The Lord is with me

David is telling us what it is like when ‘the Lord is my Shepherd’. And now, he tells us about the valleys with deep shadows we may be led through.

Like sheep, we are content and carefree when in green pastures. But then, we are liable to jump and lurch when led towards unfamiliar and threatening circumstances. Here again is where our ‘sails’ need to go higher.

What will happen if a foreign power starts to make things difficult for the economy? …or our whole planet begins to run down? …or if no one wants to employ me? …or if friends think my views are strange or dangerous? …or if a doctor says I have a serious illness?

David says he’s still OK. ‘I will fear no evil’. Things may go wrong but he won’t need to fear because of who is with him. And now, because we are the Lord’s flock, we can look at what is happening and ask, ‘Why should I fear?’

Well may we be scared of certain things that happen in this life. The creation wasn’t made to be terrifying. It was formed as our home and as God’s garden so we would have a place to live, to relate, to be provided for and to work. A place to walk with God and live forever (Genesis 3:22-24).

But this same creation, for the moment, has been given over to futility (Romans 8:20). Things do go wrong—wars, pandemics, accidents, death and lots besides.

The only reason David gives for not being afraid is, ‘For you are with me…’. Notice, he doesn’t say ‘the Lord…’. He changes to ‘You…’. He’s talking directly to the Lord, not about him. And it needs to be personal. We don’t get comfort from an idea. We get comfort from the presence and love and power and purpose of the Shepherd.

And this Shepherd is not helpless. He’s got a club to deal with intruding beasts, and a staff to rescue or guide or save the sheep. David is not making out to be a hero. He’s learning to be a sheep and to be comforted by the presence and power of the Shepherd.

So, this is what we need to do. As I said, our sails need to be hoisted higher to catch the winds of God’s kindness to us. We need to learn more about the Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to see how well equipped he is to lead us through our difficulties. We need to be comforted by the sight of him and his equipment to deal with all that happens.

And this is what Paul goes on to tell us in Romans 8. The world is not only given up to futility, it is ‘groaning’ (v. 22). It’s as though the world is waiting to give birth to a child and the labour is difficult. There’s a new world coming, but, right now, the present one is hurting us. And sometimes it’s scary.

But Paul goes to the same place David does. We don’t need to fear what happens. Jesus has already given his life up so that we may belong to him as his sheep. He is for us, so who can be against us (v. 33)?

Things still happen that cause us grief, but there’s no sting in them—nothing to accuse us, nothing to say we deserve this, nothing to indicate that we are not deeply loved by God and powerfully defended by Christ. And because of this, we ‘fear no evil’. The Lord is being our Shepherd and directing everything towards a good end (vv. 28-29). He is preparing us to share in the new heaven and earth.

So, even though we may walk through a deep, dark valley, there’s no evil that can touch us. Nothing will separate us from the love of God which has been revealed in Jesus Christ. The Lord will never cease being our Shepherd.

The Lord leads me

David has written a remarkable Psalm (23) about his confidence in what the Lord is going to do for him. He’s got his ‘sails’ up in higher winds than his circumstances. And it’s invigorating to see how life can be when he, and we, trust the Lord.

Continuing with the Psalm, David tells us he will be led in ‘paths of righteousness’. He’s talking about us doing what we are created for—righteousness (Ecclesiastes 7:29). And David says the Lord is up to the job.

Our life is about more than just being comfortable. It’s about belonging to God and being about his purpose.

Part of the Lord leading us in righteousness is what he has already put in his word, the Bible. For example, one prophet says, ‘…what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8).

And Paul says, ‘Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13:10). In most cases, it’s not really hard to know what God wants us to do.

But how does the Lord lead us in these paths? And why does he do it for his name’s sake? David is talking about what God is going to do, and what he will do for the sake of his own reputation.

‘Paths of righteousness’ is not just about how to behave. It encompasses the whole pathway God has prepared for us to travel on.  

This is the way God has led Israel up to this point. Moses says, ‘In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling’ (Exodus 15:13).

If God is going to have people doing his will, he needs to set up a way where it becomes possible. He shows them his love. He saves them. He guides them with his strength. He doesn’t just give directions.

So, David asks God to ‘Send me your light and your faithful care, let them lead me’ (Psalm 43:3). He’s not just looking for orders. He needs to know God. He needs to know the certainty of God’s presence.

If the Lord—and in our case, the Lord Jesus—is going to lead us in paths of righteousness, this is how it works. He doesn’t start with us! That’s a lost cause. He starts with his own faithful love, his own light and truth—just as he did with Israel.

Jesus creates a ‘Christian life’ with his own life, death and resurrection. Our sins are all answered for. Christ is our peace with God. And then he says, ‘Walk in that!’

Have a look at some places (in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians) where Christians are told how to live.

We are God’s workmanship, ‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (2:8-10). We are to put off our old corrupted life and to get dressed in the new life God has created for us (4:22-24). We are to imitate the one who is loving us—our Father (5:1).

We shouldn’t just read the Bible to find out what to do. Read it to see how God has set you up to live differently—and then, live differently!

In addition to this, the Lord is a lot more practical than us when it comes to being righteous. He knows our weak spots. Just ask David. He thanked God for the intervention of a sensible woman when he was about to attack some people who had peeved him (2 Samuel 25:32-34).

God regulates our temptations so that we never get something too hard for us to handle (1 Corinthians 10:13). As Paul says, ‘the Lord is faithful’. He is our Shepherd.

This is what it is like to be led in paths of righteousness. And this is why—when we let our ‘light shine’ before others—that they give glory to our Father (Matthew 5:16). It’s not just us who knows that our good deeds are coming from above. Other people can see it.

If you want to walk in ‘paths of righteousness’, Christ is going to have to be your Shepherd—all the way.

God is my Shepherd! I won’t lack anything

Does God really look after people—like a shepherd used to look after sheep? David writes his song, what we know as Psalm 23, to say that this is so. He knows what shepherds do because he used to be one. And he writes because he wants to put on record just how amazing it is that God looks after people like him. David says, ‘I shall not want for anything.’

The whole song is full of calmness, assurance and hope—particularly about the future. This is probably why it is still so popular. But how does someone come to be completely at peace, and full of confidence?

It’s not as if David expects everything to go well. He tells us that his soul—that is, his inner life—needs to be ‘restored’. Something must have worn him down and he needs fixing. Then, he anticipates he will go through deep dark valleys—perhaps be threatened with death. And then he looks forward to a banquet—but enemies are looking on.

Life’s like that. All sorts of things happen that make us feel we are not being looked after by anyone. But David knows God. He knows his God is trustworthy. He is sure God’s goodness and steadfast love will be with him all the days of his life. And he’s happy to be led by this God. And the result is that he is completely at rest—whatever happens.

Being contented is not easy to come by. How will I get employment, funds, friends, health, opportunity or vindication? The list is endless. David is not saying he doesn’t want anything but that he is confident he will be looked after.

Everything here depends on the Lord being present and active. ‘He will make me lie down… he will lead me… he will restore my life’. And when life is dark, ‘You are with me’. He feels this very personally… ‘Your rod and staff will comfort me’. And then, ‘You will treat me to a banquet.’ This is his confession of faith, finishing with certainty that he will spend forever in the Lord’s house. There’s nothing else that is making him contented—just the Lord.

We tend to work from what we can see to guarantee a good future. If you are not a Christian, this is all you have—what you can see and what you or someone else may be able to make happen. But this is never enough to give us assurance.

You may be a Christian but have let the world become your prop, your security, your hope. Then things go wrong. This is not because you have been abandoned but so the Lord can bring it home to you more powerfully that he is your shepherd—and that only he is your Shepherd. This is why David doesn’t mention his accomplishments, or troops, or popularity, but attributes his restfulness to what the Lord is going to do.

David calls God ‘the Lord’, the God who has chosen Israel and vowed to be kind to them (Exodus 3:15-17; Deuteronomy 7:6-11). His confidence isn’t self-generated. It has been created by what this Lord has already done in their history and the promises he has made for their future. He is saying, ‘I belong to God. He has chosen me for a special purpose and is looking after me.’

In our case, Jesus has been sent by God to be ‘the good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep’ (John 10:7-18). God has revealed himself to the whole world through him. He so loves this world that he has given us his only Son—so we can have eternal life. As Jesus says, he came so we may have life and have it abundantly. You can’t have anything abundantly while you are fretting and anxious. We need Christ’s shepherding because this is how God is looking after us.

Jesus says the true Shepherd knows his sheep and they know his voice. It’s that personal. He says there are others who claim to be able to look after us but who are more interested in their own success. In fact, he says false shepherds seek to kill and destroy the sheep—or leave them to their fate when trouble comes. We all expect someone or some agency to look after us, so finding the true Shepherd is important.

Jesus goes to the root of our distrust. He knows that we’d rather not have to depend on the Lord. He knows how much this has twisted our affections and destroyed our confidence to live. This is why he says he will lay down his life. He needs to make himself an offering for our sin. Until he does this, nothing will persuade us that the Father is a caring God.

We need to let this truth seep into every thought. Perhaps you are going through troubled times and hunger for some peace and confidence. Reading this Psalm would be a good place to start. But then, you need to let the Lord be your shepherd.

Getting reassurance from this or that person won’t do. Accumulating more resources won’t do. Surrounding yourself with amusements won’t do. Being religious won’t do. It has to be the Lord. It has to be Christ doing what only he can do. And we need to understand that he is calling us to follow him.

If you have trusted Christ for forgiveness, Paul says, ‘If God did not spare his Son but freely gave him up for us all, how will he not also freely give us all things’ (Romans 8:31-39). We won’t lack anything needful. Everything will be working together for a good purpose—that we may be conformed to the image of his Son. Something good is happening—always! The Lord is our Shepherd!

I feel ‘sheepish’ saying these things because there’s nothing I can do to persuade you this is true. But then, I’m happy to be a ‘sheep’. And if you belong to God and he’s shepherding you, God will show you the truth of what Christ is and has done.

Putting all our hope in this won’t leave us disappointed. Again, it is Paul who tells us that the love of God will be poured out into our hearts (Romans 5:3-5). Finally, it’s love that makes us sure and steady.

Next time, I’d like to show what having God as your shepherd may look like, using the descriptions David uses in his song.

A Heart at Peace

David tells us he is wholly at rest because the Lord is looking after him. As a proverb tells us, ‘A heart at peace gives life to the body…’ (Proverbs 14:30). How will we find this restfulness that spreads through our whole being? David explains his confidence with pictures from his shepherd days.

Lying down in green pastures, for sheep, must mean they’ve eaten all they can and now it’s time to sleep—and still there’s plenty around to eat. It’s sounds idyllic. And being led alongside of restful waters sounds wonderful. Is David saying, ‘My life is a breeze. Trusting the Lord is like a perpetual holiday’?

This is hardly David’s experience. He is well acquainted with intrigue and war, disputes and family discontent. He’s also acquainted with public personal failure and facing God’s discipline. But he anticipates the future with quiet assurance of God’s leading and restoration—restoration of his soul—that is, deep and personal.

Clearly, it is not his circumstances or performance that secures him. Rather, it is the Lord being his Shepherd that makes the difference.

The world is making an industry out of offering tranquility, happiness and confidence, and the market is huge. It can become a means of controlling us. It’s important to go to the right place. So, what does David tell us?

A shepherd knows where to find good feed and leads his flock there. That’s what David knows the Lord has done for him. His food is what God says and what God has done for him. In one of his songs he tells us, ‘Lord, you have assigned me my portion…you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance’ (Psalm 16:5-6).

He’s basing his confidence on things God has already done for Israel—like leading them to ‘holy pasture’ (Exodus 15:11-13), and seeking a resting place for them (Numbers 10:33). He remembers the promises made to him (2 Samuel 7:10-16). He doesn’t know how this may work out but he knows the Lord is going to take him on paths where everything will be looked after.

And if his personal life is shattered and his mind in disarray and his prayers all over the place, he knows the Lord will restore his soul to its proper state again—at peace before his Maker.

The renewal and refreshment we sorely need can only come by the Lord speaking to us, telling us we are forgiven and that we belong to him, that he is involving us in his purposes and taking us to his goal.

Life makes many demands on us. We talk about being ‘dry’ or ‘worn out’. And the Lord comes to David and ‘restores his soul’. David is not just a body, or an ambition. Nor is he just an intellect that can be satisfied by pleasant ideas. He is a creature made in God’s image who only God can satisfy. David says this revelation, and the providences fulfilling these promises, restore his soul. He’s ‘up and running’ again.

Having real peace of mind has everything to do with hearing what God is saying to us. It can’t be guaranteed by happy circumstances. This world changes so quickly. God’s word is eternal, and sure. And this is what we really need.

This is how Jesus goes about being the good Shepherd (John 10:11). On one occasion he sees a large crowd and has compassion on them, ‘because they were like sheep without a shepherd’. So, he begins to teach them (Mark 6:34). After that, he does feed them—miraculously—but that is not the refreshment he has come to give. He tells the crowds to work for ‘food that endures for eternal life’ (John 6:27).

He also tells the crowd that the food he has to give them is his body (John 6:54-58). Until we know Jesus offers himself up for us, we will always be restless.

We may be looking in the wrong place for tranquility, or peace, or assurance, or confidence. We think we will be alright when certain things change, or people treat us differently or the government provides for us. David isn’t thinking of that. Neither is Jesus.

Shepherding, or looking after people involves a lot of things, but basic to it all is letting them know what God is saying to them. Jesus says Peter must ‘feed my lambs’, ‘take care of my sheep’ and ‘feed my sheep’ (John 20:15-19). He must tell the great things God has done in Jesus Christ.

And we need to do the same now. Everyone needs to hear Jesus say, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…your will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28-30). What we really need is the Lord as our Shepherd.

All of us Christians need to bathe ourselves in God’s revelation—his Bible. There are treasures here to be known, received, enjoyed, shared and trusted. It works!

Many of us have spent weeks, or longer, waiting for some circumstance to change. And then, we hear God speak to us, and everything is changed. We are sure our life is being attended, cared for, given purpose and a future. And strangely, we are deeply contented. We begin to move forward with purpose and joy.

Soak yourself in the gospel that God has given us in Jesus Christ, and your soul will be refreshed. Only the truth of Jesus Christ is sufficient to restore your soul.

It matters who you listen to

None of us can live well without having a purpose. We find ourselves asking, ‘What am I good at?’ Or, ‘Why am I here?’ We are longing to be someone—to have a reason to live.

But here, it matters who you are listening to. Our culture says we should have a reason to live within ourselves. We just need to find it. We need to listen to ourselves. If we can just find our real self, and if everyone lets us be that, everything will be alright.

But the voice from within is never enough. We have evidence of that in the way we need affirmation or approval from friends, and from the community as a whole. Listening to our own inner voice is not making us more secure people.

There are many voices to listen to. And we are hard-wired to be listening to something or someone. We need a voice to tell us who we are and what we are here for.

Simply, God made us. And he talks to us. This is why we need something outside of ourselves. We were made to listen.

But there is another voice. In fact, there are many voices. None of us would have enough time to listen to all of them. But if they are not from God, they are coming from ‘below’. This is one way to describe the two kinds of voices that come to us.

Here is how I learned to tell the difference between a voice from above and a voice from below.

A voice from above, for starters, agrees with the teaching of Christ and his apostles—our Bible in other words. If it doesn’t do that, it must be coming from below.  This is a whole subject in itself, but I want to focus on what flows from this.

I know the difference between a voice from above and one from below because a word from below drags me down.  It condemns. A word from above gives hope—for me, regardless of what I think of myself, or what I have done.

There’s a reason for this. God isn’t limited to the processes of cause and effect. What I mean is the same as what we say about computers: ‘Rubbish in, rubbish out’. We know that systems can’t rise higher than the material we put into them. But God is outside his own creation. He is not limited to what we do.

God is good. We might say, ‘He can’t help himself!’ This is who he is. When we do bad things, he doesn’t spit it back at us with interest! In fact, he loves what he has made. He has decided to do us good anyway.

He has told us this in many ways. For a start, he hasn’t closed the solar system down because we pollute his creation. He doesn’t stop people having babies just because parents are selfish. There are lots of things like this to observe.

But the main way God has spoken to us is by giving his Son to us—to live among us. Even a casual reading of this Jesus story shows that he gave people hope. God was showing the way for our future—not a future that is the product of what we put into life but the result of his kindness.

He knows the reason why we feel bad about ourselves. He knows why we need constant affirmation from others. Simply put, we’ve tried to live without him. We’re not living truly—and it hurts. It’s called guilt.

No one can really deal with this unless it’s the person we’ve offended—God. And he does it by giving our burden to Jesus. This is what his death means. And God is entirely pleased with what Jesus has done. He’s entirely happy to announce that anyone who relies on him is forgiven. You can’t have a message like this unless there’s something outside the ‘system’—a loving God.

There’s a voice from below as well. It’s not just the accumulation of voices that don’t want to have God. It’s Satan or the devil. He hates what God is about. He is called ‘the god of this world’. He is the god you have when you don’t want the real one.

Now, here’s how I know one ‘voice’ from the other. When I ‘hear’ accusations, put-downs, nightmares of hopelessness, I know it’s coming from below. It’s not coming from God.

God’s voice tells me about his Son, about his resolve to give me something good that I don’t deserve. It teaches me to trust God. It gives me a future and a hope. It makes me change for the better.

There’s a lot more to say about this, but I hope you are persuaded that we can’t help but listen to voices besides our own. I hope you are persuaded that something needs to come to us from outside our own ‘closed system’. And I hope you are willing to listen to a Voice that gives you a hope you don’t deserve. Then, you may be able to see all sorts of possibilities for yourself!

Finding Love

There is a story of God’s love for the world that I would like to tell. But it is not easily told. Love requires that everything come out into the open, that everything be what it is. Love must come from the centre of a person and go to the centre of another person.

In many ways, we steel ourselves against the simple things, the true things, the lasting things, and have a preference for the immediate things, the complex things, the things that have to be done again or improved on because what we have is not real. We may show respect, loyalty, tolerance or give people what they want but still not have love. We may indulge a passion and still not have love.

Many things we do are helpful but not love, kind but still not love, useful or interesting or stimulating but not love. In particular, we try to stay in charge, but love involves giving ourselves away and this is risky.

There are obstacles to love flowing freely. Things have happened to us. We had to cope. We sought refuge behind talking, or listening, or making things, or doing things, or going places, or succeeding, or providing. But to do these things, we left something of ourselves behind—some unfinished business, something that couldn’t come out into the open. So, we moved forward—but not every part of us. There was a division, a severing of what was real from what we projected.

Cleverness may tell us what things are and how they work and if they can be changed. But only love can tell us who we are, and why.

God is love. This is our ‘problem’. God is love and he created us in an outpouring of himself. He is always our origin and goal, our centre, and, most significantly for us, the word by which to live. If he does not speak to us, we are effectively orphans—without a true home in this life or the next.

God himself is the love that makes us human. He does not have a ‘use by’ date, or go out of fashion, or wear out or become redundant. If we do not want to have God in our thinking, we live in death rather than life—we leave something of ourselves behind.

The pain of being a human being is very real. Those who do not feel it have decided that it is easier to live with the image they have become, or the dreams that may yet come true, or the best of what has now gone, or the imagining of what might have been.

But what is this pain? And why is it easier to move away from it than face it? Are we destined to be forever moving away from our centre rather than be moving out into life—wholly at rest with ourselves and our Creator—and giving to others from who we really are?

The story of God’s love begins with him creating us and giving us this world as our home. But it becomes clearest when Jesus Christ comes to share our history. When we say that God is love, it is his Son that we have in mind. We do not think of our pleasant or unpleasant experiences, or the ideas of God we have formed, or the prayers that have been answered, but very simply, of Christ.

To tell the story of God’s love is more than hard; it is miraculous. It must be told by Jesus Christ, in his own words and actions. And he can only tell it fully by laying down his life.

We must listen to Jesus Christ because God gave—and gives him to us. There is nothing greater that God could give. Life itself is a gift. To breathe and to know that God formed us is beyond telling. But he has given us his own Son—his very self really, because all of his love is focused on this Son. To give us his Son is to give us all he has.

What is remarkable is that the Son of God does not speak to the image we make for ourselves. He speaks to us. He knows our severed self and speaks God’s words. He speaks what his Father wants to say. What we hear comes from his fellowship with the Father. He speaks words that heal, so that we know our fractured life is not all there is. His words are not designed to shut us out.

Strangely, it is when he is crucified that we see ourselves more clearly than when we look at ourselves. Christ’s loving deed has encompassed us in our strange and mis-formed ways. He is there for us. But he is there, for us, in the presence of God—bearing God’s rejection of all that we have become. He is there before God, doing what he is doing for God. And he is received by God. We know this because God raises him from the dead to tell us that we are reconciled to him.

This Son is able to reveal God’s love to us. That is, he is able to say it, to be it, to convey it to us. He has never shut himself away from the love of his Father, has never needed to hide from what he is. He has received in full what his Father is and knows fully what his Father is about in the world. What he knows is that his Father is for us—though against what we have made of ourselves apart from him.

Now, we may come out of hiding. God has not only raised Jesus from the dead but recreated our broken humanity. He suffered for us in our brokenness so that we could join him in his wholeness—before his Father, God.

This is not just our new life but our true life. If we hear the word that God speaks through him, and trust him, we are children of God. We have been healed.

Through Christ now, we can change our view of everything. The place to find love is not by getting closer to ourselves or another person or our interests. Our own true self is here—in Christ, on the cross, and raised from the dead. This is the way of God for every human being—the way of love. From here, we know who we are, and we know that, like Christ, our life is for others.

May I call you Father?

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.

Father, may your name be reverenced

We have learned to call God ‘Father’. This is astonishing and a huge kindness to us. So, when we begin to pray, our first request has to do with him—his name, or what he has revealed himself to be. We want him to be front and centre—for us and for everything around us.

‘Hallowed’ simply means ‘to make holy’. Clearly, we don’t make God holy but we do want him to be known as who he is. We could use the words sanctified, reverenced, or honoured.

The world doesn’t want God in its thinking at all. But if we know God as Father, his honour is what we want most. We will want everything to flow from him (Ephesians 3:14). Everything has been created to work in this way. We can see that persons, communities and the world suffer when they don’t know him.

So how is God’s name reverenced? Jesus says, ‘let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16). We sometimes speak about children bringing glory to their parents—or shame—by how they perform in education, sport or some other activity. We can bring glory to our Father by receiving his goodness and reflecting that in our life. So this is part of what we are asking for when we pray ‘Hallowed be your name’.

But sometimes, the church causes God’s name to be dishonoured. This can happen because we don’t live as God tells us to (Romans 2:23). The world becomes disgusted with our poor behaviour and wants nothing to do with our God and Father.

So knowing God and being reverent before him is not as simple as it sounds. Lots of things stand in the way. For a start, we would like to be front and centre in our own lives. This means we can’t pray for God to have that place because it is already occupied!

Then again, the world puts pressure on us to conform to their interests. A couple of examples make this clear. Peter tells us to ‘honour Christ the Lord as holy (1 Peter 3:15). And Isaiah says, ‘the Lord of Hosts, him shall you honour as holy (Isaiah 8:13). Both these commands are written to people who are being threatened. God is telling us to reverence him more than people who frighten us! Who we honour is contested territory!

Notice now, that this first request in the Lord’s prayer is not about something we are going to do. It is not a round-about way of suggesting to ourselves that we should be more spiritual. We are asking God to bring honour to his own name.

There’s a story in Ezekiel in which God says he will do just this (see chapter 36).

God’s name is dishonoured by Israel. The signs that God is among them and blessing them have been removed because of their unfaithfulness. They are captured by another nation and lose their land. But now, this conquering nation thinks their gods are stronger than the Lord. God’s name is being rubbed in the dust—or profaned rather than being reverenced.

God is being dishonoured because he can’t go about his usual business of protecting and prospering them and the nations are joking about what a helpless God he is.

In our own time, if we Christians have gloried in our own status and deeds rather than in the Lord, and if he, our Father, has let us fall in a heap so that we are scorned by the world, and if the world boasts that their plans and values are superior to anything a so called ‘God’ has revealed, our Father’s name is being profaned. Then, well may we pray, ‘May your name be reverenced!’

And God answers that prayer. He will not stand by while all that he has revealed of himself—his name—is being dragged in the dust.

So how does God go about sanctifying his own name when we have brought shame on it? What can we expect God to do when the world has come to the conclusion that their achievements and values, their potential and passions—their ‘gods’—are stronger than the Father and his Son?

God says to Ezekiel, ‘I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes’ (36:23).

If we are going to truly make this first request in the Lord’s prayer, we need to see how God fulfils his promise.

God will restore his reputation among the nations by returning Israel to their land, and by turning their hearts away from idols and to himself. He will deliver them from their corruptions—give them a new heart and spirit, a heart of flesh instead of stone, a heart to love him. And then, he will restore their fortunes, and they will see how awful they have been (vv. 24-32). Now God’s name is sanctified or hallowed. God has shown himself to be God.

God does not just change his mind about how bad Israel is. And he doesn’t just bless them to put a lid over the stench of what they are doing. He will purify them and give them a heart to love him.

Jesus understands all this and knows he is the way God will cause his name to be reverenced. In his own life, he wants the honour of his Father’s name, so he is teaching us to pray the same things that he prays. And of course, his whole life can be summed up as sanctifying his Father’s name. People can see that God is with him—and that God is real and good.

But then, in two of his prayers, Jesus asks for God to glorify his name—similar to asking for God’s name to be sanctified (John 12:27-28; 17:1-5, 17-19). He asks the Father to glorify him, so he can bring glory to the Father. He is referring to his dying for our sins, and, in this way, to create people who love the Father like he does. He is going to do what God promised Ezekiel.

The world needs to see that the Father hates our independence and corruptions. He has no time for our hypocrisy. We can’t honour God as our Father and think that our sins don’t matter. He is holy!

Jesus will take all these abominations to himself—as though they were his and not ours, and the Father will show what he thinks of them. His curse falls on his own Son. And Jesus dies. He is where we deserve to be. And Jesus is willing to be there—because he wants his Father’s name to be known as holy—to be reverenced.

We may hear God himself say, ‘This is who I am. I am giving my Son up to this suffering so that you may not perish. This is my holiness.’ And he raises his Son from the dead to announce that what Jesus has done has revealed him perfectly.

The Father’s holiness has been revealed as love. Through this offering, God bring forgiveness to us, and brokenness, and gratefulness, and purity, and a heart of flesh that beats with love for Christ and the Father.

So when we pray, ‘Hallowed be your name!’ we are asking the Father to reveal himself to us, and to the church and to the world. We are asking for our arrogance to be dissolved in the purity of what God has done in Christ, and for our hearts to beat with genuine love for the Father.

Years ago, Isaiah prayed a prayer like this. His nation is in trouble because they have not been true worshippers. Isaiah says, ‘Look down from heaven and see. ….Where are your zeal and your might? Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us. But you are our Father…our Redeemer from of old is your name’ (Isaiah 63:15-16).

What then will God do if we are expecting him to ensure the reverencing of his name?

Can you picture a church service to which an unbeliever comes, and he sees that God is alive and doing something among the worshippers. Here is a community that has been purified by Christ’s offering. Amongst us, this visitor knows that God has looked right through him and he falls down in worship. He or she knows that God is alive and active (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). God’s name is being reverenced again.

If we want God to be God and not just something we imagine, if we want him to be the prime mover and not just a benevolent observer, if we want him to be reverenced, loved and worshipped, this is how God answers our prayer.

God does not merely push us back on ourselves to do better. He takes us to his Son and to this offering up of himself. He undoes all our puff and foolery so that we trust in what he has done. We cannot have an inflated view of ourselves and honour the Father at the same time. Fundamental to honouring the Father is knowing that he is the good one—not us.

Now, God’s name is being hallowed. And this is what we have been praying for.

May your kingdom come!

Jesus asks us to pray for the Father’s kingdom to come. This matter is important to him. He has been sent into the world to fulfil prophecies about God’s reign in the world. He wants it to be our desire too and says we should seek the kingdom above all else.

This prayer comes down to the question, ‘Whose world do I want to live in? The world I make, or the world God makes? If God’s kingdom ‘comes’, we have a world run according to his design, by his powerful presence and arriving at his goal. The alternative is for us to be at the centre of our own world, judging things by how convenient they are to our interests and hoping for a good outcome.

In one sense, the whole Bible is the story of the interplay between God providing for us to live in his creation and us trying to rearrange things to suit ourselves. There are stories of God’s powerful action that sets up a family or a kingdom where people can live with justice, peace and hope. And then, there are other stories where these same people choose to live in their own way and run into conflict with God himself.

In this setting, God promises that his kingdom will come. Some of the descriptions are stunning and can make your mouth water, and you’d like them to come tomorrow! For example, ‘… They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9). Peace at last! Because the Father is King.

This theme goes on into the New Testament. Jesus comes as the King appointed by God. He says he will send out angels at the end of history to ‘weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear’ (Matthew 13:41-43).

Imagine a world where everyone loves the Father and does what he asks. Everyone knows they are loved by God and don’t need to justify themselves. (This is what makes us such unpleasant people!) And they serve their neighbours with the same care they give to themselves. There is no more crying, sickness, pain or death (Revelation 21:3-5).

It really does demean God if we imagine that what we have in this world is all he can do. He called his creation ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31), but it’s not very good at the moment. There’s still so much around us—and in us—that’s not good: conflict, suffering, meanness, lies, injustice, and death.

The future he plans is going to be better than that. And it will need us to have a better body than the one we have at the moment. ‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 15:50). Mortality must be replaced with immortality. Death isn’t God’s idea of a good future!

Impossible? Not at all! Not if God is God and means what he says. He makes it abundantly clear that he will have the world the way he made it to be.

We pray for this to come, not because it is in doubt but because we can’t help but long for it, and God is pleased to hear our prayers and give us, not just what he plans but what we have desired.

But there is another way in which his kingdom ‘comes’.

Jesus tells people who have seen his miracles or heard his teaching that the kingdom has ‘come to you’ or ‘is among you’ (Luke 11:20; 17:20-21). He is the King appointed by his Father and is exercising his authority.

If you are a leper and Jesus heals you, you will know God is in charge! If your life has been taken over by demons and Jesus delivers you, you know God is in charge! If you listen to Jesus teaching, you may be persuaded that God is in charge. And Jesus says at this time, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ (Luke 10:18). So something is happening.

But none of this kindly demonstration of power and authority makes the kingdom come. Before long, the nation God prepared to receive his King conspires to have him executed—and succeeds. It doesn’t look as though he is in charge of anything!

But Jesus has always been looking forward to his main task. If he cannot erase our guilt, he will never have willing subjects of the Father. Our basic position has been keeping God at a distance—or nonexistent. The shame and culpability of this is enormous—whether we recognise it or not. What will Jesus do to erase this, and so, to establish the kingdom of his Father?

One example may show what I mean. Two thieves are being crucified with Jesus. They throw insults at him. But something about these events brings a change to one of them. Does he hear Jesus say, ‘Father forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing’? Does he come to the end of his own resistance?

Here is what he says, first to the other thief, and then, to Jesus. ‘Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence. We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong’.

And then he says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus replies, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:40-43). He is dying, but his reign is about to launch.

Our aversion to God’s reign is real. Even if we sit in a church and do good deeds, it doesn’t come naturally to prefer God’s reign to our own. But if we can see a man who has done nothing wrong pray for our forgiveness, and if we can see through all the cultural confusion to recognise that Jesus is God’s reigning King, and especially, if we have come to the end of our resources, we will want to have his help as well! ‘Remember me too!’

You can’t have willing subjects if people are odds with the King and avoiding a showdown. Jesus, as God’s promised deliverer removes our guilt by bearing it himself.

And God authenticates this launching of his kingdom by raising Jesus from the dead. Being killed looks weak, but there is nothing weak about rising from the dead. He is ‘declared with power to be the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1:4).

In fact he has been taken into heaven, as the human being he is, to conduct all God’s affairs (Matthew 28:18; Revelation 1:4-6). He commands that his good news of restoration through his death be announced in all the world. This is the exercise of his power (Romans 1:16). This is why the kingdom is often called ‘the kingdom of Christ’ (Ephesians 5:5). He is going to reign until the end and then hand his completed handiwork to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

This reign of Christ—as the present phase of God’s reign—cannot be seen. We embrace it by faith. But it is far from insubstantial! When we confess that this man is God’s King and that God raised him from the dead, we are transferred out the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Son of God’s love (Colossians 1:13).

Think about that! We were controlled by the world, our own passions, and, through these things, the devil himself. Now we feel and know the powers of the age to come (Hebrews 6:5). Love lives, not because we are nice people but because Jesus has taken us into the kingdom where his Father’s love rules everything.

Christians around the world are persecuted because they believe in a gracious but absolute authority of the Christ appointed by the Father to rule. He is their truth, their justification, their delight. Human rulers want to claim this place and are jealous of a rival (Matthew 27:18).

The church responds as those who know they are in a kingdom of love. They pray like the early church did: ‘Sovereign Lord…you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. … Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. … Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness’ (from Acts 4:24-31). They are living in and experiencing the powers of the kingdom.

Our prayers are not a mere whimper but a sharing in the authority now given to Christ. We work and pray to ‘take every thought captive to Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

If this is what has happened to us, this is what we will pray for when we say, ‘Your kingdom come!’ We are asking for others to share in the blessings of the kingdom now, and to be able to live in hope of its full display. When God’s Spirit reveals the grace of God to someone and they experience the joy of reconciliation with God, they have no trouble at all in knowing that they are, already, included in the kingdom of God’s loved and loving Son.

God’s kingdom will come—both now and finally because all authority has already been given to Christ. But knowing the certainty of the coming kingdom does not makes our prayers redundant. God gives us the pleasure of sharing with him in his kingdom’s coming. He responds to our prayers. So well may we say, ‘Bring it on!’

Your will be done, as in heaven

Jesus had priorities, and it shows up in the prayer he has given to us. Our first concerns, like his, need to be our Father’s holiness, his kingdom, and now, his will.

We’ve prayed for his kingdom to come—in other words we want a world where God is in charge. Now, we’re asking that we, and everyone, will follow his lead. ‘May your will be done here in the same way it is done in heaven—joyfully and straight away!’

What would we look like, and what would the world look like if everything was done as it is done in heaven? Jesus gives us some idea in his teaching just before this prayer. There would be no hatred. There would be no lustfulness. There would be no boasting—just simple speech. There would be love, even for enemies. There would be plenty of generosity. Astonishingly, Jesus says, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’. (See Matthew 5:21-48.)

There’s plenty of information in the Bible about what God want’s done and not done, but that is not the subject of this prayer. We are not asking what God’s will is but that it may be done!

We could say that this is a bit cheeky! He tells us what to do, and we ask him to make it happen! But then, anyone who is being honest will know how much they need this help. And Jesus is saying to ask.

This is one of the unique things about faith in Jesus Christ. Plenty of creeds and ethical systems can tell us what we should do, but have no power—other than manipulation, or force—to ensure that it happens. How does this work?

First, God has to dismantle a lot of our false confidence so that we will really listen to him. Sometimes, hard things have to happen. One writer explains: ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. … It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees’ (Psalm 119:67-68, 71).

Rules are OK but most of us learn the hard way. We want to try our ideas first, and then find that it doesn’t lead to prospering, either for us or for those around us. So, when we pray for God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, we may be asking for trouble! But it will be a good kind of trouble—leading to righteousness.

But then, in making this request, we are on very firm ground. God has already promised that he will do this.  At a time when his people are being afflicted (as above), God says he will cleanse them from all impurity. He will take away a ‘heart of stone’ and give them ‘a heart of flesh’. He says ‘I will cause you to walk in my statues and be careful to obey all my rules’ (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Jeremiah says much the same. God will write his law on hearts—not like the law carved in stone and given to Moses. This will happen when God forgives his people’s sins (Jeremiah 31:34).

It is this that Jesus has come to fulfill, so we may pray this prayer with much comfort and expectation! Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled’ (Matthew 5:6)—filled with practical righteousness. This is a powerful prayer!

We need to understand how this works.

There are reasons why we find it easy to do wrong and hard to do good. One of them is we know we are already guilty, already condemned, already polluted. Deep down, we know we’re on the wrong side. We sense that God isn’t friendly, he’s against us.

Or, perhaps we are thinking that we get what we deserve, that we have to keep our good works ahead of our bad works to warrant a place in his favour. But doing good works like this isn’t doing them as they are done in heaven!

On the other hand, what if we understand what Christ has come to do? What if God says, ‘You are forgiven!’ Remember, God told Jeremiah that this is when he would write his law on our heart.

Think of the tax gatherer, Zacchaeus—the little man who climbs a tree to see Jesus. The Lord stops under the tree, looks up and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ for lunch  (Luke 19:1-9). When he realises that Jesus wants his company, he changes his behaviour—totally. His fraud is replaced with generosity and reparation. He isn’t just changed. He is saved. This is what we all need.

Then, just before his death, Jesus says that if we love him, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). He is announcing how obedience works—not by coercion but by love.

Similarly, after Peter’s appalling betrayals, Jesus doesn’t ask him if he’s learned his lesson. He asks, ‘Do you love me?’ And this is a question Peter can answer (John 21:15-19). Doing God’s will as it is done in heaven is not a performance. It’s a relationship.

This is why Paul talks about not being under the law of God (Romans 6:14). It’s not because God’s commandments are being thrown out. It’s because we use them to justify ourselves—falsely. We call it ‘virtue signaling’ today. Nobody ever gets into God’s favour by their performance. Righteousness is God’s gift, and then we have a reason to act appropriately.

Jesus knows who and what we are. Instead of vainly hoping we will improve, he bears our sin. And then, if we receive this good news, we are given his righteousness. This is a relationship!  And what a relationship! There’s no love like this anywhere else.

So, like Peter, we have no trouble saying, ‘Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you’. We have found a new law—the law of Christ, and it teaches us to live like Jesus himself (Galatians 6:2). And of course, this keeps all of God’s commands.

Later, Paul says, ‘The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death, in order that the requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us…’ (Romans 8:4). We are no longer condemned but indwelt by God’s Spirit. Justifying ourselves by God’s law is now totally unnecessary, and precisely for that reason, we are ready to do what God wants.

Here is what God will do when we pray, ‘May your will be done as in heaven’. Forgiven people love (Luke 7:47). Love keeps Christ’s commands.

Trusting in such good news enables us to do good things, to learn God’s ways, to restrain bad habits, to persevere, to be godly and kind. In other words, to love (2 Peter 1:3-9). This is living like we are in heaven!

And if you are not doing these things, you have forgotten you were cleansed from your sins. You can’t be looking at what God has done for you and then be slack about God or mean to your neighbor.

So let’s pray ‘May your will be done as it is in heaven’. Let’s hunger and thirst for righteousness and expect God to fulfill our desire. Some of the tasks that love gives us may be hard, but loving God isn’t—not if we keep our eye on what he has done. For Jesus to die for our sins wasn’t easy, but he did say, ‘Not my will but yours be done’. He loved his Father, and that settled the matter. Let’s follow him, and pray this prayer