“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God says to Jesus, “I claim you, I love you, I affirm you.”
My grandson, who reminds me that he is “almost 6,” has been visiting with us this weekend. Friday evening he was lying on the floor of my study coloring and drawing. I noticed the strange choices of color he chose and that occasionally he colored inside the lines. However, all the while, I am feverishly tying to write a sermon. Then a little voice says, “Pop-Pop, look, I’m coloring a man! Pop-pop, what color do you think the boat should be?” Well, my concentration now broken, I am obviously annoyed; I mumble a response: “Yeah, great!” “Very nice.” “Not now, Geoffrey.” But after a while, the Holy Spirit speaks to me: “Nathan, 10 or 15 years from now (or even 10 or 15 minutes from now), people will not remember who you are, much less what you said. But your grandson will remember if he was claimed, loved, and his art affirmed. He wants you; he needs your affirmation.
So I clicked on save. Got down on the floor, admired his art, did a little coloring of my own and then placed his drawing on the bookcase of my study. Laying there on the floor I was saying: “Geoffrey, you are my grandson; I love you more than all those strangers who will gather on Sunday, and I am pleased that you wish to please me with your art.”
Michael Thompson, co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, says, theologically this is the most important scripture in the Bible. For there was nothing that Jesus, or any child wishes more, than to hear a father say, “I am pleased with you.” More than mothers, children (especially sons) want a father’s approval. They want what they so seldom get: a father’s attention and a father’s affirmation.
During the years that I was away in school or in the army, I took up the habit of signing my letters to my father, “The Spiting Image.” I did it not simply because others said I looked so much like him, but because he gave me a sense that he was pleased with who I was and was becoming, and that it often reflected well upon him. No matter what differences we had (and indeed we had them), no matter what challenges were before me regarding the approval of others, or even the dangers and fears I faced, somehow knowing that he was pleased was of indescribable comfort and strength.
Conversely, I had a former colleague, a very successful theologian and psychologist who shared attending his father’s funeral, was shocked by the resentment that overwhelmed him as he viewed body. He realized that what he resented was that with all of his success he never could please his father; his father was never there to say “at-a-boy” or “I am pleased with what you did.” Raised primarily by a wonderful mother, my colleague knew his father but he never knew a father’s love or affirmation. He shared with me that it was his faith in God, the sense of God’s intimate presence, God’s healing and affirming love–a sense that God had claimed him–which made it possible for him live so productively and with relative emotional health. Certainly it was his faith which helped him to move on through that cathartic moment at his father’s funeral to the rest of his life.
From an early age, Jesus knew that God was his Father. When visiting the Temple with his family, he was thought to be lost, when actually he was talking with temple elders. When challenged by Mary and Joseph about not staying with the family Jesus replied: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Jesus’ unique understanding of God included a God who embodied what is often thought of as feminine qualities or identity. Remember the story of Nicodemus? Jesus presented to Nicodemus God as the birthing mother! At other times Jesus presented God as a woman kneading bread (Luke 13:21), a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8) and the image of a hen trying to gathering her young under the safety of her wings (Matt. 23:37).
But also unique was God as the intimate loving Father. Instructing his disciples in prayer, he taught them to pray addressing God the Father as, Our “Abba” in heaven. “Abba” is what a Palestinian child would affectionately call her or his father–perhaps roughly akin to our modern terms such as “daddy” or “pappa.” The Lord’s Prayer invites us to see address an intimate, present and loving God. The same God who claimed, loved and affirmed Jesus as his child at the Jordan River. As we know, Jesus left the Jordan River and the baptism of John to enter a wilderness experience of temptation, frustration, hunger and, yes, even depression. But I wonder how often he was strengthen by the words of his Father at the Jordan River: “You are my Son (I claim you), the Beloved (I love you); with you I am well pleased (I affirm you).”
I believe that everyone sincere in their faith wants to know God in such an intimate way. And this comes only by a spiritual life or living life intentionally open to God’s Spirit. Now the importance of a spiritual life is not so we might escape the realities of this life–the wilderness experiences, the pain of life’s disappointments or failures; or to deny the empty places–the voids of love and affirmation in our lives. Rather it is to come closer to God; to know God not simply as just the maker of heaven and earth; but more importantly, to know God as our loving Father. God as our divine Father who actually does claim us, love us and will truly affirm our efforts at faithfulness if we seek it with our hearts. Remember the folk song, “Day by Day”? Say it with me:
Day by day,
Day by day
Oh, dear Lord,
three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love The more dearly,
Follow Thee more Nearly,
Day by day, by day, by day.
This only comes from a life of prayer, asking God: “What do you think of my picture? What color should my drawings be? Do you know I am here? Will you come down to where I am?
How might we come closer to this realization of God? First, to learn of Jesus and following his teaching and example. Biblical theologian Marcus Borg says: “Jesus is the Epiphany of God.” He writes, “In Jesus we see the word made flesh, and in his face we see the glory of God…. Jesus is the Epiphany of God….It is a strong claim: [that] in Jesus we see what God is like.”
Yes, in Jesus’ life, message and eternal presence in the sacrament we discover clearly the God who serves, who ministers to justice, who tirelessly teaches and works for reconciliation, who redeems us from our sins (from those proclivities that destroy true happiness, that separate us from God and others, saves us from obsession to false Gods of lust, power, selfishness and self pity). But most of all in Jesus we discover a very personal God who loves and will never abandons us–even death can not separate us. This is spiritual intimacy.
St. Paul wrote: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38). Do you want know God in this way? You can, just ask God. Seek God in prayer, scripture and worship and you will find him, “day by day, by day, by day.”
I believe that spiritual intimacy is nowhere more powerful than in the sacrament of Holy Communion. In a moment we will gather around this table, with people we know and with strangers. But we will gather as children of one Father, bound to our Father through the faith of Jesus Christ. Then we will leave to go forth to love and serve God in the worlds in which we live. Like children of God we will seek to love and serve by trying to draw circles which take in others, including those who are different than us and who differ with us. Like children of God we will take the pictures of reality that life has presented us and with the crayons of faith we will color the scenes of life and the world around us as best we can. With the crayons of faith we will color life with hope, with courage, with justices, with happiness, with healing, with reconciliation and with the giving of ourselves to service in God’s name. As children of God we may color more outside the lines than in; and maybe our choice of colors may not seem as appropriate to the Divine eye as to ours. Yet, we will do these things not because we are perfect, nor that we are certain we are right, or that we assume all of our specific behavior will always gain God’s pleasure. Rather, we engage life with faith because we wish–no we need–to please God, our Father. And somehow we know that it is that desire to please God that always gains God’s attention. So with prayer, worship and service, day by day we call upon God; we will interrupt God, we will bother God, we will reach out to God for Divine affirmation; for the blessed assurance and love of our Father, who art in heaven.
There is a prayer by Thomas Merton (from Thoughts in Solitude) that I have used before, but it means so much to me and I think it sums up the meaning of this sermon. So, let us pray: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself; and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”