As we begin Lent this coming week, we begin a new short series looking at prayer.
Praying to the Father
Praying through the Son
Praying by the Spirit
Praying with faith
So today we look at Praying to the Father
There are three things that are surprising when we look at our passage from Luke.
And the first is this
1. We can pray to God as Father
Jesus says, ‘When you pray, say, ‘Father .. hallowed be your name’.
We are so used to calling God ‘Father’ in our prayers that we do not wonder at how amazing it just is.
Why should the creator of this world, the one who was behind the big bang or whatever it was that started it all off, the one who created space and time and so is bigger and beyond space and time, the one who is bigger and beyond being and life and who is the source of life and being – why should this One invite us to call out to him as ‘Father’?
It is not natural for people to call God, ‘Father’.
When people talk about the existence of God, they are really speaking about the existence of the philosophers’ God. And the Philosophers God is out there, remote, theoretical, impersonal.
When people pray, the natural thing is to say ‘God ..’ I know it is the film, but I think it is based on what actually happened, when Gandhi is shot, he says ‘O God, O God’.
But to call God, ‘Father’ .. that is not natural. That is supernatural.
If you go back to the Old Testament, God chooses the people of Israel to be his people. But not just to be his people – he chose them to be his children. ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt’, he says, ‘I called my son’ (Hosea 11.1). The problem was that the people of Israel rebelled against God and refused to be known as his children. Hosea continues, ‘The more I called Israel, the further they went from me’.
So God sends Jesus, his unique eternal Son. He was born of Mary, but like creation, the source of his human existence was a word.
He was the Son of God. In all his prayers, when Jesus prays, he calls God ‘Father’. In all his prayers but one. That is the prayer that he prays when he is hanging on the cross, paying the price for all our sin and cut off from God. He then prays one of the old prayers of the Old Testament: ‘Eloi Eloi, Lema Sabachthani’, which means ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me?’ At that moment, as he takes onto himself all our sin, he ceases to know God as Father.
But then, after his death and resurrection, he says to Mary: ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ (John 20.17).
That is the first time in John’s gospel that he says to his followers that his Father is now their Father.
You see because of the cross whoever now comes to Jesus, whoever puts their trust in Jesus, whoever receives Jesus’ embrace, and embraces him, becomes with him a child of God. Jesus is the eternal Son of God, but with Jesus we are adopted as sons and daughters of God. We share in Jesus’ relationship with his Father.
We can pray to the Father in the same way that Jesus prayed to the Father.
And what the Father says to Jesus, ‘You are my Child, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’ – he says to us.
Jesus does not pray to God as Almighty or Creator or some of the other terms that we get for God in some modern prayers or liturgies. He uses a term that recognises that God is the source of his identity, and he uses a term that has both distance and intimacy. He prays to God as Father.
[And this is just an aside and pretty speculative. I suspect that even though God is beyond sexuality, Jesus does not pray to God as Mother, because firstly his real mother was there, but secondly to keep that idea of distance. You will always be a part of your mother in a way that you will not be part of your father.]
Whatever the eternal God wishes to be known by us as ‘Father’. He wishes to have with us the same relationship that he has eternally had with his Son Jesus Christ.
A lady called Bilquis Sheik gets it. She was a Muslim woman who met Jesus Christ, and who met his Father God. And she wrote a book with a very striking title: ‘I dared to call him Father’.
Rembrandt gets it. Some of you will know his painting of the return of the Prodigal Son. A son rejects his Father, goes off, wastes his life and gets in dreadful trouble. He comes to his senses and decides to go back home. He realises he has forfeited his right to be called a son. But as he comes home, with his prepared speech telling his father how sorry he has been and asking to be treated as a servant, his father runs to him. The son falls at his father’s feet – but the father doesn’t even let him get his speech out. He embraces him – we see that here – and then lifts him up so that he is again his son. Rembrandt gets it.
That is how Father God would be with us.
John gets it: He writes, ‘See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God: and that is what we are!’ (1 John 3.1)
Do you get it? God invites you to call him Father.
2. Father God invites us to pester Him!
That is the point of the story Jesus tells in Luke 11:5-8.
The man who knocks on his friend’s door is desperate. In that culture you had to offer hospitality when a guest turned up – even if it was midnight. He hammers on his neighbour’s door. He says, ‘I’ve got nothing to give my guest’. The person inside says, ‘Go away. I’m in bed. The wife is in bed. The kids are in bed. The dog is in bed. You go to bed’. But he is not put off. He persists.
Jesus is not saying that Father God is reluctant to give. Far from it. But he needs us to be persistent, because actually that is when we discover what our real deep needs are.
Most of the time we are like children.
We see something, ‘Daddy, I want it and I want it now’.
Remember Veruca Salt?
But usually what we think we desperately want here and now is not what we really want or need. We know that because a few minutes later we want something different. I hesitate about psycho-analysing Veruca Salt, but I suspect that what she really wants is to know a Father, who does not necessarily give her things but who gives her his love. And that love includes sometimes saying ‘not yet’ or even just ‘no’. It is a love which will grow her.
And what Jesus seems to be saying here is that if we really want something, then we will go on persisting in prayer – not just for one day, or one week, but for a year, maybe even a lifetime.
What struck me this time as I read through this story is that the man who persists is a man who has nothing to give. He knows that, and he is desperate. So desperate that he is willing to wake up a neighbour. When I visit people, people often going through awful experiences, or facing huge decisions, or suffering intense pain; or when I preach most weeks and think I need to stand up here and say something – I know that I have nothing to give. And I need something to give. So I have to go to my heavenly Father, and I need to pester him, and I need to say, ‘Give me something, because if you don’t I have nothing to give’.
And maybe we do think, Father I need the proverbial million pounds. But is that a real want or a Veruca Salt kind of want? Maybe it is what I think that I need to get myself out of the most enormous financial hole that I find myself in. Maybe it is what I think I need at the moment to make my life secure and happy and fulfilled and so that I can bless others. But perhaps what I actually need is to face up to the situation that I am in, to be honest with myself, to humble myself before others. Maybe what I really need is to grow up into God, to discover a deep security which means that whatever happens I cannot be shaken, a happiness that can cope with both the good stuff and the bad stuff, the sense of fulfilment that I am living as I was created to live, and the ability to really love so that I do not simply give stuff to another, but I give myself.
Oh and by the way. When it comes to the proverbial million pounds. I can’t say that I have received a million pounds, but I can say that I have received half a million pounds! About 9 years ago, part of the roof needed repairing. It was going to cost £400k. We were about to launch an appeal for the roof. My heart sank because the last thing that I wanted at the beginning of my ministry here was a large building appeal. I had on my desk the letter that Joy Blake had written which we were going to send out to people to ask for money. I was about to sign it. And the phone rang. It was Peter Herriot, Sue’s husband, who works as a solicitor. And he told me that St Mary’s had been left a bequest, about which we knew nothing, from someone about whom we knew nothing, for the restoration of the fabric. And the total was just over half a million pounds. It was the shortest appeal that I have known! Someone, somewhere had prayed to their heavenly Father. Someone somewhere had asked, had knocked, had sought – because, and I say this to my shame, I had not prayed that prayer asking my heavenly Father to give us what we really did need.
Pester your Father, says Jesus. Ask him; Seek for him. Knock on his door and go on knocking. If you really want it, you will persist. There will be big set-backs, but if you deeply desire it, you will persist in prayer – maybe even for years. And he is our heavenly Father. He really wants the absolute best for you and it will be given to you.
3. The third surprise is that Father God offers to give us himself.
At the end of the reading Jesus tells us: ‘If you then, who are evil …’
That is interesting. I wonder whether Jesus is recognising that our human relationships are deeply flawed. Those of us who are parents know that we have messed up multiple times, many of them because we are self-centred. We don’t allow our children to grow to become who God plans them to be – and we try to shape them so that they are there to meet our needs. And we would long to be better parents or to put the clock back. And Jesus also knows that some of us here have suffered from absent or abusive or controlling fathers – and so the idea of calling God ‘Father’ is hard.
But Jesus continues, ‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him’. (Luke 11.13)
But he doesn’t say that. He says, ‘.. how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
Father God offers to put in the hearts of evil human men and women, who have been messed up and who are messed up, his Spirit, his very presence.
Human parents can give their children their DNA, their love, their nurturing, their friendship and their possessions.
The heavenly Father gives to his children life, families, love and guidance. But he gives something that no human parent can give their child.
When a person is born again, when a person puts their trust in Jesus his Son, they become a child of God, and God gives them his Spirit. And so, if you are a Christian, the Spirit that is in you, is the Spirit that is in you, is the Spirit that is in Jesus Christ, is the Spirit that is in Father God. That is why there can be a love between Christians which transcends differences of culture or language or wealth or gender. There is something there.
And the Spirit is the great gift. It is the greatest gift. It is the gift which means that we can call God Father.
Another verse in the bible says this, ‘And because you are children of God, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’.
So having said that we are to pester God for what we need, could I suggest that this is the gift that I think we are really meant to seek and to desire and to pester our Father God for. Because when we receive the Spirit of God and allow that Spirit to work in us, we begin to as he sees, to think as he thinks, to love as he loves, and to know him as he knows us. We begin to grow as the people God created us to be. And when we receive the Spirit, we will pray to God not as Creator or Almighty, not as God, but as our Father in heaven.