The Most Important Thing to Pray For
Think about all the times you've said, "I'll pray about it," or told someone, "Pray about it." What was the subject of those prayers? An illness? A big decision? A perplexing problem? It could have been a matter of life or death. Whatever the matter was dollars will get you doughnuts it wasn't the most important thing to pray for.
What does conventional wisdom say in the most important thing to pray for? Well at least it knows it's more than asking for two front teeth or a hippopotamus for Christmas. Even conventional wisdom knows that most letters to Santa Claus ask for things that aren't worth praying for let alone the most important thing to pray for. But then a special letter to Santa comes along. They write songs and Christmas stories about these kinds of letters to Santa. They're about mamma getting better; daddy getting out of prison. Prayers about these sorts of things rise to the level of what conventional wisdom believes to be the most important thing to pray for. Conventional wisdom says the most important thing you could ask for at Christmas is world peace, food for the hungry, money for the poor.
Christian conventional wisdom while not dismissing prayers like that will maintain they're still not the most important thing to be prayed for. Prayers for peace, food, and money are for this body and life. The Christian knows the most important prayer must be about something spiritual. So it must be a request for more faith, just a closer walk with Jesus, a better Christian life. That last one gets closer, but it misses the mark. The most important prayer has to be a "Thy" petition not an "our" or "us" one. It's true; the "Thy" ones do turn into ones for "us," but they don't start there.
Now I've really confused you as to what is the most important thing to pray for, so let's ask the Lord's Prayer. What is the first thing Jesus teaches us to pray for? Not our earthly needs or the earthly needs of others. Not people in desperate or tear-jerking situations. But His name. The disciples ask Jesus, "Teach us to pray." And Jesus says when you pray say this, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name."
Think of all the times you've said, "I'll pray about it." Think of all the times you told someone, "Pray about it." Was the first thing on your mind that God's name be kept holy? Was it on your mind at all? I tell you the truth. If any other than my own name was on my mind at all it was the person I was talking to. I'm not thinking about God's name when I pray for your illness, your problem, your situation. And when I'm praying about my own things, I'm only thinking about me.
Get this straight. The Lord Jesus teaches us that whether our loved one, or we ourselves die isn't the most important thing. The name of God is. No matter how a situation works out we pray that God's name be kept holy. Though our name might be dragged through the mud; though our name might be cast out as evil; we pray that God's name be kept holy. Well, that's just plain silly, isn't it? Doesn't two front teeth or a hippopotamus for Christmas make a lot more sense than that?
Besides isn't God's name holy already? It's important you notice and emphasize this fact here and in the following two petitions. Yes, God's name is certainly holy in itself; the kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, and the good and gracious will of God is done without our prayer. This thrice repeated fact rescues you from the pagan assumption that prayer is how we get God to do something. No, remember the most basic definition of prayer is saying back to God what He has first said to us. God has told us He wants His name kept Holy, His kingdom to come, and His will to be done, so we in turn asks those things. But His name is holy; His kingdom does come, and His will is done without our prayers. In all of the petitions, we're praying that these things happen among us also.
Do you see how "Thy" petitions lead to "our, us" ones? We pray, "Hallowed be Thy name," and this leads to it being kept holy among us also. How is this done? By pure doctrine and practice which is another way of saying by true teaching and living. Pure and true teaching only attaches the Name of God to what He actually says. Would it be a big deal to you if someone attached your name to a contract or a loan you didn't agree to? You rightly get offended when someone says, "So and so says you said this and that," when you didn't. Well, when people attach the name of God to things He hasn't said like forbidding work on Sundays, forbidding marriage to some, or forbidding Baptism to others, God's name is not being kept holy.
It is particularly serious when God's name is used to deny the precious Gospel or to muddy it in the hearts and minds of men. This is done at Christmas in a myriad of ways. When we make Christmas about being kind to the poor and homeless, about people changing, about family, or about the Big Guy in the red suit we aren't hallowing God's name. Christmas is about God taking on flesh and blood so He could put His name on us.
Getting the right name on things is important. On Christmas morning the present goes to the person whose name is on the package. Every kid knows it's wrong to open a present that doesn't have your name on it or even worse for someone else to open a present with your name on it. God identifies you as belonging to Him by putting His name on you. He did this in Holy Baptism. But how could God put His name on something as vile, and filthy, and fallen as you? That's the rub. We already said to put God's name on something that doesn't rightly belong to God is sinful. How can sinners rightly belong to God? Through God the Son.
God the Son, bearing the full, holy, complete Name of God comes into the Virgin's Womb. He takes the Name Jesus and with the Name of a Man He takes on all the obligations men have to live a holy life according to God's Name. He did it. You see this for yourself in the Gospels. Never did Jesus sin. Even His enemies when asked couldn't point out a single thing He ever did wrong. Think how many things your enemies would rattle off against you. So without sin, fault or blemish, men wrongly sent the Holy Jesus to suffer and die, and because Jesus willingly claimed our sins, God the Father rightly allowed all of hell's wrath to be taken out against Jesus on the cross. So completely covered was Jesus with our sins the Father would no longer name Jesus as His Son on the cross, and abandoning Him, the Father claimed us. In Baptism the redemption, the salvation, the heaven Jesus won for sinners is applied to us by the Name of Triune God joined to Water.
God name is kept holy when a pastor stands in the pulpit proclaiming the Law in all its severity and the Gospel in all it's sweetness. God's name is kept holy when pastor's apply it to sinners in Baptism, repentant sinners in Absolution, and hungry sinners in Communion. God's name is not sullied, sickened, or misused when it's applied to dirty sinners, sick sinners, ungodly sinners, that's why God sent His Son into the world bearing it.
The most important prayer in the world is a "Thy" petition. But "hallowed be Thy name, it leads to an "us" petition and here we're back to the Law. God's name is kept holy among us not only when the pastor teaches God's Word in truth and purity, but when you the children of God "also lead holy lives according to it." So how you doing?
Let's just leave that question on your heart for a bit. How you doing with leading a holy life according to the Word of God? Are you bringing glory and honor to God's Name? Thirty years ago, during my first year of seminary, I'm driving to the hospital carrying 3 other seminary students. We're going to make hospital calls. We all have clerical collars on. Someone cuts me off. I respond with horn, hand, and voice. Instantly three hands go up to cover their clerical collars in attempt to shield the name of God, but it was too late, wasn't it?
I could run through many more things in my life where I've profaned the name of God by a less than holy life, by a life lived contrary to the Word of God. You can do the same. However, is the point of coming to the Lord in prayer Law or Gospel? Does Jesus give us the Lord's Prayer to rub our faces in our sins? Should you come away from the Lord's Prayer feeling guilty? Not hardly; not at all.
When you pray to the Lord about something, you are saying you can't do it; He must. The petition, "Hallowed be Thy name," is a prayer for help to teach purely and live holy. It's a prayer to be protected from profaning God's Name by teaching or living contrary to God's Word. When you ask for the most important thing, that God's name be kept holy among us, you should hear the voice of God booming, "I have; I do; I will."
God has raised up faithful pastors through the centuries to teach His Word in truth and purity. He does that today; He will do it until the end of the ages. We wring our hands at what we see going on in the church today; handwringing has never accomplished a thing; hands folded in prayer do more than this world, our church, or ourselves ever dream. You can live in the certain faith that the simple petition "Hallowed by Thy Name" is more than enough prayer to address all that is wrong with the church today.
As God has raised up faithful pastors to preach His Word so He raises up children of God who lead holy lives according to it. You know how you do that? By running to His Name like you would a strong tower. Proverbs 18:10 says this, "The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe." In the Name of God which is on you for Jesus' sake, God doesn't see your sins but Jesus' holiness. When we pray, "Hallowed be Thy Name," we are praying that God not regard us apart from His Name given to us in Jesus. We're praying that God not look at us apart from Baptism, apart from Absolution, apart from Communion. And you know what? He doesn't, so you don't either.
So the most important thing to pray for is that God's name be kept holy; a close second might be to pray for the faith to believe that He always does it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent Vespers II (20091209); First Petition