The Greatest Martyr on Earth Teaches us to Say Father, Always
We don't pray as we should as often as we should, and that's not the problem. The problem is that we say, "So what?" Our lack of a prayer life doesn't bother us. This is the equivalent of not being concerned about a shortness of breath. As lack of breathing is an indication of something wrong with your physical health, so lack of praying indicates something wrong with your spiritual health. It's my hope that the Lord's Prayer, what Luther called the greatest martyr on earth (LW 43, 200) for how it was misused and abused, might lead us toward a healthy prayer life by teaching us to always say "Father."
Luther didn't start out with this emphasis. His expositions of the Lord's Prayer which preceded the Small Catechism emphasized first the need to pray for the faith to pray (Teaching Luther's Catechism, 225). Later in the Large Catechism he emphasized the command to pray. "And the first thing to know is that it is our duty to pray because of God's commandment.Prayer is just as strictly commanded as all other commandments.Let no one think that it makes no difference whether he prays or not" (III, 5,6). Finally, also in the Large Catechism, Luther emphasized the promise to be heard. "[W]e should be encouraged and moved to pray because God has also added a promise and declared that it shall surely be done for us as we pray" (3, 19).
When my prayer life has wheezed and coughed, I've tired all 3. If you wait till you think you have enough faith to pray, you never will. There is always doubt, debate, uncertainty in the heart. The command to pray can make you for a time go through the motions but soon the wheezing returns. Even an appeal to the promises does little when you feel or see no trace of them in your life or heart. That's why in the Small Catechism Luther finds the motive for prayer in the prayer itself, in the second Word out of our mouth "Father."
In the Small Catechism Luther gives exposition to the fact that in the Lord's Prayer itself Jesus give the motivation and the power to pray by telling us we are to call God "our Father." "With these words," says Luther, "God tenderly invites us," or as other translations have it "affectionately encourages us" or my favorite "entices us." I think Erma Bombeck said that we're afraid of everyone else's father but our own; truth be told some grow up afraid of their own father. So when we think of God the Father we don't want to make Him in the image of earthly fathers but of the ideal father, "Father Knows Best," "Life with Father," or "Father Christmas."
Even if you can get these enticing, encouraging, inviting images of father into you head, you're still stopped short. To approach the One who dwells in unapproachable light with the name Father, even Daddy, on your lips as if He's your true Father and you His true child is difficult. To come before the One from whom heaven and earth will flee and hell cower asking with all boldness and confidence as dear children ask their dear father is utterly amazing if we think about it. Do you? Or do you take it for granted?
Do you think it's no big deal that we are invited, encouraged, and enticed to call God, Father? I'm willing to bet even in this era of excessive familiarly there are people you have a harder time calling by their first name than you do calling Almighty God, Father. Even in Luther's time of relative propriety he complained of those who talked to God "'like shoemakers without any fear of His majesty'" (Brecht, II, 149).
Yes, shouldn't we approach the God who is a consuming fire, against whom we have sinned so frequently, in whose nostrils we stink to high heaven with our sinfulness, our dustiness, our worminess, like a wretched slave approaches a tyrannical king? Shouldn't we approach on our bellies kissing His feet? According to Victor Hugo we should because kings and gods have no ears except in their feet (Hunchback, 362). Ought we who confess ourselves daily to be poor, miserable sinners deserving of nothing but wrath and punishment at least approach our God as Esther did her king? With the knowledge if He does not hold out the golden scepter to us we die on the spot? Ought we not come into God's presence as Isaiah did crying, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips?"
Every Sunday in Advent you read in the bulletin, "Advent is a Season of Repentance." Here is something to repent of. It is not a privilege for you to carry everything to God in prayer because you don't think it's anything special to be tenderly invited to call God Father. A German Lutheran theologian says calling God Almighty Father is either an expression of a delusion, of an infantile illusion, or an expression "of unprecedented confidence which overcomes the world" (Bayer, Martin Luther's Theology, 343). With all the wonder with which Nicodemus asked about being born again we ask, How can it be that I can call God, Father?
Because more than love came down at Christmas is the answer. God the Father sent His only beloved Son, the only One in all of heaven and earth who could always call God "Father." God the Father sent His only begotten Son into our flesh by means of the Virgin Mary. By doing so, God the Son did two things. He placed Himself under all the requirements of God's Law and He gave up the full use of His right to call God "Father."
By living a perfect life for decades, the Man Jesus won the right to call God Father as a Man. You see Him using this right when He raises Lazarus from the dead. In Gethsemane where He prays that the cup of the wrath against your sins pass by Him, Jesus says Father. His first prayer from the cross is "Father forgive them." But then loaded with the guilt of all men, with your paucity of prayer, my poor prayer life, our thinking it no great shakes to be able to call God Father, Jesus gave up that right. As He descended into hell all He could pray was that orphaned cry, "My God, My God why have you forsaken Me?"
Forsaken Him, His Father had. Paul says God made Him to be sin, your sin, and that was so disgusting the Father said, "Get away from Me; don't speak to Me; go to hell." And Jesus did. And there He paid the last installment on your sins, on the world's sins. It was finished. There was no more left to pay by you, by me, by a world of sinners. Jesus gave up His life to pay for sins; God the Father raised Him from the dead to show you, to rub your face in the fact that your sins are forgiven. The message Jesus sent back from the empty tomb was tell the disciples, who like us had abandoned Him, the disciple who like us had denied Him, "Tell My brothers, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father.'"
Jesus rose from the dead breathing and bequeathing the Spirit of forgiveness, of grace, of mercy, of Fatherhood. He breathed it into the apostles in the upper room and said, "Receive the Spirit whosoever sins you forgive they are forgiven." He distributed it in Baptism. Peter preaching on Pentecost said, "Receive Baptism and you shall receive the Holy Spirit." And what does Spirit do in us? Is He quiet? No, Galatians 4:6 says He's ever crying, "Abba Father!"
Those with the Spirit cannot but call God, "Father, Daddy." When we do so, we assert our sonship, not in our name but Jesus'. He is the one who told us, commanded us when you pray you must say, "Our Father." C.S. Lewis said that when we say these words we are putting ourselves in the place of the Son of God. He says quote, "To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ. If you like, you are pretending" (Mere Christianity, 161).
I don't think so. I'm not very good at pretending. Needing to pretend puts me back to having enough faith, believing the promises enough, or fearing the commands enough. I prefer the image of Themistocles. In exile not knowing where to turn 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" (Acker, Teach us to Pray, 15).
The difference between us and him is God gives us His own Son at Advent and Christmas and the Son in Lent and Easter says, "Here take Me; take My name. Go before My Father with all the boldness and confidence with which a dear child can ask a dear father." And don't you want to? Don't you need to? You can be at home in heaven itself if you can call God, "Father." Father should echo before every single petition of the Lord's prayer. Father, Thy kingdom come; Father, forgive us our sins; Father give us our daily bread; Father deliver us from evil (Teaching Luther's Catechism, 231).
Novelist Thomas Wolfe famously said that "the deepest search in life the thing that in one way or another was central to all living was man's search to find a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united" (Thomas Wolfe Reader, "Story of a Novel"). In Jesus, true God begotten of the Father and true Man born of the Virgin Mary, the search is ended.
Not for nothing does Isaiah prophesy that the Child to be born for us will be called "the Everlasting Father." Not for nothing does Paul tell us the Spirit of Jesus cries, "Abba Father." Not for nothing does Jesus tell us, "Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father." Ever since Christmas we are to know the Father in, with, and under the flesh and blood of the Son. The ears of the true God are not in His feet but on the head of Jesus. He bids you not to look at your sins, at the poverty of your words, or the bigness or littleness of your prayer, look only at His Son with His hand cupped over His ears and say, "Father" always. For while God detests and closes His ears to the prayers of those outside Christ, He hears them through His Son, always. (LW 12, 84). Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent Midweek I (20131204); Lord's Prayer Address