Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Know God - The Father of Intimacy

Preached on Sunday, August 2, 2015
Scripture readings: Matthew 6:1-18; Ephesians 3:14-21

My two grandmothers had completely different personalities. I loved them both, but I must admit I had a favorite.
Mattawa/Desert Aire Vacation Bible School
July 2015
On my dad’s side there was grandma: Grandma Evans. Grandma was very proper and self controlled. She was very smart and did all kinds of things well. She liked to tell stories about what she had said and done. 
She liked Norman Vincent Peale and his philosophy of positive thinking. She encouraged us grandkids to have the same philosophy. Some other time, I’ll tell you why that didn’t work for me.
She had a number of favorite sayings. One of them was, “If you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else will.”
Grandma was also responsible for taking me to Sunday school when I was very small. That was how I first learned that Jesus loves me. She also had me learn my first Bible verses by heart.
My other grandmother was Baci. Baci is a sort of affectionate version of the word Babcia, which is Polish for grandmother. Baci was very Polish. Her stories tended to be more about what others said and did, and how she had found those things interesting and surprising, and how what other people said and did shaped her life.
Baci was not an optimist, and she didn’t use positive thinking at all but (at least for her grandchildren) no one was better at encouraging you than she was. Baci laughed much louder than Grandma ever did. Baci hugged tighter and stronger than Grandma. Baci could grab you and swing you around the room with joy.
One of Baci’s favorite sayings, which she would only say about herself, was, “What do I know, I’m just a dumb Polak?”
You need to know that the word Polak is a Polish word, and it simply means a Polish person. As such, it is always a compliment. If anyone who isn’t Polish ever calls you a Polak, then it’s either a joke from a good friend who knows that he can get away with it, or else someone is saying the word as an insult: someone is saying it to put you down.
I loved both of my grandmothers. Both of them played large parts in making me who I am. Both of them clearly loved me, but their way of expressing their love was different.
This is a very long, round-about way of describing two alternative kinds of God. When we wonder what it means to know God and to live in that God’s world, what does it mean to be loved by that particular kind of God? What kind of children of God do we become?
Jesus gives us two alternate ways to be good based on the kind of God we know (the kind of God who forms our world). Jesus uses the word “Father” for one of the alternative Gods. He doesn’t give the other alternative God a name, because Jesus doesn’t know that alternative. For Jesus, the alternative to the Fatherly kind of God doesn’t exist.
Paul is in the same boat. He served the other God for a long time, and his life was changed when he met the Father. “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom the whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge: that you may be fill to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19”
Both of my grandmothers loved me. Grandma gave me a smiling love, but I don’t remember her telling me that she loved me. I remember her kissing me, but not hugging me.
Her oldest son was my father, and I was in my fifties before my father ever told me that he loved me. I think he was raised that way. He was raised with the kind of love that smiles but doesn’t say “I love you.”
Grandma had been a teacher, and she was very good at recognizing, encouraging, and rewarding achievement and positive behavior. Baci was very good at saying “I love you.” Her hugs were as good as her kisses: and better than her kisses, really; especially when I got to the age when I didn’t want to be kissed by old ladies. The best thing about Baci was that you didn’t have to do anything at all to be hugged or kissed.
I remember doing and saying a lot of things to get recognition and praise from Grandma. I don’t remember trying to do that with Baci.
Hypocrite is a terrible word. It really just means somebody on stage: an actor. An actor is someone who is playing to an audience. An actor is someone whose recognition depends on their skill at keeping their real identity out of sight, while their act is going on. Their reward comes from how effective they are at creating a convincing superficial self. They are not rewarded for what they are on the inside; in their heart.
If all the hypocrites hired trumpet players to signal their good deeds (like the ones whom Jesus talked about), then all the hypocrites that Jesus knew of must have been rich. This can’t have been the case.
The truth is that we don’t always know what kind of God we have. When we don’t know what kind of God we have, we are all capable of tooting our own horns. It’s safer that way, because we don’t want to look bad in the world of a God who knows how to give recognition, but doesn’t know how to say, “I love you.”
Jesus isn’t talking about hypocrites hiring trumpet players. Jesus is saying that it is better for no one to know anything about the good that you do for others, than it is for you to be playing for recognition.
Jesus isn’t saying that you should never pray aloud in a place of worship, or out in public. Jesus is saying that it is better for no one to ever know that you pray, at all, than it is to pray while you play for recognition; or to “toot” afterward in order to get noticed. If you pray with the intent to play for recognition, then you aren’t praying to the Father. You are worshipping the god of recognition, and not the Father of Jesus.
There is a word behind the word “father” in the teachings of Jesus and in the prayer he taught us to pray, in which we begin by coming to God as “our Father”.
In the Temple in Jerusalem, and in the synagogues where the Jews worshipped, worship was in Hebrew (the old language, the language of the Old Testament). There are just a few places in the Old Testament where God will compare himself to a father, or a prophet or a psalm will compare God to a father, and the Hebrew word for Father is “ab”.
As short as it is, “ab” is a formal word. It carries dignity.
Jesus prayed in the garden on the night before he was crucified, and he called God “abba”. (Mark 14:36) “Abba” is Jesus’ word for God. The word “abba” isn’t used to describe God, or any human father, in the Old Testament. It is a word for daddy in the Aramaic language which the Jew’s had picked up from their neighbors who outnumbered them. By the time of Jesus, they used Aramaic as their common language. It was the language of home, but it wasn’t the language of faith. There was no daddy in their language of faith.
“Abba” means daddy. There are people in the Middle East who still speak Aramaic. Most of them are Christians. They would say that “abba” was the first word that every baby learns.
Toddlers and little children say “abba” before they learn their manners. They shriek “abba” when they are afraid. They squeal “abba” in joy.
Watch little children play with their daddies. They wrestle. They snuggle. They climb on his lap, and then they pull themselves up on his shoulders to be carried.
This has nothing to do with recognition. It has to do with intimacy. Nothing is easier for those children to say than, “I love you, Daddy.” They want nothing better than to hear Daddy say, “I love you, child.”
These children love their daddy’s recognition and praise (and their mommy’s too). But recognition and praise are different when they come from someone who hugs you, and kisses you, and says, “I love you.”
In the story of the first sin, in the place called the Garden of Eden, the first humans were told that God was holding something back from them. They were tempted to take that something for themselves. Then they could be like God. Then they could take care of themselves. They wouldn’t need to hold hands with God.
They were created for intimacy, but now they tried to live outside of that intimacy. They built a wall of doubt and mistrust. That (and not sex) was the forbidden fruit.
That is what sin is really about. You close off at part of your self from God, and from others, and even from yourself. You close yourself off from your own heart. You talk and manipulate your own feelings, and you behave in ways that build walls and separations between you, and others, and God.
Even intimacy no longer works. Intimacy is not intimacy without the promises of a complete and transparent faithfulness that cannot be broken. Intimacy without the faithfulness and the transparency of little children is not intimacy at all. We are created for intimacy with God and with our fellow children.
We say “Our Father” because we are a gang of little children who are learning to live in the world of a “daddy”. What we have with our Father in heaven is also what we are called to learn to have with each other: a complete and transparent faithfulness that cannot be broken.
How sad that, however much we have convinced ourselves that we love “Our Father”, we get fed up with our brothers and sisters, and we run away from them, in the hopes of finding better brothers and sisters. We express our faithfulness to God by giving up on each other. We tell ourselves that God must love us for being smart and wise enough to do this, and being that smart and wise makes us very happy.
The God of glory, whose perfection and power make us shake and want to run and hide, because of our own shame and embarrassment, is also a daddy who dearly loves all his children, and we don’t know him at all until we know this. When we see our own play-acting and horn-tooting in his light we are afraid; not just of him but of ourselves. If we really had a god of recognition, that is what we would recognize.
 We are designed for intimacy, transparency, and faithfulness. That was to be our beauty. It seems to be a lost beauty in this world. We have become the least beautiful part of creation when we were created to be the height of the beauty of that creation.
God came into our world in Christ to tell us that we are as beautiful to him as the dearest child. I think he would have me tell you this. “Thus says the Lord, “You are beautiful to me.””
By this he doesn’t mean that you are more beautiful than others. He simply means that he loves to look at you and contemplate you. Believe this and you will do amazing things. You will amaze yourself.
God came down from heaven to our world, in Jesus, to hold us. The arms of Jesus, stretched on the cross with nails, are the arms of God that ache to hold you tight. The cross and the resurrection are God’s “x’s” and “o’s”. They are his kiss and his hug written in flesh and blood that are so real, and so painful, and so surprising. The message is that his love is so wide, and long, and high, and deep that you can’t get away. You know this, if you know him.
I think fasting tells us about focusing on God, and seeing nothing but God, and knowing him as he is. I will tell you that I don’t fast the way some people do. I stopped doing that kind of fasting during my first year in my first church because I either couldn’t keep it a secret; or I would have to be impolite or I would have to lie about it.
When I visited people, they would offer me cookies or, if I saw someone on Main St., they might invite me to the diner or the restaurant. If I said “no” it would seem rude. If I told them I was fasting it wouldn’t be a secret anymore, so I stopped.
Prayer, giving to others, and even fasting, or so many other things that are part of being God’s children are not for recognition. They are for making room for intimacy and for an audience of one. Even that doesn’t say enough. These parts of a Christian life, these habits, the life of a child of God, are not for anything except for making room for oneness and intimacy.
There was a motivational speaker and thinker named William Purkey who had a classic saying that went like this: “Sing like no one is listening. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching and live like it’s heaven on earth.”
In a well-functioning family and in a healthy marriage there is this singing, this loving, this dancing, and this living. The fact is that there is someone there listening and watching, but they are not really an audience. They are love. They love to hear you and watch you.
If you lose the audience of love, which is so much better than any audience of recognition, that is grief. That is loss. But there is another audience that is better than any audience, and that is God. That is the scary God who has turned into your daddy and who has made you a little child in his arms.
There was a Catholic Christian author named Henri Nouwen who wrote some wonderful books about the spiritual life and here is something he wrote about our intimacy with God through Jesus: "Why is it so important that we are with God, and God alone, on the mountaintop? It's important because it's the place in which we can listen to the voice of the One who calls us the beloved. Jesus says to you and to me that we are loved as he is loved. That same voice is there for us. To pray is to let that voice speak to the center of our being and permeate our whole life. Who am I? I am the beloved. If we are not claiming that voice as the deepest truth of our being, then we cannot walk freely in this world." (Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Living”)
This way of meeting God and knowing God, as he is: this is essential. This is why God became the baby Jesus, and the Jesus on the road, and the Jesus on trial, and the Jesus on the cross, and the Jesus who is the conqueror of sin, and death, and hell. This is the only place to meet God and know him as he is. It is this kiss, this hug, this lap, this nail-pierced hand in our hand that we must know, or we don’t know God.
There is a poem by Robert Frost that says this about family and home: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” (“The Death of the Hired Man”)
The truth of God is so much better than that. The God we meet in Jesus, and the family of our brothers and sisters who are given to us by this God are so much better than that.
Some people live in a world where the only music they can hear comes from someone tooting their horn, or from themselves tooting their own horns.

We have a different God. This world doesn’t help us to know the different God; but Jesus does. Jesus teaches us to know the daddy who makes us truly and faithfully the confident children of God: the children of transparency and faithfulness; the children of intimacy.

1 comment:

  1. Always so much to think about from your sermon but I wonder, am I the only one who finds it difficult to convey this to you and all I can say is, "good sermon".