In this message, we enter, explore, and savor the Lord’s Prayer, which is to say, the prayer he gave his disciples. And what a gift it is! We see in this first sermon that it is those who can call God, “Father” from a full heart who can pray this prayer in a way that helps them and changes the world.
The famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher said that he once thought the Lord’s prayer a short prayer but had come to think of it as the longest prayer. He said that if someone stayed with each word, “suckled at it,” as Martin Luther put it, he couldn’t get through the Lord’s prayer in a lifetime.
This morning, we are going to follow Beecher’s advice and Luther’s example. We will not rush through this best of prayers but enter it, explore it, and savor it, beginning with its first word. But before we get to that word, we need to look at what immediately precedes it, for Jesus said, “This, then, is how you should pray…” In the original language, that is simply, “Thus, therefore, pray…” Therefore? What is the therefore there for?
Jesus has just instructed his disciples not to be like the gentiles, who prattle in their prayers. And they do this because they don’t know God – who he is and what he is like. First century gentiles would sometimes list every god they could think of when they prayed, hoping they would mention the right one. But Jesus’s people know there is one God and, and they know who he is: the God of Abraham and – gloriously – the Father of us. For them prayer is an expression of faith, not of desperation and doubt.
People who don’t know God often think of prayer as a magical incantation – better get every word right or it won’t work! – or a persuasive sales pitch. People who know God think of prayer as a conversation with the Father who loves them. They don’t need to impress God. They don’t need to get his attention. He doesn’t need to be begged and his arm can’t be twisted.
When the great preacher Haddon Robinson’s kids were young, he would sometimes grab a fistful of pennies and close his hand tight. Then his kids would try to pry his fingers open. The rules of the game dictated that once a finger was opened, it couldn’t be closed again. As fingers were forced open, pennies would drop, and the kids would snatch them up. When they got all the pennies, they would run off happy and play.
People who don’t know God think they must pry his hand open to get what they need and, once they’ve got it, run off and do their own thing. But God is not tight-fisted; he is open-handed. He doesn’t withhold what we need, and he doesn’t want us to leave him when we get it. Instead of prying his fingers open, he wants us to take his hand and do life with him as his beloved children.
And that brings us to the first word of the prayer—in the original language. In English, it is “Our” but in Greek it is Father. Placing a word first in a sentence gives it emphasis in Greek and in this sentence Father is emphatic. From this one word, the rest of the prayer flows. To pray it in a way that is powerful and transformative, a person must be able to say its first word from a full heart: Father.
And right there is the problem. It is hard for people who don’t have faith in fathers to have faith in Father. There is an approach to spiritual living that speaks of the twin poles of consolation and desolation within the human heart. Consolation describes the uplift of spirit that happens as people move toward God. Desolation describes a depression of spirit that happens when people (knowingly or unknowingly) move away from him. For many people, the very word “Father” causes desolation, not consolation.
During the pandemic, Rob Kenney launched a YouTube channel that he called, “Dad, how do I?” It has about 4-and-a-quarter million subscribers and has had tens of millions of views. In his videos, he provides practical advice (like “How to fix most running toilets”) and emotional support (like his three-minute “I am proud of you!” video, which has had 1.4 million views).
When Kenney was a kid, his parents divorced, and his dad got full custody. Shortly after that, his dad met someone and started spending weekends with her. He would make sure the cupboards were stocked with groceries, then he’d drive an hour away, leaving his kids to fend for themselves. That went on for a year. At the end of the year, he got his kids together and told them, “I’m done raising kids.” And he left.
Rob, who was then 14, went to live with his 23-year-old newlywed brother in a 280-square-foot trailer. (Most hotel rooms are bigger than that.) Now, Kenny, a Jesus-follower in his late 50s, is trying to help people like him who are missing their dads. Reading people’s comments on his videos – people from around the globe – is enough to bring you to tears. They say things like, “No one ever told me they were proud of me.” Or, “The sad reality is that my dad … never taught me anything, or said he loved me, or that he was proud of me.” Or, “My father left me when I was 3 and my mom is very strict to me because of her boyfriend. I barely ask her stuff anymore. I love you, dad.”
In the final words of the Old Testament, God promised to send a prophet who would “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” to avert disaster on the land (Malachi 4:5). But that has not happened in our society.
You may think, “My dad was no winner, but that was a long time ago. I’m over it.” I hope that you are, but this I know: you never outgrow the need for a loving father. When Bob Russell’s kids were young, at the end of each day his family would hold hands and pray together, then the boys would go to bed. After they got settled in, he would go up and kiss them goodnight.
One night, his nine-year-old said, “Mom, I can’t remember whether Dad kissed me good night or not.” When his wife told Bob that. he burst through his door, jumped onto the bed, and wrestled and tickled him. They laughed and Bob kissed him, and then they just laid there in the darkness for about fifteen minutes and talked—it was a beautiful, sweet time.
Every night for weeks after that, as soon as they said “Amen,” the nine-year-old would bound up the stairs, get in bed, and holler, “Dad, you didn’t kiss me good night.” Then Bob would go up, jump on the bed, and repeat the ritual.
One night after he left his youngest son’s room, he walked by his older son’s room and said, “Good night, Russ,” which he did every night, and Russ called back (as he did every night), “Good night, Dad.” On this night, though, Bob thought, “Every night Russ hears us laughing and carrying on in the next room. Then I go by and just say good night. Maybe he’d want me to do that to him.” So, he bolted through the door, jumped on the bed, and started wrestling with his older son—and nearly got whipped! Then he said, “Rusty, I want you to know how proud I am of you and how special I think you are. I want you to know I love you.” Russ said, “Okay, Dad.”
The next morning, as Bob was walking by his door, Russ said, “Dad, could you come in here a minute?” He went in. Russ hemmed and hawed a bit, and finally said, “Dad, thanks for coming in last night. I never get too old for that.”
Neither do we. Young or old or in between, we need to know we are loved by our Father. That may be difficult if you didn’t know your earthly dad and may be even more difficult if you did. But not impossible.
When Kim Tate was a little girl, her parents divorced. Her dad was supposed to pick her up on weekends, and she would sit and watch out the window, waiting for him to come. It was as if all the world depended on his visit. Sometimes he was late, and she would wonder if he was coming. At other times, he simply didn’t show, and she would think, “He doesn’t love me. I don’t really matter.”
When Kim went off to college, her life went off the rails. She moved in with a guy and they eventually got married – but she was miserable. In her misery, she and her husband started going to church, and she heard about the God who loved her and whose Son died for her, and she believed in him. She started a study of the Book of Deuteronomy – and interesting choice for a new Christian – and she was taken by the phrase, “hold fast” (or “cling,” as some translations have it) “to God.” She couldn’t get over the idea that her heavenly Father wanted her to cling to him. Her words were, “What an unsurpassable gift for that little girl staring out of the window, waiting for her dad, and wondering if she really mattered.”
What an unsurpassable gift for all of us.
When you can genuinely address the God who made heaven and earth as Father, it will change your life, your mood, and your future. To call the God of the universe “Father” is to know that you are known. A Sunday School teacher taught her young class to repeat the Lord’s prayer. Whenever they didn’t understand the words – “art,” “thy,” and “hallowed” – their minds filled in the blanks. One kid filled it in this way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, how’d you know my name?”
He was onto something. Your Father knows your name. And he knows your history – remembers things you do not – experiences, fears, pleasures. He understands you – what moves you, what you hope for, why you do the things you do. Your Father knows you.
When you genuinely address God as Father, you know that he can, and will, take care of you. Everything you need, he has. To call God “Father” from a full heart is to breathe a giant sigh of relief. I will be alright.
I was with our friend Mike Taylor on the day he died and on the preceding day. On the day he died, he was able to squeeze my hand and mumble an inarticulate answer to my question. The previous day, though, he was able to speak. The doctors had just told Mike and Audrey that the next 24 hours were critical, so I asked Mike if he was afraid. He answered: “No. I have Jesus. I will be alright.”
People who know God as Father and Jesus as Lord have that kind of assurance.
When you can call God “Father” from a full heart, you not only know that you are known, and that you are safe, but also that you are wanted. People who can pray this prayer, and not merely recite it, know that they are loved—and that changes everything! In Adam’s horrific collision with sin, humans didn’t lose arms or legs; they lost love. To be unloved – or to lack the knowledge that one is loved – is to be insecure and afraid or to be guarded and angry.
Love liberates us. Some people go through life in chains because they do not know – have never known – that they are loved. Knowing yourself to be loved – deeply, genuinely, eternally – is the foundation for being able to love. Why do we have so much trouble loving other people? It is because we haven’t received love.
What could change that? What could open us to love? Knowing God our Father loves us. This is why the words of 1 John 3:1 have resonated with millions of Christ followers over the past two millennia: “See what great love the Father has given us that we should be called God’s children—and we are!”
Eugene Peterson and his wife were sitting in an airport, waiting for a connecting flight to Israel, when a little boy near them jumped up and began running. As he ran, he shouted, “Abba! Abba! Abba!” to his dad, who swept him up into his arms. That is a true picture of how the God of heaven and earth feels about us, and how we might feel about him.
Only if we get this first word of the prayer right – that is, if we can say it and mean it; say it from a full heart – we will be able to pray the rest of the prayer in a way that will help us and make a difference in the world.
We’ve all heard the maxim, “Hurt people hurt people.” Yes, but “Loved people love people.” That’s why, when we pray, “Father” from a full heart, we can say the next word, “our,” with joy. It is impossible to pray “Father” aright in a way that excludes others.
So, in the prayer, we address “Our Father,” not “My Father.” We ask Father to give us our daily bread. We ask him to forgive our debts. We ask him to lead us not into – but away from – the trial that will become a temptation. When I pray “Father” aright, I take you with me into my prayers.
But how can I pray “Father” aright? Over the years, I have shared with you a little of my own relationship with my dad. I was afraid of him. He could get angry quickly. Growing up, I never shouted, “Abba! Abba! Abba!”– at least I don’t remember doing so. But I do remember staying out of his way, going in my room and closing the door, keeping things from him that might set him off. Instead of comfort, there was fear. Instead of intimacy, there was distance.
That was my fatherhood model – and I know that some of you had much worse models. By God’s grace in both our lives, my dad and I began experiencing healing in our relationship well over a decade before he died; some of you never experienced that. So how can you address God as Father from a full heart? Our entire society is suffering terribly from “absent father syndrome.” I fear the curse of which Malachi spoke has come upon us, for the hearts of the fathers have not been turned to their children and the hearts of the children have not been turned to their fathers (Malachi 4:5). So, I ask again: How can we pray “Our Father” from a full heart?
There is only one way I know: believe on the Father’s Son Jesus. When you do, his Spirit will come into you, the Spirit of sonship and daughtership. That is what changed my life and even, eventually, my relationship with my dad. That is what enables me to speak truthfully, though often haltingly and sometimes with tears, when I say, “Our Father…”
The apostle Paul writes, “…those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
Those who confess Jesus Lord, who believe in him and come over to his side receive in themselves the Spirit that calls God – like that little boy in the airport – “Abba!” This Spirit enables them – even those who had no dad or whose dad was cruel and abusive – to joyfully call God “Father.”
Paul explains to the Galatians that “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” That is Jesus’s Spirit in our hearts. When we believe in him and confess him Lord, we get his life (and with it his troubles), his future (in both places where Paul speaks of this, he goes right on to say that we are God’s heirs), his Spirit, and his Father.
If you have not yet trusted Jesus and come over to his side, I encourage you to do so. If you don’t know how, talk with one of our prayer helpers today, or with a friend who has already done so, or with me. We would all love to help you take this important step.
If you have already taken this step, yet still find it difficult to say “Father” from a full heart, you probably need to work through some things. God will help. Ask him. Perhaps you will also want to confide in a wise Christian friend or counselor.
Know this: God wants a loving, healthy Father-Child relationship with you even more than you do. He will help you enter it.
 Bob Russell, in the sermon “The Pressure of Fatherhood,” PreachingToday.com
 Kim Cash Tate, “A Father Worth Waiting For,” CT magazine (July/August, 2019), pp. 79-80.
 C.L. Null, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Christian Reader, “Kids of the Kingdom.”