Learning to cry “Abba! Father!” Sermon by Fr. Winston T. Smith
Year A, Proper 11, Romans 8
Learning to cry “Abba! Father!”
Several years ago my mother gave me an old grade school spelling book that belonged to her mother published back in 1900. In looking through it I was interested to see that it wasn’t just used to teach children to spell but to teach them virtues and to shape the way they understood themselves and their place in the world.
Each lesson had a list of words that the children were expected to learn followed by sentences that the teacher would dictate for them to write out. Some of the sentences are inspiring, things I wish children were being taught more about today about love and respect and the value of hard work.
Here are a couple of nice ones:
The word is occupy – “Occupy yourself in aiding those more helpless than yourself.”
The word is calamity – “Hold onto your purity and virtue. They will sustain you in every calamity.”
But other sentences give an unsettling view of how children were viewed not so very long ago. What do you think of this one, “Never let your mother or me wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part”? Wow. That sounds harsh to me. I don’t know what that sounds like to you but I take that to mean, “Do what you’re told and don’t bother your parents!”
Maybe it strikes me that way because it resonates with what my mother told me about the way she was raised. Sometimes it could be very harsh. Children were to be seen and not heard. It’s not that her parents didn’t love her, but, generally speaking, children were not to get in the way, not to get underfoot, not to interrupt the business of their parents.
Maybe it resonates with me, too, because sometimes, in my sin, I can have that attitude with my own kids. I don’t want them to bring hassles into my world. I don’t want them to add stress to my life, to upset my goal of a comfortable easy home life. Sometimes I’d rather see my children than hear them.
Have you ever felt like God is the kind of father who says to you, “Never let me wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part”? Is God’s attitude towards us that we are to be seen and not heard, to keep out from underfoot, and to be sure we don’t interrupt his plans?
I think it can feel that way especially if we misunderstand what it means to have faith. Sometimes we mistakenly believe that faith means not getting upset when we are suffering, that somehow believing in Christ means that life isn’t supposed to hurt anymore, that knowing God’s love means we are supposed to feel good or have joy at all times even when we are suffering. That isn’t entirely true and believing that can have a devastating effect on our lives.
Maybe you’ve experienced like this: Hard things happen and you suffer and get upset. You become anxious. You get angry. You’re sad. Maybe you begin to wonder if somehow you’ve blown it with God and you’re being punished. That’s bad enough. But then, on top of that, you wonder if even being upset is itself a failure because somehow it represents doubt or a lack of faith. Now you’re really in trouble. First you feel bad because you’re suffering, and now you have to feel bad for feeling bad.
But what I want you to hear this morning is that God’s attitude towards us as his children is completely different.
In our New Testament reading from Romans 8, Paul tells us that because we have received the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God’s own son, we are considered God’s children.
Listen to what the Apostle Paul tells us about our distress, and our identity as God’s children, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”.
In other words, Paul tells us that as God’s children, God expects us to cry out to him in distress. God, as our heavenly father, wants us to bring our problems to Him. He wants us to bring our upset and our problems and our tears to Him and to cry out, “Abba! Father!
The truth is, when we pour out our heartache to God he doesn’t just tolerate us, but he is pleased with us. He is pleased because it is the very nature of faith to take what is going on in our hearts, even our darkest heartache and grief, and to share it with our heavenly Father. And even more than that it is evidence that his Holy Spirit dwells within us. It is the Holy Spirit himself within us prompting and enabling us to cry out! Think about that!
Placing our faith in God doesn’t mean that we don’t have questions. When we suffer it is normal to have hard questions for him like, “Why is this happening to me?!” or “How much longer must I deal with this?!” or “Are you listening at all?!” Our heartache can be messy, right? Faith means that we take all of those struggles and questions and we bring them to God, and when we turn to God and we’re honest about our heartache, no matter how raw it is, he accepts it as faith. We are entrusting him with our hearts.
You see, faith is not an emotion. Let that sink in. We think that having faith means being at peace, having no worries, even being happy. We think that trusting in God’s love and control means that we won’t let things bother us. That simply isn’t true. How do I know that? Because Paul is pointing us to the very example of Christ himself. The phrase, “Abba, Father” are Jesus’ own words in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the gospels tell us that as he faced the prospect of his suffering and death that he was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” and he poured out his heart to his heavenly father to see if there was any other way to accomplish God’s will. The Gospel of Luke tells us that he prayed so earnestly that his sweat fell to the ground like drops of blood. That’s heartache. That’s agony. And the words that he cried out to God were “Abba, Father!”
Think about how remarkable this is: Jesus had known from all eternity past that was the Father’s plan. Jesus came to suffer and die. Jesus knew that it would result in the salvation of his people, an end to sin and death, and the restoration of the whole world. And yet, as he faced the certainty of his own suffering and death he was in anguish and cried out. Jesus knows God’s goodness and his good plans, he knows God is involved, he knows how the story is going to turn out, and yet he still agonizes over it in prayer.
I say it’s remarkable because I think we take those same truths and use them to silence ourselves: “Well, this is God’s will, there’s no use being upset over it.” “God is in this so I need to just cheer up.” “It will all work out in the end so just get over it.” As if to feel any other way is a lack of faith. But Jesus, in faith, cried out to his heavenly father. He didn’t just give himself a pep talk, he turned to his father and he spoke, he cried out, he asked for help, and he received it. The gospels tell us, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” Jesus cried out to God and said, “I don’t want to have to do this! Is there any other way!?” and it wasn’t a lack of faith, and it certainly wasn’t sin. It was faith. It was Jesus turning to his heavenly Father in faith, trusting that his father would hear him and help him.
When we are honest with ourselves about our heartache and our suffering and we turn to God and we pour out our hearts to him, as messy as that can be and as uncomfortable as that makes us feel, we are expressing faith, and the Spirit of God’s son helps us to do it. And God’s response isn’t “Never let me wear one gray hair from any lack of duty on your part!” or “You are to be seen and not heard!” No, his response is, “I love you and I am with you.”
God hears your groans, sees your tears, and his heart is moved. He loves you, and your groans and tears are not a bother. They honor and glorify Him because our groans and our tears reflect Christ’s own suffering. They testify to the fact that you are his child and he is your father.
Fr. Winston T. Smith