Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"The Lord's Prayer-Petition 1"

Text: Matthew 6:9

Psalm 33:1-5, 8-9


            In the worship life of the church, and in the devotional lives of individual Christian folk, what are the words we repeat more often than any others?

The Lord’s Prayer, of course; in Latin, Oratio Dominica or Pater Noster [which translates “Our Father]. Many of us learned this prayer as children at the knees of our parents or grandparents, or perhaps learned it in Sunday School. What I find troubling these days, however, is that this prayer we Christians assume all people know by heart is not known by heart by all people. My eyes have been opened as I’ve officiated weddings and funeral services. When we come to the point in the service where all are invited to repeat the words “Jesus taught us to pray,” I notice less and less voices repeating. I don’t think it’s a matter of people not wanting to pray the Lord’s Prayer. They simply never learned it. And there is a risk for those of us who do know the prayer by heart: we pray it so often that the words can become formulaic and ritualistic, losing their meaning and power. So over the next six Sundays in Lent, I’d like us to explore in some depth this prayer we treasure.

            The Lord’s Prayer is recorded in both Matthew and Luke. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is recorded as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is there warning His audience not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do,” believing they’ll be heard for their many words. Rather, Jesus teaches to “Pray then in this way:” In Luke’s Gospel, the prayer is given in response to the disciples’ request “to pray, as John [presumably John the Baptist] taught his disciples.” Original context aside, the Lord’s Prayer is delivered to us from Christ for the purposes of both awakening and stimulating our faith. And although we memorize it as a set formula, I don’t think it was Jesus’ intent that we repeat it mechanically or without thought. It is rather to be a model or pattern for prayer. Even so, no greater words of prayer have ever been spoken. 17th century Puritan (and very Presbyterian) preacher Thomas Watson once said this of the Lord’s Prayer: “The preciousness of the prayer appears in the excellence of the matter. It is ‘as silver tried in a furnace, purified seven times.’ Never was prayer so admirably and intricately composed as this.” On that note, let’s hear again these precious words, not read, but sung.

            (Lord’s Prayer sung by Shannon Baker)

            The Lord’s Prayer has been called by some the “prayer of prayers,” and for good reason. It is comprehensive, ie. a great deal is said in a few words. Don’t we wish our preachers would learn this lesson? It is clear, plain and intelligible to any and all, another good model for us preachers. And it is complete, containing the main things that we have to ask, and that God has to bestow. Structurally, the prayer is built upon an introduction, seven petitions [or requests], and a doxo- logy. This morning, I’d like us to consider the intro and petition one as recorded by Matthew: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” [or for lovers of KJ language, “Thy name.”]

            In the Old Testament, we’re given account of Moses’ first meeting with Almighty God. Moses was caring for the critters of his father-in-law Jethro in the wilderness of Horeb when he came upon a bush which was burning. There’s nothing so unusual about a dry shrub bursting into flames in the 120 degree plus desert heat. But this one, the fire did not consume. Moses heard a voice – the very voice of God – speaking from the bush warning: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” This initiated a theology by which the ancient Jews lived: an infinite chasm separates mortalsfrom the transcendent God. Here now in New Testament Matthew are the introductory words of our Lord’s Prayer invitingus into a radically new relationship with God, calling us to draw near to God who is beyond human understanding, who dwells in mystery, who is in the words of Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard “wholly other.” Our Father, as opposed to my Father or your father establishes, perhaps for the first time, the universal nature of God’s relationship with humankind. We are one and all children of God.

            Over these past few generations of widespread fractured paternal-child relationships, a day and age when many fathers have frankly “dropped the ball” in terms of responsibility for the children they’ve sired, the language “Our Father” in the Lord’s prayer can carry negative connotations. I remember a conversation I once had with a middle-aged woman who was struggling with her Christian faith. We somehow got onto the subject of the Lord’s Prayer. She said, “My father was abusive to my mother and to my brother and sisters. He drank his pay checks so we went hungry a lot. In the end, he left my mother for some young girl. How can I possibly pray to a father in heaven when my father on earth gave us nothing but pain?” That was a tough one to answer. While Jesus did indeed use “father” language and understood His particular relationship to be Son of the Father in heaven, and while the role of fatherhood was very highy respected in the culture of Jesus’ day, I believe there are broader implications of this salutation. If Jesus is indeed inviting us into an intimacy with God, seeking to bridge that vast chasm, to come near the burning bush. God’s relationship with God’s children is more parental than paternal. Had Jesus’ cultural context been different, He may very well have introduced the prayer with “Our Mother.”

            Beyond that, in calling God “Father,” Jesus certainly didn’t mean that God was masculine, as much as Archie Bunker and many others of his ilk would like to believe otherwise. God is above and beyond the categories of gender, of masculine or feminine. Actually, none of our descriptions of God are adequate. God who is “in heaven,” transcendent, simply beyond our capacity to capture or define, cannot be neatly pigeon-holed into human systems or categories. Even so, we honor and respect the words Jesus taught, understanding that calling God “Father” is rightly describing ourselves and our relationship with God. God’s perceived maleness or femaleness notwithstanding, we are welcomed into a filial relationship - a parent-child bond, God loving us as if we are daughters and sons. So for our part, we can approach God in the familiar, confident way a child approaches a loving parent – the strength and protective power of father, the soft and tender nurture of mother, the divine combination of both. And to address God as Father suggests on our part a childlike disposition, honoring and revering God as a son honors his mother, and a woman her father.

            We are quickly reminded, though, in the second part of the introduction that while we can approach God with confidence and be certain of God receiving us as beloved children, God is not to be domesticated. Don’t you know that the best parenting avoids to a “chummy” relationship between parent and child. God is not our chum. God is “....in heaven.” Especially in our prayers, we must acknowledge that God is God, with us while far above us; permitting us dominion over creation while maintaining sovereign power over all; allowing us to learn and discover, yet retaining authorship of and authority over everything known and unknown, now and forever. This acknowledgement flows naturally into the first petition: “hallowed be your [or Thy]name.” The Latin translation of this phrase is sanctified be your name.” Perhaps the best way to understand this petition is to substitute a more modern word for the ancient and now rarely- used word “hallowed.” “Holy” is a word which captures the essence of God’s nature – worthy of complete devotion in reponse to God’s sovereign power, to God’s authorship and authority, to God’s perfect goodness and righteousness. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams understands this petition as looking upon God’s very name as holy, as something that inspires awe and reverence. God’s name is not to be trivialized by attempting to make God a tool for our purposes, or as a way to put others down and to make ourselves feel superior, or as a flippant figure of speech. Think of all the ways this petition is cheapened – every time a famous radio talk show personality says of himself in mocking tones: “talent on loan from God,” or proclaiming of a leading meteorologist “In Goddard we trust,” or saying in response to virtually everything “O my God.” Taking God’s name in vain [as we were once warned in a commandment not to do] is the absolute antithesis of hallowing God’s name. The good Archbishop summed up the phrase when he stated: “Understand what you’re talking about or to whom when you’re talking about or to God, this is serious, the most wonderful and fearful reality that we could imagine, more {emphasis mine} wonderful and fearful than we can imagine.”

            So when and how do we hallow, or sanctify, or declare holy the very name of Almighty God? How about when we set our thoughts upon God? Call it meditative prayer as we lift God highest in our souls, conceiving of God as infinite and excelling good. In the words of Thomas Watson: “We see in God a constellation of beauties and delights, we adore God in His glorious attributes which are the several beams by which God’s divine nature shines forth, we adore God in His works which are bound up in three great volumes – creation, redemption, and providence.” How about when we trust in God’s name, believing the truth of God, the power of God, the grace of God, the love of God; believing that God is entirely for us, even to the point of self-sacrifice……. like a parent? How about when we offer our best spiritual worship? What better way to declare the holiness of God than to gather publically to pray, to sing, to preach, to give, all as acts of devotion to the One who rightfully deserves our devotion by God’s very nature? And what purer way to declare the holiness of God than to privately pray, to study God’s written word {which is a form of worship}, to sing, to give. How about when we observe God’s day, setting it aside as a time of worship and reflection? How about when we obey God, seeking to do the things which we, for the most part, very well know God wants us to do: to love our neighbor, even our enemy; to for- give “seven times seventy”; to extend mercy; to walk in humility; to seek unity and promote peace. So you see, when Jesus teaches us to pray like this: “hallowed be your name,” He’s teaching us to not just recite hollow, memorized, ritualized words, but to live according to that first petitionwhich acknowledges God as the One to be sanctified, the One to be served, and the One to be exemplified as revealed in and through Jesus Christ, Son of the heavenly Father.            

Next week, we’ll talk about the second and third petitions: “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”