To Whom Should We Pray?
Politicians say after tragedies, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families." Have you ever wondered why they don't say, "We are praying about climate change, health care, the economy, or the war on terror?" I think it might be because of whom they're praying to.
Jesus instructs us to pray to "our Father who art in heaven." When I was in the Army chaplaincy, I noticed the prayers at Army-wide conferences were almost always addressed to God as father. Please note I didn't say to God the Father. The Army chaplaincy has not only Christian but Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other faiths, so prayers weren't addressed to the Triune God but to a generic god. It was acceptable to all faiths to call God father. I wonder if it should be even for us.
When Jesus directs me to call God "Father" that is an accusing word to me. In Malachi 1:6 the Lord Almighty says, "A son honors his father If I am a father, where is the honor due me?" I don't recall ever having the nerve to say directly to my father something rude, but I did say it in front of my mother about him. And she would respond, "Is that anyway to talk about your father?"
Do you pray to a father in heaven, or to the nameless one of a thousand names? Do you pray to a father or to a Supreme Being? Do you pray to a father or to a stranger? Don't you see? If we don't honor God as a father, we dishonor him no matter how or what we pray for?
Jesus argues from our sinful failing fatherhood to the holy fatherhood of God to show how rude and unbelieving we are when we expect less from God as father than we do from ourselves. In Matthew 7 Jesus asks these rhetorical questions: "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!"
We would be horrified and eventually angry if a child of ours persistently expected bad things from us. Yet we don't think our holy Father in heaven should be upset at us because we don't expect only good things from Him. Although we are evil, still as fathers we give good gifts to our children, yet we don't expect even that much from "our Father who art in heaven." This is more sacrilegious than thinking Santa Claus is coming to get you rather than give to you.
It's true; in the early Santa lore he didn't give good to all, but this gave way to the grandfatherly, jolly Santa Claus we know now. In England he is called Father Christmas. Originally he was depicted dressed in all green. The Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens is a portrayal of Father Christmas. He is large hearted, merry, and dressed in a thick green coat. Ever see a child draw back in horror from a jolly Saint Claus? It's a pity; it's a shame, and it's certain the child doesn't know Father Christmas.
What is it that causes us to drawback from God our Father? Our guilt over a 1,000 daily prayers never uttered, over 1,000 meals never blessed. Guilt over the fact that God commands prayer and we act like it's an option, and our Father promises to hear every one of our prayers and we don't believe either He can or will. Guilt over just our sins against prayer rightly teaches us that we deserve nothing from God but wrath and punishment.
I know where you're heading, but don't go through either of those doors. Don't hear the Law that shows your sin of not praying enough or rightly and head for the door "I'll do better." And don't try the one labeled "Excuses" either. If you go from here determined to thank God before every meal and to call upon Him as a loving Father, you go home under the Law. Prayer will be a "have to" and "ought to" a "must," "should," "got to." Likewise if you go through the "Excuse" door and conclude your being tired at night and busy during the day excuses you from the command to pray, you're still under the Law of Prayer. You're still going to the Law to see if things are okay between you and God. And you'll go back to that Law the next day and the next, and the
Agreed. Guilt makes us flee from our Father who art in heaven rather than go to Him eagerly with our prayers. Only the Son can release us from this guilt. God the Father sent His only beloved Son into the Virgin's womb to be our guilt bearer. Now if He was going to carry our guilt, He couldn't have any of His own to carry. He had to be perfect. And He was. Look at all the times He remembered to pray. Look how after suffering on the cross the eternal torments you deserve, after being forsaken by His Father, He dies praying, "Father into Thy hands I commend My Spirit."
So Jesus had no guilt of His own. The guilt He carried was yours. He claimed you as "brother" as "sister," and said, "Here let me take that off your back." And He took it. The guilt from 10,000 x 10,000 sins you can't remember and from that one sin you can never forget, Jesus took it from your back and put it on His own. And He bore all that guilt in His conscience throughout His life and then in His body for 3 eternally dreadful hours on the cross. Jesus claimed you as His sibling. He became your blood brother by virtue of His blood paying for your sins and taking away your guilt.
Jesus doesn't invite us to pray to a father in heaven but His Father, and since we our Jesus' brothers and sisters He is our Father too. When Jesus directs us to address God as "our Father who art in heaven," He is bidding us to use the warm, winning word "father." Luther says "with these words God tenderly invites us to believe." Another translations has "tenderly encourages," and still another has "entice us." Invited, encouraged, or enticed, Jesus wants you to believe that God is your true Father, and you are His true child; that you are His dear child, and He is your dear Father.
Sinner though you are, you are not an illegitimate child of the heavenly Father. In Jesus, you are true child with all the rights and privileges of Jesus Christ Himself. God the Father can no more deny that you are His true child than He can that Jesus is. Think of it. If Jesus could pray about it you can; if Jesus could ask for it you can. You're prayers aren't like letters to Santa; no, they are as precious as a child's pleas to his or her father.
That's what the second part of the Explanation says. When we pray, even though it be with stuttering words and incomplete sentences, we ask God "as dear children ask their dear father." How come we're dear children and He our dear father? Is it because we don't sin that much or that often? Is it because we try our best? Is it because we're so faithful? No, no, no. The Devil will cut through all of those statements like a hot knife through butter. If you lift your eyes toward heaven with one eye on you, you'll never pray. The Devil will say who are you to ask for such a thing, and your heart will have no answer.
You pray to God as your Father because your Savior told you to. You don't pray because you have reason to be bold and confident, but because your Jesus, whom the Father cannot deny, told you to be bold and confident. He tells you keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking, and promises you that His Father will answer, be found, and open wide.
Don't insult this gracious Spirit by not asking or even by asking for something small timidly. Luther said that if a king told a peasant he could ask for anything at all and the peasant meekly squeaked out a request for a dish of oatmeal, that wouldn't be piety but an insult. Ask, seek, knock for the big stuff, the impossible stuff, the stuff that you would never dare ask for unless God Himself told you, you could. And how has the Father told you that there is no limit to what you can ask for? By giving you His own dear Son at Christmas. Paul says in Romans, "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us allhow will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?"
Friends, He gave all of His Son for you on the cross. In Baptism He gives you all of His Son as a covering for your sins. In Communion He gives you His Body for your Bread and His Blood for your Drink. You can come boldly and confidently to the throne of your Father clothed in His Son. Bearing about in your body the Body and Blood of Jesus grants you the same access to the throne of grace that Jesus has. Go through the Gospels; see how Jesus prays to His Father. His Father is your Father. You can pray the way He does.
But it's even better than this. Jesus would rescue you from thinking your prayers are offered to a nameless, faceless deity. One of Jesus' names is "the everlasting Father." When the disciples are trying to get a handle on God being their Father, Jesus tells them, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father." When you pray don't think of your prayers ascending to One who dwells in light unapproachable or to a consuming fire. No, think of Jesus.
When Stephen is being stoned, what gives him the ability to pray the great, huge, impossible prayer that those stoning him should be forgiven? It's not seeing the glory of God. No, Acts 7 says "He saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." Then he prays "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" and after that he prayed, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Praying to our Father who art in heaven with our eyes on Jesus brings forth big, over the top prayers from our lips.
I think popular piety gets this. The early editions of Luther's Small Catechism had woodcuts for each part. For "Our Father who art in heaven" the woodcut is of Jesus teaching His disciples to pray. In Austria and Southern Germany the popular name for Father Christmas is Christkind, that is, Christ child. To whom should we pray? To the Father in heaven who can only be known in His Son our Brother. To Him we can pray not only in tragedy but in everyday life. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent Midweek 1 (20091202); Lord's Prayer Introduction