On the first Sunday of every month at Christ Church, at 6pm, we have a prayer service. We gather for a short talk from the Bible, and a time of open prayer. One very helpful way to pray is to use the Lord’s Prayer as a series of hooks to hang our own prayers on, so we are going through the Lord’s Prayer, considering it line-by-line. This is the talk from the last prayer service- I hope you will join us for the next one on December 1.
“Our Father in heaven” Matthew 5:9
How you speak to someone depends on who they are to you,
on the sort of relationship they have with you. So we speak to a close friend in a different way to the way in which we talk to a complete stranger. And it’s the same with God: how we speak to him depends upon who he is to us. So it’s a good idea, when we pray to take a few moments to remind ourselves of to whom we are speaking. Which is what Jesus does in these first two lines of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven”. So to whom are we speaking when we pray?
First, we are speaking to our Father
When Jesus prayed, he called God “Abba”,
which means “Father” in the Aramaic language that he spoke when he was growing up. I said on Sunday that when I was in Israel, I saw a little girl running along the beach at Tel Aviv, calling out “Abba, Abba”, when she saw her father. No one had ever spoken to God like this among the Jews before Jesus: no one had claimed such a close, intimate relationship with God. But amazingly, this wasn’t a relationship that Jesus kept for himself. He taught his disciples to say “Father” as well. Again, this was completely new. Jesus shares with his disciples the relationship that he has with God. He is a child by birth, we are children by adoption. When we are united to him, his Father is our Father as well.
But what does that mean for us, what is it like to have God as our Father?
Well, first it means that God delights in us- we bring God delight and pleasure just as a child delights his father- Zephaniah 3:17 says that the Lord delights over his people with singing. It means that our Father already loves us- we don’t have to try to impress him or win his love. And it means that our Father cares about us. Jesus says in Matthew 5:8 that God knows about what we need before we ask him. Not just in the sense that God has information about what we need, but in the sense that God cares about what we need. So in Matthew 7:11, Jesus says that the Father loves to give good things to his children, as a human father enjoys giving gifts to his children. So we can come to God in prayer with the confidence that he is willing and glad to answer our prayers.
So how then should we speak to God?
First, with delight and pleasure. In a healthy family, a child enjoys being with her father, and wants more of him. Shouldn’t we be like that with God our Father? Shouldn’t it be a delight to us to be able to speak to him, and shouldn’t we desire his presence, desire closeness with him? Second, we should speak to him with dependence. Children are dependent on their father for everything. Of course, as children grow up, they become independent of their father. But growing up as a Christian is the exact opposite: it is a process of becoming more dependent on our Father. And that means that as we grow, we pray more, and our prayer life deepens- because prayer is, above all, an expression of dependence upon God. And third, of course, it means that we should speak to God with love- because he loved us first, and allows us to call him “Father”. Prayer can never be a mechanical process of trying to get things out of God. It is a growing relationship with our beloved Father.
Second, we are speaking to one who is “in heaven”
Heaven, in the Bible, isn’t just where people go where they die- it is the place of God’s throne
Of course, God is everywhere- but he is “in heaven” in a particular way. Heaven is where God’s presence is concentrated, if I can put it that way. It is where God manifests and reveals his glory: the light and beauty and splendour of his awesome, radiant, overpowering, presence. So to say that God is “in heaven”, is first of all to say that God is separate from us. We are on earth, and he is in heaven. He is separated from us by his holiness and purity. So in Isaiah 6, when Isaiah sees God seated on his throne, it is a terrifying sight. He sees seraphim covering their faces, and crying “Holy, Holy, Holy”- and Isaiah is struck by his unworthiness to be there. Second, to say that God is “in heaven”, is another way of calling him “almighty”. Psalm 115:3 says “Our God is in heaven, he does whatever pleases him”. Heaven is the control room of the universe, it is like the bridge of a ship, from where it is steered. So to say that God is in heaven is to say that he has absolute power and authority. He can do whatever he likes. So when we come to him in prayer, we are coming to someone who is not only willing, he is able to answer our prayers.
So what does it mean to us to have a Father in heaven?
It means that God is not like a soft, indulgent father who can be buttered up and manipulated. God does not spoil his children, like some human fathers do: he will not simply do whatever we want, and say whatever we say. He is not only our Father, he is also our sovereign, our mighty king, and we owe him complete and absolute obedience. God is uncontrollable; prayer is not a way of bending him to our will. And it means that God is dangerous: he is a God of perfect power and purity. In the Bible, if people approach God in the wrong way, if the come to him in a casual, or disrespectful, or matey way, they are destroyed by his presence. So we have to be careful how we approach him. As sinners, we can only approach him through Jesus. That’s why we pray in Jesus name. I’ve noticed that our Nigerian brothers and sisters often begin their prayers by saying “in the name of Jesus”, and I think that’s a very good practice. Jesus is the one who takes us by the hand, and takes us into the Father’s presence. He is our high priest, whose sacrifice means that we can approach God safely.
So how then should we speak to God?
With fear. With deep respect, humility, holy reverence, and fear. We should fear God, as the Bible often tells us to do. We should always speak to him with an awareness of the vast difference between him and us. I once heard someone refer to God as “a good mate”. That is simply wrong. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to call God “daddy”, as some do, at least not in public prayer. We have to speak to him in a way that reflects his holiness and majesty and power. He is our Father and our King. And if we ignore his holy majesty, then his Fatherhood and love won’t seem so special to us. The wonder of his love is that it is this holy, almighty, majestic God in heaven who loves us and cares about us. We find this hard I think, because in our ordinary, everyday experience, love and fear don’t normally go together. It’s hard to imagine both loving and fearing someone. But this is the uniqueness and the specialness of who God is to us in Christ- we both fear him and love him. And he is both willing and able to answer prayer.
So this is where Jesus begins his pattern prayer- and this is where he teaches us to begin prayer. Not to rush in with all our problems and requests. But to stop, think, and tell our Father how we think about him and feel about him.
* Picture by David Beale at Unsplash.com