Our Merciful Father
4th Sunday After Trinity
June 19th/20th, 2016 (Father’s Day)
St. John Lutheran Church and School, Fraser, MI
Today is Father’s Day. And in honor of Father’s Day, I’d like you to think for a moment about what quality you think most accurately describes or defines fatherhood. If pop culture is any indication, it seems that most people place fathers squarely into one of two types: He’s either a bumbling buffoon who’s never actually sure of what’s going on around the house, nothing more than a big goofball who can barely tie his own shoes, or he’s absent – either emotionally absent and lost in his work, too busy to be a dad, or he’s literally absent, leaving mom and the kids to fend for themselves. I read this past week that over half of all children in America spend part, if not all, of their time without a father. Also included in that same resource was the observation that one theme that runs through all popular music, whether its rap, pop, or rock, is the theme of abandonment and the emotional baggage of life without a father. Apparently, it’s a universal enough emotion and experience that kids all across America can identify, regardless of what type of music they like. Put it all together, and what we have is a very broken picture of fatherhood – and that broken picture is the only picture a lot of people get to see.
That broken picture of fatherhood begins to spread its poison even into the church. How could it not? After all, Jesus uses the word “Father” to refer to God more than any other word. Fatherhood is the most common touchpoint we have in our understanding of who God is and how God works. Many people in our culture think that dads are either dopey or deadbeat. This has a tremendous impact on their understanding of their Heavenly Father. You see, most people tend to assume that when God called himself Father, and that when Jesus calls God Father, he is simply using language we do understand to help us grasp something we couldn’t otherwise understand. The assumption is that earthly fathers exist, and since we understand earthly fathers, Jesus is telling us that God is like an earthly father so that we can understand God by comparison.
But that’s backward. In reality, God is the true father. Earthly fathers are simply reflections of him. Earthly fathers are true fathers only insofar as they reflect the nature of the true Father in Heaven. If we want to reclaim the word Father and reshape our culture’s understanding of what it means to be a father, the only place we can start is with our Heavenly Father. And Jesus’ own words from today’s Gospel reading are as good a place as any: “Be merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful.” To be a father is to be merciful, for our Heavenly Father is merciful to us. He loved us while we were yet sinners, sending Christ to suffer and die in our place. He is the father described in last week’s Gospel: the loving father of the Prodigal Son. That parable is part of a series of parables, each of which emphasizes how important it is to God that all of his children spend eternity with him in paradise. He is like a shepherd who goes out to find a missing sheep, and when he finds it, carries it home rejoicing. He is like a woman who searches high and low for her lost coin, and rejoices when she finds it.
He is like a father who endures the insults and injuries hurled by his children, and rejoices when they are restored. He endures the insults of his younger son who wishes him dead and leaves with his share of the inheritance. And he rejoices when that son who was dead to him is restored. According to the cultural shape of fatherhood in first century Israel, the father should have written his son off for dead and not given it a second thought after what he did to the family reputation. And yet the father in Jesus’ parable flies in the face of cultural expectations, and rather than writing off his son for dead, he spends each day looking for his son to return. And when he sees his son coming, he hikes up his robes and runs out to embrace him, again flatly ignoring cultural expectations which would have said a man of his stature should never show his legs, never hike up his robe, and certainly never run. But Jesus wasn’t interested in conforming his image of God to what people around him heard when he used the word “father.” No, the Heavenly Father doesn’t care about what expectations we have invented for earthly fathers, he demonstrates what a true Father is by greeting his son and welcoming him home. He is merciful.
He endures the insults of his older son who criticizes his father’s mercy toward the younger brother. He endures the public shame caused not only by the younger son, but also by the older son who refuses to follow his father’s lead in welcoming his brother home, choosing instead to stand outside and pout. And when the father beckons him to come and celebrate, that son insults the father further in front of his guests. Yet the father is still merciful. His mercy knows no limits. He loves his son, and wants him to join the celebration. That is the picture of fatherhood we get from Jesus, that is the description of the Heavenly Father, that is the pattern earthly fathers are bid to follow.
Yet this call is not only given to fathers, it is for each of us as children of our Heavenly Father. For when Jesus bids us to be merciful as the Father is merciful, he’s not just talking to dads. He is speaking to each of us. He who has ears, let him hear. Are you merciful as your Father in Heaven is merciful? How well do you endure the insults not merely of your sons, but of all people? How do you respond when people abuse the gifts you give? How do you respond when people waste your time? Or get on your nerves? What do you do when people take your kindness and respond with anger and bitterness, basically taking your gift and squandering it in a far off country with extravagant living? Do you lash out in return? Do you write them off? Do you leave them for dead?
How do you respond when you witness the forgiveness of others? Do you truly want to see those people brought into the family of God? Those abortionists? Those homosexuals? Those bigots? Those republicans? Those democrats? Those who, for whatever reason, fall outside your standard of what the family of God ought to look like? Are you standing outside the celebration of our Lord, refusing to go in because you don’t want to associate with those people?
Repent, and hear the words of our Lord: “With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” If we live in bitterness and grudge holding and anger and judgment, then we have removed ourselves from the forgiveness and grace of God. A tree will be known by its fruit. If we are skimpy with forgiveness, then skimpy forgiveness is all we will receive. It’s like a bag of potato chips. You get this huge bag of chips, and when you open it, it’s less than half full. Is our forgiveness half full? Do we talk a good game, presenting our forgiveness as if it’s a big bag of chips, when in reality the actual forgiveness and mercy in us is less than half full?
Repent. Be merciful as your father in heaven has been merciful to you. Like the younger son who deserved to be written off but was welcomed back into the family, we too deserved to be written off but have been welcomed back into God’s family. God’s forgiveness is not a half full bag of potato chips, no, it is a carry-on suitcase stuffed so full that it’s overflowing. It’s one more T-Shirt crammed into an already full drawer. It’s one more bag stuffed into an already full trunk. It’s the best grain, good measure, pressed down and packed in to fill every nook and cranny and yet still running over, a container overflowing with mercy. Mercy for you. Forgiveness for you. Welcome for you. Rejoicing that you have come home and been reconciled to your family – to your Father in Heaven. God rejoices over the forgiveness of your sin!
The primary concern of our Heavenly Father is that all his children are part of the family. We earthly fathers can take our cue from that. We continue to provide for our families, working to put bread on the table, to pay for the heat bill and the sports camps. As the book of Hebrews reminds us, we bring up our children in the instruction and discipline of the Lord, making sure his Word gives shape to their lives and relationships by bringing them to the services of the Lord’s house that they may hear again and again of the true Father in heaven, the one who loves them unconditionally and who desires nothing more than to welcome them into eternity.
But this is not simply a call for earthly fathers. It is for each of us, for each of us is the son who squandered his father’s gifts and the son who self-righteously scolded the father for his mercy. Yet for all our failure, the simple fact remains that our Father is a God of mercy. He is a God of rejoicing, bidding us come to the celebration. He has forgiven so much in us. He has measured out to us more forgiveness than we can hold. And just when we think we’ve had all the forgiveness we can take, he presses it down even more like we press down the wrapping paper into the trash bag on Christmas morning. Our Father presses down that gift of forgiveness and keeps pouring more and more upon us to the point of overflowing.
That is the mercy we receive. That is the mercy we give. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Let your life be marked by forgiveness, for your father has forgiven you. Do not live in bitter judgment, for your father does not live in judgment over you. Do not condemn others to hell, for your father has not condemned you. He has run out to greet you and welcome you home. He pleads with you to join the celebration of his love. The table is set, the meal is ready. Come, let us join with angels and archangels and all the company in a feast to celebrate the mercy of our Father.
 Gene Edward Veith & Mary J. Moerbe Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood (Chapter 9 – The Office of Father)
 Luke 6:36
 Luke 6:38