There is an old Roman story which tells how a Roman emperor was enjoying a
victory. He had the privilege, which Rome gave to her great victors, of marching his
troops through the streets of Rome, with all his captured trophies and his prisoners in his
train. So the emperor was on the march with his troops. The streets were lined with
cheering people. The legionaries lined the streets’ edges to keep the people in their
places. At one point on the triumphal route there was a platform where the Empress and
her family were sitting to watch the emperor go by in all the pride of his triumph. On
the platform with his mother, there was the emperor’s youngest son. As the Emperor
came near, the little boy jumped off the platform, burrowed through the crowd, and tried
to squeeze through the legs of a legionary, and run out into the road to meet his father’s
chariot. The legionary stooped down and stopped him, swung him up in his arms and
said, “You can’t do that, boy. Don’t you know who that is in the chariot? That’s the
emperor. You can’t run out to his chariot. And he set the boy down. The boy put his
hands on his hips and answered back, “He may be your emperor,” he said, “but he’s
my father!” That’s exactly the way the Christian feels–or should feel–towards God.
The might, majesty, and the power of the living God are the might, majesty, and power of
One whom Jesus taught us to call “Our Father.”– (Wm. Barclay, Matthew, Vol. 1, p.
Part of the power of this illustration is that both aspects of the little boy claimed
are true: his father was the emperor, and the emperor was his father. Each dimension
enhances the other, and must be held together. So also with our thinking about “Our
Father who is God, and God who is “Our Father.” And so as we move on in Jesus’
prayer, the next phrase helps us do that. For while Jesus teaches us to know and love
God as “our Father,” “God Our Father” is also “Who is in heaven.” These words might
seem gratuitous but they are very important. For the God who is “our Father” is just
that, God. The qualification, “who art in heaven,” means that we are not God. Only God
is God, and it’s important to always keep that in view. Jesus’ wonderful teaching on
God as our father must not be a means to cheapen or sentimentalize God, or to make it an
excuse for an easy-going, comfortable religion. It was the German thinker Heinrich
Heine who said, “I like committing sin. God likes to forgive sin. Actually, the world is
quite well arranged.” If we were to say, “Our Father,” and stop there, there might be
some excuse for thinking that way of thinking. But it is our Father “in heaven” to whom
we pray. There is love there, but there is also holiness there, too. God our Father is
love, but whom we are still to approach with reverence, adoration, and awe.
The English translation that we use in this prayer renders the plural word in Greek
“heavens” as simply “heaven,” singular. In the Bible , the word “heavens” and “heaven”
refers to both the skies–the sky as immediately overhead and visible–as well as the
farther out “heavens” where the stars are. AND it refers to the realm beyond this order
of existence where “God dwells.” Thus, what this phrase should remind us of is that
when we pray to God, we pray to God who is not only our sky, but the skies of other
peoples, too. When praying “our Father, who art in heaven,” one is addressing the God
above all the skies of everybody. It’s essentially the same thing as when we say in the
Creed, “I believe in God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The phrase stretches
the idea of God as Father. He is not only “our” Father, but He is also the universally
Great God of all the earth. And we know that wherever we go in this world–or even
into the heavens above us–our God who is our Father is there, too.
Yet by this phrase, we must push beyond father still. To say, “Our Father, who art in
heaven,” as I said, it is a reminder that God is God, and we are not. Human beings know
more about the world in which we live than has ever been known before. Science is in
general agreement that the universe came into existence some 15-20 billion years ago
with a terrific explosion beyond our comprehension. Radios and telescopes evidence the
remnants of that fireball that continues since the original explosion. So far as we can
understand, we cannot know the forces that created and what was before that explosion.
The earth came into existence about 4.5 billion years ago, and as to the exact emergence
of human beings–as we know ourselves to be–perhaps 25,000 or 75,000 years ago or
more. We just don’t know. What was before the universe? What is beyond the
universe? What are our exact origins scientifically speaking?
All that is to say that in spite of all human beings know, we are surrounded in
mystery. Mystery impinges upon us in all directions, even if we aren’t aware. To
ac-knowledge the fact of that mystery is important. The other day it was on the news
that next Spring there will be an American Atheists convention in Memphis. Fine.
My faith is not threatened by such, nor should anyone else’s. But the atheist must
account for the reality of mystery if he or she is to be taken seriously. But so also must
the Christian. The big questions must be considered by anyone who takes belief
seriously: Why is there something rather than nothing, nothing at all? What is there
this universe at all? What this one and the way it is? Why does it work at all? Why–if
an impersonal universe exists–do persons and personalities exist? Why can we consider
in our brief lives the stars above that have existed for eons, but the stars have no thought
of us? Why? Why?
For the Christian, God is the name that refers to the mysterious Reality that
con-fronts us all. 5th century theologian Augustine observed that if we penetrate deeply
enough within our own selves we come to an awareness of that Reality that enables us to
make any real meaningful statement about our lives. We encounter a deep mystery.
That is the God who made the world with structure and coherence–even if chaos theory
is true! God is the name of that Reality at the boundaries of human existence and within.
Whether Christian or atheist, one must account for such mystery. To say, “our Father
who art in heaven” is a reminder that for all the gladness of calling God “Father”–and
rightly so to be sure–there is also the equally important reality that God is mystery, too,
and far more than we can comprehend. Such a God confronts our very existence and the
Second, to say “Our Father who art in heaven” is to confess that the God “who
made the heavens and the earth” is personal. The mystery of the universe or of ourselves
is not simply force or a blank face, or as in the book/film 2001, a great, dark monolithic
block of being. Everything in Christian theology–and Jewish teaching before
that–always speaks of God as personal–the God who wills, creates, speaks, judges,
loves, and shows mercy. God is personal like no other, yet God is personal, and we are
personal, too. There is a similarity. For the Christian, every person has value because
there is a reflection–however faint–of the reality of God. Islamic theology recognizes
this, and for that reason, they do not permit any images of faces in their art and
decoration. The face is too important–as they see it–to be depicted in any way except in
And so, when we say “Our Father who art in heaven,” we are making a profound
statement not only about God, but about the universe and ourselves. It’s the echo of
what the little Roman boy said, “He may be the emperor, but he is my father!” The true,
living, loving, and holy God is the deep reality behind and under and over us all, all the
time, and everywhere. As is written, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath
are the everlasting arms,” (Dt 33:27 [RSV]).
Thirdly, God, for Christians, is most importantly and definitively defined by Jesus
Christ. The scriptures certainly declare–as we read in the psalms–that God is revealed
in the created order, all his works. But it must be said also, that while God’s revelation
is there, it is inchoate; it is not altogether clear (think storms, tornadoes, earthquakes!).
In such things, there is an incompleteness, incoherence, and uncertainty about it. The
clear claim and teaching of the New Testament is that in Jesus Christ God’s presence,
God’s revelation and purpose are brought clearly into sharp focus. Jesus is the Word
made flesh (Jn 1:1-18). In Jesus–we claim–we see the self-expression of God embodied
in human life like none other.
It is part of the Gospel that Jesus teaches–as did Jewish tradition–that the God
who is cares deeply for his creation and creatures. This is echoed in the psalms in
parti-cular but Jesus emphasized this even more clearly in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt
6:22-33). This care and love is reflected–as we saw last time–in Jesus’ consistency and
emphasis on addressing God as Father, and teaching us to do so as well. Such intimacy
of address does not nullify the character of the Creator of heaven and earth or the majesty
and reverence for the Lord of history. Jesus’ words, his life, and his faith all reveal that
the Creator and Lord–“the true emperor” if you will, is “our Father.” What Jesus’ life
and teaching do in fact are to define and clarify the meaning of God and Father by Jesus
himself. For even as Jesus is the One who directly gives us this prayer to pray, he does
so at the will and direction of the One from whom the prayer ultimately comes from to
us, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” It not only Jesus who teaches us to pray this
prayer, you see. It is the Father himself telling Jesus to teach us this prayer.
Helmut Thielicke was a great German minister and theologian of the previous
generation. In his book on this prayer, he writes these words: “All of us who say this
prayer together are very different. We are young and old, rich and poor, learned and
simple; we belong to all races and ages on earth. But cutting straight across these
differences there is one single fellowship; we are all children of our Father in heaven.
From our mother’s womb we are all cast upon him (Ps 22:10). And in this company of
children there is still another voice that is heard, the voice of him who called us his
brethren and brought us back to the Father, so that now we can say ’My Father,’ ‘Our
Father.’ In other words, Jesus prays along with us. When our prayer is weak or listless
or stupid, he lifts up our weak and tired words in his hands; and in his hands and on his
lips they become true prayers. And when we stop praying altogether because we are
beset by despair or the words die on our lips in our terrible spiritual loneliness, he never
ceases to intercede for us. Jesus can understand even the sigh of the dying; he can
clothe it with ‘beauty and glorious dress’ and lift it to the highest rank of prayer. He
who gave us this pray prays along with us…[for] he wants to be our brother.” — (Our
Heavenly Father, pp. 40-41).
I said last week in closing the sermon that to take up Jesus’ invitation and call
God “our Father” was something of a risk, because it means commitment to this God who
wants to be our Father. But it is a risk because if so, you may be in for some surprises.
You can never can be sure what God may call you to do, after you call upon him. But if
we are willing to answer the call of God in Jesus our Brother, and if we will trust him to
take the risk of calling God “our Father,” we will discover who God really is and what
God is doing in the world and of our place in it. For the God we address, “Our Father
who art in heaven,” is not about keeping himself hold up in heaven and distantly calling
the shots on earth. No, his desire is that those who call upon him, and know his glory,
love, and beauty, reflect those realities to this world–his life in us–until that time when
“heaven and earth are one.”
And how do we do this? We do it as Jesus himself shows us. We do it in full
confidence that the love of God is backed by the power of God, and that such power
moves in love, for it is such love which has behind it the undefeatable power of God.
That truth and reality was reflected and lived out in the person of Jesus, and seen most
especially in his death for others and in his resurrection for the life of the world. That is
why the apostle Paul wrote–as we read–“that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the
Father of glory, may give y’all a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in him…that you may
know what is the hope to which he has called you…and what is the immeasurable
greatness of his power in us who believe…which he accomplished in Christ when he
raised him from the dead and made him to sit at his right hand…far above all rule and
authority, power and dominion…not only in this age but also in the age to come,” (Eph
1:17-22). In Jesus, we have the confidence of the little Roman boy who knew that the
emperor was his father, and the father was the emperor. So it is with us who by the
grace of our Lord Jesus, our Elder Brother, have learned–and are learning still–what it is
to dare to say, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Amen.