Sermon preached by Rev’d Jane Hemming, Diocesan Director of Ordinands for the Dorchester Area on Sunday 3rd March at the Benefice service at St Giles’, Horspath.
Matthew 6:6-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[a]
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way:
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 this day our daily bread.[b]
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,[c]
but rescue us from the evil one.[d]
New Revised Version
It is very good to be back with you and beginning your sermon series on The Lord’s Prayer. So we are beginning at the beginning with the ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’. This is of course a prayer we are so familiar with, that we know off by heart, that many of us learnt as children so it can be hard to step back from it to look deeply into its meaning. We know that it is the prayer that Jesus gave us. It is a lesson in how to pray and Jesus invited us, his disciples, to take a very different approach to prayer that would not have been customary in Jewish practice. Jesus invited us into the same relationship with God as he had, to address God as our Father. It is probably hard for you to imagine how extraordinarily radical this was. In the Old Testament God is named ‘Yahweh’ but God’s name was so fearful that it was barely utterable. Few could come into the presence of God and live. How different is this to the invitation to address God as ‘Our Father’.
Now, father is a rather formal word in common parlance, but the meaning of the original Lord’s Prayer was a far more intimate name such as we might use to address our own father. Fundamentally the ‘Our Father’ points to a relationship. Not a distant relationship where worshippers were fearful to stand in God’s presence and had to be protected from God’s overwhelming power but an intimate relationship based profoundly on love. It is an invitation to come close, not to stay distant from God.
There are implications of this opening to The Lord’s Prayer. The first implication is that we are children of God and that we share a relationship status with ‘God the Father’ with Jesus and the second is that we relate to God as father. This can be a challenge for some whose experience of their earthly fathers have been difficult, distant or even abusive. But ultimately it is not dependent on our own earthly experience, where relationships are imperfect and broken, but of the deeper potential of a relationship which is creative, nurturing, disciplining and loving. We are invited into the same profound relationship that Jesus has with his father and to own this father God as our father. It is Jesus who invites us as brother to call God, father. If you have studied other religions you will know that this level of familiarity and intimacy is not found in any other religions.
But does this intimacy diminish God’s holiness? Well the next phrase in the prayer highlights that these two things go hand in hand as we are invited to hallow (to make holy) God’s name. To understand this a little better I want to read you a very modern translation of The Lord’s Prayer from The Message bible, a translation by Eugene Peterson who tried to unpack some of the formal language and concepts of the bible into a very accessible format, particularly for people who were new to the bible or religion language. This has meant that he has not been entirely faithful to the original text but has tried to delve into the meaning. This does tend to divide people, but I like the fact that his translation makes you think; to question your understanding and perceptions. So here is his translation of The Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—
as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.
You will notice that he translates ‘hallowed be your name’ as ‘reveal who you are’. At first glance this seems to be at odds with the original meaning but it’s a request to know God deeply, to hold the two tensions of the intimacy of the Father and the holy awesomeness of the creator in tension. To ask both to be revealed to us.
So I want to end with two questions for you. How do you come to God who is Father, loving, intimate, nurturing wanting you to be the person you are created to be? And what does wanting to know the holiness of God, to ask God to reveal God’s self, mean to you? How might it change you if you prayed earnestly for God to reveal God’s self to you?