photo of baby holding person's fingers

Our Father’s Day

I preached this sermon 11 years ago today at Timonium United Methodist Church in Timonium, MD. I did not realize until today that I had not published it. I have added a couple of links to relevant material. I hope this Father’s Day you find some meaning in it. Happy Father’s Day!

I always welcome an opportunity to speak about the message of Christ, but doubly so on this Father’s Day. You see, twenty five years ago this week I became a father for the first time. With my son Greg reaching the milestone of his 25th birthday, the event makes me look back on the relationship between a father and child. Unlike my father, I was privileged to be present at the birth of my son and, subsequently, my now 20-year-old daughter Meredith. If you have ever been present at the birth of your child, you know that the experience is overwhelming and defies description. The feeling the first time your newly born child comes to your arms is one never forgotten.

But boy the birth of a child also is a strong dose of reality for the father. As the youngest of three brothers, I had been an uncle since the age of seven. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about children and being a father. Children, however, have a way of humbling us. Almost from the moment of birth, they begin striving for independence and asserting their will. This cute precociousness (as viewed by the grandparents) or annoying stubbornness (as seen by the parents) not too infrequently clashes with the will of the father. Nevertheless, from my experience, I have had to nurture the independence of my children because loving fathers must help their children to function on their own. From my perspective, however, it is really my Father’s Day when I see my children living according to values and beliefs I have attempted to teach them.

Our lesson today from John 3:1-20 addresses a similar aspect of our relationship with God. An implicit part of that relationship could be expressed:

For God so loved the world
That he gave humanity freedom of will.
So that we may freely choose to live in Him
Or independently of Him.

God the Father has given us the freedom to choose to live within his will, or to assert our own will and live as we choose. Just as we raise our children to independence, hoping to have a relationship with them as people who reflect our values and beliefs, God seeks to have a relationship with us within his will. When we choose our will over His, we live in sin and that sin is a gulf we cannot close.

So what does that have to do with our friend Nicodemus? Nicodemus has come to Jesus secretly in the night. He comes to tell Jesus that he has accepted him as a teacher who comes from God and, presumably, to discuss what he must do to follow his teachings. Nicodemus is a man of the law. His education and learning has taught him that he can find the way to God by controlling what he does. He also probably has learned, however, that no matter how hard he tries to follow the law by force of his own will, he fails. He recognizes that Jesus is of God and comes to him for insight into how he might act more as God requires.

Does that sound familiar? Nicodemus seems to be where we often find ourselves —– we accept Jesus the teacher and try to decide what we must do to follow his teachings. That leads us to work in soup kitchens, teach Sunday school, sing in choirs, and do hundreds of other things that we think good Christians should do. But how many times have we tried to follow the teachings of Jesus through actions of our own will, failed, and judged ourselves to be inadequate Christians? How many of us struggle with guilt over how often we fall short of the teachings of Christ?

Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, and to us, completely changes the discussion. He speaks to Nicodemus not of actions, but of spirit. He tells Nicodemus in verse 17 that he did not come to condemn the world, as the law would entitle God to do, but rather to show the world that the only way we can establish a relationship with God is through Him. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The belief to which Jesus speaks was not the intellectual acceptance of a teaching such as Nicodemus mentioned. Jesus speaks of total, complete faith; total, complete trust.

Any father can easily understand the example that Jesus chose to use. We must be born again. We must return to the relationship with our Father as a newborn child. Nicodemus, however, is lost in the weeds. He is still looking to what he must DO, and to be reborn again as a child is one thing that he knows he cannot do. He is still looking for rules and thinks Christ is teaching him something else he must do to be right with God.

When I held my son for the first time, I was struck by the fact that this newborn child trusted me completely. He was totally dependent on me and his mother for everything in life. He was living his life completely within my will. Jesus was making that point to Nicodemus when he told him he had to be born again in spirit. He was telling Nicodemus that to be part of God’s Kingdom he had to surrender his spiritual will completely to God. He had to approach God with the complete trust of a newborn child. He had to become again as a newborn child is to his father.

How often do we join Nicodemus in the weeds and treat the message of Christ as rules from the Father for us to follow—-things we must do; things we cannot do; things we are guilty about doing or failing to do? How often do we spend our energy focusing on our sin instead of God’s grace? A story about an itinerant Methodist pastor exemplifies how easily we join Nicodemus. Many years ago, a rural pastor with a multiple charge accepted another church into his charge. When he first visited the church he met a rather eccentric old woman who claimed she talked directly with God. To test her, the pastor, who held guilt over some secret sin, told the woman to ask God how he had sinned. When he next visited the church, he again spoke with the woman and asked her what God had revealed to her about his sin. She responded, “God said to tell you he cannot answer the question because he has forgotten your sin.”

The itinerant pastor had forgotten that once you surrender your heart to Christ, what YOU DO is no longer the issue. The question is, what will you allow Christ to do with you? Who will you be? The question is whether you allow Jesus to transform you; whether you allow the Holy Spirit to create the image of Christ within you; whether you will trust your life to Christ or continue to live by your will.

In his moment with Nicodemus, Jesus succinctly captures the essence of all his teaching. We cannot reach God by what we do, but only by trusting Jesus to transform our lives through the Holy Spirit. Today’s teaching from Romans emphasizes that we act in Christ only through the Spirit; that we have our relationship with our Father “Abba” only through the Spirit. Our passage from Isaiah shows that his guilt was pardoned by the Spirit with his surrender. Jesus taught that the lilies of the field and the birds of the air demonstrate our relationship with the Father: complete trust. When he sent forth the 72 to preach he told them to take nothing with them, but to trust completely in God for all things. Again and again Jesus repeats this essential truth: that when we surrender our will to Christ, our sin is irrelevant because through the Holy Spirit we will be transformed into the image of Christ. Christ will be evident in our lives through the works we do in the Spirit. No amount of good works done by our will can bring Christ into our lives, but when we focus ourselves entirely on our surrender to Christ, the works of the Spirit will follow through us.

When we live in the Spirit, we certainly still DO things. Oh, we still get caught up in doing things that we think we should being doing or just want to do. After all, we can be far more certain about what we think we should do or want to do than it is to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But give your will over to Christ in even just one aspect of your life and he begins to lead, push, poke, and prod you to do all sorts of things you never imagined that you could or would do. But now you are doing things not because you have decided that those are things you should do because that is what it seems Christians do, but because you are living your life within Christ and they are just the natural product of who you are. For even when we try to hold on to our own wants and ideas about what we should do, Jesus claims all our lives, not just part. Give Christ part of your life and he just keeps going until he has it all. And that is a good test for us: Are we just doing church things with part of our lives, and what we want to do with the rest? Or are we allowing Christ into those aspects of our lives that do not fit the church box? How we each answer those questions determine whether or not we are in the weeds with Nicodemus.

Rebirth in the Spirit can be sudden, dramatic, and complete. The stereotypical born-again experience that some emphasize as an essential part of the life of a Christian bears those characteristics. In my teens I made a decision for Christ around the same time as a friend. His rebirth was instantaneous and complete. He has served as a missionary to Muslims in Bosnia and is unquestionably an image of Christ. Other, and probably more common rebirths, such as mine, are the process of a lifetime of daily surrenders of little bits and threads of our lives. From that teenage decision I spent years trying to prove my faith by doing what I thought Christians should do. It was not until I confronted the challenge of fatherhood, however, did I begin to understand that transformation of my life required strength beyond my will. Until then my life had been marked by events of intense anger. I realized that I could not be an effective father with uncontrolled anger, but I could not deal with it. I finally gave it to God in trust, somewhat in desperation, and found that from that moment anger did not dominate again in my life. Although I have many aspects of my life where my will still reigns, and all too frequently get caught up in listening to my agenda than Christ’s, that experience taught me that when I put the Holy Spirit first in my life, I am transformed. And that is the beauty of life in Christ. The only thing he wants us to DO is surrender our will to him, but he works on the installment plan—taking those little bits and pieces where we have returned to the trust of a child and using them to remake us in his image.

Jesus taught Nicodemus that when we come to God through the complete trust of a newborn child, whether with our entire life in one dramatic surrender, or bits and pieces of our daily lives along the way, we enter into the relationship with God that He intends. So let us hear the message to Nicodemus, putting aside a life focused on what we do, seeking instead a life of what Christ will do through us. Returning to God’s grace as a child, say “Abba, Father, my trust is in you.” Making each day of our lives, Our Father’s Day.

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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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