What an unspeakable and undeserved privilege it is to stand in this pulpit again and look out on you, the flock that the great Shepherd has called me to feed. I am thrilled to be back with you. Thank you for your great generosity in letting me be away for those months. I don’t know how long the Lord will give me to live. But I do know that as long as I live, those eight months will bear fruit in my soul, in my marriage, in my family, and in my ministry. My prayer and my hope is that you will be nourished by that fruit.
As I was leaving back in April, I said that it was time for a spiritual reality check for these four things: my soul, my marriage, my family, and my ministry. So I wrote a report about the leave of absence, addressing these four things, which will be published as my annual report, and which you can read at Desiring God. I won’t say it all again here in this message, but it might be helpful to say a little, before we turn to God’s word.
On the Leave of Absence
The work that God is doing in my own soul and the work he is doing in our marriage are almost indistinguishable, because all sin is sooner or later relational. I said when I left that I wanted to set the sights of my Holy Spirit gun (Romans 8:13) on species of pride in my life. All sin is rooted in pride. So let me be more specific.
I would name my most besetting (and I hope weakening) sins as selfishness, self-pity, anger, quickness to blame, and sullenness. And all of these have been most often manifest at home, more than anywhere else. So for these eight months, I have tried to go deep and to go hard after the roots of these things. The Lord has revealed himself in his word in some very precious ways. He has also retaught me some very basic strategies for putting to death the uprisings of sin in my heart.
Time will tell, and Noël will tell, and you will tell, whether the progress I have made is deep and durable, or not. I pray it is. How God is doing these things will, no doubt, weave its way into messages and writings in the months and years to come. I hope they will be of benefit to your own soul and your relationships — whether single or married.
A Sermon on Prayer
So let’s begin that process with a sermon on prayer. What has God been teaching me about prayer in this spiritual warfare, and how might it make a difference in your life? I choose to focus on prayer because it’s the close of our annual Prayer Week, and because it has been with me during the whole leave of absence — both as a steady cry to God for his help in our souls and marriage and family and ministry, and as a recurrent focus of reflection and thinking. I prayed a lot, and I thought a lot about praying.
I love the prayers of the Bible. They shape my own prayers more than anything else. I love the prayers of Paul in Philippians 1:9–11, and Ephesians 1:16–21 and 3:14–19, and Colossians 1:9–12. I love the prayer of Jesus in John 17. And I love the whole book of Psalms, which is the inspired prayer book of the church — filled with such a range of emotions that the cry of our heart in almost any experience can find words in the Psalms.
The Lord’s Prayer: Simple and Spectacular
But the prayer in the Bible that has gripped me most during this leave is the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9–13. This is probably because, in God’s providence, I was memorizing the Sermon on the Mount with many of you. So week after week I was reviewing Matthew 6 in my mind, and so saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over.
As I thought about it and prayed it, it had an effect on the big picture of my life, and it had an effect on the nitty-gritty, daily wrestlings in my life. I hope it will have a similar effect on you as you pray it.
The Lord’s Prayer is very true to life in this sense. Life is a combination of spectacular things and simple things. In almost everyone’s life there are breathtaking things and boring things. Fantastic things and familiar things. Extraordinary things and ordinary things. Awesome things and average things. Exotic things and everyday things. That’s the way life is.
God’s Name, Kingdom, and Will
And, looked at one way, that’s the way the Lord’s prayer is. Almost everyone notices that it has two parts. The first part (verses 9–10) has three petitions; and the second part (verses 11–13) has three petitions. The first three petitions are:
- hallowed be your name
- your kingdom come
- your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
We are asking God to bring about these three things: cause your name to be hallowed; cause your kingdom to come; cause your will to be done as it’s done by the angels in heaven.
Our Food, Forgiveness, and Holiness
The second three petitions are:
- give us this day our daily bread
- forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors
- lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
You can see the difference — and feel the difference — between these two halves. The first three petitions are about God’s name, God’s kingdom, God’s will. The last three are about our food, our forgiveness, our holiness. The first three call our attention to God’s greatness. And the last three call attention to our needs. The two halves have a very different feel. The first half feels majestic and lofty. The last half feels mundane and lowly.
The Mingling of Eternity and the Everyday
In other words, there is a correspondence between the content of this prayer and the content of our lives. The big and the little. The glorious and the common. The majestic and the mundane. The lofty and the lowly.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “God has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” I take that to mean that the world and the human soul are iridescent with wonders linked to eternity. And yet our humdrum, ordinary, mundane experiences of this world keep us from seeing the wonders and from soaring the way we dream from time to time. Even we believers who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God — even we say, “We have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Our spirit is alive with God’s Spirit, but our bodies are dead because of sin (Romans 8:10).
Prayer for Eternity
That’s the way life is. And that’s the way this prayer is — iridescent with eternity and woven into ordinary life.
“Prayer is iridescent with eternity and woven into ordinary life.”
Verse 9: Father, cause your great and holy name to be honored and reverenced and esteemed and treasured above all things everywhere in the world (including my heart).
Verse 10: And cause you glorious, sovereign, kingly rule to hold sway without obstruction everywhere in the world (including my heart).
Verse 10: And cause your all-wise, all-good, all-just, all-holy will to be done all over this world the way the angels do it perfectly and joyfully in heaven — and make it happen in me.
That’s the breathtaking part of the prayer. And when we pray it, we are caught up into great things, glorious things, global things, eternal things. God wants this to happen. He wants your life to be enlarged like that. Enriched like that. Expanded and ennobled and soaring like that.
Prayer for the Everyday
But then we pray,
Verse 11: Father, I am not asking for the bounty of riches. I am asking for bread. Just enough to give me life. I want to live. I want to be healthy, and to have a body and a mind that work. Would you give me what I need for my body and mind?
Verse 12: And, Father, I am a sinner and need to be forgiven everyday. I can’t live and flourish with guilt. I will die if I have to bear my guilt every day. I have no desire to hold any grudge. I know I don’t deserve forgiveness, and so I have no right to withhold it from anyone. I let go of all the offenses against me. Please, have mercy upon me and forgive me and let me live in the freedom of your love. And, of course, we know now what Jesus knew when he said this. He knew he would also say of his death: “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). When we pray for forgiveness, we expect it not merely because God is our Father, but because our Father gave his Son to die in our place.
Verse 13: And Father, I don’t want to go on sinning. I’m thankful for forgiveness, but, Father, I don’t want to sin. Please, don’t lead me into the entanglements of overpowering temptation. Deliver me from evil. Guard me from Satan and from all his works and all his ways. Grant me to walk in holiness.
That’s the earthy part of the prayer. The mundane, daily, nitty-gritty struggle of the Christian life. We need food and forgiveness and protection from evil.
Our Father — In Heaven
And I think these two halves correspond to the two things said about God in the way Jesus tells us to address him at the beginning in verse 9: “Our Father — in heaven.” First, God is a father to us. And second, he is infinitely above us and over all — in heaven. His fatherhood corresponds to his readiness to meet our earthly needs. His heavenliness corresponds to his supreme right to be given worship and allegiance and obedience.
For example, in Matthew 6:32, Jesus tells us not to be anxious about food and drink and clothing because “your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” In other words, Jesus wants us to feel the fatherhood of God as an expression of his readiness to meet our most basic needs.
And then consider Matthew 5:34, where Jesus says, “Do not take an oath . . . by heaven, for it is the throne of God.” In other words, when you think of heaven, think of God’s throne, his kingly majesty and power and authority.
Majestic and Merciful
So when Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:9 to pray, “Our Father in heaven,” he is telling us that the prayer-hearing God is majestic and merciful. He is high, and also dwells with the contrite (Isaiah 57:15). He is a king, and he is a father. He is holy, and he humbles himself. He is far above us, and ready to come to us. He has plans for the whole earth and for the universe, and wants us to care about these great plans and pray about them; and he has plans for your personal life at the most practical level and wants you to pray about that.
So on October 5th last year, I wrote in my journal:
“The great designs of God are first and mainly about God.”
My heart’s desire is to be used by God for
the hallowing of his name and
the coming of his kingdom and
the doing of his will. To that end I pray for
Health — give me daily bread;
Hope — forgive my debts; and
Holiness — deliver me from evil.
In other words, it seems to me that the great designs of God are first and mainly about God. His name being hallowed, his will being done, his kingdom coming. And the rest of the prayer is how I can be fitted to serve those great designs. My bread, my forgiveness, my deliverance — my health, my hope, my holiness — are for the purpose of being part of God’s great purposes to glorify his name and exalt his rule and complete his will.
The Unique First Petition
But there was one more exegetical insight that came as I pondered and prayed this prayer again and again during the leave of absence. There is something unique about the first petition, “Hallowed be your name.” It’s not just one of three. In this petition, we hear the one specific subjective response of the human heart that God expects us to give — the hallowing, reverencing, honoring, esteeming, admiring, valuing, treasuring of God’s name above all things. None of the other five requests tells us to pray for a specific human response of the heart.
If you combine this fact with the fact that this petition comes first, and that the “name” of God (“hallowed be your name”) is more equivalent to the being of God than is his kingdom or his will, my conclusion is that this petition is the main point of the prayer and all the others are meant to serve this one.
One Great Passion
In other words, the structure of the prayer is not merely that the last three petitions serve the first three, but that the last five serve the first.
So on October 9th last year, I wrote in my journal:
My One Great Passion!
Nothing is more clear and unshakeable to me than that the purpose of the universe is for the hallowing of God’s name.
His kingdom comes for that.
His will is done for that.
Humans have bread-sustained life for that.
Sins are forgiven for that.
Temptation is escaped for that.
And then on the next day, October 10th, I wrote:
Lord grant that I would, in all my weaknesses and limitations, remain close to the one clear, grand theme of my life: your magnificence.
Prayer for Pressures and Problems
Here is the sum of the matter. Sooner or later life almost overwhelms you with pressures and problems — physical problems (give us daily bread), relational and mental problems (forgive us our debts), moral problems (lead us not into temptation). And what I want you to see is this. You have a Father. He is a thousand times better as a Father than the best human father. His fatherhood means he cares about every one of those problems, and he beckons you to talk to him about them in prayer, and to come to him for help. He knows what you need (Matthew 6:32).
That’s the way we usually attack our problems. And so we should. We attack them directly. I have this financial problem, or this relational problem, or this bad habit problem. Father, help me. That is right and good.
But Jesus offers us more in this prayer. There is more — not less than that, but more. There is an indirect attack on our problems. There is a remedy — not a complete deliverance from all problems in this life, but a powerful remedy — in the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, especially the first one.
God made you be a part of hallowing his name, extending his kingdom, and seeing his will done on the earth the way the angels do it in heaven. In other words, he made you for something magnificent and for something mundane. He made you for something spectacular and for something simple. He loves both. He honors both. But what we fail to see often is that when we lose our grip on the greatness of God and his name and his kingdom and his global will, we lose our divine equilibrium in life, and we are far more easily overwhelmed by the problems of the mundane.
In other words, I am pleading with you not to lose your grip on the supremacy and centrality of hallowing the name of God in your life. I am urging you from the Lord’s Prayer that you go to God for bread, and for healing of relationships, and for the overcoming of besetting sins, and for the doing of God’s will, and for the seeking of God’s kingdom — all of it, all the time for the sake of knowing and hallowing, reverencing, honoring, valuing, treasuring God’s name (God’s being, God himself) above all things.
Feet on the Ground, Heart Rising to God
Keep your feet on the ground. That’s why the second three petitions are there. But let your heart rise into the magnificence of God’s global will, God’s kingdom, and most of all God’s holy name — his being, his perfections.
You may not see it clearly now, but I testify from the Scriptures and from experience, there is more deliverance, more healing, more joy in the hallowing of his name than perhaps you ever dreamed. Let’s pray all year in the fullness of this prayer.