Have you ever had the experience where you leave the house, you get in your car, start the engine, and the next time you wake up you're at the office? You have absolutely no recollection of anything in between, the cross streets, the stoplights. It's because the route is so familiar when you drive it your mind disengages. Many times that's what happens to longtime Christians when we pray the Lord's Prayer. We're so familiar with it after years of recitation, we'll say, "Our Father...." And that's the last thing we remember. And if you're like me, sometimes you'll say, "Now wait a minute. I want to feel those words, and I'll try again." But the same thing will happen again. My prayer for these next few minutes is that the Lord's Prayer will break upon us with the freshness of new discovery.
Listen to these sometimes too familiar words of Matthew's Gospel, the sixth chapter, verses 9-13:
9 This then is how you should pray:
"Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one."
I once spoke with a woman who said, "When I was a little girl in Sunday School, our teacher told us she'd put a gold star next to our name if we prayed the Lord's Prayer every night for a month. This lady said, "I really wanted that gold star so I prayed the Lord's Prayer that whole month as I have every night of my life ever since. But what moved me was she said, "I went through years of agnosticism and depression and wandering from God. But every night I would still pray the Lord's Prayer.
Yes, this is a prayer we never outgrow. I would like us to look together at the very first phrase:
Our Father, who art in heaven
Here we are already in the storm of controversy. Isn't this word Father just another patriarchal concept alleging that God is a male and not a female deity? It's very important that we realize that the God of the Bible incorporates and transcends our sexual categories, that we do have many male images of God, but we also have female images of God. In Isaiah God suckles Israel like a nursing mother. Jesus says to Jerusalem, "How often I would have gathered your children...as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings." It's also interesting that Jesus sometimes addresses God using the word Abba, which in our common usage could only be translated Daddy. And in so doing Jesus was including both the strength that we associate with maleness and the tenderness and nurturing we often associate with femaleness. God is all powerful. God is infinitely loving. Jesus says, "Call God 'Daddy.'"
The story of Jesus' life was one of intimacy with his Father. As a precocious 12-year old in the temple, he says to his earthly parents, "I must be in my Father's house." As Jesus rises out of the baptismal waters of the Jordan, the voice of his Father thunders, "This is my beloved Son." At the Mount of Transfiguration, again the voice from the cloud declares, "This is my Son; hear him." And then at the end as his enemies are closing in at Gethsemane, Jesus prays, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not what I will but what thou will." My friends, in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus is passing on to you and me the very intimacy he had with his Father as he lived life in the flesh.
The privilege of this relationship is underscored by the fact that this is the only place we ever hear Jesus use the phrase our Father. Every other place in the gospels he speaks of my Father. "I must do the will of my father." "My Father loves me because I lay down my life." Finally, after the resurrection, he includes us, but even speaking with Mary Magdalene, he says, "Go, tell the disciples that I am ascending to your God and my God, to your Father and my Father." Only Jesus has the right to call God Father. But after the resurrection, it's as if Jesus says, "After all I have accomplished for you on the cross, now you can come to my Father and say our Father. So when we pray this prayer, we're in effect dressing up in our big brother's clothes. We're impersonating Jesus as he passes on to us his own precious relationship with his Heavenly Father.
May I ask you a personal question? Are you secure in your heavenly Father's love?
The Apostle Paul says we're adopted children and the truth is sometimes adopted children have a hard time feeling secure in the family.
Just out of seminary I was a youth minister in Los Angeles. And there I got to know a very wealthy family who lived on a gated estate on a point jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. The father in this family drove a Stutz Bearcat. After having three daughters born to them, this wonderful Christian family adopted a 9-year-old orphan boy from a boys' home in the San Gabriel Valley. Up until then Christopher had spent his whole life bouncing around from foster home to foster home, and now he found himself in the loving embrace of this wonderful family in a magnificent home on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. I even considered asking this family to adopt me. But it turned out as their pastor, I was over at that home almost every week because Christopher could not bring himself to believe that he belonged in that house. He would do the slightest thing wrong-let the dog in with muddy feet or spill his milk, and he would go into an hysterical fit. "You're gonna send me back to the boys' home! Please don't send me away!" They'd say, "But, Christopher, this is your home. We're your parents. You're our son. We love you. You belong here." And then he did some really inappropriate things out of this terrible insecurity. Finally, one night in one of the most beautiful moments I've ever heard, after dinner they went into the living room where they had a little ceremony where they let Christopher change his name. By way of background, there were three sisters in that family, and their names were Jeralyn, Jana, and Johanna, and that night Christopher became Jay. That was his new name, and that was the beginning of the turnaround in this young man's life. At last he belonged. And, you know, that's what happens to us in our baptism. We're given a name and suddenly we come to belong to the family of God.
Several years ago, I officiated at a wedding for one of those daughters, and I saw Jay again. And a finer young Christian man you have never met. I don't know about you, but I have way too many days when I feel like Christopher, and I don't have enough days when I feel like Jay, which is why Paul says in Romans 8:16, "That God has sent his Holy Spirit to bear witness with our spirit that we are God's children." This was something that was settled long ago in eternity. And if children we are heirs-"heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ." Now some of the riches of our inheritance are ours already right now. When we say the words our Father, instantly we become a family with all others who pray them. If you don't have a church family, I want to urge you to go and do everything you can to find one. This family of faith is even more decisive than your biological family. You can go into a church, look around at total strangers who are your brothers and sisters. Think of it. You have a whole new group of people you can borrow money from. Go ahead-invite yourself home to dinner.
I must say, some of the saddest conversations I've ever had have been with people who said to me, "I cannot pray these words Our Father because of the kind of person I had as an earthly father. He belittled me; he didn't have time for me. He abused me verbally or even worse. How do you expect me to pray Our Father? Oh, my heart goes out to people who've had those kinds of experiences. It also is helpful to remember that the father that Jesus came to reveal is not a big version of our human father, but the father Jesus came to reveal was so infinite in his love and so gracious in his character as to be virtually incomprehensible even to Jesus' own hearers.
I've done some travel in remote areas of the Holy Land. And there are some little villages that are like time warps where the customs are very similar to those in Jesus' day. I remember once preaching in a little Bedouin village in Jordan where they even had to station someone at the door to keep the goats from wandering in while I was preaching.
Kenneth Bailey is a marvelous Middle Eastern scholar who had the brilliant idea of going around in these remote villages, and there he would tell them the parables of Jesus and get their reactions. One day Kenneth Bailey was sitting around with some sheep herders and farmers and he spun the tale of the prodigal son. He got to the part where the son goes to the father to ask for his share of the inheritance, and these men who were sitting around just doubled over with laughter. They thought that was the funniest thing they ever heard. They said, "In our village, that would never happen. The father would conk that boy on the head." Then the son goes away, sows his wild oats and comes back, and Kenneth Bailey told how the father, seeing him at a distance, ran to his son. The sense of the Scripture here is that the father sprinted to his son. It was here that the men became furious and even disgusted. They said, "This man had no dignity! For a man to run through the streets, his robe would kick up around his thighs; his legs would be exposed to the children. That would be shameful. He would be the laughingstock of his village. No father would run to his son. It would never happen." But, my friend, I'm here to tell you it happens every day whenever we pray, "Our Father who art in heaven." God comes running.
Let me ask again. Are you secure in your heavenly Father's love? If so, that means you pray spontaneously from the heart. Did you know you cannot pray a bad prayer anymore than a preschooler can draw a bad picture? When your child or grandchild or nephew or niece scrawls a picture with crayons, you stand back and say, "Oh, my! The perspective is askew." No, you take that picture and put it up with a magnet on your refrigerator door. In the same way, God treasures every one of our prayers. Even when Jeremiah prayed, "God, you lied to me! You lied to me, God," God so valued that prayer he included it within the canon of his holy Word.
And so may I ask you again, are you secure in your heavenly Father's love?
But now hold on! Here we are feeling all cozy with our father in our family when we come to the next phrase, who art in heaven. Those are distancing words. It's almost like saying, "My father, who lives in Indonesia." Sometimes people say, "Why can't we just believe in the fatherhood of God and the family of humanity and leave it at that?" Here's why. There is a vast, unbridgeable gulf between a holy God and sinful human beings. That tension is built into the opening phrase of the Lord's Prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven. If you can hold both those thoughts in your mind at the same time, you've gone a long way toward understanding Christian theology. We have an intimate Father we are close to and we have an infinite God we look up to-a God who is high, holy, majestic, and lifted up, and, yes, even whom we are to fear. But, you know, even that's good news. For to an infinite and holy, majestic God we can bring our biggest problems. We can pray absurdly cosmic prayers-even that one we prayed when we were children: "God bless everybody in the whole world" is not too tall an order for our Father who art in heaven.
So we can pray for peace and justice in the Middle East, we can pray for food for the hungry, a cure for cancer. We can pray for healing of racial and ethnic tension. We can pray for a world free from terrorism. Or as Eric Clapton sings so beautifully, looking down from the skies are "my Father's eyes."
I was 23 years old-the first child to leave our family. I'd been away a year at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey, and now at last it was summer and I was heading back home to California to do summer beach ministry in San Diego. My parents were elated. Their eldest son was driving back home cross country with his new bride. We had traveled 2,700 of that 3,000-mile journey, and one night we were passing through a tiny town in Nevada. I'll never forget its name: Oasis, Nevada--one of those tiny microscopic dots where the entering and leaving are the opposite sides of the same sign. You know what I mean. Fifteen miles outside Elko and there in the middle of the night, my 1963 Plymouth Valiant blew its engine, as in "gave up the ghost," and here we were stranded at a gas station in a town with no motels and no food except one coin-operated machine where you put in some quarters and a Frito bag drops. But I knew all I had to do was place one phone call to one person. And guess who it was. It was to my dad. And so I did. It was like calling in a massive military response. Every tool in the garage he threw in his trunk. Somehow he borrowed a towbar from a friend in the middle of the night. He got all kinds of running lights for my car. He had my mom up making sandwiches, and the two of them charged 250 miles into the Nevada desert drinking coffee to stay awake. I actually think it was the most fun they ever had.
Jesus looked at human parents who love us so much, and he says, "If you who are evil, you with your imperfect love will do such outlandish things for your children, how much more will your father in heaven respond when you pray, "Our Father who art in heaven...." His heart will not let him stay up there. He comes rushing to our side.
Would you join with me in prayer?
Gracious God, we thank you for all those we bring with us when we pray "Our Father"-our family, our friends, our children, our city, and our nation, our fellow human beings in need around the world, all of whom you so loved you sent your Son to save. Lord, give us a fresh grasp of the wonder of these words: "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.