“Our Father Who Art in Heaven” (Matthew 6:1-21; The Lord’s Prayer)
You know, during Lent there is a strong tradition to do a series on some part of the Catechism. And that’s what we’re going to do for this Lenten season. Today we begin a nine-part sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. I’m calling it “Lord, Teach Us to Pray,” which is what the disciples asked Jesus to teach them. And Jesus responded by giving them the Lord’s Prayer, as well as other teaching about prayer. Apparently, Jesus wants his Christians to pray. He thinks it’s important. He gives us instruction to guide us and many precious promises to move us to pray. Not just so that we will know about prayer. But more than that, so that we will actually pray. That we will put the teaching and the promises into practice. And so this will be our theme for these services: “Lord, Teach Us to Pray.”
Today on Ash Wednesday we’re going to take the Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven.” Then on the next five Wednesdays, for our Midweek Lenten Services, we’ll take up the first five petitions, “Hallowed be thy name,” “Thy kingdom come,” and so on. During Holy Week, we’ll do “And lead us not into temptation” on Holy Thursday, and “But deliver us from evil,” on Good Friday. Then on Easter Day, appropriately enough, we’ll conclude with the big “Amen.” But tonight we begin with the Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, namely, “Our Father Who Art in Heaven.”
It’s a fortunate coincidence that we would begin a series on the Lord’s Prayer on Ash Wednesday, because the Gospel reading for this day is the text made up of the verses immediately surrounding the Lord’s Prayer. In this passage from Matthew 6, Jesus is instructing his disciples on the wrong way and the right way to do the traditional acts of Jewish piety, which were considered to be these three things in particular: giving to the needy; praying; and fasting. Jesus here is saying that there is a wrong way to do these acts of righteousness, and there is a right way. Also, Jesus makes several references here to “your Father,” meaning our heavenly Father, which, in the section on praying, leads right into Jesus giving us the Our Father. So the beginning of our series tonight fits right into the Ash Wednesday Gospel.
Well, let’s try to understand what Jesus is teaching us here about prayer, about both the wrong way and the right way to do it. First, the wrong way. And Jesus prefaces this whole section on giving, praying, and fasting with these words: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” And particularly with regard to praying, Jesus says: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.”
So that’s the first thing. You and I are not to pray in order to be seen by men. In prayer, we’re not out to impress people. If we are doing our praying so that people will see us and think we’re really religious and spiritual and pious–well, that may impress people, but it doesn’t impress God. You may get what you want by doing that, which is to be well thought of and admired by others, but that’s all you’ll get. As Jesus said about those who pray this way: “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Now this is not to say you can’t do a table prayer at a restaurant, for instance. You can. But just make sure you’re doing it because you’re genuinely thankful to God for the food you’re receiving and not doing it to draw attention to yourself. Hypocrisy is a subtle little trap to fall into, and we religious people are especially susceptible to it. So that’s why Jesus warns his disciples against it.
In contrast to a hypocritical, show-off kind of praying, Jesus then gives us the right way to pray: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” Now of course you don’t literally have to step into a closet and shut the door. But Jesus is making a point. It doesn’t matter if anybody else knows you are praying. The main thing is that God knows, and he sees, and hears. Your heavenly Father hears you, and he will answer your prayer and give you what is best for you. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
That’s good to know, isn’t it? That we have a Father in heaven who hears our prayers and answers them in the way that he knows is best. Do we believe this? That’s what Jesus is telling us here. Do we believe Jesus? Yes, and for good reason. For this is the same Jesus who is going to the cross for us, to open up the way to our heavenly Father.
You see, apart from Christ, you and I would be cut off from God. Our sins would prevent a relationship with him. Without Jesus, we would not know a heavenly Father who loves us and cares for us. All we would know is that there’s some “Higher Power” up there, a god or gods who made us and to whom we are accountable. But we wouldn’t know who this god is. We wouldn’t know how this god is disposed to us, whether he’s pleased with us or hates us. And we wouldn’t know how to get right with God, if we felt we needed to get on his good side, so that he would hear our prayers. This is the natural state of man, wandering around in the dark, not knowing God, the true God, and unable to get right with him on our own.
But with Jesus, all that has changed. By his blood shed on the cross, the barrier of our sins is removed. The way is clear. Now we know God. We know who he is. We know a kind and loving heavenly Father. Jesus has revealed him to us. Jesus wants us to pray to God as such: “Our Father who art in heaven.” Those are such warm and inviting words with which we can pray. As Luther explains: “With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that he is our true Father and that we are his true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask him as dear children ask their dear father.”
“Our Father”: This is relational talk here. We’re not coming to some impersonal “Higher Power,” but rather to our Father. And Jesus makes it so. For Jesus himself is the Son of God, in perfect communion with his Father, and through Jesus, we also are the children of God. Now Jesus is God’s Son in a unique sense, of course. He is the only Son of God from eternity, the Second Person of the Trinity. But now joined to Jesus in Holy Baptism, we truly are children of the heavenly Father, and the Father looks kindly upon us for Jesus’ sake.
And if that is who the Father is–and he is–then that means there is a wrong way to pray. Jesus says: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” The Gentiles, the pagans, the people of this world who are groping around in the dark and don’t know a kind and loving heavenly Father, because they don’t have faith in Christ–that’s how they may pray, thinking they have to impress God by piling up their show of religious devotion. Think of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. The Bible says that they “called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no one answered. . . . And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblations, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.”
You see, it is not your many words that will get God to hear you. It is not your blood that will get God to answer. Rather, it is the blood of another, the blood of Christ, your Savior, that enables your prayers to be heard. His blood, shed on your behalf, forgives your sins and gives you access to the Father in heaven. So all the ranting and raving and heaping up of empty phrases won’t get you anywhere. That’s the vain imagining of the Gentiles. And so Jesus says, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
“Your Father knows what you need.” In fact, he even knows what you need better than you do! So when you pray, don’t think that you have to inform God. He already knows. But do pray to him with your concerns, do bring your needs to him in prayer, because he knows–and cares. This is praying in faith. This is praying in trust, trust in your heavenly Father, reliance upon him to supply your every need.
Later in Matthew 6, Jesus will teach us just that. He says, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.” And Jesus gives the examples of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, which God abundantly feeds and clothes. “And are you not of more value than they?” Yes, you are. So God will care for your needs. Food, drink, clothing, shelter, the necessities of life–don’t be anxious about these things, Jesus says. “For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Dear friends, this is the message of this day. You have a Father in heaven who loves you and cares for you and invites you to come to him in prayer. This is why Jesus came, to open up the way to the Father for us and to reveal this Father to us. This is why Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer to pray. And this is why he introduces it with these words, “Our Father who art in heaven.” You have such a Father. Jesus guarantees it. So, dear brothers and sisters, this Lent, throughout this holy season, every day, come to your heavenly Father in prayer. And so, with all of Jesus’ disciples we say, “Lord, teach us to pray.”