The Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in Heaven” (part 1 of 9)

Luke 11:1–13 (NIV84)

1 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “ ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’ ” 5 Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6 because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 “Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. 9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

One day Jesus was praying, and when he had finished, his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  The prayer that Jesus taught them that day is understood to be one of the central teachings of Christianity.  In this prayer, that is so common we barely hear it, Jesus taught us about God and about our relationship to God.  We would probably be more accurate if we called it the disciple’s prayer.  I believe we will find this prayer to be hard to hear sometimes because it is so radical, so spiritually loaded, in some ways so unreligious, and so very personal.

This morning I would like to begin a series of Sunday morning studies with you on the meaning of Jesus’ prayer.  It is a guide from the Lord as to how we are to perceive and experience God.  I believe this will be a spiritual support to what we have been studying together attempting to deepen our spiritual lives.  We have asked the children’s worship teachers to teach or review the prayer with their children.  We ask everyone to say this prayer every day while we are studying it.  I believe you will find this to create an awareness of our spiritual growth as we pray and study this prayer.

“When you pray, say, FATHER…” In this one word Jesus was seen by his contemporaries as radical, if not blasphemous.  In Jewish religion God was so holy, so high and lifted up, so majestic, that there was great fear of depreciating God by using his name in a common way.  In fact, they almost never used the name of God.  To avoid the danger of misusing his name, breaking the commandment about using God’s name in vain, they just used a series of consonants: YHWH (abbreviation of Yahweh).  There are many names for God in the Bible, and this one refers to him as the God of the covenant, a God in relationship with his people.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray.  He did not discount the Jewish understanding of God as majestic and holy, but rather took them into a new dimension of relationship with the majestic God.  They were offended that he addressed God as Father, but what pushed them over the top was that he used Abba.  It was not even the formal term for ‘Father,’ but the term a child used.  It could easily be translated ‘Dad’ or even more accurately ‘Daddy.’  We might remember a mild form of this in our experience when we began changing the language of our prayers from “thee” and “thou” to “you” and “your.”  There was a great fuss about honoring God.

The first lesson of the Lord’s Prayer is mind-boggling when we stop to reflect on it.  Who is it that we pray to?  God is the holy, almighty, majestic, all-knowing creator of the universe.  God is so great that every time we try to talk about him we are in danger of depreciating him, understanding him with minds too limited to even begin to comprehend.  God is so great, and by comparison we are so small, that without his coming to us, we could not even know he is there.  It is like a grain of sand comprehending the earth it sits on.  This God, Jesus says, wants us to talk with him in prayer, and we are to address him with the intimacy and familiarity and comfort of a little child crawling on a parent’s lap: Daddy!  Everything in us as creatures, everything in us as sinners calls us to back away, to hide our faces, to take off our shoes because this is holy ground.  This is the God who made us, who is holy and perfect, and knows us completely – every strength and every flaw – and he invites us to call him ‘Father.’

Some of the religious leaders, hearing Jesus’ teachings, called him a son of the devil, they were so offended. He taught, “Whoever will not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall not enter it.”  (Mk. 10:15)  I think there is enough of a child in each of us that we are touched by the picture of warmth and security, seeing ourselves crawl on the lap of God and being held by our loving parent.  There is also something in us that recoils at this intimate scene.  How can I worship someone that close?  This is the tension the prayer takes us into.  For many of us prayer seems to have been reduced to something like shooting off an email to God ( or maybe hoping that God will notice what we put on our facebook page. .  Jesus says, No!  This is about relationship, about intimacy, like a child in her father’s lap.

To whom do we pray?  The tension is one of the great offenses for many in Christianity – so much so that Christians have a tendency to avoid the tension by stressing one side or the other, but Jesus understood that spiritual health means we hold both sides of this paradox.  Some avoid the paradox by acting as if they have God in their pocket – using him as some sort of divine slot machine to put in prayer to get whatever they want.  Others keep God at a distance.  We need to hold the paradox.  God is the king and creator of the universe, God in heaven, and God wants us to come close, to be intimate and vulnerable with him.   How can God be so transcendent, so beyond us and so eminent, so close at the same time?  Something inside objects!  We have trouble allowing ourselves to be close, known and intimate with other persons who have faults like we do.  How do we do this with a holy, all-knowing God?  Imagine with me a dialogue with God about this.

“Lord, I enjoy worshiping you.  Sometimes your beauty, holiness, and power make chills go up and down my spine.  Do you really want me to talk with you about some of the realities of my days and nights?  That cannot really be worship, can it?  Isn’t the intimacy of “Daddy” too familiar, too demeaning to you?  How can I please you, if I am talking that intimately with you, that honestly?”

How would God respond?  Perhaps like this:

“After all the centuries of words batted around churches you still do not understand.  You have always assumed that the first issue in our relationship was that you have to win my approval.  Somehow, you thought if you looked good on the outside I would love you.  Do you really think I don’t know you inside?  I started loving you and being your Father before you were born.”

“But Lord, there are so many things in me that are unlovable, so many weaknesses.  I am ashamed to be known.”

“When your children were born and you stood looking at them on the delivery table, did you say, ‘I’ll love you if you are intelligent or a good athlete or a good musician’?”

“You know I didn’t.  I felt overwhelmed with love for them.”

“But Al, do you expect less from me?”

“But you are holy, and I am sinful.  You are powerful, and I am weak?”

“When your children disobey, do you stop loving them?  Your sin hurts me.  Your rebellion makes me angry.  Sometimes you walk away from me and ignore me.  You try to deal with me through your theology or through institutions or other people.  Don’t you still know that I want you to be my child?  Let me ask you a question.  Do you feel closer to your children when they get good grades or when they talk honestly with you and share their hurts and struggles?”

“When they talk with me.”

“And how do your children know you love them?  When you stand at a distance judging them or when you understand their world and empathize with their situation?”

“When I try to understand.”

“I sent my Son to take on your life, to know all the human things you want to hide from me.  He died your death.  Can anything be more intimate than that?  Can there be a greater demonstration of understanding, empathy or love?  Can I say more than that about wanting your love?  My child, intimacy and obedience are both issues of love.”///

Jesus said, “When you pray, say, Father, Dad or Daddy who is in heaven.”  The people in Jesus’ time had a problem with being this familiar with God.  Some people in our time have a problem because of their experience.  Our concept of a nurturing parent comes from our experience as children.  That fact is that many people have ambivalent feelings about their fathers.  Some of us had fathers who had difficulty telling us they loved us.  Some people spent their childhood trying to get their father’s attention.  Others didn’t have fathers or had a father who was never there or couldn’t understand.  And worse, some experienced abuse from their parents – verbal abuse, emotional abuse or even sexual abuse.  How can we communicate Jesus’ message about God when nearly 50% of the children in our society live in blended or single parent families?

In the counseling I’ve done over the years I’ve worked with many people who have experienced abuse as children.  That experience has made me realize that abuse of any kind is devastating to a child because without a nurturing parent it is very difficult to believe that anyone could really love us.  You see, abuse or neglect creates not only emotional illness, it creates spiritual illness.  One then has great difficulty accepting the love of God.  Grace seems beyond the abused person.

Jesus now calls us past the experiences with our parents no matter how good or bad they were or are.  He points us to the perfect, ideal, nurturing parent.  This is the Father who is always there for us, who always loves, who always is ready to understand and forgive, whose compassion is boundless.  He calls us to our Father in heaven.  We are called to update our assumptions and separate out the confusion, separating the parenting of God from the parenting of our parents.  This updating is a call to spiritual maturity.  In other words, we are called to dependency on the Lord, but that is not the dependency of immaturity or childishness.  This is a call to spiritual maturity, looking beyond our fathers and mothers to God.  This is the recognition that we are in relationship with the God who is our creator, who is our sovereign Lord – a parent who loves us but doesn’t need us to be needy.  We are not locked in to everything our parents think.  We each need to do our own spiritual reality check with God.

Given some of these kinds of difficulties and the push in our culture to be more aware of sexism, there have been some people who have felt that we should alter the language of prayer.  The argument goes that God has mothering characteristics as well as fathering.  Everyone who has thought about it knows that God is spirit and not male or female at all.  The communication of the Bible was to a patriarchal culture, so God’s choice of using ‘Father’ made sense, but isn’t that less relevant now?  Wouldn’t it be easier if people had the choice whether to address God as Mother or Father?  So the arguments go.  Certainly they have some validity around some people’s needs, and certainly we all are called to see God has a nurturing parent.  One can appreciate circumstances and needs where changing a pronoun is not so significant, certainly to the God who wants to have an intimate relationship with us.   However, I believe there is another reason why God chose the image of Father, and why we primarily need to be faithful to God’s choice.  We talked some about this in our evening teaching services.

The other Eastern religions (of course you know that Christianity is also an Eastern religion) around Israel and around the world had and have female images of God.  These are god’s who gave birth to their creation – a kind of extension of themselves.  The earth and people are a part of their god and strive to re-enter that union with God.  The Bible, on the other hand is radically different, and it reveals God as totally separate from us.  God is God and we are creatures he created.  He spoke the world and people into being.  It did not come through a birth canal.  Salvation is about relationship with God and God’s grace, not about going through enough reincarnations to be re-immersed into the mother who gave birth to us.  We hold the tension: God eminent, God transcendent.  This is so basic to Christianity.

Jesus taught us to pray: Our Father who is in heaven.  There are times in every one of our lives when we need to let the child in us feel the love of our Father in heaven.  There are times when our prayers are those of the adult child who comes to her Father to talk, to get insight, to learn, to seek advice, to feel our place as his adopted sons and daughters, to listen.  Both are the wonderful miracle that we can experience through Christ, closeness and love with our almighty, holy Father in heaven.

Do we have a Father in heaven who is close enough to love and big enough to respond?

The Apostle John writes, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are! (1 John3:1)  This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. (3:16)

Being Reformed, we bask in the tension: God is sovereign, the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, totally separate from us and Holy.  God is your and my Father in heaven.  God is close – ABBA — for we are in Christ and his Spirit dwells in us.

There is probably no place we experience that more than in the sacrament – our transcendent God coming close to us – eminent in Jesus Christ.  We see him as close as anyone can get – taking on our guilt, our sin, our death; and offering to us the life he earned.