Given at First Christian Church of Chico with three colleagues, each exploring one of the phrases in Isaiah 6: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace on Christmas Eve, 2019
When the pastors of the three churches here asked me if I could be the fourth speaker on this Christmas Eve, it was hinted at that there was some glee in giving me the term “Everlasting Father” to break down, because I have scholarly interest in gender and sexuality in the ancient and contemporary worlds. GAME ON! I am delighted to illuminate what I can about the Everlasting Father in this passage in Isaiah and also to invite us into new ways to imagine the Divine on this Christmas Eve.
In this passage, the prophet Isaiah is promising a child who will rule on the throne of David. Much later, Christians applied these terms to Jesus, the risen child of God who came to bring peace to the world. (And, of course, all week long, Handel’s Messiah has been playing in my head). This is an unusual word in the Hebrew Bible, and it is all one word, aviad (אֲבִיעַ֖ד); the word for “father” is “av” with the word for “eternity,” “ad,” smushed onto it. Everlasting Father is ONE way to understand this combination word, but another, perhaps more accurate translation is “father of eternity.” Right away, we are comforted and challenged with the idea that what we think we know is not the entire picture.
But interestingly …. Does this phrase apply to Jesus? Wonderful Counselor: check. Mighty God: check. Prince of Peace: Definitely! But, Everlasting Father …. How many of us have called Jesus “Father” very often? Most Christians tend to separate God the Parent and God the Child (though if you don’t, that’s OK!). In fact, the title of “Father” is used very rarely for God in the Hebrew Bible at all. It seems to have been popularized by Jesus himself, revolutionary that he was, who sought to create an intimate connection with the people and their relationship with the Divine. God is not only a King, but an abba, a father. But the “father of eternity” …. This speaks to me, whether it’s talking about God the Creator or the personhood of Jesus. It gets confusing – but don’t worry, because God can handle the confused.
Jesus himself is born into a beautiful, complicated, and sometimes messy family. He’s got a single mom, an engaged-almost-stepdad who’s really shining in coming through here, a parent in heaven, and the Holy Spirit is serving as a divine in vitro medical aid worker. Jesus is God incarnate, who comes to Earth as an incarnated being to experience a human life in profound ways – something that was never conceived of in the ancient world until the life of Jesus gets written down and retold. This story is BEGGING us to continue to see God in new ways.
For some people with great Dads like mine, God as Father works. Some people with terrible Fathers love having a heavenly Father who loves them unconditionally … and others recoil, unable to make the association. That’s OK: God is big enough to be called any name that we can come up with, as our UU friends here tonight can attest. God is Mother, Father, Parent, and non-Parent; Sibling, Sister, Sister and non-sibling; Friend. Maybe the important word is not Father, but ETERNITY.
“I remember the first time that someone expressed God in a feminine form…and this prayer has lived inside of me ever since”
I remember the first time that someone expressed God in a feminine form. I was 16 years old on a trip with a Methodist church choir, and the President Donald Webb (president of the local Centenary College and later my alma mater) prayed to a “God who was more passionate than the most passionate mother” and for the first time I experienced God in the same form as my own female body. I thank Dr. Webb for this prayer, and this prayer has lived inside of me ever since. The word aviad invites us into new ways to understand the Divine, not because the father language but because of its imagination; it points not to father but to eternity.
Jesus was always being inventive and innovative, like calling God abba, where God knows us but God is also known by us. Jesus himself shows us that we are limited in our terms and expressions for what we call God; he co-created new ways to experience God in his earthly life. If you’ve never tried on another title for God beyond Father, maybe your opportunity is tonight. And the good news is that you don’t have to leave the Father language behind; you can have both. Jesus’ birth, the celebration of God incarnate, calls us forth into the challenge of naming God in new ways.
I’ll give you a few options now and see which one sparks for you. Take time with each one and let it resonate deeply within you.
Mother of Eternity
Friend of Eternity
Co-Creator of Eternity
Whatever name you call God today, rest in joy that Jesus’ birth created new ways for us to enter into relationship with the Divine, who is Eternity.
I’d love to hear in the comments below what NEW name for God might be speaking to YOUR heart today!