To Whom Do You Pray?

Luke 11:1-13New International Version (NIV)

11 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.’”

5 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

This morning we are starting a two-part sermon series on prayer. I decided to make this a two-parter because as I was writing this sermon I quickly got to 2,000 words and realized that there was much more to cover and that I would be doing a disservice to you and to this text to stop there. So today we will be asking the question, “To whom do you pray?” and next week we will follow that up with “For what do you pray?”

Today’s text probably sounds kind of familiar to you…but slightly off. This sounds a lot like what we often call “The Lord’s Prayer” from Matthew’s Gospel, but we are missing a little something. Like, where is this Father you speak of? Matthew says that the Father does art in heaven (or something like that), Luke doesn’t say. Luke does include the part about “your kingdom come,” but leaves off that whole “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” thing.

There are actually some manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel that include these little phrases. Evidently a scribe who was hand copying the text realized that something was missing. Let me just say that that isn’t a good practice to get into. Don’t go adding things to the Bible just because you think that they should have been there!

Luke and Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Prayer are similar enough for us to assume that they were both recording the same event, and different enough to make me pretty confident that this really happened. The gospels were written at least two generations after Jesus spoke these words, and the disciples obviously thought they were important enough to pass on the later generations of Christians. Matthew records a more flowery, flowing version while Luke hits all of the high points. This illustrates my understanding of the inspiration of scripture. Even though every word may not be exactly the same, the point of the message is what really matters. Luke still hits the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the issue.

Obviously, the point of this entire passage is that we are supposed to be like annoying little gnats that keep pestering God until we get what we want. Like when I take our children into the grocery store and they keep asking for candy. “Can I get a push pop? Can I, dad? Can I, can I, can I?”

Eventually, I’m going to give in, because of, in Jesus’ words, their “shameless audacity.”

That’s not the point at all. What I really want us to notice today is the personal nature of this scripture. How does Jesus address God? He calls him “Father.”

Other religions worshipped distant gods, some of whom made occasional trips to the earth to check in on human beings. Some gods made humans and then just checked out. Still other gods needed to be constantly appeased, to be made less angry. How do you make god less angry? Oh, you know, you throw a virgin into a volcano every now and then or cut the heads off children on an altar. I know that’s how I would make my dad less angry when he was upset.

No, just the way Jesus referred to God as Father differentiated the God of the Israelites from the gods of the pagans. This idea of God as Father can be traced all the way back to the Exodus, maybe even further, when God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Exodus 4:22b-23a, “This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me.’”

Father was probably one of the more formal ways that Jesus referred to God. Many times we find Jesus using a more familiar and endearing term. It’s an Aramaic term that many of our Bibles leave untranslated. That term is “Abba,” you know, because Jesus thought of God as a member of a 1970’s pop disco group. No, this Abba means something like dad, daddy, or my favorite, poppa.

Anytime we talk about God as Father I believe that it is important to address the fact that many people have not had good experiences with their fathers. Some earthly fathers have deserted their children. Some are abusive of their spouses and/or their children. Some fathers are drunks, some are lazy.

This really hit home for me this weekend as I took part in a continuing education event in Harrisonburg. For four hours we talked about child sexual abuse, how to prevent it, how to recognize it, how to report it, and how to work toward healing. More often than not, children are sexually abused by family members, sometimes even their own fathers or step-fathers.

So please understand that if this is your experience of fathers or of men in general, first of all, I’m sorry that you had to experience that. And I totally understand why someone who was abused by their father would not find it helpful to think of God as a father.

If this is your experience with fathers, please know that our God is not that kind of Father. That’s the point of verses 11-12: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” God is like a good father, not like the fathers that some have experienced. In just a few chapters Jesus will illustrate the kind of father God is when he tells the story that we often call “The Prodigal Son.” Even if we defy God, shame God, waste everything that God has ever given to us, God will always welcome us back with open arms. God will drop everything to run to meet us, kill the fattened calf, and throw us a party. That’s the kind of father our God is.

If the metaphor of God as Father is still traumatic to you, keep in mind that even though Jesus often refers to God as Father, God is not a man. We often use the male pronoun “he” to refer to God, but God does not look more like me than he looks like my wife. In the creation narrative of Genesis 1, we find in verse 27, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

We don’t want to exclusively think of God as a man, even though God has usually been depicted in our artwork as an old man. God is not a man, God is not a woman.

There are also plenty of metaphors for God in the Bible that use feminine imagery. When I first was told that there was feminine imagery for God in the Bible, I thought someone was joking. But check these references out. In Hosea 11:3-4 God is described as a mother to Israel and God gives birth to Israel in Deuteronomy 32:18. You don’t get much more feminine than God giving birth! Isaiah 66:13, Isaiah 49:15, Isaiah 42:14, and Psalm 131:2, Psalm 123:2-3 all contain feminine imagery for God. And that doesn’t even account for the female animal imagery for God, like when Jesus compares himself to a mothering hen.

And do you remember when Jesus described God as a father who would run to meet his prodigal son in Luke 15? The story right before that compares God to a woman who looks for her lost coin. (See also the possible interpretations of the phrase “El Shaddai,” literally, God of the Mountain.)

The point of all of this isn’t to make God masculine or feminine, male or female. I will continue to use male pronouns like “he and him” and I will refer to God as Father, mostly because that is what I am used to and that is the way Jesus most commonly refers to God. But I also recognize that I was never hurt by my father.

The point is to make God personal but not too person. God is both personal, like a Father, and yet holy. In the first line alone, Jesus does just that, establishing a tension between the personal and the holy. He says “Father,” and then follows that up by saying, “hallowed be your name.”

We just can’t seem to give up some of our King James language. Hallowed? What’s that? Maybe we could say, “holy is your name.”

Remember that for something to be holy means that it is set aside as special or unique. When God gives Moses the 10 Commandments, one of those commandments it to not take the Lord’s name in vain. The Israelites understood this to mean that you should not speak the name of God, which I did last week when I said Yahweh. The name Yahweh is written in Hebrew with four letters, and is sometimes called the tetragrammaton, which is a fancy way of saying “four letters.” To this day, a practicing Jew will not say the tetragrammaton out loud. If they are reading the scriptures and they come across those four letters, a Jew will speak either the words “Adonai,” or “ha shem.” “Lord,” or simply, “the name.”

So imagine you are one of the disciples who has just asked Jesus to teach you how to pray. He starts by using an everyday, personal, familiar approach to addressing God. Jesus simply calls him “Father.” But he follows that by saying, “holy is your name.” Yes, God is personal, but yet God is still “other,” God is still holy.

Even God’s name is holy.

I hope to spend at least next week looking at the verses in the middle of this passage, but right now I want to draw your attention to something that I know I have missed in this text up until someone pointed it out in a commentary. This section on prayer begins with Jesus calling God, “Father,” and it ends with Jesus discussing how God is a good father, not the kind who would give his child a scorpion or a snake (setting a low bar there, Jesus!). In the middle of this explanation of prayer, Jesus tells a story where God in not described as Father, but as a friend.

Look at the first part of verse 5: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight…’” Who is this friend in the story? It is God.

As a father myself, I am beginning to realize that the boundaries between being a father and a friend aren’t always that clear. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that my children and I tend to be interested in the same things. One of my children’s favorite games to play is called “octopus,” which is similar to dodgeball, but when you get tagged, you move your arms around and try to tag other people. It is a fun game to play outside in the cool of the evenings. We practice riding bikes together as a family and take trips to the park. We go on (easy) hikes together and sit around the fire pit, roasting marshmallows and hotdogs.

Yes, I’m a father to these children. I provide financially for them. I help put food on the table and clothes on their backs. I make the most of teachable moments and try to pass on what bits of wisdom I do have. But they are also my friends. I genuinely like to spend time with them.

In John 15:15, Jesus lets his disciples know that they are more than just servants to him. He tells them, “I have called you friends.”

What a friend we have in Jesus! What a friend we have in God. I know that some of the metaphors that we find in the Bible will be more useful than others. God is called a rock, a fountain, a potter, a shepherd, a vine, the bread of life, the alpha and the omega. Each metaphor is helpful and allows us to better understand certain aspects of who God is. God is also like a father, who runs to meet us and a woman who searches all night for a lost coin. God is personal, yet God is holy. That is the God to whom we pray.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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