Jesus teaches us to pray to God as ‘our Father in heaven’. This—if we understand what we are doing—is astonishing. It assumes we are his children, and in a position of security and privilege with the Creator of everything and everyone.
Prayer is not just something to do but a whole life of relating to God and to others as his children. This is why Jesus not only teaches us to pray but also teaches us to live—in what we call ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5—7). He uses this phrase ‘your Father’ eleven times in these three chapters. So what is it like to have God as Father?
First, if God is your Father, it will show! Other people will see you and recognise that God is being good to you. They will ‘give glory to your Father who is in heaven’ (5:16).
Second, it will show in your being generous to friends and enemies alike—just like God does. You will be a son or daughter of your Father in heaven who sends his sun and rain on good and bad people alike (5:45).
Third, you won’t need to look for approval from others all the time because ‘your Father who sees in secret will reward you’. This comes up four times in the Sermon so it must be important (6:1, 4, 6, 18).
Fourth, you won’t need to be anxious about your needs, or long-winded in your prayers, because ‘your Father knows what you need before you ask him’ (6:8).
Fifth, you will be quick to forgive. You know ‘your Father will not forgive your sins’ if you forget how much he has forgiven you (6:15)!
Sixth, you will expect God to respond when you ask him for something. If we sinners know how to give good gifts to our children, ‘how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him’ (7:11)!
Now is it really possible to know ‘our Father’ like this? Are we generous, content, peaceful, able to live above our own faults and forgiving toward others? Are we confident of God’s approval so that we don’t constantly need the approval of others? Well, not really. Not without some help.
That’s why I’m glad this Sermon starts with a blessing for people who are ‘poor in spirit’, or mourning, or meek, or hungering for righteousness (5:3-6). We don’t come to God because we are fit to come. We come because we badly need what he can give.
And when we do receive what he can give, we have learned to be merciful, pure in heart, and even peacemakers. And because of this last quality, we are called ‘children of God’ (5:7-9). Prayer is a lowly business, but wonderful—because God is our Father!
I hope you can see that we need Jesus to teach us to pray. Coming to God as our Father remains a problem because of a burden we bear. Jesus addresses it later in this Gospel and connects it with him being the one who must bring us to the Father.
He says, ’…no-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:27-28). So what is the burden?
It could simply be the burden of not knowing the Father. If there is no Father in heaven—that is, above us—we are alone in the universe. There is no reason for anything, or no one to say what we are doing is good.
But in the setting of this Gospel, the burden we bear is probably the teaching in which people are being brought up. They have to do all the right things to be accepted. This is the line taken by the Pharisees—who were the main guides of what was politically correct (Matthew 23:4-7).
It is not very different from the world around us. We are taught that we get what we deserve, or that we should. We are hearing that word all the time. We are preoccupied with what we deserve. We are driven to do the things we think will make us deserving. This is the burden we bear.
Trying to keep the support and affirmation of others is tiring to say the least, and in the end, hopeless—opinions change, and vary. And it stops us knowing the Father. He isn’t approaching us to see if we deserve something, but to see if he can give us something!
It is no small thing Jesus has taken on when he says he will show us the Father. He knows how we are driven to be worthy of approval. And he knows why we seek to be worthy. Because we are unworthy.
We don’t necessarily deserve the good things that happen, and we certainly don’t deserve to call God ‘Our Father’. If the truth is known, we don’t even want him to be Father—certainly not one who is above us, in heaven. This is our secret shame, and our burden.
Jesus undertakes to bear this burden for us, to give us rest, and bring us to his Father. This is what he is doing when, just hours before he is arrested and crucified, he is praying about what he needs to do.
‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will but as you will’. He prays this three times (Matthew 26:39-44). The burden of us unworthy sinners, carried into God’s presence, is enormous, but he still wants what his Father wants. And his Father wants us—as his children!
Then Jesus is crucified. And towards the end of his sufferings, he cries out, ‘ My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Matthew 27:46). Jesus can’t say ‘Father’. He has been abandoned. He has borne the burden that keeps us from the Father!
So this is what the Father wants—he abandons his Son so that we may not be abandoned. He wants us to be his children. In this way, Jesus has revealed God to us—as our Father. And then, Jesus is raised from the dead and says, ‘Peace be with you’. What wonderful words to hear!
We don’t call God Father because it feels warm and familiar but because he has given us the right to be called children of God (John 1:12). We come to him in Jesus’ name. Our unworthiness has been borne by God’s own Son. And the right he has to be in his Father’s presence is now shared by us. This is where we belong.
We now know that God is always being good to us, and people can see the difference this makes. We know now that God loves his enemies—because that’s what we were. We know we have his approval and are not angry when other people ignore us. We have discovered that he knows our needs before we do. We know he has forgiven us and so we have a reason and a power to forgive others. And we know he is waiting to hear what we ask.
Because God really is our Father, we know how to live, and we know how to pray.