1 Kings 19:1-2, 8-15

Galatians 3:23-29

Writing a sermon is a process of wrestling with ideas, trying things on, and figuring out what ideas are mine and what God is saying. As I wrestled with today’s sermon, I caught myself apologizing for using “Father” in reference to God. The image feels problematic in some ways, and it is for some of us. But I noticed that I didn’t apologize for using “Mother” on the second Sunday in May, and that word can be just as problematic. I don’t apologize generally for varying my images of God – using natural, corporate, or human ways to describe God – even though any of them can have issues.

So why am I reluctant to use “Father”? There are good reasons to be careful with this kind of image, especially given people’s personal histories with their own fathers. But that’s a good reason to be careful with any image. Mother, wind, and fire all mean many things. I’m extra careful with “Father” because parts of the Church have seemed to make this word mean all there is of God. It’s as if no contemporary or natural images of God apply, even as if there were no other biblical images, but only “Father.” So I find myself avoiding “Father” in worship, not because it’s more personally loaded than other words, but because it’s more traditionally ingrained.

But to be fair, using the word “Father” to describe God was a great New Testament innovation. It had certainly come up from time to time before, but Jesus really owned it. He changed our whole relationship with God, from seeing him as primarily King, Lord, and rule-maker, to trusting him as a dependable, giving parent. It was a radical idea to know Jesus as the Son of God. It’s a radical idea to suggest that we all can be children of God, members of God’s household. Paul is talking about that great idea here when he says that God provided for us until we could come into our own as heirs.

To make sense of this on its own terms, think about what “Father” means when the Bible connects it with God. First, God is God. God is the creative power of the universe, the sovereign of all that exists. We knew that first, as we move along with Paul. Then, if we talk about God with this domestic image, we see God as a cosmic householder who owns everything the way you might own your home. He’s free to use and command everything in the way that I’m free to change the carpet in my living room and the brand of milk in my fridge. Men, householders in particular, had that power and much more in biblical times. (That makes me wary of “Father,” too, as if women and mothers shouldn’t have their own authority, but that was my sermon in May.)

Paul knew a God with that kind of power, and then he came to realize that we’re sons and daughters of God, heirs in God’s household. That’s a big idea! God doesn’t just possess everything for God’s own sake, God created it to share with us because we’re in God’s family. There’s more truth to that, of course: if we’re in God’s family, we acknowledge that all people are in God’s family. Having God means sharing with others. But you may not be there yet; I’m not there yet in my heart, even when I am in my words. So start where you are today.

We inherit life, but we’re not ready to own it yet, so God teaches us how to share these blessings. God lets us grow into our responsibilities. It’s like starting kids out with a small allowance, then increasing it each year. This lets them learn responsibility slowly as they manage “their own” money. Paul saw that process happening with the whole world, recognizing that the Law taught us how to live before we knew how to live faithfully from our own hearts. The same deal goes for each of us – we learn rules, stories, and creeds (like the Apostles’ Creed we’ll say together in a few moments) first, then grow into what they mean. Learning a new meaning can feel like meeting a whole new God, or like finding the God we wished we could find all along.

Elijah meets a new God on the mountain. In fact it’s the same God he’s been serving so zealously all along, but he finds a new depth of meaning revealed. Elijah was a champion of God as opposed to idols, and especially as opposed to Baal, the bull-god of storms and Queen Jezebel. Elijah maintained that God was invisible and powerful. Israel’s queen was predictably not happy with that, so Elijah had to flee into the wilderness. He ended up on the holy mountain feeling very alone. God came to visit, to reassure the prophet that he was not the only faithful Israelite left. God did this and sent Elijah back into society with a new mission, but God was not as we’d expect God to be.

God sent a wind, an earthquake, and a fire. These are all signs of God’s presence if we’ve ever read the Bible, but not today. Even Elijah was probably confused. He heard the crushing wind, he felt the violent earthquake, he saw the blazing fire, and he didn’t sense God in any of them. Then he heard “the soft whisper of a voice.” The prophet-gears meshed, and Elijah heard a God who was not bound, even by the most spectacular of signs. This is the same thing Paul learned, that God is more than we think. No one image, not even all the images in the world, fully capture the meaning of God.

That’s a big reason I’m wary of this “Father” language. It’s so powerful, I want to make sure we know that there’s more to God. Incidentally, I learned this from my own father during years of late nights drinking coffee, playing cribbage, and talking about theology. We tend to disagree theologically, or at least we tend to use different language for the things we agree on, so he regularly calls me unchristian. But I always know he’s joking, acknowledging that we disagree, but that I’m not so far outside of God’s grace on that account. I learned from these conversations that God is more than what I think. My words for God aren’t all there is, because God is beyond any image.

The Reformers found this iconoclasm in Scripture, and especially in Paul. The God described in Scripture is always stretching beyond our images, for instance in the way Paul breaks down the categories here: “there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, for we are all one in Christ. There is no clergy or laity, no sinner or saint, but we are all one in Christ. There is no Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Catholic, but we’re all (slowly) becoming one people. We’re united in a common faith, heirs of God with Christ, whoever we are, because Scripture is the common ground of our witness.

However, the Reformers also understood – the Swiss Reformers especially – that Scripture doesn’t just speak without confusion, even in the original languages. That’s why my dad and I, or you and I, can look at the same text and get very different ideas from it. Scripture has many voices telling the one story. So the Reformers found one more layer in their engagement with Scripture, namely wrestling with the text together in worship – what we call the “sermon.” They said that the process of bringing the truth from ancient words into today’s world is just as much the Word of God as the text itself, or at least it can be. That suggests, frighteningly enough, that what I say now is also the Word of God. But it is the Word only to the extent that I get it right. My voice is there too, so please listen for God.

That’s the image on the front of your bulletin today, a pulpit with the open Bible sitting on it. It reminds us that we engage the Bible best when we do it together, in worship or in study. As valuable as I hope this time is, this monologue sermon is not all there is to engaging Scripture together, and I suspect there are other and better ways to get your voices into the conversation. May we let many voices name God’s truth in Scripture and in life, and may we let our Heavenly Father teach us yet more about himself.