Eternal Spirit of the living Christ,
I know not how to ask or what to say;
I only know my need, as deep as life,
And only You can teach me how to pray.
This morning we sang this hymn in chapel at Concordia Seminary. It is not the most well-known. Perhaps your congregation does not sing it very often, or even at all. It is a simple melody and it has only three verses. But as we sang this first verse, our text from Luke 11 came immediately to mind. It captures something fundamental about the nature of God who invites us to pray, and about our nature as people who need help praying. With some prodding from the Finnish hymn writer Frank von Christierson, therefore, I will offer some reflections on how you might preach this text and its very familiar prayer.
Before I get there, however, let me mention a few things from the reading which would not be the focus of my sermon:
- The form of Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is different from Matthew’s version. The variant readings remind us how tempting it is to try and harmonize them. But any commentary writer will insist harmonization is not necessary or helpful. Neither is it homiletically fruitful. Consideration of the differences is an important exegetical exercise, but I would suggest you keep it out of the sermon.
- Any preacher who addresses prayer in a sermon is tempted to focus on the results of prayer or the persistence of prayer. Both could reasonably follow from the parable of the man pounding on the door in the middle of the night. There is certainly a time and place to discuss both. But those aspects of prayer are more about us—what we do and what we get—than about God.
- Last month the Pope made news by approving a revision to the Lord’s Prayer. While this would make for an engaging and productive discussion in Bible class, I would suggest you avoid making this the center of the sermon. The questions of authority and interpretation central to this decision would be hard to address without obscuring the promises of God in Christ you are called to proclaim.
Rather than focusing on any of these issues, therefore, I would focus this sermon on our need for help, not so much our need for God to answer our prayers. Also (and even more), for Him to teach us how to pray. The longer I served as a parish pastor, and the longer I live as a praying Christian, the less certain I become of the wisdom of my own prayers. Some situations—indeed, many—are too complicated for me to figure out what to request. What should I ask God to do in a situation where no good solution seems possible? How should I pray during times when I cannot decide what I would do if I were in charge? My imagination is far too limited to conceive of everything God oversees and holds together. It is almost enough to make one give up on prayer. If I do not know what to pray for, where would I even start?
That is where this reading from Luke 11 comes in. At the heart of the text is a promise from Jesus about God.
The text begins with a request from a single unnamed disciple (τις τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ). On behalf of all disciples of Jesus of all time, this individual asks Jesus how to pray. Jesus obliges and tells them (αὐτοῖς) to begin with, “Father.” In contrast to Matthew, Luke leaves out, “our.” In doing so, he focuses our attention less on who we pray with and more on the one we pray to. This fits with the second half of the verse as Jesus continues to focus our attention on the goodness of the Father.
After directing us to speak to the Father, Jesus goes on to list what we should ask for. This part of the prayer is familiar to your hearers, but you might remind them the focus is on God. When we pray, we should have in mind His name and His provision and His forgiveness. In other words, we ask God to do what God promises to do. In this way the Lord’s Prayer is simply an expanded version of the recurring prayer throughout the Gospels: “Lord, have mercy.”
In other words, we ask God to do what God promises to do. In this way the Lord’s Prayer is simply an expanded version of the recurring prayer throughout the Gospels: “Lord, have mercy.”
Here the hymn verse comes back to mind. Beyond the things Jesus tells us to request, I do not know what I need. “I only know my need,” and it is, “deep as life.” But I also know the One who invites me to take my deep need to the Father.
The promise in this text is how God knows and provides for my deepest need. I cannot always (or even usually) see how. Which is why I am often unsure of what to ask for. But Jesus teaches me. He shows me His Father who gives generously. Jesus reveals Himself as the gift of the Father for me (and all people). Jesus teaches me to come to the Father in faith and childlike prayer. May your sermon do the same.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 11:1-13.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 11:1-13.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 11:1-13.