This is an excerpt from last Sunday afternoon’s sermon at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church. The catechism lesson was Lord’s Day 46 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Having God as our Father is a basic Christian teaching. We have a Father in heaven, because we have a Saviour who came to earth. We have a Saviour who reconciled us to our Maker, and because of that reconciliation, we are in a relationship of fellowship with God. That relationship is described in terms of a Father and his children. God is our Father, and we are his children. It’s a beautiful gospel reality.
Our Master teaches us to open our prayers with an eye on God as “our Father.” Right away, we need to be clear about what that means. There are those who say that Jesus is referring to the Father as one of the persons of the Trinity. They say that we are then to pray only to the Father as that person of the Trinity. The conclusion is that Jesus is teaching us only to pray to the Father, as distinct from the Son and from the Holy Spirit. However, brothers and sisters, there is another way of looking at this, and it is a better way.
When Jesus said, “Our Father in heaven,” he was not introducing something new to Jewish ears. In the Old Testament, the word “Father” is found several times in reference to God. When it’s found in the Old Testament, the word “Father” refers to Yahweh. The word refers to God in himself, not as the person of the Father distinguished from the Son and the Holy Spirit. A good example of this is in Malachi 1:6. God is rebuking his people there. He says, “A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honour?…” God is a Father to his people. There, the word “Father” is being used in connection with Yahweh’s relationship to his people, not to the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. This is the pattern of the Old Testament usage of the word “Father” for God. It refers to Yahweh.
Our Master continues in that pattern with the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus is not speaking about God the Father as distinct from the Spirit and the Son, but God our Father as distinct from the creatures who call upon him. This is not a reference to the Trinity, but to God as One. Therefore, we cannot conclude that our Master is teaching us to address one particular person of the Trinity to the exclusion of the others. That’s not in the picture here at all. This is confirmed by other prayers that we see in the New Testament. For example, when Stephen was being martyred in Acts 7, he prayed to Jesus, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Paul uses the prayer, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus” and other examples could be added. We have the freedom to do likewise.
With the opening of the Lord’s Prayer, Christ is simply teaching us to look up to Yahweh as our Father and call upon him with an attitude of childlike reverence and trust. We need to trust that our God loves us and will take care of our needs. This is laid out beautifully in Matthew 7, further in the Sermon on the Mount. There too, Christ is speaking about our Father in heaven, Yahweh, as he relates to his children. Jesus makes a comparison between earthly fathers and our heavenly Father. Earthly fathers will normally take care of their children and provide for their needs. A child who asks for bread is not going to get a stone from his dad. Or even worse, if a child asks for some fish, his father is not going to throw him a cobra. People are evil and yet they still give good things to their children. But then there is God. He is perfectly good. So, what would make you think that he wouldn’t give good gifts to those who ask him? So, the conclusion: ask your Father in heaven for good things, and because he loves you, expect that he will follow through and provide you with what you need. We have a Father in heaven who loves us and it’s to him that we need to pray expectantly.
But that’s a lot easier to say than to do, isn’t it? Trials and difficulties can easily muddy this teaching in our minds and even make it sound glib. For example, one of the hardest things in life is to lose a baby. My wife and I have gone through that and many of you have too. You have hopes and dreams for that baby in your womb and then the Lord decides otherwise. It’s hard to take. Glenda Mathes is a sister from the United Reformed Churches and she has a helpful book on early infant loss. It’s called Little One Lost. I highly recommend it. In the book she tells the story of Brad and Stephanie. They were pregnant with their second child. Caleb would be only fifteen months younger than their firstborn Joshua. They had dreams of the two boys playing together and they planned to homeschool both. Stephanie had an induction scheduled, and the day before they did an ultrasound and everything looked normal. The next day they came in for the induction and there was no heartbeat. They were devastated. Later a medical examination revealed that there was no discernible reason why Caleb died before he was born. Brad and Stephanie struggled with that. “We had prayed for a healthy baby,” they said, “why had God chosen to answer us with a dead baby?”
That’s a tough question to answer. In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him.” The Catechism paraphrases that in QA 120. Isn’t a healthy baby a good thing? Why would God withhold that from Brad and Stephanie or from any of us who have gone through this? It’s easy to understand why tragedies like that would make you question our Father’s love. Stephanie did that. She says that, after losing Caleb, she questioned God and found prayer and Bible reading to be extremely hard.
Yet, in time, Brad and Stephanie came to peace with what God had done with Caleb. Through this tragedy, they came to closer fellowship with the believers in their church. Their brothers and sisters surrounded them with love and encouragement. They came to see that their little baby boy was spared the heartbreak of sin. Because of the covenant God has with believers and their children, Caleb is enjoying perfect blessedness. Stephanie says, “There is peace in knowing that Caleb is safe, that God is taking infinitely better care of him than I ever could. Though we never knew our baby, it is assuring to know that he was and is known by God.” In time, this couple came to see that what happened was not inconsistent with what we confess about the love of our heavenly Father. He does know what is best for each of us at any given moment. It’s sometimes difficult to acknowledge that, but yet this is what the Scriptures teach.
One of the keywords in QA 120 is “childlike.” When it comes to prayer, we have to be like children, because we are, well….like children. We are not the equal of our Father, nor are we anywhere close. We don’t have the understanding of our Father. We don’t have the comprehensive knowledge of our Father. We don’t have his wisdom. We are finite, he is infinite in every way. Really, we are like little children before him. He has the full picture and full plan of our lives in his mind. He knows everything from its beginning to its end, and we know very, very little. We have ideas about what is good for us, but they don’t always line up with what he knows for certain to be good for us.
Loved ones, we need to trust what Scripture says about our Father. We need to believe his promise that because of Christ, he loves us and will provide what we truly need. If we struggle with that, we can and should pray about that too. We can pray and be honest with God and say, “I’m having a hard time believing that you love me because of all these trials – please help me to trust your Word.” Even that would be an expression of childlike reverence and trust, the kind of thing taught to us by our Master.