There were two parts to the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.
Our Father in the heavens, sanctified be (hagiasthētō) your name; may your kingdom come; may your will become as in heaven also on earth. (Matt 6:9–10)
First, they were to pray that by intervening as king in Israel’s history YHWH would gain great renown among the nations. The first petition echoes Ezekiel 36:23 LXX:
I will sanctify (hagiasō) my great name, which was profaned among the nations, which you profaned in their midst, and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, when I am hallowed (hagiasthēnai) among you before their eyes.
Here we have an excellent way of thinking about Jesus’ mission. Israel had brought the name of God into disrepute among the nations, as evidenced supremely by the disaster of Roman occupation. By his faithfulness to the point of death on a Roman cross Jesus would reverse this wretched situation and bring glory to the name of God (cf. Phil. 2:6-11).
It’s that logic of salvation again: Gentiles would see the judgment and salvation of Israel—God’s will being done on earth as in heaven; they would believe in the rightness or righteousness of Israel’s God, and so would be saved, becoming part of a new community that would bear witness to the coming triumph of YHWH over the nations.
Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors; and do not lead us into testing, but deliver us from the one who is evil. (Matt. 6:11-12)
The second part of the prayer had in view the challenges facing the disciples during the tumultuous historical period when YHWH would vindicate the holiness of his great name. As Ezekiel put it, the nations would know that Israel’s God was kyrios when he was hallowed among his people in their sight.
The second part of the prayer, therefore, registers the fact that the disciples would be instrumental—or at least implicated—in the fulfilment of the petitions of the first part. They would experience material want, they would be sinned against, their faith in God’s new future would be severely tested by evil people. So they were taught to pray against these things.
That was then.
Lively conversations with my god-daughter and her sister, both in their twenties, in New Zealand over the last couple of weeks (I’m writing this on the flight home) have reminded me that the small-minded, parochial, ill-informed, judgmental, and intolerant attitudes of Christians has been a major reason why God has got a bad name these days.
There are other problems, of course. Modern people may have a soft spot for Jesus, but they are repelled by the angry violent God who seems to inhabit large sections of the Bible; and they are generally rather impressed by the alternative narratives of life and the cosmos that the sciences have substituted for the biblical accounts.
Still, I think that there is a compelling analogy between the situation faced by the disciples in the first century and the situation faced by churches in the West today. The historical particulars are different: we do not have the same act of divine political intervention in view. But a prayer for the restoration of the reputation of the biblical God in the increasingly post-Christian West through the judgment and salvation of his people, so to speak, seems entirely appropriate.
As with the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, everything flows from this singular theological starting point—from the concrete concern of a faithful people for the “glory” of God in the world.
But then I think we need to take it in a slightly different direction. Jesus taught his disciples to pray that the kingdom of God would come. The widest biblical context for the hope of kingdom was the centuries-old conflict between Israel and pagan empires, which would come to a head with the defeat of idolatrous Rome. The context for the church today, as it considers how far it has fallen short of the glory of God, is that of its extremely problematic relationship with global secularism.
So rather than mindlessly repeating Jesus’ prayer out of context, we might consider using it as a template: 1) a prayer for the contemporary reputation of the biblical God, that 2) begins to envisage a real intervention and transformation in our own very different world, and that 3) asks that churches will be formed and sustained as agents of that purpose.
Perhaps something like this…
Eternal Creator God in heaven, may your reputation be restored in our secular world.
Show yourself to stressed global humanity as the good judge of the whole earth.
Take from us today the things that we don’t need.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us into an imaginative renewal of the mission of your people, and deliver us from irrelevance.
For yours is the cosmos, the life and the wonder. For ever and ever. Amen.
Not as succinct as I’d like, but hopefully it makes the point. Feel free to put forward your own proposals in the comments. If you think it’s just a bad idea, let me know why.