Sermon 22 November 2015 The Lord’s Prayer
Today is the last day of the Church year. It is the day when, ostensibly, we end our year’s journey with Mark’s gospel, though, in fact, that happened last week. This is one of the Sundays when John’s gospel is set down in the lectionary. I might just note that the lectionary is used all around the world in many different denominations, so it is rather a nice thought that what we hear read, Sunday by Sunday, is also being heard all around the world in the worldwide community of faith. So, today, churches in very many countries, will be celebrating the festival of Christ the King. In some places this will be a great feast day celebrating Christ in glory ascended and at the right hand of the Father, as we say in the creeds. It is a day of remembering the triumph of life over death, of goodness over evil and, most of all, of thinking about God’s reign – the Kingdom of God which is always both “now and not yet”.
Maybe it’s my Presbyterian DNA, but I have to say that this is not a celebration that comes very naturally to me. It is not that I don’t want to proclaim, and loudly, that the power of love which we see embodied in Christ is more powerful than anything. I would hold fast to the belief that God’s goodness and love is absolutely fundamental to life and that we are called to live within that and to participate in, to bring it to life in the world around us. That is what God’s Kingdom is all about, and a whole lot more. So there is nothing wrong at all in lifting up the eyes of our faith to Christ in glory, whence, as John’s gospel says, he came. It reminds us, when so much seems to be going wrong in the world and powerful forces of violence and hatred are unleashed, that that is not, in fact, what will ever have the last world.
My Presbyterian DNA, my Uniting Church belonging, always turns me to trying to discern the presence of Christ in the world with all its many complexities, struggles, courage and compassion. This is about seeing how God is at work, always, creating the Kingdom; always responding to a changing world with new ways to touch the hearts of men and women, old and young; always seeking to bring healing to hurt and the amazing freedom of forgiveness to those who carry burdens of shame and guilt and anger; always working to bring justice where there is oppression and inhumanity. Maybe this is something like the vision you have lurking in your minds when we pray, as we do each week “Your kingdom come”.
They are such easy words to say. Indeed it is so easy to rattle off the words of The Lord’s Prayer without thinking, that I thought that today, rather than concentrate on the Gospel reading as it is, I would reflect on the prayer that is central to our faith. It is at the heart of the matter. It is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, at their request, after they observed him praying. So it is the model of what Jesus himself understood prayer to be.
It is what is called Christianity’s greatest prayer. That is also the title of a very good book by John Dominic Crossan. I want to quote you the opening words of the book. “The Lord’s Prayer is Christianity’s greatest prayer. It is also Christianity’s strangest prayer. It is prayed by all Christians, but never mentions Christ. It is prayed in all churches, but never mentions church. It is prayed on all Sundays but never mentions Sunday. It is called ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ but it never mentions ‘Lord’.
It is prayed by fundamentalist Christians, but it never mentions the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the miracles, or the bodily resurrection of Christ. It is prayed by evangelical Christians but it never mentions the evangelism or the gospel. It is prayed by Pentecostal Christians but it never mentions the Holy Spirit.” And there are many more such clauses. Crossan concludes this prologue by stating “it is prayed by Christians who emphasize what it never mentions and also by prayed by Christians who ignore what it does. “What if”, says Crossan “it is a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth?”
Let’s look at it. “Our Father”. Jesus is inviting his followers to be part of his prayer life, his own spirituality, sharing in the relationship he has with his God, our God – a relationship not of formality and remoteness, but of intimacy and belonging. I remember walking along the beach at Maroochydore early one morning saying those two words over and over. I looked around at the beauty of the place and reflected on what a difference it makes to feel that the whole creation, which is full of such infinite wonder, is held within the being of the Creator whom we are invited to call “Father”. It calls us into relationship with the whole earth. And, of course, this prayer reminds us clearly that we are turning to a God who is not our own possession but is equally the God of all humankind. “Our Father” calls us into relationship with our neighbour and with the stranger in our land because we cannot say that some belong to the Creator and not others. It reminds us of how the divisions that we are sometimes painfully aware of between peoples, divisions that are fed by fear and ignorance, cannot exist if the “Our Father” is really a prayer of all humanity, whether they own the prayer or not.
“In heaven”. Probably most of us grew up with the notion of heaven as somewhere beyond the deep blue sky; some far removed place where everything is perfect and angels fly around with their magnificent wings. Heaven is frequently parodied – as, for example, the place where cherubs sit on clouds eating Philadelphia cream cheese. Heaven becomes a place that is useful for of telling children, and adults, is where we go when we die, the father’s house, though how can we really know what that is? Is heaven separate for God’s Kingdom? It seems that if we hold on to the belief that heaven is linked to the eternal life we have in God, however we may understand that, then this surely is where God’s Kingdom is celebrated, where everything is fulfilled according to God’s will. But we know also that this Kingdom is what Jesus came to proclaim for people in their daily lives, the Kingdom that is within us, here and now; the Kingdom that holds within it our hopes, our yearnings for all that is just, whole and peaceful. We catch glimpses of it around us, enough glimpses to feed our hungry souls and empower us on our journey towards our ultimate home. We know what we are doing here is grappling with mystery, using what bits of understanding we have, but allowing ourselves to know that the rest is about God, not us.
“Hallowed be your name”. I think “Hallow” is a lovely word. If we hold something as holy, we cannot denigrate it our give it only a cursory glance. Something holy and hallowed asks us to pause and give our respectful attention. On holy ground we are to take off our shoes like Moses before the burning bush. Martin Buber, a Jewish scholar, said that when we speak of God we should place around it “an hour of great care”. Maybe if everyone were to do that, not so many things would be done ostensibly in God’s name and certainly the word “God” would not be used as a casual throw-away term. We are called to reclaim the holiness of God and God’s name. “Hallowed be your name”.
But what is God’s name? The word “God” is not a name. The word is really a metaphor, to which we add other metaphors, such as “Father”. We give it a capital “G” to separate it from so many other gods. But it does not encapsulate God. When the Hebrew people wanted to know God’s name, God replied with the term we know as Yahweh, which is best translated as “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”. The Hebrew has no vowels, so even the pronunciation “Yahweh” is uncertain. The word Jehovah is a distortion of the word Yahweh. “Hallowed be your name”. We are left being called to pause before the One who is holy. The Jewish people regarded the name of God too holy to be spoken. They preferred to use the word “Adonai”, which we translate as “Lord”. Maybe this in unfortunate because it has given us a gender specific title in place of a name that carries a deliberate refusal to fit into any category. Certainly this prayer starts with the term “Father”, but this denotes relationship and intimacy, as we have seen, rather than emphasizing masculinity.
“Your Kingdom come”. What a huge thing to say, to pray! Do we know what we are praying for? How do you imagine this to be? We have touched on this already. But I wonder if it conjures up images of an all- powerful God sitting on a throne in glory looking down or around at the Kingdom, the ultimate ruler, albeit the most benevolent there could be. But the image perhaps also connects with that of the throne of judgement before which we stand to await the verdict passed on us. That is not necessarily a comfortable image. We have to separate off our understanding of kingdom in terms of an earthly model, because the translation of the term is actually more related to the reign of God, the activity of God, than to some kind of state. When we look at our world, our country, our city and our neighbourhoods, there is so much that seems a pretty complicated mess. So much seems to be based on money - too often the measure of success, on progress and growth which has a big human cost, and so on and so on. We live in stressful times where people turn to addictive things to deal with their feelings of failure, of hopelessness or just for thrill seeking. We know how, in our cross-cultural society, so much that can be celebrated has, sometimes, become a struggle against racism and fear. How do we pray “Your kingdom come” into all of this? How do we imagine that kingdom to be? Jesus’ prayer does not specify anything else, other than to add the next clause “Your will be done”.
It puts us into the present moment, just as we remember that Jesus also said in Luke 17: 20-21 “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” “The Kingdom of God is among you”. We are turned to Jesus. As Crossan again says “God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and thereby establish it.”
To pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done” is to accept what our discipleship means. And to discover what that is, we can only keep turning to Jesus himself who has allowed us to be part of this prayer, part of his own spiritual life, part of the experience of following his way. For his way was about responding to whatever each day set before him; responding with the love of God, that alone can be the energy of God’s reign. He always said it would be costly but he showed how that love would also bring healing and joy and peace. It would be its own reward. This is about doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. It is not about knowing answers but about living our daily lives in ways that reflect the example of Jesus, trusting in God’s guidance. Surely, if we pray “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done” we must believe that this is not just about our efforts, but about joining ourselves to what God is already doing, ceaselessly at work in our world.
This great prayer is saying so much to us. Its words can flow over us so easily. What we have been reflecting on thus far this morning are the first few phrases. On these hang all that follows.
Maybe what we have been thinking of allows us to celebrate this day of Christ the King with a deeper understanding. Maybe also we will continue our journey with The Lord’s Prayer next week.
For now, what else can we do but to reflect on its familiar words as I lead you slowly, giving pause to allow it into our hearts? Let us pray.
Our Father in heaven
hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread
and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the Kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.