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Be Like Your Father in Heaven Above...
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
11/09/18 Trinity 13
Hab. 1:8-12; Ps. 73; Gal. 3:16-22 Lk. 10:23-37
“Be like your Father in Heaven above...”, as the song says, is a theme running all through Scripture. It is not usually boldly stated, mostly implied, but the very fact of our being made in the Image of God tells us something – that we not only are like our Father in heaven, which is our indelible nature, we also are to choose to be like Him. We can choose to behave like God, to think like Him, to have attitudes and purposes like His. It is our given, indelible nature which includes reason and freedom of will, which enables us to choose to “be like our Father in Heaven above...”
Or we can choose to reject that relationship to God and follow our own fallen nature, which leads inevitably and necessarily to self-destruction.
So, there are these two aspects of all of us, first, our being, our self, or our nature, that which is a given, and which we cannot get rid of. They are fixed. And then also our “doing”, our behavior, our plans and goals – all of which are to a large degree not fixed, but changeable.
This distinction between who-we-are and what-we-do is at the foundation for understanding our human nature, how we fall, and how we are redeemed and saved. The rock-bottom level of our being is good. It is always a good idea for me to be Earle Fox. It is always a good idea for you to be you. That is what God created you to be, and what He continues to hold in existence.
Our being, our selfhood, is what God is saving. Our choices, on the other hand, our behavior, our attitudes, our doings (when disobedient), are what can cause us to fall, as Adam and Eve in the Garden. God is saving our being (salvation) and changing our behavior (sanctification).
The problem with the Fall is that, although our behavior can get us into trouble, once we have separated ourselves from God, our behavior cannot get us back to God. First of all, we lose our way, and as in the labyrinth, we cannot find the way out. But also, even if we did know the way back to God, we would still not be able to get back on our own – for two reasons.
First, and obviously, if heaven is a relationship with God, then there is no way to get back into that relationship unless God is a part of that getting back together. You cannot get into a relationship by yourself.
Secondly, our rebellious behavior damages our personhood, our being. So, strive and will as we might, it does not have the effect of getting us back into that now broken relationship with God.
The damage has to do with those two aspects of ourselves: our being and our doing, who-we-are and what-we-do. Because we are not self-sufficient beings, and because our primary reliance for personal stability must be upon God Himself, when we separate ourselves from God, we lose at least some of our ability to be ourselves, to present ourselves openly and honestly before other persons. We lose the ability to be in communion with one another, not only with God. We build walls of protection, deceits, pretenses, and poses – to try to look good even if we cannot be good.
That is called salvation by works – trying to be me by what I do rather than by what God is doing in my life – notably supplying my being and personhood freely and gracefully. We live by the gracefulness of God.
In the Fall, we lose our holiness, which is our dedication and conformity to the will of God, our being set aside for the purposes of God.
With a damaged self, our doing is hampered – just as with a damaged car. The self that does the doing becomes less and less capable – just as a car can deteriorate to the point where it cannot go at all. We are then no longer free in certain aspects of our lives. Choosing to love God and one’s neighbor becomes more and more difficult, and in the end, impossible.
When we pass a certain point, when we so damage our wills that are no longer able even to respond to the invitation from God to return to Him, spiritually, we have died. There is no more freewill left. We have rendered ourselves unfixable, and so are tossed onto Gehenna, the cosmic junk heap.
This morning’s Scripture lessons point to this problem of the Fall, and also to our way out of the Fall.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most well known of the parables. We probably identify with it because we can see ourselves in it, and maybe something in ourselves hopes that we might actually be, or become, a good neighbor, as was the Samaritan. And perhaps something in ourselves hopes for that kind of a Savior for ourselves, a friend – though we might have a hard time imagining it.
But the point of parables is to help people imagine just such possibilities – with which we struggle in our daily lives. Stories help bridge the gap between thought and reality – often better than a theological statement on the love of God. It is hard, probably for all of us, to imagine God loving us in this grand and free way – until we meet Him personally, the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. And then, though we might be amazed, it is not hard to imagine the reality of it all. The presence of the Loving Father washes away all grief, fear, and disbelief.
The priest and the Levite were unkind, uncaring, oblivious, and callous toward the victim of the robbers. They treated him with contempt. And, while we may not have been quite so dramatic in our rebellious ways, the effects of our sins might have been just as damaging, perhaps to our families, to ourselves, and to society around us. Our sins include not only the negative and obviously destructive bad behavior, they bring about also the loss of the good behavior, the blessing we might have been to our families and neighbors, let alone a traveler in great need.
Sometimes our sins lead us into a world imagined without limits to our personal quest, a world in which we are gods.
But the world itself, with its endemic power-struggle, will impose its own limits upon us, the final limit being death – The End. The world without God is not person-friendly, and in the end, eats us up when we put our trust in it to save us. But it cannot save us, because it must itself feed on persons like ourselves for its own survival.
The point of the parable is that the Samaritan was kind and generous, one who cared for people he met on the way, and provided well for them. “Go, and do likewise,” Jesus tells the lawyer. Jesus was, of course, pointing to our Father in Heaven, the ultimate One to be like. Be like your Father, grow up so that you can raise a healthy family, sons and daughters who love the Lord and one another. Would you not want your sons and daughters to be like you?
But the deep self-centeredness of the priest and the Levite blinded them to the offense they would have been causing long before in their families and among their own friends. They would have been developing such a personality for some time, perhaps since early childhood, building more and more strongly walls of indifference to others, and their drive for respectability, as they perhaps envied in the world. The priest and Levite had not seen the blessings which their Father in heaven had been making available, but saw only the pseudo-blessings of the world, the flesh, and the devil – pride, and the shallow admiration and respect which are so often given to religious persons.
One wonders also about the victim himself. What kind of person was he? He could have been a priest or Levite, perhaps even as self-centered as those who abandoned him to dying on the road.
What might he have learned from the kindness of the Samaritan? Would he have made any connection between what the Samaritan had done for him and what his heavenly Father was doing for him? What if it had been for him a lived experience, not just a parable? Lived experiences can open us up very strongly to seeing the Hand of God at work, and to faithful and living relationships with one’s fellow humans.
Deep despair is an enemy of hope, an enemy of faith, and an enemy of love. To have one’s own life be treated with respect, as though one counted for something, can awaken one out of the misery of despair and self-centeredness – sometimes only briefly, and sometimes profoundly. It has happened to me, and I have seen it happen in others. A kindly deed awakens life. Sometimes even very small kindly deeds.
When Jesus told the lawyer to “Go, and do likewise...,” “go and be a neighbor, go and help those in need”, He was saying, “be like your Father in Heaven above...” who is a friend to you, His neighbors. “This is the fulfillment of the Father’s law into which you had just now inquired, and you yourself correctly summarized.”
In the Galatians epistle, Paul wrestles with the relationship between the promises of God and the law. He points out that the promises to Abraham came before the law at Mount Sinai under Moses, and that the law of God is not contrary to the promises of God, far from it. Paul says, “...the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.”
The law itself in fact expresses those very promises, as we see in the two Great Commandments – that we are destined for participation in the Kingdom of love. But St. Paul and many, perhaps most, of the Jews of the time had been raised under a Pharisaism which had depersonalized their relationship with God so that any notion of gracefulness was all but destroyed. Grace, gracefulness, is not possible except in personal relationship. There is no grace in a law code all by itself. If we know only the law of God, but not God Himself, then we will be living in a legalism. Codes cannot forgive, they can only convict. God was far off and distant, as Isaiah says, in a high and lofty place – but for the New Testament Jews not (as Isaiah continues) with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. The legalistic struggle of the people was largely to keep the judgement of God off their backs, not to move them into a Father/child relationship. With a gracious God, we want the judgement of God, we want God’s true opinion about our behavior – so that it can be corrected and forgiven, and we can live in the freedom of the children of God – our Father, who art in Heaven above.
The point of the law was to show the people of God what it meant to “be like their Father in heaven above.” The law gave us the behavior which will lead to being like God. But the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, that undergirding power of being, the ability to be oneself, had not yet been poured out upon the population as a whole. Until that happened, the attempt to keep the law, the “doing” side of ourselves, would often collapse in frustration. We had to get the “being” side of ourselves transformed into a new creation in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost before our “doing” could be free fully to obey.
Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah, but prophesied for a much shorter duration. He lived to see the terrible destruction by the Chaldeans sweep down upon the Hebrews in the late 6th century B.C. Habakkuk asks God why the evil rich Hebrews are not stopped in their abuse of the poor. God replies that He will punish the evil rich with the Chaldeans. Then Habakkuk asks why the Chaldeans, who are more sinful than even the evil rich Hebrews, are allowed to discipline the Hebrews.
Habakkuk asks: “Thou who art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on wrong, why doest Thou look on faithless men, and art silent when the wicked [the Chaldeans] swallows up the man more righteous than he?”
When Habakkuk says that God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil...” he does not mean, as sometimes said, that God literally will not look at evil – because it would taint Him and compromise His purity. That was what Aristotle said of his “Unmoved Mover”, the divine entity which was not even aware of the existence of the physical world because its impurity and faultiness would taint the composure, peace, and goodness of his (or its) divinity.
The real meaning of Habakkuk’s saying, as the context shows, is that God does not observe evil and do nothing about it. He rolls up His sleeves, gets to work, and does something, exactly the opposite of hiding His eyes from it. God replies that He will deal with the Chaldeans later when the time is right, and that the outcome will be the earth being “filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”
The earth being filled with the knowledge of the glory of God means that we, the human race, will have come to that place where the knowledge of God will fill the hearts and minds of the people. There will be no place where that knowledge is not found.
That knowledge of God will transform the people because it will show them what it means to be real human beings. It will show us the sense in which we are made in the Image of God, male and female. It will show the meaning of the law, along with the power of the Holy Spirit to obey that law.
And we will become like our Father in heaven above, made by nature in His Image, and completed by an obedient will.
How does this effect our personal lives? How does this help us get through the week?
My prayer, my hope, and my expectation is that we will all search, strive, and come to see our Father as someone whom we would want to be like, and someone to whom we would want to be close, and to be able to openly share those experiences with each other and the world.
If you had a father who was absent, who was distant emotionally and relationally, or who was abusive, you might well find it hard to believe that God would lean all the way down from heaven to bless you, to tell you that He loves you.
But if you allow yourself to become more and more vulnerable to the presence of God, to risk the encounter, to pray and repent, you will find what the disciples experienced on those Pentecost occasions described in the Book of Acts, and which continue to this day around the globe, anywhere people honestly begin to repent, to pray, and to invite God into their communities. God will show up and prove His own love for us – so that every fiber of our being will want to be with Him and be like Him.
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