Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father of the Heirs: Sermon on Galatians 4:1-7 for Father's Day

As the story would have it, the pair met in a pig farmer's dim hut. The younger man, Telemachus, could scarce believe who was before his eyes. When the tale began, he had assumed his father was simply dead – lost to the Trojan War, perhaps, or lost at sea on the decade-long journey home. Too much time had elapsed to think other thoughts. But Telemachus had gotten divine word that the great Odysseus was alive and was coming home. Even before that, even when he thought his father dead, he'd sat in their besieged house, “sad at heart, seeing in thought his noble father.” Catching the news, Telemachus had journeyed to Sparta to hear stories from his father's old comrades-in-arms, who'd made it home years earlier. And now, unexpectedly, amidst the pig slop, an elderly beggar proved to be the long-lost father Prince Telemachus had loved in absence.

Odysseus, for his part, had been in mental agony for his years away – yearning just to be home with his wife and only son, but stymied at every turn. Finally in reach of his palace, he couldn't declare himself openly – his rivals were too many, they were in his very house with his wife and son, he had to catch them unaware and unsuspecting. Everything depended on secrecy. But on first sight, he was willing to open the secret, to trust himself, his whole plan, to the son he'd never met, but who turned out to be a chip off the old block indeed. At the revelation, Telemachus hurled his arms around Odysseus' neck, weeping and wailing; and Odysseus' face burned with hot emotion, and they wailed like the birds of the sea, and irrigated the earthen floor with their tears. By the end of the tale, they'd fight side by side, father and son, men, comrades, warriors, to reclaim Odysseus' home and Odysseus' kingdom.

In spite of his unwilling twenty-year absence, Odysseus – hero of the ancient Greek poem called The Odyssey – was a good father. Caring, devoted, a strong protector, inspiring courage and faithfulness even while away. The stories of the Greeks included a few good fathers. There was Odysseus, just mentioned. There was Daedalus – he was a decent dad; imprisoned against their will, he devised a cunning plan of escape, gave his son gentle care and diligent instruction. It wasn't his fault Icarus didn't listen, fell to temptation, flew too close to the sun, and plummeted to the briny deep. Daedalus did his best. He was a good father.

The myths of the Greeks reckoned with good fathers. They reckoned also with fathers less worthy of applause. Theseus, the man who outfoxed the Minotaur, the legendary founder of Athens, was given three wishes by the sea god Poseidon. But when his second wife came to him with a fraudulent tale of his own son Hippolytus and sexual misconduct, Theseus bought it hook, line, and sinker – so much so, he used a wish to bring down a curse on Hippolytus, leading to his own son's death. And then Agamemnon, the great king under whom Odysseus had fought at Troy – when harsh winds from Artemis stood in the way of their voyage, the only way to lift it had been for him to sacrifice his very own daughter Iphigenia – and he had. Neither a great example of fatherhood.

Surely, we'd think, things would be better in the histories of the Hebrews than in the myths of the Greeks. After all, God's people have the opportunity to learn so much about how to parent. And the Old Testament shares the stories of some dads worth admiring. There's Joseph, for one, son of Jacob – at first, like the Greek Hippolytus, he's suspected wrongly by Potiphar under the latter's wife's false accusation. But Joseph, living to tell the tale, grows to a man, marries Asenath, raises his two boys Manasseh and Ephraim – and there's no record of anything but caring parenting, and Joseph lives to see their children and their children's children. And Job is perhaps the best father walking the earth in the Old Testament – a phenomenal provider, devoted, caring, fair, a sterling role model, a spiritual guide, extending his parenting beyond his own large natural family to serve the needy.

But even among God's people, things didn't always pan out that way. Last week, we talked about Hezekiah and his father Ahaz – how Ahaz was a cowardly man, whose example Hezekiah detested, and how perhaps the great wound of Hezekiah's life was discovering too much of his father in himself. Hezekiah would have preferred to act more like his famed father David – but David's record as a dad may have been a weak spot, considering how after one son dies as a consequence of David's crimes, a second son wreaks horrific abuse on David's daughter, but the second son is killed for it by a third son, who is the first of two sons to wage war against their father David; and in the end, David says to a fifth son, Solomon, that he should start his rule by murdering whatever enemies David has left. Maybe David could have done better on the home front, is what I'm thinking. The priests didn't have it much better: Eli and Samuel both raised wicked, uncontrollable families – the Bible outright calls them “worthless” – and that just repeats the saga of two of Aaron's own boys, whose uncle Moses also nearly got killed for being an uninvolved parent. And between those bookends, the judges include the likes of Jephthah, who pulls a trick from Agamemnon's hat when it comes to daughters and sacrifice.

You'd think that the legends of the pagans and the histories of the chosen people would highlight good fathers, worthy fathers. And they do. But whether Gentile or Jew, they have to admit that fatherhood ain't easy – and sometimes it makes for rough going. That's the thing: fatherhood can be a hard and laborious calling, and a father who pursues it well and sticks the landing consistently is a rare and precious phenomenon, not to be taken lightly.  And it makes you wonder, what is going on, that these problems – in some cases, the very same tropes – are popping up among such seemingly different peoples. Why is it so rough? Is there any way to handle it?

And with that, we turn to Paul's words for us today. And naturally, what he has to tell us is confusing, but on the upside, it'll prove, I think, twice as rewarding as it is confusing. What he tells us is that “we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3). One of those notorious apostolic head-scratchers. He's talking, of course, of the immaturity of the human race, in both its Jewish and Gentile faces. In that condition, we weren't free; we had to follow the rules laid down by... the elements of the world. Your English Bible might try to do some legwork for you: the ESV says “elementary principles,” the NRSV says “elemental spirits,” the NIV says “elementary spiritual forces” – those translations all interpret it before it even gets to you. Here, the King James just leaves it as is: “elements of the world.”  Okay... but what's that mean?

What Paul might be getting at here is that, among all the pagan peoples of the ancient world, there were basic ways of organizing the world they lived in – “the basics of religious and social life,” one scholar calls them. Pagans divided pure things from impure things, clean things from unclean things; pagans had lists of taboos, like things they couldn't eat, words they couldn't say; they had places they called good and places they called bad; they had people they called priests and people they said weren't; they modified the flesh on their bodies; they observed their festivals and holidays; they made sacrifices to their gods to keep the world in motion; they feared their gods, but knew that the world could keep running if they just kept it orderly by organizing space, organizing time, organizing matter, putting things in their place. Oh, sure, the Egyptians did it differently than the Babylonians, the Babylonians did it differently than the Greeks, and then there were the Romans, and unbeknownst to Paul there were even different ways in northern Europe or across the sea in a new world – but he boils it down to “the elements of the world.” These are the building blocks, the basic elements, that made up an orderly world, where the Gentiles of old were concerned. Everything had its place – and the same building blocks would make up how fatherhood functioned among them, whether for Odysseus and Daedalus or Theseus and Agamemnon.

But when Paul looks back at the history of his own people, he sees the same elements at work. God hadn't done away with the building blocks the childish pagans played with; he'd just offered a healthier arrangement. The Jews, too, had guidelines for pure and impure, clean and unclean; the Jews had their taboos of food and speech; they had holy space and unholy space, priests and non-priests; they modified their flesh with circumcision; they had their own special festivals; they offered up sacrifices of meat and blood; they rearranged space and time and matter in ways they deemed orderly and helpful, to keep the world in motion. Everything had its place – and those very same building blocks would make up how fatherhood functioned, whether for Job and Joseph or David and Jephthah.

And Paul says that, in both cases, they were “enslaved under the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3). They had to be – they were like children, immature, needing those neat and tidy structures to get by. It's like, he says, how any child in his world would have a slave-like status, be bossed around by guardians and managers, until it was time to grow up and receive what's his (Galatians 4:1-2). Until that time, they all just played around, like pre-Kindergartners with their alphabet building-blocks.  (When you were little, did you have those?  Did your kids play with those?  Can you picture this?  I worked for several years in a daycare; I remember these.)  That's what they'd do: play with those alphabet building blocks, arranging them in rows, stacking high – same blocks for all the kids, just different arrangements. Paul says that's what we were always about. And that's how fatherhood so often works – just putting the blocks this way or that, trying to fit ourselves or our kids within these simple rows, laying down time and space and matter in orderly ways and enforcing it, and trying to see where our kids fit in the world or how we can build them something that lasts... out of these blocks in our hands.  And Paul would point out that our approach has been, too often, fundamentally childish.

But then, Paul tells us, something magnificent happened. God had set a time in advance when he decided it was high time we learned how to grow up and put away childish things. So “at the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son.” He sent his very own Son into our world, so that we could see real fatherhood and real sonship in action. At that appointed time, God sent his very own Son into our experiences of family life – that's why Paul stresses here that God's Son came into the world by being “born of a woman,” born into the messy and rough and complicated places we call families (which at their best can also be quite rewarding and nourishing and life-affirming places, but certainly always messy!). And not only that, God sent his very own Son into those messy and rough arrangements and rearrangements of the world's building blocks – that's why Paul adds the line about him having been “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4).

The Law was God's way of helping his childish people, in the days of their infant praise, to arrange the blocks to spell out healthy messages instead of mean ones. It was good, for its time. But doesn't the time inevitably come to put the baby toys back in the box and find something else to do? And so Paul adds that Jesus didn't just come to help us find new ways of arranging and rearranging the building blocks of the world; he came to teach us to read the message written on them, and then to put them away and leave the sad playtime of our childhood to join him on far bigger adventures in the open wild.  It's those kind of family outings Jesus and his Father aim to take us on!  Or, as Paul puts it, God's Son came “to redeem those who were under the law” (Galatians 4:5), those who were “enslaved under the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3).

And in sending his Son into the world, into our hazardous and unsafe playground, God opened up real fatherhood, his fatherhood, for all to see what it looks like outside the confines of the building blocks. So when a perfect Father-Son relationship stepped into the open, stepped up to the spotlight, what exactly did we get to see? What kind of relationship does this Son, this Jesus, have with his Father? What kind of Father does God turn out to be to his Son?

First of all, he's a totally present Father. He's no absentee. However much a little child may look around and not notice where his dad is, his dad may still be in the room, right by the kid's side. And that's where this Father is. Jesus can say things like, “I am in my Father” (John 14:20), or “the Father is in me, and I am in the Father” (John 10:38). And because his Father is a present Father, because he's so close to Jesus, the Son can tell people, “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19). Wherever the Son goes, his Father can be seen. The two have a close relationship, emotionally and spiritually and relationally intimate. They communicate all the time – Jesus is always wandering off to his Father's house (Luke 2:49), or into the mountains and deserts and gardens for one-on-one Father-Son bonding time called prayer (Mark 1:35; 6:46; 14:32). And because his Father was his constant companion, Jesus could honestly say, “I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (John 16:32). His was a totally present Father.

In that vein, his is a totally interested Father. Jesus can say, “The Father knows me, and I know the Father” (John 10:15). So many times, kids growing up may not feel like their father really knows them, really gets and understands them, who they are, what they're going through. Maybe they don't feel their father values their hobbies or interests, their stories and concerns. Maybe they do, but have trouble reciprocating. But Jesus and his Father had a different sort of relationship. The Father took a full interest in his Son, in everything, every interest, every hobby, every personality quirk, delights in knowing all about his Son's day and the deep things of his Son's heart; and the Son returns the favor.

Jesus also has a totally approving Father. That's the kind of Father that God is to him. So Jesus can say things like, “The Father who sent me bears witness about me” (John 8:18). And you know, of course, the sorts of stuff God says in that witness: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). The Father gives the Son his approval. In this case, the Son more than earns that approval. But you get the sense that this kind of Father is the kind who just at heart approves and affirms of who his Son fundamentally is – and that's a special kind of father, who can communicate that at all times, whether or not a child's behavior is praiseworthy like Jesus'.

As we keep looking, we can see that Jesus has a totally capable Father. This is not a Father who's out of his depth. This is not a Father who needs to read a few more parenting books by the latest expert. He's already got the inside scoop. As Paul puts it, this Father is “the only wise God” (Romans 16:27). The old adage 'Father knows best' – maybe you heard that show in its radio days or watched it on TV growing up (show of hands, who here watched Father Knows Best?) – well, you'll doubtless recall Jim Anderson didn't always actually know best, but Jesus' Father, you bet he knows best, at all times, in all things! He knows how to fix it, knows how to teach it, knows what to do and how to guide. And he's not just wise; he's strong, too, able to protect his Son. He could send twelve legions of avenging angels, if it came to it (Matthew 26:53). But more than that, there's nothing beyond his power: “My Father … is greater than all,” Jesus says, and ain't nobody pulling anything out of his Father's hand (John 10:29).

This Father can fix it, this Father can get it done – but when this Father is working, he doesn't tell his Son to go away and leave him alone to work. No, Jesus' Father is a totally including Father. Jesus mentions, “The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (John 5:20). The Son is never shut out of his Father's workshop, never excluded from seeing how it's done, and as he receives strength, always invited to pick up the tools and join in. As a result, Jesus can say, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). Jesus, the perfect Son, describes himself as “doing the works of my Father” (John 10:37). Because that's what his Father has invited him to do – to come alongside and be included in the work. It's not forced, not a you'll do this because that's my plan for you kind of thing; but because this Son trusts his Father's wisdom and because the Father knows him so well, he's willing to do what he calls “the works that the Father has given me to accomplish” (John 5:36).

And just like he trusts his Father, his Father trusts him and shares things with him. Jesus has a totally trusting, totally sharing Father. His Father gave him works to accomplish because his Father trusts him. “This charge I have received from my Father,” Jesus said (John 10:18). And Jesus' Father is a giver of great gifts: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:35). “All that the Father has is mine,” Jesus tells us (John 16:15). How'd the Son get hold of it?  Is it a story like a little boy waiting 'til his dad's back is turned to sneak over, swipe stuff off the shelf, and stockpile it in his room?  Far from it: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father,” Jesus answers (Matthew 11:27/Luke 10:22). This Father isn't stingy. He doesn't hold back. He isn't jealous over or overly protective of his stuff. He trusts his Son with it, and shares it with him – all of it.

And so the Father takes good care of the Son, provides for the Son. That's the kind of Father this is – a totally providing Father. He's the sort who'll even feed the birds of the air and clothe the flowers in the fields (Matthew 6:26, 30). And compared with all the fathers who play around with blocks, “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). This Father will do whatever it takes to provide for a kid of his.

Not to say things are always easy for his Son. Jesus has a Father who is a disciplining Father. For “what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7). “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). God the Father made his Son “perfect through suffering,” we read (Hebrews 2:10), so that the Son “has been made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:28). And that wasn't always easy – just look at this Son talking to his Father in a dark garden (Luke 22:42), in the days when the Son “offered up” to his Father “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). We read that “although he was a son” – nay, because of it – “he learned obedience through what he suffered,” in order to attain full and perfect maturity (Hebrews 5:8-9).

But the Father was not abusive, not harsh. His Son never had cause to shy away from him, avoid him, withdraw from him. True, “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant” (Hebrews 12:11), but this Father made perfectly clear that it was nothing other than exactly what was needed for growth and health and a better life on the other side. And what drove that point home, what shines through all these characteristics, is that Jesus' Father proved to be a totally loving Father. Jesus says it outright: “The Father loves the Son” (John 3:35; 5:20). He makes it perfectly clear: “The Father loves me” (John 10:17). At no point does Jesus have cause to doubt that; there is no stage where Jesus has to wonder, Does my Father actually love me or not?  

And this because his Father doesn't assume it's just a given, doesn't say, It just goes without saying; the Father vocalizes it, he verbally calls him 'Beloved Son,' tells Jesus to his face that he's loved, and backs it up in action. In that way, Jesus is equipped, as a Son, to imitate his Father's love: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you,” he tells us (John 15:9). And he knows that his Father's love for him will extend to his friends: “If anyone loves me..., my Father will love him” (John 14:23). “The Father himself loves you, because you have loved me” (John 16:27). 

What we see on display are strong bonds of devotion and of communication, expressing an intimate love this Father has for the Son – that's why the Son calls him 'Abba,' such a dear and tender word, the first way a Jewish child of the time learned to address his or her daddy, and often would throughout the rest of life's journey as the relationship held strong.

That's the kind of perfect Father Jesus has. If only our experiences with fatherhood could be that pure, perfect! Paul says we can have that kind of Father – in fact, we can have the very same Father, be his children. And in their own way, Paul's opponents in Galatia agree. But they put extra conditions on it. How do they, the false teachers Paul calls 'Judaizers,' say to reach God? Theirs is an exhausting tale: First get a leg up on Jesus, and then make sure to bring the world's building blocks and stack them atop Jesus, just the way the Law organized them, and keep climbing, and eventually, they said, you'll reach the Father that way: by stacking blocks on Jesus and climbing higher. But Paul says Jesus is plenty tall enough!: he's the perfect Son who looks his Father square in the eye, so be lifted on Jesus' shoulders and there's nowhere left to climb! No building blocks needed. The gospel Paul preaches isn't about the rearrangement of what's old; it's about the eruption of what's new.

And what Paul wants us to see is that to us is open the exact same relationship with the exact same Father that we see Jesus living out in the Gospels. God offers himself to us as a Father – and not just going through the motions while his attention is elsewhere, but the very same kind of fatherhood he showed Jesus, he wants to have that very same relationship with us as we become identified with Jesus the Son and included in Jesus the Son. How do we know that? Paul tells us: “God” the Father “has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6). Into each believing heart, the Spirit of Jesus' own Sonship comes, and inspires within us a recognition that we enjoy the same relationship with God that he did. We, too, have God for our Abba. We are no longer under management. We are no longer stuck among the blocks. We are no longer enrolled in daycare. You have been brought in as heirs of the same Father: “no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7), and it's his hunting and fishing trips in the open wild that we're on now.  That is how you know you don't have to keep building, keep climbing, keeping trying to force everything into orderincluding your families, your legacies, or your memories.

This Father's Day, I urge you to be truly thankful for whatever reflections of good shone through in what your fathers did for you. Fatherhood is a hard calling. The Bible says, perhaps optimistically, that “we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us … for a short time as it seemed best to them” (Hebrews 12:9-10). Be thankful for any of that, whether they (or you) were more like Odysseus or Agamemnon, Job or Jephthah. But this Father's Day, turn your greatest thanks and attention and imitation to an Abba so near, so dear, so very beyond all this earth has known. “For from him and through him and to him are all things; to him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

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