Ash Wednesday – 14 February 2018
A Sermon on Matthew 6:6-8 by Samuel Zumwalt
Matthew 6:6-8 English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]
6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them,for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“The First Article: Creation
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
“What does this mean?
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true” (Martin Luther’s Small Catechism).
I BELIEVE IN GOD THE FATHER
Father is not a metaphor for the God whom we cannot see. Father is the Lord Jesus’ intimate name for the invisible God to whom He is obedient. When his disciples ask Him in Matthew 6 to teach them to pray, our Lord Jesus responds by teaching them to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
Jesus does not say that God is like a father. He does not call God “mother.” He does not call God the generic “parent.” In fact, He doesn’t even pray, “Almighty God” or some other non-gender-specific substitute like “Gracious God” or “O God of creation, eternal majesty” [These are just two of several non-gender-specific addresses used by Augsburg Fortress in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) that sadly and deliberately offers many alternatives to calling God “Father”.] This is, of course, in contrast to the Lord Jesus, Who repeatedly prays or teaches His disciples throughout the gospels to say: “Father” or in Aramaic “Abba” which means “Daddy.”
In the great metanarrative of the Bible stretching from Genesis to Revelation, Jesus had a human mother named Mary. She was fully human. St. Luke teaches that she became pregnant by asexual reproduction brought about by the Holy Spirit and not by genetic material from a human father named Joseph (Luke 1). St. Matthew tells us that Joseph adopted Jesus and made Him legally a descendent of King David and heir of the promise in 2 Samuel 7 (Matthew 1). Jesus would never have called God “mother.” The job was already filled by the Virgin Mary, who presumably would not have been amused to have her Son calling God “mother.”
In the Hebrew Bible, all of Israel’s neighbors had feminine gods (goddesses). Despite the machinations of a few biblical scholars, the names of those goddesses are not interchangeable metaphors for Israel’s God. In fact, they are diametrically opposed to Israel’s God. Israel’s prophets castigated those Israelites that worshiped the gods and goddesses of Israel’s neighbors. The various kings of Judah and Israel who promoted or allowed the worship of the gods and goddesses of Israel’s neighbors were denounced as evildoers. To call upon any other God than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was to break the Sinai covenant’s first word: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods.” You can learn about this in 1-2 Kings as well as in many of the prophetic books.
Yes, one can find feminine images for God in both the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 46:3-4) and the New Testament (Luke 13:34). These serve to remind the readers and hearers that the God whom Jesus calls Father is Spirit and does not have a Jewish male body like His Son Jesus. Nevertheless, there is not one instance in the Bible in which Israel’s God (and the Christian Triune God) are referred to as feminine. Holy Wisdom is an attribute of God but not called God in the Hebrew Bible (Proverbs 8-9). Yes, St. Paul calls Jesus the wisdom of God in 1st Corinthians 1, but Jesus is not called she. The Greek Word for Spirit (as in the Holy Spirit) has a feminine ending but is actually neuter in form.
All of this is to say that both Judaism and Christianity are quite intentional in the language used for God. It is masculine language or relational language – not because Israel and the early Christians were misogynists (women haters) – but precisely because that is the language of revelation and not the less relational language of philosophy. Israel’s God language is deliberately distinctive from the language of all her neighbors!
Scriptural language for God is, then, not metaphoric. It is language that has been revealed by the Holy Spirit through speakers and authors. Israel’s prophets by the guidance of the Holy Spirit call God by either masculine or relational names. God is the Lord; the accompanying pronouns are “He” and “His.” God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet this same God says that men and women are created in the image of God to keep humanity from idealizing the masculine and denigrating the feminine.
Having said all of that, the key reminder to us is that the Lord Jesus Himself uses either masculine or relational language for God. Jesus’ name for God is “Father.” The Risen Jesus teaches the one God is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:16ff). We use this language for God, because this is the language the Lord Jesus has taught us to use. He does not speak metaphorically when He addresses His heavenly Father. It is the language of a shared intimate relationship also available to His disciples through Him.
The great tradition of Christianity has said that the right way for Christians to pray is to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. We address God as Father, because the Lord Jesus does. We pray through Jesus Christ believing we can approach Jesus’ Father because of the work of His Son with whom we have died and risen in Baptism. We pray in the power of the Holy Spirit, because He makes us children of God through Baptism, creates faith in us by the Word, and prays with us and for us.
Christians are not free to abandon the scriptural language for God because of our own hurts, fantasies, opinions, and ideas. If one has had an abusive human father, that does not mean one need no longer call God “Father.” In fact, the biblical God is the epitome of what every human father and human mother should aspire to emulate. For that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
In the doing of Christian worship and theology, Scripture is the norm that norms. Even if one has studied philosophy or world religions this does not mean one can use non-biblical language interchangeably with the biblical language for God. Because one is inspired by the language of poets, mystics, artists, and musicians, this does not mean one can handily substitute their language and images interchangeably with the biblical language for God.
Scripture is the norm for the Church’s speaking and acting. A woman once came to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel insisting the Jewish liturgy needed to be changed to say what she believed. He said: “No, you must learn to mean what the liturgy says.” Scripture shapes us. We do not shape Scripture to make God manageable, controllable.
On this Ash Wednesday, the Lord Jesus assures us in Matthew 6:8 our Father knows what we need before we ask Him. It is a gift to pray to the Father through His Son Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. Unless we use the revealed language of Scripture, as we are taught by the Lord Jesus, we cannot be certain we are addressing Israel’s God rather than some other projection of our hurts, fantasies, opinions, and ideas. Indeed quite a lot of theology, hymnody, and even liturgical alternatives today promote apostasy – a defection from the orthodox Christian faith, an abandoning of Israel’s and the Lord Jesus’ God, Who is never revisable or “reimaginable.” Those who do so abandon the faith.
Martin Luther teaches us in the Small Catechism: it is not enough to know what to call God as if we were in charge. Rather we must recognize there is a great difference and, for us, an unbridgeable chasm between the Creator and us creatures. We have heard the sobering truth about us again tonight: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Because of sin, our age-old rebellion, we have brought death upon ourselves. And, yes, we will die – sooner or later – because the wages of sin is always, dreadfully, death.
Yet, our Lord Jesus says our heavenly Father lovingly knows all our needs and cares for us. Our heavenly Father does not even spare the life of His own Son on the cross. Out of love for His fallen creatures, the Father sends his Son that we might be saved from sin, death, and evil. The Father raised Jesus from the dead and promises, in the washing of Holy Baptism, to raise you and me from the dead for His Son Jesus’ sake.
The Lord Jesus has taught us how to address God. We are to speak to Him as our loving Father who knows our needs even before we ask and who graciously supplies them. For this, therefore, we surely ought to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true!
©Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina