Years ago when I was a part-time pastor, I also worked at Staples Business Depot. For most of that time I worked in the warehouse as the receiver. I remember one occasion when one of the other guys came back to the warehouse and was obviously frustrated because he was swearing. Including taking Jesus’ name in vain. Seeing me, he apologized for swearing, because he knew I was also a pastor. I told him that while I wasn’t crazy about any of the words he had used, his using Jesus’ name as a swear word is what really bothered me. And to his credit, he did try to refrain from doing this at least when he was around me.
Even today, if I’m watching a TV show or movie and a character swears, the one thing that really bothers me is when someone misuses the name of the Lord. Exodus 20:7 says Do not misuse the name of the Lord, your God. And as we will see, this is about much more than the words we say or how we use the words we say.
But before we begin looking at the first petition of The Lord’s Prayer, there are a couple of things to say about prayer that The Lord’s Prayer draws to our attention. Notice that the first thing Jesus teaches us to pray is not to bring our immediate concerns to God, to focus on myself, but instead to focus on him. The first half of The Lord’s Prayer draws our attention to God’s name, his kingdom, and his will. This in itself, I think, is a real challenge for a lot of us. Even me! Because God is not here to serve us or do our bidding. He’s not here to serve my purposes, to fulfill my desires and goals. God does not exist to make my life better. He’s not even here simply to bless our best Christian efforts. No, because he has a purpose and a will. His plans come first. God is not our divine butler or heavenly Santa Claus.
Coming before him as Jesus teaches us, therefore, is to undergo a profound reorientation in our thinking and living. It means opening ourselves up to an entirely new way of seeing reality. Maybe we can put it this way: It’s not all about you. And I say this is a challenge because our default setting is to make most things about us.
Another thing: prayer never, ever begins with us. Prayer is a response to God’s having revealed himself. Like I said last week, prayer is not a human attempt to get God’s attention. Rather, prayer is giving our attention to him. That’s what the first half of The Lord’s Prayer is training us to do. And it begins with a prayer that God’s name be honored as holy.
Now, names have a certain power. There are names you hear that elicit a specific response—or even a visceral reaction—one way or another. For example, how do you feel when I say the following names? Queen Elizabeth. Pope Francis. Donald Trump. Justin Trudeau. Steve Jobs. Names of globally known people carry that person’s reputation, qualities, and accomplishments. Names are not just words. So when we talk about praying for God to cause his name to be honored as holy, we’re asking that God would be honored for who he is. We’re asking that God would be more and more known for his character, for how he has revealed himself in the history of Israel and ultimately through the Son, Jesus Christ. And this is important because sometimes people say things like, “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.” Or if we ask if someone is a Christian, we’re told, “They believe in God.”
The first question that comes to my mind is this: What God? What is this God you believe in like? How would you describe this God? More pointedly, we could ask, “What is your God’s name?” Because the word “God” is not a name. “God” is a category. Because someone saying they believe in God tells me almost nothing about what they believe. That’s why God’s name is important. It’s about who he has revealed himself to be.
In Exodus 3:13—15, in the story of the burning bush, Moses asks God about his name. Because remember there were other gods in the ancient near east. A name identified which god was being spoken about. So Moses asks, “If I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what should I tell them?” God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever; this is how I am to be remembered in every generation.” Who God has revealed himself to be—the name he gave to Moses—is not something that changes. God is who God is.
Think about calling God Father. What kind of God are we talking to? To whom do we address our prayers? This matters profoundly when it comes to our relationship with God, which is what prayer is all about. Think about how we end our prayers often by saying, In Jesus’ name, amen. What does it mean to do that? Praying Your name be honored as holy means, first, praying to God as he has revealed himself to be. And of course, this is why Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s name would be honored as holy. Holy means set apart. The holiness of God refers to his uniqueness, to his utter goodness.
Now, obviously, God is already infinitely holy. So, our prayers can’t add to the holiness of his name. Our prayers don’t benefit him. It’s not about making God feel better about himself or satisfying some divine ego. In his book, The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father, Wesley Hill writes: “‘Hallowing’ God’s name means to speak and live in recognition of who God has revealed himself to be.”
Think about how you can honor a loved one who has died. One of those ways is to live by the values they taught and modeled, to strive to emulate their admirable qualities in your own life. That would be honoring their name. When I pray Your name be honored as holy, in other words, I am first asking that I would hallow God’s name in my life, in my words, in my actions, in my priorities, in my relationships.
And if this is so, then it’s also true that there are many ways to take God’s name in vain, to break the third commandment and misuse God’s name. Simply calling myself a Christian, professing to be a follower of Jesus, but then living according to my priorities, seeking what I want out of life and what makes me happy instead of seeking God’s will for my life is a way of taking his name in vain. Indeed, maybe this is even worse than someone who isn’t a Christian using Jesus’ name as a swear word.
And clearly this is one of the reasons Jesus gives us this prayer. Because we don’t—on our own power—honor God’s name as holy like we should. And even if this is our heart’s desire, which I pray it is for all of us, we still need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit for this to be more and more true of us. Hallowed by Thy name: in me, in my life, in my heart. Each of us can ask: Where in my life do I need to honor God as holy?
Of course, when we pray this prayer for God’s name to be honored as holy, we’re also thinking of people who do not follow Jesus. We want God’s name to be honored in their lives too. We think of our world, our neighbourhood, our community, our province, our country, even our family. That’s also why we pray this prayer. We want people who don’t honor Jesus to turn and worship him, to put their faith in him. The question is: How is this prayer answered? How does God hallow his name in a world that more often than not takes in vain?
Let’s look at Leviticus 22:32, where it says: You must not profane my holy name. I must be treated as holy among the Israelites. Not only that, but in Leviticus 19:2 it says: Be holy because I, Yahweh your God, am holy. And why did God say this? And what does this mean? And what does it have to do with The Lord’s Prayer?
Well, in Isaiah 49:6 God says this to his people: I will also make you a light for the nations. Being holy and being a light for the nations go together. Israel would be a light to the nations—and be a witness to the holiness of God—to the degree that they too were holy.
And that’s true of us too. In Matthew 5:14—16, Jesus says to his followers: You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Are we honoring Christ in our lives? Do our lives give evidence that we trust in the God we see in Scripture, who gave his name to Moses, who revealed himself ultimately through the person of the Son, Jesus?
Here’s the thing. If we were to leave it at that, I think a lot of us might feel defeated. Because it sounds like there’s a lot on our shoulders if other people are going to give glory to our Father in heaven, if this prayer is going to be answered all around us. We are to be the light. We have to honor God ourselves. We have to do good works. Sounds like an impossible task.
But there’s a couple of important things to bear in mind. One is this. Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s name would be honored as holy. Praying for this means acknowledging that we can’t do this by ourselves. Prayer demonstrates our absolute dependence on God. There’s also this. In Jesus Christ this prayer is definitively answered. Jesus is the ultimate hallowing of God’s name. And to the degree that over time the Spirit further shapes us, renews us, leads us, and corrects us, so that Jesus is the central driving truth of our lives is the degree to which our lives will hallow God’s name too.
More than that, think about what a privilege it is for us, those of us who know the gift of having faith in the Lord Jesus, to be able to participate in what God is doing in the world—bringing others to the knowledge of Father, Son, and Spirit. Lastly, and we will see this throughout the prayer, this prayer will not be completely and fully answered until Jesus returns. This prayer—Your name be honored as holy—as well as the rest of The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the present as well as a prayer for the coming of Jesus.