Monday, February 26, 2007

our father in heaven (a sermon)

Here's the text of a sermon I just gave on Sunday at Oasis Madrid's service. We began a series on the Lord's Prayer, so the following teaching gives an understanding as to why we are doing this and a brief glimpse into some of the richness of the first phrase: "Our Father who art in heaven."

I hope it helps you in some way.


Our Father in heaven
a sermon by Troy Cady

Last Wednesday marked the beginning of the season of Lent.

For the Christian there are two events that stand out above all other events in history: the birth of Christ, and the death and resurrection of Christ. Christmas is about the birth of Christ. Easter is about the death and resurrection of Christ.

Both of these are so significant that Christians everywhere in all times have seen it necessary to observe a time of readying the heart to enter into the mystery of each event. So, before Christmas day, Christians observe a period of four weeks called Advent. During those four weeks, Christians set aside time to contemplate the meaning of God coming to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. In this way, we ready ourselves to enter into the mystery of Christmas.

And, in like fashion, before Easter, Christians set aside time to prepare themselves spiritually, to enter into the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is what the season of Lent is all about. It is a time of preparation.

And since Lent is a time of preparing to enter into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, it is a time of thinking more deeply about the meaning of the cross. As such, it is a time to confess sin and a time of repentance and renewal. It is a time to re-align ourselves with the way of Jesus.

Because of that, we (the staff of Oasis Madrid) thought it would be appropriate to re-align ourselves with the way of Jesus through taking this season to learn again how to pray as Jesus taught us to pray. As such, today we commence a series on The Lord’s Prayer.

The other day I was having breakfast with someone and as he thought about our plans to do a series on the Lord’s Prayer, he asked why.

I thought that was a good question. Why, indeed, do a series on the Lord’s Prayer?

The bottom line is this: it’s really a matter of conscience for me, as a pastor. In the past couple years, I’ve had a growing burden in my heart that we as a community of faith develop an understanding that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. In fact, we are a part of a family that spans the centuries, and this particular family has some distinction and diversity within it. Now, that diversity is a good thing, and, here in Oasis Madrid, we are fortunate to have plenty of it. Part of our particular diversity involves the differing cultural backgrounds represented: some are from England, others from Holland, Germany, the United States, Canada, Spain, Ireland, Finland, etc. We also come from different faith backgrounds: some of us come from non-religious backgrounds, others come from more “traditional” church backgrounds, and still others come from more “modern” church backgrounds.

All this diversity is good, but what matters perhaps even more is not what “divides” us, but that which unites us. What is it upon which we can all agree?

Well, I can think of a list: but it starts with Jesus. That’s why we say we are a “Christ-centered” church. Jesus has changed our lives and continues to change lives. And, together, we are determined to keep our eyes focused on Jesus, who He is, what He did, who He’s calling us to be and what He’s called us to do in the world. It starts with Jesus.

And, this has always been the case for Christians down through centuries. This is what unites us with believers everywhere in the present, but it also unites us with our spiritual grandmothers and grandfathers. It’s all about Jesus and it always has been.

That’s why the prayer of Jesus is so important. Because it’s Jesus’ prayer, it’s something that all Christians (in all times and in all places) can agree on. By learning to pray this prayer, we not only follow Jesus but we also identify with the family of Jesus through the centuries. There’s a beauty to that, a mystery to that, that we do well to pursue.

That’s why I hope that our little community of faith becomes excited about the Lord’s Prayer over these coming weeks. So excited that this prayer actually becomes part of the very fabric of our community and of our individual lives, since it has been a part of the very fabric of our spiritual heritage for centuries and centuries.

And, more specifically, I hope that, if we do not already have this prayer committed to memory, we will do so. I hope that we will be able to whisper this prayer to God even as we walk to the metro, or just as we wake up in the morning, or right before going to bed at night. I picture it as a thing of beauty, to have us all united in prayer, agreeing one with another, that this is our prayer: may God’s rule be evident here on earth, may God provide for us, may He forgive us, may He enable us to forgive, may He deliver us from evil. That much we can all agree on. That much can band us together.

Now, in my conversation this past week, we also talked about whether or not we needed to pray the exact words recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Isn’t what Jesus said more like an outline for us to follow? Do we really need to pray the Lord’s Prayer exactly like it’s written? Doesn’t it diminish the power of the prayer, in fact, when we pray it from mere memory?

I’ll take each of those questions in turn now:

1. Couldn't what Jesus said be taken as simply an outline for us to follow? The answer, I think, is yes. As we think about the Lord’s Prayer, you can and should feel free to expand on the basic foundation that Jesus laid. So, for example, as we pray individually “give us this day our daily bread” we can substitute something like the following: “Lord, please bless Warren as he tries to sell his pieces of furniture that he’s made.” This is good. But, at the same time, it is also okay for us to pray simply, using literally the words that Jesus spoke. So…

2. No, we do not need to pray this prayer exactly word-for-word. But…

3. I find that sometimes it is helpful to pray the Lord’s prayer in simplicity, not embellishing or adding to the words that millions of Christians use and have used. Here’s why:

A. It enables me to literally pray in unison with other believers. I mean, think about it, what are the chances that, when I pray, “Lord, please help Warren sell some of his pieces of furniture” someone else is going to join in at exactly that moment with the identical words? But, if I pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”, it opens up the possibility that others can literally join me in that prayer, not just in heart and mind but also in actual word! There’s a power there that you can’t find any other way.

B. Sometimes I quite honestly don’t know what to pray. I’m at a loss for words. In times like that, I’ve often found that the Lord’s Prayer somehow communicates exactly what I have on my heart. For example, if I’m so angry at someone that I find myself emotionally flooded and unable to think, I know that a prayer God will answer is this: “Forgive me my debts as I forgive my debtors.” Then, in the midst of that prayer, God speaks to me: “Forgive your neighbor as I have forgiven you.” When I’m locked up mentally, emotionally and spiritually, the Lord’s Prayer is like a key, opening up doors of freedom.

C. Another reason it’s valuable to pray the Lord’s prayer as it stands, without embellishment, is because we are part of a continuous chain, passing down the very prayer Jesus himself taught us to pray! That’s exciting! And we get to be a part of that!

“But,” someone says, “isn’t there a danger that we’ll just start reciting off the thing by rote memory and it won’t have any real meaning?”

Yes, there is that danger, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I know this from experience:

When Heather and I lived in Colorado some years ago, we attended a church called “First Presbyterian.” Each Sunday, First Presbyterian recites the Lord’s Prayer together. Each Sunday. Now, what’s interesting about this is that, at first, when I caught on to the fact that “they say this each and every Sunday, for Pete’s sake” I immediately thought: “I’d better guard against this becoming just a dead, meaningless thing.” So, what did I do? I made sure that each week I could say the prayer with meaning, that I really meant it. So, I did silly little things like make sure I could hear my own voice inflecting “meaningfully”! It was something like this:

“OUR Father, who art in HEAVEN, HALLOWED be thy name. THY KINGDOM COME, thy will be done, ON EARTH as it is in heaven….” Etcetera.

Then, the next week it was, “Our FATHER, who ART in heaven, hallowed be THY name. Thy kingdom come, THY will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

And so on. Each week, I made sure that I knew what I was saying and that “I meant it, by golly.”

But gradually, I don’t know how, I learned that the Lord’s Prayer is not really about me. It’s about us. Together. I knew that the Lord could see my heart. That I needn’t stress and strain over “meaning it”, however I thought that was supposed to look. I learned that part of “meaning it” involved turning down my own voice so I could join with the voices of others. So, I learned to speak and listen. To contribute and receive. And gradually, I settled into an awareness that others were praying this prayer and then I could hear a whole chorus of voices raising their hearts to heaven in unison and harmony.

And then, all of a sudden, it hit me: what this prayer sounded like to God. And I became aware of God’s Spirit moving in our midst. God inhabiting the very prayers of His precious people.

And, now, it staggers me, to think that that was just one gathering of Christians that Sunday. And, what it must sound like to God to have Christians from all over the world (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, Australia) lifting their voices in unison. Praying the same prayer as our Lord Jesus Christ.

So, I’m not exaggerating when I say that over the course of three years, Heather and I grew to love that prayer, those moments each week. And our appreciation for the Lord’s Prayer and understanding of it grew with each passing week. That was only possible as we prayed it week after week. Yes, the same words, week after week.

How is it possible, you may wonder, that we can say the same thing week after week, yet its meaning is not diminished?

Well, just because I say “I love you” to my wife every day doesn’t mean that that expression has been rendered meaningless over the course of the past 16 + years. And 20 years from now when I say to her “I love you”, it may have actually increased in significance and richness. Indeed, the phrase will most likely mean more to me 20 years from now than it does today.

In the same way, a life of prayer founded on the very words of Jesus has infinite potential. It is, after all, the prayer of Jesus. Would you expect anything less than limitless richness, mystery and meaning from the eternal Son of God?

This is why I sincerely hope we become a church that’s passionate about praying this prayer. Yes, even the very words Jesus taught us to pray. I hope we become a church that’s passionate about praying this together. A church that learns to pray this together.

On that note, I want to close with an observation about the opening line of the Lord’s prayer that can hopefully “frame” the way in which we view this prayer.

I think that many Christians today (particularly many evangelical Christians) feel a large measure of apprehension when it comes to praying the Lord’s Prayer in its basic form. There may be several reasons for this.

I’ve already mentioned that one reason may be that we are afraid it will become a dead prayer. Another reason, however, is that I think we perceive the Lord’s Prayer as impersonal and coldly formal.

Right now, I’d like to dispel that myth.

The Lord’s Prayer is actually extremely personal and intimate. In fact, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray in this fashion, it was most likely viewed as irreverently personal and intimate.

What I mean is this: from the very beginning of their history, the Jewish people were taught and reminded over and over again: WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT APPROACH GOD, DO NOT SPEAK HIS NAME, DO NOT PRESUME TO MERELY CONVERSE WITH THE ALMIGHTY.

Think about it: When Moses was on Mount Sinai meeting with God, who was giving Moses the 10 commandments, what were the rest of the Israelites told to do? DON’T APPROACH THE MOUNTAIN OF THE LORD. IF YOU DO, YOU’LL DIE. And, to remind the Israelites of that, God covered the mountain in fire and smoke. See, God is holy and you don’t just approach Him as if He’s nothing; you tread forth carefully, as if you’re walking into a blazing forest fire.

Later, when Moses wanted to see God’s face, God said, “I’ll let you see the back of me, but not my face. For no one can see my face and live.”

The Hebrew people were soon taught that God’s name was so holy one should never speak it or even dare to write it. So, God’s name “Yahweh” was spelled simply YHWH.

Still later, God set up regulations as to how the nation of Israel would relate to Him. This was the sacrificial system. The writer of the book of Hebrews describes the nature of this with these words:

“[The] first plan contained directions for worship, and a specially designed place of worship. A large outer tent was set up. The lampstand, the table, and "the bread of presence" were placed in it. This was called "the Holy Place." Then a curtain was stretched, and behind it a smaller, inside tent set up. This was called "the Holy of Holies." In it were placed the gold incense altar and the gold-covered ark of the covenant containing the gold urn of manna, Aaron's rod that budded, the covenant tablets, and the angel-wing-shadowed mercy seat...After this was set up, the priests went about their duties in the large tent. Only the high priest entered the smaller, inside tent, and then only once a year, offering a blood sacrifice for his own sins and the people's accumulated sins.”

Did you catch that? One person, once a year, was able to enter into God’s very presence.

In prayer, God was primarily addressed in the following fashion: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe.” And, this form of address was not limited to simply the beginning of one’s prayers, but laced throughout the whole prayer at various intervals, repeating again and again, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe. Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe.”

In contrast to that, Jesus appears on the scene, and, when His disciples ask Jesus how they should pray He starts by addressing God as simply “Our Father in the heavens.”

“Our Father”. This is the language of real relationship, of intimacy. To the Jewish people, this would sound much the same way it sounds when my son calls me “Daddy.” It was informal, personal, intimate, loving.

But Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on from “Our Father” and added the words “in heaven.” You probably noticed that, above, I said, “in the heavens”, not merely “in heaven.” I did that on purpose.

First of all, the original Greek text literally says, “in the heavens” (plural), so this way of construing it is justifiable.

Secondly, translating it “in the heavens” connects with how the Jewish mind understood the concept of heaven. The first meaning of the word “heaven” is what we typically think of: the idea that heaven is a place far off, removed. So, to say that God is in “heaven” is to say that He is “far away.” But, there was another meaning to the word heaven, and that is why it is best translated “heavens”, because it carries the meaning of “the space immediately surrounding us”, the “atmosphere”, as it were. When the Psalmist says, for example, that “the heavens” declare the majesty of God, he is referring to this idea of “the atmosphere”, nature, all creation.

And it is this idea that Jesus is using in his prayer. He is literally saying, “Father in the space right next to us.” Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at USC, says that the opening phrase could be translated as: “Dear Father always near us…”

Do you see? The Lord’s Prayer conveys the idea of intimacy, that God is our Father, that we can approach him, that he is accessible to us. Indeed, this is what Jesus came to announce: that the kingdom of God, that is, God’s presence and God’s gracious rule, was at hand, available, near, accessible, not far away anymore. Now, thanks to Jesus, we can approach God’s throne; thanks to Jesus we can all speak to God, each and every day. Thanks to Jesus we can call God our Father. Thanks to Jesus, we are no longer alone, far removed from God. God is with us. He is here. He is in the heavens. And He is our Father.

This is what Jesus’ prayer is all about. This is where it begins. And this is where we, too, find our beginning. So, let’s learn to pray this prayer together.

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