Sermon 26 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley
We are called to put feet to our faith, to act upon what we believe. This is how faith comes alive and indeed shines so that others may see our good works and give glory, not to us, but to God. Jesus makes it clear that our intentions matter when it comes to the practice of faith. He says, “When you give, do not sound a trumpet before you ... so that you may be praised by others ... do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” This saying is specifically about the discipline of giving, but the principle applies to all “works of mercy,” - feeding of the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting of the sick, instruction of the student. The thing forbidden here is not “doing good” in the sight of others but the doing of good for selfish gain or to “be seen” and “honored.” In terms of our relationship with God, intention matters. We engage in acts of goodness not for self-glorification but to glorify or illuminate the goodness of God.
From here, Jesus moves to what we call, “works of piety.” “When you pray,” he says, “do not do as the hypocrites do, for they love to stand and pray … so they may be seen by others.” Hypocrisy is the word for an outward show, when actions do not align with what is in our heart or with what we say. In prayer, we lift our hearts to God. All words of prayer, without this, are mere hypocrisy – pretense for selfish gain. This desire for praise cuts us off from heavenly reward.
So, Jesus advises us to go into our personal room, shut the door, and pray in secret. It is a metaphor, suggesting that nothing serve as a barrier between us and God. As we pour out our heart to God, God is there to lift us up. In this way of praying, there is no need to try to sound holy or to speak at length. It is pure superstition and folly to think that God measures our prayers by their length or eloquence.
The purpose of prayer is not to inform God, as though God doesn’t already know what’s going on. The purpose is rather to discern God’s “higher desires” and to seek God’s continual guidance and grace, upon which we are completely dependent if we are to be faithful and fruitful. Prayer is not what we do to move God, who is always more ready to give than we are to ask. It is more about moving ourselves, and putting ourselves in a place to receive the good things God has prepared for us.
After teaching the nature and purpose of prayer, Jesus gives an example. He gives us a model, which contains all that we may reasonably desire. This model consists of three parts - the preface, the petitions, and the doxology.
First the Preface – “Our Father which art in heaven.” If God is Father than God is good and loving to his children. And there is the first and great reason for prayer. God wants to bless us. We are God’s children and God is there to help us grow into all we were created to be.
We say OUR Father – not just mine but the Father of the whole universe, of all families both in heaven and on earth. In him we are connected together. In him, we learn to love the world as he does.
“Which art in heaven” – This reminds us that God is over all and able to see all.
“Hallowed by thy name.” - God is the Holy One, always beyond our control and never to be defined by our narrow agendas. God’s name is “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:13-15). God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). In praying that God, or God’s name, be “hallowed” or “glorified,” we are praying that God may be known and honored by all in heaven and on earth. We are praying that we might be aligned with God’s ways, rather than trying to get God to align to ours.
Thy Kingdom come.” -- This petition is connected to the previous one. We pray for the kingdom of Christ to come. It is helpful to remember what the Apostle Paul says about the kingdom. God’s kingdom is not “meat or drink;” it is righteousness, love, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. God’s kingdom yields both holiness and happiness.
“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” -- This is the consequence of the coming of the kingdom. With these words, we pray that we -- and all humankind -- would do the whole will of God in all things, willingly, continually, and perfectly. We pray that the righteousness, love, peace, and joy of the God’s kingdom might come through us.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Here, bread is a metaphor for all things needful, whether for our souls or bodies. We understand physical bread and spiritual bread. We ask for what is sufficient for this day. We claim nothing of rights, but only to receive of God’s free mercy.
“And forgive us our trespasses.” -- The Greek word is also used to describe “debt.” Sin is pictured as “falling short.” We have nothing to give that could make us even to God, or aligned or justified to God’s will. If God were to require what was justly due to him, according to the law, then we would be “bound hand and foot, and delivered over to the tormentors,” to use an image for the “debtors prisons.” Forgiveness and mercy are our only hope.
Indeed, in a spiritual sense, the chains of our own sin bind us. These sins “bring us down to the chambers of the grave.” Which brings us to the word “Forgive.” It implies unlocking the chains and giving freedom. It implies “wiping the slate clean.” It is rooted in the deepest compassion. With forgiveness, the grip of fear and harm is replaced by love. In this love, there is no condemnation. We are set free. We are able to walk with the Spirit as our guide and vision.
And, if we are given this gift, then we are to give this same gift to others. “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” God’s love comes first. God forgives, but then as we are transformed by this blessing, we are able to forgive others. Until we can do this, we do not truly know forgiveness. Therefore, God forgives us “as” we forgive others. If malice, bitterness, or anger remains in our hearts, God cannot fully forgive us. These two directions of forgiveness are linked together. God may indeed show a degree of mercy, but, if we can’t forgive, we block God from truly cleansing us of all sin. We hold on to it.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” – The word temptation also means “trial.” Here, temptation means something other than “solicitation to sin,” or a kind of “enticing.” It implies being “tried,” in the midst of harm and heartache, when we find ourselves in circumstances that have produced anger, envy, impatience, lust, and the like. As the Apostle James says, “Blessed is the one who endures temptation. For when we are tried and approved by God, we receive the crown of life,” and then James adds, that we should never claim that God tempts us or leads us into temptation, because God cannot, and does not, tempt to evil (James 1:12-13). Every temptation comes from being “drawn away” by our own sinful desire. Therefore, we pray that God not allow us to be led into it, that God gives us the strength to endure. That’s the more precise meaning here. The prayer is to be delivered from evil. Jesus reminds us that this force called “evil”, which may torment for a time, cannot destroy us, for God is with us and will not fail us in the end.
Which leads to the conclusion. It is a Doxology, a statement of praise. “For thine is the kingdom.” – the sovereign rule over all things, from everlasting to everlasting. “The power” -- the ability to transform. “And the glory.” – the illumination of all that is truly good and truly life giving and truly eternal, and is worthy of our praise. “Forever.” It’s the final word, pointing us to eternity and the truth that nothing, in life or in death, can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord, the one who teaches us to pray. “Amen!” It means “Let it be so!”