Readings: I Chronicles 29:10-18, Luke 11:1-4, Divine Providence #58 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/xNVweQpWrE0
Welcome to this sermon series in which we examine a prayer that we have likely said many hundreds of times: The Lord’s Prayer. It is called thus because it is based upon two passages in the gospels when Jesus’ disciples ask him how they should pray and he gives them a model. The Lord’s prayer as we know it contains themes of holiness, God’s will, God’s kingdom, God’s provision for us, forgiveness and indebtedness, and temptation. Additionally, a doxology was added to the end in the early days of the Christian church, most likely based on our reading from I Chronicles, a reminder of whence comes all power and glory. To this day, we find that some Christian practices include this doxology and some do not.
Today, we will focus on the beginning phrases: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The prayer starts out by using a metaphor that speaks of intimate relationship; we do not just say “Father” but “Our Father.” It is interesting to note that in the gospel of Mark (14:36), when Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane in his most challenging moments, he qualifies his use of the word “Father” with the Aramaic term “Abba,” which is best understood by us as “Papa,” a word used not to indicate fatherhood in a general detached sense, but a word used everyday in familial contexts. So whatever word we use for our own fathers, that is the word that would express the closeness with which we are addressing God in this prayer.
Next, we speak of hallowing. This is a kind of archaic word to us now, but it means to make holy, or to honor with holiness. And specifically, we hallow, or make holy, the name of God. On the surface, this might seem a simple matter of external praise. But Swedenborg indicates that in the bible, the word “name” represents the essential nature of something, its entire character, or essential being. (1)
To illustrate this, I want to tell you about the very first thing that I ever bought as a child with my own money. It was a homemade stuffed seal at a flea market. I loved that stuffy so much. Can you guess what I called it? Seal. Not very original, I know. But when I think back to that time, and about why I didn’t choose a different name, I think it is because I loved that seal for exactly what it was. This would have been in the early 80’s, so the variety of available toys pales in comparison to today, and basically in a landscape of mostly teddy bears and dolls, I had never seen a stuffy quite like it. So I didn’t see a reason to name it anything other than it was, because I loved seals, and I loved this stuffy because it was a seal. I called it the name that best reflected its essential character, which was its most valuable trait to me.
And thus in a similar way, when we invoke and hallow God’s name, we do not simply hallow the word that we call God, but rather, the whole of God’s being that we are using that word to signify. Sometimes that word might be Father, Lord, God, Creator, or something else but regardless of the actual word, when we hallow God’s name, we are lifting up and honoring the whole of what God stands for, the whole of God’s intent and mission and providence. And as we heard in our Swedenborg reading, God’s intent is to save the whole human race, no exceptions.
Next, we begin to speak of how we would like God’s presence to be known by us and by the world. This prayer, like much of the bible, uses a royal metaphor to express this. We ask that God’s kingdom might come, essentially that God’s “reign” might be extended from heaven onto the earth. The assumption embedded here is that heaven is a realm, or a vision even, where God’s intent comes to pass more completely than on earth.
How are we to understand what it means for God’s kingdom to come on earth? It might help us to understand how that metaphor is employed in the gospel at large. Most of the time, it is done in a kind of subversive way, in that it co-opts that familiar royal language, but then reframes what such a reign would be, reframes what such a kingdom would look like, and contrasts it with what we know of earthly kings and kingdoms. If we might otherwise describe kingdoms in terms of power, strength, authority and dominance, the bible describes God’s kingdom as a place where the least will be first, belonging to people who are poor in spirit, or who are like little children. He compares it to a party to which everyone is invited, a seed sown in a field, yeast leavening bread, a tiny mustard seed, a treasure hidden in a field for which we would give everything we own. Because of the way that God’s kingdom is actually described in the bible, many preachers now slightly change the word to “kin-dom” to better reflect its true nature, one in which relationship, equity, respect and worthiness are paramount.
Finally, as as extension of the notion of bringing God’s kingdom to earth, we ask in the prayer that God’s will be done. Inherent in this request is the idea that our will must be surrendered to God’s will. In so far as prayers are calling forth what might not yet be, we pray that even as our own will remains primary before our eyes (we are human after all and it cannot be otherwise) that we might remember that God’s will ultimately has a broader view; in essence, we surrender our view to God’s view and practice the discipline of putting our will into eternal perspective. Jesus himself models this prayer, once again in Gethsemane, as he countenanced the ultimate sacrifice of his own will and his own life, saying: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)
While we will generally, thankfully, not be facing Jesus’ particular gauntlet in our own lives, we recognize that the dynamic itself plays out in smaller ways over and over. I’m sure we all find our own will, our own desires, thwarted time and time again in this life. And the purpose of our submission to God’s will in the prayer, is not to make us inherently suspicious of our own will in every circumstance. It is not that are to become emotional martyrs but rather to submit to the discipline of curiosity, the discipline of holding our own will lightly enough, that when it does need re-evaluating, we are open to doing it. This is how regeneration happens. This is what salvation actually is.
There is such a powerful progression within these initial lines of the prayer. We first proclaim as holy not only God’s being but God’s intent and providence; and in the hallowing of God’s name we declare our allegiance to God’s intent, and our belief in God’s trustworthiness. This then leads us to ask that God’s vision, what we call God’s kin-dom, might become manifest in our world. We see the value of the kin-dom and wish for it to be the way of things. But even as these opening lines speak mostly of God, they begin to mark out our responsibility as well. Many upcoming parts of the prayer, which we will explore in the coming weeks, explicitly lay out important ways that we can help the kin-dom come, though faithfulness, forgiveness, and courage. But these start, in these early sentences, with the surrender of our own will. Many times, our desires will be contrary to the coming of God’s kin-dom, and in our prayer we make this essential recognition and commitment: when our will is contrary to the kin-dom, may God’s will be primary.
The purpose of prayer in general is to center us in our relationship with God. As we navigate our own lives, as we navigate an increasingly difficult time with the pandemic and with politics, how might this prayer be of help to us? Everyone will have their own individual responses but here’s what I see:
That God remains present with us, and as God ever was. God’s being, intent and vision are steadfast and available; when we lift them up as holy we place them at the center of our lives, and they become our compass and our guide. When we have questions about the meaning of things, we have something fundamental to turn to. Then, when we declare that God’s kin-dom might come, we issue an invitation to our own selves to step into the birthing of that vision, to partner with what God is already doing. We have an answer to the question, what should we do? We have the hope of God’s kin-dom to look forward to and to guide our work. And then we start to get an answer about how; we declare that God’s will be done, setting in motion a foundational discipline of reflection that is an opening for personal spiritual growth. And thus, a power invocation is given, and a powerful prayer is begun:
Our Father, who are in heaven, hallow be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #300.
I Chronicles 29:10-20
10 David praised the LORD in the presence of the whole assembly, saying, “Praise be to you, LORD, the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. 11 Yours, LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. 12 Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. 13 Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. 14 “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. 15 We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. 16 LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. 17 I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. 18 LORD, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you.
1 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “ ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’ ”
Divine Providence #58
The reason divine providence focuses on what is infinite and eternal particularly in its intent to save the human race is that the goal of divine providence is a heaven from the human race…Since this is the goal, it follows that the main focus of divine providence is reforming and regenerating us, that is, saving us, since heaven is made up of people who have been reformed and regenerated.
Since regenerating us is a matter of uniting what is good and what is true, or love and wisdom, within us the way they are united in divinity that emanates from the Lord, divine providence focuses primarily on this in its intent to save the human race. The image of the Infinite and Eternal One can be found in us only in the marriage of what is good and what is true.