Who is God? Last week, we saw that Jesus teaches us to begin praying by calling God “our Father in heaven.”
God is the compassionate Lover of all people and the just Liberator of the oppressed. Our Father says, “Let’s have a feast and celebrate!” when his rebellious son returns home and “Let my people go!” when Pharaoh enslaves his powerless children. This is the One who listens and responds when we pray. This is who God is: our Father.
But Jesus teaches us with our next breath to pray, “Hallowed” – holy – “be your name.”
I believe Jesus is saying something profound:
Call God “our Father.” That’s the beginning and bedrock. But don’t assume anything else about God. Stop right here and start over every time. God is different, and don’t forget it. Interrupt your prayer and acknowledge the radical otherness of God before you say another word.
I started college at Waubonsee Community College. My English instructor was a short, Jewish woman who loved to laugh and kept a bright green lizard perched on her shoulder as she lectured (no joke). One day, she went on a tangent and talked about how she writes “Gxd” when she writes “God.” The “x” in the middle serves as a visual reminder that “God” is always more and other than we think. We have never figured God out or captured God in our box. Gxd crosses out our attempts to reduce “God” to what we know or want for ourselves. Only God is God, and we are finite human beings.
Writing “Gxd” actually has ancient Jewish precedent. When I transferred from Waubonsee to Wheaton College, I took three semesters of classical Hebrew. One of the first things we learned was that we should never pronounce God’s self-revealed name YHWH when we read the text aloud. Instead, we should say “Adonai,” which means “my Lord.”
This Hebrew practice was meant to remind us that we never fully know how to say God’s name. In ancient culture, names were often seen as magical tools for manipulating the gods for human purposes. Similarly, language can bewitch us into thinking that, because we can say “God,” we somehow have a handle to grasp God and can wield God for what we want. But reading “YHWH” and saying “Adonai” disrupts this idolatrous assumption and reminds us of our ignorance and God’s otherness.
This radical humility is rooted in God’s revelation of God’s name to Moses at the burning bush. God calls out, “Moses! Moses!”, and Moses answers, “Here I am” (Exodus 3:4). But God immediately warns Moses,
“Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Exodus 3:5
God wants Moses to come near but to know that he’s no longer on his own turf. God’s place is different – holy. You can’t stand in God’s presence the way you stand anywhere else. Your feet must be naked, vulnerable, and planted in dust.
God then reveals his name to Moses in one of the most epic moments in the Bible: “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). My professor of Hebrew Bible at UChicago, Michael Fishbane, argues that God’s name is actually future-tense and better translated “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” When Moses asks for a name to call God – a handle to grasp God? – God gives Moses a name that is uncapturable and confounding: “You can never catch me. I’m always ahead of you. So don’t ever think I’m another pawn in your plan; follow behind me.”
The Book of Ecclesiastes summarizes this radical reverence for God’s mystery and otherness – the holiness of God’s name:
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifices of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth; do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” Ecclesiastes 5:1-2
This text helps us appreciate the brilliant tension of calling God “our Father in heaven.” God is tender and tenaciously committed to us (“our Father”). Everything good begins with this beautiful revelation. But God is never on our level or at our disposal: God is in heaven and his name must be hallowed.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer distills the implications of God’s holy name in biblical tradition like this:
“There can be no point in human life when we can speak of God as our possession… God is always the One who is to come; that is God’s transcendence. One can only have God by expecting God.” Bonhoeffer, The History of 20th Century Systematic Theology
“To violate religion means to believe that one possesses it. It is not we who possess God, but rather God who possesses us. It is not human beings who have God at their disposal, but God who has human beings at his disposal. To be religious means to recognize that one can never be religious; to have God means to realize that human beings can never have God.” Bonhoeffer, The Tragedy of the Prophets
Bonhoeffer points us to the paradox of an intimate, passionate, faithful relationship with God: we pray best when we pray actively remembering that we don’t fully know who God is or what God wants in advance. We never “have” God. God’s name is holy, and finite humans can never fully comprehend, much less capture, God.
This is precisely how Jesus teaches us to pray. We begin with the love and liberation of boldly addressing God as “our Father.” That’s the origin and anchor of a meaningful relationship with God. But our very next breath must remind us that “God” can never be taken for granted or possessed by us. Hallowed be your name.
This is an awful analogy, but I’m reminded of palate cleansers at high-end restaurants: the chef wants you to eat something tart and disturbing between the courses of the meal, so that you can actually taste the full flavor of what’s coming in all of its surprise and delicious difference.
In a sense, “Hallowed be your name” is Jesus’s spiritual palate cleanser before turning to the other courses of his prayer: stop and actively remind yourself that you can’t capture or control God. That’s the only way to keep praying, rather than babbling or practicing hypocrisy.
I find this extremely profound and a brilliant tension that is lost in much Christian spirituality today. Jesus invites us to intimately address God as our loving and liberating Father. God is with us and for us. But Jesus immediately interrupts and disturbs any religious presumption or prattle. God’s name is holy, and the only way to continue speaking with God – rather than a self-made idol – is to say hallowed.
How easy and dangerous it is to presume that we know who God fully is and that God wants what we want. As we begin 2019, let us pray with Jesus and interrupt these foolish assumptions. Let us come naked, vulnerable, and ready for surprise as we address our Father in heaven each new day. This is the checkpoint for passing to Jesus’s next petition for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.