OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN
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Picture a group of Baptists praying in a church carved out of the jungle in the Chapare region of Bolivia. A priest in El Salvador praying three times a day. A widow in Chicago on her knees beside her bed at night. A group of nuns in a convent on Cummer Avenue gathering for worship. A megachurch in the suburbs of Dallas/Fort Worth. Everyone is praying the same thing. It can be rattled off mechanically or prayed fervently and with deep meaning. What is one thing that they have in common? I’m talking about the Lord’s Prayer of course. Five verses in Matthew. Three in Luke. Jesus’ answer to the request “Teach us to pray.”
We’re going to spend eight Sundays in the Lord’s Prayer. I pray that this will change the way we pray. I pray that this will change the way we see these words that many of us have been saying together for so many years. I pray that we will pray this prayer together and as individuals – often and meaningfully. For those who pray The Hours – which are 6 times per day prayers – the Lord’s Prayer is prayed three times per day. Perhaps we could all pray it once per day. Or how about twice – once in the morning and once at night. One writer likens the prayer to a half time talk in a football game. Halftime is not just a chance to rest and let people watch a halftime show. Half time is a chance for players to look back at the past. To reflect on what just happened. It’s a time to be reminded of their training, of their practices, of their playbook. It’s a time to look ahead with hope.
It’s a prayer that we pray with faith, hope and love. Faith in a loving God that we can call Father. Hope that God is bringing his kingdom purposes about – that the kingdom that we pray for will one day be fully realized. Love for God. Love for God’s creation. We pray because we love God.
Which brings up the question “Why do we pray?” Have you ever thought about this? Has anyone ever asked you? Inherent in the question “How should we pray?” is the question “Why bother at all?” We may see the purpose of prayer primarily as asking for things. We may look at Jesus’ words about our Father knowing what we need before you ask him and say “Why bother praying then?” If we are seeing prayer like that then we’re taking a much too narrow view of prayer. To see prayer primarily as a way to ask for or get things is to see God as some kind of cosmic vending machine. If we put the right amount of change in – pray in the right way or do the right things – we will be able to push A5 and get what we want. Of course there’s an element of asking God for things and we’ll get to that as we go through Jesus’ prayer. We could talk about a lot of reasons to pray I’m sure but I want to mention two of them this morning.
The first is – we pray to get to know God more. In getting to know God more we get to become more like him. This is the essence of what we call spiritual formation of discipleship. Being a student of Christ. Being formed in the image of Christ. In order to nurture this relationship we have to nurture it. We have to pay attention to it. We need to pay attention to God. We need to talk to him. Any relationship that we’re in needs such nurturing. We need to be talking to one another. I know there are exceptions to this. We’ve known friends and family who we haven’t seen for years and when we do it’s like we pick up just where we left off. Our deepest relationships, however, are ones in which we are communicating. You know that you can get to a point with people where the communication doesn’t even have to be verbal. We communicate things with looks, with our posture, with signals. God created us to be in such a relationship with him.
I have quite a few guitars, maybe too many. The things about guitars is that they’re meant to be played. They’re not meant to be mounted on a wall and left there or left in their case. They’ll go out of tune. The wood will dry up. It’s the same thing with our relationship with God. We’re not meant to leave it in its case. To say “Oh I accepted Christ long ago and was baptized and everything – I’m good!” Prayer is one of the ways we keep our hearts in tune with God.
The other reason we pray is that we haven’t seen God’s promises come about fully. We live in this in between time. The Kingdom of God has been established and we’re waiting for it to be established. God is our Father and is with us and God is also in heaven – he’s immanent and he’s transcendent. We live in these paradoxes. I often say don’t be afraid of the paradox. One writer describes the “existential shock” of human existence - “…alongside the unquestionable goodness, beauty, and grace that are found everywhere, we stumble over the undeniable evil, brokenness and perversity that corrupt humankind and its world. Suffering is a stumbling block to us. Reality is a tragic thing, bringing tears to our eyes. Humanity is aggressive; its fundamental law is ‘my life or yours.’” To live in the paradox though, we need to live in a posture which puts our faces toward God. We see transcendence and immanence reflected in Jesus’ prayer. We see how we are able to better live out “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself” as we come to know God through his Son and in the strength of his Holy Spirit.
We’re not just learning about the Lord’s Prayer, we want to experience it. To live it. Let’s say the first line together.
I read that in the Anglican order of worship, this prayer is introduced with these lines – 'Now, as our Savior Christ hath taught us, we are bold to say...' This is where we must begin. With our Saviour Christ. With our Deliverer Christ. We talked at Christmas about asking God to restore to us the wonder of these things. To ponder these things in our heart like Mary did. Let us ponder in our hearts friends, as we say this line, the wonder that we can be bold to approach God at all. We can be bold to approach God because of the one who is saying these words in our text this morning. We can be bold to approach God because God approaches us in the person of Christ. We can call out to God because God has spoken a Word to us – God has called out to us with his Word. We don’t call Christ the Word for nothing. God has revealed himself to us in the person of his Son and we can be therefore bold to call out to him. If I told you we could do that, would we avail ourselves of the opportunity often and with meaning? If we considered these truths that we hold in faith and in hope and in love, how might this change our view of prayer?
God is referred to as a Father throughout the Old Testament. For the first time though in a prayer, God is being referred to directly as Father. Dear Father. Abba in Aramaic. The New Testament writers left the Aramaic term in. A term that meant familiarity. Trust. Closeness. Jesus has adopted us into the family. We’re his brothers and sisters. He stands with us and prays this prayer. Jesus prays this prayer with us and for us. You may object and say “How can Jesus who never sinned pray ‘Forgive us our trespasses?’” Didn’t Jesus sit with sinners? Didn’t Jesus identify with sinners? Didn’t he who knew no sin become sin for us so that we could be called children of God? Jesus prays this prayer with us and for us. When we don’t know what or how to pray the Spirit of God cries out for us “Abba” with sighs and groans too deep for words.
How does this make us feel?
Our Father. This relationship is not causal. God is not our Father because we were born into his family. We have a part to play in this relationship – in recognizing God as our dear Father. It is in this recognition that we come to bear a family resemblance. To come to be like him. To follow Christ is to be adopted into God’s family. To stand behind Christ in that great crowd of people as he stands before God and says “Here I am and the children you have given me.”
Here we all are.
Not only do we say this along with Christ, we say it along with each other. There’s no such thing as private Christianity. This prayer reminds us of this, each time that we say it together. We are joined as brothers and sisters in this adopted family. As someone once said, you can’t choose your family. Being formed in the image of Christ as we are by spiritual disciplines like prayer means learning how to live in this new family into which we have been adopted. It reminds us that Jesus makes us children (John 13) and that his new commandment for us is to love one another just as we are loved by God and that the Holy Spirt will enable that in us. Praying “Our Father” together unites us not only with one another, but with followers of Christ around the world and followers of Christ who’ve gone before.
That great cloud of witnesses. The same way we’re reminded when we gather around the communion table. The unseen thing. The thing that is otherworldly. We’re reminded of this too when we pray “Who art in heaven.” This prayer is about God’s immanence and transcendence. His “withness” and his “otherness.” While Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters and we call God “dear Father”, God is also wholly holy and beyond us, speaking of paradoxes we hold in tension.
We see in a mirror dimly right now. We don’t have all the answers. We can’t purport to know why things happen. We know by faith that God works all things for God. We know by faith that there is no suffering on earth in which God is not present from birth to death. We know by faith that God brings life even from death. “ Who has known the mind of the Lord,” the prophet Isaiah asks. (40:13) We use words to try and get our minds around the concept of God but they’re ultimately inadequate. I think it’s important that we don’t get too hung up on the words we use. It’s important to understand why we use them. We don’t call God “Father” in this prayer because fathers are inherently better than mothers or God is for patriarchy, but because Jesus lived in a patriarchal society and framed his prayer in language reflective of a society in which fathers were providers and protectors. I don’t think we’re called to put our own experience of human fathers who fail us (because we’re all fallen after all) on God and reject language that’s been handed down to us in God’s word. Some churches do. They call the Trinity things like “Creator/Redeemer/Sustainer” because they believe it’s oppressive to use terms like “Father/Son/Holy Spirit”. They reduce God to functions. I don’t think it fosters good relationships to reduce one another or God to functions. That’s me though. You might disagree and that’s ok. We don’t reduce God to someone who is there merely for us to ask things of - like a parent who looks after our every need without demanding anything from us - a parent who pays all the bills while the child sits in the basement and plays video games, maybe hits the clubs on weekends. God’s loving relationship demands something from us. Jesus knew he was loved by his Father and he knew that he was sent by his Father to bring His kingdom. We’re commissioned by the same Father who sends us as representatives of Christ. This is not for the faint of heart friends. We don’t do it alone of course. Christ promised he would be with us always, even to the end of the age. We do it alongside one another too.
So may God strengthen our hearts friends, as we pray this prayer to our loving Father over the coming weeks. May he give us a new understanding of this prayer in those hearts, that we may be coming ever more to bear a family resemblance to the one we call Our Father. The one who is with us. The one who is apart from us. May these things be true for all of us.