If you’ve been away – happy New Year - we’ve started a new series for these Sunday mornings of 2011 on the Living and True God, looking at the meaning of the Nicene Creed – the Creed we usually say at JPC at Communion Services. Christian creeds are defences against doctrinal error as well as positive statements of faith in the one true God. When the Apostles' Creed was drawn up, the chief heresy was Gnosticism, which denied that Jesus was truly Man. When the Nicene Creed was drawn up, the chief heresy was Arianism, which denied that Jesus was fully God. So, in line with the Bible, the Nicene Creed clearly states that there is one God, that God is one in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that each person is fully God. Jesus himself said “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), and that we are to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name (note name not names) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). And this morning we come to God the Father, who planned and directed both creation and redemption.
The Nicene Creed begins, “We believe (note we - both individually and corporately as a church) in one God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Now we’ll come to almighty and maker of heaven and earth later in the series and last week we looked at the Trinity. So let me just say this by way of introduction. Jesus’ teaching here on how to pray reminds us that he too prayed to his Father, though, of course, he didn’t have to ask for forgiveness of sins, and therefore of the inner life of the Godhead. Within the eternal Trinity is a family relation of Father and Son. On earth, the Son called the One whom he served my Father and prayed to him as Abba – the Aramaic equivalent of a respectful ‘Dad’. And what this relationship meant Jesus himself declared.
On the one hand the Son loves the Father and always does what pleases the Father. On the other hand the Father loves the Son and makes him great by giving him glory and great things to do. Giving life and executing judgment are twin tasks which have been wholly committed to him. Why? So that all may honour the Son (John 5:23). And God’s loving fatherhood of his eternal Son is both the archetype of his gracious relationship with his own redeemed people and the model from which derives the parenthood that God has created in human families. Paul spoke of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is Named (Ephesians 1:3 & 3:14). Human families by their very constitution, reflect the Father Son relationship in heaven, and parent child relationships should express a love that corresponds to the mutual love of Father and Son in the Godhead.
But how can we know God the Father as our Father? Well that brings us to my first main heading and to Matthew 6:9
1) OUR FATHER – WHOSE FATHER?
Jesus teaches us here in Matthew 6 to invoke God as our Father just as he himself did. But that raises an important question - by what right can we call God Father? Jesus was God’s Son by nature – the second person of the eternal Godhead. But what about you and me? Now as we heard from Malachi 2:10:
Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?
We are all God’s creatures. All human beings are created in the image of God. But does creaturehood imply sonship? Clarity on this is absolutely vital. Jesus is not saying that we’re all God’s children by nature. But rather that his committed disciples have been adopted into God’s family by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. John 1:12:
To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
Paul says this was the purpose of Jesus coming into this world fully God and fully man, Galatians 4:4-5:
God sent his Son…so that we might receive adoption as sons.
So prayer to God as Father is for Christians only. Only those who look to Jesus as mediator and sin bearer, and go to God through him, have any right to call on God as his sons. Jesus said, John 14:6-7:
I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.
Do you know God the Father as your Father? Have you put your faith in his Son Jesus and therefore been adopted into God’s family? Can you truly pray with others ‘our Father’, can you really join in saying with members of God’s family ‘we believe in one God, the Father almighty’? He loved you so much that he gave his one and only Son to die on a wooden cross, taking the punishment for your sin and mine, so that if you believe and trust in Jesus you can know him as Father forever instead of knowing eternal death and punishment. As in the parable of the Prodigal Son God the Father is longing for you to turn back to him. How much does he love you? He loves you this much. That was the price he was willing to pay to adopt you as sons – the death of his Son.
Once we’ve turned back to him through faith in Christ then if we’re to live and pray as we should we must continue to grasp the implications of God’s gracious fatherhood.
First, as God’s adopted children it’s important to remember that we’re loved no less than the one whom God called his beloved Son (Matthew 3:17). In some families containing natural and adopted the former can be favoured above the latter. But no such defect mars God’s fatherhood.
Surely this is the best news anyone has ever heard! And it means that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). It also means that God will never forget us, or cease to care for us, and he remains our forbearing Father even when we act the prodigal.
It means too that he’s always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and is wont to give more than we desire or deserve. Jesus said Mt 7:11:
If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him.
To know this truth of God’s fatherly love to us must give us boundless confidence not merely for praying, but for all our living. And yes we’re to be persistent in prayer but we’re to remember with confidence that our Father is neither ignorant, so that we need to instruct him, nor hesitant, so that we need to persuade him. He knows our needs before we ask.
If we’re trusting in Christ then not only are we God’s sons but also his heirs. Adoption in NT times was for securing an heir. And Christians are joint heirs with Christ of God’s glory (Romans 8:17). 1 John 3:2:
We are God’s children now…when he appears we shall be like him
Already “all things are yours” in the sense that they further your good here and your glory hereafter, “for you are Christ’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21). To grasp this is to know oneself rich and privileged beyond any X Factor winner or facebook billionaire.
We also have God’s Spirit in us. With adoption goes a change of direction, desire, outlook and attitude, which the Bible calls new birth. Those who trust in Jesus are born of the Spirit (John 3:8). Galatians 4:6:
Because you are sons God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts prompting us to cry Abba Father.
We must also, v9, honour our Father by serving his interests. The centre of our concern must be his name, his kingdom, his will. And we must be like good children in human families, ready to obey instructions.
And we must also love our brothers, by constant care and prayer for them. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray for the family’s needs: Our Father…give us…forgive us…lead us…deliver us…. Of course us means more than just me! For God’s child prayer is no flight of the alone to the Alone, concern for the family is built into it.
So when we go to God as Father we should be expressing faith in Christ, confidence in God, joy in the Holy Spirit, a willingness to obey God’s will, and a concern for our fellow Christians.
We say this prayer regularly. We’ve already done so in this service. When we pray Our Father do we have a renewed realisation of the family relationship – his parenthood and our sonship by grace? It should always come first in our practice of prayer. How does all right minded praying begin – with a long look Godward and a lifting up of one’s heart to give thanks and adore – its what the Father calls us to. Thanks for his grace, praise for his paternity, and joy in our sonship and heirship should be part of our prayer life.
Sadly, not everyone has a positive experience of their fathers. Some have suffered abuse of one kind or another at their hands and still bear the scars-emotional or physical. As a result some find it very hard to think of God in this way, as ‘father’. But even here, those who have tragically suffered know deep down that there is a model of fatherhood, a standard, which their own father’s have failed to reach. Well, that standard is God himself. He is the perfect father who will not abuse, manipulate or cajole for his own selfish ends, for he always has our best interests at heart. All that the best of our fathers could ever be, God is and infinitely more. Does a father care? He does. Does a father order things for the good of his family? He does. Does a father exercise loving discipline, withholding what is good from us in order to give us what is best? He does. Does a father listen to his children at whatever age they are- the gurgling of a baby, the stuttering of a toddler, the pleadings of a teenager, the respectful musings of an adult- so does he as we make our way through the spiritual equivalent of the seven ages of man. But there is one vital difference; this is God our Father, the one who is in the heavens. And it is the coming together of ‘Father’ and ‘in the heavens’ that makes all the difference in the world to God hearing and answering our prayers. You see, he is untainted by the atmosphere of sin-for he is holy. He is unbridled by the time line of history for he is infinite. He is unhindered by the weariness of the body for he is spirit. What controls our earthly fathers does not control him. All of which brings us to my second point
2) OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN
You see we shouldn’t miss the balance in the opening to this prayer. If we’re trusting in Christ, we address God intimately as Father, but we also immediately recognise his infinite greatness with the addition ‘in heaven’.
He is in heaven because He is the transcendent God, Lord over all. When we come to Him in prayer, we must remember His greatness no less than His Fatherhood. We must remember His holiness no less than His love. Jesus teaches us here not to forget reverence as well as the intimacy of Abba or Dad when we approach God in prayer. The Apostle Paul expressed both this intimacy and reverence when he prayed for the Ephesians. In Ephesians 3:14 he says:
“For this reason I kneel before the Father…”
People in Paul’s day usually stood to pray but Paul is humbled by all that God is doing in the believers and comes to the Father reverently and confidently, kneeling before him, deeply aware of his power and love to change people and bring people together in Christ. Now, of course, the attitude of our hearts is more important than the posture of our bodies when we pray but here Paul kneels before God the Father in reverence and awe. And he concludes the prayer thus (Ephesians 3:20-21):
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
When we come humbly to God in prayer is that what we believe? That God is able. That our Father in heaven is great? That nothing is impossible for him? That he can fill this church next Sunday and bring 1500 to the Taster Sessions? He is our loving heavenly Father. He is mighty and majestic who can do all he wants. He is sovereign – he can bring change to the Sudan through the referendum on independence for South Sudan. So we are to come to him in and through faith in Christ with freedom and confidence but also with reverence and awe.
But the words “our Father in heaven” are not here just to remind us that He’s greater than we. No. God’s greatness makes us realise that God’s love is unchanging, unlimited, unconquerable in its purpose and more than able to deal with all the needs we bring when we pray. And surely prayer shaped and supported by thoughts like this will not be dull but expectant. So these words – our Father in heaven - are intended as a comfort also, for the fact that He is the Lord of heaven, sovereign over all things, means that He can answer our prayers. We are coming to a Father who has the power to do what we ask and the wisdom to say no to us when we ask for what is outside his will. And if we’re addressing the heavenly One, we should ask for things of heavenly grandeur. Now it’s not wrong for us to ask God for small things, and we should. But it is wrong not to also ask God for the great things. D. L. Moody, the American evangelist, once said:
‘We honour God when we ask for great things. It is a humiliating thing to think that we are satisfied with very small results.’
Yesterday I was at an FA Cup match with 60,000 fanatical fans. And it prompted me to think and to pray Father may there be churches this size in this country, with many men as well as women in them. And don’t tell me men don’t like singing – they were singing with passion yesterday – if only it had been all for God’s glory and honour!
At another FA Cup match yesterday – which I hardly dare mention in Newcastle – the Stevenage manager told his players to go out believing they could win 5-0. Now we’re not to believe that we can do great things by ourselves but we are to believe God can. He is God the Father almighty.
And Jesus, in the next few petitions, teaches us to address God in heaven with petitions that are worthy of heaven's consideration. To come to God in heaven is to be admitted to the audience of the most powerful Being and those who are in Christ are invited to enter His presence with assurance of His Fatherly love and care. The Lord Jesus calls us to depend on God, for He is our Father in heaven. But some of you might be asking if he is our Father in heaven – what is meant by in heaven here and where is He?
Well, ‘since the Bible says “God is spirit” (that’s John 4:24), ‘heaven’ here can’t signify a place remote from us which he inhabits.’ The Greek gods were thought of as spending most of their time far away from earth in the celestial equivalent of the Bahamas, but the God of the Bible isn’t like this. Yes, the ‘heaven’ where saints and angels dwell has to be thought of as a sort of locality, because saints and angels, as God’s creatures, exist in space and time. But when the Creator is said to be ‘in heaven’ the thought is that he exists on a different plane from us, rather than in a different place. ‘In heaven’ here refers primarily to God’s power and rule over all things. And throughout the Bible God in heaven is always near to his children on earth (Isaiah 40 and 55).
Knowledge of God’s greatness should both humble us and move us to worship. Yes our heavenly Father loves to hear us bring our requests to him. Billy Graham once said: ‘Heaven is full of answers to prayers for which no-one ever bothered to ask.’ But it also teaches us to worship God for all that he is and so to hallow his name in our own hearts. Angels and saints in glory worship God as Father (Ephesians 3:14f) and so on earth must we.
And knowing that God in heaven is our Father is meant to increase our wonder, joy and sense of privilege at being his children and being given through Christ the hot line of prayer for communication with him. And a hot line it truly is, for though our Father is Lord of the worlds, he always has time for us; his eye is on everything every moment, yet we always have his full attention whenever we call on him. Isn’t that both amazing and wonderful!
But have you and I really taken it in? Well think first of God’s greatness, as the infinite and eternal Creator who ‘dwells in unapproachable light’ (1 Timothy 6:16), apparently remote. But then think on Isaiah 57:15:
“Thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit…”
And then remind yourself that this promise finds its deepest fulfilment when God becomes the Father of insignificant sinful mortals like us, sinners who are contrite in repentance and humble in acknowledging their unworthiness and that they deserve judgment and who flee by faith to Jesus Christ for refuge. For this awesome, holy, transcendent God stoops down in love to lift us up from the gutter, so to speak, brings us into his family, gives himself to us in unstinting fellowship and thus enriches us forever.
Think also of God’s fatherhood and then remind yourself that he’s in heaven – he’s our heavenly Father – which means that he’s free from all the limitations, inadequacies and flaws that are found in earthly parents and that his fatherhood, like all his other relationships, is from every standpoint absolutely ideal, perfect and glorious. Dwell on the fact that there’s no better father, no parent more deeply committed to his children’s welfare, or more wise and generous in promoting it, than God the Creator. If you’re trusting in Christ remind yourself he’s my Father and he’s God in heaven; he’s God in heaven – and he’s my Father! It’s beyond belief – but it’s true! Grasp this or let it grasp you; then tell God what you feel about that and that will be the worship which Jesus wanted to evoke when he gave us this thought pattern for the calling upon in prayer of the One who is both his Father and ours.