It’s the season of Epiphany, which means “Manifestation” or “Revelation”. And this Sunday we get to the baptism of Jesus, where the crowds – themselves waiting to be baptised – hear the voice from heaven proclaim “You are my Son, whom I love”.
This Father:Son relationship is at the heart of Christian faith:
- the Creeds are structured round it;
- it is the key to the universe – it is through the Son that the Father created the cosmos;
- it is the bedrock of Jesus’ identity. Every one of his recorded prayers addresses God as “Father…” (“Abba” in the original language). There is only one exception: the cry of dereliction from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me..?”
The revelation of his Sonship was not a new idea for Jesus. His first recorded words are his gentle rebuke to his parents over the incident when he gets left behind in the Temple at Passover:
Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?Luke 2.49
To be the Father’s Son was and is the central thing in Jesus’ life. Throughout the Gospel of John he refers to himself as “the Son”. His sonship and the Father’s fatherhood were the deepest reality of his life, the core of his identity and his sense of purpose.
He comes to share that reality with us. His mission is to bring us into the same relationship with the Father that he enjoys. Risen from the dead, he tells Mary Magdalene:
‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’John 20.17
He gives us a special prayer which encourages us to live in that father-child relationship.
Paul writes that God’s purpose was that:
… he [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.Romans 8.29
How does this work? How do we enter into that relationship? It’s significant that Jesus’ Sonship is revealed at the moment of baptism. And it is closely associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit. One of the key ministries of the Holy Spirit is to impart to us a personal knowledge of God as Father. Paul writes in Romans 8:
… you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.Romans 8.15-16
Paul seems to be suggesting that there are two options: you either live in fear or you know God as Father. Knowing God as Father gives us the assurance that we have a place and a purpose in a universe that could otherwise seem cold, frightening and indifferent.
My father died when I was four years old. My mother did a great job of looking after my brother and myself. But I still remember an undercurrent of anxiety throughout my childhood, a sense of being unprotected, of being vulnerable to whatever a hostile world might throw at us. Undoubtedly my mother protected us in many ways. But she herself (I now realise) felt unprotected and vulnerable, so she could not provide the sense of secure protection which I think comes most fully from the presence of a loving father.
I only discovered the felt reality of God as Father when I asked a Christian leader to pray for a deeper work of the Holy Spirit in my life. I wasn’t asking to know God as Father, but that’s what I got. It wasn’t a flash of lightning, just a gradual realisation over a period of weeks that I had discovered a fresh dimension to faith in Jesus Christ.
I think that fatherlessness is one of the deepest wounds in Western society today. In the news recently there has been talk of the increasing incidence of teenagers and young men being stabbed to death in London. I suspect this is mostly gang-related. Why do young males join gangs? Because gangs provide a sense of identity and protection. My guess would be that most gang members and many young males who resort to violence lack the presence of a loving father in their lives. Certainly there is good evidence for that in America.
Knowing God as Father is the great privilege of those who follow Jesus Christ. We only have to ask (“how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” – Luke 11.13). It is also one of the most healing and life-changing gifts which the gospel offers to our world.