Why do we often find prayer difficult? Why do we sometimes find prayer dull? Why do so few of us turn up to pray at the church’s Central Prayer Meeting or at the Day of Prayer? Is it partly because our vision of God is too small? As someone has said:
“The vitality of prayer lies largely in the vision of God that prompts it. Drab thoughts of God make prayer dull.”
A book was once published with the title “Great Prayers of the Bible”. Well the mark of great prayers, in the Bible or elsewhere, is that they express a great awareness of a great God.
Such an awareness of God’s greatness certainly prompted the prayer of the apostles and others in Acts 4 when they were facing opposition. So do turn on in your Bibles to Acts 4:24-31. I wonder how we react to threat and opposition. This is how they prayed;
“Sovereign Lord…you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: [quoting Psalm 2 which we read earlier] ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” [And what was the Lord’s answer?] After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”
It was a bold prayer to their great God and Father in heaven. It was a prayer very much prayed in faith to the Sovereign Lord, the maker of heaven and earth – to the One who is in control and who is all powerful. Nothing is impossible for him and his will will be done. Human authorities may gather together against the Lord. And that has certainly been the case this week when the government have been trying to get rid of the blasphemy laws and to stop Christian free speech. On Thursday the House of Lords voted to abolish the common law blasphemy offences. But God’s rule and will will not be thwarted. As we heard earlier from Isaiah 40:23:
“He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.”
Indeed in the case of the Jewish and Gentile authorities and people conspiring against Jesus – they did what the Lord’s power and will had decided beforehand should happen. And he can certainly enable his servants to speak his word with great boldness. Do we believe that God is able to do that? Do we ask him that we might? Many of us – whether we’re medics, teachers, lawyers, parents, grandparents, church leaders, students – will find ourselves needing to do so in an increasingly secularised society. I know my family find themselves having to do so both at school and at work. Baroness O’Caithan this week was able to speak God’s Word with great boldness in the House of Lord’s during the debate on the blasphemy laws. In a courageous and powerful speech she argued for keeping the blasphemy laws and said that the “fundamental question is this: should we abolish Christian beliefs and replace them with secular beliefs?” And God is able to help us speak his word with boldness too. He is the Sovereign Lord, our great God and Father who answers prayer, as we come to him through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit.
And the invocation of or the calling upon God in the Lord’s Prayer draws us into just such an awareness and expectancy, which brings us back to Matthew 6:9 and to my first point,
1) 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’.
So we can come to God with the confidence that He loves us as His children and will hear our prayers. Our Father speaks of the quality and depth of God’s love to Jesus’ followers – all the sustained care and concern that a perfect father could show. But we also come to One who is majestic and glorious. Our Father in heaven sets before us that our heavenly Father is great – eternal, infinite, almighty.
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 intimacy 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 with these words (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? I’m learning that in praying for Christianity Explored and as a church we’ve also learned it in relation to launching Holy Trinity Gateshead. Let’s be praying for Easter Music tonight. God is able. He is our loving heavenly Father. He is mighty and majestic who can do all that he wants to. So we are to come to him in and through faith in Christ with freedom and confidence but also with reverence and awe. As Ecclesiastes 5:2 reminds us:
“God is in heaven and you are on earth.”
But as I’ve already hinted the words “our Father in heaven” are not here just to remind us that He is greater than we. No. God’s greatness makes us realize 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. 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 are 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. As we’ll see later in this series we should ask for our daily bread. But it is wrong not to also ask God for the great things. D. L. Moody, the American evangelist, once said that:
‘We honour God when we ask for great things. It is a humiliating thing to think that we are satisfied with very small results.’
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. Why should we fear? Why don't we bring all things to Him in prayer? Why do we not seek great things from our great heavenly Father so that we may see His kingdom come and His name honoured? The Lord Jesus encourages us to do so and 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 God? And so to my next point:
Well, as Jim Packer, the evangelical theologian who has just been charged by the very liberal Bishop of New Westminster in Canada of abandoning the doctrine and discipline of the Anglican Church of Canada because of his – and note this – his biblical orthodox views, writes, ‘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. As we’ve been seeing ‘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. All this is expressed so well in Isaiah 40 and 55. In Isaiah 40:22-31 we are told that:
“He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth and its people are like grasshoppers…Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no-one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak…those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”
Who needs to hear that this morning and go to God the Father in prayer? Then in Isaiah 55:6-9 we read this:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God for he will freely pardon. 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'"
All of which leads us to my third and final heading:
Knowledge of God’s greatness should both humble us and move us to worship. Yes the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to ask God for things and we should. Jesus makes that quite clear. So we shouldn’t be embarrassed about doing so. Our loving heavenly Father wants to hear us and indeed loves to hear us bring our requests to him. The book of James, which we’ve just started studying in Home Groups, says
"You do not have because you do not ask God.’ (James 4:2).
Billy Graham once said that:
‘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 let me try and help us to grasp it from God’s Word. Think first of God’s greatness, as the infinite and eternal Creator who ‘dwells in unapproachable light’ (1 Tim 6:16), apparently remote. And then think of Solomon’s question from 2 Chronicles 6:18:
“Will God dwell indeed with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you…”
But then think of what is in effect God’s reply to Solomon in 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 fulfillment 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.