This is the beginning of our sermon series in which we are going to look at the Lord’s Prayer. It may seem that going through this prayer sentence by sentence will be extremely boring. But I have found that in just looking at it’s beginning, I have so many questions and ideas that I’m not going to fit them into a sermon!
The version of the Lord’s Prayer that we usually use is the one in Matthew, which we heard read. We took a slightly larger passage just to put it in it’s context in the sermon on the mount, where it’s part of Jesus’ instruction against what we might call ‘showing off’ our religion.
In the parallel passage in Luke 11, Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, as John the Baptist did for his disciples.
Either way it arose we can learn immediately that:
1) Jesus believes that prayer is important.
2) There is a good and not-so-good way to go about it.
The Matthew passage tells us that prayer is something private, not something to be done ostentatiously to show how pious someone is, but the cultivation of a private relationship with God.
It’s not quite clear what Jesus meant when he condemned ‘heaping up empty phrases such as the Gentiles do’. He may have had in mind the repletion of certain phrases such as Hare Krishna or Hail Mary or even Lord have mercy. But it could also mean not using set prayers. In this case what we call the Lord’s prayer may have been intended not as a prayer to be used in public and private worship but as a pattern for the kind of things we should say when we pray. (The Mormons, for instance, will not use the Lord’s Prayer for that reason.) I think there is some merit in this but I also remember Alan Kreider describing the way that after his father had a stroke he was not able to communicate in other ways, but was able to repeat prayers he had learnt by heart. I hope Ian won’t mind me saying that this has been important in praying with his very frail father.
Whether or not we think it’s important to know set prayers, it’s clear that Jesus It’s not about ‘saying your prayers’ – I mean by that going through a routine of words without really having mind and emotions engaged in the content of the prayer. (My late husband Bernard used to describe his father trying to rattle through his Jewish morning prayers while indicating that yes he would like a cup of tea or something.) Nor is it about amassing some sort of religious merit award for praying.
Jesus says repeating something over and over again is not helpful – God is not deaf and the repetitions can become a meaningless ritual. The most important thing is that prayer is directed towards God and that it has real significance and content. Jesus clearly thinks that prayer is an essential activity, because it is about a relationship to God, who is there listening no matter where we are. God knows what we need before we speak, but the important thing is to speak, because without that articulation there is no 2-way relationship of love and trust.
Just imagine a phone conversation carried out in the way that we sometimes pray.
Here is John calling Linda
John: O Linda
Linda: Yes, John
John: O Linda
Linda: Yes, John
John: O Linda
Linda: What is it, John?
John: O Linda
Linda: What do want, John?
John: O Linda
Linda: Look John, you called me. I haven’t got time for this!
John: I love you Linda
Linda: That’s nice
John: I love you, Linda
Linda: I love you too, John
John: I love you Linda
Linda: Yes, John, I love you, but what do you want?
John: Roses are red, violets are blue
Sugar is sweet and so are you
Linda: That’s lovely, John, but I’ve got to go now.
John: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways...
Linda: You’re wonderful too, John
John: My love is like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June
My love is like a violin that’s sweetly played in tune.
Linda: That’s sweet but I’m sorry John, please tell me what you want!
John: Love means never having to say that you’re sorry.
Linda: That’s it, I haven’t got time for this. Tell me why you’re ringing or
John: It is better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all.
Linda: Goodbye, John
John: O Linda, Love never fails.
So whether the Lord's Prayer is a guideline on how to pray or something to be learned and repeated by rote, the attitude of the mind and heart and attention to the content of what we say are both important.
In fact most of what Jesus said in the Lord’s prayer was quite familiar to his Jewish hearers, except, perhaps this emphasis on forgiveness, which is why perhaps he reinforces after teaching his disciples the prayer – but that is material for a later sermon. But looking very carefully at the content of that prayer we can learn a great deal.
Let’s look at what it says.
The first word in our English translation of Matthew may immediately cause us problems. It is…? ‘Our’ is definitely there in the Greek. We usually say ‘our’ when we’re in public worship and we’re used to that. But hang on a moment. Isn’t this the way that Jesus said that we should pray when we’re in private? Who is this ‘we’ who have invaded my privacy and who may also address God as Father?
I was helped to see the strangeness of this ’our’ when I came across the writing on the Lord’s Prayer by F.D Maurice, who preached 9 sermons on it in 1848. This was a long time ago but many things have not changed. One of these is that we may not always feel identified with other people. We might not want to bring them with us to God in the privacy of our relationship with Him. He wrote;” How can we look around upon the people whom we habitually feel to be separated from us by almost impassable barriers… upon the people of an opposite faction to our own…upon men whom we have reason to despise… and then teach ourselves to think that in the very highest exercise of our lives, these are associated with us.” Maurice goes on to talk about all the divisions in society and barriers between people which we must overcome in approaching God. This chimes well with Jesus’s previous statement in Matthew 5; 23 that you should be reconciled with your brother or sister before offering your gift at the altar.
In our culture, though, there is something that would be unfamiliar in the First century and even to FD Maurice – and that is our individualism. In this century people may often that they can be Christians without being involved with church. They believe that their faith is just a matter between themselves as individuals and God. We see it in the number of songs which are about ‘My Saviour’, ‘My God’ etc. The psalms show us that there is a place for this, but the pattern Jesus lays down for prayer in general is that it is about me praying in the context of belonging to a group. The implication of ‘our’ is that in coming to God, in our most intimate prayer, we are not individuals Jesus expects us to identify with, bring with us and speak on behalf of all those who can call him Father – that is, all the family of God, whoever they may be.
The idea of God as Father was not new to Jesus’ hearers. It is there in the Hebrew Scriptures. They would, probably, though, have thought that the children of God were really the Jews - God’s chosen people. But the passage we heard from Galatians (3;26 - 4;7) tells us who the children of God are. They are those who have believed in Christ, the Son of God, and have become associated with him through baptism. This passage goes on to make clear that our ability to recognize God as our Father is a work of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise how could we presume to call him Daddy, as Galatians indicates.
But Maurice points out that this adoption as God’s children rests on the act of Jesus for all humankind, that the nature of the family of God was shown by the Spirit giving people the ability to call God Father in the language of every nation. He concludes ‘the baptized community was literally to represent mankind’. It is not given to us to distinguish those to whom God’s saving grace will be given. We are not the judges. Anyone and everyone is potentially within the scope of God’s salvation. So in coming into God’s presence in prayer, we are expected to bring the whole of humanity and recognize them as family.
I don’t want to go deeply into the question of the fatherhood or motherhood of God here. What is important is that God is a parent, having infinitely more of the characteristics of parenthood than any man or woman ever could. In a patriarchal society the term ‘mother’ would have indicated nurturing but also relative powerlessness – and that is not what Jesus or the New Testament writers were seeking to convey. They were trying to depict the ultimate caring relationship together with the ultimate power to create and save.
If we are then God’s children, all believers are part of the same family, not only heirs of everything God has promised but brothers and sisters of Christ and of each other. Unfortunately, as psycho-analysts and those using Family Systems Theory can tell us, conflicts within the family can be the deepest, most painful and most intractable. The Old Testament is full of dysfunctional families, giving rise to feuds which span generations. Real communities that meet in the name of God are often not much different and I praise God for the work of BridgeBuilders which helps to reduce some of those divisions.
Real families are seldom what Hollywood would have us believe – and yet we all know what they should be like. .So, when we name God as Our Father, we are also committing ourselves to be family in the way we know we should be, to all the other brothers and sisters of Jesus – no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all one in Jesus. For Maurice, when we insist upon these human distinctions, which bolster up our pride and position, we have failed to take on the saving death and resurrection of Christ and cannot claim God as our Father.
In Maurice’s sermon even the words ‘who art’ take on a great significance as they indicate the current living nature of God, active even now. Then there's the issue of Heaven and where it may be. I think we all have a good idea that being in Heaven implies the holiness and divinity of God, and the fact that he is greater than all earthly things.
At the time of Jesus, there is no doubt that people believed that Heaven or ‘the heavens’ are somewhere ‘up there’. The astronauts did not find heaven in space, though perhaps they changed our view of Earth for ever. But, long before the first blast off, we knew that the residence of God probably was not anywhere in our Universe, but in some way beyond it, in some other dimension or spiritual reality. Does that change what we know of Heaven? One thing we know is that after being raised from death Jesus ascended to Heaven. So as well as being where God is, Heaven is where Jesus’ resurrection body is. Since people’s worldview has changed and we no longer see Heaven as being up in the sky somewhere, ascension seems to mean means that Jesus is no longer present in our world. But the early church saw Jesus continuing to be incarnated in the Universe, since for them Heaven was a part of it and therefore Jesus is able to be present with us. A group of theologians at Kings College London, where Sue and I both studied, have been looking at this problem. As far as I can understand it they have concluded that Jesus must still be present within the Cosmos, in a transformed way, perhaps interpenetrating all of it at some level. As a result they have come up with a theological movement they call Transformation Theology, which seeks to base theology much more in the real world rather than in theory and ideas. I must say I don’t really know how it works but they are finding these ideas a dynamic incentive for theological thought to be more actively engaged in what goes on in the world – and that, surely must be a good thing,
The first thing we do in praying, apart from establishing our relationship with God, is to honour God’s Name. The Name very much part of the Jewish tradition, in which the name of God is seen as something holy in itself because it sums up all that God does and is. It was traditionally too holy to be pronounced, so God may still be referred to as Hashem – the Name
The pattern of prayer that Jesus recommends does not start by asking for daily bread. Jesus tells us that God already knows what we need and it would seem more honest to cry out the desire of our heart without what seem like artificial gestures to the greatness of God. A couple of weeks sgo, my son Adam and I visited Windsor castle and we saw the way that the progression and layout of the state rooms reflected all the procedures and rituals that were necessary before you approached the presence of the King. The beginning of the Lord’s prayer may seem like visiting the King and having to bow formally to and make lots of flowery praises (O king live for ever) before we can petition for justice or whatever. Does God really want us to prostrate ourselves or kiss his ring before we can speak to Him?
In fact, the Lord’s prayer does not say “I hallow your Name”. It asks that God’s Name be hallowed. The word hallowed here means the same as sanctified – made sacred or seen to be most high and worthy. In this prayer we are asking that God may be recognized for what God is – the unutterable greatness, glory and splendour, whose goodness is beyond what we can ever imagine. And yet despite and because of this holiness we recognize that this is the One who fulfils every secret longing of our heart. Because more than bread to survive and more even than to be forgiven, our souls yearn after the divine.
It puts me in mind of computer dating sites that match people by likes and dislikes, looks, personality etc. Fine as far as it goes. But don’t we really long not for someone who is just like us but who is somehow a little bit better than us. If that valuable and desirable person can be attracted to me, aren’t I just a little bit better than my worst estimate of myself? Or maybe that’s just me. Augustine wrote ‘You made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find themselves in thee’.
When we say ‘hallowed be your Name’ we are saying that we do not seek a pocket God who just does what we want, but a God who is far beyond us. This is the One who we are commanded to love with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Can we do less than to ask for the world to recognize and revere the one that we love?
The amazing thing is that One who we approach with our banal requests is the creator of the Universe. This is the one about whom Isaiah wrote: “For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place,’ and then he continues ‘and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” And the amazing thing we see in the Lord’s Prayer is that this everlasting spirit, who is beyond anything we can imagine, not only is willing to listen to our prayer, but in Jesus to become human and to live with us for ever. Amen.