A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
May 18, 2014
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Psalm 21:1-5; John 14:1-14
One of the books that had a great impact on me as a teenager was written by the late David Wilkerson. In The Cross and the Switchblade, Wilkerson recounted his work with teenage gangs in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. In an attempt to gain their trust, as much as that was possible, and to share with them the gospel of Christ, he tried to find an imagery – an idea, anything – that would bridge the obvious gap between them. So he began by telling them about God their heavenly Father.
How do you think they reacted? They would have nothing to do with him or his God. Why would they want to think of God as Father when they had such lousy relationships, if any relationship at all, with their earthly fathers? Most of them had been raised in single-parent households, and that single parent was not male. No thanks. If God is like their old man, David Wilkerson knew what he could do with his God.
Looking back on it, I think the reason that Wilkerson’s book had such an impact on me is that, not only had I been raised to think of God as my heavenly Father, but I also had such a close relationship with my own father. It was hard for me to imagine that any man would bring children into the world only to abandon them or mistreat them or relate to them in any way that did not express a deep affection for them, as my dad had shown me. Little did I know.
Will you allow me a little reminiscence?
Some of you may recall when my brother Steve preached here at our church in 2007. Because of their increasing dementia, we had recently moved our parents here to Little Rock and into a local nursing home. It was a week before Dad’s 87th birthday, what would prove to be his final birthday on earth, since he died six months later. Steve had come from Virginia to see them, and I invited him to preach while he was here.
Dad was unable to be with us in church that day, but Mom had come along. So had our older brother Hugh and his wife Angela, who is Sue Gennings’ sister. Looking back on it, I now recall it would be the last time Mom would ever hear Steve preach. We were doing some renovation on the sanctuary so we met downstairs in Hicks Hall.
In his sermon, Steve recounted the time, when we were boys, that I was attacked by a huge swarm of wasps and my dad plunged head-first into the nest to retrieve me and take me to safety. I don’t recall that it happened exactly the way Steve recounted it, but then again, I often don’t agree with my big brother! But that’s the kind of dad we had, one who would have given his own life to save ours. I just couldn’t imagine that any father would do any less. I would certainly do that for my children, if need be.
That is the kind of relationship that Jesus referred to many times when he told his disciples about the presence of the kingdom in their midst. Again and again the word “Father” drops from the lips of Jesus.1 His every prayer revealed a sense of intimacy with his heavenly Father. Apparently, he never thought of prayer, never thought of his mission, of his life, of the impending cross – of anything – without thinking of the Father-Son relationship that was his. So, when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, it was inevitable that he would begin by saying, “Our Father…”
Let me say at this point that I am aware there may be someone here today who reacts to all of this in something of the same way as those New York City gang members. It could very well be that every week, when we recite the Lord’s Prayer, someone cringes at the thought of referring to God as “Our Father, who art in heaven.” When you come to church you carry some emotional baggage related to your father, or perhaps your mother, and when we refer to God in such familial terms it causes your heart to hurt.
If that is true for you, I would encourage you to continue the journey with us as we seek to find the truth that Jesus was sharing with us when he referred to our heavenly Father. After all, we cannot avoid it. The scriptures are simply full of such references. This is the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray – and, no doubt, think of God – as “Our Father.” Even more, especially when he spoke to his Father directly, Jesus called him Abba, which was the Aramaic equivalent of our word “daddy” or “papa.”
It was an intimate relationship that would have been strange, if not foreign, to the thoughts of first-century Jews. In their minds and hearts, the God of Israel was the God of their ancestral fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In fact, were you to ask any first-century Jew who their spiritual father was, they would tell you it was Abraham, not God. Their God was the One who had brought their people out of the bondage of Egypt, and in more recent history had saved them from the tyranny of the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Now that they suffered under the occupation of the Romans, they clung to the hope that this God would send them a Redeemer – a Messiah, a Christ – who would free them once again from those who oppressed them, one who would lead their people to victory.
And yes, they were taught to love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind. But that love was more in the form of devotion or duty, an obligation. There was to be a necessary emotional distance between the people and God. God was hallowed, God was mystery, God was the Holy Other, approachable only by means of a priest who stood between them as mediator. God was definitely not daddy!
If they had the thought that Jesus of Nazareth would indeed be the Messiah, imagine how those hopes would have had cold water thrown upon them when he spoke of an intimate relationship with God, as a child has to its father. They aren’t looking for a warm, personal, embracing God; they want a God who will lead them to independence from their captors. They don’t need a daddy, they need a deliverer!
In a passage of scripture from John’s gospel, which we often associate with funeral occasions, Jesus tells his disciples he is about to leave them and go to a place where, when he comes again he will take them there also. “In my Father’s house,” Jesus says to them, “there are many dwelling places.” “In my Father’s house.”
Those who did not take fondly to Jesus used this against him.
The political season serves as a pretty good analogy for how things must have been back then. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that political ads will take any action on the part of a candidate, no matter how small or insignificant it might have been, and blow it out of proportion to paint the candidate in a negative light. For example, one person, a lawyer who is running for a judgeship, is being criticized for having defended a sex offender. Guilt by association, right? Since he served as counsel to this sex offender, he must be soft on this issue. So, he is not worthy to be a judge, right? Never mind that the candidate was appointed by the court and was simply doing his job. When it comes to criticism such as this, certain details are often left out, details that provide crucial context. Context, however, is not the strong suit when it comes to politics.
Jesus’ opponents did the same to him all the time, and that includes those occasions when he counseled his disciples and others as to how they were to relate to God. Jesus told his followers they were to entrust themselves to God as children do to their father. They were to ask their Abba for what they needed. They were to relate to one another as brothers and sisters, as children of the Heavenly Father. They were to rely on Abba to care for them, and to seek his guidance in everything they did.
This was not a side issue for Jesus. It was at the very heart of all he did and taught. If that were not so, his most famous parable would not be the Parable of the Prodigal Son in which the real prodigal is not the son at all but is the loving father who receives his son home in his warm, embracing, accepting love.
If, at this point, you are still a bit uncomfortable with the idea of God as Father, let’s go on record as saying that God is neither male nor female. God has no gender, for God is Spirit. Let’s not get hung up on the gender issue. The point is that Jesus related to God, and introduced us to God, on this level to show us that our Creator, Savior, and Sustainer wants to have a personal relationship with us. That’s the point. And, it was an important enough point that Jesus was willing to die for it.
And for that reason, we can entrust ourselves to God as a child to a loving father. A child cannot do that unless first the father has let it be known that this kind of relationship is possible. Again, that was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. He hadn’t just come on the scene as yet another in a long line of would-be spokesmen for God. God had sent him on a particular mission, and at the very center of it was the need for Jesus to give his people a different picture of their God.
He has brought to the people a vision of God that, if not altogether new, certainly provides an added dimension. God is Father, and as an infant takes its first steps toward its daddy, now Israel was to walk toward their Heavenly Father, taking him by the hand, trusting themselves to his care in a way they had never done before.
Wayne Oates, one of my pastoral care professors, says a “child learns to trust those who demonstrate that they are dependable.”2 That’s not so terribly profound, I suppose, yet it may be so basic that we sometimes miss its importance. Has God proven himself to be dependable to you? If, in your mind God has not, could it be that you have not depended enough on him? Have you ever walked to the edge of that proverbial abyss and then taken one more step? Could it be that the only thing keeping you from fully trusting in God is your own lack of faith?
In a time of military occupation and daily difficulty, Israel needed to hear that message and respond to it. And if Israel wouldn’t listen, the disciples of Jesus were to go and find those who would.
It didn’t happen immediately. Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”
“Have I been with you all this time, Philip – all this time – and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Eventually they took Jesus at his word, and you and I are sitting in this place today considering how it might be that we can have the kind of intimate relationship with our Abba, as did Jesus, because he convinced them that he embodied the presence of God.
Our heavenly Father, through the atoning life and death of his only unique Son, stands ready to bless us, to reach down and touch us in a way that no other can do. Think about it… the God who created the world and cast the stars into space, the God whose majesty is seen in the highest mountains and whose mystery is revealed in the deepest oceans, “the God who blessed the world with language and then confounded it with many tongues,”3 is the same God who blesses you and me… the same God you and I, because of the testimony and life of Jesus, can call Our Father.
As a child reaches out its hand in trust to a loving father guiding its first steps, we can reach out our hand to God. For God is Our Father, and he calls to us in love. I encourage you to place your hand in the hand of God. It will not be without scars, but with it he will tenderly accept and bless you.
O Lord our God, our Father, may we trust your tender care… through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1John Killinger, The Name God Hallowed (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1988), p. 15.
2Wayne E. Oates, When Religion Gets Sick (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970), p. 196.
3Killinger, Ibid., p. 20.