Sermon for 01-10-10: “The Prayer Jesus Taught Us, Part 1: Our Father”

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:9

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The following is my original manuscript with citations.

When I announced this sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer on my blog, one of you commented that you think it’s disturbing that we say prayers without always thinking about their meaning. It’s disturbing but also natural. Once we memorize something, it’s easy to forget about the words that are coming out of our mouths. That’s why I wanted to shake things up this morning by having us pray a more contemporary version of the prayer. It forces us to pay attention again.

We’re beginning this series at the beginning: Our Father. Jesus addresses God as “Father.” This raises a couple of potential problems right away. First, it compels us to compare fathers that we know, including our own fathers, with God. We human fathers can be great and loving and affirming—or really bad, harmful, and abusive. The truth is, most of us fathers are on a continuum somewhere between those two poles. One challenge we face in calling God “Father” is that we don’t confuse the two. If your own relationship with your father is or was harmful, thinking of God as father may be difficult; it may even hamper your prayer life. If so, it may be helpful to you to think of a loving father figure you’ve known in your life—perhaps another relative or a friend’s father or some other mentor. Here’s the truth: Unlike with us human fathers, God is always only loving, always only good. Unlike with us human fathers, God’s love doesn’t fail or let us down or seek his own interest.

The other challenge we face is that calling God “Father” reinforces the idea that God is a man. But we know God isn’t a man: God created both male and female in God’s image; it makes more sense theologically to think of God as both male and female, rather than exclusively in masculine terms. Even the Bible, written though it was by men during a time when men were in charge of everything and ran the world, includes feminine imagery for God. When, for example, Jesus lamented over Jerusalem during his Passion Week, he said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” [1]

God here is pictured as a mother hen. When Jesus has the conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 about being born again, and born of the Spirit, the Greek literally means that the Holy Spirit gives us birth to us who place our faith in Jesus—like a mother giving birth. [2]

I would argue that how we picture God does affect our faith and our life. If you’re used to picturing God only in masculine terms when you pray, spend some time thinking of God in feminine terms. There’s nothing wrong with doing so—because God isn’t any more male than God is female. It may help to enhance your understanding of God and change how you relate to God. That being said, Jesus called God “Father,” and so do we, even though we understand that that single metaphor can’t capture all of the truth of God’s identity.

What does it mean to call God “Father”? We take it for granted that God is Father, but it wasn’t very commonly used of God before Jesus. There are some Old Testament references to God as Father of the nation Israel, but Jesus uses Father in a much more personal way. But it certainly seems to fit, doesn’t it? Like any good parent, God provides for his children, protects his children, acts in his children’s best interest. Jesus preaches about these sorts of roles in the Sermon on the Mount, when he says, “[D]o not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” [3] He goes on to say that just as God clothes the grass of the fields—and Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t decked out as beautifully as that—so God clothes us. God will take care of us and provide for us.

So God is like a father, and yet the English word “father” doesn’t quite capture all the nuances of what Jesus meant by the word. Jesus’ native language, like that of all Jews living around Palestine, was Aramaic, a distant relative of Hebrew. But, like many of his countrymen, Jesus also spoke Greek—which was sort of the default language of the Roman Empire. In order to get along in the world, it helped to know Greek. When Jesus spoke to Pontius Pilate, a Roman official, during his trial, he likely spoke to him in Greek. But here, when Jesus gives his closest disciples, whose native language is also Aramaic, he would have given it to them in Aramaic. Matthew, who is writing in Greek, translates Jesus’ words into Greek, so it could be read and understood by a wide audience. We know that in Aramaic Jesus used a special word for Father: Abba. Mark tells us this in his gospel when Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemene: “He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ In other words, Mark left Jesus’ word for Father in its original language before translating it into Greek. This understanding of God as Abba lies at the heart of Jesus’ understanding of God as Father.

What’s so special about Abba? Notice how it sounds like papa or dada. All languages have simple words like this for fathers and mothers. Why? Because it’s the first words most babies learn to say. The word Jesus uses to address his Father is the equivalent of Papa, or “Daddy” or Dad if you will. It’s less formal than “Father.” For most of us, it implies a more intimate, affectionate, familiar relationship than “Father.”

How many of you parents have children who’ve made the transition from Daddy to Dad, or Mommy to Mom? It’s a little sad, isn’t it? But Mom and Dad isn’t too bad. There’s a great song by an ’80s punk band from Minneapolis called the Replacements who sing about the generation gap between parents and teenagers. The singer sings of one particular father, “He might be a father but he sure ain’t a dad.” For most of us, there’s a difference between being merely a father and being a dad. [Read some texts in response to question, “What’s the difference between a father and a dad?]

Fathers may buy cars for their children; dads very patiently teach them how to drive. I thought of my dad last week driving through the snow and the ice. My dad taught me how to drive in snow and ice. We had a steep driveway, and Dad taught me how to muscle this big Chevy work van up the hill in the snow and ice, and how to turn the wheel into the direction of the skid. Dads just know how to do stuff like that! Fathers may give their children allowances or spending money, but dads take their children to a crowded Saturday matinee without complaining. When I was 7 years old, the first Star Wars came out. I wanted to see it so bad. My dad took me and my sister Melinda to it. It was the greatest movie I had ever seen. And Dad fell asleep during the movie because somehow it bored him to death, but he was there—because he was my dad, and that’s what dads do! Fathers dutifully pay for their daughter’s wedding. But dads—well, when I ask, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” dads are the ones who are beaming with pride, with maybe even a tear in their eye, as they say, “Her mother and I.”

Jesus tells a story about a father who gave his son the freedom to be reckless and irresponsible, to take his share of the family inheritance and squander it in a foreign land on wine, women, and song. When the reckless son realizes the mess he’s made of his life, and how he’s in danger of starving, he returns home, hat in hand, deeply sorry for what he’d done. And what does the father do? He doesn’t give him a stern lecture; He doesn’t tell his son, “I told you so”; he doesn’t put him to work to make him pay back all the money he’d lost. No… The father, who’s been watching and waiting for him to return, runs out to embrace him; the father throws the biggest party imaginable because he’s so happy that his son has returned. That is not merely a father; that’s a dad. That’s our Father; that’s who God is; that’s how God loves us!

Can we even wrap our minds around it? Now, because of what God has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God invites us to share in that same intimate, trusting, loving, and affectionate relationship that Jesus had with his Father.

How does it make you feel? It challenges me. It challenges me to relate to God not only as Father but as dad. It seems difficult to think of God in that way, isn’t it? But maybe that’s O.K. One writer said that praying the first part of the Lord’s Prayer, addressing God as “Our Father,” and meaning by it what Jesus meant by it, is “the goal towards which we are working, rather than the starting point from which we set out.” [4]

May the Spirit enable each of us to grow spiritually in such a way that we may experience God as both Father and Dad.

1. Matthew 23:37
2. See the discussion in Sandra Schneiders, Written That You May Believe (New York: Herder & Herder, 2003), 122-125.
3. Matthew 6:25-26
4. N.T. Wright, The Lord & His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 12.

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