2nd Sunday in Lent
St Barbara’s Church; 21.02.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Long ago, when Christians were first learning about the faith, people would prepare for baptism as adults over two or three years. The final part of their journey would be in the season of Lent, preparing for baptism at Easter.
During the final part of the journey, the bishop or pastor would hand over to them and teach them about some of the greatest treasures of the Christian faith. One of the most important was the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
This prayer was only taught to and said by Christians. You couldn’t look it up in a book (there were no printed books then). It was one of the special things you were given during Lent as you prepared for your baptism. You would learn it by heart and teach it to your household.
Now, 2000 years on, the Lord’s prayer has become possibly the most recited prayer in the world. There is not a moment in the day or night, when someone, somewhere, is not praying the Lord’s Prayer. There is not a language in the world which has not spoken its words. Whether at baptisms, weddings or funerals, whether in huge cathedrals or sat alone in one’s back garden, the Lord’s Prayer is prayed. Whether silently at one’s work desk, or whilst queueing in line for water in a refugee camp, the Lord’s Prayer is prayed. It is the prayer that Jesus taught us.
And during this week and next week, during our own journey through Lent, we are going to reflect upon that prayer.
In Luke’s Gospel, one of the disciples, seeing Jesus pray, asks to be taught how to pray. It is in response to Jesus’ own prayer life that the disciple wants to pray. And encouragingly for us all, Jesus does not dismiss the request. He does not tell him to disappear to a hermitage or to the wilderness for several years to await enlightenment.Neither does he say “Prayer is whatever you make it”, leaving the disciple to fumble around in the dark. No – Jesus gives him some words, simple words that can act as a prayer and and as a framework for prayer.
He begins with “Father”, or in Matthew’s version, “Our Father”. It is an extraordinary start.
Jesus invites us to call the creator of heaven and earth, the one who created the galaxies and the universe, the one whose holiness and majesty is beyond all our imagining, to call him “father”. In the Jewish faith, God was seen as so holy, his name of any kind could not be said out loud. And yet here, Jesus encourages us to pray “Father” – a term of intimacy and love. The disciples were so amazed by this, so treasured this term of address for God, that when the rest of Jesus’ words were later translated into Greek, they kept this term in the original Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke. They would call God “Abba” – a term used by a small child addressing their father. Our nearest equivalent would be “dad”.
The term Jesus used to address his father he encourages us to use too – to pray to God as one who knows us intimately, who loves us and cares for us, as one who delights in us and has time for us.
But this is not a relationship of cosiness or over-familiarity, this is not a relationship of near-equals. For we are to pray “Our father in heaven”. Our father is God of heaven; he is way beyond anyone we can possibly comprehend or imagine. He is holy, he is awesome. It is because of Christ that the God who is unknowable becomes our father.
My grandfather, as I may have shared before, was at one time a well-known figure in the church in Africa. Even after he retired to Germany, his house would always be full of guests, people wanting a few minutes of his time. As a little boy, I could tell that he was special, important, that there was always a slight degree of nervousness amongst those waiting to see him. But me, well I could just go and sit on his lap, play with the cross that hung from his neck, and just enjoy his presence. Our relationship with God is not dissimilar – we are children of a holy God.
Jesus taught us to pray not “my father” but “our father”. When I pray to God, I pray not as one individual, but as a member of a family, as one of many who call God their father. When I pray, I am praying with hundreds, thousands, millions of Christians who are praying this prayer today, who have prayed this prayer over the last two millennia. I am praying this prayer with Saint Paul and Saint Peter, I am praying this prayer with the early Christians who endured such horrific persecution, I am praying this prayer with the Christians of Syria and Iraq, I am praying this prayer with each of us gathered here this morning. I am not alone, I am not some single-handed arctic explorer searching for the south pole with no human support or guidance. I am part of a family, a team that is working together, supporting one another, encouraging one another, showing each other the way. When we pray “our father” we know we are not alone.
“Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Names are important. Most parents spend a long time poring over baby names books, or thinking about which relatives they want to remember, before they name their child. And in many cultures, the name is seen as shaping the character of the child: thus, Charity, Grace. (I knew a Loving-Kindness once). But in the Bible, the name is even more than that. To speak of the name of someone is not just to speak of what they are called, but to speak of their nature, their identity, their very essence.
So Jesus is teaching us to pray that God’s very nature, who he is, will be reverenced. It is not just about praying that people won’t take God’s name in vain, the idle and lazy blasphemies that have become such a part of many daily conversations, but that God will be acknowledged as holy by the way we treat one another. That we will be people of love because God is love; that we will be people of forgiveness because God is forgiving; that we will be people of fairness and justice, because God is fair and just. It is a prayer for God’s holiness to be known in all the earth.
That prayer – “hallowed be your name” – maybe one worth praying at the start of any new activity, whether that is the start of a new phase of life – a new job, retirement, a new home, a new role (parent, grandparent, carer) – and at the start of the smallest chores. As I wash the dishes, clean the house, put out the bins, how do I reverence, how do I honour, the holiness and love and mercy of God. Jesus taught us to pray, “hallowed be your name”.
And then, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” Luke gives us a shorter version – simply “Your kingdom come”. Matthew gives us the longer version, the extra words not changing the meaning, but just giving the prayer further emphasis. Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s way, his rule, his values, to be as followed here, as they are in heaven.
You may have heard some people criticising Christianity as all about escapism, all about escaping the unpleasantness of life by dreaming of what life will be like in heaven. Well, Jesus’ prayer puts a lie to that. This is not about praying to be taken from earth to heaven, but about heaven coming to earth, about God’s values, priorities, standards, will, transforming life here, now.
Its about praying that in a world where the richest 1% of the world’s population control 40% of the world’s wealth, and the poorest 50% control just 1% of the world’s wealth, that God’s kingdom of justice and generosity will come.
Its about praying that in a world where we seem intent on destroying our environmental future by living beyond our means now, that God’s kingdom will come.
Its about praying that in our community where many people live isolated and desperately lonely lives, God’s kingdom of love and community will come.
Its about praying that where there is beauty, grace, truth, creativity, compassion, love, those acts and qualities will flourish all the more abundantly.
Its abut praying that we as a church will become ever more committed to doing God’s will, and following his leading for our lives.
In other words, its about praying that our world will come to resemble more closely life in heaven; and its about living as one of the answers to those prayers.
This first part of the Lord’s Prayer is all about God – who he is, the holiness of his name, the coming of his kingdom, the doing of his will. Prayer must always start with God.
Without focusing on God – if we jump straight in to thinking about ourselves – our needs, our requests, our desires – prayer very quickly collapses into the random thoughts, fears and longings of our minds.
But when we start with God, our whole perspective changes.
This week, why not take the Lord’s Prayer and chew on each word, each phrase, and allow it to shape your prayers.