Some sentences jump out at you from the Gospel. Today such a sentence jumps out: teach us how to pray, as John the Baptist taught his disciples.
All the years I have listened to this passage and I have become familiar with Jesus response to the request, he goes onto teach the Lord’s prayer …. I have never thought much about those words at the beginning of the passage, teach us how to pray as John the Baptist taught his disciples.
It never struck me that John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray. It as if I am hearing that idea for the first time. That he taught them something that maybe others hadn’t taught before. It must have been significant enough that those making the request knew that John the Baptist had done this, for not only was it remembered it was also being talked about.
What could he have taught them that stuck out? As traditional Israelites they were to pray the psalms, read and study the law, attend the synagogue. What was it that he taught them that made an impression on them and made these people in turn ask Jesus to teach them to pray? And was it maybe expected of a holy man, a prophet that he would teach his followers new ways of praying?
In 1940 a young shepherd boy in Israel was tending his sheep and he dropped a stone into a cave and heard cracking sound, the cracking of pots down below. Climbing down he found ancient pots containing scrolls. These scrolls were to be called the Qumran scrolls and they belonged to a sect called the Esssenes who lived at the same time as John the Baptist and Jesus in the first century. It is believed by some that, if not a member of the Esseenes, John was closely associated with this group which had associations with water ablutions for cleansing of sin. They preached a message of repentance and they also looked forward to the coming of the messiah. A similar message that we know John the Baptist preached.
What was it that John the Baptist taught the people about prayer? Intense prayers of repentance? To pray for God to act in the world and truly send the Messiah, the Saviour? Prayers that accompanied their baptism? We know that the people hung on his words, that all of Jerusalem was turned out to listen to him. That he turned their lives upside down. What was he taught them about prayer? We simply do not know, but what we do know was that it was enough for these people to remember that he did teach them.
The people turn to Jesus with the same request: teach us how to pray as John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray. The passage that follows this is his response.
We have turned what Jesus said into a prayer, committed it to memory and say it reverently but when you look at these words that Jesus said it reads more like a set of instructions: who to speak to, what to say, what kind of attitude or disposition to have.
When reading this passage don’t begin at the beginning but begin at the end of the passage, it is clearer. Here is what prayer is like. A person come to prayer like a desperate man in the middle of the night comes to a friend for help. It won’t wait to till morning, the need is great. There should be an urgency in prayer, the need is great, it must be done now, the words must be said now, the appeal must be made now.
Here’s another thing, it should be accompanied by confidence – ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.
And it should go alongside a confidence that one you are speaking to knows your needs, as a father might know a child’s needs and not give anything that will harm the child, so God will give what is needed in prayer.
To return to the beginning of the passage. He reminds them who all prayer is to be directed to - God who is our Father, not a stone hearted God, not someone who doesn’t care for us, someone a million miles away from us, but who has the tenderness of a father who want to give what is needed.
And in prayer bless his name, bless the way he acts, bless him for he is the source of every good action, he is the things which keeps everything together and directs everything.
And pray that the Kingdom comes, that the world will be transformed – that the hungry will be fed, that the sick will be healed, that the sad will be consoled, that those downtrodden will have mercy, that those in prison will be set free. Pray for the transformation of our world
And pray for daily bread. Pray for the things needed, not just the food that you eat or shelter over your head or security from the elements. But the things that sustain you: pray for happiness, contentment, a sense of purpose, a desire to serve and love others, a real love of God in life – things that sustain you.
And in your prayer let forgiveness always be a part of it. Because forgiveness is needed every day. Forgiveness is the sign of a big heart. Forgiveness is the sign of a person who can love and who will love. It’s the sign of a person whom love has taken root it. Forgive in the knowledge you have been forgiven yourself.
And ask not to be tempted, to be tested beyond your powers. Beyond what you can endure. Ask to be guided around things that will do us harm, beyond things that will lead us to dead ends and which go nowhere.
Much more than a prayer, a single prayer what Jesus ‘ answer is to the ones who come to him is the way to pray. Who it is we are to pray to, what it is we should ask for, what we should keep in mind.
The question that the people ask in the Gospel is a question that has asked down through the ages. Many people have been asked that question by others teach us how to pray. Maybe we sometimes find ourselves asking the same question, teach us how to pray. We don’t know what to say, we don’t know what to do, we don’t know what to ask for. What we say seems unsatisfactory, we are not happy that we maybe pray occasionally rather than all the time, we wonder whether God is listening, are we down his list of priorities, does it make a difference?
What Jesus says seems to say that prayer is essential. Prayer is the experience of the desperate person who has nowhere to turn, whose need is great. Prayer is the experience of someone who finds answers. Prayer is the act of someone who knows that there is a loving God gently guiding you along. Prayer is the action of a person searching for daily bread, the thing that sustains them. Prayer is the action of someone who knows who their God is and who knows, his loving fatherly nature and who blesses him.
Jesus’s words are both an encouragement and wise, very wise words.
How many people have wanted to know how to pray better, men and women in every age. What lies behind the request is the sincere heart searching to know God and wanting to speak to him. Do we not all know that desire?