God: Far Yet Near”

                                                                February 26, 2012


Isaiah 66:13-14

Luke 11:1-4, 9-13

The followers of Jesus come to him saying, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

We continue to make the same request and continue to learn from the model of prayer that Jesus gave to us.

Many, if not most, people here today have carried the Lord's Prayer with them from childhood. We learned it at home or in Sunday School, we would say it from memory along with the rest of the congregation during worship. We know these words “by heart,” indeed they are written deeply upon our souls.

Yes, there are some for whom this is not the case. You learned this prayer later in life. Perhaps it continues to startle and challenge.

Familiar words can lose their meaning. We all face the danger that what we know best we might understand the least.

On these Sundays in Lent I want to explore those “well worn words” to see what fresh meaning they might have for us, to see what new light they might shine on our lives. We’ll take it slowly, examining a different phrase each week.

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

Prayer is answering speech.

Our prayer does not come first. We do not speak in order to get God’s attention. We speak, we pray because God has spoken first.

So, if we are going to learn to pray, we must first listen.

If we are going to learn to speak to God, we must first be attentive to what is being said to us.

The prophet speaks. “These are the words of the LORD,” he says.

We do well to open our ears and our hearts to those surprising words.

“As a mother comforts her child so shall I myself comfort you . . . Your heart will be glad, you will flourish like grass in the spring.”

These are words for Lent, for “Lent” itself is a word that means “springtime,” a word that speaks of lengthening days. In these days of growing daylight, in this time when the grass will turn green once more, can we listen to the word spoken to us?

“As a mother comforts her child so shall I myself comfort you . . .”

These words surprise and shock many people.

They surprise and shock, not because they give us an image of God as a mother, but because they speak of the intimate closeness of the Creator with her creatures.

God is above and beyond all of creation—transcendent, distant. This is some of what we are getting at when we pray to God in heaven, “Hallowed be thy name.” We call God “holy”—a word that suggests that God is separate from, other than, creation.

Scripture gives witness to such a God. Our hymns sing of God "in light inaccessible hid from our eyes." Our own experience tells us that our ways are not God’s ways, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.

There is a proper distance between Creator and creatures that all modern chumminess with God is still not able to traverse.

Even so, across that distance, God speaks. What do we hear?

“As a mother comforts her child so shall I myself comfort you . . .”

The transcendent God is made known to us as a God of intimate closeness. God’s mothering arms embrace and comfort us.

This, of course, is not new to people of faith. It was the message of the prophets of Israel.

And an ancient rabbi put it this way: “An idol is near yet far; God is far yet near.”

When asked what he meant, he replied: “An idolater makes an idol and sets it up in the house. So the idol is near. But one may cry unto the idol and it will not answer, therefore the idol is far. From here to heaven is a journey of five hundred years; therefore God is far; but God is also near for if one prays and meditates, God is near to answer ones prayer.”[i]

If we listen to the words that are spoken, our response will be intimate as well.

Jesus tells us we can begin: “Our Father. . .”

Hymnwriter Brian Wren points out that “This is not at all the same as saying ‘When all future Christians pray, they may only speak to God in terms of male authority figures.’”

We need not be literalists here and claim that since Jesus said “Father” we, too, must use that title exclusive of all others. Father points to something beyond that word, to the nurturing relationship with the far-but-near God that we humans can have. Jesus is saying, “We’re all in this together, so address God with the same intimacy with which I do.”

In worship our Episcopalian friends begin the Lord’s Prayer after the invitation: “And now, as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say . . .” The point is, as one person put it, “only because Jesus Christ is our Savior do we have the audacity to assume this intimate relationship to God and to ask for forgiveness and sustenance.”[ii]

Father. Mother. Parent. God is that close to us.

In fact God is closer than our often-formal word “Father” usually suggests.

The word Jesus used for "Father" was Abba. It’s the word that is still used by Hebrew speaking people today.

I think I’ve spoken before about the summer during seminary when I worked at the Harvard Law School Child Care Center. The children matched the international character of Cambridge. One child spoke only German. He would cry when his mother left him and I was left to comfort him with my broken and faded high school German.

The toddler that impressed me the most was from Israel. When his father came to greet him at the end of the day he would run toward him with outstretched arms and cry “Abba!”—the Hebrew equivalent of “Daddy!” or “Dada!”

Seeing that was enough to convince me that my New Testament professor was right when he said that as Jesus began to teach us to pray he was recommending that we say something like “Daddy!”

When Jesus said, “When you pray, say ‘Father’ . . .” he did not, of course, say the English “Father,” or the Greek “Pater.” He spoke his own language and said “Abba”—Daddy. When you pray, be this open, this trusting, this close to God, that like a child you can say “Mommy,” “Dada.”

Prayer is the time when we come running with outstretched arms. This is the intimacy with God that is granted to the followers of Jesus. As sisters and brothers of Christ, we know ourselves as children of God.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray “our Father” not to make us idolize a word, but to help us focus on a relationship with a transcendent God who is infinitely close to us.

There is something else about this prayer that shocks—even as we just begin.

Church historian Roberta Bondi reminds us that we “Protestant Americans are almost fatally individualistic in every area of our lives, including our religion.” We are products of our culture and “continue to fall into the trap of thinking of my spirituality and my prayer as a private matter involving nobody but myself and God.”[iii]

Remember that George Harrison song that was also the title of his autobiography: I, Me, Mine? You will find those words nowhere in the prayer Jesus taught. It speaks of us and our Father, our daily bread, and our debts and debtors.

Whether we pray this prayer in a large assembly or alone in our rooms, we pray together. Our prayer is public and common. By virtue of our baptism, we pray it as part of the people of God, and others pray it with us.[iv]

Which is all well and good until we realize just what that means. When we pray like this, we are called into a ministry of reconciliation. We are reminded of our common Creator, our common Redeemer, our common Sustainer. Our faith connects us not only with strangers but also with those whom we don’t like, with our enemies. [v] Whenever we stand before God and pray at the same time for ourselves and someone we are estranged from we are stepping into a place of humility.

To pray as Jesus taught us draws us into community. We’ll explore this further when we consider what it means to pray, “forgive us . . . as we forgive.” From the very start of this prayer, however, we are caught up with each other. To pray to “Our Father” is to speak to the God who comforts all her children, not just those like minded souls whom we might choose. To pray “Our Father” calls us to be agents of reconciliation, of friendship.

Which brings us back to that phrase “hallowed be thy name” once more.

This petition saves us from a sentimental image of God—it calls forth our reverence.

In his Larger Catechism, Martin Luther asks: “How is God’s name revered among us?”

His answer? “When our life and doctrine are truly Christian.” This prayer does not leave us with heads bowed. It challenges us to Christian action and invites us to Christian commitment.[vi]

Learning to pray takes time. It is not to be rushed.

We do best to first clear our cluttered hearts and remind ourselves that there is a power in the universe far greater than ourselves, far greater than this nation, far greater than life or death.

We name that power "God." And Jesus teaches us that this God is loving, creative, nurturing. This God is beyond all things, and yet—good news—will comfort us even as a mother comforts her child.

Secure in that comfort, we are called to share that love with the world.

[i] Page: 1
Quoted in William Barclay, The Lord’s Prayer, pg. 24

[ii] Nancy Hardesty, Inclusive Language in the Church, pg. 30.

[iii] Page: 1
Roberta Bondi, A Place to Pray, pg. 24.

[iv] Page: 1
Bondi, pg. 27.

[v] Page: 1
Bondi, pg. 27.

[vi] Page: 1
Barclay, the Lord’s Prayer, pg. 50-51.