The key thing to understand when we pray, is who it is we are praying to. Jesus helps us with this in the Lord’s Prayer by starting with a reminder of who we are praying to… “Our Father in heaven…”
How you speak depends on the question: Who am I speaking to?
The way you speak depends on who you are speaking to.
If you are speaking to a child, then you will tend to speak more softly and in much simpler language, than if you were speaking to a group of students at a university, when you would speak boldly and with probably lots of technical words to do with your subject.
If you are talking to someone who is deaf, then you will need to speak up or possibly use sign language or write down words.
If you are speaking in court, then you would have to address the judge with the correct deference, and address them, as, ‘My Lord or Lady.’
What you talk about may well also be effected by who you are speaking to. I often use jokes in wedding talks, but it would be inappropriate to start a funeral talk with a joke!
In all kinds of ways, the way we talk and what we talk about are determined by who it is we are talking to.
Prayer: Who are you speaking to?
This week we start a series in Lent on the topic of prayer and specifically the Lord’s prayer. Each Sunday we will be taking a line or two from the Lord’s prayer and thinking about what it teaches us about prayer.
Today we start with the opening line: “Our Father in heaven…” As the start of the prayer it may be something you have not really thought about. It is not a part of the prayer asking for anything. However, it is arguably the most important part of the prayer, because it reminds us who we are talking to when we pray and tells us something about what he is like.
Very simply prayer is talking to God. That’s basic. But how we pray, whether we pray and what we pray will be profoundly influenced by who we think it is we are praying to. If our vision of God is too small or if God seems too distant and uninterested in us, then we will probably not bother to pray or it might become a bland routine or ritual. But, the more we come to believe and understand how big and mighty God is and how profoundly interested he is in us, then the more our prayer life will come alive and gain meaning and relevance.
In other words, the secret to prayer is not being able to use clever or flowery language, or make our prayers sound poetic or find particular ways of sitting as we pray. The secret to prayer is to realise who it is we are speaking to.
And so Jesus says, when you pray start with: ‘Our Father in heaven.’ In other words remember who it is you are praying to!
So, let’s take those words two key words, about God, ‘Father’ and ‘in heaven’ and think more deeply about who it is we are praying to and how that helps our prayer. Helpfully, both of those words are found in Psalm 103, a Psalm that is about not forgetting who God is or what his benefits are!
…In Heaven – Is your God too small?
We’ll start with the second word: ‘Heaven.’ God is in heaven. He is not limited like anyone on earth, he is in heaven. He is the creator of the universe, he is not part of the universe or restricted to the universe. When you think of God in heaven, ask yourself is your vision of the God you pray to, too small?
There’s two things about God we can say in relation to the fact he is in heaven.
The Powerful One
First, he is the The Powerful One. Look at verse 20 it says,
“Praise the LORD, you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word.”
Angels in the Bible are mighty miracle working beings. But powerful as they are, they are there to do God’s bidding. Nothing is impossible for our God.
If nothing is impossible for God and God is the one we speak to in prayer, then the possibilities of prayer are limitless.
Jesus wanted to make this point to his disciples.
“He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain,`Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”” (Matthew 17:20)
The point Jesus is trying to make is this. Prayer is not about the size of our faith. It is about who we pray to. Our faith may be tiny, but because we pray to the God for whom nothing is impossible, our prayers can achieve anything.
If you have a button, that is attached to an enormous bomb under a mountain, then even if you are so weak that you can hardly move, you can still press the button and the mountain will explode.
- The more you understand the power of the God you are praying to, then the more you can understand what can be achieved through prayer.
I remember as a teacher one of the loveliest students I had fell out of a tree and was left in a coma. I remember going to the park that summer evening and praying to God for the student, hardly believing that God could do anything. The next day the boy was back in school right as rain! My faith was weak, but God is the God of the impossible!
The Ruling One
The God in heaven is the powerful one, but he is also the ruling one.
It says in verse 19:
“The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.” (Psalm 103:19)
When we pray to God, we need to understand that he is the one who is in charge, and he is the one who deserves to be in charge. He is our boss, and so we should be more concerned for his priorities, rather than him being concerned for ours.
God is not like a genie, ready to give us whatever we want when we rub the magic lamp. We are his servants, not the other way around.
So, the Lord’s Prayer begins with God’s priorities, not our priorities: “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
- When we pray and God does not give us what we ask for, we can be tempted to believe that it is because God is not able to do it. That we were just asking for something too big.
There are some things that are within God’s power, but not within his will. Sometimes this is obvious. After all if you try praying for a literal mountain to move, it probably will not happen, because it is unlikely to be in God’s will!
Sometimes, it is not obvious why it is God’s will. We may never understand why some people we pray for are never healed, when some others are. Yet, we trust that God knows best.
God is in charge not us. That’s not always easy, but it is certainly for the best and we need to remember who it is we are praying to.
… Our Father – Is your God too distant?
It may be, though, that when God does not give us what we want that we are tempted to believe that he does not care, that he is not interested in us, that he is distant. This is where the second word, ‘Father’ is so important.
The God we are praying to is ‘our Father.’ Not a distant uncaring father, but a perfect father, who loves us more than we can imagine. What does this mean?
The Compassionate One
Firstly, it means that he is the Compassionate One. It says this clearly in verse 13 of our Psalm:
“As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;” (Psalm 103:13)
Jesus himself, illustrated this when he came to earth. Jesus was God come to be with us. That in itself, shows that God is not distant. But Jesus did not just come to live as a man, he came and helped and supported the most needy and desperate in society. This powerfully shows us the compassion of God.
When needy, ill people came to Jesus looking for healing, he never said, ‘No.’ Take the example of the man with leprosy in Mark 1:
“A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
The man understood the power of God at work in Jesus. What he was not sure of, as someone who people kept their distance from was whether God in Jesus would keep his distance from him, whether God cared for him. He soon found out the answer:
Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” (Mark 1:40-41)
Jesus showed by touching him, that God is not distant. In compassion, Jesus brought him healing, he met the man’s need.
Even in the Old Testament, compassion is seen as a fundamental characteristic of God. When God agrees to appear to Moses, he declares about himself:
“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,” (Exo. 34:6, cf. Psalm 103:8)
It’s a statement about God echoed in verse 8 of the Psalm.
So, when we pray we need to know we are praying to someone who cares about our basic needs and concerns. That is reflected in the Lord’s prayer by the line: “Give us today, our daily bread.”
- No need is too big or too small. God cares about every one of them. We can bring them to him. That’s what it means to pray to God as our Father.
The Forgiving One
The second thing that the Psalm emphasises about the God we pray to is that he is the forgiving one.
It says in Psalm 103:3: “who forgives all your sins…”, then it expands on this in a big way.
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger for ever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:8-12)
In one of the Parables Jesus tells, he illustrated God as a Father of two sons. One of the sons, takes all his money and runs off to waste it with wild partying. His life becomes a mess. But eventually, he decides to return to his father in the hope that he might be able to come one of his servants.
As he comes back towards his Father’s home, the big question would have been hanging in the air. Will he forgive me?
Jesus says, the Father, representing God, sees his son, and runs too him, throws his arms around him, kisses him and throws a party for him. He is completely forgiven!!
This Jesus says, is what Psalm 103 means when it says, God forgives your sins!
The Lord’s Prayer of course also reminds us of this, by teaching us to pray: ‘forgive us our sins…’ We can pray that, because we know who it is we are praying to, the Father who forgives our sins.
- God can sometimes seem distant, because we are acutely aware of our sin. We may feel that in some way, in the way we’ve treated others or let people down, God will not accept us or welcome us back. But we need to remember who it is we are praying to, the one who forgives our sins, who sent his only son to die for us so that we can be forgiven.
The Generous One
God is our Father, the compassionate one, the forgiving one, but also the generous one.
Look at what it says about him in verses 4-5 of the Psalm:
“who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103:4-5)
Sometimes in prayer we may ask for things, that we think we need, but God knows are bad for us. We may feel, that God is being stingy, but he is actually protecting us. The truth is that he longs to give us good things.
Jesus says later I the Sermon on the Mount:
“”Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 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 good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)
- So, when you come to God, know that he is generous. He longs to give you good things, so don’t be afraid to ask for them. For example, you may discover that in the end they are not good for you, God may not let you get the job you apply for, because he has a better one lined up for you.
Priority of Praise
Who is it you are praying to? The secret to a flourishing prayer life, is a deeper understanding of who it is you are praying to. This comes about through reading and reflecting on the Bible and is deepened through a life of praise.
Psalm 103 is all about the benefits we find in belonging to God, but it begins and ends with a call to praise. As is says in verse 2:
“Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–” (Psalm 103:2)
The more we make praising God a priority in life, the more we will understand who we are praying to and the more our prayers will be shaped by his priorities and his character and the more confident we will be to pray.