The Lord’s Prayer begins with a call to apprenticeship…
One of the occupational expectations of being a pastor is that you will always be called upon to pray for public events. I’ve prayed at church meetings, Memorial Day ceremonies, building dedications, and even prayed to open the Colorado State Senate. I’ve prayed at nearly every meal to which I’ve been invited (always a short grace, so that I will get invited back!). I’ve prayed in the Jordan River, at weddings, on cruise ships, tour busses, at interfaith gatherings, in police cars (not while under arrest), in jails, and in a host of other places where pastors are called on to pray because, well, we’re professionals. And I always say the same thing, “Yes, I’m a professional, but please try this at home.”
For many Christians, however, prayer is still an elusive concept. I have to admit that it’s something that I’ve struggled with over the years, even as a professional pray-er. How do you pray, what do you pray about, what does prayer actually accomplish, etc. I have a hard time being quiet in my own prayer time…is that bad? My mind wanders…does that mean I’m doing it wrong? Do I have to fold my hands and close my eyes? How do I pray for someone? Do I have to pray out loud? (always one of the most stressful things for people to do…we’ll share our most intimate secrets in a one-sided cell phone conversation but have trouble talking with God along with others). We don’t want to be embarrassed (though Linda Aldrich was telling me about being in Nebraska with a relative this week who offered to say grace at McDonald’s and did it loud enough for the burger flippers in the back to hear). Do I have to use Elizabethan English? Is prayer a magic formula to get what we want? There are lots of questions about prayer. I’m always impressed with someone who I think has a vital prayer life.
The disciples of Jesus were having a similar problem. They didn’t really know how to pray. In Luke’s Gospel, they come to Jesus and ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus responds – but not with a technique or a body position or an admonition to pray more often…instead, Jesus gives them a prayer – a prayer that has been prayed by Christians for nearly 2000 years. We call it the Lord’s Prayer – we recite it every week. But what’s it really about?
In this series we’re going to be looking at this prayer, which we most often call “The Lord’s Prayer” – but we’ll be looking at it as more than a prayer. See, we often view prayer as an activity, something we do where we lift to God our needs, our thanksgiving, our adoration – and in some sense prayer is something we do. But in a larger sense, and in the view of Jesus, prayer is really a means of expressing a different worldview. For Jesus, praying this prayer was not simply a means of asking God for something, it was a way of orienting the worldview of his disciples toward an agenda – the coming Kingdom of God. The prayer grew out of Jesus’ own work and thus is a shorthand way of understanding what Jesus was and is about.
And so we’re going to spend the month of September breaking down this prayer – not so that we can analyze it, but so that we can better get a handle on the life and mission of the Lord Jesus. As we do that, my hope is that we will see this prayer as no longer a simple recitation in our liturgy, but as pure spiritual dynamite. As we study it, my hope is that we will no longer pray the prayer, but that they prayer will pray us, motivate us, and capture us into the worldview of Jesus Christ.
And so we begin today with this first phrase: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Now one of the things we have to overcome is our tendency to use the King James English here. Someone asked me the other day whether it was “Our Father who art in heaven” or “Our Father which art in heaven.” God has personhood, is not an “it” so “who” would seem better. But the key words here I want to focus on are the opening “Our Father”. We’ll talk more about the “in heaven” part next week when we talk about the Kingdom of God.
Jesus prayed to God as “Father”. Why did he use that particular way of addressing God? We know from the Old Testament that there are many images and metaphors used to describe God, YHWH, the “I am”. To the Hebrews, God’s name was too holy to be spoken or written (even today when “Yahweh” is written, the vowels are left out). Rather than choose a metaphor or a different name for God (like Lord – Elohim), Jesus uses a very personal term – Father. In fact, in the language of Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself would have spoken, the word is “Abba” – meaning “daddy” or “papa” – intimate language. What does this say about God?
Well first a couple of things it doesn’t say. There’s a popular conception that the use of the term “Father” is a way of expressing that God is male and patriarchal. Some churches have changed the term because of this out of a desire to express the fact that God, while having personality, has no gender. Biblically speaking, that’s right – God has no gender. There are many different images and metaphors used for God in both the Old and New Testaments, including some female metaphors. But throwing out the word “father” as a term for God is tossing out a very large baby with the theological bathwater. Jesus uses the word Father intentionally to express a very specific relationship, not a gender.
Some have also wanted to remove this language because of the abuse that they’ve suffered because of earthly fathers. For those of us who’ve struggled with our fathers here on earth, seeing God as a benevolent father can be tough. But we have to be careful that in our pain we don’t miss the point. God is not to be judged through the persons of our earthly fathers – good or bad though they may be. Even Jesus acknowledges that earthly fathers can only go so far: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” All earthly fathers are to be seen and compared to the fatherhood of God. We fathers tend to fall short on this. God doesn’t.
We also have to recognize that Jesus’ use of the term Father is not metaphysical either. Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary – thus in a metaphysical sense Jesus was God’s “son”. But that’s not how either the terms “Father” or “son” are used here. The Gospel writers use the term “Father” and “Son” as messianic terms, not familial ones. Remember that two of the gospels don’t talk about the birth of Jesus, but still call him “son of God”. The terms express a deeper relationship than family – they express the real mission of Jesus.
To understand more clearly why Jesus refers to God as “Father”, we have to go back to the Old Testament – to the Exodus, where we first see this relationship expressed. Moses is in front of the Egyptian Pharoah, demanding that the Israelites, God’s people who were suffering in slavery, should be let go. Moses is instructed by God to say this:
“This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son…let my son go so he may worship me” (Exodus 4:22-3).
Israel is God’s “son” and Jesus, as Israel’s representative, Israel’s Messiah, takes on that image. He is the “son of God” – not yet at this time a divine title, but a messianic one. The messiah would be the one to lead God’s people out of slavery. Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt. Jesus would lead a new exodus for all people – this time leading them out of the bondage of sin and death.
That Messianic mission was the hope of Israel and the whole world. King David was promised that it would be one of his offspring who would accomplish that work. In 2 Samuel 7:14, God tells David of this coming King, “I will be his father and he will be my son.”
In taking on this role, then, Jesus is doing no less than announcing a revolution – a call to freedom. Calling God “Father” was a means of teaching his disciples that his mission was no less than the salvation of all people, a rescue mission that would lead people- all people – to safety in the hands of God. This was the mission that drove Jesus – all of his teaching, his healings, the miracles, the conflicts were all pointed toward his singular focus of leading his people to take on the mission they were created for – to be a light to all the nations. Praying to God as Father was a way of reinforcing that mission. It was a mission Jesus would be willing to die for.
In the time of Jesus, sons were usually apprenticed to their fathers in learning a trade. They would watch, imitate, work alongside the father and when the son would strike out on his own, he could always check back with his dad to work through any problems he was having. We see Jesus, the messiah, the “son of God” doing this with his “Father” throughout his ministry. Jesus would retreat for times of prayer and solitude, he was continually tuned to the heart of God. Then we see him at Gethsemane, on that night of betrayal, once again being the apprentice – “Father, if it is possible to let this cup pass from me, let it be so…but not my will, I will follow yours.” It’s a powerful statement of devotion, faith, relationship, and trust.
Even on the cross, his arms nailed open, Jesus is focused on his mission and its completion. Once again he looks to God, his “Abba” his “Daddy”, the great “I AM” and with breathes his last words, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
When we pray to God as “Abba” we are doing much more than conjuring up a familial image of God. We are volunteering to follow Jesus in his mission. We are saying that we want to become apprentices to the Father God, and in doing so we are asking to take on the task of leading people out of slavery to sin and death. It’s not just a term of endearment, it’s an audacious request – As Jesus has done this mission, so we as his followers as his people take it on as well – we take up our own cross and follow him in continuing to lead others to God. It’s a costly journey, costing us everything. We are calling on God to include us as apprentices in the messianic mission.
When we pray “Our Father”, we are doing nothing less than challenging the status quo of our world and redefining what it means to be the people of God. When we pray like this, we recognize that our first family is not our biological family. Jesus himself said, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). This is not to say that we ignore our families, but rather that we see our family as being much, much larger – people of all ages, nations, races, cultures. When we baptize someone, particularly a child, we recognize the fact that we are part of a larger family – the family of God. That’s why we can gather in church with folks who ought to be – by the world’s standards – strangers and yet call them “brother” and “sister”. Jesus’ call to prayer was to be all-inclusive – Our father, not “mine”. The mission to which we are called moves us from an individual worldview to a corporate one. Praying this prayer means that we recognize that we’re all in this together.
In the liturgy of many church traditions, when the call to pray the Lord’s prayer is issued, it goes something like this: “And now as our Savior has commanded and taught us, so we are bold to pray…Our Father…”. I never really understood why we had to be “bold” to pray this prayer, but if we’re going to tap into the mission of Jesus, if we’re going to follow him, if we’re going to sign on to his messianic vision…then this is indeed a bold prayer.
We might even say it’s a dangerous one. Right from the outset, when we say “Our Father”, we’re pledging allegiance to a new kind of family and asking for the strength to live out a new kind of reality. Calling God father means that we are asking to be God’s apprentice children – stepping out into a world of darkness and calling forth light.
We don’t know where that will take us or what it will look like, but we do know God and God certainly knows us. When we have the audacity to pray in this way, in Jesus’ way, we begin to see things very differently.
Indeed, that’s the reason we pray that God’s name be “hallowed” or praised. We pray that, as God’s family, we will see his name hallowed throughout the earth. We know that will happen when God’s kingdom comes in fullness, that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that God is Lord. Until then, we live and pray for that to be true in the places we live and work.
As we begin this series, I’d encourage you to meditate on these words. Say the Lord’s prayer every day – not as a recitation or an incantation – but rather as a rhythm, a mission statement. Instead of just praying the prayer, allow it to pray you – to move you. Allow yourself to boldly enter the presence of God asking for a new mission – a Jesus mission.
None of us is a professional when it comes to prayer. We’re all amateurs who, like the disciples, need to learn how to pray. The Lord’s prayer begins by reminding us that, at base, prayer is about a relationship—a relationship of children to a good and gracious Father.
N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer. Eerdman’s: 1997.