Our Second Reading this morning comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter six, verses 7-9. This morning is the second in our new series on the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus shares it with his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus presents a vision of authentic and alternative Christianity that disorients so that, as Charles Campbell writes, “We begin to see the world differently and possibly glimpse the new creation that has come in Jesus himself.” In that sense, this is no ordinary prayer. It is a prayer which reminds us about who God is and who we are. As we pray this prayer we learn about the world and the kingdom of God. As we pray this prayer it teaches us about faith and reliance; about justice and mercy. Yes, to pray this prayer, this Lord’s Prayer, in the quiet of our rooms and together as the people of God, is to discover what it means to follow Jesus.
Before we read our scripture this morning, one more word of introduction. I had a few questions this week about whether, in addition to exploring the theological and scriptural teaching found in the Lord’s Prayer, I would also be sharing some practical advice on prayer. So I decided to attempt to share at least one word or tip with you just before we read the scripture each week. This week, the word is this: If you want to learn how to pray, pray the Lord’s Prayer. Memorize it. Pray it several times a day. Make praying these words a habit for you. It does not take long to pray this prayer.
The reason for this advice is that sometimes we think that every prayer we pray must be totally original, in a time and place set apart. It does not. There are some things in life, like the only time you talk to God, that are too important to be left to spontaneous thought and desire. So, pray this prayer. As it becomes a part of you – your faith, your thoughts, and your life – other prayers will naturally spring forth. So, the first practical tip is: pray this prayer.
Now, let us hear this Word of God as found in the Gospel of Matthew, the sixth chapter, verses 7-9.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
It was just over a century ago, with the rise of the modern evangelical movement in England and the America, that new language to describe authentic Christian faith began to appear. I suspect that these terms will seem very familiar to us today, but in the grand scheme of Christian history they are quite new. The new language revolved around the word “personal.” For example, the question: “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” This phrase first appeared in the 1880’s in an effort to contrast with an intellectual, rationalistic, and emotionless faith. It was popularized by Charles Fuller on his Old Fashioned Revival Hour radio program which aired from 1937-1968 and was literally broadcast around the globe on more than 650 radio stations each week.
The inclination to connect our Christian faith with the heart, to focus on God as a God of relationships and not just intellectual beliefs is both a good one and a biblical one. Too often our spirit can grow cold, the ritual of worship becomes rote, and frankly our faith can become boring in the face of more enticing options and opportunities clamoring for our attention. The language of a personal savior and personal relationship with Jesus served to awaken something that the church had forgotten.
And yet, this new language carries a danger with it. It is new language – Jesus never asked anyone if they had a “personal” relationship with him. Paul never asked that question either. So, the problem is this – while the word “personal” does stress that faith affects us “personally,” the word personal also has an individualistic self-focus to it. Think of the other ways we use “personal,” for example, a personal computer, a personal trainer, personal space. Something personal is all about me. It usually belongs to me. It’s mine and not yours. And when that kind of personal thinking gets applied to faith we end up with things like “personal morality”(which applies to me and no one else) and “personal Bible Study” (in which I can make the Bible say whatever I want), and “personal prayer.” Presbyterian pastor and author Eugene Peterson warns us about “personal” prayer when he writes, “Left to ourselves, we will pray to some god who speaks what we like hearing, or to the part of God we manage to understand.”
My friends, we pray the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer because we need to be reminded, time and time again, that left to our own devices our god is too small. We are too selfish. “Personal” is important, but insufficient.
Yes, we need a BIG God who is not just “my” god but “Our” God. So Jesus teaches us a corporate, community prayer. We never pray alone. As we said this morning with young Forrest’s baptism, we are baptized into a family of faith. There is a place for each of us to stand and a part for each us to play in this family, but we are never, ever alone. Thus, those who join us in prayer include the ones sitting next to you on the pew this morning, those whose head you can barely see in the front row from the back of this sanctuary, and those who sit at home due to illness or infirmity. And not only that, there is a great communion of saints, those from every time and place in the life and history of the people of God who also join us when we pray. Will Willimon and Stanly Hauerwas describe it this way:
Every time we gather to pray, the saints pray with us, as if leaning down from the ramparts of heaven to join their voices with ours in the praise of God, as if to cheer us on in our current struggles to be faithful.
… Christian prayer is not like elementary school when the teacher would not allow you to look on someone else’s paper during the quiz. The saints help us to pray. So when pondering our relationship with God, we remember Aquinas and his words on friendship. Or we recall Martin Luther saying to his students, “I wish I could get you to pray the way my dog goes after meat!”
This is not a my, personal prayer – this is a we, our prayer.
My friends, we need a BIG God, who is not just our “father” but Jesus’ “Father.” To account for all the biblical images, metaphors, and even names for God in scripture would take far more time than we have this morning. Yet, it is safe to say that none of them can adequately describe God’s extraordinary affection toward us. So when we call God our “father,” our vision is too small. Because we think we know what a father is. We are the ones who give the word content. A father is male, a father is like my father, or your father. And thus we think a father stays or a father leaves. A father loves or a father abuses. I could go on, you begin to see the problem right? No matter how wonderful a human father might be, he is not perfect. He is a sinner. Just all our mothers and sisters and brothers and friends are.
Bill Carl puts it this way:
We do not call God “Father” because we have had certain positive experiences with our biological fathers and therefore project those experiences upon God. Rather all human fathers are measured, judged, and fall short on the basis of our experiences of God as Father.
So, Jesus teaches us to pray not to our personal Father, but to “Our Father” who is Jesus’ Father. Through him we have a relationship with God. God does draw close to use. In Greek Jesus even uses an affectionate, intimate term – more like “Daddy.” It is only in Jesus that we begin to even glimpse the fullness of God which goes far beyond any human father we might know or even imagine. Yes, we call God “Father” because we have come to know Jesus as the Son.
Yes, my friends we need a BIG God who is not just in our hearts, but who has an address “in heaven.” This prayer can never be simply personal – it is cosmic. A god who lives in your heart – way to small. That’s the god you pray too for a good parking space when you’re running late or an A on the test when you failed to study. A god who lives in your heart is like a vending machine to meet your needs and your wants and your desires with a simple request.
That may be all the god you need, but I know that I need a God who reigns in heaven. Because there are big problems in this world and we need a BIG God to redeem and restore us. If we have any hope at all of talking about and making a difference in this world, if there is any hope for poverty, race, hunger, cancer, broken marriages, abused children, polluted water, violence, or war … we need a BIG God. We need the one who rules the heavens and the earth. We need the one whose presence can make the world holy – whose name can “hallow” it. We need not a God made in our image. We need a God who invades, who intrudes, who acts, who transforms from the heavens.
To pray is put our trust and faith in the one who can make that kind of difference. It is a bold and audacious act. As theologian Karl Barth writes, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” To pray to Our Father who art in heaven is to commit our lives to God’s cause. You may have heard me say before, but it is not our job to save the world. From front to back in scripture “world saving” is always God’s job because only God is big enough to do it. Our job, and this is what the Lord’s Prayer teaches us, is to find the ways and the places where God is already at work restoring and redeeming and transforming this world, and then to draw along aside. To join our efforts with God’s. To pray to God in heaven is to commit to join God at work here and now.
My friends, I told you last week to fasten your seatbelts because this prayer is not going to leave us unchanged.
Left to our own devices, our God is too small. So we pray this prayer because we need a BIG God who reminds us that we never pray alone, that through Jesus we begin to glimpse a relationship with the fullness of God, and that we need a BIG God to handle the big problems of this world.
As we pray, we are changed. Remember how Moses was transformed after he talked with God in our Old Testament text for this morning? May we too, as we pray, be worthy to be ones who bear God’s holy name.
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: