, not all of these are particularly great questions. Sometimes Jesus answered them with cryptic sayings, or with abstract parables, or even with pretty tough responses.
But when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they get an immediate answer. Just: “Okay. Here’s how.” Jesus teaches them the Lord’s Prayer and offers a clear teaching about how to approach God with persistence. His answer is clear, it’s direct, and it’s very thorough. This is important: it means that the disciples have finally managed to ask the right question. Lord, how do we pray? is finally the right question. And Jesus is more than happy to answer.
Luke doesn’t record the details of this encounter, just Jesus’s words. But I like to imagine the scene. Jesus is praying to the Father early one morning – maybe he is sitting, or kneeling, or just walking around having a conversation with God, waving his hands in the air for emphasis. Who knows? But clearly there is something about the way he prays – something about his passion, his openness, his connection to God – that makes the disciples want to be able to pray like Jesus. Something about the way Jesus prays to his Father is obviously compelling, fascinating, captivating. So one of them pipes up. We don’t even know which disciple asks it. But a voice from the group suddenly calls out: Hey, Lord! Can you teach us to pray?
I can imagine Jesus’s face lighting up with joy when this question comes in. Now that is a great question. Maybe Jesus even looked relieved: finally they’ve stopped asking totally useless questions about who will be greatest in the kingdom of Heaven – finally they’re asking the right questions, seeking and asking and wondering and knocking on the door. Ah, finally! The disciples are onto something. They’re awake. Jesus has so much to teach them, and finally they are ready to listen and learn.
After all, what has the Son of God come for, but to bring people closer to the Father?
No matter how long we have been Christians, we are still working on how to ask the right questions, and especially how to pray for the right things. Lord, will I be first among the disciples in heaven? was apparently not the right question. Lord: how do I pray? Now that is one question Jesus has been waiting for his disciples to ask.
Now, if you are looking for a good teacher on the subject of prayer, you have a lot of options: spiritual masters, certified saints, various popes, countless authors and pastors and gurus. My search yesterday for books about “Christian prayer” on Amazon produced 5,000 English books on the topic (that’s English alone). There are more books and sermons on the subject than you or I could ever read in a lifetime. So it’s clear that today’s contemporary disciples, all one billion of us, are still looking for instructions about how to pray. We apparently don’t know all that much more than the original 12!
But this passage from Luke makes clear that there is only one who can really teach us how to pray, and that is Jesus Christ himself. After all, he the one and only person who knows both what it is like to be human, and to be in total communion with the Father and the Spirit. He is the only one who truly knows how to live with his feet on the earth, and his spirit in the Kingdom.
The the source and heart of prayer lives is our Lord Jesus Christ himself, who is the one able teach us how to live in constant communion and conversation with the Father and the Spirit. And he is just waiting for us to ask.
Frankly, the best sermon you’ll ever hear about prayer is the one we read this morning from Luke chapter 11. Or check out what else Jesus has to say about prayer, for example in Matthew 6. Arguably, these might be the only sermons on prayer really worth listening to, and when you’ve got Jesus’s instructions on the subject down pat, then you might think about consulting some secondary materials.
So, let me be clear: this is not a sermon about how to pray. Trust me: there is nothing about prayer that I know, that you don’t know. I can’t teach you any formulas, or even any practical tips to maximize and optimize your prayer life. I only wanted to remind you – to remind us – what great deal about prayer that Jesus knows, and wants to share, and is just waiting for us to ask.
So this morning I want to invite you to do something simple: to join with the disciples in in asking Jesus: Lord, teach me to pray. Just lay aside for the time being the questions of when and where and how, with what words, how to fold your hands, or whether to sit or stand or kneel, or anything else. Let’s just ask:
Lord, show me how to lead a life full of prayer. Lord, teach me to commune with you through the hours of the day and night, the darkness and the light. Lord, teach me how to open up my whole life to you in prayer. Lord, teach me to look for the signs of your grace everywhere I go. Lord, teach me to wait for you in the silence of my own heart, to stop chattering and start listening. Lord, teach me to live my whole life like one long, living, unbroken conversation with the Son, Spirit, and Father. Lord, teach us to pray.
And the good news this morning is that we are promised by Jesus himself that when we look for God, we are sure to find him. When we ask our Lord how to pray, rest assured: we are definitely asking the right question, and Jesus can’t wait to answer. For those of us seeking God and wondering where to find him, relax: God is not playing hide and seek. Seek, and you will find. And for those of us knocking on God’s door and wondering when we will hear the door click and swing open, take heart: the door is already open.
So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.