We are working our way through the Sermon on the Mount and over the next few weeks as part of that wider exploration we are embarking on a journey to the heart of Prayer; by exploring what is known as the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. It seems natural that as Jesus teaches those he had called to follow him and live in a new way as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, that prayer, communication with God, would be included, in fact you could say it takes centre stage coming right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus had started by talking of God’s revolution of grace in the beatitudes, blessed are the spiritually poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven Then moved on to how those who experienced that revolution are called to be saltand light in the world. How our changed heart attitudes should be reflected in how we treat others and as we started to look at last time how it should changeour devotional life as well, our spiritual disciplines, of which Jesus gavethree examples…giving to the poor, prayer and fasting. As part of that Jesus teaches us how to pray.
In this prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples he helps untangle that puzzle. He is not just giving words to say, a formula that we know by heart, and can rattle off without thinking, rather he is giving us a framework that guides our prayer life and the focus of our hearts. He puts some very deep profound spiritual truth not into magical words like an abracabra, or religious jargon, some mumbo jumbo, but into straight forward everyday language.
William Barkley has a very helpful summary of the Lord’s Prayer that shows us how this simply but far from shallow prayer encapsulates the whole of life and brings it before God. How it sets the priorities for communication between humanity and God.
He says the first three clauses of this prayer stop prayer from becoming self-centered, it may come as a surprise to you but we are not the centre of the universe. They focus us on what is at the centre of Prayer… that is that prayer is about God. “Hallowed be your name”, “Your kingdom come”, “Your will be done”… Focuses us first and foremost on God. We can so easily get caught up in what we want and what we need, what we have to say or even what we think God should do… and we forget that God is wanting to speak, that God has spoken, that he is the one who Jeremiah tells us is working out his plans and purposes, for our good.
Then in its last three petitions we find a comprehensive list of our needs in life. Our daily bread that God the creator would provide our basic needs, forgive us our sins, that God our saviour would deal with the wrongs and pains of our past, lead us not into times of trail and deliver us from evil, that our future welfare would be in the hands of God our comforter and guide. A journey to the heart of prayer it a journey to knowing and trusting God with the whole of our life, trusting the God we know through Jesus Christ.
Today we are focusing on the first clause of this prayer that ties all of it together: “Our Father in heaven.” It has been said that the whole of the Lord’s Prayer, with its focus on seeing God’s name be honoured and God’s will being done and his reign being established on earth and our putting our trust in God for all our lives could be summed up in what it means to call God Father, and, in fact it has been said that the whole of the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus explaining, what it means to call God Father.
Jesus had started his teaching on prayer by saying “Don’t keep babbling on like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your father knows what you need even before you ask him therefore this then is how you should prayer… Our Father in heaven”. The basis of our prayer life our communication with God, our life with god. is not in having the right words to say so we can plicate an angry God, or grab the attention of a disinterested distant deity, or say the right thing to get what we want… it is based on the character of God and God’s relationship with us. Our Journey to the heart of prayer is a journey to the father heart of God.
Jesus invitation to call God Father is quite radical, in what we have of Jesus prayer life we see that Jesus calls God ‘abba’ which is the most intimate expression for father in Aramaic Jesus mother tongue. It’s the first words that an infant would say to their parent, like ‘dada’ in English. Naomi’s first words were dada, and they were just about her last as well. She was about 4 months old and I was giving her a bath and she looked up into my eyes and smiled and said ‘dada’ I was so amazed, Ok shocked, that I almost dropped her, then and there. Jesus invites us into that intimacy with God.
Jesus use of the word father has its roots in the Old Testament and gives us a great understanding of the father heart of God. It speaks to us of God being the source of all life, we often equate God the Father with God the creator. The first time the metaphor of God as father is mentioned in the Old Testament is in the context of God caring for God’s children, in Exodus 4:22,23, in what follows on from what we looked at in the burning bush last week, in our detour from the heart of prayer because of another trip tothe heart, that God calls Israel, ‘my son’. That God’s saving action is based on that fatherly relationship. We have hope because God cares for his Children, hears and sees their suffering, comes down and acts to see them have liberty and freedom. It is Jesus who invites us to pray “our Father” and that invitation must be set in his whole ministry and life and death, as it says in the beginning of John’s Gospel that the word became flesh that whoever would believe in him he gave the right to become the sons and daughters of the Most High God.
Helmit Thiekicke puts it like this “ Absolutely everything depends on this one fact, that it is Jesus Christ who teaches us this Prayer. He alone, in his life and his death is the guarantor that there is a father, that God is nevertheless at work in this cruel, hard and fatherless world building his kingdom of mercy in the secrecy of the cross.”
But also this image of God as Father is the basis of our living out our Christian life as well. In the book of Romans Paul uses the metaphor of adoption as a way of explaining Christian ethics. In Roman society people would adopt someone to be their heir, usually this was done by wealthier people, however not only would this mean that they received the privileges and benefits of being part of the family, also there was the expectation that the adopted person would reflect the character of their adopted father and carry on the family business. In John 20:21 Jesus expressed this by saying Just as the Father has sent me so I send you’. The compassionate saving God sends us out as expressions of his care and compassion to the world around us. NT Wright sums it up by saying “when we call God father, we are called to step out, as appreciative Children, into a world of pain and darkness’. When we do that we need to pray, we need the Lord’s Prayer because the father who calls out into the darkness is also the father who we call out to shine his light into that darkness.
OK I want to finish up today with some thoughts about praying Our Father in heaven.”
Firstly it’s the family prayer. It’s our… it’s not my Father… it is not the one lone voice calling out to the great alone, but rather it calls us into community, even when we pray it by ourselves. There is a real sense that as we pray this prayer that we are not only affirming our relationship with God through his mercy and kindness, but acknowledging that we belong together. We are brothers and sisters, we are a people. We are celebrating communion together and in that there is symbolism that we share the same bread, and drink from the same cup, that we are one.
There is an ethical side to that. When we pray thy kingdom come there is the expectation that we want God’s righteousness, god’s fatherly mercy and goodness for all people, when we pray for our daily bread there is the understanding that we desire that for all God’s people and we need to be part of that provision, we share what we have. Likewise as we encounter God’s forgiveness, we forgive those who have wronged us.
Secondly, just because we call God Father it does not mean that God is male. Feminist Mary Daley famously said ‘If God is Male, then Male is God’, sadly that has been how some people have acted down through history. One of the big movements in the Church in the twentieth century has been to wrestle with the God language we use and for some that has meant they want to do away with talking about God as Father. It’s important to acknowledge that God is spirit and we are made male and female in God’s image. That the scripture is full of male, female and non-gender imagery of God, all of which we are free to use and explore. The metaphor of Father, is how Jesus best sums up his relationship and ours with God. Its about relationship not gender.
Thirdly, we are praying to our Father in heaven. It is simply coincidence that we are looking at Our Father in heaven on a day when in New Zealand we are celebrating our earthly fsathers, father’s day, it may of course be divine coincidence. Some of us wrestle with calling God Father because of our relationships with our earthly father, we can project that on to God as father and some people because of their experiences of abuse and neglect say they can never relate to God as Father. But Knowing God as our heavenly father I believe can be healing. Remember it is Jesus, who calls God his Father who is inviting us into that relationship with God as Our Father. I know my Father loved me but he never told me, he was a good provider but because of what happened to him in his childhood he was never able to express love physically or verbally, you know I went through my whole life thinking I wasn’t good enough for him, it wasn’t till after he died that that I discovered he was proud of me, he had told his work mates and at his funeral they passed that titbit onto me. But I’ve found it quite healing to hear God say, and not with any sense of my having a messianic complex, you are my Son and I love you. It is as come to know Our Heavenly Father’s love that we are made whole.