Monday, August 10, 2015

Know God - Father Almighty

Preached on Sunday, August 9, 2015

Scripture readings: Acts 17:22-34; John 3:1-21

There was a high school basketball game going on, and one of the dads was sitting at the top of the stands, leaning his back against the wall, and one of the kids on the home team was playing a really smart game. The kid had the ball, and was going for the basket, and the dad was beaming and shouted out loud: “That’s my son!”
More Pictures from Vacation Bible School:
July 2015
But the boy missed his shot, and landed, and slipped, and fell sprawling on the floor, and the dad breathed a sigh, and said: “Well, maybe not, they all look the same from up here!”
What does it mean to call God Father? What does it mean to call God the Father Almighty?
In the Old Testament book of Malachi (3:10), the prophet says: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?” This tells us that God is like a Father to the creation. God is like a Father to everything he has made.
In the Gospel of John it says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” This tells us that the neediness of the world, the darkness and the evil of the world, are seen by God through the eyes of love, as much as through the eyes of judgment; through the eyes of a Father who shows how almighty he is, how vast his power is, by giving his Son as a gift for the world he loves.
To call God the Father is to say that God is personal, and that God values personhood in his creation: the creation of personhood, the creation of living, healthy, everlasting souls. The universe is not a cosmic machine kept in operation by a cosmic Mechanic. Our task is not to plug into a cosmic force. Our task is to belong to a cosmic Family.
In the Gospel of John (14:23) Jesus says: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
If the universe were the result of some kind of non-personal energy or rhythm, then the point of life would be to achieve some level of energy and rhythm. It might be the energy and rhythm of success, or competence, or understanding, or mastery, or enlightenment, or intelligence: some way of being in sync with the universe. Those things are all good, they are a part of being wise, and God wants us to be wise.
But God is a Father; God is, in some way, essentially personal in nature. If the center of the universe is personal, then life is about a relationship, life is about a continuous interaction with somebody with standards, and expectations, and hopes, and plans: someone who is bigger and older than you are…and you live under his roof. You can’t get out from under his roof because there is no place that is not under God’s roof. The fact that this is someone you are invited to call your Father, means that God loves you and will never be content to let you off the hook.
Now since we are modern people, living in 21st Century America, we know that our culture has problems with calling God Father. The cultures of the Bible did favor men over women, and they used the word “Father” as their preferred word of choice to describe God as the person who was always in charge.
Sometimes the Bible describes God’s love in feminine terms. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah (Isaiah 49:15), the people of Israel complain that they feel forgotten by God. And so God says: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” Jesus compares his love for Israel as the care of a mother hen for her chicks. (Matthew 23:37)
Although the characteristics of gender describe truths that are worth understanding about God, God is beyond gender. God is Spirit, a spiritual being (John 4:24). God’s ancient people knew this just as well as we do, or better. They simply used the word that best described the person who was always in charge. When we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” we are saying, “I believe there is a person in charge, and that is God.”
Faith means having a lot of daring and courage. Some people look at the world and they don’t see a Father Almighty, in the sense of a good and faithful God who truly is in control of the world. They think it takes courage to point this out. I think it takes courage to trust in God’s power when we see signs of beauty, and love, and goodness in a world that often contradicts our faith.
We do live in a world of contradictory messages. We live in a world of rainbows and roses, friends and families; but we also live in a world of Hitlers and bin Ladens, destroyers and abusers, droughts and diseases.
Now, to say that God the Father is Almighty is to say that God can do whatever he wants to do. “Nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) But then one asks, “What, exactly, does God want to do?” The answer is that God the Father wants to make human beings into his real sons and daughters. God wants to make us into personalities who will be brothers and sisters with a true, recognizable likeness to his only eternal Son, Jesus Christ.
What are the conditions of life under which men, women, and children are most likely to become like Jesus? See what Jesus is like. Look at the hard road he took to be with us, to be one of us, to identify himself with us. See how Jesus came in order to join with us in all our temptations, and trials, and hardships, and challenges. (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-8)
Look at the compassion Jesus had for those who struggled and suffered; and the way Jesus responded to them, and helped them. Look at his indignation in the face of mean-spiritedness and injustice. Look at the courage of Jesus in the face of danger and opposition, pain and death. Look at the cross of Jesus. Look at the death he suffered to free us from sin and death.
What kind of world do we need in order to shape our identities in the image of Jesus? Will we become like Jesus more easily in a world with no risks, no pains, and no dangers?
Think about this. If God chose to oppose the evil and darkness in the world by letting his powers go, by becoming a human being and dying on the cross, and if that is one of his greatest, mightiest, and most powerful works, then God sees power in a way that is different from the way the world sees it, different from the way we see it. When human beings use power to set the world right, sometimes it works and sometimes it misfires. The nations that have depended most on the use of sheer power to shape the world (as the fascists and the communists have done, or as we, ourselves, might feel tempted to do as the ultimate, responsible super-power), those have been the nations quickest to destroy themselves.
In that case, the cross points to a more powerful kind of power. The cross is a redemptive power that seems weak to the world, and yet it is the kind of power that changes people. (In the same way, freedom is a power that seems weak to much of the world but, when it is given a chance, it changes people. It helps people to discover who they really are and, unless people possess a true knowledge of themselves, it is very hard for them to know God.)
When I was a kid, I remember going by the high school in August. The temperature in the shade would be one hundred degrees or more. And out there in the sun the football team would be drilling in their helmets and pads. “How stupid,” I thought to myself. Why did they do it? Why did they put themselves through so much agony? Why did they let the coaches push them around?
They did it because they wanted to be football players. They wanted to be as tough as any team they would have to face. All that pain (as it seemed to me) for games that were an eternity away (as it seemed to me, because I always tried to pretend that school would never start) seemed absolutely brutal and senseless. If I had joined the football team I would have felt myself descending into purest hell, surrounded by the proof of a brutal and senseless universe. But then I never went out for football, and so I will never know what it is to be a football player, and to be the member of a football team.
This is not worth comparing with the true horrors of this world. But then, perhaps, there are worse things than living in a world like ours, considering what we need in life to be shaped in the image of Jesus, to become (in our hearts and lives) the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
If our real purpose is to be like Jesus, there might be worse things than to live in a world where danger, and pain, and horror are possible and present. To say that God the Father is Almighty is to mean that God can fulfill his desire to make us like Jesus in a world like our world.
I do not say this lightly.
When I was little (about six, or seven, or eight) I remember sitting together on the grass with other boys when we were resting from playing, and we compared our dads with each other. Which dad was the strongest? Which dad could fix the most stuff? Which dad had the neatest stuff? Which dad was the oldest or the youngest? It seems to me that most of the bragging or comparing we did had nothing to do with what our dads did for us.
Well, we did brag about the presents we got, or about what our dads did with us. But I don’t think we ever bragged about how willing our dads were to do what we wanted them to do. We just did not think of them that way.
There were kids who tried to brag about what their dads would let them do, or what their dads would let them get away with, but most kids would just say, “Boy, my dad would never let me get away with that.” And then we would start boasting about all the things our dads wouldn’t let us do or get away with. And that seemed to be good.
It seemed to be a point of honor to be proud of what we couldn’t do, or proud of what our dads would do to us if we tried to get away with something. We knew that our dads had something better in mind for us, something we didn’t always understand. We didn’t always enjoy it, but we trusted this. And this was our faith in our dads, in their mysterious almightiness.
This is part of our faith when God the Father Almighty does not allow our world to be what we want it to be, when he does not allow our lives to be what we want them to be. We trust there is a mysterious grace in this.
It requires a strong dose of daring and courage to hold a faith like this: when the loudest voices of our world condemn such a faith, when the world itself seems to contradict our faith. But we can hold onto a promise that we do not see if we know for ourselves the God who makes the promise. We must know this God in order to hold onto this faith, if we are going to say, without fear: “I believe in God the Father Almighty.”

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