Back in the 80s I used to water ski on the Kentucky River. One day we were trying to use a knee board, but found it very difficult. We finally realized it was much easier if a second person would get in the water and hold the board for the person who was going to ride on it. I was the first to hold the board and watched as they took off up the river. They were gone a long time and I began to wonder if they were going to leave me floating in the middle of the river. The water was so calm I assumed there was no current in it. I was surprised when I looked over at the bank and realized how far downstream I had drifted.
The Sermon On the Mount is about drift – theological drift. Theological drift is just like the drift I experienced in the Kentucky River – it is very subtle and rarely seen. Over the centuries people – especially the religious leaders – forgot the true intent of the law and in many cases, the nature of God himself. Interpretation upon interpretation had taken the law far from its original intent. If you remember the pre-digital days, it was like a copy of a copy of a copy. Each one is progressively more blurred and further from the original. The centuries of interpretation based upon interpretation had caused people to drift far from the intent of the law and a healthy view of God. The drift was so pronounced that in chapter 5 of Matthew Jesus says six times you have heard that it was said, but I say to you. It was his way of bringing people back to the true intent of the law and to a more accurate understanding of God.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus continues to bring us call people back from the drift that sets in. This morning, as we turn our attention to the Lord’s Prayer, we find Jesus Reminding Us Who God Is. This morning we will look at just the first two words of the prayer – our father.
Father was a surprising image for Jesus to use. We are very accustomed to the image of God as father, but when Jesus used the image it was a revolutionary change in how to view God. At that point in history people thought of gods in the manner of the Greeks and Romans – hostile, jealous, and petty – or as the Israelites, who saw God as being far too holy to be portrayed with a word such as father. The Israelites would not even pronounce or write the name of God, they believed it to be so holy. Jesus would go so far as using the word abba for God (Mark 14:36), which is the Aramaic word for daddy. Referring to God as daddy scandalized many people, because that word signified a relationship that was far too intimate to imagine. So when Jesus uses the word father to begin this prayer, it certainly an attention-getter.
I wonder, though, what goes through the mind of someone whose earthly father who is not a positive figure. One of my best friends growing up had a lot going for him. He had a great personality and made friends effortlessly. He was smart and a very good athlete. He had so many things going for him I have to admit there were times I was very envious of him. He had one really big liability in his life, though, and it was a liability that weighed very heavily on him – he had a terrible father. I don’t know any other way to describe his father except to say he was a mean and cold man, and I don’t like saying that about anyone. For years, I watched my friend, who had so much going for him in life, become terribly weighed down because of terrible treatment he received from his father. His father constantly belittled him, verbally abused him, and I have not a single memory of hearing his father saying a kind word to him. Not once.
Some people see God in the way my friend saw his father – they see God as vindictive and mean and petulant. God has a PR problem with some people. Some people see nothing whatsoever loving or merciful about God. And this is partially the fault of some of his children who present him in such a negative way, even to the point that they seem to enjoy bringing God’s condemnation upon the heads of others. Even though we are far removed from the perspective and theology of a church such as Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, people on the outside of the church don’t always make distinctions between churches. They see the unbelievably harsh and hurtful words and actions of Westboro and paint us all with the same brush.
There were versions of Westboro in the time of Jesus. There were people who were so anxious to call down God’s wrath upon others and people who were condemning and judgmental and Jesus sought to wash all of that away by describing God with two simple words – our father. Although there are those exceptions, we recognize that no father would ever seek to bring harm to his children. A father loves his children and cares and provides for them.
I would aim this affirmation squarely at the skeptics of the world as well, who claim that so much hatred and harm has been perpetuated in the name of God. There is a vast difference between what people may do in the name of God and what God actually desires that people do. I don’t care how loudly Westboro Baptist Church proclaims they are acting on behalf of God, they are neither acting on behalf of God nor are they representing his true nature. Neither are those who have committed violence and atrocities in the name of God throughout history.
Jesus does something else very interesting when he says our father. It is not mere happenstance that he says our. It is not my father, not your father, but our father. Ours is a word of inclusiveness. It is a recognition that we don’t have a claim of ownership upon God, but God is father and creator to all.
If God is our father, all others are related to us. Some people today very skillfully divide people along the lines of us and them. They exploit the divide between people for their own benefit. But when Jesus says our father he is teaching there is no us and them; it is only us, collectively. That’s why he teaches us to love our enemies and to pray for them, because it’s not us versus them, only us – everyone – as the children of God. It’s a very radical way of looking at the world, isn’t it? We live in a world that draws so many boundaries and distinctions and finds so many ways to categorize and separate people. Even churches, sometimes, like to draw very narrow boundaries and define who is in and out, and then begin to think in terms of us versus them. There was no us and them in the eyes of Jesus.
I want to close by showing you a video clip. It comes from the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Derek Redmond, representing Great Britain, is injured in a race. As he agonizes in pain on the track he gets up and tries to hobble across the finish line. His father comes out of the stands and help his son finish. (You can watch the video at the following link)I doubt there are many people who can tell you who won that race, but millions of people remember who lost, and they remember because of the powerful example of the love of a father. There are far too many people who cannot believe God is a God of love. May we live and proclaim that God is, indeed, love.