Breathing- Take a Deep Breath
Prayer is the Christian's vital breath, the Christian's native air (TLH 454:5), but before you can exhale, you have to inhale. Before you try to swim across the pool or run through a smoke filled room, you're going to take a deep breath. Playing off what I said on Thanksgiving. If we're going to run through all the dumpster fires today, we're going to need a deep breath, and what you take a deep breath of matters.
It has to be oxygen not poison. I went to New Mexico Military Institute in the mid-70's. They told the story of the 3 cadets of the 50's. The Formal Ball that year had a water theme and was held in the large indoor pool. They used dry ice in the pool for fog. One cadet fell or jumped in, but when he came to the surface there was no oxygen. Another cadet jumped in to save him; a third did the same. All died. All the deep breathing in the world can't help if there is no oxygen. Google 'manure pit deaths' and see that poisonous methane is just as deadly as no oxygen
Before exhaling prayer to the true God, you have to inhale the true God, not one of your imagination, fears, or one created by the Devil, the World, or your own sinful nature. You know when panicked or terrified you won't inhale or exhale. Our Lutheran Confessions say it's impossible for a heart or conscience afraid of God to trust God let alone pray to Him. The world will give you a Santa Claus-like God who can chuckle your sins away, and that works for awhile until your conscience reasserts itself. The Didache, which dates to the 2nd generation of Christians says, "You shall not approach prayer with an evil conscience" (4:14). Our Confessions go one better: you can't pray with one.
The first words out of Jesus' mouth when asked by His disciples to teach them to pray was, "You must say, 'Our Father who art in heaven.'" Our Catechism says "With these words God tenderly invites us" another translation has, "entices us." But note not to 'do' anything but to believe that the God of heaven is our true and dear Father "so that" we may ask boldly and confidently as true and dear children. Erma Bombeck said, "I was afraid of everyone else's father, but not my own" ("I Remember Papa"). That's true of any loving father. Even my father, short, muscled, tattooed, speaking little, but yelling loud, didn't make me afraid. Friends of mine, particularly in the summer when shirts were off gave him a wide, wary berth.
Luther drew this image of a dear Father we could be cheerful and confident about from Scripture. Rom. 8:15, "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by Him we cry, 'Abba, Father'" (Reu, Catechetics, 512). 20th century German Lutheran Near East historian Joachim Jeremias "in his study of references to God that occur in prayers, points out that in ancient Palestinian Judaism such intimate terms as 'Abba' and 'my Father' were never used in personal address to God. Only Jesus uses these expressions - an indication of His intimate relationship with His Father" (Kiehl, Passion, 71), and in turn ours through Jesus. Another German Lutheran scholar says, The 'abba" or "daddy' is not used in Jewish prayers in the time of Jesus. How dare one address the Holy One with that childish word, with the address of a little child to a dear father (Peters, Lord's Prayer,19)? We dare, again in Jesus' name.
Picture this: Circa 500 BC, Athenian poet, Themistocles was sent into exile by his fellow citizens. Not knowing where to turn he went to King Admetus his outspoken enemy. Fearing for his life, on arriving at the king's palace, he took the king's little son into his arms approached the king and said, "'Dear king, in the name of your son, whom I know you love, I ask for mercy.' At the sight of his son the king was so deeply moved that he forgave Themistocles and received him into his home" (Teach us to Pray, Acker, 15).
For the sake of the Son, who loved you and gave His holy, perfect life in place of your rotten, stinking, filthy one, you can take a deep breath of heaven. Inhale the true God, the Father of your Lord Jesus Christ. Now, you will make this no more than a mantra if you think it's merely a matter of repeating, "I'm a true child and God is my dear Father." Luther pleads with us, "O dear Christians, God does not care for much praying but for true praying" (LW, 44, 181). Jesus said it's the pagans who think they are heard because of their much speaking (Mt. 6:7). True prayer knows that it doesn't need many words to ask the Father as a true and dear child. And true prayer begins in Eden.
Smell what a perfect garden would smell like. The plants, the flowers, the air, and know this is what God created you for. This is what God created for you to live and work and enjoy. Take a deep breath. What's that stench? Of all the snakes, the only one I know that you can smell before you see is a water moccasin. I was sitting by a pool in the country on a porch swing. The evening air was fragrant with newly mown hay and flowers. Without warning, I smelled a pungent, decaying odor. The country woman who was our host said, "Water moccasin", and sure enough that smell slithered on by. Into perfect Eden where Adam and Eve use to say their prayers face to face with their Lord as He walked with them in the cool of the evening, slithered Satan. Only he didn't stink, yet, because he was more crafty than any created wild animal. Scripture says, "He thoroughly deceived Eve" who fell into sin. As for Adam, Scripture says he wasn't deceived at all when he took the forbidden fruit from Eve (1 Tim. 2:14). Adam fell; we all died, and we all stopped praying.
Before we can start again we need to inhale the First Gospel Promise. No sooner did man Fall, defend his sin, blame others and God, than the Lord makes a promise to send a Man like us but unlike all others. The Seed of the Woman, not of man, who would be able to do what perfect man could not: crush the head of the serpent. The Gospel is heaven. It's the Good News that the Son did this in our place. He will be struck in the heel by the serpent Satan. No, Jesus wasn't Achilles. His mother didn't hold Him by the heel to dip Him into the river Styx and so leave only that heel vulnerable. No, Jesus' Achilles Heel was us. For our salvation He was conceived in the womb of a virgin a 100% Man, able to die. Nothing less than dying was the punishment to be paid for sinning. Perfect Jesus could be struck by Satan because He was 100% true Man, but He could crush Satan's head because He's also 100% God.
No one wants to be the last man to die in a war. Somebody always is, though. Don't let it be you. As we sing in a hymn, "Today He opens heaven again and gives us His own Son" (TLH 105). As Luther says somewhere, since He gives us His own Son, I expect He's not mad at us any longer. Inhale that beautiful, purifying, clean, fragrant forgiveness. Newborn babies have a special, delightful, smell. That's you: Washed of your sins. That's you: absolved in Jesus' name. That's you: with the smell of sweet Wine that is the blood of Jesus hanging about you. Go on inhale; keep going, and you know what happens next: you exhale.
Just as you can't help from inhaling if you're alive, you can't help exhaling prayer if you really inhaled the Gospel. Look at David. After committing adultery, just because he could as king, he heartlessly murdered his loyal friend and soldier who was the woman's husband. That's the setting for Psalm 51. Here's how the Bible bluntly puts it: "A psalm by David. When Nathan the prophet came to him after he [David] had gone in to Bathsheba." Ability and readiness to pray comes from justification (Quest for Holiness, 179). "'The one praying may say not only: My prayer is acceptable to God, but further: I am acceptable to God'" (Peters, Lord's Prayer,19, fn.107). Did I tell you the story of the elementary schoolteacher? Each year she would privately tell her students, particularly struggling ones, "You know you're my favorite"? That's what God says to you in Jesus' name.
Even after his horrible, indefensible sin, as soon as Nathan's preaching of the Law brings David to repentance, Nathan preaches the Gospel. Hear it yourself: "Then David said to Nathan, 'I have sinned against the Lord.' And Nathan said to David, 'The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die'" (2 Sam. 12:13). And no sooner does Nathan absolve David then David sings. You know from the Offertory 3 verses of his song, but hear more. "Be gracious to me, God, according to your mercy. Erase my acts of rebellion according to the greatness of your compassion. Scrub me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin." You getting this? David has been absolved yet prays for forgiveness, not because God forgets but we do. He goes on to exhale such gems of prayer as, "Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." "Let me hear joy and gladness." And finally, "Hide your face from my sins. Erase all my guilty deeds."
Taking a deep breath of heaven, causes us to exhale prayers for forgiveness, and, as we sing in the Offertory, not to be cast from His presence. Yes, God did cast us out of Eden, heaven on earth, lest we stretch forth our hand, eat from the tree of life, and live forever in this fallen state. But He came with us in Jesus' flesh and blood not just one time 2,000 years ago but every single day in Word and Sacraments. And that causes to exhale the Offertory prayers for God to act: Create a clean heart; renew a right Spirit. Restore the joy of His salvation and uphold us with His free Spirit. Each Sunday our response to the Gospel of the sermon is to pray, to ask, to beg: create, renew, restore, and uphold us.
Luther said that whoever utters even one line of the Lord's Prayer has prayed sufficiently. Whenever we just pray, "Our Father who art in heaven" we have prayed amply. We've confessed that God in heaven is not some nameless, faceless Being in white light unconcerned about what happens here on earth but our true, dear Father. You are tenderly invited to believe that, especially when the Devil, the World, or your own conscience says otherwise. You are tenderly invited to take a deep breath of heaven when the Devil says sulfur, the World says death, and you fear hell. And inhaling heaven deeply, you will exhale prayer boldly, confidently. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Advent Vespers 1 (20211201); Lord's Prayer, Introduction