Jesus invites us to relate to God as “our Father”. In this sermon series we explore what this means.
On the fifteenth of May, 1950, a group of students from Oxford University gathered for their weekly debate between atheists and Christians. Huddled inside the Junior Common Room at St Hilda’s College the meeting was chaired by CS Lewis. A young philosophy student named Antony Flew presented a case for atheism. His speech was titled “Theology and Falsification”. It doesn’t sound very exciting but it became the most widely published philosophical paper of the 20th century and Antony Flew went on to became one of the leading atheist thinkers of the 20th century. It has been said that “within the last hundred years, no mainstream philosopher has developed the kind of systematic, comprehensive, original, and influential exposition of atheism that is to be found in Antony Flew’s fifty years of…writing”. (Roy Varghese, Preface to There is a God).
In 2004 Flew dropped a bombshell – he declared he had changed his mind. He had not had a Damascus Road conversion experience. He had not had a personal encounter with God. He simply believed that the evidence from science and philosophy now pointed to the existence of a God. “I have followed the argument where it has led me” he said, “And it has led me to accept the existence of a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent and omniscient Being.” (Flew, There is a God)
I found it exciting to read Anthony Flew’s account of his discovery of God. I find my own faith strengthened knowing that one of the world’s leading philosophers thinks the evidence points us to God. And not just to any God but to a God that Christianity has long believed in – eternal, unchangeable, all powerful and all knowing. But there are deep limitations in Antony Flew’s God. His God is powerful but not personal. His God can create the laws of physics that call the universe into being but his God does not love me, seek justice for the oppressed or provide hope for the future. Flew’s God knows the number of hairs on my head, but does not care about the person whose hairs he counts. Flew’s God may know the future but is not concerned about my future. His God is a being to be admired but not a person to be loved.
At the same time we remember that our God is, in Flew’s words, “a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent and omniscient Being” we need to remember Jesus showed us God is personal, compassionate, loving, and purposeful. That this “self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent and omniscient Being” cares about me, longs for me, loves me and wants to be involved in my life. And so we begin a new series today in which we will get to know the God who is not only a “a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent and omniscient Being” but who is “our Father”.
What It Does Not Mean To Say God is “Our Father”
Before we get into what it means to say “God is our Father”, let’s be clear about what it does not mean.
First, to say God is our Father does not mean God is like our human fathers. My dad passed away in the middle of last year and in many ways his life helped me understand what it means to say God is my father. Dad was extraordinarily rich in love for me; he was wise yet knew not to give advice where it was not sought; he lived what he believed even when it came at great cost. In my earthly father I got many glimpses of my heavenly father.
But I am aware that for some of us our earthly father’s have not been loving, wise and good. Too many people in our society have fathers who are abusive or absent. If that has been your experience I hope in this series you will discover the Father God who is what your earthly father was not.
In Psalm 68 we are told “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” In ancient near eastern society power was concentrated in the hands of men. That left children without fathers and widows without adult sons vulnerable to exploitation and neglect. And right throughout Scripture we hear God declaring he is on their side, that he wil step in and be a father to the fatherless and a defender of widows.
I hope that in this series you will find God to be the heavenly Father who can be for you what your earthly father was not.
The second thing we need to say is that to say God is our Father is not to say God is male nor that God is masculine rather than feminine. To make this clear think about this description of God in 2 Samuel
David sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said:
“The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation.
He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior—
from violent people you save me.
Look at the ways God is described there – God is a rock, a fortress, a shield and a horn. I think it’s pretty obvious that we are not meant to think God is literally made from stone, takes the shape of a shield or is the horn of a sheep! David uses these as images to describe how God is toward him, what God has done in his life. God has rescued him from those who were trying to kill him – it’s as though God was large rock with a crevice in which he could hide; a shield that protected him from the arrows of the enemy; a horn being sounded to rally his troops.
I suspect all descriptions of God are like this. They say, “think of God like a rock in which you can hide, a shepherd who leads his sheep to water, a bear protecting her cubs”
And this includes images of God as mother:
“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Deuteronomy 32:18)
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13)
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)
“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” (Isaiah 42:14)
We should keep all this in mind when we speak of God as our Father. It’s one of Jesus’ favourite ways to speak of God. Jesus is not saying God is male, nor that God is associated with exclusively with masculine traits. He is saying, if you want a picture of what God is like, think of a good father, a loving, compassionate, generous, wise, safe father.
What It Does Mean To Say God is Our Father
And now we are moving into describing what it does mean to say God is our Father. It does not mean God is cosmic version of our human fathers; it does not mean God is male; what it does is tell us how God relates to us.
If you read through the Old Testament you’ll find only scattered references to God as Father. But then you open the Gospels and you hear God repeatedly described as the Father of Jesus and of us. Jesus teaches us to pray to “Our Father in heaven”; he calls us to perform religious actions not to impress others but to engage with our Father God; he assures us that our Father knows our needs and will provide for us; he reminds us that the Father God’s acts of love extend to both the righteous person and the unrighteous; he compares God to a father welcoming home a long lost son; he suggests God is a Father who has created an inheritance for us, the kingdom of God.
Move to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians and we discover that Paul and Timothy had been “under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life” (1:8). Yet precisely in that time he found God to be his Father: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (1:3-4).
Shift from 2 Corinthians to the letter to the Hebrews and we hear of God the Father disciplining us: “endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what child is not disciplined by their father? (12:7).
Flip over to the book of James and we are reminded that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (1:17)
As you put all these images together you get a vision of God as a personal being, of a God who is involved in our lives. God is not only an all-powerful, all-knowing Being; he is an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator who loves you with a love so strong it is like the love of a father who will move heaven and earth for your good; God is a God who is filled with such compassion for you that he is like a father who doesn’t scold a child who fails but picks them up, holds them close and whispers, ‘I will walk with you and barrack for you whatever comes your way’; God is a God who like a wise father sets boundaries and exercises a loving discipline to teach you the importance of possessing boundaries.; God is a God who like a caring Father has hopes and dreams for your life.
Over the coming weeks we will spend time exploring these Father ways of God in more detail. For now I think the take-away message is that God is not an impersonal, removed Being who simply watches your life. Rather, by picturing God as Father we get a picture of a very personal God, a God who is filled with love for us and wants to be involved with our lives.
I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to embrace the God of Antony Flew but neglect the God of Jesus. I get excited by ideas and so I can do a lot of thinking and talking about God without actually engaging with God. So I have to remind myself that God wants to be more than an idea, God wants to be personally involved with me, wants to be my Father.
And so I want to ask you this morning, how open are you to God’s involvement in your life? Is your God the God of Antony Flew or the God of Jesus? Is your God an all-powerful, all-knowing, always existing Being you believe in but who is remote and removed or is your God the all powerful, all knowing, always existing, all loving, all compassionate, all wise fatherly God who is involved with you, whom you seek out and share life with?
I’d like to finish by playing a video called “The Father’s Love Letter.” It’s a letter from God to you. As you watch it pick out the one thing that really touches a chord with you, and then when it closes I’ll lead you in a prayer that we will be open to God’s fatherly presence in our lives.
Ahamefule Oluo is an American musician with an unusual name. He got his American citizenship from his American mothe and his name came from the Nigerian father he never knew. Dad left when Ahamefule was just one month old and it was 16 years before Ahamefule and hid dad would speak. As you can imagine, Ahamefule and his sister were very nervous when they finally connected with their father by phone. Ahamefule’s sister spoke first, a long and warm conversation. Then it was Ahamefule’s turn.
My hand shook as I clutched the large black cordless telephone. “Hello…” I said, my voice projecting with all the conviction of a dying lamb. “Ahamefule!” he shouted in return, overblown and distorted by the terrible connection. “It is so great to hear your voice! I have missed you so very much…Tell me about yourself! What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Well…” I replied, “I’m already doing what I want to do when I grow up. I’m a musician. I play the trumpet, and I’m already starting to get paid and everything…” At that point, the line grew silent with the exception of the crackling hum of the poor connection. The silence continued for several more seconds until it was interrupted by a much more sullen and reserved voice than had been speaking to me only a moment earlier. “No,” he said. “No. I do not approve…You need to do something more sensible,” he continued. “That is not good.” Disappointment dripped from his words, flowed through 8,000 miles of telephone line, poured in through my ear, and began to well in my tear ducts. “Put back on the phone,” he said, his voice now opaque with resignation….
That brief conversation hurtled me into a depression that lasted for months. During that period of time, my father made two more attempts to call me, but on both of the occasions that his 14-digit telephone number showed up on my caller ID, I didn’t have the will to answer it, nor any idea what I would have said if I had. Eventually, the calls stopped, my life continued, and as the depression faded, I was left with nothing but pure and utter confusion.
…On the evening of February 21, 2006, I received a call from a Nigerian half-brother I had never met, informing me that our father had passed away at the age of 76 due to complications from diabetes… I can unequivocally say that I have never before or since been so affected by the death of someone who, in reality, was a complete stranger. I was heartbroken. My father had died disappointed in me.
(July 5, 2011, “My Father Is an African Immigrant and My Mother Is a White Girl from Kansas and I Am Not the President of the United States”http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=8932130&mode=print)
Do you think that’s the way God feels about us? Is our heavenly Father disappointed with us? I have a whole bunch of things he calls me to do and a whole lot of them I don’t do or don’t don’t do very well. Does that make me a disappointment to God?
Doesn’t the bible insist we’re sinners? We fall short of the glory of God and we do so almost every day of our lives. Surely God must be the most disappointed father in the universe?
Or is he?
Let’s see what Psalm 103 has to say:
Praise the LORD, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the LORD, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6 The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
15 As for mortals, their days are like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
17 But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children—
18 with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.
19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.
20 Praise the LORD, you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
who obey his word.
21 Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts,
you his servants who do his will.
22 Praise the LORD, all his works
everywhere in his dominion.
Praise the LORD, my soul.
This psalm covers a lot of ground but it’s bound together by the theme of the tenderness of God. At its heart is the idea spelled out in verse 8 that God’s nature is to be compassionate, gracious, understanding. Our God is not cold or distant or hard; he is the Lord who “is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.”
Those words are very significant. The exact phrasing is found throughout the Old Testament. They take us back to a pivotal time in Israel’s history, to a defining moment in which Israel disovered who God is. God has just liberated the people of Israel from brutal oppression at the hands of the Egyptians. He had gone to war against a recalcitrant Pharoah, had won a mighty victory, brought the people to Mount Sinai and given them his guidance for life. And then the unthinkable happens. While Moses is up the mountain receiving the law of God, the people start to panic. Perhaps Moses and his God are not coming back, and we need a god to guide and protect us. So they create an idol and start worshipping it. Despite everything God has done they lose their confidence in Yahweh and return to worship of fertility gods! Yahweh is livid. He contemplates wiping them all out and starting again. But then we discover what Yahweh is really like. Despite such a bitter betrayal Yahweh forgives and recommits to journeying with the people.
To reinforce this God appears to Moses and declares his true nature: ” “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34.6). Here is the one true God. He is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, forgiving wickedness. Israel may be fickle, sinful and unfaithful, but their God is neither like them nor vengeful. This was a key discovery and a lesson the bible writers remember. And so we get the writer of Psalm 103 harking back to that pivotal moment when they learned that their God was nothing like the gods of Egypt.
For the Psalm writer this means three things. First, it means God is forgiving.
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (verses 8-12)
Yes God takes sin seriously – it fractures, maims and harms and can’t be ignored. Yes God gets angry about that. But God’s anger is not easily aroused and is never the last word. Love is. God is possessed of a fatherly affection for his children and that means he forgives. God doesn’t demand an eye for an eye. God doesn’t treat us anywhere near as severely as our sins deserve. He is like a parent who wants their children to realise how damaging their behaviour was and disciplines them so they might learn a better way but then forgives, pardons, sets us free from any obligation to make it up to him.
Think of it for a minute. We have a magnificence about us that can make the world wonderful. I remember some years back a member of this congregation showing up at my door with a microwave oven. Sandy had accidently set a baby bottle to warm for 30 minutes rather than 30 seconds – the presure built up, the bottle exploded, the microwave door went flying through the air, the glass plate smashed into the floor. This couple had heard our microwave had blown up, so in an act of spontaneous generosity they went out and bought us a new one. It was very humbling.
But at the same time we have the ability to be magnificent we have the ability to be awful. I can think of people going through a hard time who I should have rung but didn’t and they were left feeling isolated and uncared for; I regularly spend money on things that I don’t need and that add very little value to my life, all the while knowing that money could have kept alive people starving right now in the horn of Africa. How can I be like that?
We really can be horrid and nobody knows that more than our Father in heaven; yet he doesn’t cast us off; he doesn’t rain down thunderbolts and lightning; even with all our failures he is filled with a love so deep that the psalm writer says its as high as the heavens above the earth. And it’s that deep, powerful, generous love that drives the Father’s way with us.
But not only is God filled with forgiving love for us, he has a deep tenderness that empathises with our frailty.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
As for mortals, their days are like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children—
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.
The psalm writer takes us back to the creation stories. Do you remember the creation story describing the creation of the first human from the dust of earth? The Hebrew word for the ground is ‘adamah’, so we have the ‘adam’ created out of the ‘adamah’. We are both limited and mortal. Our mortalityy can inspire us to greatness, leave us determined to make our time on earth worthwhile; it leaves us fearful; it can cause us to be selfish. Our limitations mean we make mistakes. Unlike God our knowledge is limited, our wisdom is limited, our understanding is limited, and so we make mistakes, we have successes and failures. And God knows that says the Psalmist. He knows we will stuff up and his response is not to scold but to hold.
I love the translation of verse 13 that Leslie Allen offers in his commentary on the Psalms: As tender as a father’s affection for his children has been Yahweh’s affection for those who revere him. God gets us. He gets that we are frail, mortal, fearful. He gets that we don’t know it all, that we can be uncertain and paralysed by indecision. God gets all that because his heart is tender towards us. He’s not like the parent standing on the sidelines yelling abuse at his child when they make a mistake; he’s like the parent who longs to see his child kick a goal, who cheers her on even when she misses the ball. That’s our heavenly Father – tender, compassionate, generous.
So the tender heart of God means he treats us gently, he forgives our moral failings and understands our anxieties and failures. Finally we can say God’s compassion and love see him pursuing our good.The psalm opens with a recital of the things God does for his people – he forgives our sin, heals our diseases, satisfies our desires, liberates the oppressed. God loves us deeply and that love drives him to seek our good.
Now we need to read this through the lens of the New Testament. I have Parkinsons disease. Does this mean God will heal me? Yes it does, but most likely my healing will come at the resurection of the dead to come at the end of time. And for me that is a powerful promise. Over the next ten to twenty years my ability to control my body will deteriorate, but I know that won’t be God’s last word to me. God will give me the gift of a new body, and in the meantime, whether or not he heals me, he will be at work in my life to shape me into the sort of person he wants me to be. You see, the psalm writer assures me that my father God is passionate about me and my wellbeing and is ar work confronting evil to secure it.
Here is our heavenly father, the tender hearted God who is filled with love and compassion for us; who knows our moral failings and responds with a kind disscipline and a generous grace; who knows our limitations and resoponds with tenderhearted understanding; who knows our need and responds by seeking our good.
Is our father disappointed with us? No, not at all. He may be disappointed at some of the things we do, but he delights in us, loves us, is tender in his affection toward us.
I want to invite you to get in touch with that heavenly Father this morning. I invite you to close your eyes and hear the words of the psalm as though written to you.
The LORD is compassionate and gracious to you,
slow to anger, abounding in love for you.
He does not perpetually rebuke you,
nor does he stay angry with you;
he does not treat you as your sins deserve
or repay you according to your iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for you;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed your transgressions from you.
As tender as a father’s affection for his children is Yahweh’s affection for you.
for he knows how you are formed,
he remembers that you are dust.
Your days are like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with you.
I remember the day my daughter Ashley was born. Holding my own child in my own hands I remember feeling overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude, a sense of privilege, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of hope. All of a sudden my heart seemed to be captured and I knew I wanted to do everything I could to help this little baby girl grow up to be everything she could. And the same was true when Jess was born, and the same was true when Lachy was born.
I guess my experience is not uncommon, that father’s are filled with hope for their children. Perhaps no one has captured it better than Bob Dylan. He wrote a song called ‘Forever Young’ just after the birth of his child in 1974. The lyrics go like this:
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.
May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young
We’ve been looking at what it means for God to be our Father. Today I’d like to ask, what is our Father God’s hope for us?
God is filled with hope for you and all creation
The first thing to say is that God is filled with hope for you. We can say that glibly, pass over it quickly. But just stop and think about that for a moment – the God who fashioned this universe, who is as vast as the oceans and can reach beyond the edges of the universe, this God is focussed on you and has hopes and dreams for you.
Listen to what Jesus has to say:
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Sparrows were the meal of the poor. They were a dime a dozen, cheap, not really seen of any tremendous value. But not one of those sparrows says Jesus is forgotten by God. And if that’s true of the sparrow he reasons, how much more true for humans. Not one of us forgotten by God, not one of us beyond the focus of his love and care.
Or come back to the Old Testament, to the book of Isaiah. The people of Israel had been exiled from their land. They’d lost their homes, their country, their temple, all that was familiar. And to many of them it seemed they’d lost their God, that God had abandoned them. And God sends the prophet Isaiah with this message:
Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Now this is not a promise that should they trust God this morning they’ll be soaring like eagles this afternoon. They are in exile, in pain, but God will bring them back and they will start afresh. That’s when they will soar like eagles. God has plans for you yet Israel. Don’t ever think it’s over between you and God.
God sends a similar message through Jeremiah. The Israelites are despondent. They’re stuck in a foreign land, subject to humiliation and mockery. Some false prophets have been telling the people, ‘Don’ worry. It will all be over soon.’ But they’re wrong. Jeremiah brings them the message that the exile will run for three generations, it’ll be 70 years. But don’t think God has abandoned you. Never forget God has hopes and dreams for you, says Jeremiah.
“This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. “
And the same is true for you and I. Our father God is a God filled with hopes and dreams for us.
God hopes for your complete renewal
So what is God’s hope for us? The first thing we can say is that God has hopes for our long term future, a hope for our complete renewal as human beings, that everything that mars life will pass and that we will live in redeemed bodies, in redeemed communities, in a redeemed world, in redeemed relationship with God.
We explored this in our series on life after death, so I won’t spend much time on it today. But that should not blind us to the reality that God’s hope for us and, indeed for the entire creation, is nothing short of audacious. It is that everything that is wrong in our lives and world be put right.
Whatever it is that holds you back from experiencing fullness of life God hopes that it will be healed. God dreams of a time when it will be healed. God will bring a time when it is healed.
Whatever it is that holds our communities from experiencing fullness of life God hopes that it will be healed. God dreams of a time when it will be healed. God will bring a time when it is healed.
Whatever it is that holds our planet from experiencing fullness of life God hopes that it will be healed. God dreams of a time when it will be healed. God will bring a time when it is healed.
God hopes you will become the person he created you to be
But to a large degree that’s a hope that will be realised in the distant future. What does God hope for me for now? What does God dream for me for this month, this year?
I think the Scriptures teach that God hopes for me to become the person he created me to be.
Most of us have our hopes shaped by consumerism. We hope to be happy. We hope to extend our homes. We hope to take that holiday trip. Most of us who are parents hope that our children will be happy. ‘What do you think Jessica will do when she leave school?’ ‘I’m not sure, but I hope it’s something that makes her happy’.
I’m not sure that’s how God hopes for us. We live in a world where happiness and grief exist side by side; joy and suffering sit side by side; triumph and tragedy sit side by side; thrill and disappointment exist side by side. These are the indelible marks of living in a glorious but fractured world.
While it is God’s plan that one day the universe will be free from grief and suffering and tragedy and disappointment, that time is not now. I can see nowhere in the bible where it says God will cocoon us from these. What I read repeatedly is God’s hope that we would learn to face life with dignity, grace, generosity, love, patience and goodness; that in the midst of this world’s high and lows we would grow to be the people God created us to be – people who know they are loved by their Creator and live a life rich in love for others.
Come to the book of Galatians. The apostle Paul describes the Christian life as one in step with the Holy Spirit.
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
Come to the book of Romans and we read:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath…21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Do you hear the message? God’s hope is for the type of people we will be as we face life. Will we be people marked by the works of the flesh or the fruit of the Spirit? Will we be people who use our gifts to serve others; who meet evil with good; who are patient in affliction?
I ran across a poignant article on the internet that I think captures this perfectly. It was written on March 29, 2011. Let me read it to you:
I was watching you today while you were playing with your dinosaurs and began imagining you at different stages of life. I wondered what you would be like as an 8-year-old, a 16-year-old, as a young man graduating high school.
Then my mind went back nearly 5 years ago to your birth. I remember it so clearly, almost feeling you in my arms for the very first time. You were so new to the world, so freshly arrived from the lap of God. You were so small, so helpless and vulnerable. Love swelled my heart to unbelievable dimensions, to a degree that almost hurt. And the swelling hasn’t gone down since … it’s only gotten bigger.
I was there, Jacob, when you were born. I watched you as your head popped out into a bright and noisy world for the very first time. I helped the nurse with mommy as the doctor pulled you from your liquid warmth into the cold dry air of the hospital room … and then into the warmth of a family that can’t imagine what life would have been like without you in it.
I held you and touched your little fingers and little toes. I stared into your beautiful eyes that reflected a beautiful soul.
A hope, a dream, a goal was formed that day as I held you close to my beating heart in that hospital room. It was a father’s hope that you would grow to be a good and honorable man, a man of faith and kindness and courage and love.
I think that captures beautifully our Father God’s hope for us.
You know, when I was a child I had a heart condition that the specialists thought would kill me. My left ventricle had blown up to twice the normal size and my heart was on the brink of failure. No medication seemed to work. Then my ventricle started to reduce in size ti it went back to normal and has stayed normal and healthy ever since. My doctors, two of Australia’s leading cardiologists, couldn’t explain it. “There’s nothing in any of the medication we gave you that can explain that” I was told. I believe the healing was from God. And now I have Parkinsons. I don’t know when God will heal me. More than likely it won’t be until the great resurrection of the dead. But I do know that while I have this disease God’s hope is not only for my future renewal but that even now I will become the sort of person he wants me to be.
A hope, a dream, a goal was formed that day as I held you close to my beating heart in that hospital room. It was a father’s hope that you would grow to be a good and honorable man, a man of faith and kindness and courage and love.
A hope, a dream, a goal was formed that day as I held you close to my beating heart in that hospital room. It was a father’s hope that you would grow to be a good and honorable woman, a woman of faith and kindness and courage and love.
Living God’s Hope
The letter from that father to son finishes like this
As I think about the nearly 5 amazing years since your birth and consider your future, I feel compelled to lay out a road map of sorts of the kind of young man I hope you will become.
I will do my best, along with your mommy, to teach you these lessons by word and example. But in the end, it will be yours to accept or reject.
I hope you accept them
Is that not God’s invitation to us? God has a great and grand hope you – for you, for me, for the entire earth community, for the earth itself. Will you make it your hope?
We saw two weeks back that the one who holds this hope is tender-hearted. That God knows we are frail, that we stumble and fall. Yet he is also filled with hope and dreams that we can grow into our humanity.
Why don’t you take a moment to close your eyes and reflect on God’s hope for you.
Maybe you need to hear God’s big, audacious dream that one day this entire universe will be renewed; maybe that’s the father’s hope you need to cling to today.
Maybe you need to hear God’s hope for you for today, tomorrow and this week, that you will be the person of courage, grace and love that he created you to be.
Maybe you just need to hear that God has not forgotten you. That his love and affection are focussed so strongly on you right now and that God hopes you will know this in the very core of your being.
One of the things I miss about my father is his wisdom. Dad passed away in July last year. He wasn’t the most intellectual person I have known, but he was the wisest. Don’t get me wrong, dad was no slouch in the thinking department but he was not terribly interested in academics. Family legend has it that when his school results weren’t quite good enough to make it into law some money changed hands to gain him entry. I suspect the legend is mythical, but it builds on a kernel of truth which was dad’s lack of academic interest. Dad’s real strength was his wisdom. Wisdom is more than knowing things. It’s knowing how to live well, how to make choices that turn out to be good choices. It’s practical knowledge. And this dad had in bucket-loads. I would regularly consult dad when it came to big life choices, and while I didn’t always follow his advice, I always valued it because it helped me make good decisions.
When we think about God the focus is often on God’s knowledge. We speak of God as “omniscient”, which is a big word which simply means God knows everything there is to know. Sunday school students learn that God can be described by the three “O’s” – omnipotent -all powerful; omnipresent – all present; and omniscient – all knowing. Theologians debate the nature of God’s knowledge. Does God know the future or simply the range of possible futures? Does God know what we will do or only the range of possible things we will do? Christians take comfort in knowing that God knows everything, even the number of hairs on our head.
But when it comes to seeing God as our Father I wonder if it’s not more significant to know our God as all wise. That our heavenly Father isn’t simply a heavenly academic with expertise in every discipline, but that he is filled with practical knowledge that he generously shares with us; knowledge about how to live well; that our God offers us sound advice on the key life choices we have to make.
This wisdom is expressed most fully and completely in Jesus, and I’d like to offer some reflections on it.
God’s wisdom is practical
There’s a marvellous little book on Jesus by a guy named Marcus Borg. Titled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time Borg describes the biblical approach to wisdom like this:
Wisdom concerns how to live. It speaks of the nature of reality and how to live one’s life in accord with reality. Central to it is the notion of a way or a path, indeed of two ways or paths: the wise way and the foolish way. Teachers of wisdom speak of these two ways, commending the one and warning of the consequences of following the other.
Wisdom, in other words, is very practical. It’s about exploring the nature of reality and learning how to live one’s life in accord with that reality. I remember being struck by this when reading Christian psychiatrist John White’s book called Changing on the Inside. White says that people who are insane have so lost touch with the real world that they can no longer live in it. But then he goes on to make the really provocative point that we are all a touch insane, that none of us has a perfect grasp on reality, that all of us have areas where our understanding of reality is false and so we sometimes live our lives in ways that collide with reality: the adolescent who thinks they are a wonderful driver and so doesn’t conceive of the possibility their driving might be reckless; the married man or woman who begins an affair believing somehow everything will work out fine; the parent who refuses to discipline her child believing that all you need is a sentimental love.
Growth is the process of coming to grips with reality and learning to live your life in accord with it. And this is the wisdom our Father God has for us. He shares with us what we need to know about the nature of reality and guides us in how to live in accord with it. This is practical knowledge, livable truth.
Think about the teachings of Jesus. There’s little abstract theology. At theological college I spent hours pondering abstract theology – is God outside if time? What does it even mean to say God is outside of time? Does God predetermine everything that happens? What does it mean to have free will? Was the death of Christ substitutionary or representative or none of the above? Questions like these can be important, but they are not the stuff of everyday living. And in the Gospels you don’t find Jesus discussing things like these. He talks about how God is to us – that God is like a father welcoming home the wayward child, that God is like a farmer sowing seed, that if God provides for the birds of the air he can be trusted to provide for us, that God welcomes the tax collector and the prostitute into his kingdom. He talks about what it means to follow God’s way – how we should treat our enemies, what we should do when someone repeatedly wrongs us, how we should relate to our possessions, how we should shape our communities – who should be welcomed in and how they should be welcomed.
In other words, God’s wisdom for us is to say, here’s the nature of reality and here’s how you should live in light of it. Don’t you want to know that? Don’t you want to come to grips with reality and live your life in a way that fits hand in glove with it? Well our wise Father God offers this to you.
God’s wisdom is subversive
The second thing to say about God’s wisdom is that it is subversive. If you’re looking for a heavenly Father who says, “Everything you’re doing is just fine. Your perception of reality is just fine. The way you’re living is just fine. The values you hold are just fine. The attitudes you have are just fine. The priorities of your life are just fine.” If that’s the heavenly Father you’re looking for the wise Father of Jesus is the wrong god for you. The wisdom of God in Scripture is subversive. It challenges our perceptions of reality and how we are living in light of those perceptions.
Think for a moment of how revolutionary the wisdom of Jesus was. To a people who were occupied by one of the most brutal regimes of history, who had seen their houses razed to the ground, their loved ones raped and brutalised, their countrymen crucified, their wealth pillaged, Jesus says
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5)
To a society where wealth could be seen as a sign of God’s blessing he says
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6)
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18)
To a world that sees God as favouring the good, Jesus declares
Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matthew 21)
It’s subversive isn’t it? Our wise Father challenges our conception of reality, our value systems, our attitudes, our behaviour. If conventional wisdom calls us to embrace the perceptions, values and behaviours of our age, God’s subversive wisdom calls us to a different way.
To put a contemporary spin on this, imagine what God’s subversive wisdom would say about the Australian preoccupation with bigger and better homes. Australians now boast the largest average house size in the world. Our homes are getting bigger at the same time that the number of people living in each home is getting smaller. We spend four times more that our grandparents generation buying stuff to put in our homes. What would God’s subversive wisdom say to that? I think it is captured brilliantly by a guy named Tony Payne in an article for the Briefing magazine. Payne wonders what television programming would look like if a TV magnate decided to run all programming according to Christian principles.
I would particularly look forward to the new version of Better Homes and Gardens. It would become a five-minute program called Perfectly Adequate Homes and Gardens. Each week, a former bricklayer or plumber would take us on a tour of a bog-ordinary family home and say, ‘As you can see, the Wilson family home has plenty of potential. There is lots we could do with this one. However, it does the job pretty well. It’s warm and dry and comfortable. No obvious structural problems. We are going to encourage the Wilsons to be content and leave it as it is.’ Cut to closing credits
This is the sort of wisdom I want. I want to live the best life I possibly can and my heavenly Father has the wisdom to show me how. It won’t be the wisdom of our age, because the wisdom of our age has a fractured view of reality. It will be the wisdom of the God of the ages, who can open my eyes to a truer vision of reality and the path to living a truly good life.
God’s wisdom is bounded by grace
Finally, let me suggest that God’s wisdom is bounded by grace.
One of the pivotal moments in the Gospels comes when Jesus asks “Who do people say that I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
If you go to the gospel of Mark, this is a pivot point. It occurs right in the middle of the story. Leading up to this moment we have heard nothing about Jesus death. After this moment we hear repeatedly that Jesus will die. Up until this point the key question has been ‘who is this man?’ Is he a prophet? Is he demon possessed? Is he John the Baptist come back to life? Who is he. Here in this episode we get the answer. He is the Messiah. And from this point on we discover what type of Messiah. He is a Messiah who will die, who will be rejected and crucified.
And straight after this episode we read this
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Now think about that. What happens as Jesus now journeys toward Jerusalem? His disciples do everything Jesus tells them not to. They deny they know him. They choose to save their lives rather than give them up for the gospel. They are ashamed of Jesus’ words. Yet what happens? Does Jesus cast them off> Does he now deny he knows them? Is he ashamed of them? No, he restores them; he forgives them; he installs them as leaders of his church.
This is the amazing thing about our father God. He comes to us with subversive wisdom, a wisdom that can be extraordinarily demanding. But he also comes to us with grace, with a tender heart. He calls us to another path and gently leads us along it, forgiving us when we draw back; picking us up again when we fall; walking patiently beside us as we bumble along; waiting with us as we weigh up whether we are prepared to go that far.
God’s wisdom comes from a Father with a grace filled and tender heart.
So here’s the question. Will we receive the Father’s wisdom? Will you receive the Father’s wisdom? Will you accept that your perceptions of reality are flawed and allow your heavenly Father to give you new perceptions? Will you immerse yourself in the story of Jesus to discover those new perceptions? And having seen reality anew will you walk the path less travelled? Will we walk it together, hand in hand with each other and a tender hearted Father who walks beside us?
And to make it practical, take a moment to identify one thing you will do this week to start hearing and living by the Father’s wisdom.
One of the more memorable incidents from my childhood is the mystery of the missing ice cream. Mum has bought some expensive ice cream for desert and we were under strict instructions that it was not be be touched until after dinner. Dinner rolls around, the mains are finished and mum goes to retrieve the ice cream only to discover half of it is gone. Mum was not happy. She expressed how disappointed she was that one of us kids had eaten the ice cream after being asked not to, and called for the guilty party to own up. Silence. Again came the call to fess up. More silence. We soon reached one of those points where the failure to admit the crime became more important than the crime itself. “We just want you to be honest and tell us the truth” declared mum. “And if you own up to what you’ve done you won’t be in trouble. We just want you to learn to tell the truth.” Silence. So mum and dad reached a decision. One by one we’d take turns sitting in the corner for an hour until whoever had eaten the ice cream fessed up, and we’ll begin with…Scott. Now why start with me. There were four of us kids. I wasn’t the oldest and I wasn’t the youngest, so clearly we weren’t going by age. And we weren’t going alphabetically. No it seems the decision was made on the basis of suspicion.
Just before I entered the corner mum and dad reminded us again that they just wanted us to learn to tell the truth, and whoever the guilty one is, and it was pretty clear who they thought the guilty one was, there would be no punishment. With that exhortation I did my hour in the corner, but no confession. Now mum and dad were in a real bind. They knew I was guilty but they also knew they now had to subject my siblings to their turns in the corner. My brother Barry was next, and he’d no sooner made the corner than he confessed. I had remained silent because I was in fact innocent, but now that Barry had confessed mum and dad had to follow through with their promise that there’d be no punishment.
Parenting can be complex can’t it? You just want to teach your kids to tell the truth, to take responsibility for their actions and you end up in a bind like that one!
We have all had parents who managed to get discipline very right and I guess some of us have had parents who got it very wrong. I was blessed with parents who got it right most of the time, and even when they got it wrong they never got it too wrong. Some of you however have had parents who got it very wrong, for whom discipline had overtones of vindictiveness and uncontrolled anger.
Whatever your experience of your earthly parents, this morning I want us to consider our heavenly Parent, for Scripture suggests our fatherly God is a disciplining God. So what does that mean? How does our father God discipline us? What is he trying to achieve?
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as children? It says,
“My child, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his child.”
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate children at all. 9Moreover, we have all had parents who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 Our parents disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
The Goal of God’s Discipline: Formation
According to the writer of Hebrews our God is a disciplining God, and the first thing to notice about that is that discipline is aimed at forming us into the people God created us to be. It’s easy to think of discipline in terms of retribution and punishment. After all that’s the way many of us think of God, that on the one hand he loves us deeply, but on the other is bound to punish sin. Pictured in retributive terms this means there are certain penalties that our wrongdoing merits and God is bound to maintain them. But this is not the way the bible pictures divine discipline. Any penalty that sin might merit has been dealt with in the death of Christ. Discipline from our father God is not aimed at retribution, at punishing us for our sins. It’s aimed at shaping us, heping us become the sort of people we are created to be.
Our parents disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
The Means of God’s Discipline: the Moral Fabric of the Universe?
The second thing to notice is that if the goal of discipline is the shaping of our character, the means of discipline is hardship.
Endure hardship as discipline
It seems that the writer of Hebrews understands the difficulty his readers are experiencing as an occasion in which God was disciplining them. Flip over to 1 Corinthians 11 and Paul says a similar thing, that the unusually high levels of sickness the Corinthians are experiencing should be read as God disciplining them. So does that mean we should see the disciplining hand of God behind all suffering? Does this mean that pain is the divine equivalent of a spanking?
I remember running into a guy at a Christian conference a few years back who was partway through bible college and he felt called to mission in Africa. He somewhat confidently told me that God had brought Africa low so that the people would turn to Christ. In other words, the whole continent was being spanked by God for its own good. I was somewhat incredulous that he could read the deaths of children from preventable diseases as the disciplining hand of God. But perhaps he was right? Wasn’t he just affirming what the writer of Hebrews says, what the apostle Paul says, what the Old Testament prophets say?
Does that mean we should read any suffering we experience as a spanking from God? Sickness, job loss, family breakdown. Are these all sent by God to discipline us?
Well maybe not. I think we need to frame all this within the bible’s concept of a universe designed with moral order. The Scriptures seem to assume that God has built a certain moral order into the way the world works. There’s a sense that if you butt up against reality you will come off second best. We capture this ourselves in proverbial sayings like these:
A stitch in time saves nine.
What goes around comes around.
Look before you leap.
Pithy little sayings like these try to capture the idea that we live in a world of cause and effect. Leave something unrepaired now and it will require nine time more effort later on; treat people with unkindness now and you’ll likely find you’re treated unkindly in return later on; rush into an important decision and you may find you make a foolish decision. We know that the universe is not chaotic. We know that actions have consequences, and so do the bible writers, and they tend to see action and consequence as part of the moral fabric a loving God built into the universe and it’s through the operation of this order that God disciplines us.
So does that mean my Parkinsons is the result of some violation I’ve made of the moral order? Or that the death from diahrrea of an infant girl in Africa is because she has somehow violated God’s moral order? I don’t think so. We need to step back and take a broader view.
I wonder if my Parkinsons and that little girl’s death are part of the moral fabric of the universe in a collective sense. It’s not that I did something that set in motion a chain of events leading to my illness, but rather that we did something that set in motion a chain of events leading to my illness. We being humankind. According to the biblical account we sinned and the result was a world that became disordered and difficult, it became a world where we can experience bad things that have no relation to anything we have done.
Or take that little girl’s death from diahrrea. Surely that’s a result of our collective failure to distribute wealth equitably? I mean there’s no good reason other than humanity’s selfishness and greed that she should be among the third of humanity who don’t have access to clean water and basic medical care.
That’s the suggestion Gordon Fee offers for what is happening in Corinth. The Corinthian church is hopelessly divided and one of the lines of division is between rich and poor. When they celebrate the Lord’s Supper their custom is not to have a little piece of bread and a mouthful of juice, but to share a full meal. Only the rich get going before the poor have finished work. They’re getting drunk as Lord’s while the poor remain hungry, malnourished and some are even dying.
It’s into this context that Paul says
That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord,we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
Could it be that the ones getting weak and sick and are dying are poor and that Paul says to the rich, don’t you see that this is the result of your actions? That God has ordered the world so that it works well when we form communities of love, grace, justice and equity and that it all falls apart when we don’t? That when they fail to “recognise the body of the Lord” and so drink judgement on themselves it is not the physical body of Christ they are failing to recognise, but the church as the body of Christ?
Or take the passage from Hebrews that we read earlier. We know from the rest of the book that the Hebrew Christians were experiencing persecution. In the ancient world it was thought that the gods brought peace and prosperity to the city. So when you had a group of Christians who refused to worship the gods of the city they were seen as subversive and evil, as calling down the vengeance of the gods. And so Christians were often looked upon with suspicion, vilified, subject to abuse and even violence.And as a result a number of them were starting to weaken in their commitment to Christ; some had even walked away.
In chapter twelve the writer of Hebrews suggests that the Hebrew Christians should interpret their troubles as an occasion of God’s discipline. What’s that about? Well I don’t think the message is that God has made things tough for those among the Hebrew Christians who are wavering in their commitment to Jesus. That if they all got wholehearted in their faith the troubles would stop. No they wouldn’t stop, they’d escalate. I suspect that the point is once again wrapped up in the idea of a moral universe, only this time the effects are somewhat reversed. If you want to live right in a world where the wider community is not living right there will be consequences. So read the troubles you’re experiencing as a sign of that. They’re a sign you’re on the right path. So make sure you stay on it. See the troubles you’re experiencing as a sign that you need to stop wavering and commit wholeheartedly to the way of Jesus.
So if I can sum up the argument to this point: I think the bible sees that our Father God built a moral order into the fabric of the universe and uses this to shape us. At times the moral order functions collectively. More often than not there is not a one to one correlation between my actions and what happens in my life. We all suffer to some degree or another from the foolishness of humanity, from the foolishness of our communities. And that suffering screams that something is wrong with the universe, with the way we humans are living our lives and becomes an opportunity to learn and change.
Take the suffering of that little girl in Africa. This screams at us that something is wrong with the world, that our selfishness and greed have consequences, and that we need to change.
And if at times the lens is wide and the discipline is for all humanity, at times the focus is more defined, sometimes the focus is on a particular group of people like it was for the Corinthian church. There are times when our actions tear apart our communities, our churches, our workplaces, our homes. And again these can be seen as screaming out at us the need for change.
And then there are times the correlation between action and outcome is very individualised, when my action rebounds directly on me. When I butt up against the moral fabric of the universe I can expect consequences to follow.
And when the bible tries to understand this it understands that the moral fabric of the universe was put there by a loving Father God for our good, both collectively and individually. When we but up against it, when things are going wrong, we will want to howl in protest, and so we should, but at the same time we need to stop and hear what God is saying to us.
So let me ask you, what is God saying to you through the challenges you are facing?
Maybe your difficulties are part of the suffering created by the collective failures of humanity. In the midst of that is God calling you to renew your trust in him for a better world, to allow hope of the new world that is coming to drive you to patient perseverance in the present?
Maybe your difficulties are part of a tearing of the moral fabric of the universe in your workplace or home or our church. In the midst of the mess can you hear the voice of your Father calling you and your community to healing and reconciliation?
Maybe your difficulties are a result of your own failures. Can you hear God’s voice calling you to turn around, to turn away from your foolishness and live the right?
Take a few moments to hear what your disciplining Father is saying to you.
I’d like to share something written by a guy named Seve Marquez on his blog (http://www.thespartanpenguin.com/2012/02/21/discovering-dad/)
When I was very young we lived in the country. One of my fondest memories from that time is of the walks my dad and I used to go on with the dog. We would head off, just him and me and the dog, and go up ‘Simon’s Hill’, which was close by. Often it would be dark and when we got to the top of the hill my dad would get me to look up at the stars and point the constellations out to me.
I felt special.
As I grew up though the relationship with my dad changed. We drifted apart. I started to blame him for the way that I felt about the world. By the time I left home everything was his fault and our relationship was distant at best. I carried this with me through much of my adult life, repeating the same story over and over in my head until it became my reality.
We didn’t fall out, we didn’t argue. We just became distant.
Life is short: too short to hold grudges or to cling to misconceived stories about another human being, especially when that other human being is your father.
Something had to change.
It’s hard to rekindle relationships, particularly relationships with family members, but that’s what I decided to do.
I decided to ditch the story that I’d been telling myself about my dad and start again: beginner’s mind. I decided to be open, to find out what made him tick, to explore his life experiences, to get to know him again.
The big question was ‘how?’
I really enjoy hiking. I love being out in nature. I enjoy the peace and quiet, the beauty. I also enjoy the exercise of a long 10 miles plus hike…
I was talking about this one day with my dad and he reminded me that he really loves walking in the country, and that he, like me, enjoys a good long trek. So we decided to go on a walk together.
I must admit that the first time that we did this I was filled with dread. What were we going to talk about for 8 hours?
We did the walk; both had a great time, and managed to find stuff to talk about.
We both enjoyed it so much so that we decided to do it again (and again).
We had found a common interest: a common interest that facilitated our getting to know one another.
I was (re)discovering dad.
My dad is wonderful man: kind, caring, funny, and intelligent. By ditching my old beliefs about our relationship, by starting again with a beginner’s mind, and by finding a common interest to facilitate this, my whole perception changed.
This year plans are afoot for my dad and me to go hiking once a month. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better, to having a relationship with him.
I wonder if that’s your experience of God as your Father? How would you rate your relationship with God? If we drew a line across this room and said one end represents a close relationship with your heavenly Father and he other a distant relationship, where would you place yourself on that line? Where would you like to be on that line?
You know sometimes I think I live toward the distant end. I know God’s there. I believe things about him. But I would not necessarily say I am engaging in relationship with him. But I want to. Other times in my life I think I do move towards a close relationship, where I not only believe stuff about God but interact directly with God.
So how do we stay at the close to our Father God? Let me suggest three things that I find help me live close to my father God.
Listen for the Father’s Voice
First, we need to listen for the Father’s voice. And by this I don’t mean what God is saying in general, but what God is saying to me now.
Yesterday Daniel and Miriam got married Before the bride arrived at the church the groomsmen and I were out the front waiting. At the reception someone asked me what we talked about. We joked about how long it would take Daniel to start crying; we caught up on what each other is doing in life; and at one point Lee Wilton and I spent time discussing the interpretation of a bible passage he had heard a sermon on.
That’s probably no surprise to you. I love theology, I love thinking about what biblical texts mean, delving into the historical context, looking for what the writer was trying to say. But you know that’s not listening to the Father’s voice. To hear my Father’s voice I cannot remain with what did God say to them back then but I need to go one step further and ask what is God saying to me? That’s the difference between being distant and being close. What is God saying to me about my life, my situation right now?
Now I want to suggest that as we do that some of us will be rationalists and some of us will be intuitives. I tend toward the rationalist end. I find the way I am wired is to examine the Scriptures, explore the context, think about what a text means, and then to hear my Father’s voice I need to ask the question, if this is what God was saying to them back then, what is God saying to me now? How does this word of God become a word of God to me? I need to turn the principles in that text into principles for me.
I don’t hear voices. I don’t sense the Spirit whispering in my ear? I don’t get hunches that God is saying something. God usually speaks to me through fairly rational thought processes.
Other people do. Some people tend to be very intuitive. They just get a sense that God is speaking to them. It may be a thought that surprisingly pops into their mind, a conviction that arises in their heart, a dream, an audible word, but somehow they just sense this is the voice of their Father God. If that’s you then I encourage you to stay attuned to God’s voice, to keep listening for what God is saying to you.
Look for the Father’s Hand
If I am living close to God, the second thing I need to do is look for the Father’s hand.
A few years ago I read a book by Michael Frost called Eyes Wide Open. Seeing God in the Ordinary. The one thing that has stayed with me was the insight that Jesus was a person of great imagination. That he learned to reimagine the world, to see God at work. I have found that a helpful insight.
We live in a culture that teaches us to imagine the world through secular eyes, to see God as absent, irrelevant to what is happening around us, to imagine God is absent. And when we do that the only space for God is the miraculous. When we view God as removed from day to day affairs we tend to see his hand only in things that are extraordinary. But what if God is involved in the ordinary and the everyday? What if somehow alongside what I am doing and you’re doing and nature’s doing there is stuff God is doing?
I think living close to God means asking, “Father, what are you doing in my world right now?” Again, for some of us that will be very intuitive. For people like me it will be more a process of trying to rationally piece together what’s going on. Often it will be difficult to see. Sometimes it will be obvious.
Live after the Father’s Heart
Finally, if I am to be close to my heavenly Father I think I need to live after the Father’s heart. The call of God is not ultimately for God to join me on my journey but for me to join God on his.
There’s a story told that in the lead up to the US Civil War Abraham Lincoln was gathered with his advisers deliberating whether or not they would go to war. The fateful decision was made and one of the advisers said, “Mr President, let us pray God is on our side,” to which Lincoln replied, “No gentlemen, let us pray we are on God’s side.”
If there’s one mistake every generation of Christians is prone to make it’s to think God endorses the values and aspirations of their culture. But our father God calls us not to be conformed to the standards of this world; he calls us to a way of living that subverts the values of our age; that embraces the way of radical discipleship laid out by Jesus.
I find that if I want to be close to my heavenly Father I need to make his journey my journey, his way my way. And it’s been my experience that the more I do that, the greater my sense that I am living close to God.
So now it’s over to you. I want to invite you to spend some time in small groups sharing. I’ve got some questions you might like to use:
- Where would you place yourself on a continuum from close to God to distant from God?
- When it comes to listening for the Father’s voice and looking for the Father’s hand do you tend to be a rationalist or an intuitive (or a combination of the two)?
- Share a time you have sensed your Father God’s voice, seen his hand or followed his heart and how it worked out for you.