Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Hey, Dad

This is the manuscript from a sermon I preached on June 11, the second week of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday. I don't preach from the manuscript, but this is basically what was said, though far less long-winded and tangential than the finished product.

"Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation--but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory."

~Romans 8:12-17

Moms and dads are very interesting creatures. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, as I’m less than three months away from becoming a dad myself. I mean, mom and dad can be perceived in a million different ways by their children, and children can be perceived in a million different ways by their parents based upon a million different factors. What is the parent’s personality? What is the child’s personality? Is one parent stricter than another? What form of discipline will be most effective for the child? Is the child more analytical or more artistic? Are the parents more analytical or artistic? Will the presence or absence of facial hair affect the way a child responds to their father? Will the child love the parents no matter what, just like the parents love the child?

George Edward Foreman, the former Heavyweight Champion of the World and grill-master extraordinaire, has five sons and five daughters. His oldest son’s name is George Edward Foreman. His youngest son is George Edward Foreman. His second, third and fourth sons are all George Edward Foreman. So is this evidence that George Foreman is a complete egomaniac? I mean, it’s not like boxers are known for their humility.

But big George had different motives for naming all of his boys George Edward. George had a tough upbringing. He grew up not knowing his father. His father was not present at all, and so none of his childhood memories contained his father. George knew that this made his life much more difficult than it had to be, and he didn’t want his boys to grow up with the same situation. He wanted them to know they were loved, so he made their names a constant reminder of the fact that they have a dad and that he loves them. So George, George, George, George and George will always know their father—a comfort and a joy that George Sr. never had.

I grew up with the blessing of having parents who were present, supportive and humble. My parents are present in nearly every one of my childhood memories. They weren’t perfect, but then again, neither was I. Come to think of it, none of us is currently perfect, either—I guess some things never change. They were there to help, and I knew it—even when I was being punished or scolded. They were forming my character, helping me become a better person, and keeping me from many of the traps that exist in this world that lead to addiction and patterns of bad behavior. And, for whatever reason, I responded to their discipline, their exhortation and their love. I respected them, and they respected me, no matter how young I might have been. They had the authority, but they treated me with dignity and love.

The way we relate to our parents growing up has a profound impact on all of our relationships. It affects the way we approach the opposite sex. It affects the way in which we ultimately approach parenting, when that day comes. And perhaps most of all, it affects the way we perceive and approach God.

The Bible says that God is our father. And not just that, it says that God is our Abba. You see, the New Testament was written in Greek. Jesus and most of the New Testament writers spoke Aramaic as their first language, but they chose to write in Greek because it was the most widely spoken language of the day. But in a very small number of instances, a Hebrew or Aramaic word was so rich with meaning that they could not just translate it into Greek, so they kept it the way is was.

In the New Testament, Abba is one such word. Abba is a very intimate family term, often thought to be a sort of English equivalent to ‘daddy’ or ‘dad.’ Either way, it is a term that eliminates many of the formal divisions between a father and child, and expresses the hearts of children who have a truly personal and close relationship with a parent. There is much evidence that Jesus used the word Abba when referring to his father in prayer, including the very famous Lord’s Prayer. There are two instances in the New Testament, in Galatians and Romans, where the word Abba is transliterated from Aramaic. Paul could have used the Greek Pater alone, which would have communicated something similar, but decides in these two instances to use both—Abba Pater. The word Abba cuts to the heart of the parenthood of God in a way that no other does.

This may seem perfectly natural to us who live in an ever-increasingly informal culture, but consider the God-speak of the Jewish culture in which Jesus and Paul and the disciples lived in. They wouldn’t even write out or speak the personal name of God. They would write out the Hebrew consonants for YHWH, but would use the vowels from another Hebrew word, and would simply pronounce Adonai, which was a very generic Hebrew term for God. It is to this same God, this wholly other God whose name is not to be spoken aloud for fear of mispronouncing it and ending up cursed or dead or worse, who Jesus so intimately refers to as his Abba.

Paul explains how this works. Every one of us was once a slave to sin—prone to depression, prone to addiction, constantly afraid and without hope for eternity. But when Jesus Christ takes over our lives, we receive the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit that convicts us of sin, that gives us strength in the midst of struggle, and that interprets our pitiful prayers for us, among other things. And in this passage, we see that the Holy Spirit establishes once and for all that God is our Abba, and that we are Abba’s children. Put simply, just like George Foreman, who named all of his sons George Edward, the Holy Spirit has given each of us a name—Abba’s child.

You see, when the Holy Spirit enters our lives, we get adopted by God. Adoption is a great act of mercy which takes the fatherless and the motherless and gives them a home—gives them an identity.

Paul explains this in a way that would make a lot of sense to someone like himself, a former Pharisee, well trained in the law, who thinks like a lawyer. So if you are very analytical, pay attention to Paul’s argument.

There is a very old Biblical tradition that lays out how things are to be established as truth. The lawful procedure is laid out in Deuteronomy 19:15 (One witness is not enough to convict anyone of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses), where Moses is giving the law for the second time and says that if a crime is committed, one witness is not enough to convict. There always must be two or three witnesses if a testimony or accusation will be accepted. If there were two or three witnesses to an event, it was truth—plain and simple. It was not questioned, but was taken very seriously as a civic and a religious law.

It’s just like when you’re talking to a friend, and you ask them what they got for their birthday. If they say they got a pony, you may not believe them, but if their dad is standing right there and tells you, “It’s true. She got a pony for her birthday,” you will be much more likely to believe her. Not only do you have two witnesses instead of one, but the other witness is a very reputable source, your friend’s father, who would have very little reason to lie about such a thing for his daughter. The Holy Spirit is a very reliable source which assures each of us that we are indeed children of our Abba. That’s something I want to know once and for all. I want to be able to know for sure that I am a child of God. I know it sounds good and everything, but sometimes I feel like I don’t live up—like I don’t deserve to be Abba’s Child.

There’s this tendency that adopted children have. No matter how thankful they may be for their adopted parents or how awesome the care of the adopted parents, they often have this internal longing to know their biological parents. I know some adopted people who have this picture in their heads of their biological parents which is pristine and idealized, and they feel like all their current problems will be solved if they could just connect again with the parents they never knew.

That’s exactly how we are with our slavery to sin. We have been adopted into God’s family, but we have these distorted memories of the old life. We look back and think, “That wasn’t so bad.” We got so used to being sin-slaves, that we don’t allow ourselves to fully embrace our adoption as Abba’s children. So we stray. We run away from home and we try to play by our own rules. But that leads to only one thing, and it isn’t pretty. It’s death.

But living by the Spirit means that we don’t do that anymore. It means we live an existence where we are loved completely and unconditionally. We accept the fact that we are Abba’s children, and don’t run away from home anymore.

We don't run away because of a promise. There is a promise that we will be heirs of God. Co-heirs with Christ. That means that whatever fortune awaits Christ from God is also awaiting us. God treats us as we are. His children. He divides up his inheritance among us. What a lavish, undeserved gift!

I will conclude with an absolutely touching story that I heard from one of my heroes, Brennan Manning at Midwinter this past January. Brennan was asked by a woman if he would see her father, who was in ill health and near death. He met with the man, and just listened and talked with him. It wasn’t anything Brennan said that makes this a great story.

The man shared that he had tried a lot of different ways of praying in his day, and he wanted to ask Brennan if the way he had been praying was acceptable. He said that he had asked a pastor about prayer, and he gave him a thick book on prayer that had a lot of big words, but nothing that helped him prayer. He said eventually, he just settled on this—he would sit across from an empty chair and visualize God himself sitting in that chair and talk to him. That’s why he kept an empty chair next to his bed all the time. That was where God sat and he talked to him. Brennan said that he thought that was an excellent way to pray.

Well, it wasn’t much later that the man’s daughter called Brennan back and told him that the man had died. At her request, Brennan went over to the house again. He asked if it was a peaceful death, if he was with family, etc. She said no, that she was at work and he was alone in the house when it happened. She went into his room when she got home, and she said that it was the weirdest thing. He had shifted his whole body, so that instead of his whole body being in the bed, he was all curled up with his head, shoulders and arms resting on the chair.

He knew his Abba, and he died exactly as he had lived. In the arms of his Abba. Let’s live likewise.


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