Sermon: Our Father in Heaven (Lord’s Prayer #2)

Audio is available here: Our Father in Heaven

 Last week, we heard St. Luke’s version of the prayer Jesus gave us and we noticed three things. First, this prayer was intended as a model for private devotion. When we are talking about modeling the Lord’s prayers in our prayers, we are not talking about public or corporate prayer, but the prayer that animates our personal devotional life.  Next, we noticed that learning to pray as Jesus did was a matter of discipleship. It is part and parcel of being a follower of Jesus to pray as he did—and we noted how he prayed before significant events—his baptism and transfiguration, how he prayed before  major decisions—the appointing of the twelve,  how he prayed at the moment of his death—Into your hands, Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. Just as Jesus submitted his life entirely to the will of his Father, so are his disciples. And finally, we found hope in the notion that this kind of prayer life is something that can be taught, and that in that teaching, the craftsman of our souls comes with his own tools to form us into the image of his son.

Today, we move to the prayer as it is rendered in the Gospel of Matthew, for this version of the prayer is more familiar to us. And we look at its opening address, “Our Father in Heaven.” But first a little background. Jesus here is in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, that central part of the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus, as the New Moses, gives the laws of his Kingdom, the life after which his disciples are to pattern themselves. And in the section in which we find this prayer, Jesus speaks of how the piety of his disciples is NOT to be displayed. Do not, says Jesus, be like the hypocrites who pray to be heard by their fellows. Do not, says Jesus, be like the Gentiles who think they can manipulate God by getting their incantations just right, and piling words upon words. Rather, he says, pray this way. And then comes the prayer that we will focus on for the next two months.

Our Father in heaven. It is an address. We are naming the one to whom we are praying. His name is Father. We are naming a particular relationship, he is ours and we are his. And we are naming that one’s place, he is in heaven . Let’s unpack each of these in turn.

Naming God as Father is, perhaps surprisingly, very rare in the Scriptures of Israel, our Old Testament. But its rarity does not mean it is insignificant. For when it occurs there, it is always a corporate relationship that is being expressed. God is the Father of Israel.  God is the Father of Israel by virtue of his gracious act. God chose Israel from among the nations to be his people, corporately, his son. God rescued the descendants of Jacob from the hand of Pharoah. In the words God spoke tof the prophet Hosea, “When Israel was a child, I loved him. And out of Egypt, I called my son.” Israel names God as Father not because he is their creator, as indeed he is the creator of all, but because he is their Redeemer, their Rescuer, the One who chose them as his very own.

And when we address God as Father, we are immediately conscious of that same corporate relationship. As Gentiles grafted in to God’s covenant relationship with Israel, through our union with Christ, we also share in the same covenant relationship with God. We share in the blessing that was given to by God to Abraham and his descendants. To name God as Father, here in the Lord’s prayer, is to be conscious of a unique identity. To be conscious of our place among the people of God, the people who have been reconciled to God, the people whom God has taken to be his own special possession.

When you pray, say, Our Father. When you pray, remember that God has called you to be his people. His Church, through whom he intends to bless the world.

If naming God as Father in the Old Testament is rare and intending a corporate relationship, however, in the Gospels, it is frequently on the mouth of Jesus and he intends an individual relationship. We are to pray as he does, and he, as an individual, is uniquely conscious of his relationship to God as the relationship of a Son to his Father.  A relationship that Christians have come through long reflection and prayer and debate to recognize defined the very inner nature of God. Why is God the Father God the Father? Because from all eternity, God the Father has a Son. A son who has taken flesh and come among us. A son who, as fully God and fully man, is the bridge between us and God.

And if we are, in obedience to the Lord Jesus, taking the name of Father upon our lips, we are saying that the intimate relationship that unites the Father to the Son through eternity is in an analogous way our relationship to God. We are saying that the relationship that the Lord Jesus has by nature, we have been invited to share by virtue of our union with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. When we name God as Father, we are claiming that we are God’s sons and daughters by adoption. It is not a natural relation, but a special one entirely dependent upon the gracious action of God who has called us to himself.

Both corporately and individually, then, naming God as Father is a privilege. It is, even, a boundary marker. We have in our Gospel for today a harsh presentation of those boundaries—if you do not hate your father and mother, you cannot be my disciple, said Jesus. We already came upon the notion of boundaries last week when we noticed that praying in this way was a matter of discipleship to Jesus. If John taught his disciples to pray in a way unqiue to being his disciple, supposed the anonymous disciple, then Jesus should also. “Lord,” said the disciple, “Teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” And the Lord Jesus confirmed the assumption by answering the request straightforwardly, “When you pray, say, Father.”

Jesus draws those boundaries even more sharply in the Matthean context for the Lord’s Prayer. When you—you here meaning his disciples—pray, do not pray like the hypocrites who love to be seen. Do not  pray like the hypocrites who love to parade their piety before the world. They already have their reward.  When you—you his disciples—pray, do not be like the Gentiles who heap up words upon words. When you pray, don’t be like the Gentiles who think using just the right magic words will force God’s hand. When you pray, don’t be like the Gentiles who think many mellifluous words will invoke God’s generosity. Your Father knows what you need before you ask. Oh those hypocrites and Gentiles who do not pray as they should. Good thing we do! Right?

Piety is a tricky thing, isn’t it? It can display our deep devotion to God and in the very next moment display just how far we are from God. So, yes, Jesus in fact does draw a boundary with respect to prayers. His disciples are not to pray as the hypocrites or Gentiles do. But how often do we, who have named Jesus’ Father as our Father, who have been called into covenant with the God of Israel, pray in just these ways?

We run into it all the time. Parents, for example, how often when you pray do you, in fact, stop talking to God and start talking to your children? How often do we find ourselves hoping that we’ve gotten our prayers just right so that God will do what we want God to do? It seems that the boundary between hypocrisy and discipleship is porous! And if you are like me, you are not always sure which side of the line you’re on.

The Gospel, the good news, about this bad situation, it seems to me, comes in the last part of the address. Our Father in heaven. Now heaven here is not a literal place, as though the Father’s location could be pinpointed. Heaven is the “place,” where God the Father is fully present, where his will and his rule are unopposed.

And as the prayer continues, it becomes clear that this place—the world in which we live, the world in which we hypocrites and Gentiles all aspire to be disciples—is not that place. This world is not the place where God’s will is done perflectly. This world is not the place where God reigns without opposition. As we will see in a couple of weeks, it is precisely for this reason that we pray, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.

For this world—for all its imperfections, faults and sins, for all its injustice and suffering, for all its hypocrites and Gentiles—is the world God has chosen to love. It is to this world that God has sent his Son. It is to disciples in this world—disciples who know that in their hearts their lurk hypocrites and Gentiles aplenty—that the Lord Jesus gave us this prayer. So that this world might become heaven, so that hypocrites and Gentiles might become disciples. So that our world might become in God’s time, a place where he reigns, where his will is done, and where we can pray this prayer perfectly.

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