03 – God’s Best Name

“I believe in God the Father….”

Luke 15:11-32 Hosea 11:1-4

In the last chapter I introduced us to the first word in Christian belief.  We believe in God. It means that we are not atheists or agnostics. We also believe in One God, not many.

But that is to confess a minimum belief.  Most of the world believes in God in one way or another. In fact the world is irrepressibly religious. We think that about 97% of the people in the USA believe in God.  The figure is even higher across the entire world.

Even those that worship many gods sense that there is One God beyond all the other Gods who is the supreme deity. Humanity believes in God and must try hard to un-believe such a thing.

But, and here is the issue at stake, “What is this God like?”  It is at this juncture that belief in the One God begins to fragment into a million little pieces.

1.         What is God Like?    

The question comes to mind immediately: if there is only One God, what is He/She/It like?

The religions of the world have had a field day with that question.   I’m sure you have heard of the fable that tells us of the day that 6 blind men hearing of the existence of an animal called the elephant, decided to make their own investigation.  Fumbling around in their darkness they made their discoveries:

  • The first one grabbed its tail with the declaration that an elephant is like a rope.
  • The second one took hold of its trunk and declared an elephant to be like a thick snake.
  • The third one grabbed its leg and contradicted the others saying it was more like a tree.
  • The fourth one held its tusk and claimed it was closer to a spear.
  • The fifth one felt its ear and declared that an elephant was more like a big leaf.
  • The sixth one leaned against its side and said it was more like a wall.

This fable tells us that all of us are in the dark about God.  When one person thinks they have discovered God they have only discovered part of God, and in fact God is not like any of the parts.  It is why so many have concluded that God is just unknowable and all of our efforts are distortions.

Others were more optimistic and made the attempt to describe God.

Some felt that God was just like we are, except bigger and more powerful, but like us, He gets happy, gets mad, gets even. He was capricious and unpredictable and not quite trustable, so you’d better do all you could to stay on the good side of Him.

Others painted God as a warrior God.  He is stern, the God of conquest, The God of the strong.  He is the almighty One.

Still others painted God as the remote One.  He is the absolute, the unchanging One.  He is not like anyone or anything.  He is distant from our human scene.  He is not affected by our petty charades down here.  He created the world to let it run on its own.  He lost interest in it and does not interfere with its operation.   He is the absentee Landlord.

Others saw God as the great Lawgiver.  He is holy and just and has given his law to ensure that we are too.  He is the omnipotent judge. He is the constable on patrol, get out of line and you face his judgment.  But if you can manage to please him, he’ll get off your case.

2.         The Revelation of Jesus Christ

Then along came Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, and the church was born and they too asked the eternal question,  “What is God really like?”   In the creed we have the distillation of the church’s answer.  “We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven & earth.”

It has always amazed me that the church placed the words in the order it has.
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth.”

The logical order would be “I believe in God the creator, who is the Almighty Father.”

But the Church, led by the wisdom of the Spirit, wanted the words arranged with the important word first.  Even in English translation where the adjective usually precedes the noun, the truth demands that here the noun must precede the adjective.  “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”

Jesus had said it much earlier when he said to his followers: “When you pray, say “FATHER!”  

3.         A Personal God

The first thing this word announces is that God is a person.  He is not a thing. Not a power. Not an energy. Not an object. Not an idol or an idea.  He is described in personal terms.

But not just personal, but also relational terms.  He is related to us, as we are related to each other in families.  God is not just a “Him” he is a father, making us his children, insisting that we and He have something in common.

4.         The Father God

But to call God “father” was revolutionary in the world of ancient Judaism!  In the entire O.T. only 12 times is God called a Father.  Usually he is referred to as the father of a nation, the one who brought the nation of Israel into being.  Hosea may be that one remarkable exception.  But turn to the New Testament and suffused across its pages is the new name of God.  “When you pray,” says Jesus, “say, ‘Father’.”

Paul declares with joy, “God has sent forth His Spirit into our hearts crying “Abba, Father!”

But what is so revolutionary about that?  Let me tell you the story told by Ian McLaren about Lachlan Campbell.

Lachlan Campbell was made of hard granite.  He was Scottish Presbyterian to the very core of his being.  He sat in the back pew each Sunday and acted as unofficial critic of the rather rapid succession of pastors of his church.  He was the fruit inspector making sure that orthodoxy was upheld in the church.  He catechized the young people and examined them to see if they were in the faith. Few left his presence without tears.  He saw himself as God’s evaluator of the rest of the saints.

He had a daughter named Flora.  There came the day that Flora had had enough of her father and her father’s house, and her father’s religion, and her father’s church, and she left home to lose herself in the big city.

Upon her leaving, that same evening, Lachlan Campbell took down the old family Bible, and turned to the page that held the family record of names. He took his pen, dipped it in the ink and put broad strokes through the name “Flora Campbell”.  As far as he was concerned she was dead.  When people enquired over the next days and weeks how his daughter was, he rumbled back, “I have no daughter.”

The months went by.  But, this hard-headed man had developed a hairline fracture.  In spite of surface appearances he missed his daughter.  A neighbour read the signs and wrote to the young girl in Edinburgh, “Your father, he be missing you.”  It was enough for Flora.  The city was cold and strange and she missed her home.  She boarded the train and started back.

The story goes on to tell how with hesitant feet she climbed the pathway that led to her father’s front door.  There was a light on in the kitchen.  She opened the door and there was her father across the room.  Father and daughter faced each other in uncertainty for a moment, and then the granite crumbled.  Lachlan Campbell bursts into tears and rushed across the room to embrace his long lost daughter.

As that evening came to a close, father and daughter bowed their heads for the customary family prayers, and the author tells us that he began his prayer that night with the words, “Our Father.”  It was a new word for Lachlan Campbell.  He had always prayed “O Jehovah!”   He had discovered that God was not a truant officer, but a father, full of compassion.

And when Jesus tells us his story of a wayward child he tells us more about Father than he does the son.  Helmut Thielicke tells us that the story should not be called the parable of the prodigal son; it is the parable of The Waiting Father.  The story is not about wicked sons, whether profligate or pharisaic, but about a father who reaches out to both sons.

So Jesus tells his disciples, “When you pray, say, Father.”  “Say Abba.”

The word “Abba” is an interesting word.  It is the word that Jesus uses about God.  It is the word that a child uses when it first begins to speak.  Dadda! Mamma!  It is the title of endearment.

It refers not to a Father who is the authority figure, not the Father who is the biological parent, or the breadwinner.  It is the word of affection.

Jeremias says that “Dear Father” is probably the best translation.  When we come to God we come to one whose chief characteristic is love and affection.

And the creed wants us to realize that.  In fact it underscores that by making it the very first of all the characteristics about God.  It is not an after-thought.  It is not an adjective like Almighty is.  It is the thing that God is at his very inner essence.  God is Love.  He is the caring parent

5.         The Onion skin game. 

“Though Jesus was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be held on to, but HE EMPTIED HIMSELF…” (Philippians 2:7.) There has been a great debate: “what did he jettison and what did he retain?”  Did he give up Glory? Omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence? etc.  And what did he retain?

Peel back the onion skin of God’s attributes until you get to the very core reality of who God is, and what will we find? Omnipotence? Creativity? Justice? Holiness? Can I give you the answer of one of our best poets, Charles Wesley? “He emptied himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race!”  What then is at the centre of the very nature of God?  The answer is the love of a parent for a child.  In another song that same poet sings  “His nature & his name is love!”

6.         The  Father.  

But the creed is precise.  It reads, “I believe in God, THE Father.”  He is not “A” father.  He is not one more father like your father or mine.

Our fathers have been mixed blessings.
Sometimes terrific, sometimes terrible!
Sometimes thoughtful, sometimes thoughtless.
Often kind, but sometimes cruel.

Even the best of fathers has had his moments of defection from the ideal.  That is why some of us have had a hard time trusting God because we modeled Him after the fathers we knew.

But God is THE father. The prototype of Fatherliness.  The Archetypal Father.  The Model of all that a Father was meant to be.

And that kind of a God we can trust !!  On such a one we can lean the whole weight of our lives!!

Thanks be to God!

2 Responses to 03 – God’s Best Name

  1. Dick says:

    If the central nature of God is that of a loving father, there is a “large elephant in the room.” What about the large number of children that die daily of preventable causes – around 24,000 daily – around the world? (Some experts say that number is about half of the real total.) Is this the Father God of love?

  2. Stephen Merriman says:

    Hey David! Personally the big elephant I see in the room is us, as in life, wether I want to grow up to be like my father or not as I’ve grown older I certainly have learned many of his traits. Hopefully all his good ones. In faith over the years hopefully I grow to emulate my Heavenly Father and act in this world to do good. So that we don’t turn God into some benevolent old Santa Clause who removes the possibility of suffering, for that we blame God anyway! Instead of coming to see that He has placed us in this world to emulate him and perhaps reduce suffering and the number of children that die. God’s blame or ours? As always my brother, third in the series, I’m all in. Stephen

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