The Lord’s Prayer is a vital part of our faith, which is used regularly in public and personal worship. But, how often do we think about what it means? What does it mean when we refer to God as ‘our Father’?
Our Father; Reading: Romans 8:9-17
When you get any group of people of the same profession together they’ll pretty much inevitably end up talking shop – which is fine unless you’re the only person in the room who does a different job… When you get a group of clergy together they’ll pretty much inevitably talk about funerals sooner or later. And another set of anecdotes clergy seem to collect is problems they’ve had with the Lord’s Prayer. My favourite so far is a Baptist minister who was leading an assembly at a Roman Catholic school and forgot that Roman Catholics don’t end the Lord’s Prayer with ‘For the kingdom, the power, and the glory…”. So, everyone else in the hall stopped while he trailed off halfway through the final line. I’m not going to admit that when I was writing this I briefly couldn’t remember which order the kingdom power and glory came in. So, instead I’ll confess to once starting off with the traditional version and ending with the modern version…
The problem of course is that the Lord’s Prayer is one of those things you use so often and are so familiar with that if you think about it too hard you end up not being able to remember it. And like many things that are familiar we often take them for granted and perhaps don’t think about them as carefully as we might. It’s something that’s probably very familiar to most of us, but perhaps it’s been worn too smooth by familiarity. Perhaps we’ve got too used to the words to really think about, or perhaps we’ve never really thought about it before. But, there’s an awful lot contained within this pretty short prayer.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has said about the Lord’s Prayer that “If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write Our Lord’s Prayer.” If someone wanted a summary of Christianity, then the best thing to do would be to give them the Lord’s Prayer.
It’s recorded in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In the gospel of Matthew, its part of the Sermon on the Mount, with a bit on giving beforehand, and a bit on fasting afterwards. In the gospel of Luke its introduced by the disciples coming up to Jesus after he had spent time in prayer and saying to him “Lord teach us to pray”. I think that it’s very telling that Jesus left them to ask him. He let his disciples see his life with regular times of prayer, and encouraged them to emulate it. “Lord teach us to pray”. I think that’s a challenge to us; would the people around us be prompted to ask us “teach us to pray”?
But, the disciples saw Jesus’ life and asked him “teach us to pray”. And Jesus gave them, and us, what we call the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a template, a summary, a daring, hard, and radical prayer. It’s a template for the sort of things that we should be praying for. It’s a summary of our faith: God the Father created us, Jesus forgives us, the Spirit helps us, God will come in glory to bring his rule to the whole of creation. It’s daring because of how we’re addressing God and what we’re asking for. It’s hard and radical because of what it challenges us to pray, and also because it challenges us to mean what we pray.
One of the ways in which the Lord’s Prayer might be hard is because it starts with the words ‘Our Father’. Which might not be very helpful. Because, of course, the word father conjures all sorts of images for us. Most of us will probably think of our own fathers, or the people who acted as our fathers. Some of us will have hurts or negative images that we carry around with us from them. Some of us will be mourning the loss of our fathers. Some of us will have good images of our father, someone who was there for us, who cared for us, who we enjoyed spending time with, or whatever. But, even those of us who have pretty positive images of our fathers will still be shaped by someone who, of course, was less than perfect. So, those of us who are fathers might need to think about the challenge of how we treat our children if we also want to teach them to pray ‘Our Father’…
One of the lecturers that we had at theological college was very fond of saying “It’s only a picture, don’t push it too far!” When we say God is our rock, we mean he is strong, dependable and unshakable, not that he is cold, grey and unresponsive! It’s the same with Father, although for some of us that will be a lot harder.
That’s part, of course, why the Lord’s Prayer is a radical prayer, because it challenges our thoughts and our feelings, and I’m sure that we’ll be coming back to that in the coming weeks as we look at what it means to ask for our daily bread, and ask for forgiveness and so on.
But, as we think about what it means to call God ‘Our Father’ I want you to think about Moses, king David, and Lord Sugar. Moses, David and Alan Sugar. Sorry about that.
I want you to think about Moses because he led God’s chosen people out of slavery in Egypt in the Exodus. And part of the reason God gives for leading his people from slavery to freedom is in Exodus 4:22 “This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son”. In other words, God is their Father, God has led a revolution, has taken slaves, given them hope, and made them sons and heirs. We’ve seen the revolutions that have happened in Tunisia and Egypt and the attempted revolution in Libya. We’ve seen how messy and long and uncertain they can be. And the Bible tells us that the revolution of the Exodus was also messy and long and uncertain and that things got worse before they got better. So, when Jesus talks about God as Father, he was getting his disciples to think about the first Exodus, with revolution and hope, from slavery to freedom in the promised land. And, Jesus was also getting his disciples to think about and get ready for the new Exodus, the new revolution, when the Messiah would bring the kingdom of God here on earth. And we’ll think about that more next time.
As well as Moses, when you think about ‘Our Father’ I also want you to think about David because of the promise that God made to him, the promise we heard in many places, including Psalm 2. “The Lord said to me ‘You are my son; today I have become your father”. This was one of the promises that God made to David, that David was his son. And God extended that promise to David’s descendants, and which Jesus extended to all his followers, which is what we heard in Romans 8. We are given God’s Spirit, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and are welcomed into God’s family. We are the Father’s adopted children, we are part of God’s family, we are heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ. We will inherit all that God has promised. And that’s part of what’s meant when we pray ‘in heaven’.
We’ll come to that in a minute, but was well as thinking about Moses and David when you pray ‘Our Father’, I also want you to think about Alan Sugar. Not because of his somewhat second-rate range of Amstrad products, but because, of course, Alan Sugar fronts the programme The Apprentice. As I’m sure you’re aware in this series a bunch of up-and-coming entrepreneurs have to scheme their way through a variety of unpleasant business tasks to end up with Alan Sugar as their boss.
Well, part of what we’re asking when we’re calling God our Father is that we want to be in God’s family. And children, particularly sons, would often take on the same profession as their fathers. They would effectively become apprentices with their fathers, learning their trade. In John 14 Jesus is telling the disciples that they have been apprentices of him, and that now he leaving them, but that he will send the Spirit to help them, and us, be part of God’s family. As it says in Hebrews 1 “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters”. Jesus calls us brothers and sisters. We have been invited into a family relationship with God, with the privilege and challenge that that brings.
Part of that challenge is taken up in the next couple of words we pray “Our Father in heaven”. We’re saying Heaven, God’s place, God’s home is also our home. And the kind of relationship that exists in God’s presence in heaven is a relationship of love and trust and intimacy and praise that can be ours here and now. This is what we inherit, that we are part of God’s realm, that we are already in God’s kingdom, and that we will inherit that in all its fullness when Christ returns. ‘Our Father in heaven’. Short, simple words, that tell us that heaven is here on earth because of Jesus, and that we can enter into it. And that can give us hope that, no matter how bad things are at the moment, no matter how long the revolution is taking, eventually it will be complete, and we will be with God for ever.
So, Moses, David, and Alan Sugar: freedom, part of God’s family, apprentices. That’s what it means when we pray ‘Our Father in heaven’.
The disciples asked “Lord teach us to pray” and Jesus gave them and us the Lord’s Prayer. Let us come to Jesus and ask him again “Lord teach us to pray”. There’s lots of different ways of praying with the Lord’s Prayer. You can repeat it a number of times, so that it sinks into you. You can use each part to help structure and expand your own prayers. You can take each phrase over the course of a week or so and use that phrase throughout the day to help you draw closer to God. Let us allow this summary of Christianity to sink into our lives, to affect our thoughts, and words, and actions. Amen.