A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon (July 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"

     When I saw the appointed Gospel reading for this Sunday, I was reminded of a retired pastor who filled in for me on occasion in one of my previous churches.
     On the first Sunday that he covered for me, he told me that he was going to preach on “The Lord’s Prayer.” I told him, “That’s a great scripture for preaching.”
     Several months later, this retired pastor filled in for me again. I discovered that he had preached about “The Lord’s Prayer” yet again. I was curious why he decided to preach on this same text a second time.
     He said, “Well, the first time, I focused on ‘Our Father,’ and for the second sermon, I moved on to the phrase, ‘Who art in heaven.’”
     He said, “When you go away again, I’m going to preach on the phrase, ‘Hallowed be thy name.’”
     Long story short. Over my six years at that church, he only made it to the “Give us this day our daily bread,” part.
     I’m just glad that his first sermon wasn’t entitled, “Our.”
     No, I’m not going to spend the next ten weeks preaching on “The Lord’s Prayer,” although I’m sure I could pull that off since this is an incredible, incredible prayer that Jesus has given us.
     I’m going to attempt to cover this awesome prayer with just one sermon.
     My retired pastor friend did give me a great idea, though. Let’s look at each section of this prayer so that it can become even more meaningful for us.
     Let me begin by saying that our familiarity with “The Lord’s Prayer” can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. It can be a good thing because many of us know it by heart, and it’s wonderful that many of us can pull this prayer out of our hip pocket in a pinch. There’s nothing wrong with that.
     The bad thing about it being familiar to us is that we can easily forget its meaning, and we can easily say it without even thinking about what we’re praying.
     Maybe you’ve heard of the two Christians who were trying to outdo each other. The conversation came around to prayer. One said, “I’ll bet $20 you can’t even say ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’”
     The other replied, “You’re on.” And so he began… “Now I lay me down to sleep…”
     The first man interrupted him and said, “Ok, ok. Here’s your money. I didn’t think you could do it.”
     So, what really is “The Lord’s Prayer” and how can it help us to have a stronger prayer life?
     Jesus taught us what we now know as “The Lord’s Prayer” when the disciples came to him and asked him point blank, “Lord, teach us to pray…” 
     In Jesus’ day, there were many, many different ways to pray, just as there are today. It was common for a rabbi to give his disciples a model prayer to use which is probably the motivation for the disciples asking their question about prayer in the first place.
     When people want to know how to pray, I think they’re really wanting to know how to have a relationship with God. That’s a very basic question, isn’t it? How can I have a relationship with God?
     In 1993, William Hendricks wrote a book entitled, Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Leave Church.  Hendricks found that two-thirds of people who attended church said they didn’t experience God in their worship on a regular basis. Two-thirds!
     They said that the preaching was poor and that worship was boring. Hendricks said that if the church was a restaurant, it would be like hungry people coming to eat food and the restaurant not being able to feed them!
     People who gave the church a try, left because they weren’t getting fed. Maybe this is why Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
     Fifteen years after William Hendricks’ eye opening book on why people were leaving the church, Julia Duin did the same kind of research. Guess what? She found exactly what Hendricks’ had found fifteen years earlier in his research.
     In her 2008 book, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It, worshippers told Duin that they weren’t getting decent preaching, good community, or spiritual food.
     The church had become irrelevant to their lives, so they were investing elsewhere. Church goers were asking the same question that the disciples were asking Jesus, “Teach us to pray. Help us to know God.”
        So the pressure is on today, isn’t it? I can’t afford to preach a bad sermon, or we may miss out on connecting with God in a deeper way. Actually, the pressure was on Jesus to come up with a prayer to share with his disciples that would be able to get at the heart of what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus.
      Let’s briefly look at each phrase of this prayer, and then we’ll give some thought on how it can help us connect with God in a deeper way.

Our Father...

     “The Lord’s Prayer” begins by addressing God as “Our Father.” Two things to mention hear. Notice that the prayer begins with the pronoun, “Our” and not the pronoun, “My.”
     At the heart of being a Christian and a being a growing follower of Jesus is this understanding that we are not alone as we live out our faith. We are part of a community of people who need each other in living out our faith.
     John Wesley, the founder of what we know today as the United Methodist Church knew this very well. It’s why he spent his whole life encouraging people to be in a small group of no more than a dozen or so people. He called them, “Methodist class meetings.”
     Wesley knew that it’s when we share our faith and pray with each on a regular basis that we are able to grow in our faith. We need each other.
     The word, “Our” in “The Lord’s Prayer” is a subtle, but powerful way of reminding us that to do this thing called “Christianity” right, we need each other.
     And notice that of the many, many names there are for God, Jesus chose the word, “Father,” to begin his model prayer for his disciples. In the Aramaic language, the word, “Father” is translated as the more loving and intimate word, “Daddy.”
     I don’t know about you, but I am so glad that “The Lord’s Prayer” doesn’t refer to God as “our distant and vague deity.” No, it refers to God as “Our Father.”
     The biblical view of God is not that God is some abstract source who is far away from us. Many people have this view of God. The biblical view is that God is much more like a loving parent who wants to have a loving and caring relationship with us.
     Even the first two words, “Our Father” of “The Lord’s Prayer” remind us that God is a loving God who cares about us.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

     The next part of “The Lord’s Prayer” that I want us to think about is the phrase, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
     This one phrase summarizes the message of the Bible. If someone would stop you on the street and ask you, “Could you summarize the bible for me in one sentence,” it would be wise to share this line from “The Lord’s Prayer” for them.
     From the Book of Genesis to the last book of the Bible, “The Book of Revelation,” God’s desire is for the joy, peace, love, and justice of heaven to completely fill this earth one day. And the way that we seek for this hope to become a reality is by praying this wonderful prayer that reminds us for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
     For many people, inside and outside the church, we have this mistaken notion that the whole point of Christianity is for us to go to heaven someday. Yes, we all want to be with God in heaven when we die, but the bigger story line of the bible is that one day, God will make all things new here on earth.
     God loves this world too much to just give up on it. God’s will is for this world to reflect all of the glory and splendor of heaven. Imagine a world of no homelessness, no crime, no pollution, no terrorism, no hatred, no injustice, no child abuse, no war.
     And you think to yourself, “well, that describes heaven.” Exactly! And that’s why Christians pray “The Lord’s Prayer” because the big deal of the bible is that we are to pray for and work toward a world that is filled with all of the love, peace, and justice of heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

     The Lord’s Prayer concludes with a request for God to provide bread for the day. Not only does this part of the prayer remind us of how God provided bread for the Israelites when God was leading them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land, it’s also Luke’s way of reminding us of what we now know as, “The Sacrament of Holy Communion,” and how Christ is present with us every time we receive the bread and the cup.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...

     “The Lord’s Prayer” concludes with a confession of our sins, but notice that it comes with a little twist which is always important for us to remember. We ask God to forgive us in the same proportion that we forgive those who have wronged us. Nobody said that “The Lord’s Prayer” is an easy prayer to live out.
     So much more could be said about this incredible prayer that Jesus taught us, but I think some of these thoughts can be helpful to us whenever we say this prayer.
     After Jesus teaches the disciples this prayer, he then encourages them to be persistent in offering their prayers to God. He says, “Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.”
     Prayer really does make a difference. It’s been said that God answers prayers in four ways: 1) No, not yet. 2) No, I love you too much. 3) Yes, I though you’d never ask! And 4) Yes, and here’s more.
     I like that! Jesus gave us “The Lord’s Prayer” to encourage us to be persistent in our prayers. In one way, shape, or form, God will answer our prayers. We just need to keep knocking on heaven’s door and be open to how God will answer our prayers.
     A few months ago, I met a good friend of mine for breakfast here in Athens. He’s also a pastor and used to attend my church in Lancaster when he had a Sunday off from his church. We became good friends these past several years.
     When we got together for breakfast recently, he asked me what he always asks me when we get together. “What are your prayer needs?” So I’ll give him a couple of prayer requests.
     On that particular day at the restaurant, I told him about a family member who needed to find medical insurance because he needed his wisdom teeth extracted. He said sure. And so before we left the restaurant, he said a little prayer, and I prayed for him.
     We said our “good byes.” As I walked out of the restaurant to head to my car to come to the church, I got a text message from this same family member that we just prayed about. He was letting me know that he had just found out that his part-time job offers dental insurance and that he was going to sign up for it later that day.
     God answered that prayer in less than ten minutes! I looked up into the sky after I received that text message and whispered to myself, “Wow, that was quick! Thank you, God.”

     Many of you know about our outdoor prayer cross in front of our church building. There’s a box on that cross where you can place prayer requests. When our prayer team was getting that prayer cross ready, I remember how we were wondering if anybody walking by our church would actually take the time to fill out a prayer card and place it in the box. We were willing to give it a try.
     To our astonishment, we received 35 prayer requests during that first week back in February. They were mostly from college students. During the remaining school year, we averaged around 20 or so prayer cards each week.
     These prayer requests have been melting my heart. It’s encouraging to know that college students who might have no connection with our church or any church are drawn to that cross.
     I love seeing people stop at our prayer cross to offer their prayer concerns. This is their way of knocking at heaven’s door. I just want each person who places a prayer request in the prayer box to know that our church is praying for these needs on a weekly basis.
     I want to share a prayer request that we received from a college student about a month ago. This college student had placed two prayer requests card in our outdoor prayer cross that same week. The first card was for our church to pray for a test this student would be taking.
     I want to share what this student wrote on the 2nd card we received later that same week. Here’s what it said:
     “I passed Spanish. Keep it up guys.”
     In a fun kind of way, this college student is telling our church to keep knock’n on heaven’s door. That’s what Jesus is telling us to do. Keep asking because you will receive. Keep seeking because you will find. Keep knocking because the door will be opened.
     Like the college student said, “keep it up guys.”     

Knockin' On Heaven's Door
Small Group Questions
Luke 11:1-13
July 24, 2016

Jesus instructed the disciples to say "The Lord's Prayer."

Begin your small group meeting by sharing this prayer together, pausing at each phrase for reflection.

Our Father...

We address God as a loving parent and not as a distant and abstract deity. Share a time in your life when you have felt God as a loving parent.

...who art in heaven. Hallowed by they name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...

This part of the prayer reminds us that we are to pray for heaven to come upon earth. Share how you see the church working toward bringing heaven to earth in our community and world.

Give us this day our daily bread...

The phrase, "daily bread" is to remind us of the exodus story in the Old Testament when God provided the Israelites with manna in the wilderness. It also reminds us of the Sacrament of Holy Communion and Jesus' death on the cross for the sins of the world. Share a time when you were fed spiritually in your walk with God.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Jesus is inviting us to be forgiving toward others. What helps you to be forgiving toward others?

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