By the Rev. Kristen Yates, sermon on Luke 11: 1-13, originally preached at the Mission Cincinnati on October 13, 2019
For the recording of this sermon, go here.
It’s been many years since I have seen the Wizard of Oz, but I cannot but help remember that moment at the end of the film when the Wizard’s true identity is revealed.
Dorothy, her dog Toto, and her companions, the lion, the tinman, and the scarecrow, return to the Emerald City after having melted the Wicked Witch of the West, which is what the Wizard asked them to do.
They enter his great throne room and there are great billows of fire, and a great large, disembodied green head speaks to them with a booming, angry voice. As the great and terrible Wizard tells them to leave and return tomorrow, their bodies shake with fear. Dorothy stands her ground and demands that the Wizard keep his promises, but all of them are clearly frightened.
And then something unexpected happens. Toto runs over to side of the room, pulls open a curtain, and reveals a fragile old man speaking into a microphone. It turns out that the great and terrible Wizard of Oz is not so great or terrible after all. Nor is he a wizard, which is why he had asked them to leave. He knew he did not have the powers to give them what they desired.
In the original book, when the group discovers who the Wizard is, these were their responses:
“I thought Oz was a great Head,” said Dorothy.
“And I thought Oz was a lovely Lady,” said the Scarecrow.
“And I thought Oz was a terrible Beast,” said the Tin Woodman.
“And I thought Oz was a Ball of Fire,” exclaimed the Lion.”
Well it turns out that they all had been wrong. For a long time, each and every one of them had carried a false understanding of the Wizard around with them, and this effected what they thought of him, what they expected of him, and how they approached him.
The Wizard was not one they needed to fear, but nor was he one who was as powerful as they thought. He was, however, good deep down, and when he got past his own fears and insecurities, the Wizard was eventually able to help Dorothy and her friends.
I think this difference between Dorothy and her friend’s perspectives on the Wizard of Oz and the actual reality of the Wizard is instructive to us Christians. For just like Dorothy and the gang carried around false images of the Wizard for a long time, I believe that each and every one of us carry around various false images of God, so that who we believe God to be and who He is in reality differ, at least a bit.
These false images come from a number of sources: skewed teaching in our churches, images of God from our culture, hurtful experiences with our fathers and other parental and pastoral figures, and other narratives about ourselves and God that we have absorbed somewhere that now run like scripts in our minds, often at an unconscious level.
The problem is: when we go through life with false images of God, everything is effected – the way we view ourselves and others, the way we view God’s plans for the world, the way we view prayer, and the way we approach God.
So, for example, if we view God like a Santa Clause figure who is generally distant from us but does bring good things to us “nice people” from time to time when we ask, our prayers before God may simply look like a grocery list of things we want from God and nothing more, and when God doesn’t answer our prayers exactly like we want, we may be disappointed and even stop praying.
On the other hand, if we view God as a vengeful, angry God who has no patience for people who engage in the slightest of sins, we might also be vengeful towards those we see as sinners rather than praying for them. Or we might personally cower before God in fear, trying very hard to do all the right things so that we can appease his wrath, and spending all our time in prayer either trying to justify our goodness or continually asking Him for mercy while beating ourselves up.
Or if we view God like a good but somewhat deceptive and ultimately powerless Deity, someone akin to the unveiled Wizard of Oz, we might not pray at all, for after all, what is the point.
And I could go on. False images of God effect our behavior, our attitudes towards others and ourselves, and our prayers before God.
And that is why it is so important that our narratives of God are shaped by the whole of the Scriptures, that our narratives of God are in line with Jesus’ narrative of God, for after all, who knows God better than Jesus, God made-flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity?
And so when Jesus tells us something about who God is and how we should interact with God, we should listen.
Well, in today’s passage, we learn a lot from Jesus about who God is and how we are to interact with him. When one of his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus taught them a beautiful prayer that has become known in the Church as the “Lord’s Prayer”, a prayer that emerged out of Jesus’ own deep, intimate, loving relationship with the Father and a prayer that has been prayed now by some Christians weekly and even daily since the earliest of times.
So today, we are going to dive a bit into the Lord’s prayer. While this prayer is beautiful, for many of us, this prayer has become so familiar to us that it may have lost its meaning. So today, I invite you to approach the Lord and His prayer with new eyes and open hearts.
So, we’ll look at what the prayer says about who God is and what His intentions are and then from there, we’ll ask how then shall we pray. We’ll also, of course, look at the verses directly after the Lord’s prayer found in Luke, which also tell us something about God and prayer.
Friends, I won’t pretend that I’ll be able to answer all your questions about prayer in this sermon today or to give you all the specifics of how to go forward in prayer, but I do hope this time will spark good conversations among us as we all continue in the school of prayer.
So, when the disciple asked Jesus how to pray, Jesus began his prayer with “Our Father”, a term of relationship and intimacy. So, at the outset of this prayer, Jesus already signaled something important about who God is and how we should approach Him. From the very beginning of the prayer, Jesus demonstrated that God is not a distant Deity, but one who is close to us and deeply cares about the ins and outs of our lives. God is a good, good Father, and when we pray, we should view God in this way.
God is also a friend. While the story Jesus told after the Lord’s prayer was a little quirky, in this tale of the friend who answered the door and showed hospitality at midnight, Jesus suggested that God is a friend to us and that God responds to our persistence requests in prayer. I’ll have a little more to say on this story later, but for now, let us really ponder what I have just said: God is our friend, and God is our good Father. Those are very different images of God than Cosmic Santa, Powerless Deity, or Angry God.
But wait a minute. What if we have had poor relationships with our earthly fathers? What if we do not feel any kind of closeness with our own fathers – and I know this is a real issue for some of us. For those of us who have struggled in our relationships with our earthy fathers, is this image of God that Jesus revealed in His prayer really good news?
Well, I want to wholeheartedly affirm that it is indeed good news. I do not by any means discount anyone’s real concerns or real pain. But what I would like to say is: we are not to mistakenly project the characteristics of our earthly fathers onto God, to let God’s fatherhood be defined by our imperfect human relationships with our fathers and other parental figures in our lives. Rather, we are to do the opposite.
As Karl Barth said,
It is . . . not that there is first of all human fatherhood and then a so-called divine fatherhood, but just the reverse: true and proper fatherhood resides in God and from this fatherhood what we know as fatherhood among us men is derived.
James Bryan Smith extends this to say that true and proper fatherhood in God also defines what true motherhood is, as well. God’s ways with us is the model for how we parent the children whom God has given us.
So what does divine fatherhood look like? Well, the Lord’s Prayer tells us. According to James Bryan Smith true fatherhood, as demonstrated in the Lord’s Prayer, is defined by presence, purity, power, provision, pardon and protection.
There is so much I could say about each and every one of these characteristics, but we’re just going to do a quick run-through the Lord’s Prayer to see how this is so.
Starting with …. Our Father, who is in heaven: Well, heaven is the dwelling place of God, and throughout His ministry Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near, so God is near. He is not distant. He is with us at all times and is immensely interested in all the details of our lives. Thus, we can trust that He is always present with us and therefore can in fact converse with him at all times like a friend, not just in special set-aside religious spaces and activities.
And then there is…. Hallowed be your name: God is holy; He is pure. That means He is wholly separate from us in His ways. He is totally free of sin and evil. He is perfect love and perfect beauty and perfect goodness. Thus, we can trust in his goodness and love and trust that He has good things in mind for us and the world.
Next ….. Your Kingdom Come: God is powerful. In praying this part of the prayer, we are not hoping that God’s Kingdom will come. We know that it is coming. This, and in fact, all of the petitions in this prayer are in the imperative in the original Greek. They are commands, and we can command God to do these things because we know only He can do these things and in fact is already doing them.
Thus, we can trust that even though our world is fallen now and that there are too many tears, God will bring about a time when there is no more sadness, evil, or pain. And even now, we can know that God is empowering His children by the Holy Spirit to bring about a foretaste of this Kingdom to our present broken world.
As then we come to the next part….. Give us each day our daily bread: God is a provider who is like the man who gave hospitality to his persistent friend who woke him up in the middle of the night. God is also like the earthy fathers Jesus spoke about who give good things to their children. Thus, we can ask God to provide for our needs. He will come through, not always in the ways we want him too, not always in our timing, but rest assured, He is always there, He is always listening to our petitions. He sees us. He hears us. He responds to us, even when we are not entirely sure how He is responding in the moment. I’ll say more on this later.
Then the next part is …..Forgive us our sins: God is one who pardons us. God is not a wrathful God who delights in punishing us, but a merciful Lord who loves us and desires to be in relationship with us, who doesn’t hold grudges against us against but helps us to turn away from sin, and who also comes to us even in our sin. As we have reminded ourselves several times these last months, Jesus died even while we were still sinners. Thus, we can be truthful and vulnerable with God in our prayers. We need not cower before him in shame. We need not beat ourselves up. We can trust that He loves us no matter what. We can trust that He is working in us to turn us from our sin and become more and more like Him. And why is God doing this work in us? Simply, because He loves us and he wants the best for us and that means turning away from things that distort our humanity and embracing those things that make us truly human.
And finally …. Lead us not into temptation: God is our protector. He delivers us from the Evil One who would have us go astray, who would have us engage in sin and in doing so, go down a path of becoming less and less human, of looking less and less like the image of God.
These past months as we have gone through Luke, we have seen over and over again in the Scriptures how demons submit when they are commanded to do so in Jesus’ name. Jesus is powerful and has authority over the evil spirits in this world. Thus, we can trust that “All shall be well, all shall be very, very well.” Sin and evil do not have the last word. God does. So we need not fall prey to it. The Holy Spirit can help us choose another way.
And so, friends, this is what perfect fatherhood looks like. The Lord’s Prayer shows us that perfect fatherhood is characterized by presence, purity, power, provision, pardon and protection. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we have a good, good Father, and this reality greatly effects how we come to God in prayer.
We can come before God with a posture of trust and dependence, peace and vulnerability, and absolute truthfulness. We need not hide anything, including our fears, our angers, and our worries, but can lay them all down before Him – and I mean all. Our Father, our daddy welcomes us into His loving arms.
So, this is why Jesus commended this prayer to us because He knew it was a good way for His disciples – for us – to engage with the Father. When we pray this prayer, we can rest in the truth of who God is. We can shed our false images of God. We can rest in His love.
And not only that, but we can also enlarge our vision for what kinds of things to pray for, and that is what I would like to focus our attention on during the next few minutes.
So, while it is good and right to offer up personal petitions to the Lord – as the Lord’s Prayer makes abundantly clear, for God is a good Father, unfortunately, it is the case that when we pray, we too often start and end there. We make our personal requests and move on.
The Lord’s Prayer, however, suggests that there is a better way to pray. While the Lord’s Prayer includes room for individual petition, it opens up first with a much larger Kingdom Vision. When we pray this prayer, we are invited first to ask that God’s name be glorified and that his good, peaceful, and just Kingdom be established.
And as we pray for these things and truly listen to what God has to say to us in response to us, what happens is that we find ourselves being invited again and again to participate in this Kingdom vision, to see ourselves in the Bigger Story as I talked about some weeks ago. We may not recognize this invitation right away, but the more we pray this prayer, the more clear it becomes to us.
And then what we find is that our view of the world changes. Our view of ourselves and other people changes. And sometimes even our individual petitions, whether that is for God’s provision, pardon, or protection, change a bit, for now our petitions are caught up in this Kingdom vision.
We also find that we develop more dependence upon the Lord, and also more patience and persistence in our prayers. We become like the person in Jesus’ story who persisted in asking for food from his friend in the middle of the night.
Just like that person had a real need for food, we also have a great need – and that is for the Kingdom to come, so we persist. Being caught up in the Kingdom Vision means recognizing that we live in a fallen world where there are spiritual powers that oppose God and His people and His Coming Kingdom. So, we must do battle with these spiritual powers, and we primarily do so through prayer, but this takes great patience and persistence.
Now I think if we are truthful with ourselves, all of us would simply like to pray for something and to see God answer it immediately and in the exact way we want Him to do so. We do not want to do battle with the powers and the principalities. We just want what we need and want.
In fact, there are quite a few people these days leaving or questioning the faith because God has not answered their prayers in their timing and in the ways that they had hoped, and this just does not fit with the instant gratification culture of 2019 America. So, they leave.
But friends, God is not a Cosmic Genie; God is not a Cosmic Amazon Prime who delivers up our requests in less than 24 hours. These are false images of God.
But we do know that God is a good, good Father. That is a true image of who God is. His timing and His ways of bringing the Kingdom may not be ours, but His timing and ways are perfect. He has a larger perspective than we do and He is not in a rush like we are. The gradual enfolding of His plans, which requires patience and persistence in prayer in us, is accomplishing just what it is meant to do, both on a cosmic level and a personal level, even if we don’t fully understand it.
So, we are to persist in prayer. And when we do, what we will find is that God molds us and transforms us and teaches us in the process so that we become more and more the people that God has always intended us to be.
Friends, you may have noticed in our passage from Luke today that after Jesus taught His special prayer, he told them, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Friends, we are to ask, seek, and knock.
This asking, seeking, and knocking is not so much about asking for everything on our American Dream bucket list, but rather, it is about seeking the Kingdom of God, and the Lord’s Prayer helps us to seek this Kingdom and to seek its King, and all in a way, by the way, that very much takes seriously our personal needs for provision, protection, and pardon. For God is a good, good Father who cares about our welfare and desires that we thrive.
So Mission Cincinnati, I know there is much more to say about how we are to pray, but for now I encourage to rid yourselves of your false images of God and embrace Him for who He really is.
Pray the Lord’s Prayer, and not just as we say it in church, but personalize each line. Ask very specifically for the ways you want God to demonstrate his love and goodness, His holiness and power, his care and protection, and his forgiveness and His presence, both for you and the world at large.
Friends, bring everything to prayer. Persist in prayer. And seek the Kingdom.
And in the process, look for how God transforms you into the men and women that He intends you to be. Look for how God envelopes you in His love. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
[The image at the beginning of this post comes from the Wizard of Oz (1939) and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License and can be found here.]