The refugees returning to the Promised Land after seventy years of captivity in Babylon had a problem. He was a killjoy named Haggai and he was chewing them out for rebuilding their houses.
Or…well… that’s not exactly the case. His complaint wasn’t so much that they were building their houses as that they were doing this without so much as a thought to the God who had brought them back from captivity in direct fulfillment of the promises He had made to them. Haggai’s point was not “God is a killjoy” but “God demands that we put him first in our lives, not treat him as an afterthought once things began to turn around for us.” So he cried:
Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? (Haggai 1:4)
“This house” refers to the Temple and this verse sums up the message of the prophet to the gloomy, dispirited Jews who had returned from the Babylonian Exile to find their city a pile of rubble, their Temple a heap of stones and their future a bleak blank. Being fallen humans, they set about taking care of Numero Uno, as their fathers had done before them. Haggai’s task was to remind them that God’s Temple, not their dining room set, was Numero Uno and that they should remember, as an earlier prophet had said, that
If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your dispersed be under the farthest skies, I will gather them thence and bring them to the place which I have chosen, to make my name dwell there. (Nehemiah 1:8-9)
In short, neither their exile nor their return was simply an accident in the blind unfolding of life’s colorful pageant, but was the fulfillment of the covenant promises made by God Almighty to the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. It was He and His covenant that were the real center of the story, not their real estate development projects. If they wanted to actually live happily (as distinct from simply continuing with a sort of ancient rat race existence) they needed to correct their vision so as to see God and put him first in their lives. In the words of the Messiah who would eventually come and build the real Temple of which the Jerusalem Temple was just a dim shadow, they had to learn “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you as well.”
We are in much the same boat as Haggai’s exiles. That’s why, when our culture thinks of prayer, it tends to think first of “asking for stuff”. If you pop in the prayer coin and get the car, job, spouse or sundry goody, then prayer “worked”—like a machine. Conversely, if we don’t get all the stuff we want, many people conclude that prayer “doesn’t work”. Undergirding this notion of prayer is the conception of God as Cosmic Vending Machine rather than as a Trinity of Persons with whom we have a relationship.
Now, as we shall see in coming weeks, there is most certainly a place for petitionary prayer in the Christian tradition. Throughout both Scripture and Church history, the saints have not merely asked for stuff, but for quite outrageous stuff, up to and including multiplication of loaves and fishes and life for dead people sans pulse and brainwave. Scripture has not a word to say against people asking God for all sorts of stuff.
But it has no room, none whatever, for praying as though God is a machine. Instead, as Jesus instructs us in the Our Father, the very first order of business is to usher us into the covenant relationship God has desired with us since he made Adam and Eve in his image and likeness. And so, even in the midst of our most urgent need, not to mention in the midst of our day-to-day “daily bread” needs, Jesus throws up a roadblock to our urge to rush on to the “asking for stuff” part of prayer. Instead, He calls us to remember the One to whom we are speaking and to enter into the highest form of language the human person can participate in: the language of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Therefore, long before we ever get to “Give us this day our daily bread” or “Deliver us from evil” we are urged to take a good look at God for who He is, rather than to start with what we think and say and need. When we do that, we find Our Father’s “Name” is hallowed. What does that mean?
Jewish piety has always seen a colossal significance in names, and nowhere moreso than in the Name of God himself. Among the Ten Commandments (and well before you get to the natural law stuff about killing, adultery and theft) you find the command:
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain. (Exodus 20:7)
And so, in Scripture, the name (and supremely God’s Name) is a deeply sacred thing. It is not just a label slapped on a thing so that we can call it something besides a thingamajig. For the biblical authors, a name — and especially a person’s name — somehow expressed the essence. To know someone’s name was to know them. To name, or rename, someone was to effect and reflect a fundamental change in who they are. To use the Name of God, therefore, was a solemn thing and not to be taken lightly. To bless the Name of God was to be taken up into the divine work of the angels. To bear the Name of God was to become, in some sense, a member of the family of God. To hallow God’s Name as Jesus commands us to do was (and remains) the highest form of prayer that a human being can offer with his lips. It is to say, in mere sound, what Jesus would say with his very body and blood in His Passion, Crucifixion and Death.
That’s why this petition always comes first. Jesus wants us to love his Father as he does and to ingrain into our very bones the truth that the Father is more important than anything else. It is his kingdom, not our wish list, which matters. It is his will that must be done, not ours. And so, in learning the Lord’s Prayer, we learn the right order of things and are taught a bit about how not to be fools who put second things first and first things last. In so doing, we start our prayer, not by building our own house, but by becoming living stones and the place which he has chosen to make his Name dwell, the Temple which is the Body of Christ.