A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on February 26, 2012.
O God, our Father, we enter this Lenten season with a sense of hope. We know that you see into our hearts and we know that our desire for repentance, for commitment, for denying ourselves will somehow result in being closer to you. We confess that we also enter this season with a sense of foreboding and even a sense of guilt. Our lives bear witness to the times we have committed in this hope before, only to fail. Don’t let us fail again. We pray in confidence today that you did not save us to leave us as we are. Change us. Change us step by step. Change us day by day. Change us victory by victory. Change us by the power of your spirit, particularly in those areas where we cannot change ourselves. Make our hearts more pure. Make our living more righteous. Make us more courageous in times of testing, more bold in times of witness, and more fervent in prayer always. We confess that we do not always know what to pray for or how to ask for the things we want, but we are confident that these requests we have made will place each of us in your will. We know that you want nothing more for us than to become like your son, Jesus. So change us. We trust our deepest desires to your care. We trust our deepest needs to your all-knowing will for whom else loves us so. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
The more mature and knowing we become, the more we learn to know life, the more we realize how graceless, how fatherless, how terribly orphaned the world is.
–Helmut Thielicke in Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer
What are you giving up for Lent? Has anybody asked you that this week? I remember the first time someone asked me that. I was a third grader in a small town in West Virginia. Even at that point, I was a proud Baptist living amongst a majority of Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholic kids in school looked down their noses at us because we Baptists did not give up anything, and we looked down our noses at them because we thought, Why? Why do you have to do that?
Across the years, I think the understanding of that has begun to sift across denominations and, often as Baptists, we talk about giving up something for Lent. What are you giving up for Lent? Has anybody asked you that this week? Have you made a decision? I have heard all kinds of things: sweets, smoking, French fries, or fast food in general. What do you hope to accomplish?
If you are giving up something, in the giving up, what is it that you hope to accomplish? So many things are related to diet and are things that we should already be giving up anyway. What do we hope to get out of it? Do we hope we will be a few pounds thinner when Easter gets here? Perhaps we will be a little healthier and the habit-free days might be engrained and that we will come out on the far side of Easter with better health.
When we get the hallelujahs back in the hymns, the color back in the bulletin, and get past the sacrifice and the denial, what is it that we hope to get out of Lent on that far side that has been good for the soul? What is it that we do not want to leave in the Lenten season, as in denial, but take with us, as in growth?
After we have given up listening to the radio in the car for 40 days, have given up worry or any number of bad foods, or given up thinking about sacrifice, would we not hope that there is something that has changed in our souls? What if that change were that we loved prayer more? What if we come to the far side of Lent, get up on that Easter morning and the Monday after Easter, and find that, because of what we have done in these 40 days, prayer is a lot more important to us. I think I love prayer more. Would that not be a good thing? Would it not be worth the irritability of having given up caffeine for 40 days or whatever else it may be? Would it not be worth it if we came to that place and found ourselves seeking prayer with all of our heart and we were constantly in thanksgiving for it? Would it not be wonderful if we loved it enough to stop worrying and just pray?
If that were true, what might I do to inspire you to love prayer more? How about I give you a precise definition of prayer? How about I give you a three page theology of prayer so that you can know everything there is to know about prayer? What if I just convinced you that God cares—nothing else but just convinced you that God care? If you will talk with God, you will find that God cares.
Jesus is so brilliant. When the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” that first time, he understood that the first barrier to this is not, “Do I understand prayer? Do I have a good theology of prayer? Do I have a good template for prayer?” but it just a reluctance to approach God. He knows if he can break down the worry, fear, and apprehension and get somebody over the barrier to start praying, that is half the battle. So he begins with two words that we think about today, “Our Father.” Of course, we know it continues, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” He does not say, “Our Judge.” He doesn’t say, “Our King.” He doesn’t say, “Our Lord of Lords.” He just says, “Our Father.”
Many of you have probably been in church and heard sermons or been in Sunday school long enough to know that the word he brings to us, a word that Paul uses in his Letter to the Romans, is Abba. It is from the Aramaic that we believe Jesus spoke. It is very typical of the way an infant speaks a parent’s name. Infants repeat sounds to say their first words. Water is wa-wa. They say da-da for daddy and ma-ma for Momma. In almost every language, children will repeat a syllable in order to try to say the name of people closest to them. Some grandparents thought their children were going to call them something else, but it came out a double sound and that is what you are stuck with. In the Aramaic, this is the double sound—Abba—daddy.
We have seen it engraved in stone. We have seen it itched in stained glass windows. We have seen it written in pages of scripture. It is engrained into us as, “Our Father,” but really the word is, “Our daddy, our poppa, our da-da.” It is a very intimate word. Jesus is trying to get the disciples over the hump and to understand this is what God is like.
We do know that some in Rabbinic Judaism used the concept of God as Father. Nobody had the impact in any religion of understanding God this way as did Jesus. Twenty-five years later when Paul is writing to the Romans and talking about the spirit inspiring their praying he said, “Look, it is the spirit that comes into us and leads us to say, ‘Abba, Father.’” Even those Christians in Rome who probably spoke Greek on the streets and Latin in fancy places are still using the Aramaic word that means “daddy.” It was such a powerful thing. If we could only get back to where we could understand that Jesus is trying to break down the barrier to make it possible for us to pray and not worry about any of the words that we use, we would begin to come closer.
Some people want to make “Our Father” harder than it is. For those under age 20, it is probably hard to understand how language has changed in the last 20 years to try to take gender prejudice out of the language. We no longer have a stewardess on an airplane. We now have a flight attendant. We don’t say that someone is a fireman. We say firefighter. There are ways to take gender out of the language so there is no prejudice.
Some people want to do this with God. They want to make it, “Our Heavenly Parent,” or they want to give equal time and say, “Our Mother in Heaven.” To me, to try to think that, in some way, Jesus is teaching us that God is male is a sidetrack and to try to go the other way is a sidetrack, too. Whenever Jesus teaches us about God as father, it is not as opposed to mother. It is opposed to someone who doesn’t care. He uses the father image because that was what he had at his disposal to say to us, God cares.
If you look at the parables, he says, “Those of you who would give good gifts to your children, if your son asked you for a piece of bread, you would not give him a serpent. If he asked you for an egg, you would not give him a scorpion. How much more does your Father in heaven love you and will give the Holy Spirit to those of you who ask?” It is not a gender issue at all to somehow defend God on one way or attack from the other. It is simply that God cares.
We have to admit that some people, and in this case, not every father is what a father should be. Some people say, “I can’t use the word ‘Father’ because my father was not a good father. I have a bad image of father.” I have had this said to me many times by many people. Jesus is not saying, “Look at fathers and that is what God is like.” He is saying, “Look at God and that is what a good father would be like.”
It is like love. We have our own definitions of love. We hear, “God is love,” and we think God is like what we think about in a song. That is not what it means at all. It means look at God and the way God acts towards us in sending his son Jesus to die for us. This is love and everything else falls short. God defines love. We don’t define love and then lay it on God. This is what Jesus says as well. It is not that every father we ever see reminds us of God, but God reminds us of every good father. He protects, provides, guides, and is present. Jesus says, “This is why we can trust God.”
When we stop and think about how many things beset us in the age in which we live, the list is many. Relationships are in tatters in many places. Even though we have passed through the worst of the economic downturn, there are still people every day who are wondering if bankruptcy or foreclosure is in their future. There are people who live alone and are lonely, and there are people who don’t live alone and are exceptionally lonely. The advertisements on TV of the idea that our homes are constantly going to burst into flames and of someone bursting into our home during a home invasion have us afraid of the night. We are afraid of strangers. We are afraid of what might happen between Israel and Iran. It just seems like every place we turn there is something between low-grade anxiety and a high-grade fever of fear that our lives are just upset all the time.
The meditation text today by the German preacher, Helmut Thielicke, is talking about all these fears. Thielicke preached after World War II and in the height of the mid-20th Century when Soviet tension in Europe existed. Everybody always believed they were living on the precipice of nuclear destruction. How fatherless and orphaned the world is! You don’t have to live in that. We understand that there is this constant low-grade fear. When the disciples said, “Lord, teach us how to pray,” he said, “Pray like this, ‘Our Father.’” He is trying to say, “Why on earth can you not just begin to pray?”
There is a great verse in Matthew’s Gospel. He is speaking about fear and says, “Do not fear those who will kill the body and cannot kill the soul, but rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny, and yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. Even the hairs on your head are all counted. So do not be afraid. You are of more value than sparrows.”
This is the God that Jesus teaches us to pray to. This is the God who cares for us. Do we need to worry that we might say the wrong thing? Do we need to worry that we might not get the things that we are supposed to pray for in the right order? What else is it Jesus says? He knows what we need before we ask him. He doesn’t say that he knows what we are going to ask him for, but he knows us so well.
Parents, have you ever known what your children needed before they started asking for something? Isn’t it a part of your love and affection for them? It is the same here. What if we could leave Lent with the confidence that God is our heavenly Father and wants us to approach him, wants us to tell him, and wants us to listen to him. Couldn’t we pray more?
“Even the hairs on your head are all counted. So do not be afraid. You are of more value than sparrows.” God loves each one of us. Let us not fear prayer.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.