A strange event happened in a small Kentucky town some years ago. It seems that there were two churches in the town and one distillery owned by an atheist. The churches were always doing battle with the atheist owner of the distillery. They had tried several times to get it closed. Finally they had a prayer meeting with both congregations present. In a lengthy, fervent meeting, they poured out their hearts to God. They asked that God would do a supernatural work and put an end to the evil pouring forth from the distillery. They prayed in faith. But to everyone’s surprise a storm blew up and lightning struck the distillery. While they were praying, the distillery burned to the ground. The people shouted, “Hallelujah,” their prayers had been answered.
The atheist owner of the distillery was duly disturbed by the events of the day. But he filed his insurance claims determined to rebuild his distillery. But the insurance company refused his request for payment saying that this was an ACT OF GOD.
After some thought, the atheist decided to sue the two churches. He contended that they had conspired with God to burn his distillery, and they should pay for the damages.
When the case came to court, the churches denied responsibility for the burning of the distillery.
The judge made this telling comment: This is a perplexing situation. Here we have an atheist owner who believes in prayer and two churches who deny it. (1)
I hope that in our series of sermons on prayer, that we will become a people who believe in prayer, practice prayer, and take responsibility for our prayers. Over the next several Sundays, we will deal with the Model Prayer.
Today we will deal with the section that says, “Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy” (Matthew 6:9).
The prayer begins with a significant word, “Our.” Jesus taught us to pray in the plural. I think such praying would keep us from praying too selfishly. Sometimes we only pray about ourselves and what we want. Jesus teaches us to pray a corporate prayer that includes the community. There is something healthier about us praying “Our Father” rather than “My Father.”
The second word is “Father.” On at least one occasion in the Bible, this word is listed in its original Aramaic, “Abba.” The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek, but neither of those were the language of the people of Jesus’ day. Jesus probably knew all three languages, but he spoke in Aramaic.
“Abba” is a word that sounds a lot like our English words, “Daddy” and “Poppa.” They are words that are easy for children to say. Joachim Jeremias influenced a generation of scholars with his conclusions, “We do not have a single example of God being addressed as Abba in Judaism, but Jesus always addressed God in this way in his prayers.”
It is remarkable that the Old Testament has such an emphasis on the holiness of God, the otherness of God. But when Jesus was born, they called him Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Jesus brought God close to us, as close as a loving parent.
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At Jesus’ baptism the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus and a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This verse is interesting not only because God calls Jesus “Son” but because it emphasizes that God was “pleased” with Jesus.
When we talk to God as Father, we capture that same intimacy where God is pleased to know us and to communicate with us. God is pleased when we pray. That intimacy is like a loving, caring parent who is interested in everything about us. This is a wonderful image that can make our prayers more significant to us.
The next phrase reminds us of the distance between us and God — “may your name be kept holy.” This offers an important balance. This One we are talking with is not an everyday, ordinary father. This One is not really like our father because this Father is in heaven.
These few words at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer present to us one of the great paradoxes of theology. Theologians say that God is immanent and yet God is transcendant. The word “immanent” means that God is with us, God is present, God is here, God is in our hearts, God is in our minds. The word “transcendant” means that God is in heaven, God is different from us, God is up there.
When we utter the name of God we can hardly know what it is we are talking about. One of the great Disciples theologians Fred Craddock once said, “The hardest word in the English language to pronounce is the word spelled G-O-D.” It doesn’t sound so hard; it is just two consonants separated by a vowel. It can roll right off the tongue of the youngest child. What he meant was that we are making sounds to symbolize the invisible, inscrutable, ineffable God of the universe. When we say, “Our Father in heaven” we can hardly begin to grasp the vastness of who God is. God is so far beyond us that God is NOT like us. God is wholly other and separate from us. The Bible says in Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”
We balance the immanence and the transcendance when we say the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father” – intimate, loving, kind, present, immanent. “Who art in heaven” – transcendant, invisible, the Holy and Mighty God. Both of those have to be kept in our theology and in our prayers.
It is easy for us to go overboard on either side in our prayers. Some prayers are too imminent, some are too transcendant.
An Episcopalian priest named Malcolm Boyd wrote a book in the 1970s entitled Are You Running With Me Jesus? This book encouraged people to put prayer into the vernacular, into everyday conversation. It was a wonderful book and opened up a new intimacy in our prayers. But some people get overly “buddy-buddy” with God. Some people say, “Well, I was talking to the man upstairs.” We need to remember that God is more than the man upstairs; more than a man and farther than just upstairs. Sometimes we get too trivial in our prayers. It is possible to have too much immanence.
Sometimes blessings for food are trivialized. Perhaps you have heard the one the children sometimes say, “Good bread, good meat, good God, let’s eat.” That kind of prayer seems too trivial, too casual, too thoughtless.
There is also a way for us to be too distant in our prayers. Some people’s prayers are so filled with lofty language and holier-than-thou talk that their prayers are totally unlike any communication made in normal life. Jesus had a telling remark in Matthew 6:6, “In praying, don’t use vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking.”
Prayer is an intensely personal thing. Everyone of us prays in a different way and with a different attitude. I think it is the epitome of arrogance to criticize how someone else prays. Everybody prays in their own way, but we should examine our own prayers to see if we are falling off on either extreme. Maybe we are too buddy-buddy in our prayers and need to remind ourselves that God is God. Maybe our prayers are too filled with thee’s and thou’s and a great voice, and we have moved prayer from common conversation.
John Robinson once talked about “prayer without varnish.” Varnish has its place in woodwork. It makes beautiful wood to shine. But sometimes we are guilty of putting varnish on our prayers. We gloss them over and cover up the reality with something shiny. We should all examine our prayers to see if our prayers are genuine communication with God, recognizing that God is sovereign and yet present.
The next phrase is “May your name be kept holy.” We are not praying to just any old god, we are not praying “to whom it may concern.” We are talking to the God of the Bible, the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament, the God who was revealed to Israel, and the God Jesus called “Father.”
The Hebrews did not even like to say the name of God out of a sense of reverence and holiness. That reverence is what prayer is in our lives. When we pray we need to have reverence above all else.
There was once a minister visiting in a home for a meal. When the prayer was said the television continued to blare a Coke commercial. The minister noticed that the children bowed their heads, but they kept their eyes open and glued to the television commercial all through the prayer. Children have to learn reverence.
One of the first lessons I learned when praying with a group of children is that the adults should not always close their eyes. Children sometimes take advantage of this rare moment when they are not being watched. Sometimes children think they are invisible during prayer because everybody else has their eyes closed. I’ve seen children not only look around, but also make rabbit ears or poke somebody in the circle of prayer. It is always good for adults to have one eye open in case they need to put a hand on a child. That’s usually all they need. They have to learn reverence. They haven’t learned yet what it means to say “hallowed by thy name.” We bow our heads and close our eyes as a way of hallowing God’s name in a spirit of reverence.
These first few phrases in the Lord’s Prayer capture the very essence of prayer, “Our Father, who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Frederick Buechner said, “Keep praying even when the answer is ‘No,’ keep praying like the persistent widow. Keep on beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if (God) does not bring you the answer you want, (God) will bring you (God’s presence). And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for.”
The fact that God hears our prayers may be gift enough. Even if we never got anything we asked for. What more could we hope for than that the God of the universe would hear us when we pour out our burdens and anxieties of life. To know that God is simply there with us. It may well be that prayer itself is an answer to prayer.
I hope that all of us are beginning to exercise the wonderful gift more and more. I am challenging this congregation to become a praying people because prayer can prepare us for the battles of life. As I look around this congregation, I can think of many who are facing or have recently faced great battles in their lives.
Phillips Brooks uses the analogy of a ship at sea, fighting a gale. The wind is howling and the rigging is about to fall. The waves like mountains crash upon this little wooden vessel. We think of the storm as a battle between the sea and the ship. But Phillips Brooks says the battle was really won or lost long before this particular scene. The battle was won or lost in the forest when they picked the strongest trees, when the carpenter began to make the strong ribs of this ship, when the seams were caulked so the boat would not leak, when it was maintained to avoid dry rot. The battle on the sea is won on the land when the ship is built and preserved.
Our prayer life is something like that. The crucial battles of life, those times when life falls in upon us, are won or lost in the days and months before in our prayers. If we have been praying all along, God has strengthened our character so that when the storms come, we won’t fall apart. Quietly, mysteriously, unobtrusively, almost casually, prayer feeds the soul and stores up inner reserves. When the storm comes – as it does at last to all – those reserves become our strength.(2)
1) Pastor’s Story File, 11.6., quoted at http://www.pilgrimchurchofduxbury.org/msg20020113.htm
2) Hughes Wagner, Ministers Manual for 1984, p. 233.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.