Clouds and darkness are round about him, * righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne [on earth as in heaven].
Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous * and give thanks to his holy [, hallowed] Name. –Psalm 97: 2, 12
If your prayer life is anything like my own, you will have found that our praying lives are often littered with ever shifting seasons, fresh insights, old wounds that continue to sting, and ever expanding and contracting horizons of the heart. Perhaps, too, you will have found that even the most familiar phenomena can take on new valences and, to our surprise, unveil themselves in a beautiful complexity to which we had previously been blind. The ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ from which our gospel pericope comes this morning, has often been for me a site of this very ‘unraveling of the familiar’—a place where the real limitations of our spiritual vision meet the scandalous, expansive, sometimes terrifying truth at the heart of all things.
For many of us, the words of the Lord’s prayer contain an inestimable, unqualifiable freight. These words—so dear, so familiar, so second-nature—stir the gaze of our hearts toward the One whom Jesus invites us to name “Our Father,” and articulate in six remarkably short petitions some of the deepest content of the “hope that is in us.” And yet, as with anything we live in close proximity to, the very familiarity of these words can sometimes obscure this prayer’s true power to transform us and its radical challenge that seeks to summon us beyond our illusory sense of self-dependence.
More than familiar words of comfort, this prayer challenges our easy temptations to imagine that we ourselves are the authors of our own salvation and the world’s. The trials of our age may tempt us down such a well-intentioned road, but the reality of the Christian experience is, I think, something much more complex.
Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
The same One who spoke to Elijah’s fearful need not in the din of created noise, who speaks not in earthquake, wind, or fire, but in the silence from which all sound emerges—created and uncreated—is also the One who knows, better than we ourselves, what we need. Jesus teaches us to be uniquely aware of our own poverty—of our inability to save ourselves—asking God to meet our needs one day at a time. Give us this day our daily bread. As we are apt to mistake our wants for our needs, ‘heaping up’ many-worded petitions for the fulfilment of a reality according to our own, limited vision, this can be a difficult revelation.
We should not be surprised to find, as Jesus’ followers did, that the kingdom being unveiled to us will not meet our expectations. But do not despair, it will surely surpass them; clouds and darkness may indeed hide him from our knowing, but righteousness and justice are the foundations of the divine, albeit cruciform, throne. The tension between our human vision of peace and justice (what we want the world to look like), and the socially indecent charity of God’s ways has been with us from the beginning. Just as the people of first century Judea were surprised by the content of Jesus’ revelation, so too should we be surprised—the kingdom, God’s final setting-right of the world, defied the familiar expectations of the disciples. Do you also wish to go away? he said to them. Lord, Peter replied, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. What sort of familiar expectations do you have about God’s kingdom? What needs to be recognized as the cultural baggage it is? What needs to be recognized as the subtle allure of The Accuser?
Lord, teach us to unravel the familiar.
Psalm 97:2, 12 redacted by author. [“On earth as in heaven” and “Hallowed,’ cf. Matt. 6:9—10]
Cf. 1 Peter 3:15
Matt. 6:7. New Revised Standard Version.
Cf. 1 Kings 19:11—13
Matt. 6:11. New Revised Standard Version.
John 6:67—68. New Revised Standard Version.
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