Promises in the Dark


Audio is split in two so you can watch the video clip (below).

Inspired by Genesis 15:1-6

Our Bible story for this week, which comes from the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, began with the words, “After these events…” So, some of you may have been wondering what those events were that the author was referring to. Well, last week, we read from chapters two, three, and four, so, we’ve skipped a few stories as we will in the coming months because there’s just too many for us to get to them all. We skipped The Flood, which we read in year one of the Narrative Lectionary, the Tower of Babel, when God first reveals Godself to Abram which is also when God first revealed the promise of a great nation from Abram’s line, a note that will be important later. Abram then journeys to Egypt to escape a famine, where he gets in trouble because apparently, his wife Sarai was so beautiful that he thought they’d kill him to get to her so he tried to pass her off as his sister only to bring a plague on the Egyptians who quickly kick them all out. Oh, silly Abram. Then, he and his nephew Lot, whose family and possessions had been with Abram this whole time, decide to go their separate ways to avoid any conflict between their clans. Abram settles in Canaan, where he prospers, and Lot in Jordan but then Lot gets captured in a war. Abram then mounts a rescue attempt with his own army and was successful. So, these are the events that the author is referring to and that brings us to today’s story.

This story, though short, provides the foundation for, well, for the rest of this book to tell you the truth. God reiterates the promise of a family to Abram, the one thing that Abram wanted but didn’t have. Actually, it’s the one thing that most any man would want in Abram’s day because it said so much about who you were as a man. A man without a family of his own was not really seen as much of a man at all then. A man with no one of his own bloodline to pass on his traditions, religion, possessions, land, was really a lost cause in the eyes of the ancient world. More than that, it was a sign that the man’s god was either displeased with him, or that his god was not a very powerful god to begin with! So, there was a lot at stake here for Abram, his identity as a man, as a follower of God, as a successful businessman, were all under the spotlight, all because he could not produce any offspring.

So, this promise of God’s to Abram, a promise of a family, a family of his own, from his own blood, means more to Abram than anything else that God could have promised. And this promise was a doozy! Not only was God promising Abram a little family of his own, which I’m sure Abram would have been quite content with, but God had even bigger plans for Abram. God promised to make a whole nation out of his bloodline, a nation that would end up being a blessing to the whole world, as God mentioned back in chapter twelve! God tells him to look up at the night sky and count the stars, claiming that was how many descendants he would end up having! And Abram took God at God’s word. This scene always reminds me of a scene in The Lion King. Take a look.

Those last lines are everything here. When Simba says, “But I can’t see them, Dad.” And Mufasa says, “Keep looking, son. Keep looking.” Which brings me to where I think the gospel is to be found in this old story, remember gospel simply means “good news.” And the good news happens not at the end of this story, not with the amazing promise that God gives to Abram. No, grace can be found with those opening lines of God’s to Abram, when God said, “Don’t be afraid.” And if you think about it, it’s kind of an odd thing to say. Why would God say that, particularly at this point in the story? Abram just got back from defeating an army to save his nephew Lot, he somehow escaped the wrath of Pharaoh after he learned that he’d been lied to by Abram, not to mention the fact that he was doing quite well now in his new homeland of Canaan. What would Abram be afraid of? And why would God saying, “Don’t be afraid” be filled with so much grace?

Well, it’s not the words themselves, so much as it’s the fact that God is talking to him at all! In her commentary on this story, Kathleen O’Connor calls this chapter, “Dialogue in the Dark.” And this chapter is rather dark, in spite of the celestial promise given to Abram! But it’s only dark if you can hear this story from the perspective of Abram. If you can slip your feet into his sandals for just a moment, you will see that Abram is indeed in a very dark place. Like Simba, he just can’t see this promise in the stars. Keep in mind that three chapters ago, when Abram first met God, he was already seventy-five years old! At this point, he might be around eighty, not that it matters, right! At seventy-five, he’d already given up on a family! Then God comes along and promises one, only for years to continue to pass by without the pitter-patter of little feet in the tent! So, here is Abram, at ground zero, without a hope in the world for a family. He’d already given up on that old promise of God’s. How do we know this? Because he’d already selected which one of his servants would be the heir to his estate. Some guy by the name of Eliezar. Not only had he given up hope, but he had already gotten his affairs in order. A dark place indeed for old Abram.

And what is God’s response to the unbelieving, unfaithful, doubting, hopeless, Abram? “Keep looking, Son. Keep looking.” Oh, wait, that was Mufasa! But the same sentiment applies because, like Mufasa, God doesn’t give up on the faulty Abram, but instead encourages him to not give up, to keep hold of the hope that he once had, to just trust God. And the real grace here is that God is not like other gods who give up on humans at the first sign of unbelief! The real grace here is that not even Abram’s unbelief can keep God from working in Abram's life. The real grace here is that not even Abram’s hopelessness can keep God from walking with Abram. The real grace here is that nothing, nothing is more powerful than God’s love, not even our unbelief. Belief is not a prerequisite for God’s love. As always, as we will see in these old stories this Fall, it is in the dark that God shows up, to walk with us, to encourage us, to tell us to keep looking, keep looking. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Dog

 Separated into two parts so you can watch video (below) in between! 

Inspired by Genesis 2:15-3:24

Today we begin year three of the Narrative Lectionary. This is the year of Luke, which we will read through beginning the end of Advent, but before we get to that we will be reading through the Hebrew scriptures, beginning with our Genesis reading today, and then continuing with a selection of stories that have been key in molding God’s people for the last few millennia. Some of these stories will be well known to you, and some not so much. One of the things that I love about this lectionary is that these are stories that a pastor normally doesn’t get a chance to preach on! So, for me it has an exciting and adventurous quality to it, and hopefully that comes across to you too. Today’s story comes from the second and third chapters of Genesis. We will be focusing on the third chapter but I felt it necessary to read the last half of chapter two because it gives us some key background for the scenes that occur in chapter three. Those scenes of course are The Fall and the Expulsion from Eden.

I don’t need to spend much time on chapter two, especially because I read and preached on that last year at this time. However, there are a couple of things that I’d like us to take note of, to keep in the back of our mind while we tackle chapter three. The first is this, God placed humans in the garden of Eden and stayed there with them, dwelled there, lived among them. Second, God gave them limits, in the form of a tree that they were commanded not to eat from. Eat from anything else, just don’t eat from this one. Just don’t do it. That was the limit that God gave them. Third, God cares for these humans, and we know that because God immediately surmised that all was not well in Eden. The human needed a companion, the animals were not enough, and neither was God. And so, out of care and compassion, notice that jealousy and rage were an optional response here from God, but no, out of care and compassion, God creates a companion for the human.

Julia Stankova, "Temptation"
So, keep those three points in mind as we continue toward the heart of today’s reading: God dwelled with them in Eden, gave them limits, and cared for them there. Chapter two ends quite harmoniously. Everything’s just hunky dory, that is until the woman screws everything up! Kidding! I’m kidding! You know me better than that! So, the woman has an encounter with a talking snake. Now, if you encountered this in any other type of literature, you’d immediately recognize this as a story, a tale, maybe even a fairy tale. But for some reason, people started reading this story as a historical fact, talking snake and all. Some have argued that it was during the Great Awakenings of 18th century United States, but that’s for another time. Point is, the Bible had not been read that way before that. And so, if you’re one of the many people who have a hard time embracing the Bible because of these fantastical stories that include talking snakes, it’s ok. In fact, it’s more than ok, you’re in good company because the ancients did not take these stories literally, they knew they were stories, tales, legends. For them, it wasn’t a question of if these stories really happened, it was a question of what do these stories have to teach us today. More than that, was the acknowledgement, and the awe, of asking how God was still speaking to us today, through these old, old stories. I don’t know about you, but that makes me love the Bible all the more, that makes me have even greater faith in it’s power, not less. But I digress.

The woman has this encounter with a talking snake and we might be tempted to say, “Well, it was the snakes fault!” or “It was Satan’s fault!” First of all, it’s important to note that Satan nor the Devil is ever mentioned in this story. That’s an idea that we have inserted into it. But regardless of that fact, even if it was Satan, he didn’t make the humans do anything. They, not just she, but they knew full well what they were commanded not to do, and made the choice to do it anyway. Period. Now, scholars and theologians have debated for millennia about things like free-will or original sin or the sexism inherent in this story. Don’t get me wrong, all these topics are interesting and well worth our time and engagement in. But when I ask myself that age-old question that the ancients would ask themselves when approaching any Bible story, “What does this story have to tell us today?”, or put another way, “What is my takeaway from this story?”, I just don’t land on things like why we sin or why is there evil in the world or do we really have the choice to be good.

Where do I land? On the relationship. Chapter three ends on a bit of downer if you hadn’t noticed. The woman and man get handed their consequences of their sin, as does the snake, and if that wasn’t bad enough, they get expelled from the Garden of Eden. And off they walk into the dark sunset of their lives. Like I said, it’s a bit of a downer. But that’s not the end of the story, but first, I have a short film to show you. It’s a film that I have been waiting to use in a sermon for years! I’ve used it in Bible studies with both adults and youth but I’ve never used it in worship. It’s animated but don’t let that fool you. It’s certainly for all ages, in fact, it has been interesting to see what different age groups get out of it. The short film is called Adam and Dog, was created by Minkyu Lee, and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012. So, without further ado, this is Adam and Dog.

I hope you enjoyed that short film as much as I do. I’ve watched it many times and it never gets old. Now, why did I just show that to you. I shared that with you because it highlights what I feel is the main take away from this story of The Fall and the Expulsion from Eden. And that’s this relationship between God and those first humans, and by extension, with us. But for that to make any sense, we have to read a few verses into chapter four. “The man Adam knew his wife Eve intimately. She became pregnant and gave birth to Cain, and said, “I have given life to a man with the Lord’s help.” She gave birth a second time to Cain’s brother Abel. Abel cared for the flocks, and Cain farmed the fertile land. Sometime later, Cain presented an offering to the Lord from the land’s crops while Abel presented his flock’s oldest offspring with their fat. The Lord looked favorably on Abel and his sacrifice but didn’t look favorably on Cain and his sacrifice. Cain became very angry and looked resentful. Then the Lord spoke to Cain.”

Hold the phone! What is God doing out there with them, outside the Garden of Eden? Imagine, if you can and know that this is hard, but imagine hearing this story for the first time. Imagine your family is new to this religion and knows only about the gods of other nations like Egypt, Greece, and Rome. If this story was being told in those places with those gods, the Bible would be a short book indeed! It would have ended with the humans getting kicked out of Eden! Those other gods didn’t have time for a pair of unruly, unworthy, measly little humans! But not so with this God. This God didn’t remain in the paradise of Eden and wait there until humans were good enough to come back. No! God went with them! God didn’t just expel them out of Eden, God expelled Godself right out of Eden! Just like the dog from our short film.

Now for those of you who think I just compared our God to a dog…you better believe I did! Anyone who knows me knows just how much I love dogs. For the majority of my life I have had a canine companion. I know of no other being on God’s green Earth that loves as unconditionally as a dog. I’d go so far as to say that the love of a dog is the closest thing we’ll ever get to God’s love here on Earth that we can actually give a hug to. The dog in our short film was given every reason to leave those humans. After forming a close bond, a close relationship with the human, he was betrayed, abandoned, and forgotten. But in spite of all that, the relationship is what was core to the dog, it had already taken root, and so, it was a no-brainer when it came to the decision of staying in Eden, or going with the expelled humans, who didn’t even have a thing to offer him. Off he went, into an unknown sunset with those first humans, relationship intact, as it always had been, at least, from the dog’s perspective.

And so it is with God. We have given God every excuse to leave us. We ourselves have betrayed God, have abandoned God, have forgotten God, with both our actions and our inaction. And yet, just when we think God has had enough of our foolishness, lo and behold, there God is, right by our side, a constant companion, ever faithful, always willing to move forward with us, no matter how bad our behavior was the day before. I believe that morning broke that first day outside of Eden, with God by their side ready to make a fresh start, as God does with each of our mornings. This old, old story, is our story. As we move ahead through the Hebrew scriptures, this Fall, journeying with God’s people, we would do well to remember this story, and how, as bad as things got, as bad as we were, God continues to walk with us, continues to include us in the story. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Don't Let Us Fall!

Inspired by Luke 11:4

So, we have come to the end of our short little series on the Lord’s Prayer. When I started this I thought, how in the world am I going to create three sermons with so little text to work from. Well, now I realize that I could have spent two months on this little prayer and still not have enough time to do it justice. It is easy to see how this prayer has made such a profound impact on the world. It has been so ingrained in societies that just a few years ago it made headlines when a county in Delaware was told by a US district court that it couldn’t begin council meetings with it. Apparently, it never occurred to the county officials that it was a distinctly Christian prayer because it never mentions Jesus! They just figured that anyone would want to pray it no matter their faith, obviously disregarding atheists, but that’s besides the point. The point is, this little prayer that Jesus taught two thousand years ago, has left quite an impact, and it’s easy to see why.

Today we have two petitions before us, the first being, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” And the second petition is, “lead us not into temptation.” However, I believe these two petitions are closely tied together. You may remember that week one of this series was all about God, week two was about us, and this week is all about our relationship with each other and the world. And though I said these two petitions are closely tied together, let’s first talk about the forgiveness petition. Now, I’ve preached on forgiveness in the past on more than one occasion, I’ll link to at least one of those when I post this online in case you want a refresher, but in a nutshell, it’s important for us to remember that forgiveness is not a feeling, but it’s the empowerment to say that the brokenness between two people or groups of people, will no longer define that relationship, therefore allowing all parties to move forward. And sometimes moving forward means parting ways, if that’s the healthiest course of action. So, that’s my own take on forgiveness in a nutshell. I don’t want to spend any more time on that but please keep it in mind as we explore forgiveness as it relates to the Lord’s Prayer, especially because it’s so easy to return to confusing forgiveness with a feeling.

That being said, in this prayer Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” Like last week’s reading, “Give us each day our daily bread”, this is another demand. It’s not in the form of a request is it? There isn’t even a “please” thrown in there. “Forgive us.” And if you think about it, do we even need to be asking this question or making this demand? I don’t know about you but I believe that our sins were, are, and forever will be forgiven, whether we pray this prayer or not! In fact, our Lutheran understanding of grace teaches us that there’s nothing, not even a prayer taught by Jesus himself, that needs to be said or done for us to be forgiven. It’s just a gift freely given by God. And surely Jesus knew this! So, why would he teach us to pray this daily prayer, asking God to forgive us?


I think it’s more like a rhetorical statement, if you will, than it is a straightforward plea. And this idea of a rhetorical statement will come up again in the next petition so hold on to that, but in this one, it’s kind of like when a five year old is learning how to ride her bike and the parent is holding on to the back of her bike running along side, waiting for her to find her balance and the child yells up to her mom, “Don’t let me fall!” Now, any child that has a loving parent surely knows that the parent would never let her fall, right! The child doesn’t say that to a parent as an accusation. The child is not expressing her lack of faith in her parent’s ability to keep her safe. Not at all! But that doesn’t stop the child from exclaiming, “Don’t let me fall”, does it! Same with this demand to, “Forgive us our sins.”

There’s something even deeper than a clever rhetorical statement here. And that’s an admission of guilt. Praying, “forgive us our sins” is an admission, in and of itself, that sin is present, always has been, and always will be, and in spades! When we pray “forgive us our sins” we are making a bold statement to God and to each other that we are sinful human beings, in need of forgiveness. And this has a very grounding effect, humbling effect. This puts each and everyone of us on a level playing field, with no one being above or better than anyone else. It’s no coincidence then that a regular part of Lutheran worship is to begin with confession! It’s the great equalizer! In this simple phrase, this humble demand, we are in fact confessing that we are needy human beings, “beggars” as Luther would put it.

And speaking of statements, the next clause of this petition is, “for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” That’s a bold statement! More than a statement, that’s a commitment that we make, each and every time we pray this prayer! We don’t pray for help in forgiving others, we don’t pray that we’ll try to forgive others, we pray that we are forgiving others, everyone in fact, who is indebted to us. Like I said, that’s a bold statement! That’s a bold commitment! Did you know you were making that commitment each time you prayed this prayer? Not to worry, you’re not alone. Have you ever been given a gift with expectations? Now, I don’t mean a gift with strings attached. And I also don’t mean a gift that has to be earned, otherwise it wouldn’t be a gift then, would it! For instance, let’s say someone gifts you with a full scholarship to college. You didn’t earn that gift and they’re not asking for you to pay it back once you graduate, but…isn’t the expectation that you use that gift to get good grades and a degree? It’s the same with this forgiveness business that Jesus teaches us to pray in this prayer. God’s forgiveness is free, is unearned, is pure grace, but…it also carries with it the expectation that it will be shared with others, specifically, anyone who finds themselves indebted to us.


This brings us to the last petition, or at least, the last petition in Luke’s version of this beloved prayer. Luke ends with, “lead us not into temptation.” Again, like the last petition, this is more of a rhetorical statement because we all know, that God is not in the temptation business. However, I also believe, that in the back of Jesus’ mind when he taught them this petition, was the painful memory of his own temptation in the wilderness back when his ministry began, where the Spirit did in fact lead him into. I imagine Jesus’ mind wandering just a bit, as he’s standing there thinking of what they should include in this prayer, and thinking to himself, “Oh yeah, one more thing, ‘lead us not into temptation.’ Trust me, this is an important one!” Not that Jesus believed that God would do the same to them, but I think he taught them to pray this out of love and care for them, because of his own painful experience out in the wilderness for those forty days. And maybe more than that, it’s another confession, that Jesus is the Christ, and we are not. In other words, “Don’t lead us where you led Jesus. He’s the chosen one, and we know we are not.”

I’d like to leave you with some homework, which we will continue to explore at Wednesday’s online Bible discussion, which I’d encourage you to participate in. And the homework is this: what does it mean to pray this prayer as a community, rather than as individuals, the way we usually pray this prayer. Even when we are together, I’d bet that most people are still in the habit of praying this prayer individually, just in the same room with one another. But how is it changed when we pray this together? When we pray for God’s name to be holy, how do we make it holy as a community? When we pray for daily bread, does that have an effect on us as a church? When we pray “forgive us our sins”, what sins have we committed as a community that we need to reconcile and with whom? This seemingly simple prayer is anything but! It has such huge implications for our lives together with each other and the world. My prayer for us is that we continue to explore how we can be coworkers with Christ in answering this prayer for the sake of the world. May we have the will, the courage, and the perseverance to make it so. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Manna

 Inspired by Luke 11:3

Well if you thought last week’s reading was short, holy moly! This week we only have one verse, with a grand total of seven words! How in the world am I going to write a sermon from just seven words? Well, since I ended up only preaching on one word last week, Father, or Abba as Jesus put it, I think I’ll be ok with seven words this week! So, this is the second of three weeks on the Lord’s Prayer and just as a reminder, l have them also separated by theme so to speak: week one being all about God, week two, this week, being all about us, and the final week focusing on our relationship with each other and the world. So, that continues to be our plan of action, unless of course the Holy Spirit has other plans, which she often does, but doesn’t always send me a memo about them.

Jose Vela Zanetti, “El Pan Nuestro de Cada Día” 1980
This week we have this one verse, “Give us each day our daily bread.” The first thing that always strikes me about this line is that it’s not really in the form of a question, is it. We don’t pray, “Will you give us each day our daily bread…please?” No, it actually comes across like more of a directive, even the word petition I feel is a bit too soft of a word. It sounds more like, dare I say, a demand, doesn’t it! “Give us each day our daily bread.” It’s not, “God, if it’s no trouble, and I know how busy you are, but if you get a chance, could you please drop off some bread? Any kind will do, I’m not picky.” No, “give” is what we pray, and not just today but “each day” in case we forget to ask tomorrow. Now, what I love about this is the relationship that this implies. It’s a relationship based on trust and confidence and faith in the one whom we are demanding from. This demand for daily bread, for sustenance, is not based on greed or rudeness or a sense of entitlement. Rather, it’s Jesus inviting us to expect goodness from a good God.

Antonio Tempesta, "Gathering of the Manna" 1600
To really get the most out of this one line of the Lord’s Prayer though, I invite you to travel back in time with me. Oh, about three thousand years ago. It’s just after the time of the great Exodus, when God’s people, with the help of Moses and Miriam, escaped slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. The Red Sea is behind them, and they begin what will be a forty-year wandering through the wilderness, homeless, at the mercy of the elements with little food or water. Fear takes a hold of them quickly and they begin to wonder what in the world they are doing out there, saying, “It would have been better to have remained slaves in Egypt than to die out here of starvation in the wilderness!” God then accused them of being a bit overdramatic, no, just kidding, but what God did do was provide bread from heaven, called manna, which would collect on the ground overnight. God then instructed them to gather it, but to only gather enough for each day. No more, no less. And so they did, and God continued to give them their daily bread while they were in the wilderness.

Now, fast forward a thousand years to Jesus teaching his disciples to pray, “Give us each day our daily bread.” You better believe that in the back of their minds, was the old story of manna from heaven, and with that story comes a remembrance of the relationship, and the kind of relationship with the one who provides our daily bread—the goodness of a good God—coupled with that trust, that confidence, that faith that we spoke of before. When we demand our daily bread we are also confessing our trust in the goodness of God to not only give us what we need today, but tomorrow as well even though we can’t see it. When we demand our daily bread we are also saying that tomorrow’s needs will be met as well, in spite of our lack of faith, in spite of our complaining, in spite of our drama, in spite of our greed, in spite of our fears, in spite of us, our daily bread will come, just as that manna did, a thousand years before Jesus taught them this prayer.

Now, earlier I mentioned that this week would be all about us and that next week would be all about our relationship with each other and the world but this demand to give us each day our daily bread does indeed have great implications with how we relate to others. And the first step in that is to acknowledge how differently people pray this prayer based on their life situation. In his book, Lord, Teach Us, Will Willimon shares this story, “A woman in a little village in Honduras trudges up the mountain each day to gather and then carry down the mountain the sticks for her cooking the food. Then she grinds the corn her husband has raised, cherishing every kernel, hoping that this season’s corn will last through the winter. The tortillas are made in the palm of her hand. She drops them in the pan, cooks them and feeds them one-by-one to her children, the only food they will have that day to fill their aching stomachs. That woman undoubtedly prays, “Give us [each] day our daily bread” different from the way we pray that petition (emphasis added).”

To acknowledge that many people pray this prayer differently based on circumstances is one thing but I’d like to stretch you even further than that. Have you ever considered that praying for your daily bread, for most of us, is actually praying for you to have less than you already have? Think about the state of the world as far as food goes. It’s been well documented that there are enough food resources to go around the world for everyone to have enough daily calories, daily subsistence but yet, there are so many who don’t have enough to eat to survive, while there are so many who have more than they could ever eat. So, when we pray for our daily bread, the harsh reality of any answer to that prayer that’s worth its salt, is the recognition that some of what I have, should have gone to someone else more needy than I. Richard Vinson puts it this way, “Praying for daily subsistence rations, for most of us, is a bit like praying for a pay cut. We eat more food, surely, than any society has ever eaten. We have more varieties of food available to us, from fresh to frozen to fast, than any society has ever had, more than most societies a few generations back would have believed possible. If we pray, “Give us [each day our daily bread],” are we prepared to have God slash our incomes or somehow wreck the food production industry? Are we prepared to stand in real solidarity with the poor, whom Mary said God would raise up, while sending the rich, like us, away empty?”

Jose Vela Zanetti, "La Ultima Cena" 1977
At our Wednesday evening online Bible discussion I’d like to talk about not only why praying this prayer this way can be so challenging for us but also how we can live lives of contentment, rather than always wanting more, you know, the American way! To begin that conversation I’ll leave you with the story of the Contented Fisherman that goes like this, “The rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find the Southern fisherman lying lazily beside his boat, smoking a pipe. "Why aren't you out fishing?" said the industrialist. "Because I have caught enough fish for the day," said the fisherman. "Why don't you catch some more?" "What would I do with it?" "You could earn more money" was the reply. "With that, you could have a motor fixed to your boat and go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you would make enough to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats…maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me." "What would I do then?" "Then you could really enjoy life." "What do you think I am doing right now?"

In our thankfulness to a God whose mercy knows no ending, whose generosity knows no bounds, may we also challenge ourselves to learn how to live lives of contentedness, happy with having enough, so that all may one day have enough too. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Abba

Inspired by Luke 11:1-2

Well, that might be one of the shortest Sunday worship readings we’ve ever had! Today we begin a three-week series on the Lord’s Prayer but it’s going to be a little different than what you are probably expecting. The biggest difference will be that we are using Luke’s version of the prayer and not Matthew’s. Nobody prays Luke’s version, not in worship, not in their personal prayer life, no one really uses it. One of the reasons for that is because it’s half the length of Matthew’s version. It’s a bare-bones version of an already short prayer. The other difference you will note is that since we are looking at a biblical version of the Lord’s Prayer, you will not hear the doxology, the last line that we usually pray in worship, “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.” That line is not found in the Bible believe it or not, in Luke’s version nor in Matthew’s. It was added later and for some reason caught on amongst Protestants and so we’ve come to know it as the ending of the Lord’s Prayer, even though it’s not original to it. So, we’re gonna focus on the Biblical version, and specifically Luke’s bare-bones version. But fear not, we will still have plenty to talk about!

Before we get into the prayer itself though, I’d first like to talk about the question that Jesus’ followers ask him. This question comes in the middle of Luke’s gospel, so they have been with him for a while now. They have experienced the kind of person he is, not only how compassionate he was and how tirelessly he worked, and the opposition he faces from his own religion, but they also have gotten to know him personally or at least have seen what makes him tick so to speak. They have seen what his personal spiritual practices were, specifically what his prayer life was like. All of the gospels frequently mention how Jesus would often take time to pray but Luke does this more often than any of them. In fact, and here’s a little spoiler for this winter when we will be reading through the Gospel of Luke, it has been referred to as the Gospel of Prayer by many because prayer is not only a major theme of this Gospel but it begins with prayer in the temple and ends with prayer in the temple, but I don’t want to spoil too much so let’s keep moving.

The reason I remind you of all that they had experienced of Jesus so far is because I think that there’s more to this question that meets the eye. After Jesus got done praying, again, they ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” Now, we could hear that question and think that all they are asking is for words, as if they were asking for a specific prayer for them to pray by heart for the rest of eternity, a formula if you will. I think most of us think that’s exactly what they’re asking because that exactly what happened! We have taken that prayer and ran with it! We have repeated that prayer, word for word, for two millennia now. We have grown so attached to it, that whenever it is given updated language to keep up with modern English, people lose their minds! Another reason I think this question of theirs was more than just about the words to say.

I think they saw Jesus, what he could do, how he served, the opposition that he faced, the tirelessness of his work, and they were in awe! And so when they ask him to teach them to pray it’s almost as if they are asking, “What’s your secret, Jesus? What keeps you going every day? What keeps you motived? How can you withstand all the opposition? How do you do it, Jesus?” That’s what I think is behind the question, “Teach us to pray.” And so, that’s how I’d like us to approach the Lord’s Prayer this three weeks, with Jesus not only answering their question but answering the question behind the question, “What’s your secret Jesus?” Have you ever looked up to someone like that? I do. There are people in my life that I am in complete awe of. Not that their perfect or anything, but there are just some people that I wonder what their secret is. How do they stay positive? Or how do they have the energy to do what they do? Or, given what I know about their struggles, how do they even get up in the morning? What’s their secret?

So, Jesus gives them their answer in the form of this beloved prayer, which begins with, “Father, may your holy name be honored. May your kingdom come.” Over the course of these three weeks, I’m going to postulate that this first part focuses on God, the second part which we will read next week focuses on us, and the last part focuses on our relationship with others. So, today is all about God. Which makes total sense, right! If you’re going to have a conversation with someone, then you ought to know who you’re talking to! Think of it this way, if someone told you, “Hey, you know who you should talk to about this, Josephine! She might be able to help.” Your first question might be, “Who is Josephine?” And by that you’d be asking, who is she to you? Who is she to me? What are her qualifications to help me with my situation?

These are the kinds of questions that are addressed in this first part of Luke’s Lord’s Prayer. This is the grounding for this prayer, the foundation. This first part centers us and puts us in the right frame of mind for what we are about to pray for in the next two parts. Because without this, the rest of this prayer would be meaningless and would hold little to no power. The power of this prayer, comes from the hearer, the one who will hear this prayer and respond, God, not the person praying the prayer. So, what do learn about God from this first part that is so grounding? Well, it begins with the simple address of, “Father.” Now, I don’t want to get into the inherent patriarchy of addressing God as Father, we can talk about that at the Wednesday Bible discussion but let’s just say that if you want to start this prayer with Mother or Dad or Mom or the gender-neutral Parent, it’s all fine to me. The point that Jesus is making here, is the relationship. To further that point, Jesus used the Aramaic word Abba here. We don’t have an English equivalent but we do know that it was much more of an intimate, personal address than what we typically think of when we say Father. Father is more formal in our modern English. Abba was not quite as informal as Daddy, like some have translated it as, but somewhere in the middle. The bottom line is this, right outta the gate, Jesus encouraged us to think of God as a close, personal parental figure. This prayer is not directed at someone who is far away up in the clouds of heaven. Did you notice that heaven isn’t even mentioned? No, this version of the prayer is structured as if you are talking to someone who is right there with you, and more than that, someone who has been right there with you, your whole life. This version of the prayer is so much more personal. And all of that comes from that first word, “Father.” Or as Jesus put it, “Abba.”

On Wednesday, we will talk about the rest of this first part of the prayer, about the honoring of God’s holy name and the coming of God’s kingdom. But first and foremost, for the purposes of this sermon, I wanted to focus on just how profound it is, to have Jesus allow us to call God Abba. If Jesus had been anyone else, just some ordinary human rabbi, he could have easily kept that all to himself, he could have easily said, “No, only I get to call God Abba.” But that’s not what he did. Instead, he continued his work of compassion and love and openness and welcome, the work that they had seen first hand throughout the first half of Luke’s Gospel, and allowed us to call God Abba just like him. What an honor, in and of itself, what a blessing, and we are only one word into this powerful prayer that has stood the test of time. May God bless you this week, as you ponder what an honor it is to come to God in prayer, in the personal, intimate way that Jesus encourages us to. Thanks be to Abba. Amen.