Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Romans 8:12-25
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
July 23, 2017
A colleague of mine and a friend on Facebook closes his post with, “May Dad continue to bless you all richly.” My reaction to this familiar term to God is somewhat negative. My friend is emphasizing our being in the family of God. In fact, the term “child of God” speaks of the intimate relationship you have with God. God’s children call him “Abba”—an Aramaic term of endearment. It means “Daddy” or “Poppa.” Because we are God’s children, we can speak to God the same way little children speak to their earthly fathers. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in Jesus’ deepest anguish he said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
In the words of Henry Neuman:
Calling God “Abba, Father” is different from giving God a familiar name. Calling God “Abba” is entering into the same intimate, fearless, trusting, and empowering relationship with God that Jesus had. That relationship is called Spirit, and that Spirit is given to us by Jesus and enables us to cry out with him, “Abba, Father.”
Calling God “Abba, Father” (see Roman 8:15; Galatians 4:6) is a cry of the heart, a prayer welling up from our innermost beings. It has nothing do with naming God but everything to do with claiming God as the source of who we are. This claim does not come from any sudden insight or acquired conviction; it is the claim that the Spirit of Jesus makes in communion with our spirits. It is the claim of love. i
To be in this personal intimate relationship with God is profound. This truth is radical, supernatural and far-reaching. It is radical because your life has experienced the greatest change that could ever be. That’s a radical change. It is supernatural because only God could do something like that. It is far-reaching because it touches every aspect of your life. To be “led” by the Spirit is a very personal term. It means to be led by the hand, to be personally escorted by a tour guide. The Holy Spirit takes your hand and leads you through the difficulties of life. So many Christians have said, “If it had not been for the Lord, I wouldn’t have made it.” But we don’t know the half of it. When you are perplexed, you have the right to say, “Holy Spirit, please show me what to do.” “Holy Spirit, I am confused. I don’t know which way to go. I’m counting on you to lead me.” He will do it. Thank God for the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Who is a child of God? The Holy Spirit instills on one’s consciousness that one has become an adopted son of God. So, the Christian cries out “Abba, Father.” This idea of addressing God so familiarly as “Abba” might astonish anyone raised in a formal tradition. However, Paul tells us that we are permitted this intimacy because we are children of God—not just God’s people, but God’s children! The metaphor of adoption comes, from the Greco-Roman world. In adoption, all previous relationships are severed. The new father exercises authority over the new son, and the new son enters the privileges and responsibilities of the natural son. Familiar with the Roman legal custom of adoption, Paul illustrates that the acceptance of faith brought the believer into the family of God as an adopted child, one who obtained ‘sonship.’ It is a spiritual adoption which restores the natural family relationship with God that is lost in a life of sin.
This is truly good news. You don’t have to scream at God to get his attention. True spirituality is neither entirely passive as when we might say “Let go and let God,” Nor is it entirely active saying, “I’ve got to do this all by myself.” Is the spiritual life dependent upon God or upon me? The answer is, Yes! Living by the Spirit is not automatic. A decision is required. You must choose to live by the Spirit’s power. It doesn’t happen by chance. “Why me, Lord?” asks Dr. Dobson. He says, “Every person who lives long enough will eventually encounter circumstances that are difficult to explain theologically. Cancer, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, divorce, rape, loneliness, infertility, rejection–these and a million other sources of human suffering produce inevitable questions that trouble the soul.”
Everybody who comes to church has a story that includes pain and suffering. Behind each smiling face you will discover a tale of pain, difficulty, heartache, and many unanswered questions. Not that we aren’t happy–we are–or at least most of us are, but no one gets a free ride through life. Into each life some rain must fall. No one lives in the sunshine forever. We live in a frustrating world, don’t we? Nothing works the way it is supposed to. You buy something, it breaks, you fix it, it works for a while, and then breaks again. Eventually it wears out completely and you must replace it. That’s what Paul means when he says the creation was subjected to frustration. Nothing lasts forever, nothing works right.
Everything in the universe, left to itself, will just run down. If you wind your watch and then leave it alone, what happens? Eventually it runs down and stops. We groan inwardly, Paul says. We groan because of a job we hate. A man told me he was going to make a move after 15 years in the same job. He said, “I can’t take it anymore.” We groan because of unfulfilled dreams. We groan because our bodies break down. We groan because our marriages break up. We groan because our children go astray. We groan because our friends disappoint us. Why does God allow such groaning among his children? Why doesn’t he do something about it? Doesn’t he know what we’re going through? Doesn’t he care? The Romans scripture tells us that through our suffering God wants to develop two qualities in us, hope and patience. Hope is that settled confidence that looks to the future, knowing that God will someday keep all his promises. Patience is the ability to endure present hardship because you have hope in the future.
We give vent to our anguish when we cry out, “Abba, Father.” If anyone should happen to question that relationship, the Spirit bears witness to it—bears witness “with our spirit.” What does “our spirit” have to contribute here? What could the witness of “our spirit” add to the Spirit’s witness? Simply this! Living as God’s children and led by the Spirit, our lives take on a new character. People who see our good works “give glory to (our) Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). As we live in accord with our status as members of God’s household, the witness of “our spirit” confirms the Spirit’s witness that we are, indeed, God’s children.
Our present sufferings—all those drawbacks to the full enjoyment of our spiritual life— are due to our being at present in the body, and so forming part of the present system of things. Of course, not all suffering is equal. One person might suffer because of the decision to serve as a missionary in a primitive or dangerous place. Another person might suffer as a consequence of sin. The suffering of the missionary is obviously nobler, but the sinner’s suffering can also be positive if it brings the sinner to his or her knees—if it spurs repentance—if it leads to rebirth. In other words, all suffering has the potential to move us in the direction of glory.
The idea here is that we have been saved—that is not in doubt—but we have not yet experienced the full force of that salvation. We are like the homeowner who has been told that her house is worth ten times what she paid for it. She knows that she has, at least on paper, entered the ranks of the wealthy, but she does not yet feel wealthy. She cannot take her equity to the store to make purchases unless she sells or mortgages her house, and she is not ready to do either of those things. Nevertheless, she enjoys knowing that her future has brightened because of the appreciation of her house, even if she cannot cash in on it quite yet. In like manner, we have been saved, even if we will experience the full force of that salvation only in the future—in eternity. A condition, not of attainment, but of hope and we must be content at present to wait with patience.
The “eager expectation” Paul refers to is literally the act of craning the neck to get a better look at what is coming down the road. It is the upturned face of the farmer watching the sky before starting up the combine for harvest. It is the leaning forward of a woman on a train platform as she awaits a loved one’s arrival. The Bible instructs us to develop patience. We all have times when we must deal with difficult and uncomfortable things. We may have trouble understanding our homework, someone may say something that hurts us, or we may be ill and not feeling well. When we have difficult experiences, and feel frustrated or sad, we are instructed to always hang onto hope – God’s promise of care for his children. Hope is not something we see, but we can feel it – hope helps us to learn to wait and become more patient. The Bible says, “But if we hope for that which we don’t see, we wait for it with patience” (8:25).
In all things, we have hope because we are “…the children of God…” (8:19). So, when you pray, be patient. Pray, be patient, and trust that God loves you and will help you. We have something to look forward to. We have not been given everything now. Hope that is seen is not hope. We are hoping for the things we do not see. We must have our minds on the Spirit and not the flesh. We must not focus on worldly things because we will lose our hope in what we cannot see. With the strength of the Holy Spirit present sufferings will not take us away from waiting eagerly for the future glorification.
We are in the family of God, children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ! Again, in the words of Henri Nouwen:
We continue to put ourselves down as less than Christ. Thus, we avoid the full honor as well as the full pain of the Christian life. But the Spirit that guided Jesus guides us. Paul says: “The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17).
When we start living according to this truth, our lives will be radically transformed. We will not only come to know the full freedom of the children of God but also the full rejection of the world. It is understandable that we hesitate to claim the honor so as to avoid the pain. But, provided we are willing to share in Christ’s suffering, we also will share in his glory (see Romans 8:17). ii
i Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, ©1997
ii Bread for the Journey