The best Father ever
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Someone said to me recently, ‘We were lucky. We had good parents’. Not every child is so lucky. There was once a teacher who taught music in various schools. She had one pupil who played beautifully, who obviously had a lot of talent on her chosen instrument. So one day, the teacher asked the child, ‘What do your parents think of your playing?’ ‘They’ve never heard me play’, replied the child. ‘They never ask me to play’.
I was lucky, I had good parents. And so did many of you, I’m sure. But some of you did not have good parents. Like the parents of that talented child, who were not interested to hear her play, there are parents who seem incapable of encouraging their children. Or the opposite- parents who push too hard, who expect too much from their children, and end up damaging them. And few of us had perfect parents. Mums and Dads are only human. On Mothering Sunday, and on Father’s Day, we celebrate and give thanks for them, and so we should, if we have much to be grateful for. But as we grow up, we sometimes begin to spot their faults. We see where we think they went wrong. We realise that, perhaps without knowing it, our parents taught us habits and ideas which we need to leave behind if ever we are to flourish and grow. Even if you had basically good parents, the relationship with your parents is not always an easy one.
The Bible uses many different names for God. But when Christ chose a name, an image, an earthly idea which we could use to imagine the God of Heaven, he chose the word Father. He addressed God in this way- according to the Gospels, Jesus called God, ‘Father’ virtually every time he prayed to him. He taught his disciples to think of God as ‘your Father in heaven’. He taught us to pray, ‘Our Father’. It was an idea which was taken up with enthusiasm by the first Christians: St Paul said called Christians ‘God’s sons and daughters’ who could cry out in prayer to God, ‘Father! My Father!’, and who would be blessed by him (Romans 8.14-17; Galatians 4.5-7). It was as if, with the coming of Jesus, the time had come for humanity to understand God in a new way- as a perfect Father who always wants the best for his children.
I had a good Father, and not everyone is so lucky. And at times, Fathers can seem distant and authoritarian. If the Church has sometimes pictured God in that way- as a kind of male authority figure, bullying his children- then we have to say that that was not Jesus’ intention. If you want to think about the Fatherhood of God, think about what you know about human fatherhood. And then imagine a father without any negative connotations- a father who is wholly good- and you begin to glimpse what Christ meant when he spoke about his heavenly Father.
Today’s Gospel reading comes from the collection of Jesus’ sayings which Matthew the Gospel writer collected up into what we know as ‘the sermon on the mount’. As Jesus went around Galilee, teaching and healing, he attracted large crowds who left their towns in their eagerness to hear him. ‘Jesus saw the crowds and went up a hill’ write Matthew, ‘where he sat down. His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them’ (Matthew 5.1).
On that Galilean hillside, I could imagine Jesus’ eye falling on aspects of the scene- the birds in the air, the lilies in the field. And I imagine him looking at the crowds. Some people would be well-dressed, others would be obviously poor. There would be just a few folks who obviously cared a lot about their appearance, who worried about what other people thought of them, and who could afford expensive clothes. And there would be the farm workers who lived hand to mouth, always worried about what the next harvest would bring, who dressed in the same working clothes day by day. This passage is addressed to people who worry. It is for anyone who suffers from anxiety.
Why worry? says Jesus. And what did his audience think? That man in the rich clothes is thinking, ‘I worry that I can keep my position in society. I worry about being well dressed, about making sure that my table has the best food and drink, I worry about impressing people, I worry about the debts I’ve got into to finance this lifestyle. And the man in the farm labourer’s clothes is thinking, ‘I worry that the harvest might fail. I worry that I won’t be able to feed my family. I worry that I might not have good enough food to feed my little baby properly. I worry that the man who owns my land, and the Roman tax collectors, will take away even what I earn’.
Why worry? says Jesus. And what do we think? We worry because our pay has been frozen for a couple of years now. We worry about our pensions. We worry about paying for college for our children. Some of us worry about where we can go on holiday, and some of worry that we might soon not even have a job. Even in the Church, we worry about financial matters. So much we want to do- but where will the money come from? We are anxious about the Church’s future in such uncertain times.
Jesus doesn’t think our worries are not important. He says, ‘Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things’. But he realises that our worries can cut us off from God. So money can’t be what we worship- making material wealth our first priority will be fatal- we can’t love both God and money. God has to come first. But once we make that decision- once we decide that we are not going to let the pursuit of wealth get in the way of a relationship with God- then life takes on a new perspective. Listen to what Jesus says: ‘This is why I tell you: do not be worried about the food and drink you need in order to stay alive, or about clothes for your body. After all, isn’t life worth more than food? And isn’t the body worth more than clothes? Look at the birds: they do not plant seeds, gather a harvest and put it in barns; yet your Father in heaven takes care of them! Aren’t you worth much more than birds?’
The birds of the air and the lilies of the field point us toward something which Jesus’ Jewish audience well knew- that God is the loving creator of all things, as we read in the opening chapters of Genesis. More than that- creation was not a once-only event. God continues to create, and care, and love us. God clothes the humble flower of the field in a way that not even King Solomon could emulate. He is not just a distant creator and ruler. He is a Father- the perfect Father- who knows our every need. He is a Father who loves us like the best of human father’s loves his children.
And so Jesus identifies that where we have as our first concern something other than God, then that means we have failed to know God: ‘So do not start worrying: “Where will my food come from? or my drink? or my clothes?” (These are the things the pagans are always concerned about.) Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things. Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things’ (Matthew 6.31-33).
A God-orientated life will allow God to look after us. For any child who has a worry, one of the best things they can know is that their parents are dealing with it. If you fall and scrape your knee, mum or dad will give you a hug. If you are having trouble at school, your parents will understand. It is not that Jesus says that our worries aren’t important. God doesn’t want any of us to starve to death or walk around naked. Jesus says clearly to us: ‘Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things’. To know that God is like a perfect Father who knows what all my needs are- including my material needs- is a wonderful thing to believe. My Father in heaven knows what my needs are. If he clothes the fields, and feeds the birds, surely he will look after me.
Andy Murray once told an ITV tennis commentator after a match once, ‘I think it was nerves that made me nervous’ (Private Eye 1290). For many people, their anxiety about a problem can become a much greater problem than the problem was in the first place. It’s the anxiety about the problem, and not the problem itself, which causes the symptoms like tense muscles, sleeplessness, and a lack of concentration on other things. Jesus knows this, so he offers some pithy comment about it: ‘Can any of you live a bit longer by worrying about it?’ (Matthew 6.27), he asks? Anxiety is more likely to take years off our life than to add to it If we can do something about it, well and good. But merely worrying will get us nowhere. And when we worry that there might be more worries in the future, Jesus says to us, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow; it will have enough worries of its own. There is no need to add to the troubles each day brings’ (Matthew 6.34). How pointless it is to worry about worries that haven’t even occurred yet!
Yet it’s all very well to say to someone (or to yourself) that anxiety is pointless. We nevertheless do worry. If you get worries lodge in your mind, it can be very difficult to dislodge them. You need something to take its place.
But Jesus offers an antidote to despair: ‘be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things’ (Matthew 6.33). For people like us, living in a materialistic, consumerist culture, this is radical advice. Stop worrying about the things we think about most- food and drink and clothes and money- and put God’s kingdom first. What kind of advice is that? But focus on God and God’s kingdom, and you are on your way to stop worrying about yourself.
If I had a pound for every time someone said to me when they were in hospital, ‘There’s people much worse than me in here’, I would be a rich man. It seems like a bit of a cliché. But in fact, as a coping mechanism, I think it’s very wise. The cornerstone of Christian morality, the first thing we need to learn if we are to live in God’s kingdom, is that we have to love God and our neighbour. And that takes us out of ourselves right away- because now you are concerned about other people. Being unwilling to take the chance of loving another person is at the heart of much misery, for when we only ever give thought to ourselves- then of course, anxiety will gnaw away inside us. But putting God first, and God’s kingdom, takes us out of ourselves. ‘Be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God’ is not just a command- it’s also sound advice.
Live as if you believed that God is a loving Father, and your own worries begin to take on perspective. Believe that you can leave all your concerns and worries in the hands of a Father more perfect than the best of human fathers, and your anxieties will become more manageable. Seek first the Kingdom of our loving Father God, and the rest will follow.
Ascription of Praise
Blessing and honour, thanksgiving and praise,
more than we can express,
be accorded to you, most glorious Trinity,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
by all angels, all people, all creatures,
for ever and ever. Amen.
BCO 1994, p587
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo