Monday, November 18, 2019

Simply Good News | Praying the Good News of the Lord's Prayer by N.T. Wright

All prayer stands with arms outstretched, one to embrace the loving God, the other to embrace the needy world. + N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright's Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good is a wonderful book. If you haven't read it, and you are wondering about Jesus and why billions of people throughout history would follow His teachings, no less believe that He is God come to save us, then this is a great introduction. This is just one of the reasons why Emmaus City considers it a foundational resource that helps shape us and turn us back to the true story of God and the whole world found in the Scriptures.

One of the most beautiful and rich chapters in this book is the final chapter simply entitled: Praying the Good News. Wright's insight into the "Our Father" or Lord's Prayer is simple, profound, and wondrous. And Wright does this by revealing how often our instinct with ourselves in mind is to reverse the order of the prayer, beginning more with "deliver us from evil" or simply "Help!". As Wright walks us through why , he then reveals how Jesus leads us into abundant life with that reverses the trend to begin with "Our Father".

If you are interested in learning how to pray or growing in your ability to pray to God and pray with God, then here are some of Wright's wise thoughts to help guide you along with Jesus' core prayer in mind.

The Puzzle of Praying Good News: We Often Begin with Where We Should End

Our calling as human beings is not simply to believe the good news. It is to become good-news people. And we can't do this by simply trying hard. We can only do it through prayer. And if Jesus himself was and is the ultimate good-news person, then the prayer he gave his followers is the best possible place to start.

Our Father in heaven  
May Your name be honored.  
May Your Kingdom come,  
May Your will be done  
As in heaven, so on earth.  
Give us today the bread we need now.  
And forgive us the things we owe,  
As we too have forgiven what was owed to us.  
Don't bring us into the great trial,  
But rescue us from evil.

But here we come to a puzzle. If we were to start with most people's vision of the good news and turn it into a prayer, it probably wouldn't come out like the prayer Jesus taught. Instead, we might get prayers like this:

O God, thank You for showing me how to live. Please help me to do it.  
O God, please give me enough food so I can at least feed my family. 
O God, please bring justice to Your world, which needs it so badly.   
O God, please forgive me my sins and take me to heaven forever (and, by the way, help me to stop sinning now).  
O God, please heal ... 

Now, none of these prayers is bad in itself. Much, much better to pray for moral vision and courage, for food, for justice, for forgiveness, and for healing than not to do so. But the "Our Father" or Lord's Prayer doesn't start off with any of these, though they can all be included. 

Think of it like this. The Lord's Prayer invites us to come inside, as though we were entering a great and splendid mansion, and to make ourselves at home. But most of us, I think, come into this building through the wrong entrance.

Imagine you have been invited to a wonderful house. You drive up a long driveway toward the main building, but having parked your car, you lose your way and find yourself going in through a door around the back. You creep inside and begin to look around. You find yourself in a small outer kitchen; there is some food being prepared and several garbage bins. This is not what you expected, though the sight of the food makes you hungry. Then you find your way slowly through to the real kitchen, where a full meal is almost ready. This looks good, but you know it wasn't the right way to enter. So you continue to explore the house and find yourself at last in the main entrance hall. Now you start to see how the whole house works. Finally, you come to the front door – and there, with his back to you, is your host. He has been watching out for you. When you greet him, he is puzzled that you seem to have come in the wrong way but delighted you're here at last. Now you can sit down and enjoy his company. And yes, it will very soon be time for the wonderful meal.

Of course, as long as you get inside the house, that's the main thing, even if you break in by a window. But once you're in – and once you find you are a welcome guest, not an intruder – then it's worthwhile trying to figure out how the house actually works and what it might be like to come in properly, by the front door.

But let's start where we are, with the things mentioned right at the end of the prayer. Because most of us, as I say, come in at the back door. We begin at the end. 

Most of us – most human beings who pray – begin with the most obvious prayer of all.

Praying the Good News: Help!

Don't bring us into the great trial,
But rescue us from evil.

It is undoubtedly true that many people who don't normally pray will, in times of great stress, say some sort of prayer. And like Jesus's disciples on the boat in the storm, most of us in those circumstances don't have the time for leisured reflection on what prayer is or what form it should take. All we can do is cry out, "Help!"

If you asked someone at the "Help!" stage of praying what the good news might be, they would probably say, "The only good news I'm interested in is getting out of this mess!" That's perfectly all right. That is how people often begin. But it's not a great place to stop.

The prayer "Lead us not into temptation," or (as it's sometimes translated today) "Do not bring us to the time of trial," sounds much calmer than "Don't make me face this kind of test!" But in essence it's the same thing. "How can you do this to me? What are you trying to prove? Why am I having to face this stuff? Don't put me in the position where I might crack under pressure!"

People at this stage of praying, like those at the "Help!" stage, are looking for one kind of good news. They want the pressure to stop – or perhaps for it not to start in the first place. That will be good news enough: a period of respite. A chance to regroup, to restore balance and morale. That is no bad thing. This – to continue the illustration – really is an important room in the house.

But "Help!" – or rather, God's response to this prayer – is not the whole of the good news.

Praying the Good News: Forgive Us

And forgive us the things we owe,
As we too have forgiven what was owed to us.

Or in the usual language, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Actually, many Christians conveniently forget the second half, partly because it's so difficult and partly because it is such a remarkable thing that we include in a prayer this one moral commitment on our part. (This is reflected in Jesus's own teaching, as for instance in Matthew 18.)

For many Christians, this simply is the good news: that though we are sinners, God has dealt with our sin so that we can now be forgiven. Often, as we know, this is coupled with present spirituality and future hope.

And yes, of course it is part of the good news. Yes, the Lord's Prayer, here as elsewhere, subtly reflects the larger ministry of Jesus. At this point particularly, it reflects his assurance of forgiveness to many people during his ministry and above all "giving his life as a ransom for many" at the end. This is all enormously important. Anyone who imagines he or she has a handle on the gospel but somehow forgets the forgiveness of sins has got hold of the wrong gospel.

But this isn't the whole of the Lord's Prayer. It isn't even in the first half. And that is because it isn't the whole of the good news. It's a key part but not the whole thing. Not even the main thing. It is indeed a room in the house, but we are still working our way in from the back kitchen. We haven't even got near the entrance hall yet.

Praying the Good News: Daily Bread

Give us today the bread we need now.

Or in the traditional language, "Give us this day our daily bread." Bread here is important in its own right. Asking for what we need is appropriate. It's what children do with parents. That is precisely the relationship God wants us to have with him.

This aspect of the good news, too, is firmly rooted in the ministry of Jesus. Continuing the story of coming through the house the wrong way, this is the dining room. There really is a meal being set out, and we really are welcome, even if we've come through the back passage rather than through the front door. Jesus fed hungry people. This was part of the good news, an enacted symbol of the coming kingdom in which everyone would be given what they needed.

Jesus's feeding of hungry people links closely with the celebrations he participated in – dining and feasting with all sorts of people who were thrilled to bits to think that God's kingdom was coming at last and excited beyond measure to think that they were in on the start of it all. And as we know, these meals all led to one last meal – the Last Supper, as we call it – which was also a celebration but of a very different kind. Jesus made it clear that this was a kingdom-meal but that the coming of the kingdom would be accomplished through his own death. Somehow, "Give us today our daily bread" points on to a larger reality about which Jesus spoke on various occasions: that somehow his own life and death would themselves become the transformative food that would enable people to live as new-creation people.

Some people might be inclined to highlight God's desire to meet people's physical needs to the exclusion of other elements. If the good news means feeding the hungry people in the world (and housing the homeless and helping the weakest and most vulnerable people in society), they might think, then that's fine! Bring it on! (But by implication, don't bother us with all that pious stuff about forgiveness and temptation and so on.) This can be, for some, a way of getting off the hook. "Let's just do the practical bit and don't bother about spirituality." But the whole prayer resists that. Every bit needs every other bit. Every bit of the good news needs every other bit. We can't just stay in the dining room without completing our journey through the house to the front door, where we should have started in the first place.

So far, then, working backward, we have a prayer for help, a prayer to not be tested to the breaking point, a prayer for forgiveness, and a prayer for bread. That's fine. All these are important, even if people too often approach this great house through the back door. What happens next? What happens when we come through from the kitchen and dining room into the main entrance hall?

Praying the Good News: Here and Now

May Your kingdom come,
May Your will be done
As in heaven, so on earth.

The traditional words go so well with everything Jesus did and said – everything Jesus was – that simply to repeat them appears to sum up his whole agenda. "Your kingdom come! Your will be done, on earth as in heaven!" And with this, we sense – if we have our wits about us – that we have turned a corner. Up to this point, working back through the prayer, we have focused on our own needs. Now we look up and see a larger plan. It's time for God to become king here and now.  Now at last we come into the entrance hall and glimpse our host for the first time.

The challenge of the kingdom, as Jesus presented it (and as he lived and died for it), is the challenge of seeing that the living God, when he becomes king, has plans for his people and for the world that will translate all our hopes, longings, and desires to another plane entirely.

The danger at this point is that people who hear this message might think, "There! I knew it! It wasn't about bread and freedom after all. It was all something spiritual. That's not going to help me here and now." This would be a radical misunderstanding, and one of the most important phrases in the whole prayer explains why: "Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as in heaven."

We cannot stress too strongly, or too often, that the whole message of the New Testament – the whole point of the mission and message of Jesus, of his life, death, and resurrection – is the coming together of heaven and earth, not their separation.

Look at it like this. God made heaven and earth to be complementary. It is his clearly stated will, as various New Testament writers insist, that they should be joined together in the end within the eventual new creation. The whole point of what Jesus was doing was that this coming together of earth and heaven was starting right then, with his work. That union was to be hugely costly, of course, because of the mess earth was in: hence the cross and resurrection. And the point of the story, the way the four Gospels tell it, was that this coming together of earth and heaven was decisively launched precisely through these cataclysmic events.

This may sound exciting, and it is. But it is also deeply challenging. And here's the point. If we approach the Lord's Prayer backward, as we have been doing, then we are bound to make the mistake of reducing God's kingdom to God doing what we want Him to do. That, of course, is to turn God into an idol, a tame puppet that we invoke to get our own way. And the whole point of the Lord's Prayer, at the heart of Jesus's good news, is to see everything the other way around.

But at least, working backward to the start of the prayer, if we can make the step from "help" to "forgive" to "feed," and then to "kingdom," there is a chance that our priorities may get sorted out. Better to start by praying for God's kingdom, and then let God himself reshape what that means, than not to pray it at all. But better still, of course, is to turn our gaze to God himself – to God as we see him revealed in Jesus – and to quiet our over-eager, fussy, look-at-me prayers and start focusing on God. What would it really look like if God were to become king?

Once we find ourselves addressing that question and doing so with the full biblical story in the background and Jesus in the foreground, then we will begin at last to understand more fully what the good news really is. The good news is that the living God is indeed establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven, through the finished work of Jesus, and is inviting people of all sorts to share not only in the benefits of this kingdom but also in the work through which it will come to its ultimate completion. To grasp that good news fully, or rather to be grasped by it, will mean being turned inside out by it, so that our self-centered prayers (for help, for rescue, for forgiveness, and for bread) will turn into the God-centered prayer for God's kingdom to come in God's way. Let's put it this way, turning the illustration around for a moment. Suppose it's your house and you're inviting God into it. But when you do that, you find that God isn't just a polite guest who sits on the edge of his chair and takes care not to spill crumbs on the carpet. When God comes into the house, he comes as the rightful owner. He may well start rearranging the furniture.

Praying the Good News: Honor and Glory to Your Name!

May Your name be honored.

God is the father, the stunningly generous creator, the supremely wise ruler and guide of the nations. He is the father of Jesus. He is the God who makes promises and keeps them. He is the lord of the angels. He is utterly faithful, utterly loving, utterly determined to bring heaven and earth together in a glorious and fruitful marriage.

The starting point for all fully Christian prayer is worship. You could put that the other way around: learning to worship – the word means "celebrating the worth" of someone or something, in this case God himself – is learning to be a Christian. 

The good news isn't primarily about us receiving help when we need it (though that's included), rescue when we're under intense pressure (though that comes, too), forgiveness (though we need it and will be given it, as long as we, too, become forgiving people), or food for the journey (though that will be provided). It isn't primarily even about God's kingdom coming and his will being done on earth as in heaven, though that remains central. The good news is primarily that God the generous God, the loving God is being honored, will be honored, has been utterly and supremely honored, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That is why, when Jesus was facing the fact that his hour had come to suffer and die, he wondered whether he should really say, "Father, save me from this moment" (a bit like "Don't let us be tested to the breaking point"). He didn't. Instead, he settled on praying, "Father, glorify Your name!" (John 12:27-28). And the Father did.

The whole of the Lord's Prayer, with this petition as its launching point, is there so that Jesus's' followers, during his own lifetime and on into the life of the church, can celebrate this revelation-in-action of the divine glory and learn more and more fully the meaning of the divine name. The Hebrew word that, in the ancient scriptures, is the proper name of Israel's God is YHWH, which is hard to translate but includes the idea "I AM," "I AM WHO I AM," and consequently "I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE" (see Exodus 3:13-15, 34:5-10). He is the sovereign one, the glorious, generous creator. He is the source of all delight, all daylight, all that is lovely, lively, and liberating. This is the ultimate good news. This God has come to be with us, to celebrate his name and his nature, to make all things new.

Praying the Good News: Heavenly Father

Our Father in heaven ...

Jesus was announcing a new reality breaking in upon a surprise and unready world – that there was one true God, whom Israel had sometimes in the past called Father, and that in and through Jesus this fatherhood could should become a reality for everybody. "To all who received him," wrote John in his Gospel, "to all who believed in his name, to them he gave the right to be called 'children of God.'" The idea of God has father, known fleetingly in Israel and very occasionally among the non-Jewish peoples, had exploded into the world in a new way. Jesus was making it real. That is the good news.

Jesus was not teaching a timeless truth that might in principle have been articulated at any time or place. He wasn't holding up an ideal and saying, "Let's all see if we can live up to this!" He was announcing a new reality breaking in upon a surprised and unready world. And in this prayer, he was inviting his followers to explore this new reality and make it their own.

Praying the Good News: Becoming Good-News People

All prayer stands with arms outstretched, one to embrace the loving God, the other to embrace the needy world. As we take up that stand – whether literally or simply in our hearts! – we find that our own prayers, our own hopes and needs and longings and fears, are somehow contained within. 

In the Lord's Prayer, the call to God as Father includes it all, though it goes beyond it all. The prayer for God to glorify his own name includes it all, though, like Jesus's' own prayer, it opens the door for God to do, whether without us or through us and in us – whatever is good in his sight. The prayer for God's kingdom to come on earth as in heaven is the prayer both for Jesus's own lifetime – when it was answered gloriously in his death and resurrection – and for our own day, when it will be answered yet more gloriously in the ultimate "new heaven and new earth" of Revelation 21 and 22 and the "liberated creation" of Romans 8. And once we have got God's fatherhood, his name, and his kingdom in the right perspective, everything else follows. There will then be plenty of room for the other prayers we will always need and want to pray, for food (for the world and for ourselves), for forgiveness, for release from unbearable pressure, for help.

Praying this prayer, then, allows us not only to know and believe the good news but to become part of it ourselves. This takes us right back to the point in the story where we are reminded ourselves that God made human beings in the first place to reflect his image into the world. God wants to run his world, to bring his love and wisdom and purposes to bear on the world, through human beings. The foundation of the good news is that through Jesus – the ultimate human being, the true image bearer – the living God has done this once and for all. It has been done. It doesn't need to be done again. The world is a different place because of Jesus.

But when people believe this and find their own lives transformed by that belief, they are in turn recruited to be part of the continuing image-bearing work. They become transformed people who are then transforming the world. They become healed people through whom God brings healing to the world. They are put right with God ("justified"), so that they can be putting-right people for the world ("justice"). They are people whose lives have been transformed by the good news of Jesus so that they can be good-news people for the world. This is why Jesus pronounced God's blessing on them – the hungry-for-justice people, the merciful, the meek, the peacemakers, and so on. And this is why the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with that list almost as a recruiting call for people to sign on as kingdom-people, comes to its focus in this prayer. In the Lord's Prayer. In the prayer that makes us utterly humble before God and utterly human in reflecting him into his world. 

Next post: Prayer | Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God | The Hardness of Prayer

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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