This morning, we begin our summer study of the Lord’s Prayer. I have been looking forward to this for some time. Because while we have experimented in our worship services over the years, the Lord’s Prayer, in the form we will read it today, is the one constant. And so, over the next three months, we will be exploring the prayer through language and word, through music and song, and art and image. The prayer itself appears in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, the summary of Jesus’ teaching found in the gospel of Matthew. As we read that text today, we will be hearing the “traditional” version – that is, the version that we recite here at OPC on a weekly basis. What we will discover quite quickly is that the word “traditional” gets very slippery very quickly when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer.
As a child of the church, I grew up praying the Lord’s Prayer all of the time. There have been times in my life when this has served me well. When words have failed me, I can lean into this prayer that seems like it has been carved into my inmost being, finding comfort and meaning in the familiarity of their words.
And as a pastor, the prayer has only deepened in its power for me. This prayer is our weekly prayer as a church, when I pray with members who are homebound, we can pray this prayer and be momentarily connected with the community of faith they so desire to see and be with. And when I pray with members whose memories have begun to elude them, whose words have begun to fail, they can say it with me word for word.
And yet, if we’re honest, we can admit that there is some disconnect in praying the Lord’s Prayer regularly. As we just read, as Jesus talks about the meaning of prayer, his purpose in offering up this particular prayer is to show the gathered crowds how to pray, not what to pray. The assumption is prayer happens; and when it does, not if, this is a pretty good approach.
For Jesus, we don’t pray in order to show off – that’s hypocrisy. And we don’t pray to demonstrate our expansive our vocabulary is – those prayers are full of empty phrases. God already knows what we are going to pray, he says, so get to it.
But I’m not sure that’s how we see the Lord’s Prayer. We tend to treat it either the perfect formulaic offering to God, where our own prayers are somehow feeble when put next to this glowing example. Either that, or we treat it as an almost magical postscript, that it makes whatever we have prayed earlier ring even truer in God’s ears.
Instead, there is a great deal to be learned about how to pray by looking closely at Jesus’ words. And that’s just what we’re going to do over the next three months, phrase by phrase, looking at what it is that this prayer can teach us about the very act of prayer.
And this brings us to the first problem we face with the Lord’s Prayer, which is trying to figure out exactly what it is that Jesus said. The form we use at OPC, the traditional Presbyterian form, uses an archaic form of English. We just don’t talk this way, with thees and thous and thines, anymore. But even if we were to update it, that wouldn’t solve the problem. It’s still a translation of the Greek of the New Testament. And even if we could comprehend the Greek, we’re still not quite there, because Jesus most often spoke and prayed in Aramaic.
And that’s almost certainly the case with the Lord’s Prayer. It was an offering in Aramaic of which no written record exists; instead, we have a Greek translation of the Aramaic that has since been translated into English for us, of a form that that was familiar to the likes of Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare.
Part of our exercise here is to peel back layers of interpretation to reveal the heart of prayer.
Let’s begin, simply, with language. In the time of Jesus, Hebrew was the language of prayer. And formulaic prayer was the practice of the day. Prayers would always begin with invocations on behalf of land of Israel, or the Temple in Jerusalem, national preludes that would introduce the meat of the prayer.
But Jesus breaks that mold by doing two simple things: he prays in Aramaic, the language the people spoke; and he prays in a way that is personal, not scripted.
I don’t know if we can really engage how radical a break this was! Think of the Protestant Reformation, and the shockwaves it sent through Europe with the simple act of translating the Bible out of Latin, the language of the elite, into the various languages of the people. Or think about the scandal of Martin Luther taking tunes from the beer halls of Germany in order to compose hymns for worship, the reason being that those were the songs that people knew best! For Jesus to pray in Aramaic would have been just as scandalous.
And because it’s not formulaic, it’s personal and simple, beginning with a personal and simple address: “Our Father.” To pray to God with such a human, familial title was shocking. God is most properly addressed in titles, like Just or Creator. We do not speak to God like a member of the family, do we?
But we are family. And that’s why it’s “our” father, and not “my” father. This is a prayer for and in community. We’re not alone in faith; indeed, faith is fuller when expressed and wrestled with in community. Whatever we might like to think of others, the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we share a father, and so live as siblings, for good and for ill.
I think it goes without saying that we don’t put much stock in the fact that the Lord’s Prayer refers to God as “father” rather than “mother.” After all, we know that God is beyond human gender. Not only does Genesis refer to both man and woman being created equally in God’s image, but there are plenty of examples where the divine is described in feminine terms as well. Think of the mother hen gathering chicks; or the parable of the lost coin, where God is represented by the woman frantically searching her house. The point is that God is beyond human categories and language. As soon as we put words to describing God, the best we can ultimately do is approximate.
And that’s true with the opening address “Our Father”. It’s an approximation, and not even a very good one at that. Back to language for moment. The English word “Father” is a translation directly from the Greek, “Pater”. But if we keep peeling back the layers of translation all the way back to the Aramaic, we find a very different word: “Abba.”
“Abba”, as we all know, is the name of a famous Swedish pop group. But that’s not important right now. The best translation of “Abba” into English would be “Daddy” or “Papa.” It’s the simple, yet intimate, utterance of a child. It’s an address that is spoken with a mixture of awe and affection.
What if we were to change the Lord’s Prayer accordingly? What if we were to begin it with “Our Daddy, who art in heaven”? Weird, right? Part of what sounds so odd to our ears, I think, is the strange combination of the informal, “Daddy”, with the formal, “who art”. But we will leave that for next Sunday.
“Daddy” – it’s jarring, isn’t it? And yet, that unsettled feeling is part of the point. This prayer reminds us that prayer is most authentically carried in a position of intimacy. The Holy Spirit, which is closer to us than our own breath, is invited into our prayers.
Do we really want to be that close to God? Do we really want to give God access to our most secret thoughts and desires? Or would we rather keep the divine at arm’s length until we can get our stuff in order and make ourselves more presentable?
Friends, today we have only begun to scratch the surface. Here’s my hope for our time in worship together over the next few months:
- first, that we will find renewed meaning in the words of this familiar prayer, so that it might move beyond formulaic and rote recitation;
- second, that our life in faith will be marked by this character of bound intimacy, where we are, all of us, sisters and brothers of the same divine parent;
- and third, that our prayer life would be renewed as we pray regularly and as those prayers are shaped by what we find in this prayer.