The Fatherhood of God

SJF • Proper 7b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And he said to them, “why are you afraid?”+

Happy Father’s Day! This being Father’s Day, I thought it would be good for us to reflect for a moment on what we mean when we call God our Father — as we do every time we say the prayer that Jesus himself taught us, literally almost every time we gather for prayer, either formally or informally.

First of all, it is most important to admit to our own experience of earthly fathers, as this will have some impact on us when we try to think of God our heavenly father. It doesn’t take too much earthly experience to recognize that not all earthly fathers are good fathers. I hope and pray that most of us here were fortunate enough to have good and loving fathers; but even if we have not experienced a bad father ourselves, we have no doubt heard about them or read about them, or perhaps had friends whose fathers were not as good as they ought to have been.

It is perfectly understandable for someone who had the misfortune to be brought up by either a neglectful or a cruel father to say, “I don’t want to think of God as a father, because my father was so terrible.” And it may take such people a long time to come to understand that the problem is not with God but with the bad experience they had of their own fathers.

The point is that God is not simply like any and all fathers, good or bad; but rather that God our Father in heaven is a good and loving father. All earthly fathers are called to be like him, even though many of them fail to be so — some simply because of the natural imperfections that all human beings share, others to a greater extent because they are truly bad fathers.

But that, thank God, is not God’s fault. God is the perfect father: and all of earthly fathers, even as we seek to emulate God’s fatherhood, will fall short in one way or another.

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Our Scripture readings today give us a glimpse into the nature of God’s fatherhood — into what kind of a father God is. We have before us, as it were, three pictures of God our Father in heaven, three photographs from the church’s family album, and they can give us some insight into who God our Father is, and what kind of a father God is.

On Trinity Sunday I cautioned about the error of contrasting the God of the Old Testament as harsh and judgmental, with the God of the New Testament as sweet and loving. There is only one God, who, as I said a couple of weeks ago is sometimes stern with us because of our failings but is always loving to us because we are his children.

I mention this because the reading from towards the end of the book of Job presents God in one of those sterner moments. You will recall that the book of Job consists almost entirely of a conversation between Job and his friends about the nature of God. They’ve been arguing back and forth about whether Job deserved the suffering that he has received, and whether God was fair in dishing it out.

And finally God speaks up, out of the whirlwind. And we have to admit it’s pretty stern stuff! However, even with the whirlwind and storm and tempest and the stern language, I invite you for a moment to hear this speech in a different light. Imagine a group of children, sisters and brothers, maybe one or two of them adopted into the family, perhaps at a slumber party, not having turned the lights out, and still talking among themselves as the shadows fall. And they’ve been arguing about is which of them loves their father best, and which of them the father loves best. And imagine them saying the kinds of things that children will say about their parents when they are off on their own. “I know Dad is tough but I can always get to him through Mom.” “If Dad really loved you best you would get a bigger allowance.” “Dad likes the best because I gave him the best Father’s Day present last year.” And on it goes into the night. And then imagine that the father is standing outside the door hearing every word.

Don’t you think that when the father opens the door he might say something very much like what God said to Job and his friends? Here is a picture of God who is angry, not because he hates his children, but because they have reduced him to a mere force to be reckoned with, and manipulated if possible. And so God lays it out: “Do you think you can work me this way? Tell me, if you know.”

And even here the language that God uses to Job reflects God’s care and nurture — notice how much the language about the creation of the sea makes God sound like a caring parent: when the sea is born, bursting forth from the womb, God makes a blanket out of the clouds, and puts a safety gate on the doorway at the top of the stairs, with a stern warning, to go thus far, and no farther.

So that’s our first snapshot of God: stern, yes; but only because he loves and cares so much.

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The second picture shows us God as the source of reconciliation and forgiveness. What could be more loving than that? Here is a father like the one in that other beautiful snapshot — the father of the prodigal son — who not only doesn’t store up wrongs and trespasses to hold against us, but gives us a fresh start: a new creation in which everything old has passed away and everything has become new. As Paul says, this is all from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ. And not only does God forgive us, and welcome us back, and let us start afresh — but even gives us a promotion, to serve with Paul as ambassadors for Christ, to spread the good news of reconciliation to all of our brothers and sisters, about what a wonderful father we have, a wonderful father who loves us, forgives us, and reconciles us. This portrait shows us God as generous and forgiving, the source of refreshment and grace and creativity — and a whole new start.

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The final snapshot really does look familiar. How many of us, especially as young children, haven’t had moments when a thunderstorm or windstorm or some other frightening event hasn’t sent us running to our parents looking for reassurance that everything is going to be all right?

I remember from my childhood — I was about six years old — a terrible hailstorm that swept through Baltimore. The hailstones were literally the size of golf-balls, and heavy enough to cause the roof of the house across the street to collapse under the weight. My younger brother and I were terrified, but I admit a little excited to see such a display — the hailstones were breaking car windshields up and down the street.

I remember my dad, though, standing at the screen door, and then suddenly bursting it open and rushing out onto the front walk, to gather up a few handfuls of the huge hailstones — with my mother screaming and shouting out to stop him. Those hailstones went into a mug of Coca-Cola after Dad came back into the house, and we all enjoyed a sip and enjoyed the clattering as it continued, no longer afraid now, as those hailstones continued to fall, and my father laughed, and Mom just shook her head at my dad’s impetuousness.

In our gospel passage today, don’t you hear the familiar voices of children crying out in the disciples’ complaint, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you not also hear the familiar voice of a father having been awakened from his nap on the sofa to deal with a spider in the bathtub, “Why are you afraid.” God will manage those acts of bravado, calming the storm, and our fears, and even killing that spider in the bathtub, with one hand tied behind his back. God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.

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These three family snapshots give us some sense of who God is — and taken together with all of the rest of the pictures in that family album we call the Bible, we can be assured of certain truths about God. We can be assured that God our Father can and will be stern with us — but only because he cares so much about us and loves us so much that he seeks to protect us from danger — both from a dangerous world and the dangers we get ourselves into when we turn away from him and treat him as something other than who he is.

We can be sure that however badly we stray God can and will forgive us and reconcile us to him, and give us a fresh start and a new life — and even a promotion!

And we can be sure that God will protect us when we are afraid, and shelter us from the storm and the night — calming the winds of fear, and assuring us that even when our faith is small, his power to save is great.

So let us give thanks to God our Father, the Father Almighty, our creator, our reconciler, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.+