Join our vigil this coming Sunday: Light a candle for Ukraine. St Mary’s Church Iffley. 12noon-6pm, Sunday 6 March. Pray Think Hope.
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on Ash Wednesday 2022.
During Lent we’re going to be looking at the Lord’s Prayer this year.
Think of the range of different people who’ve used this prayer over the centuries. Think of our own lives and the differing situations where we’ve found ourselves saying this prayer whether alone or with others. And think of the people of Ukraine and the context in which they’re saying the Lord’s Prayer today – for I’m sure they are.
So whenever we use this prayer we’re united with Christians down the centuries and across the world.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours now and for ever. Amen.
In each of these varied contexts, a different dimension of this prayer comes alive and speaks to our hearts. People have wondered about this and been astonished by the prayer’s simplicity and depth.
It’s always relevant.
There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, one in Matthew’s gospel and the other in Luke’s. And behind these two versions lies a short history that includes translation from Aramaic to Greek and use in the worship of the early church before it was included in any gospel.
Matthew puts it in as part of the Sermon on the Mount where, as we heard, Jesus talks about the spiritual disciplines of giving alms, prayer and fasting. Luke on the other hand has the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray just after they’ve seen him praying.
And perhaps that explains why the Lord’s Prayer is so precious – because it comes out of the rich soil of Jesus’ own life of prayer. We stand on holy ground whenever we take these words on our lips, because they come from our Lord’s own praying heart.
There’s a very moving example of this in the poet Edwin Muir’s autobiography.
Just before the Second World War Edwin Muir was living at St Andrew’s in Scotland. It was not a happy period of his life, made worse when his wife fell ill and went into a nursing home. He wasn’t a religious man yet this was what happened one evening when he returned from the nursing home where his wife now was.
He wrote in his diary:
‘Last night going to bed alone I suddenly found myself (I was taking off my waistcoat) reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a loud emphatic voice, a thing I had not done for so many years, with deep urgency and profound disturbed emotion. While I went on I grew more composed. As if it had been empty and craving and were being replenished my soul grew still. Every word had a strange fullness and meaning which astonished and delighted me. It was late; I had sat up reading and I was sleepy but as I stood in the middle of the floor half undressed saying the prayer over and over, meaning after meaning sprang from it, overcoming me again with joyful surprise; and I realised that this simple petition was always universal, and always inexhaustible, and day by day sanctified human life.’
It’s an inspiring account from this poet, caring for his wife as she comes to the end of her life, standing half undressed one evening before going to bed, and suddenly discovering the huge depths of this prayer:
day by day sanctifying human life.’
That’s been the experience of countless numbers of people when they’ve taken the Lord’s Prayer onto their lips and into their hearts.
And so thinkers and writers, theologians and mystics have all tried to explain how the Lord’s Prayer can carry such a depth of meaning when it’s so incredibly brief?
Tertullian in about 200 AD wrote the first known commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. He was an African church leader, and he explained this depth to the Lord’s Prayer when he wrote that it embraces:
‘as it were the whole of the Lord’s discourse, the whole record of his instruction: so that without exaggeration there is comprised in the prayer an epitome of the entire gospel.’
So the answer is surprisingly simple – the Lord’s Prayer has such depth because it comes out of Jesus’ own life of prayer and touches on everything he did and taught.
‘Pray like this’, Jesus says to us, ‘and you’ll live like this.’
‘Focus on the intimacy of God, his kingdom and doing his will – don’t ever forget the central importance of forgiveness – and stay close to your own needs and the needs of the world.’
‘Pray like this.’
When we do, we too shall find, as Edwin Muir did, that we’re standing on holy ground.