Grace Presbyterian Church
February 5, 2023
Hosea 11:1-9; Titus 1:15-16; Luke 15:11-32
God Over All
Moving to the middle section of A Brief Statement of Faith, we are now charged to think of that member of the Trinity long known as some variant of “God the Father.” Creating an opening identifying statement turned out to be a fierce challenge.
That formula, “God the Father,” has been used almost mindlessly in the church for ages, despite the obvious problem of how one can say that women are created in the image of God if God is exclusively male. Hard-baked as it is in the church’s confessional statements and liturgies, it’s still awfully limiting. On the flip side, use of such language for God has a sometimes-harmful inverse effect; fathers can end up being attributed godlike qualities within the family, a sure way to guarantee abuse and harm for all involved.
The solution found here can seem like a cheat to some, but actually points to an important characteristic of relationship to God as demonstrated by Jesus, one which thoroughly undermines any patriarchal intentions about the term. The key word, it turns out, is less “father” than that Aramaic word “Abba.”
Probably the closest word we would have in English is “daddy,” or maybe “papa.” You can see the difference between calling one “father” or “daddy,” yes? “Daddy” (or “papa”) is a much more familiar and even intimate term than “father,” and indicates a closeness and personal-ness of relationship.
To note that Jesus used the word “Abba” is then to indicate that the “Father” spoken of in confession and liturgy is not limited to a far-off, forbidding, formal figure of authority and power; “Abba” is close, comforting, eager to love and care for the child (something not characteristic of fathers in Jesus’s time, and not characteristic of a lot of fathers in our time).
This intimate kind of “daddy”-ness is reinforced in the concluding lines of this section, a direct reference to the parable of Luke’s reading. A typical patriarchal father of biblical times might well have tossed the younger son out of the household with not a possession to his name for making such a request, and then would absolutely not have received the son so warmly and lavishly upon his return. Yet this father does quite the opposite of societal expectations in both cases. When Jesus called God “Abba,” something like this comes close.
Of course, “father” is not the only metaphor used in scripture for God. Look at Isaiah 49:14-15:
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
If you want a more direct image, try Isaiah 66:13:
As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
Or check out what God says through Isaiah in chapter 46:3-4:
Listen to me, O house of Jacob; all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.
Pretty clearly scripture has more than one way of describing God, and our confessional language should too: “Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.
The inner portion of this section – the “middle of the middle,” so to speak – turns on God’s action of creation, our rebellion in sin, and God’s redemption of us sinful folk. Lines 29-32 leave no wiggle room in declaring that all, or perhaps even more emphatically all y’all are created in God’s image, an idea over which this denomination would struggle mightily for the next few decades, and which some still resist. New denominational groupings would split from the PC(USA) as a result of their, in their own actions, being unable to accept this truth.
In describing human sinfulness, we don’t exactly come off looking too great, do we? For a statement that was initiated forty years ago and completed and added to the Book of Confessions a little more than thirty years ago, this sounds awfully timely, doesn’t it?
Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.
That’s almost prophetic, especially that “accept lies as truth” part.
Apparently, some folks in the creating process of this Statement got squeamish about line 39, “We deserve God’s condemnation.” Honestly, did they pay attention to those lines just before it? It seems that folks struggle with realizing just how destructive our sinfulness is and what damage it does to creation around us and to those with whom we share this planet. I confess I can’t get those who struggle with that statement. Heck, yeah, we deserve it. (The brief reading from Titus brooks no doubt on this.)
But God doesn’t do it.
God acts through Abraham and Sarah to make a covenant people; God delivers that people from bondage; God makes us joint-heirs with Christ, to borrow language from Paul; and God loves us still. God is faithful still, even when we humans aren’t. This is the God who, in the reading from Hosea, can’t bear to forsake the people of the covenant no matter how much they break that covenant. God is faithful still.
Frankly, if you’re looking for a short and sweet way to encapsule this section of A Brief Statement of Faith, that might be as good as you can get: God is faithful still. Not forsaking the covenant people, refusing to forsake the nursing child, running to welcome the prodigal home; God is faithful still.
For the God who is faithful still, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #—, We trust in God, whom Jesus called his father; #17, Sing Praise to God, You Heavens!