William Barclay tells a story from the time in history when the Roman Empire was at its greatest.
“A Roman Emperor was being honored after a victory at war. He had the privilege, which Rome gave to her great victors, of marching his troops through the streets of Rome, with all his captured trophies and his prisoners in his train. So, the Emperor was on the march with his troops. The streets were lined with cheering people. The tall legionaries lined the streets' edges to keep the people in their places. At one point on the triumphal route there was a little platform where the Empress and her family were sitting to watch the Emperor go by in all the pride of his triumph. On the platform with his mother there was the Emperor's youngest son, a little boy. As the Emperor came near the little boy jumped off the platform, burrowed through the crowd, tried to dodge between the legs of a legionary, and to run out on to the road to meet his father's chariot. The legionary stooped down and stopped him. He swung him up in his arms: "You can't do that, boy," he said. "Don't you know who that is in the chariot? That's the Emperor. You can't run out to his chariot." And the little lad laughed down. "He may be your Emperor," he said, "but he's my father." That is exactly the way the Christian (should) feel towards God. The might, and the majesty, and the power are of one whom Jesus taught us to call Our Father.” Our heavenly Father is above all, but still calls us to come near.
In Jesus’ day most people believed that God was very distant and unknowable. Among the Greeks there were two dominant beliefs concerning the gods. One was held by those known as the Stoics. They believed that the gods did not have the ability to feel any emotion. This came from the idea that if the gods could feel emotion then they could be hurt, and surely the gods cannot be hurt so they must be emotionless, apathetic and indifferent.
The second dominant belief concerning the gods was held by a group known as the Epicureans. They believed that the gods were most characterized by perfect peace and tranquility. The Epicureans realized that the world was chaotic and often out of control. The gods would surely lose their tranquility and peace if they got involved in human affairs, so surely the gods must be distant, detached and uninvolved.
Even the Jews of Jesus’ day had grown to believe that God was very distant. He was definitely to be feared, but intimacy with God was a foreign concept. In the Jewish tradition the people felt that the name of God, “Yahweh,” was so sacred and holy that a person had no right to even speak it out loud. Their perspective of a distant, almighty God, seemed to focus more on the God who had created the world, judged the world with the flood, parted the Red Sea and brought the plagues. He was powerful, and just but also unapproachable.
It is like walking into a grand cathedral. The towering ceilings. The massive columns or structures. The ornate stain glass windows. Visually it speaks to the awesomeness of our God, but it doesn’t fully speak to us about our Father God who draws us near.
It is into this cultural context that Jesus recited the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew 6 Jesus was asked by His disciples to teach them how to pray. He could have started His prayer with many names for God. He could have said Sovereign King, Creator God, Everlasting to Everlasting, but instead, Jesus began with these words,
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Matthew 6:9
Jesus could have started His prayer many different ways, but He chose to use the term “Father.”
When we hear the word “father” it brings different images, thoughts and even emotions to mind. We each have had our own experiences with our earthly fathers. To some, the use of the word “Father” in this sermon will seem very fitting because their experience with their earthly father was a blessing and a good preparation that eventually led them to put their faith in their heavenly Father. For others it has been the opposite. Their experience with their earthly father has made it difficult to put their faith in God and now, even as Christians, their relationship with their earthly father has continued to skew their correct understanding of God as their heavenly Father.
For all of us, our understanding of God has been affected to some degree by our experience with our earthly father. With this in mind we must allow the scriptures to re-teach us who the heavenly Father really is.
Let us now go back to Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:9.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
This is our Father God who in Zephaniah 3:17 rejoices over us and even sings over us. He is our Father who has drawn us near, but He is not just any father. This heavenly Father is eternal, sovereign, Creator, Lord over all things. Because of His holiness and our sinfulness we have no right to enter His presence but yet through Jesus Christ death and resurrection He calls us to “come into His presence with confidence and receive grace and mercy in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) As the Psalmist has written, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:4)
How is it that a God like this would invite us to draw near? But this is the truth of our heavenly Father that Jesus is presenting to us. In Mark 14:36 we even hear Jesus refer to God as “Abba, Father.” This would be the equivalent of calling God “daddy or papa.” This type of intimacy with God would have been unheard of in Jesus’ day but Jesus knows the reality of God and calls us to the Father to whom we can draw near.
We need to stop for a moment and think a little more about “Abba, Father.” It was the idea of “Daddy or Papa,” but even in its familiarity and intimacy it still has the understanding of respect and authority. It might be like a small boy in Texas who draws near to His Daddy, but still says “yes, sir.”
In our day we have many times confused “drawing near to God” with treating Him as an equal. God has invited us to draw near, but He is the sovereign King of the universe and we must not forget our place in relation to Him.
May we be a people who draw near to God, but never stop being in awe of Him. Much like the disciples who were with Jesus when the storm arose on the sea of Galilee. They were afraid for their lives until Jesus calmed the storm. These were His closest friends who knew Jesus better than anyone else, and yet in Matthew 8:27 they cried out in amazement to each other, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” They knew Him but still were in awe of Him.
In the midst of drawing near to God there will always be so much more of Him that we still don’t know.
Scripture teaches that every person has been created in the image of God, but all are not children of God. In John 1:12-13 we read, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Those who turn from their sin and believe in Jesus Christ are “born again” and adopted into the family of God.
Romans 8:14-17 describes our being made children of God with these words.
“14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Scripture uses the words adoption and heirs to describe our sonship with God. Some may ask why it says that we have received the adoption as sons and not as daughters, when many followers of Christ are females. In their day, the sons were the ones who received the family name and inheritance. Those who were listening would not have wanted the small inheritance of a daughter. Spiritually speaking it is just declaring that all of us have been adopted with the full rights and inheritance as sons.
In the Roman times of scripture if you were a biological son your father could put you out of the family, completely disowning you, but if you were adopted you could never be put away. You were guaranteed all the rights of sonship for the rest of your life and you received the same inheritance as a biological son. As children of God we are guaranteed to never be put away and to receive all the spiritual inheritance that is ours in Christ.
We see a similar idea in the musical Annie. In the story Annie is an orphan who lives with caretakers who are alcoholic and treat Annie and the other children horribly. They are in it for the money and care nothing for the orphans under their care. By the end of the musical Annie is adopted by Daddy Warbucks who is a millionaire and is a caring father for Annie. She exchanged the life of darkeness and despair for a life of love and abundance.
Being adopted into God’s family grants us security, hope and a calling to live up to the name that we now bear. As we read in 1 Peter 1:4, we now have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”
God is our Father who has committed to provide for, to discipline, to protect and to guide us as a father does for His children. As our needs are met in Him we are freed to no longer only focus on our own needs, but to focus on the needs of others.
Instead of hiding from God because of our sin, we have now been forgiven and can approach the throne of God with confidence at any time that we need Him.
There are many things we can know about our heavenly Father, but how do we actually start living in His presence, and experiencing our relationship with Him as His children?
Let me use this illustration to help answer that example. Experiencing God as Father is made up of knowing, agreeing and applying. Imagine a person, who somehow has never heard of an airplane is visiting an airport for the very first time. They sit and stare out the window astonished that a metal vehicle that big could actually get off the ground. They then watch another plane take off, and another and another, until they are thoroughly convinced that planes can fly. At the same time, they are also seeing other planes that are landing safely. This idea of planes flying seems to really work. Then they notice that people, real human beings, are actually getting in these huge metal flying vehicles. Not just a pilot, but a whole line of people are waiting for and then entering these planes. He observes this even longer, watching planes take off and then others landing safely, until he is thoroughly convinced that people are safe flying on planes. He now understands the idea and agrees that it works. Now comes the application. The man goes to the checkout counter and buys a plane ticket. He then goes to the gate, boards the plane, puts on his seatbelt in his window seat and is overcome by fear and awe as the plane speeds down the runway, lifts off and leaves the earth behind. He understands, agrees, and now has applied.
Relating to God as Father has the same components. We first must seek to learn all we can about the Father.
In John 14:9 Jesus’ followers longed to know the Father and Jesus responded with these words, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” We see God the Father in Jesus’ life as He forgives the prostitute with dignity and grace. He weeps with the family and friends of Lazarus. He calls the children to Himself, He forgives His enemies, yet promises to bless those who love Him.
Jesus was showing us the heavenly Father. God’s power and holiness that had been so clear in the years past was now being coupled with the intimacy of God the Father that was seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It was a picture of a God who pursues His people with a passionate and committed love. For those who desire to know the Father, they can first begin by opening the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and getting to know Jesus. “If you have seen Him you have seen the Father.”
As we learn about the Father through Jesus we can also observe other children of God who are relating to God as Father. We see their peace, their trust, their prayer, their obedience and their love. We become familiar with what a life relating to the Father looks like. We see that it is true and is real. Finally, we begin to take steps of faith relating to God as Father. We begin to ask for His wisdom. We obey His teachings. We accept His discipline. We call out for His provision. We pray for His protection. We receive His love and begin to enjoy the closeness of our relationship with Him. Every obedience leads us to a greater experience with Him. We come to respect Him and enjoy Him as “Abba, Father.”
This knowing, agreeing, and applying is the way that we are ushered into a deeper relationship with our heavenly Father.
One of the clearest pictures of the love of the Father is found in Luke 15:11-32
In these verses we find Jesus Christ, the Son of God, sitting with and teaching people who were considered the worst of sinners, and standing not far away were the arrogant “super spiritual” religious leaders listening and judging every word that Jesus said. This is the situation that Jesus was in when he told the following story.
Jesus told of a man with two sons. The younger son comes to his father and asks for his part of the inheritance. Now the inheritance was never given to the sons until the father died. So in the culture of that day it was the same as telling your father, “I wish you were dead.” But instead of slapping the son or having him publicly whipped to save the Father and the family’s honor, which would have been the normal response, the father grants the son’s request and gives the son the money. In the thinking of Jesus’ listeners the father’s actions would have been unthinkable.
In the Middle East, culture, shame and honor are key. One avoids shame at all costs. This story was so extreme that the listeners are probably thinking that this story would never happen in real life. Jesus was describing unthinkable, shameful actions so that the people would begin to grasp the unimaginable love of the Father.
“The son then took the money and went to a distant country where he wasted all the money on wild living. Eventually the money ran out and the son was left with nothing. A famine came to that foreign land and the son was desperate to find food. He hired himself out to a citizen of that country and was sent out to the field to feed pigs, but no one gave him anything to eat.“
The son, in a matter of months, spent all the money that had taken generations for his family to accumulate. How foolish this young man was. Such a disgrace, and it only got worse. For a Jewish person pigs were considered unclean animals. This would have been horrifying for the listeners that the son would have fallen to this point of desperation that he would even consider this type of work.
Finally the son “came to his senses” and made a plan. He would return to his father and beg to be made a servant, not a son. But even with this plan he was not being realistic. He had already taken and wasted more money than he could ever repay.
Dr. Kenneth Bailey, an Arabic and New Testament scholar who taught at seminaries in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus for 40 years, gives this interesting perspective. “Jesus' original audience would not have seen this as the turning point. For the first thousand years, the universal Arabic translation was not that “he had come to his senses” but rather that the prodigal "returned to himself (nepash)" or more specifically "he would depend on himself". Up until this point the son had been living off of his father’s money. Now he was vowing to become a servant and to be self-sufficient. Had the son been repentant, Jesus would have used the word Shub, a Hebrew word meaning "return to God." The son is going to pay-it-back himself. He will not become a slave but rather a skilled craftsman so that he can restore himself. It is with this mindset that he returns to his village.“
Thinking he could go back as a servant and make things right would be the same as thinking you could pay back a billion dollar debt with a minimum wage job. That kind of thinking doesn’t even make sense. A hired worker was the poorest of the poor. They were the ones who would gather in the city square each morning hoping that someone would come buy and hire them for the day to do some odd job. Scripture even commands that hired workers be paid at the end of a day’s work because that is the only way they would have money to buy food for their family. It is good that the son had realized that he had sinned against God and his father, but the belief that he could somehow make it right by his own efforts shows that he does not understand the size of his wrongdoing and the hopelessness of his efforts to make things right.
Nonetheless the son started his journey home. Because of the shame that he had brought on his family and the failure that he experienced financially he was expecting to be ridiculed and ostracized by his community once he returned. That was part of the cultural punishment that was often received by people with grave misbehavior, but the father had other plans. Jesus described it with these words.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
If anyone should have been running it should have been the boy. He should have been the one begging for the mercy of the father, but instead the father ran. In Middle Eastern culture that was shameful. Middle aged men were never to been seen running and showing their legs. But in this instance we see the father gladly taking shame upon himself so that his son will be shielded from great shame from the community. Instead. . .
“The father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”
The son never even got a chance to present his idea of becoming a servant. The father immediately gave him “son” status by giving him the best robe, shoes, sandals, and the family ring that gave him full authority as a son. The father even prepared a huge celebration for his son who had returned. That is how the Father feels about the sinful person who comes home.
That is a picture of the gospel. How sinful man has rebelled against God. How we gave evil but the Father responded with love. How we deserved shame, but instead Jesus took upon Himself our shame so that we could be restored as sons of God. And how heaven celebrates everytime one sinner repents and “comes home.”
This story is an invitation to all who will come home to the Father. Whether you consider yourself the worst of sinners, or have been religious for years but in your heart have been living in rebellion. The Father stands with open arms ready to receive all who will come.
As we read in 1 John 3:1, “How great the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!
The heavenly Father is the holy, perfect, Sovereign King that is so much more powerful than we could ever imagine, but yet He calls us to draw near. It is similar to C.S. Lewis’ book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” The book tells the story of four children who find themselves in a magical land that they had never seen before. This land is governed by a wicked queen. And in this land in the words of C.S. Lewis, it is, “always winter, but never Christmas.” They soon find out that Aslan, a mighty lion who is the rightful king has come to retake the kingdom that is rightfully his.
The children ask, “Is he safe?” to which the creature responds, “No, but He is good.”
That is an accurate description of the heavenly Father which we serve. He is awe inspiring. All powerful beyond our imagination. At times even to be feared, but He . . . is . . . good. That is our heavenly Father who invites us to draw near.
In closing I would like to share this story of the heart of a father. . . An older man tells a story of when he was a boy. He remembers that the circus was coming to town. Everyone in town was excited. There were posters all over the city and all the children in the school were talking about it. The day finally came and he and his father arrived at the circus early to get a good seat. The man tells that he and his father stood in line for a long time waiting to buy tickets so that they could go in. He still remembers the family who was in front of them in line. The family had a lot of children. They were so well behaved. No fighting, no complaining, just standing there with all of their little eyes focused on the clowns, the elephants, and all the exciting things that they saw. From their clothes one could tell that they didn’t have much money, but you could tell that their parents were doing a good job raising them. The father had probably saved a long time to be able to afford to bring his family to the circus.
Finally it was this family’s turn to buy their tickets. Then this man and his father would finally be able to buy their tickets. The father of the big family proudly stepped up to the ticket booth and said,” I need 2 adult tickets and 6 children tickets.” Immediately you could tell something was wrong. The father asked, “Excuse me, how much is it?” Once he heard the answer his face fell, he turned and looked at his wife and they both understood. They didn’t have enough money. Even though they had worked hard, somehow they hadn’t saved enough. How would they tell the children?
The man telling the story thinks back to that moment. “My father had been watching the whole situation. My father slowly reached into his pocket, pulled out 20 dollars and dropped it on the ground. He waited a moment and then politely said to the other father, “excuse me sir, I think you dropped this.” Their eyes met, they both understood what was happening, man to man, father to father.
The family bought their tickets and as they entered the circus their father looked back and said it all with a brief nod of the head and a silent thank you. It was now the father and son’s turn to buy their tickets, but instead they turned and walked away. For that money that was given away was supposed to have paid for their tickets that day. The man ends the story by saying, “We didn’t go to the circus that day, but on that day I truly began to understand the heart of my father, and in the years that followed I grew to love him even more.”
May that be true of us. May we seek to understand the heart of the Father. May we begin to walk with Him in obedience and as we do may we grow to love Him more and more.