7th Sunday after Pentecost “God, Our Father”
July 16, 2023 Romans 8:12-17
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
A couple of weeks ago we began a series of sermons to look at the Epistle Lesson.
For this year, we have a series of readings from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chpts. 6 to 14. And one of our seminary professors has matched pictures or paintings as illustrations to the things that Paul talks about. Today, the focus of Paul is on ’God as our Father, and we are as sons & heirs by His grace.’
As you see by the insert for the theme, the illustrations are an etching and a painting.
In 1636, Rembrandt created a small etching of the scene of the prodigal son. Then, 32 years later, he painted a larger masterpiece titled: The Return of the Prodigal Son. Those who study religious art would see some large differences between the two pieces.
In the etching, Rembrandt focuses on action. The scene is filled with movement. People are descending a staircase; some are watching their steps, one looks to the side, another looks downward; but all are rushing to join the father, who has run out before them to lean over & embrace his son. The father himself appears to be moving forward, in mid-stride, as he reaches out to grasp his son.
In the painting, the picture is different. Here, Rembrandt creates a sense of stillness rather than action. No one is moving; and all of the people, are gazing on main encounter. The father is leaning over his son; the son is leaning into his father; they are held in an eternal embrace. It’s like time has stopped at that moment when the father receives, reclaims, blesses, & loves his son. Some have call this a ‘moment of son-ship,’ of being claimed as a child. Rembrandt captures that moment, and freezes it for us to ponder.
Paul wants us to ponder something similar. After he has revealed to us Christ-our Deliverer, now he helps us focus on God-Our Father. Rescued by Jesus Christ from the power of sin, The Father has brought us back home, into His kingdom, where we live by the Spirit, as children of God. We are children of God.
That’s a main point Paul wants the believers in Rome to know == and for us to know. In Christ, God claims you as a ‘firstborn son,’ = which means an ‘heir.’ This language does not have to do with ‘son vs. daughter’, it’s used to refer to the ‘inheritance.’
It is not normal for a sinful person to be claimed as God’s son; it is a specific & undeserved action of our Father in grace. And in chapter 8, Paul speaks of 2 kinds of things: slave vs. son, and debtor-to-the-flesh vs. an heir.
To teach of God’s grace, Paul creates a contrast. The 1st contrast is between slaves & sons. Paul writes, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” We notice how quickly Paul makes the connection of sons & prayer. Here we, the church, are to think about what happens when we pray ‘Our Father’ == and what it means to be God’s child.
What it means is in the painting. Rembrandt shows the son’s head on his father’s chest, and the father uses his hands to draw the son closer to himself. At this moment, the son looks less like a son and more like slave. His head is shaven, as if he were a prisoner. His eyes are closed like he’s exhausted; that’s what sin does. He brings all of his slavery shame & guilt before his father. And instead of pushing him away, the father reaches down to reclaim this slave as his loved son. The child brings slavery to his father, but the father brings son-ship to the child; no longer a stranger & outsider, but a child of the household.
A pastor once shared this picture with those in a bible study. To him, it looked like the son had been an abused victim of a concentration camp with the saved head. But one of the women had a different view; to her the shaved head reminded her of a newborn. Maybe it’s both: The one who had been enslaved & dead in his selfish, sinful desires is now reborn as a new child by the love of his Father. That’s what Paul declares in Romans 8. By a disobedient nature & our sinful passions, WE are enslaved by the godless world. We are ALL cut off & excluded from the kingdom of God. If we live according to that old & sinful flesh, we will die by being far away from our Father; exiled & imprisoned outside of God’s kingdom.
However, God has brought us to new life by the cross; with the substitutionary death of His Son for us. God the Father sent the eternal Son Jesus Christ out of love for His creatures. Before the court of heaven, sinless Jesus offers His death as the payment for our sin-crimes. And by rising to life, Jesus escorts us into the kingdom of His Father. That cross & open tomb is an ongoing action in our lives; it’s the chief purpose for us to gather in Sunday worship.
We come to bring our slavery & guilt before God.
We come to confess that we have behaved as prodigals, not as God’s children. You & I have wanted to break free from The Father’s rules, but found out that sin is stronger than us; it temps us, then traps us, and the world tells us that God doesn’t want dirty slaves. But Jesus comes from the Father with a different message: there is grace. Because of forgiveness in Jesus, the Father places His hands on you & pulls you close; He loves you. Today, God called you here to be repentant; and by His absolution, you are -once again- claimed by God to be one of His beloved children. As Paul said, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” That Holy Spirit helps us cry out: “Abba, Father.”
The faithful church, in its good history & liturgical ways, reminds us of this moment when a slave is reclaimed as a son. It’s part of our worship in two particular moments in life: the moment of Baptism, and the moment of dying.
In the Service of Baptism, and in the Commendation of the Dying, the pastor can do a simple thing. He can place his hand on the person, and he asks those gathered to pray the Lord’s Prayer.(the Abba Father) If you were Baptized as an infant, you couldn’t say the Lord’s Prayer, but those gathered said it for you. If you are lying there, near death, maybe unable to speak or even unconscious, the pastor & Church can pray the ‘Our Father’ for you. *Why do this?
Because God uses those words & actions to come to you & claim you as His child.
In Holy Baptism, the Church offers you to The Father with the words of the Son’s own prayer. There is no prayer more perfect, as we are invited to speak to Our Father like Jesus did. And then, as you exit this world thru physical death, the Church (believers) gather again to testify that you belong to God == that’s what the funeral worship service proclaims.
Some will say that the funeral service is just for the living; and yet, it’s not ‘just’, because we come together & worship God at the time of, & on behalf of, the one who has died. With our worship, we testify to the Biblical faith in Christ which brings a person from death to life. It is dishonest to make that testimony on behalf of one who had no confession of Christ, or walked away from it. And so, again, we use Jesus’ Prayer. It is the prayer of every child of God; it’s your prayer; and if you cannot pray the words, the Church will pray it for you = like Moses prayed for the people of Israel. Only because you are in Christ can you can call God your Father; and nothing, not even death, can take that away from you.
In just a little while, WE will pray the Lord’s Prayer together as God’s Church. We pray it with each other, as the Body of Christ. This should not be just a mindless repetition of a ‘old’ prayer; this is the ‘abba Father’ that the Spirit is working within us in this moment! We, the Father’s prodigals, have returned on this day to our loving Father. By His Word & Spirit, He reaches out and places His hands upon you, holding you close to Him, and the Holy Spirit is testifying with our spirit that we are children of God. From baptism to the grave, and every moment in-between, we cry out ‘Abba, Father’; and we rejoice that we are children of God.
The second thing Paul mentions here is the contrast between debtors & heirs. When Jesus taught us to pray to God-Our-Father, He also taught us to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come.’ So Paul writes, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (v. 16-17). Heirs of God; inheritors of thee Kingdom. We also need this reminder as we live in a fallen, broken kingdom.
Every day the world tries to take our focus off of God’s kingdom. Advertisers show us pictures of things so that we might desire them. Health-care products & cell phones, clothing, jewelry or food, boats & cars. The riches of this world are displayed, enticing us to think that the godly blessings we have are not enough; that life would be better with more.
When God commands us to ‘not covet’, this is a daily struggle. With God’s view, it’s a challenge to prioritize spouse & children, to be content with your ‘station’ in life = your age & condition. God’s people are called to give time, effort & charity for the good of others, and to support God‘s church & encourage each other in the faith. The world wants us to think that those things are outdated & unfulfilling.
Being a child of God means something different than getting all the good stuff of the world. Israel faced a similar challenge in Exodus 33. God was angry & told Moses that the people could either have Him or the world; but not both. THAT has been the challenge of the ages. What good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your et. soul? So Moses, for the people, comes before God, empty-handed, and he prays, “If your Presence does not go with us, (Lord) do not bring us up from here.” The people would never have a true life or satisfaction without the presence of God.
In Rom.8, Paul is focused on our relationship to God rather than things in this world.
We are heirs, he says; heirs of God. God has promised to ‘belong’ to us, & we to him.
As God’s children & heirs, our lives will look & sound different than those who are focused on the world. Heirs of the Kingdom will bless others, & not curse them; we will be content with the life, abilities, & condition that Our Father has assigned us; He expects our lives to benefit others, not just ourselves. That means that our lifestyle will not include many things the world offers, & many things others have or do. But the mind of the heir is different:
We are content because God’s presence & mercy is enough; & the better kingdom is coming.
In Rembrandt’s painting, he has frozen the story for us before the son receives all of those gifts from his father. The son does not have a robe placed over his shoulders yet; he doesn’t have the ring on his finger, or shoes on his feet, or the fattened calf to eat. But what the son does have is… his father = which is enough. Those other things are less important.
So, too, our Lord has called us to live as His people – first. The world has lots of stuff, but none of those things can compare to the love & mercy of Our Father. We also have each other, the Church, for our support & comfort.
I mentioned earlier that 32 years had passed between the first and last times Rembrandt worked with the prodigal son; that the etching was movement, and the painting was presence. A lot happened in Rembrandt’s life during those 32 years. His wife & all four of his children had died, he lost his wealth and his reputation. Jesus said: “In the world, you will have trouble; but take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
After losing all that our world says gives life ‘meaning & purpose,’ Rembrandt chose
to focus upon things that Jesus gives – that this world cannot take away: the Spirit of adoption, and the presence of the Father.
God-Our-Father claims you as His child thru the work of Jesus & the gift of faith.
We bring our slavery to sin before God, and in Jesus – we are embraced & forgiven. Fears are silenced, & the future is secure. You are a child and an heir.