Teach Us to Pray About Doctrine
"Hallowed be Thy name" is the first petition in the Lord's Prayer, and the most important. "Among the seven petitions, there is none greater for us to pray," said Luther. But it probably doesn't seem that way to you. The prayer for the kingdom to come, for His will to be done, to be given daily bread, to be forgiven, or to be delivered from temptation and evil probably seem more important. In fact, when we say the Lord's Prayer, it sometimes doesn't seem like "hallowed be Thy name" is even asking for anything. But we are asking for something huge and very important, pure doctrine.
Doctrine is a dirty word. Doctrine is the one thing in the life of the Church that even some in the Church don't want you interested in. In the Church, you can be interested in living the Christian life; you can be interested in spreading the Gospel; you can be interested in Christian education, music, or art, but you had better not be interested in doctrine. Don't you know that doctrine is of men not of God? At least that's what people are always saying to me. They say things like, "Doctrine takes away from what Jesus really taught." Or, "My faith is really important to me, but I don't care about doctrine." But that's not how Jesus feels, is it? The very first thing He commands us to pray about is doctrine. He commands us to pray that God's Word be taught in its truth and purity.
Pray about doctrine? But doctrine divides not unites. Doctrine is what prevents us from having Advent services with the Baptist Church just down the road. Doctrine is what prevents us from joining the Austin interfaith prayer service for peace. Doctrine is what gets in the way of me praying with the Islam cleric in a show of American unity. Wouldn't we all be better off if we didn't have this thing called doctrine between us? Nothing would be right or wrong, true or false, holy or profane. As long as what you believed didn't harm anyone what would it matter what your doctrine is?
Well, let me ask you, would it be alright with you, if I went around telling people things you didn't really say or denying things you did say? "No, no you can't do that because then you'd be harming my reputation, my name." O, I see, it would be wrong for me to do that to you, but it's not wrong to do that to God. Praying about doctrine is praying that God's name be kept holy. God's name is everything that He reveals about Himself in the Bible. When I put words in God's mouth or take them out of His mouth by denying them, it is no less offensive to Him then it is to you if I twist your words. We pray about doctrine because it is far more serious of a sin to twist the words of God than it is the words of men..
But we don't think praying about doctrine is important because we believe the myth that it is not really what you believe that is important but the fact you do believe. The holiday season is the world's big celebration of believing. In virtually all the traditional Christmas specials believing in itself is promoted. Some little boy or girl somewhere goes on believing despite of everyone else not believing. The child's believing is always vindicated. I think this all stems from a girl named Virginia writing to the newspaper and asking if there really was a Santa Claus. The editor of the paper answered opening with the now famous words, "Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus." The whole point of the letter is that everybody needs to believe in something. Believing in and of itself is the miracle.
This is just not true. Believing the wrong things is a curse. The Muslim who believes that his keeping the 5 pillars of Islam will lead him to paradise is believing himself into hell. The Christian who believes that babies aren't to be baptized is believing his or her child away from Christ. The person who believes that his or her sins are too big, too serious, or too many to be forgiven freely for the sake of Christ's innocent suffering and death is believing themselves into despair. Better to have no doctrine than a false doctrine.
Doctrine is a dirty word in the world and even in the Church. In fact our prayer "hallowed be Thy name" is about the Church. We are not asking that God help the world teach the Word of God in truth and purity but us. We are not asking that the world live according to the doctrines of God but us. The problem of false doctrine is a problem in the Church. The prayer for pure doctrine is concerned with teaching and living the Word among us not among those outside of the Church.
But you don't believe that. You believe that the problem that confronts you is sickness, old age, family troubles, people troubles, work problems, or world problems. Doctrine is just talk for eggheads and theologians. You are more practical than that. You want something that will address your problems. You want to be taught 12 steps for dealing with cancer. You want practical advice on how to age gracefully. You want to know what to do about your family and people troubles. That's why magazines are filled with articles about such. People want help with dealing with world and work problems. What help is a doctrine with that?
If you're right, then Jesus was silly to teach us to pray about doctrine first. Why didn't He teach us to ask the Father for practical help? Why is the first petition about doctrine if our real problem is practical? Jesus is trying to tell us something when He says the first thing we should pray about is doctrine. He is trying to tell us that our view of life and doctrine is all wrong. He's telling us that our greatest need isn't for this or that problem in life to be fixed but that we have true and pure doctrine. He is telling us that all of our problems in life our doctrinal.
Yes, the burdens you feel in life; the things that vex you so, are not going to be solved by getting practical advice. You older folks ought to know this. Think back on your lives. Haven't you went from one problem to another, one trouble to the next? Was there ever a point in your life where you could say, "I don't have any problems or troubles?" It's simply a lie, a false doctrine, a false teaching that if you just do this or that, or stop doing this or that you will have no problems or troubles. The true doctrine is that man "is short-lived and full of trouble" as Job 14 says. This Biblical truth rescues you from concluding that because you have troubles you are somehow outside of God or even away from God. The true doctrine that "through many tribulations we enter the kingdom of God," rescues you from the lie that God means for you to go from one happiness to the next until you enter heaven.
What is vexing you so in life, what makes it so miserable for you is not your age, not your sickness, not your faithless friends, and not the worthless terrorists. What is vexing you so in life is false doctrine. And do you know what the chief false doctrine is? That you are not really children of God; that you don't really have a kind, loving Father in heaven. Yes, that's it. We live as if we have a judge in heaven who is daily, hourly even, weighing our lives and finding them lacking. But don't you see that this is profaning God's name. We think we mainly profane the name of God when we use it as an exclamation. We think we mainly profane God's name when we call on Him to damn this or that. And indeed these are profaning the name of God, but it is far more serious of a sin to act like we have an ogre in heaven rather than a loving, Father. After all the name of God we are particularly praying to keep holy is that of Father.
You see when we use God's name carelessly we're acting like He can't really hear us every time we call on Him. And when we use His name to damn and curse, we're playing God. But when we think we have an ogre rather than a father in heaven, we are denying our Brother Jesus Christ. The whole reason for this season is God didn't want to be an ogre in heaven. He didn't want to send us to hell as our sins most certainly deserve. He wanted to save us for time and eternity. So He sent His only beloved Son to live under the law perfectly in our place and to die wretchedly under that law so that we wouldn't have to. He gave up His only beloved Son just so He could be our loving heavenly Father. When we live as if He is against us, mad at us, keeping a score card in heaven, we are saying Jesus didn't do what God said He did do.
Your misery in life, your despair in life, your burden in living all flow from the false doctrine that God is not really your Father. If this doctrine remains true and pure, then you live as a child in a loving home does. In Louisiana a family took into their home several kids from a horrible home of abuse, drugs, and neglect. At first the kids were like dogs who had been beaten: wild, snarling, suspicious. But motherly and fatherly love had it's way with them. Smiles appeared on their faces, relief in their eyes, security in their lives.
And so it is with us. When the true and pure doctrine fills our heart that for the sake of Christ our Brother, God is our Father, then as we sing in our hymns, "bane is blessing, pain is pleasure." How can this be? Because if God is my Father in Christ then He can't be against me, mad at me, or punishing me. The bane or pain in my life can't be indications of my sin or guilt, but as we say in the General Prayer, they must be manifestations of God's Fatherly will. They are merely the way my heavenly Father has chosen to lead me, His child, home to Him.
Can you see what a wonderful conscious-comforting, soul-freeing thing true and pure doctrine is? Can you see why we must pray for it? Because, as Luther said in his sacristy prayer, if God leaves it in our hands we will surely bring it all to nothing. We are not capable of keeping doctrine pure and true; God must do it. Luther says, "In this petition God becomes everything and man becomes nothing." When I look away from God, I see true and pure doctrine threatened on every hand. Since there never has been a Church body that wasn't constantly threatened by false doctrine, if I keep looking away from God, I utterly despair. This petition teaches me to look to my Father in heaven, to trust the matter of doctrine to His capable hands.
Didn't you ever get a gift for Christmas that was impossible for you to put together? Don't you remember how your father stepped in and did the impossible? So it is with this petition, "hallowed be Thy name." Our dear Father in heaven is the One who must keep His name holy by true and pure preaching and holy living. Our heavenly Father must protect us from profaning the name of God by teaching or living contrary to God's Word.
Can you see that this petition puts the burden on our Father who is in heaven and not on us? To be sure, the Lord uses means to keep His name holy among us. He uses the preaching and teaching of faithful pastors and the hearing of faithful people like yourselves. But don't consider what God does in and through us as what we do. Like children with a toy they can't put together, we pray to the Father for help, and help He does. O He might have us hold this there or put that here, but every child knows that his or her father is the one who really does the work. True and pure doctrine is on His shoulders not ours, and that's why He told us to pray to Him about it right from the get go. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Wednesday Advent II (12-12-01) First Petition