(a sermon for June 25, 2017, the Third Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on Luke 11:1-4 and Ezekiel 36:22-28)
In a quote that I must say resonates with me on this particular day, the Baptist preacher and author John Piper writes simply and beautifully that life is “a combination of spectacular things and simple things. In almost everyone’s life,” he says, “there are breathtaking things and boring things. Fantastic things and familiar things. Extraordinary things and ordinary things. Awesome things and average things. Exotic things and everyday things. That’s the way life is.”
In other words, for every day that we are celebrating glorious and life-changing events (!) there are just as many that we are pretty much sitting back and watching the world go by. I was reflecting on this truth just recently on one of these very hot summery days we’ve had as of late, as Lisa, Sarah and I were all three sitting out in the backyard; lawn chairs surrounding and feet dangling in this little plastic wading pool our adult daughter keeps for just such afternoons. And though it was hot, and as we like to say in Maine, “the air was thick with hum’dity,” it was… wonderful: soaking in the sun, feeling that warm summer breeze blowing through, and watching as that same wind wound through the trees and curled the leaves and branches above us; hey, we even got to watch our dog Ollie walking in circles around the wading pool for literally a solid hour, all the while diving for little bits of leaf and tree bud that had blown into the water!
Nothing special; just another summer Sunday afternoon in New Hampshire, but a good one, and a true blessing. And, might I add, something very, very close to prayerful. That’s something else that John Piper writes; he says that there is “a correspondence” between the content of prayer, in particular the content of the Lord’s Prayer, and “the content of our lives,” whether that involves the big or the little, the glorious or the common, the majestic or the mundane. For you see, just as God is present to us in all of the wonders, both small and large, of our lives, in the act of prayer you and I are caught up in the great and glorious ways that God moves in and through it all! As Piper puts it, prayer is “iridescent with eternity and woven into ordinary life” so that in each and every one of our days we might truly walk in tandem with the Almighty; perchance to be enriched, ennobled and empowered along every step of the journey.
At its heart, you see, this is what prayer is about: affirmation, adoration, dedication… and ultimately, a promise; and as Jesus would teach his disciples, and us, it all begins with these words: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
And that’s where we begin as well. It’s worth noting, I think, as now we get into the parsing of all the particular verses of the Lord’s Prayer in this sermon series, that this is a prayer that can basically be divided into two parts: the first speaking of God’s presence and purpose in the world (in other words, we are praying about God’s name, God’s kingdom and God’s will), and the second, centering on our lives and living in relationship to God (our daily bread, our forgiveness and our lives steeped in holiness). Two very distinct perspectives; but taken as a whole, a prayer in which we have this wonderful and transcendent intermingling of the divine presence and the human experience. And it all starts with an amazing affirmation from which everything else proceeds: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
What’s interesting, you know, is that scripture doesn’t spend much, if any, time debating the existence of God or answering the question of who is God; throughout the Bible there is simply the assumption that God is! Right from the very first verse of Genesis, we are told, “In the beginning, God…;” and later on, when Moses asks about the divine identity to the burning bush, God’s answer is “I AM WHO I AM!” (Exodus 3:14) the word in the ancient Hebrew language that we know as Yahweh. This is, in fact, the most fundamental truth in the universe, that God who God is, and far beyond our ability to wholly define, identify or hone in any way, shape or form; all of which makes it all the more significant that when Jesus bids us to come to this infinite, unidentifiable God with our prayer, he instructs us to call him “our Father!”
Think with me for a moment about the awesome wonder of this: here’s the Lord of the universe, the creator of heaven and earth, the God of all time and no time and we get to call him… Father! Now, I hope we all understand that this is no mere patriarchal construct because the God who is the great “I AM” certainly exists beyond our human concepts of gender; moreover, the God of the Bible includes not only male images of the divine, but also a great many female characterizations as well. Moreover, we have to be careful not to equate this to the difficult and sometimes even destructive human relationships that all too often exist between a father and a child. No, the relationship that’s being set forth here is that of an infinitely loving parent unto a much cherished child; a caring, loving and deeply intimate relationship that seeks for the best for that child, providing for that child in and all circumstances.
Our model for this is Jesus himself, whose very life was one of intimacy with his Father and is reflected throughout the gospel story, from the time he was this precocious 12-year old in temple who knew he “must be in [his] Father’s house” (Luke 2:49) to those harrowing hours on the cross when he prayed on behalf of those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) It’s particularly telling that so often in the gospels, when Jesus addresses God, he uses the word “Abba,” which in our usage is best translated as “Daddy.” Think of it; in the words of Victor Pentz, “God is all powerful. God is infinitely loving. Jesus says, ‘Call God Daddy.’”
So right away in our praying this prayer, we establish this heretofore unimaginable relationship with the divine; when we pray, “Our Father,” we are affirming that God is right here, right now and for you and me ever and always! However, that said, we also have to know that this relationship does not come at the expense of God’s authority or power: to pray to “our father” is not to diminish God in any way; and we know this because we also pray to “our Father [who is] in heaven.”
I’ve actually heard it said that this is the part of the Lord’s Prayer that gets glossed over the most often; as though it’s just some kind of throwaway line that expresses where it is that God dwells and by extension where we are as well; you know, the idea that God’s “up there” (as in, “the man upstairs”) and we’re “down here.” But in fact, it’s much more than that; it actually establishes the full impact of what it means that we call God “Father.” Actually, this is an affirmation that is not as much spatial as it is spiritual. What we’re saying is that God, our Father, is in heaven, which is the seat of all authority and power and dominion and greatness; and so what we have is this infinite and majestic God who has the authority and the power to hear us and to come to us when we pray!
What this all means, friends, is that we are meant to be secure in the Father’s love! We are always blessed to know that despite the vast, unbridgeable gulf that exists between a holy God and a sinful humanity we are nonetheless brought into a relationship with God that is as expansive as the cosmos and yet as close as our very breathing. You and I are the recipients a loving embrace that stretches into eternity and that not even death can destroy; and it comes to us by the grace of “our Father, who art in heaven.”
But the question is…what do we do with that? How are we to respond to that all-encompassing kind of presence? What are we to pray that even begins to approach a fitting level of gratitude for what we are given in the kind of relationship that God extends to us? It turns out that this is what the first “petition” of this prayer that Jesus teaches us is all about; as recorded in Luke’s version of the prayer: “Father, hallowed be your name.”
Of course, the word hallowed is not one that we use all that often in today’s language; in fact, I suspect that for most of us, this part of the prayer amounts to another word of praise to God, albeit written in the language of King James English! But in fact, it represents much more than this; to hallow, you see, means to sanctify, or to make or treat something as holy; so when we speak of the name of God being hallowed or sanctified, what we are saying is that is that we wish to treat God as being wholly holy (!) in our lives and for our world. It means that we believe God is our Father in heaven, that this understanding has consequences for everything else we know to be true, that every direction of our lives will shift simply by virtue of this understanding, and that as a result we will honor God in the very ways that we live and move and have our being. To quote John Piper one more time, “[We] hallow the name of God when [we] trust him, revere him, obey him, and glorify him.”
Isn’t it interesting, beloved, that in affirming the name of God, who is our heavenly Father, we also make a promise to live unto the truth of that name? And isn’t it even more interesting that it’s only a very small step between letting God’s name be hallowed in our lives and to letting God’s kingdom come forth in the here and now, and to let God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” (but I get ahead of myself… that’s for next week!).
For now, let us rejoice in what we’ve been given. Life is indeed a combination of the spectacular and the routine, the easy-going as well as the nitty-gritty, the utterly earth-bound and the gloriously heaven sent; all of it imbued with the presence and power of God. But in this daily mingling of the Eternal and the Everyday, and as we pray, we discover that in all things we are the people of a God who loves us beyond measure; who, in the words of our Old Testament text for this morning from Ezekiel, gives us “a new heart… and a new Spirit” within us, so that we always know that we are his people and that he shall always be our God.
He is our Father, and may we seek today and always to hallow his Holy name with lives of adoration and faithful service.
And in all that we say and most importantly, in all that we do…
… may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry