The Lord’s Prayer
July 10, 2011
“Our Father who art in heaven” Matthew 6:9a
Our Father who art in heaven. What does this mean? God would by these words tenderly invite us to believe that He is our true Father, and that we are His true children, so that we may with all boldness and confidence ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.
There are two good reasons to pray. God tells us to and he promises to hear us. We have his command and his promise. This is how we know that God wants us to pray. This is how we know that when we pray God will hear us and answer our prayers.
The word “pray” means to ask. We ask God. We pray to him. That’s what we do. We ask God. He’s the boss. We’re not. We don’t tell him what to do. We ask. We ask as those who are coming to him for a favor. The reason we ask him for his favor is because we know we can. We have permission. Without permission, we couldn’t speak. We have permission to ask God because Jesus has given it to us.
Jesus is the Son of God. We are children of God. But Jesus is not the Son of God in the same way that we are children of God. Jesus is the only begotten Son of God. He has always been the Son of God. He was with the Father from eternity. The Father has never existed without his only begotten Son. We, on the other hand, did not exist until we were conceived in our mother’s womb. And when we were conceived and born we were not children of God. We were conceived and born in sin, as David writes in the Psalm, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5) St. Paul writes that we were “by nature children of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3) Jesus is the only One who gives us the right to pray to God because Jesus is the only One who has taken away God’s wrath.
Today is the first in a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord Jesus taught us this prayer and he also gave us the right to pray. First Jesus comes. Jesus gives us the right to pray. First comes faith in Jesus. Then comes prayer. There is no prayer until there is faith.
We may not pray to God except by invitation. The Lord Jesus invites us. He invites us to ask God for his favor. The One who has come into this world to reveal God’s love is the One who gives us the right to pray. The origin of Christian prayer is not the Christian. It is Christ. It is his suffering and death on Calvary. Where the only begotten Son of the Father was forsaken in his suffering is where God’s favor for us is grounded. Where Jesus takes our place and suffers for us is where God does not reckon to us any sin or wrongdoing. It is where we are joined to holy union with our Father in heaven and so may call him, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
He is in heaven but that doesn’t mean he isn’t here. God is everywhere. Heaven isn’t a geographical location. Heaven is the holy and glorious presence of God. It is where no sinner can enter because it is a holy place that excludes sinners and all sin. God is in heaven and on earth at the same time. But we aren’t in heaven. And if God were to leave us in our sin, we could never get to heaven. We couldn’t pray to the God of heaven. He would be unapproachable. This is why when we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven” we are, by that very address, admitting that we cannot pray to him except with Christ as our heavenly Mediator.
Christ is at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and he is there to plead for us sinners here below. He is there granting us the right to call God, Father. When we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven” we are praying by the authority of Jesus. We are praying with confidence that God hears our prayers and wants to hear our prayers and wants to give us everything for which we ask. Why? Because Jesus is our Brother. Our dear Brother, Jesus, is also the only begotten Son of the Father. He points to his wounds that he suffered when he took away our sins. It is for the sake of that suffering in our place that our Father in heaven forgives us our sins, not just when we are baptized, but throughout our lives. Jesus pleads for every one of God’s children, because God names us all individually in Holy Baptism.
Faith is personal. Each individual believes for himself. One person cannot believe for another. The Church cannot believe for the members of the Church. Indeed, the Church is the Communion of Saints, that is, the fellowship of all Christian believers. Without individual Christians there is no Church. Faith, as well as prayer that flows out of faith, is always personal. The one who personally prays is the one who personally believes.
But it is never just personal. The very fact that we call God “Our Father” tells us that we are always praying with the Church. If God is our Father, the Church must be our mother. If Jesus wanted us to think of prayer as only personal and private – just between the individual Christian and God – then he would have taught us to pray, “My Father who art in heaven.” But my personal prayer is always joined to the church’s prayer because by the same baptism through which I am made a child of God I am also made a member of Christ’s holy body. I cannot be a Christian without being in fellowship with Christ’s holy Christian Church. The Lord’s Prayer is always a corporate prayer, even when we pray it all alone, all by ourselves, with nobody but God to hear what we are saying.
The Church prays. The Church teaches us to pray. We can look at the Church from two sides. The one side is the Church as she receives. The other side is the Church as she gives. The Church as she receives is the Communion of Saints who receives her holiness and righteousness as a gift from God. She receives this gift through faith and through faith alone. The Church is the faithful, that is, the believers in Christ who are born from above and forgiven of all their sins through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This Church is invisible because you cannot see faith.
The other side is the Church as she gives. The Church that is invisible is nevertheless identifiable. We cannot see faith, but we can see and hear and identify the means by which God engenders faith in our hearts. The Church has the gospel and the sacraments. We identify the true Church by identifying the true gospel and the rightly administered sacraments. This Church is our mother. Where we find these pure marks of the Church is where we pray with the Church. We believe and we pray together.
We pray to God alone. We don’t pray to saints who have died and gone to heaven. God has not commanded us to pray to the saints, nor has God promised that the saints can help us. If God told us to pray to the mother of our Lord Jesus to ask her for her help and if God promised that mother Mary would indeed hear our prayer and help us would we argue with God? Of course not! But God has not told us to pray to Mary or any other Christian who is in heaven and God has nowhere promised that Mary or any other Christian in heaven can even hear us, to say nothing of doing anything to help us. This is not to say that the saints in heaven don’t pray for us. Surely they don’t stop praying for the church on earth when they get to heaven. But we should not be praying to them. Prayer is an act of worship.
There are times when it appears that God doesn’t hear our prayers. There are times when it appears that God is bent on giving us exactly the opposite of what we ask. Prayer is then a burden. We keep on praying and we keep on being denied. We wonder if God really wants to answer our prayers. Our faith is challenged.
Prayer is an exercise of faith. Our sinful flesh does not trust in God. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Our sinful flesh cannot be regenerated; he can only be killed. That is a painful process and it is a wonderful work of God. God denies us only for a time. He does so in order to discipline us as a loving father disciplines his children. When our flesh cries out for foolish pleasures and empty riches that would keep us away from God, God knows the true prayer of his dear children. He must discipline us so that we may learn to pray correctly.
The correct posture of prayer is literally that of a beggar. When I beg, I offer nothing but my need. My true need is to hallow the name of my God. My true need is that his kingdom comes to me. My true need is that his will be done for me. This is why God must, if he loves me, refuse everything that I ask of him that doesn’t come from faith. In so doing, God gently corrects my erring faith and drives me back to his promises again and again. It is always my gracious Father who is doing this.
Even when it seems that he doesn’t care what my troubles are and I lose all hope he takes me precisely there in my hopelessness and he shows me his love. How can I learn to trust in my heavenly Father if I am trusting in myself? So what appears to me to be a cruel disregard for my needs is in actual fact a loving concern for my immortal soul. Only the one who has lost hope in himself and in the promises of this world can confidently call the invisible God “Father.” He who knows God in Christ also knows that contrary to all sight, hearing, feeling, or any other kind of sensing, God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth is his dear Father who governs everything in this world for the eternal benefit of his dear children. Amen