Audio is available here: Hallowed Be Your Name
Last week, we looked at the address of the Lord’s prayer, Our Father in heaven. We move on today to the prayer itself. It is composed of two sets of petitions—one group of requests that have to do with God and another that has to do with us. Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Your name, your kingdom, your will. You see how each of these is focused on God. Give us today our daily bread, forgive us our sins, save us from the time of trial, deliver us from evil. Our bread, our sins, save us, deliver us. You see how each of these is more focused on us. Today we turn to , “hallowed be your name.”
Hallowed be your name. As we try to grasp these words, we are confronted with challenges straight away. First, our understanding is hampered in part by the way we say the larger sequence. Hallowed be your name. Pause. Your kingdom come. Pause. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This way of saying the prayer can give the impression that “on earth as it is in heaven,” applies only to God’s will while the hallowing of God’s name, and the call for God’s kingdom to come just hang in the air, having nothing to do with real life. In fact, we are closer to the mark once we understand that the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven,” applies to all three petitions. Hallowed be thy name, on earth as it is in heaven. Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
A second misunderstanding is closely related. “Hallowed be your name” is a petition. We are asking God to hallow his own name. When we read those words apart from “on earth as it is in heaven,” we might be led to think that we are asking God to complete in himself something that he lacks. May you become more holy. Of course, we’re not doing that. When we pray the words, Hallowed be your name, we are not asking God to do or to be anything other than what God already is. Because God is holy, His name is hallowed already. God’s name, God’s being, cannot be made more holy or less holy by our prayers, any more than God’s wisdom, power, or love. This petition asks that God’s name be regarded as holy on earth even as it already is in heaven. May your name, O Lord, be held here on earth as holy, just as your name in heaven is held as holy.
“Hallowed be your name.” With those words, we claim to have a measure of knowledge of what holiness is. With those words, we recognize, that this place, this world in which we live, is a place that does not hallow God’s name. Let’s take each claim in turn.
What do we mean when we use the word holy with respect to God? Here’s where things get tricky. Is holiness an abstract concept of our own devising, a different way of saying Mystery or Transcendence? Or is holiness, a divine attribute derived from an encounter with the God of Israel, the God who has disclosed himself in the Scriptures, who has come among us as Jesus of Nazareth, and who now indwells us as the Holy Spirit?
Without denying that question’s importance, I will take the second route. We confess the holiness of God, and we petition for God’s name to be holy, because the Scriptures announce that God is holy, and in their narrative, show us what holiness means.
First, when the Scriptures declare that God is holy, they mean that God is other than creation. God is separate; God is wholly other. God is not to be identified with any created thing. For example, in contrast to the Ancient Near Eastern cultures among with Israel came to be, cultures who worshipped the Sun and the Moon and charted their lives according to the stars, the writer of Genesis says that the Sun and Moon were given by God to humans to chart the seasons, and the stars? In Genesis chapter 1, they are entirely an afterthought. Almost, “By the way, God also made the stars.” To say that God is holy is to say that God is other, outside, majestic, and glorious.
But one thing holy does not mean is remote. For second, holiness also means that God freely enters into relation with creatures without ceasing thereby to be God. Holiness is, in the words of Anglican theologian, John Webster, the majesty of God in relation to creatures. God has determined from all eternity to be a God in loving relation to that which is not God. His holiness is majestic and glorious and transcendent, but it is not remote; it is not distant; it is not far away. The holiness of God, as narrated in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is a holiness that draws near.
In that drawing near, we see a negative and positive pole. Negatively, God’s holiness is the wrath that burns away any attempt to frustrate his will to be in loving relation with his creation, his human creatures. God’s wrath. Now that’s a subject we don’t like. It conjures up all kinds of medieval images of demons torturing the impenitent in hell for all eternity. If, though, we are serious about the Scriptures, we need to deal with wrath in a careful way and not dismiss it. The whole counsel of the Scriptures—the Old and New Testaments—present God’s wrath as what God’s holiness looks like when it is confronted with anything or anyone that would try to deflect or avoid or counter God’s turn toward his creation and his human creatures, a turn in which creation is renewed and human creatures are redeemed.
Which brings us to the positive pole of God’s holiness. Positively, God’s holiness is the utterly single-minded love that pursues good creatures who have fallen into sin, creatures who need new life and redemption. God’s holiness is the majestic and glorious intent to draw near to us, a drawing near that will not stop pursuing until reconciliation has taken place. We find a glimpse of that holy love in the Gospel for this morning in which God is likened to a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, and to a woman searching for a lost coin. When God’s will succeeds—when God’s enemies are vanquished, the sheep returned to the fold, the coin found, then there is great rejoicing!
Well, we’ve talked briefly—too briefly—about holiness, wrath and love. One more things needs to be said: holiness, wrath, and love are not separate characteristics, but different ways of expressing the same divine perfection. It should therefore be no surprise that we see all three displayed fully and finally in one action—the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Both that holy wrath that burns hot against all God’s enemies (and ours), and that holy love that pours itself out to seek and to save those who are lost, are fully disclosed on the cross. Do you want to see what holy wrath looks like? There it is. Do you want to see what holy love looks like? It’s there. Do you want to see holiness as the majestic determination to be in relationship with human beings? Continue to look at the cross.
Holiness, wrath and love are one and the same perfection, disclosed in one and the same saving act. On the cross, we encounter the full disclosure of the one and the same perfection that the Scriptures have taught us to call God’s holiness.
And when we pray, hallowed be your name (on earth as it is in heaven), we are asking God so to continue to act that this world, that this world, and we as part of it, will be rendered fit to stand in God’s holy presence. We are praying that God’s enemies—the enemies the Scriptures collectively name sin death and the devil and all that would harm God’s good creation—would be finally destroyed. We are praying that God’s good creation would be finally rescued from bondage, that the sons and daughters of God would be finally revealed, that God would wipe away all the tears from every eye.
In those four words we ask for even more! We ask not simply for God’s name to be hallowed in the world around us, but within us, too. We ask God to destroy those enemies that reside within us—enemies that have names like anger, sloth, greed even as we ask God to enliven in us those virtues that are fit for life with him—love, joy, peace, patience and so on. Here, C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, a parable about residents of hell who take a bus tour to heaven, makes my point.
“I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder. Like all the Ghosts, he was unsubstantial, but they differed from one another as smokes differ. Some had been whitish; this one was dark and oily. What sat on his shoulder was a little red lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear. As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. “Shut up, I tell you!” he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him. He ceased snarling, and presently began to smile. Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains.
“Off so soon?” said a voice.
The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day.
“Yes. I’m off,” said the Ghost. “Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap,” (here he indicated the lizard), “that he’d have to be quiet if he came -which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realise that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.”
‘Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit-an angel, as I now understood.
“Of course I would,” said the Ghost.
“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.
“Oh-ah-look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating.
“Don’t you want him killed?”
“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”
“It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”
“Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here-well, it’s so damned embarrassing.”
“May I kill it?”
“Well, there’s time to discuss that later.”
“There is no time. May I kill it?”
“Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please-really-don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”
“May I kill it?”
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”
“The gradual process is of no use at all.”
“Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well to-day. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.”
“There is no other day. All days are present now.”
“Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so.”
“Why, you’re hurting me now.”
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
“Oh, I know. You think I’m a coward. But it isn’t that. Really it isn’t. I say! Let me run back by tonight’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor. I’ll come again the first moment I can.”
“This moment contains all moments.”
“Why are you torturing me? You are jeering at me. How can I let you tear me to pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me–before I knew? It would be all over by now if you had.”
“I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?” . . .
“I know it will kill me.”
“It won’t. But supposing it did?”
“You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”
“Then I may?”
“Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.
“Ow! That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.
For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still and stronger, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialised while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man–an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel.
So says Lewis.
Disciples of Jesus are, short of heaven, ghosts on the way to becoming real. All of us have our pet lizards that need to be killed (sometimes more than once!) by an encounter with God’s holiness. When we pray “hallowed be your name,” and mean it, we ask God to make us just a little more solid and a little less ghostly than we had been before. We ask God to make us fit to live in a world that welcomes his holy presence. Hallowed be your name.