Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sermon for January 7, 2007

The Lord’s Prayer: Hallowed Be Thy Name
Matthew 6:5-9

Have you ever noticed that the biggest impact is often made with the fewest words. For example, the Lord’s Prayer has 66 words, and it is the model for all Christian prayer. The Gettysburg address has 286 words and it’s considered one of the most eloquent documents of American history. The Declaration of Independence has only 1322 words. The United States Government Regulations on the Sale of Cabbage as 26,911 words. Think about it.

When it comes to prayer, Jesus says do not babble, thinking that if we say just the right words, and a lot of them, then God will answer our prayers. Sometimes the biggest impact is made with the fewest words. However, for many of us the problem is not our long prayers. I think the problem is that we don’t pray much at all. In the hurry of our lives, it is hard to quiet down and spend time in silent reflection and adoration of God. Sometimes we become restless and agitated. The duty of prayer loses its importance in our lives. We need to pray more than ever before, yet in our business it does not become a priority. So, how is your prayer life this morning?

Quite often, people tell me that they don’t know how to pray. They don’t have the right words. They don’t know where to go to learn the language of prayer. Jesus addresses this problem in today’s Scripture reading. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, he responds by teaching them a prayer that we now call the Lord’s Prayer. It could also be called the model prayer or the disciple’s prayer. I don’t think that Jesus intended his prayer to be a ritual of meaningless repetition. Jesus taught this prayer as a guide or a model rather then a prescribed set of words that need to be repeated exactly. Over the next few weeks we are going to examine the Lord’s Prayer in detail and look to this model prayer for some ideas on how our own prayer lives can be revitalized.

Jesus begins his model prayer with the words, “Our Father in Heaven.” Jesus has only uttered a few short words and we are already in a 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 important to realize that the God of the Bible incorporates and transcends our sexual categories. We 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 a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” How you choose to address God in prayer is entirely up to you. I really don’t think you will offend God. More than how you address God, here’s what I want to know: Are you secure in God’s love for you? Jesus called God his Abba. It’s an Aramaic word that’s best translated as Daddy. Jesus approached God with that kind of affection. You have to realize, people in Jesus’ day did not think about God as a warm and approachable parent figure. They thought of God more as a king, sitting on a throne on the most majestic mountain in Jerusalem. God was always worshipped, but not always loved. When Jesus starts his prayer with “Daddy!,” he says, “God is ready to listen to you. Draw near.”

I once read about a man named Frank who could not pray. Frank felt like his words thudded against a brick wall. He couldn’t remember God ever answering his prayers. As he reflected, he realized that when he thought of God he saw the face of his earthly father – good and honest but also quiet and shy. Dad was a man who rarely spoke to his children and never told them that he loved them. Frank’s story resonates with some of the comments I hear. Some of the saddest conversations I have are with people who day, “I can’t 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. How do you expect me to pray “Our Father?” When Frank admitted that his earthly father was weak, and that he even failed the family, Frank was able to forgive and accept his dad. This recognition opened up a completely new dimension in his relationship with God. He had more faith to pray because he realized that God did hear him. Frank soon sensed God’s presence and guidance in his life.

Jesus says that God, as our heavenly parent, knows what we need even before we ask. So often we don’t know our deepest needs. How many times have we prayed for foolish things when we need something very different? We are naked, and instead of praying for clothing we pray for comfort. We are imprisoned by passions and sinful desires, and we pray for wall-to-wall carpeting for our cells. Jesus says, “You can talk all you want in your prayers. You can chatter on, and argue, and put on a good show for others. But, not for one second will God be diverted from the one theme in your life from which you keep running. Not for one moment does God lose sight of the real need in your life – the one thing you don’t like to talk about. God knows what you need, and God knows what is good for you. So, be calm and confident. Be at peace and know that as you pray, God knows what’s best.

God knows us, and hears us, and calls us into communion. Prayer is the way we respond to these gifts. When we begin to pray, we don’t inform God about the important matters of our lives. That comes later. First, Jesus encourages us to worship. Jesus modeled this by saying, “Hallowed be Thy name.” “Hallowed” is one of those words that we grow up saying in church, but we never use it in daily conversation. It means to greatly honor, to treat as holy, or to hold set apart with reverence.

When I think about things that are hallowed in our society today, I think about the Declaration of Independence. If you go to the National Archives today, you’ll walk through dimmed lights across a marble hall. There is a hushed silence in the room. At the front, there’s an altar to the Declaration. We are told that every night, the founding documents of our country are lowered into a vault designed to withstand an atomic blast. But do you why the lights are dimmed? It’s because the Declaration of Independence is fading. For the first eighty or so years, the thing wasn’t really taken very seriously. In 1824, somebody wanted to make a copy, so a guy used a technique that stripped much of the ink of the paper. After that, it hung on a wall at the U.S. Patent Office, in full sunlight, dimming it even more. Even today, in many places the ink is gone.

But do you know why we venerate that document today? It’s because of Abraham Lincoln. At the height of the Civil War, when he needed to show that emancipation was a good thing, he decided to take people back to their roots. He reminded them of a single line in the preamble to the declaration: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He had to re-familiarize America people with their own idea of their identity. So, on a cold November morning, on a field at Gettysburg, Lincoln urged the country to take an increased measure of devotion. Those who fought at Gettysburg – living and dead – did so in order to preserve the union that afforded them rights -- That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. People began to see the Declaration as important again. Not as a laundry list of demands on a dead king, but a reminder of our relationship to a God who endows us with grace.

So today, we spend millions of dollars to preserve what few drops of ink are left on a now hallowed piece of paper – because they fix our relationship to that which we believe comes from above. If we revere a simple piece of parchment, how much more should we respect the God who formed us out of the dust, and gave us his own blood? We pray that God’s name will be hallowed – respected, revered, and set apart from any other name.

Every single phrase in the Lord’s Prayer can be summed up in one thought. God is God, we are not. There is a Parent / Child Relationship. There is a Heaven / Earth Relationship. There is a Giver / Receiving relationship. But there is not one phrase that says God needs anything from us.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a role. God does want something from us. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father in heaven,” because God wants our love. Jesus teaches us to pray “Hallowed be thy name,” because God wants our respect.

I heard that Arlington Cemetery does not have enough buglers for all of the funerals that need to be performed. Somebody came up with the idea of a bugle that would play “Taps” automatically. Some folk were, understandably, a bit upset. I mean, if you’re going to do that, why not just bring a stereo and play a CD, right? The military was trying to balance two things. They wanted to give personal attention to the dead, and they wanted to respect the dead with their best.

Our prayers can fall into the same trap. Sometimes, I wish I could just play a recording to make sure all my prayers are said. But where would the love be? And sometimes, my love for God gets so out of hand that I forget God’s holiness. That very balance defines what our prayers should be – a one-on-one relationship that gives and takes. It is a personal thing. It can’t be replaced with a mechanical recitation of words. God uses our words in prayer, but that’s not what God is after. Before anything else, before we even open our mouths, God wants our hearts.

E.M. Bounds, "Purpse in Prayer," in The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds.
J. DAvid Hoke, "Beginning in Praise,"
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew
Floyd McClung, The Father Heart of God
Helmut Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father
Chalres Allen, The Lord's Prayer, An Interpretation
The Heidelberg Catechism

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