Teach us To Pray to a Heavenly Father
A person is having a difficult time, and they say to me, "I prayed to God; I asked God." Don't you think that's horrible? You don't? If a child in the midst of a difficult time came to you and said that they had asked an adult, how would you respond? Wouldn't you say, "Why didn't you ask your parent?" Wouldn't it be a shame if a child only talked to "an adult" and not to their father? So, it is with us who are always asking, speaking, praying to "God," and not our Father who is in heaven.
Actually friends, it's worse than that. We pray not just to "God" but to Scrooge. We come before God not as our Father but as Bob Krachit came before Ebenezer Scrooge. Remember how Krachit groveled and scraped to ask Scrooge to leave early? That's how I come before God, as if I was bothering Him, as if He really didn't want me to ask Him, seek Him or knock on His door.
Yes, I tell you I pray to a Scoogely father not a heavenly One. I approach Him like the men collecting for the orphan fund approached Scrooge. Remember how they had to convince Scrooge that there was a good reason to help orphans? Well that's how I pray, as if God has to be convinced or convicted to help me.
But even this is not the worst of it. The worst of it is that when I approach God as some sort of cosmic Scrooge, I feel especially pious for doing so! I feel holy and humble when I think to myself, "I'm not worthy to ask; O, I couldn't ask." But far from being pious, this is wicked. Luther says this sort of attitude is a sure way to insult God and bring down His wrath. It is the same as a peasant being invited by a king to bring requests before him regardless of how big or grand they might be, and the lout asks for nothing but a dish of oatmeal. That's not piety but impiety, because it denies the king's revelation of himself. Even so our acting like we're asking a Scrooge rather our heavenly Father denies God's revelation of Himself.
When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus responds by saying, "When you pray, say, "Our Father who art in heaven." Although God has revealed Himself in the Old Testament as Father, no first century Jew prayed that way. To address God as "Father" was too bold, too familiar, too intimate, yet Jesus says that we sinners are to call God "Father." The Catechism says that by these words God "tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and we are His true children." Another translation says that God "urges" us. Still another translates "entices us." Think of how you might entice a hurt animal to accept your help. Think of how tenderly you invite it to be fed by you. Think of how you urge a wounded animal to come to you for aid. That's what Jesus is doing when He tells us to address God as Father.
Why can we address God as Father? God is not like us. He is spirit; we are flesh. God is of heaven; we are of the earth. God is eternal; we are painfully mortal. Why can we address Him as Father? Because of Christmas, because God the Son took on our flesh and blood. One of our Christmas hymns from Luther expresses it well: "What harm can sin and death then do?/ The true God now abides with you./ Let hell and Satan rage and chafe,/ Christ is your Brother ye are safe." Christ being in our flesh and blood gives us the right to call God "Father," because as Christ says in John 14, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father."
So God is our Father through the incarnation of God the Son in flesh and blood. But that's not enough. We have sinned horribly against God in flesh and blood and against God our Father. We are snarling snapping sinners who regularly bite the hand of the God who would feed us. How can we call God Father as if we are His true children when we have behaved so badly? Well, Christ is our Brother not just by incarnation but by redemption.
What does Galatians 4:4, a favorite Christmas passage, say? "When the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons." Christ didn't merely come into our flesh and blood; He redeemed it. He put Himself under the Law that we couldn't keep, keeping it for us, and He paid in our place the debt our sins had piled up.
Christ being our Brother by redemption means not even our sinfulness has to stand in the way of our prayers to our Father. Think back to Easter morning. The last time Jesus had seen the disciples they had deserted Him, denied Him, and left Him to suffer a torturous death. What more serious sins could there be? But what did Jesus tell Mary Magdalene to tell those miserable, good for nothing disciples? "Go to My BROTHERS and say to them, 'I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God." He called sinners as miserable and poor as us, brothers. He said though they are sinners God was still their Father for His sake!
God asserts His fatherhood of us by sending His Son into our flesh and blood. Christ wins the fatherhood of God by keeping the Father's Law in our place and dying for our not keeping it. The Holy Spirit testifies that we are children of God by crying in our hearts, "Abba, Father." Romans 8:15 says the startling thing that we "have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but a spirit of adoption by which we cry out, "Abba, Father." Abba is the Aramaic word for "Daddy." It's more dear, more familiar, more intimate than even "Father." The Holy Spirit you've received in Baptism gives you permission to call God, "Daddy." "Daddy" is the cry that comes to the lips in fear, in pain, in tears, and the Holy Spirit says you have the right to use it.
"God tenderly invites, urges, entices us to believe that He is our true Father and we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear Father." Well, what does it mean to pray to a Father and not just to God? I am afraid in some sense you can't know what that means unless you are a parent. At least for me, I didn't really know what it meant to have God as Father until I became a father. Though the first thing my child did to me is pee all over me when I unwisely removed his diaper, though he kept me up late, and filled his diapers early, there never was anything but love there. Yes, I was still a sinner in my love; it wasn't perfect love. But that's what got me. If my sinful, wicked, fallen heart could burn with such love, could be filled with such love for a child, how much more must God's perfect and holy heart brim with love for me?
I know that as a sinful, imperfect, selfish father, I long for my children to ask me things. Even in my fallenness I am not like Scrooge toward Bob Krachit, I don't want my children to feel they might be bothering me by asking things. How much more so must God the Father feel towards me? I mean He gave up His only beloved Son for my sake. He gave up all to rescue me from sin, death and the devil. No matter what I might ask for, no matter how many times I might ask, I couldn't be asking for more or better than that. So, the Father who spared not His only Son, surely must ache for His children to ask for more even as I do for my children to ask.
Furthermore, as a sinful, wicked fallen father, I can't wait to give my children good things. I'm not the one who normally does the shopping for Christmas or birthdays, but every now and then, I will see something I know one of them would especially like. I will buy it, and you know I can't wait to give it to them. And that is exactly what Jesus says the attitude of the heavenly Father is towards us. In Luke 12:32 Jesus says, "Fear not little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
If I as sinful parent don't want my children being afraid that I'm going to withhold something good for them, do you think your heavenly Father wants you to be afraid? If you need health so you can have the kingdom, do you think your heavenly Father isn't going to give it? If you need wealth so you can go to heaven, do you think your heavenly Father is going to hold back on you? How could He? He is overjoyed; He is ecstatic; He is jumping up and down in heaven right this very minute saying, "I can't wait; I can't wait to give them what they need." If He can't wait to give us what we need should we ever hesitate to lay all our needs before the heavenly Father?
Ah yes, that's important to remember too, isn't it? We pray to a heavenly Father, a Father who is in heaven. Even if you had a bad father on earth, know that you have a perfect Father in heaven. Even if you had a father who hurt you, abandoned you, or failed you continually and miserably, know that your Father in heaven cannot hurt you, will never abandon you or fail you. In order to claim you as His own dear child, He had to give up His only beloved Son to sin, death, and the devil. Having done that unimaginably hard thing, He won't now deny that sacrifice by denying you. You are all the more special to Him because of what it cost Him to claim you.
We pray to a heavenly Father; that means we pray to a perfect Father. It also means we pray to a powerful Father. Friends, there is much on this earth that is complicated, heavy, and apparently hopeless. When I look about me I see things that I cannot untangle, problems I can't figure out, difficulties that are insurmountable to my puny brain. St. Augustine in a sermon says that when such thoughts flood our prayers, as they do mine, we are making the error of miring our thoughts in the dirt, mud, and clay of this earth. We are forgetting to whom we pray, a Father in heaven. The heavenly Father is not limited by what doctors say, politicians decide, or men can imagine. The most unsolvable problem ever for our heavenly Father was how to save sinners whom His own law damned to hell. Our Father did this through our brother Christ. Everything else is small potatoes.
So when you pray look not around you for what is possible or probable, look not on what you or others can do, look towards heaven and see there your heavenly Father. Have not earth and all of its sinfulness before you; have heaven and all of its holiness. Have not men and all their weakness before your eyes; have your heavenly Father with all of His power. As we sing in a hymn, "Ponder anew what the Almighty can do." And you know where your pondering should lead you? To a quiet home in Nazareth where a young virgin has just been told she would bear the holy Christ Child. Now there are all sorts of impossibilities associated with this. But what does the Father say through Gabriel? "With God nothing shall be impossible." Do you think the heavenly Father's strength or love is somehow less now than it was then?
Lord teach us to pray to such a Father as Mary knew. Powerful, perfect, loving, longing to be asked, and anxious to give. What boldness, what confidence comes from knowing such a Father as this. What could we ask that would be too much, too hard, or too expensive? What could we ask for from the Father that Jesus our Brother hasn't already won, already done, already paid for? Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent 1 Midweek (12-5-01) Introduction to the Lord's Prayer