Matthew 6:9-13 (KJV)
For the past several weeks I have debated about whether or not to bring the events of 9/11 into today’s message. Honestly, I felt that so much has been said in the weeks leading up to this 10th anniversary of that terrible day that I didn’t think there was much I could add. But as we have worked our way through the Sermon On the Mount, and now the Lord’s Prayer, we come to a verse that I believe speaks to the events of that day. It is a verse that speaks not only to the events of 9/11, but to many of the acts of violence that have plagued human history.
We come this morning to the phrase hallowed be thy name. When Jesus says hallowed by thy name he is saying we should honor the name of God. To honor the name of God means we set aside the name of God and treat it as special, with honor, and as unique, and in the process we then honor and correctly communicate who God is. One of the tragedies of 9/11 is the demonstration of what some people are willing to do in God’s name and how in the process they distort the name of God for their purposes. People who do terrible things in God’s name do so for various reasons, but at the root we find they do not understand God’s nature. It is necessary, I believe, to offer a religious response to this tragedy, because it has raised so many religious questions.
In this day and age we cannot assume people understand the nature of God, so we must consistently speak out for who God is. Nothing I will say this morning, then, is at all new. What I have to say follows some of the themes that are common to many of my messages, but affirms what I believe is the essential nature of God.
God is a God of love.
Five years ago I preached a sermon series called Confronting the Skeptics. The series dealt with belief and unbelief and some of the accompanying issues. I am thinking about revisiting that series in the coming months, and would be interested in knowing of your interest in that topic.
As I was doing research for the series I read a lot of material by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, three of the most famous skeptics of faith in Western society. Looking at Richard Dawkins’ web site I discovered one could buy books, t-shirts, posters, and other items expressing the perspective of unbelief. One of the items for sale is a poster of the skyline of New York City. It is a picture obviously taken before September 11, 2011, as the twin towers of the World Trade Center are plainly visible. Emblazoned across the top of the poster are words taken from the song Imagine by John Lennon – imagine no religion.
One of the false assumptions of unbelief is that religion is to blame for all the ills of humanity, and if religion could be removed from the world, humanity would then live in love, peace, and harmony. Religion is superstition, skeptics claim, and if humanity would follow science and logic and believe in only what is material – what we can see and what we can touch – the world would be a better place. If we can just rid ourselves of the superstition of religion, they claim, the world will then become an oasis of reason, cooperation, goodness, and love. Violence will disappear, because violence is rooted in religion.
That is simply not true.
To be a people who believe only in the material will not automatically lead to a just and moral society. The claim that the world would be a better place if we jettisoned our believe in God is simply an illusion perpetuated by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and their fellow skeptics.
It is not logic and materialism that moves us toward justice, goodness, peace, and mercy – it is love, and the great Biblical affirmation of God is that he is love. This is the great affirmation of God that towers over all other claims about God made by the Scriptures. What Scripture tells us is that God does not appeal to logic, he does not appeal to our minds, he does not appeal to the cerebral part of our nature. No, Scripture tells us that God appeals to our hearts, because that is where love resides. Jesus does not ask us to think our way to God, but that we open our hearts to him.
There is no doubt that some people do, and have done, terrible things in the name of God, but that does not at all mean their actions reflect either the will or the nature of God. The nature of God is love, and the Bible affirms this truth time and time again.
It is absolutely necessary that we counter the claim that belief in God leads to violence and hatred. It is essential that we proclaim that hatred and violence do not express God’s nature and are not expressions of authentic faith.
There is a song on Christian radio that begins with an interesting line – he’s not mad at you. (Come As You Are by Pocketful of Rocks). What an interesting way to start a song – God’s not mad at you. There are ministers who like to take the angry God approach. I don’t do the angry God thing. Jesus certainly demonstrated anger, but it was aimed at hypocrisy and the crushing religious institutionalism of his day that gave people an entirely wrong view of God. My belief is that God isn’t mad as much as he is brokenhearted. He is brokenhearted at what he sees going on in creation, brokenhearted as he sees his children inflicting pain upon one another, brokenhearted as he sees his beautiful vision for creation destroyed by the hatred and violence of humanity.
God is a God of love.
God is a God of peace.
I have told you about the class I teach one class period a week in Louisville. I ask my students to write three papers throughout the school year and I provide them with a list of topics. The subject of our class leads us to consideration of whether or not it is ever justifiable to take the life of another person, so that is one of the topics. Every year I remark to my students about how comfortable they seem to be with the idea of the taking of human life. I tell them to write their opinion, but then I remind them to carefully consider the implications of their beliefs.
There is a lot of violence in the Bible, and a lot of skeptics like to point out that violence and then lay it at the feet of God and say he is responsible for it. Time doesn’t allow us to examine that question today, but I believe there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the violence in the Bible and whether or not God sanctions it.
Violence is so ever present in our world that at times I feel we simply accept that it is the way of the world. But it is not the way of God. Scripture affirms that God is a God of peace. Isaiah 2:4 is a beautiful verse that expresses the hope of God’s peace for the world, as Isaiah proclaims that He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
The beauty of the cross of Jesus – which really sounds like an oxymoron to say the beauty of the cross – is that violence was defeated at the cross. The violence inflicted upon Jesus was broken by his response of love. The taunts and the insults of those who crucified Jesus could not draw retribution from Jesus; only love. In the face of hatred, Jesus loved, and in response to the violence inflicted upon him, he loved even more.
There is a story of a young man who served under Alexander the Great. Having failed at a task he was brought before Alexander. Alexander the Great asked the young man what his name was. The young man barely mumbled his reply, Alexander, sir. Alexander the Great asked the question again and again the young man replied in a barely audible voice, Alexander, sir. Alexander the Great asked one more time, Young man, what is your name? The young man finally answered with a louder voice, Alexander, sir! Alexander the Great looked at him and said, young man, change you ways, or change your name.
When I was growing up, everywhere I went in my home county people seemed to know me. They might not have met me, but they knew my father. Aren’t you Ed Charlton’s son? was on oft-heard question. How many of you heard were asked such a question? I knew I had a responsibility to live up to the name of my father.
Hallowed be thy name, Jesus asks us to pray. What happened on 9/11 does not reflect the character or the will of God, and it is our calling to rightly proclaim that God is a God of love, and a God of peace.