A Locating Prayer

This sermon was delivered at Warnervale Uniting Church on Feb 03, 2019. The readings were: Exodus 3:1-15 and Matthew 6:7-34

“Our Father who are in the heavens, let your name be held holy; Let your kingdom come; let your will come to pass, as in heaven so also upon the earth” (trans. D. B. Hart)

“Our Father in heaven: may your holy name be honoured; may your Kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (trans. E. Schweizer)

What is the point of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples?

Is it, like prayers of some religions, sacred words that when we repeat we gain some special access to God or properly fulfil a command of Christ? It is hard to argue this is the case (there are significant inconsistencies between Luke and Matthew, there are differences in the version we tend to pray at church, there are translation issues (as seen above), and also the fact that we know Jesus and the disciples, and every Christian since have prayed a bunch of different things…)

Is it a wholly original offering by Jesus, the first instance of a truly “Christian prayer”? It is difficult to hold robustly to this argument, the prayer itself is not all that original, if we look a the Kaddish, a common Jewish prayer of the time, used at the end of Synagogue, we find much in common:

Exalted and hallowed be his great name

In the world which he created according to his will.

May he let his kingdom rule

In your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime

Of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon. 

Praised be his great name from eternity to eternity.

And to this say: Amen. 

 Now, there is a novelty to Jesus’ prayer and we will come to it. But for now, I want to propose that its point is not found in originality.

Is it a direction for Christian living, by this I mean is it a teaching tool to establish a pattern of Christian piety? Perhaps this can be gleaned from an initial read, but given that so much of the prayer is put in the passive tense, and thus out of our hands, this is a difficult position to hold. It is God who will make God’s name holy, God’s will we ask to be done, God who is implored to keep us from temptation and provide our daily bread. There is little by way of pledge where we share what we will bring to the table. There is little to order the daily life of the Christian - Matthew includes plenty of that kind of teaching - but we must say again, that is not the point of the prayer.

What I have come to believe, is that this is a prayer that, like a real estate mogul, is concerned with just one thing: location, location, location. The prayer that Jesus’ taught his disciples, locates us. This prayer (all prayer?) is about revealing to us our location in relation to God and the world.

Now what do I mean by that?

Despite the richness of this passage, I’m going to centre these reflections on the opening lines of the prayer, I’ll use Schweizer’s translation already quoted: 

“Our Father in heaven: may your holy name be honoured; may your Kingdom come”

We’re going to break this up further to highlight the locating work the various phrases achieve:

1) ‘Our Father’  - This phrase has become so commonplace that we risk losing its significance. This is the novelty that Jesus introduces - while parent language is found in the Old Testament, the familiarity of this term stands out - but what’s more, we are not just praying to Jesus’ “Father”, we share in the Sonship of Christ, we stand on the same ground as him before God, so that we can pray with Jesus “our Father”. What will be achieved in Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension is here proclaimed and passed on to us as unconquerable truth, we have been put on common and holy ground with the Son, “The Messiah has made us insiders”; not to a club, but to the very life of the Triune God - to the loving heartbeat of the source of all that is! This is why, though tricky, it is helpful to keep the Father/Son/Spirit language when speaking of this prayer - it gets at the relationships between the three persons of the Trinity - a relationship we are adopted into,in a way that Trinitarian descriptors such as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer cannot. Adjectives like this deal more with God’s dealing with the world that the relationship within the Godhead. This distinction gets at the relationship between our two readings. The Divine Name revealed to Moses characterises God’s action with the world (a point we will dive into shortly), it is a holy name without parallel (hence the reverence of its non-pronunciation in Judaism) it is brimming with the real power of God at work in the world; but the familial term of Father reveals something of the life within the Godhead independent of us, now opened to us…  we have been brought to the inside, the holy of holies of the Triune Life of God and so are permitted to call God by the name used by God. A flow on effect is that with this adoption, this drawing in, we also share in the Messiah’s authority on earth (to forgive, to proclaim the kingdom, to heal and bring wholeness, to baptise, and to work as ambassadors of the reconciliation already achieved).

2) ‘Who is in the heavens’ - our loving and present Father is still the holy God who appears in fire and thunder, who assures us to fear not when we cannot help but assume that in the midst of such awesome presence we must surely die. There remains distance - transcendence. God is nothing like us or our world, God is Wholly Other and for that we give thanks, for only the holy Lord of hosts is able to deliver the slaves from captivity. Matthew is particularly concerned to maintain some level of distance, almost paradoxically juxtaposed in this moment of intimacy. There is good reason for this, I think he knows that the permission to call God our Father, human beings, so easily corrupted, will forget that the point of the our is to locate us with Jesus - not locate us as the insiders over and against those outsiders on the other side of town, or in the other church, or speaking that other language. Even though the we can refer to God as our father (what a privilege it is) God is not to be confused with anything of ours (our denomination, our culture, our language, our military might, our nation, our theology). 

3) ‘Let your name be made holy, let your kingdom come’ - these two are linked because they are they cannot be realised independently: God’s holy name will be honoured when and because God’s kingdom comes (thus it is God God’s self who honours the holy name). In the Exodus reading, the Divine Name is revealed as I am what I am (or I will be what I will be). This name often causing a bit of head scratching (not least for translators), but that issue mostly comes when the name is speculated on outside of the narrative in which it is revealed. The name is given in Exodus 3 and again in Exodus 6, I want to read that section:

God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’”

Again the name is revealed, here is bookends the speech, meaning that everything between the bookends is a commentary, an expansion on what it means for God to be known as I am What I Am/I Will Be What I Will Be. God is the one who appeared, who made promises and covenant, who heard the groaning of the Israelites, and God will be the one who delivers the Israelites out of slavery and into the promised land so that they can be a Holy People and an example for the nations. God’s name is tied to God’s nature (as one who appears, promises, delivers, and sanctifies), to put it another way, we know God’s name by experiencing God’s power to cast down the kingdoms of sin and death, and establish his own kingdom of deliverance and justice. The Exodus is commentary on God’s name - it is the answer to the I Will Be

But if the kingdom needs to come then where are we? Or perhaps better put, what kingdom are we in? In New Testament cosmology there are three actors (God, humanity, and the Powers of Sin and Death) and two realms (realm of God and the realm of Sin) - the Incarnation signals an invasion, a regime change - God has become human in this contested space to overthrow the rulers of this present age. The Exodus narrative is not a political scuffle, but a battle between the forces of life and death, creation and negation, God and evil. Pharaoh is a symbolic figure as much as a historical one, a figure entirely without humility or mercy, a purveyor of Death. God hears the cries of the Israelites and reveals his name to Moses, the name is the sign that deliverance is coming, that Pharaoh is getting cast down and that the kingdom of life will triumph. In Jesus, God continues this work, this time by taking on human flesh and entering into the realm of Sin and Death. In complete solidarity with us Jesus bears the full, nihilistic brunt of evil, but he overcomes and in doing so God’s holy name - forever associated with the deliverance of life out of death - is vindicated and God’s kingdom draws near. 

So where are we located:

1) On holy ground with Jesus, sharing his standing before God - the fear of tomorrow removed we are adopted into the very life of God who will not fail us.

2) Within our human location - God is God, the Holy One of heaven - the loving parent is still the God who creates with a word, delivers with a mighty outstretched arm, and shakes Horeb in smoke and fire - we approach with Christ and Moses so we do not mistake anything of our own for the God of awe and wonder, the God who is wholly other.   

3) Within the kingdom of Sin and Death, yet on the other side of Christ’s victory over these powers. We await the fullness of the kingdom when Christ comes again - participating in the ongoing work of Christ, by the power of the Spirit - battling sin and oppression wherever we encounter it as our own way of acknowledging the Holy Name of God made holy in the deliverance of the captives. 

So what is the point of the prayer? 

It reveals our location, which is a paradox - on the one hand we are on Darkinyung land in the suburb of Warnervale in the C21st: still in the age of present sufferings, of trials an temptation, of hunger and desperation, of greed and corruption, of Sin and Death; on the other hand - and at the same time - we stand on the same holy ground as Jesus Christ.

Importantly, we do not stand in this second location on our own power or will. We are able to stand in on this common holy ground and pray this prayer to our father because (and only because) of the location humbly taken by Jesus Christ,  

who, though he was in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God

    as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—

    even death on a cross

By condescending to our location, by taking on human life, Jesus takes us up in his own life and draws all of history into himself. And in his resurrection, Jesus delivered us out of the power of Sin and Death into the embracing arms of His and our Father. We are taught this prayer so that we will never wonder if we should ask for our daily bread, or if we will receive help in our temptation, or if we are forgiven and so freed to forgive - we are assured that we are have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba!Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Jesus did more than teach us a prayer, he transformed our location out of death and into the very life of God. Amen.