Our Father in heaven - Psalm 104:1-18
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Did you know that warped thinking can lead to no praying? That faulty faith can lead to the belief in the futility of prayer? It is true. And it happens by twisting truths which the Bible teaches with the result that we end up denying the Bible. Let me explain what I mean.
One of the most wonderful mysteries in the universe is that prayer changes things, that is, we can ask God to do things and things get done through prayer which otherwise wouldn’t happen. In his wisdom God has so arranged creation that we have the ability to make significant choices, some good and some bad which affect the course of history. And one of the means God has given us to make our choices really count is prayer-asking God to act. And because God is all wise and all powerful, the one who is able to see the end from the beginning, he is able to weave those requests into his eternal good purposes, which obviously he couldn’t do if we had not made those requests.
Now, it is at this point that our thinking can go off the rails in one of two directions. The first is to say, ‘If God is all powerful and all knowing and all good, and everything is preordained, then he is going to do whatever he thinks is right anyway and so our prayers can’t really change anything. Sure, they may help us psychologically, by talking to God we get things off our chest and that makes us feel better, but they don’t count for much in the big scheme of things. So prayer is a futile exercise- why bother?’ Have you ever heard that said? Here the emphasis is on God being sovereign, ruling over everything.
The second route some go down ends up in the same place- denying the usefulness of prayer but for a different reason. Here the objection is, ‘If human beings are free to make up their own minds, then God can’t be absolutely sovereign. If, for example, you have been praying for your sister to become a Christian, if God has done everything he can to bring her to himself, but somehow she won’t give in, why bother asking God to save her? Isn’t it out of order to pressure God to do more when there is no more he can do? So give up on prayer.’
On the face of it both objections seem to have some force, but only because they employ a strange ‘logic’ which goes beyond the Bible. It is always dangerous to play up one thing the Bible says at the expense of something else the Bible equally affirms. As we shall see in a moment, the God of the Bible is presented as the one who rules over all, he is all knowing, all wise and all powerful and is not caught out by anything we may think or do. On the other, we as human beings are presented as responsible people who make significant choices, doing what we desire to do. God has chosen to relate to us personally without compromising the fact that he is God and, if you like, has the last word-but he does respond to us. And so this great and sovereign God who rules over the nations, who is working out his purposes, is described in Scripture as ‘relenting’ or to use our language, ‘changing his mind’ as a result of people praying. There are plenty of examples of this, but let me give you just one which is very striking found in Exodus 32 with Moses praying to God. Here the people of Israel had already broken the Ten Commandments just given to them by building and worshipping a golden calf and engaging in an orgy. And God is so incensed that he says that he will wipe them out. But Moses steps in and reminds God of his promises, that his reputation will be brought into disrepute for saying one thing- ‘I will save the people’- and doing another-destroying them. Moses appeals to God as the sovereign king to show mercy and do you know what? That is exactly what he did-show mercy. We read, ‘Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.’ (Ex 32:14). Now, there was a prayer that really did change things!
Well, this morning we see in the opening words of what we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ how these truths are brought together in perfect balance- that God is the almighty ruler who is in control of everything, whilst being a personal God who responds to our requests with the result that prayer makes a difference. The words are right there in Matthew 6:9- ‘Our Father in heaven.’ So let’s think about those familiar but great words under three headings.
First, a proper recognition. The one true God is the God in the ‘heavens’-plural. This emphasises his transcendence, his ‘otherness’, a God who is vastly superior to all that he has made, who is infinite –without beginning and without end- who is glorious in his majestic beauty, the source of all goodness and kindness, and whose creative genius conceived and fashioned this vast and complex universe which we are discovering more and more about each day. He is the one who knows all things, everything that has happened at every point in the cosmos and what will happen at every point in creation right into the future. It is this vision of God which forms the springboard for praise in Psalm 104. The furthest reaches of outerspace are within his reach-vv1-2 ‘O LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent. And at the same time he is personally involved in the caring supervision of all life on earth-10-12 He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. 11They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. 12The birds of the air nest by the waters; Recent findings makes our belief in the God who is in the heavens- fills the heavens- even more breathtaking (show pics). This galaxy is 28 million light years from Earth and has 800 billion suns and is 50,000 light years across. This is the Ant nebula, a cloud of gas which is in our galaxy, 3-6,000 light years from earth. This is the Cone nebula, 2.6 light years from earth- 23 million return trips to the moon. Someone has described the heavens as ‘God’s workshop.’ And so it is here that we see something of the divine artistry, the super-craftsman at work, who, according to our Psalmist unfolds all of this as easily as a man opening up a small tent to sleep in-it is that simple for God. And this is the One Jesus tells us is ‘Our Father in the heavens’. Does this not cause us to pause to ask a few questions? If God is able to place the stars in their sockets and suspend the heavens like a curtain, do you think it is remotely possible that God is able to guide your life? If God is so almighty that he is able to ignite the sun as easily as a man might strike a match, could it be that he has enough light to lighten your path when things seem dark? If he cares enough about the planet Saturn to give it rings or Venus to make it sparkle, is there not just an outside chance that he cares enough about you to meet your basic needs if you ask him? It seems pretty likely that in each case the answer is going to be ‘yes.’ Jesus certainly thought so, for he goes on after teaching about prayer to teach about provision- 6:25-"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life.’
But much of what we have been thinking about would have been affirmed by any first century Jew, maybe even more so. They often thought of God as being so exalted that he seemed so remote. It was his distance which was emphasised at the expense of his nearness. And not surprisingly some people today wonder if a God who is so busy bringing nebulas into being in the outer reaches of the galaxy could possibly be concerned with their humdrum affairs in the inner sanctum of their home. Perhaps that thought has crossed your mind? Why should God who is so great be bothered with me who is so small? And although we may be so familiar with the term that we take it for granted, Jesus first hearers would have been stunned by the answer he gave as to ‘why?’, when he said that his followers were now in a position to call this God, ‘Father’. Jesus tells them to pray to the One who is ‘Our Father in heaven.’ Not ‘my’ in some individualistic way as if he is my pet personal possession, but it is a corporate ‘Our’, reminding us that we belong to a family- the church, and so we should be praying together as a family- which is why we have prayer meetings.
And so we come to a personal relationship in prayer. Sadly, not everyone has a positive experience of their fathers. Some have suffered abuse of one kind or another at their hands and still bear the scars-emotional or physical. As a result some find it very hard to think of God in this way, as ‘father’. But even here, those who have tragically suffered know deep down that there is a model of fatherhood, a standard, which their own father’s have failed to reach. Well, that standard is God hinself. He is the perfect father who will not abuse, manipulate or cajole for his own selfish ends, for he is always other person centred, never self- centred. All that the best of our fathers could ever be, God is and infinitely more. Does a father care? So does he. Does a father order things for the good of his family? So does he. Does a father exercise loving discipline, withholding what is good from us in order to give us what is best? So does he. Does a father listen to his children at whatever age they are- the gurgling of a baby, the stammering of a toddler, the pleadings of a teenager, the respectful musings of an adult- so does he as we make our way through the spiritual equivalent of the seven ages of man. But there is one vital difference; this is God our Father, the one who is in the heavens. And it is the coming together of ‘Father’ and ‘in the heavens’ that makes all the difference in the world to God hearing and answering our prayers.
You see, he is untainted by the atmosphere of sin-for he is holy. He is unbridled by the time line of history for he is infinite. He is unhindered by the weariness of the body for he is spirit. What controls our earthly fathers does not control him. What troubles us doesn’t trouble him. Is an eagle troubled by a traffic jam? Hardly- he soars above it. Is a whale panicked by a hurricane? No, he plunges beneath it. How much more is God our Father able to soar above or plunge beneath the troubles of earth? Our questions betray our lack of understanding. How can God be everywhere at one time? Who said God is bound by a body as we are? How can God hear all our prayers which come to him? Who says that God’s hearing is like ours? How is God able to sort between the different and often competing claims upon him- the farmer wants rain for the crops, the family wants sun for the picnic? Who says that God hasn’t the wisdom to decide which needs are greater and which actions will best serve his loving purposes for his people?
But you may still say, ‘Yes, but I still find that it hurts my head to try and work out how God can be sovereign and yet personally responding to my prayers.’ All I can say is that Jesus himself had no such difficulty. So, a few chapters later we hear Jesus praying in Matthew 11:25ff these words, listen very carefully- "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.’ There Jesus affirms God’s personal nearness- he is ‘Father’, and also his greatness, he is ‘Lord of heaven and earth.’ Why-, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. 27"All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ There God’s sovereignty is underscored, he has hidden some things from those who in their pride think they know it all, but has revealed things to the open and responsive- those who act like little children, in that way he is like a Father. Then we get the invitation which emphasises our choice and personal responsibility- 28"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." In other words, Jesus held these twin truths together, and refused to fall for the temptation of playing one off against the other, and that should be our approach too.
In fact, knowing that God is our Father if we are Christians, and at the same time the great God of the universe should result in powerful prayer, which is our third point.
So come with me to one of the very first prayer meetings in the early church. It has been a tough time, some of the apostles – Peter and John- have been beaten up and threatened with more of the same if they keep on telling people about God’s saving love in Jesus his Son. So what do they do? Throw up their hands in despair saying ‘This is obviously God’s will’ and fatefully resign themselves by going into hiding? Do they say, ‘God can’t contradict the freedom of the rulers so what is the point of praying?’ They did neither. They prayed to the God who ruled over all asking him to give them the strength to be obedient to him- Acts 4: 24, They raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: " `Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? and the rulers gather together against the Lord 27Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." There you have it- divine sovereignty and human responsibility side by side without any hint of embarrassment or apology. On the basis that God is in control and is passionately involved in his world and cares for his people they take their responsibilities seriously and ask God to act, to give them courage to keep on sharing the Christian message. The result? Verse 31 ‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’ Their heavenly Father answered their prayers, because God wants his Gospel to go out through his people, for as Peter says in his second letter, ‘(God) is patient not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ He has chosen people like you and me to achieve this, working with him and prayer and proclamation are the means he uses by his Holy Spirit to bring about his will in people being saved.
It is because God is almighty-the God of heaven- that he can hear us and can answer us when we pray. It is because he is our Father that he wants to hear us and answer us when we pray. Our responsibility is not to try and work out how this can be so, but believe that it is so and- pray.
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