By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
You and I were taught a long time ago to think of God in fatherly terms. But that was not true for the followers of Jesus. The way Jesus talked about God was a radical departure from anything they had ever known. It was just another way that Jesus’ teachings were so different from what they had ever experienced before.
Every week, when we voice The Lord’s Prayer, we begin by calling God “Our Father.” I wonder, when Jesus first taught his disciples to offer this prayer, if they looked at one another in amazement. “God… our Father?… how can that be?”
Yet, 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, without thinking of the Father-Son relationship that was his. So, when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, it was inevitable – if not surprising to them – that he would begin by saying, “Our Father…”
Because they were Jews, they weren’t accustomed to thinking of God as their Father. The Lord was the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God had brought their people out of the bondage of Egypt and delivered them centuries later from the threat of the Assyrians and Babylonians. But now, they were subject to the occupation, and sometimes the tyranny, of the Romans. Where was God now? And if God was to be found, certainly God was not to be thought of in personal terms. Father? Not God. Otherworldly, yes. Omnipotent, powerful, just… okay. But not personal. Not Father.
“It was incredible, and yet it was what Jesus was teaching them.”2 Many of the Jews said it was heresy, blasphemy. God was the Exalted One, unable – and certainly unwilling – to humble himself in such a way as Jesus described. It’s a wonder Jesus even made it to the cross. It’s surprising they didn’t stone him right away when he first suggested such a blasphemous idea. Imagine… God being our Heavenly Father.
Yet, that is exactly what he said. In fact, Jesus spoke of God in such familiar and intimate terms he called him by the Aramaic word Abba, which, as we have mentioned before, would be interpreted in our language as Daddy. 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. To emphasize this, he told the most familiar of all parables, what we call the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
It would be impossible, would it not, to think of Jesus’ Father without considering this parable. In reality, however, this parable is misnamed. It really shouldn’t be called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for the son is not at its center, the father is. Webster’s dictionary defines the word prodigal as “exceedingly or recklessly wasteful,” or “extremely generous; lavish.” If anyone is prodigal in this story, it is the father! He never gives up on his son, loves him no matter what the son might do, or regardless of how disrespectfully he is treated. His son is his son, and nothing can ever change that. He is the prodigal father!
Now, this is probably a good time to go on record… 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.
If that is true, what can we learn from what Jesus taught us about his Father?
First of all, 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.
This, in a nutshell, is how the people of Israel viewed their God…
The Creator cared deeply about his people but also held himself aloof; he stroked them with affection but he also held them under a severe judgment. To the Hebrew, God was always present but he could never be possessed or tamed. He was tender with his people but he punished them severely if they took their special relationship for granted and went after other gods.
But now, in Jesus, things have changed. 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.
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Wayne Oates, one of my pastoral care professors, says a “child learns to trust those who demonstrate that they are dependable.”3 That’s not 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? Perhaps the only thing keeping you from fully trusting in God is your own lack of faith.
One thing Jesus’ parable of the prodigal reveals is that the young son obviously did not know his father very well and therefore he didn’t trust him. After losing all that he had, and determining that he would return, he was willing to do so as a servant. He was able to entrust himself eventually to his father’s care as a son only because his father had let him know, again and again, that such a relationship was possible.
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. They were to go and find people like you and me. Are we listening? Are we trusting ourselves to the care of our Father?
Jesus also teaches us that we are to ask God for what we need and rely on him to care for us.
The father in Jesus’ parable loved both his sons equally. Yet, the elder son took issue with the way his father received his younger brother; his stupid, careless, reckless brother. As with all of Jesus’ stories, like a diamond there are many facets to the parable, depending on the perspective from which we view it. Surely one of the points he is making with the elder brother is that “God always welcomes us home with all his heart.”4 He always cares for us.
This is a point at which I want to speak to you about our responsibility as a church family to care for one another and for others. It has to do a further suggestion. We need to relate to one another as God’s children. If God is to be our Father, the measure of his Fatherhood is largely based on how we treat each other. Have you ever thought about that?
A mental patient was once speaking to a group of chaplains and said, “Go easy on how you tell us that God cares. Show us that you care and we’ll decide for ourselves whether God cares on the basis of what you do!”5 A lot of people, both in this church and out in our community, are going to decide whether God cares for them on the basis of how they are treated by those who bear the name of Christ.
Do you see how all this is so interwoven? God cares for us in a way beyond all the limits of our understanding, but the extent to which others believe that is based on how much we care for them. That is true within our own fellowship. At the same time we need to be careless, to be prodigal, with our love and caring for others, we need to be careful how we do it!
And finally, Jesus teaches us that we are to let God, our heavenly Father, bless us. From the time of Abraham, to the Hebrews, the father was the dominant figure in a child’s life. It was from the father that “the blessing” was passed down to the first-born son. Beyond all of his possessions, the blessing was the most important inheritance a father could give.
You remember, don’t you, the story of Jacob and Esau? Esau, though Jacob was his twin, was the older of the two. Therefore, the fatherly blessing was to come to him. However, Esau was also the dumb one and Jacob was the shrewd one, the “trickster.” With his mother Rachel’s help, Jacob tricked both his blind father and his brother and secured the blessing for himself. It was important enough to him that he would do anything to have it. For a father to bless his son meant that the son would live happily and prosperously the rest of his life. It was holy and eternal. There was nothing in all of life more important.
Some things never change.
Did you know that the U.S. Open is always played on Father’s Day weekend? I remember a conversation that took place on television a few years ago during the Open. It featured Ken Venturi, who won the Open under extremely difficult conditions in 1964. He related how, up to that point in this life, he had never received any affirmation from his father in regard to his success as a professional athlete. It was the one thing he wanted the most, and when he finally received it, he said it was a far greater blessing than any of his golf victories.
Yet, not even the blessing of a good earthly father is enough. Perhaps that is why Jesus counseled his disciples, “Call no man your father on earth.” It’s not that he was against fathers. He just knew their inadequacy. He knew that no earthly father can love enough and give enough and be enough for all his child needs at every moment of life. Only Jesus’ Father, our heavenly Father, can do that.
And it is the heavenly Father who, 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,”6 is the same God who blesses you and me… the same God you and I call Our Father.
As a child reaches out its hand in trust to a loving father guiding its first steps, we can reach 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. His hand will not be without scars, but with it he will tenderly accept you.
Father, Our Father, receive us as your children and show us the way to eternal life. Take our burdens from us, and reveal to us your forgiveness and love. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
1John Killinger, The Name God Hallowed (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1988), p. 15.
2John Killinger, The Greatest Teachings of Jesus (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 44.
3Wayne E. Oates, When Religion Gets Sick (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970), p. 196.
4Killinger, The Greatest Teachings of Jesus, p. 48.
5Oates, ibid., p. 47.
6Killinger, The Name God Hallowed, p. 20.
––Copyright 2006, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.