…He loves Israel; but it won’t love him in return, at least not for long. So it’s going to be destroyed, and God won’t save it – but he grieves over it anyway. We’re being brought in on a conflict in the very heart of God. The children of Hosea and the prostitute are named after Israel’s terrible fate – Jezreel, after the place where Israel’s defeat will happen, and Not-pitied, for the inevitability of her downfall, and Not-my-people for the apostasy that has caused all this. There will be redemption for the faithful remnant in the future, but the tragedy has to happen first.
The Psalm sounds as if everything is all right – now – but the echoes of how things have been are everywhere. ‘You have forgiven the iniquity of your people’, it says – but then it prays, ‘Let your anger depart from us’, as if the people really haven’t been forgiven quite yet…. We’re still praying for deliverance, for life, for restoration to God’s favor, so all the claims about what has been accomplished have a sort of tentative feel about them, as if they are still more of a hope than a reality. The Lord may be speaking peace to his people; but look at what he has to reconcile! Mercy and truth sound like two Good Things, but think about them a minute. Think about the people you know who are convinced that they have the Truth as their possession – they’re not very merciful, are they? And those who are merciful as a way of life are often quite prepared to sacrifice truth in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Righteousness and peace – same story. The people throughout history who have been most concerned with right-eousness have generally placed a very low value on peace – think of the fight for the abolition of slavery in this country, or the attempt of today’s politicians to legislate a national morality that will conform to their own ignorant and narrow ideas of what’s right. Peace is no priority there; in fact they thrive on people’s being at each other’s throats – they’re easier to control that way. And the people who love peace are prone to seek it an any price, with righteousness being one of the first things to go in the struggle. Only God could reconcile these pairs, make them meet together and kiss each other – human beings’ efforts to do it usually fall completely flat. A good day may be coming, but the background to it is full of tension and fear.
This is the context for Jesus’s teaching about prayer. His disciples don’t want to be taught to pray; they already know how to do that. They want to be taught a prayer, something that they can repeat to God and each other, something that will give them an identity like the one that John the Baptist’s disciples have. So Jesus offers them this amazing prayer. You start with God, of course, and you call him ‘Father’ – not unheard-of in the Jewish tradition, but not the main way to call upon God. Right away we sense that we’re in new territory. Then we have 2 petitions all about God, which are really all the same thing, said in different ways. May your name be hallowed, may your Kingdom come – this is about creating conditions in this world that look like how God wants things to operate – that’s why they are summed up in the other version of this prayer as ‘your will be done’ – God’s will, rather than that of what Paul calls the rulers and authorities of this world. They run on greed, inequity, the ability of one person to trample on another, the rule of brute force – God’s Kingdom runs on mutual kindness and justice, the honoring of each other, care for the creation, not the bank accounts of those who have usurped God’s rule over it. God’s name will be hallowed when his will is done by those who bear his name; God’s Kingdom will come when the powers of this world are overcome by that force.
Well, once you’ve started praying for things like this, what would you expect? All heaven breaks loose…. If God’s name and will and Kingdom are to be the order of the day nothing else will ever be the same. That’s why this prayer is a prayer for a time of crisis – a prayer for a wilderness journey, a prayer in the middle of things unsettled. The fact that this is the universal prayer of all Christians in all times and places should not blind us to the fact that in Jesus’s mouth it’s a prayer reflecting a crisis. The Kingdom of God comes as a crisis, a situation demanding decision, action, upheaval – creating, in fact, the opportunity for us to rely on God for everything. It’s when you get the props kicked out from under you that you learn what you can rely on, and you have to turn there because there’s nowhere else to turn.
What we have to ask for next reflects that situation. Daily bread – or, as some scholars translate it, tomorrow’s bread. Just like manna in the desert, we ask for it every day because it comes to us as only enough for each day, not capable of being hoarded up. It’s the bread of the journey, no more than we need, but no less either, just what we need, just when we need it, and given each day so that we never forget that it’s a gift, not an inevitability. Then comes forgiveness, both ways, the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we grant – because you can’t make a journey with a lot of baggage to hold you back (and guilt and grudges are the heaviest kind of baggage there is to drag around). You have to clean up the moral landscape you’re traveling through if you want to get safely to where you’re going.
And then there’s the prayer to be saved from the real threats of the journey, the many and various ways in which the Evil One appears to draw us aside from our path, to tempt us with alternative goals and easier routes. We pray to be spared those assaults because we acknowledge how bad we are at fending them off. The time of trial is always on its way, and we have no way to entirely escape it – but we pray, every day, every time we say this prayer, that the trials won’t be more than we can bear, that God will rescue us from the misery, the disgrace, the sheer stupidity of giving in to them. It’s a startling prayer when you read it this way; what it says about our situation is so unlike how we like to think of where we are. But it’s the Lord’s prayer, and he generally tells it like it is – we do well to pay attention to it, however much it may contradict our own ideas.
And despite all this atmosphere of danger, crisis, uncertainty, our Lord’s teaching about prayer is that when the world is falling apart, God isn’t. When your needs are acute, God will meet them. When you ask in faith, God is not just willing, but eager to answer your prayer; and, unlike the grudging, hesitant answers of the people we might ask for help, help will be forthcoming, largely and soon. And his best gift of all, the Holy Spirit, will be the sign of the abundance of gifts he waits to pour out on his beloved children.
Jesus’s words tell us that God’s decision about us has been made – we are his beloved children. We have nothing to fear; there is nothing to disturb us in the world around us and nothing that should cause us anxiety from within. As Paul says, we are free of the burdens of guilt, of anxiety, of making the grade; and therefore we are free to devote ourselves to the other end of prayer: listening. Knowing that God will meet our needs, we don’t need to be obsessed with them. We can work instead at (as our Collect describes it) ‘so passing through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal’. We can listen to what the Lord God is saying, listen for his word of peace, find ways to navigate the tortuous passages between mercy and truth, righteousness and peace. We can orient our lives by the Spirit’s leading, finding energy to go where we must go by the Spirit’s power, create around us a community that also relies on that direction and that strength, and offers them to the world as a free gift, just as they came to us. Let us pray, then, brothers and sisters, and let us not be afraid either to pray or to face what God may send us as answer to our prayer.