Sunday, 18 February 2018

Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be Your Name

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
18 February 2018 - Lent Week 1

Matthew 6.5-18   
Deuteronomy 6.4-9 

Listen to this sermon here:

When Liz and I were undergraduates
            at Sheffield University back in the early ’90s,
the Biblical Studies department where we were studying
            was situated on floor ten of a building known as the Arts Tower.

This Grade 2 listed 1960s skyscraper dominates the skyline of Sheffield,
            and is loved and loathed in equal measure,
            in a similar way to that that in which the Barbican divides opinion in London
                         – but the Arts Tower is steel and glass, rather than brutalist concrete.

Anyway, there were a couple of normal lifts,
            but the main way of getting around within the building
            was to use a thing called the Paternoster Lift.

Has anyone ever seen or been in one of these things?
            It’s like a giant bicycle chain of carriages,
                        each one big enough for two people,
            that runs from the bottom to the top of the building,
                        in constant, if rather slow, motion.

The carriages have no doors,
            and you simply wait for a vacant car to come along, and step on,
            only to then step off at the floor you want.

It’s both brilliant and terrifying,
            and still going strong I’m told even all these years on.
Of course, as you step into the void from the tenth floor or higher,
            anticipating the imminent arrival of something firm to stand on,
            you mutter a little prayer to yourself.

Hence, so the rumour goes, it is a Paternoster Lift
            because, for those of you whose Latin is a little rusty,
            Pater Noster is Latin for ‘Our Father’,
            the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel.

Of course, it may be that the circular motion of the carriages
            is reminiscent of counting the beads in a rosary,
            but I think I prefer the nervous prayer explanation!

But I wonder if the Paternoster lift can tell us something significant
            about the way people often use the Lord’s Prayer?

I suspect that for many, maybe even for some of us,
            it’s a little rote-prayer, learned in childhood and recited when needed,
                        either because it’s that point in the service again,
                        or because it’s that point in the rosary again,
                        or because some other pressing need for prayer has triggered it.

For many of people, particularly those who have had a Roman Catholic upbringing,
            just saying ‘Pater Noster’ is enough
            – the opening words infer the rest of the prayer;
and I think this tells us something profound
            about the nature of the Lord’s Prayer;
which is that the way it begins is of the utmost importance.

If the Lord’s Prayer is the definitive Christian prayer,
            I’m going to suggest that the opening words
                        are the most definitive phrase within it.
            They define what follows.

The practice of using the opening couple of words
            to signify that which follows
            is far from unique to the Lord’s Prayer
– the Jews did it, for example, with the prayer known as The Shema,
            which we had read to us earlier from the book of Deuteronomy.

In many ways, the Shema is a kind of fore-runner to the Lord’s Prayer,
            and it similarly gets its name from its opening words
                        Shema in Hebrew means ‘hear’,
                        and indeed the prayer begins, ‘Hear, O Israel’…

How things begin is important,
            and the Lord’s Prayer begins, in Matthew’s gospel, with ‘Our Father’.

Interestingly, in Luke’s gospel, it just begins with just ‘Father’,
            and this is the word I want us to focus on for a few minutes this morning.

You see, the language we use about God,
            the words we use to describe or address God,
            reveal a lot about who we think God is.

The Lord’s prayer, for example, could have begun
            ‘Our God’, a fairly neutral statement;
                        or possibly ‘Our Lord’, or even ‘Our King’,
                        both of which would suggest far great levels of authoritarian divinity.
            ‘Our King’ would actually have made a lot of sense,
                        given that part of what follows is a prayer for God’s ‘Kingdom’ to come
                                    on earth as it is in heaven.

But no, the Lord’s Prayer begins by turning to God
            as the heavenly ‘Father’ of those offering the prayer.

The Jews, of course, had a tradition of praying to God as ‘Father’,
            and although it’s not found frequently in the Old Testament,
            it certainly formed part of the devotional tradition of Judaism
                        within which Jesus grew up.

The most common images for God that we find in the Hebrew Bible
            tend to revolve around God as Creator, King, or Judge,
and although God as Father is there, it isn’t common.

Possibly this was a reaction against those other ancient religions
            that believed in the notion of divine parenthood,
                        with the gods having sex with humans
                        who then give birth to superhero-type offspring.
            Actually, there is an ancient echo of this in the Genesis story of the Nephilim,
                        but that’s another sermon for another day.

Anyway, when it comes to Israel’s understanding of God as father,
            there are two key aspects to this.

Firstly, Israel considered itself a ‘son’ adopted by God,
            particularly so with regard to God’s decisive action
            in bringing them from slavery in Egypt.

So, Moses tells the Pharaoh
Exodus 4:22-23  Then you shall say to Pharaoh,
            'Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. 
23 I said to you, "Let my son go that he may worship me."'

And this idea of Israel as God’s child
            can be found elsewhere too the Old Testament,
                        from Hosea (11.1) to Isaiah (54.5-9), to the Psalms (103.13-16).

But the second way in which Father imagery is used of God, particularly in prayer,
            is the way God is spoken of as ‘Father’ to the king of Israel,
for example in 2 Samuel (7.14) God promises to be a father to the King,
            and that the King will be his special son.

The combination of these two facets of the fatherhood of God,
            firstly as the convenantal father
                        who rescued them from Egypt and adopted them,
            and secondly as the father of the King of Israel,
directly feed into the way
            Jesus would have understood the phrase ‘Our Father’,
            when it is used of God.

God is the father of Israel collectively,
            but also specifically God is the father of its key figurehead,
            the king of the line of David.

So, in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus is referred to as the Son of David,
            there is a sense in which he is being cast
                        as the key figurehead of the new Christian community
            – it is not merely David who is his ancestor,
                        but also God who is his father.

And this idea of Jesus as the son of God
            becomes important for Matthew
because it defines the community of those around Jesus
            as being those who see themselves as children of God.

In 12.50, Matthew records Jesus as teaching that
            ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven
            is my brother and sister and mother’.

The point is clear: those who, like Jesus, obey their heavenly father
            become, like him, children of God.

Just as God was the father of the King, and also of all Israel,
            so God is the father of Jesus, and also of all his disciples too.

So, in the sermon on the mount, where we find the Lord’s Prayer,
            we also find Jesus telling his disciples several times
            that God is ‘their’ father in Heaven (5.16, 45; 6.1; 7.11; cf. 18.14; 23.9).

And this sense that they have been adopted as children of God,
            as Israel of old was adopted as a son of God,
is seen to carry with it a responsibility to live accordingly
            – the children are expected to behave
                        in ways that bring honour to their heavenly Father,
            for example by doing good deeds.

In this, of course, the disciples are being contrasted with the Pharisees,
            who are presented as having betrayed their status as children of God
                        by focusing on outward piety
                        rather than on genuine transformation of the heart.

So, for us to say ‘Our Father’, at the beginning of the Lord’s prayer,
            is for us to take a momentous step of faith.

We are not merely naming God as Father in some generic sense,
            we are specifically identifying ourselves as his children.

We are, in effect, naming ourselves as the new Israel,
            adopted by the God who brings us too from slavery to freedom,
            and who releases us from our enslavements
                        to those desires and temptations
                        that diminish the image of the Father in us.

And this has implications for the way we will live
            – we must be those in whose lives good deeds are visible,
                        those who imitate the likeness of our heavenly father.

As Jesus rather uncompromisingly puts it in the Sermon on the Mount,
            ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.’ (5.48).

We should not pray, ‘Our Father’, lightly!

But there is another side to being an adopted child of God,
            and that is that we are the beneficiaries of the fatherly care of God.

Not in the sense that God will automatically give his children everything they ask for
            – what kind of good father does that?
But rather in the sense that God is attentive to our needs,
            knowing what we need before we even ask him (Matt. 6.8).

In so many ways, this can be a freeing insight
            for the person who wants to come before their heavenly father in prayer.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown weary of the kind of prayer
            that seeks to articulate all my needs and desires to God.

When I was a teenager I was encouraged to keep a prayer list,
            and to cross things off it when they were answered.
Honestly, it was one of the worst things I ever did for my prayer life
            – because it reduced prayer to a functional activity,
                        as if by my naming of things in some spiritual formula
                        I could in some way affect their outcome.

I’ll say this as bluntly as I know how:
            I don’t think prayer changes God,
                        or God’s mind, or God’s activity in the world.

In fact, I’ll go further:
            I have a suspicion that to utter a prayer list
                        according to some set incantation such as,
                                    ‘in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen’,
                        might actually be sorcery.
            I am deeply concerned when humans think they can control God
                        by invoking prayer rituals or practices.

I want prayer to be so much more
            than presenting God with a shopping list of my needs;
and I don’t want the guilt that comes
            from missing something or someone out of my prayer list;
and surely God, if God exists, just knows this stuff already?!

Well, yes he does, as Jesus says,
Matthew 6:7-8  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.

God knows our needs before we do,
            and so prayer can become something very different
            to just telling God our needs in the hope that he will meet them.

Prayer to God our Father
            is prayer offered to the one who already knows us
                        better than we know ourselves,
            and who loves us more than we love ourselves.

Such prayer is not about changing God,
            or changing the outworking of God’s love in the world.
It is about bringing ourselves into alignment with the love of God
            who is reaching out to us, and through us, and with us,
            to draw the world to himself.

And, as Jesus himself discovered in the Garden of Gethsemane,
            prayer does not stop the difficult stuff happening to us or those we love.
Contemplating the horrors of the cross that lay before him, Matthew tells us
            that Jesus ‘threw himself on the ground and prayed,
                        “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me;
                        yet not what I want but what you want.’ (Matthew 26:39)

The prayer in the Garden did not avert the cross,
            but it did allow Jesus to embrace it.
And this is what it means for us to pray to God our Father;
            the future is still before us, with all the joys and sorrows that it holds,
            but in prayer to our loving Father,
                        we are drawn into the all-embracing love of God.

And it is we who are changed by this prayerful encounter.
            It is we who are called to set aside our selfishness, and our fear,
                        and all the pretentions that mask the image of God in our lives.

He is our father, and he welcomes us into his presence
            as we draw near to him in prayer.

And I know the point I’m about to make has been made many times before,
            but it is worth making again.
For some of us, the image of God as Father is deeply problematic.

Human fathers, even at their very best,
            will only ever by poor reflections of God the Father,
and at their worst they can be terrible perversions
            of what Godly paternal love should look like.

Some of us here today will have suffered violence and abuse
            from fathers who should have been different.
Some of us will have suffered the absence of a father through our formative years.

So I’m just going to say, if Father God doesn’t work for you, that’s fine.
            It’s only an image, it’s just language.
All language of God is inadequate anyway, so feel free to substitute.
            If Mother works better for you, go with that.
                        Or maybe ‘Idealised Parent’.
                        Or whatever language captures for you
                                    the experience of being loved unconditionally
                                    by one who longs for your presence.
If we’re going to hallow the name of God,
            then we’d better use a name that is worth hallowing.

But for now, if you’ll allow me, I’ll stay with the language of God as Father;
            as it’s there in the text, and it carries helpful meaning for many, if not all.

So, ‘pray in this way’, says Jesus: ‘Our Father in heaven…’

And here we hit straight up against another preconception of God
            that can be less than helpful.

If God is our Father in heaven,
            does this mean that the one we are praying to
                        is some kind of absentee God,
            sitting up there, metaphorically speaking, on a cloud
                        and attended by putti and cherubs?

Certainly, if the medieval artwork of God-on-high is to be believed,
            that is exactly what ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ looks like.

However we have to recognise that what is at play here
            is a pre-scientific cosmology
                        that might have worked two thousand years ago,
            but doesn’t really work so well for us today.

In the ancient Jewish spiritual tradition,
            they pictured the heavens as a kind of reflection of an earthly royal court.
So, just as a king on earth had courtiers and attendants,
            and sat on a raised throne indicating his power and authority,
so they saw God sitting on his throne up in heaven,
            surrounded by the heavenly host of his attendants and armies.

And heaven was very definitely ‘up’ there somewhere, high above the clouds.

Sometimes, they thought,
            the veil between the heavens and the earth wore a bit thin,
            particularly if you went up a mountain;
it’s one of the reasons people in the Bible
            often seem to go up to mountain tops to pray, or to meet with God.
They were, they believed, quite literally closer to God there.

Well, I’m pretty sure that none of us think
            that going up a mountain takes you literally closer to God.
Figuratively speaking, maybe
            – I absolutely do get the sense of transcendence
            that a magnificent view can offer.

But not literally.
            I’m not closer to God in an aeroplane than I am in church!

So I think we need to intentionally set aside the view
            of Our Father in Heaven as a distant God,
enthroned above the clouds
            and removed from our lives experiences of the world.

I think that a more helpful way of thinking of God as our Heavenly Father
            is to embrace this language as speaking to us
            of a God whose nature is to embrace all of the created order.

He is the God of the heavens and the earth,
            the God of nature, the God of all peoples,
            the God of all animals and all plants.

Our Father in Heaven is a vision of God
            whose love and care extends to the vastness of all that is;
and so to think of ourselves as children of this God
            is to name ourselves as those
            who are called to share with him in the task of universal love.

Rowan Williams has said that,
            ‘Very near the heart of Christian prayer
                        is getting over the idea that God is somewhere a very, very long way off,
                        so that we have to shout very loudly to be heard.
            On the contrary: God has decided to be an intimate friend
                        and he has decided to make us part of his family,
                        and we always pray on that basis.’

So praying to Father God in heaven
            is not praying to the sky,
            hoping anxiously that the distant God can hear and will respond.

There is a profound paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer
            developed by the African Fellowship of Union Church in Istanbul
            that captures this sense of the heavenly God
who desires to make himself available
            to all people everywhere who call upon his name.

I discovered it in a book on the Lord’s Prayer by Nijay Gupta,
            which has been very helpful to me in the preparation of this sermon.[1]
And with this I’m going to close:

Our Father Who Art in Heaven
You are in Istanbul, in our flats and hotels
            in Taksim and Beyoglu.
You are within us and in our homes.
You are in Africa, Europe,
            Australia, and the Americas.
In Yugoslavia and Russia.
You are with the hungry and dying children in Somalia.
Also in Liberia, Bosnia, Ethiopia,
            Sri Lanka, Kuwait, and Iraq.

[1] Gupta, Nijay K. The Lord's Prayer. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary.  Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2017, p.51.