Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Father's Day Sermon for the Fatherless



I was sitting at my desk, with a stack of Father's Day cards before me. I had been reading through all the various greeting card sentiments and wondering how I was going to turn them into a sermon, when I seemed to see a figure standing beside me, and seemed to hear a voice speaking in my ear.

"Do you really plan to get up and say all that?" it asked. I could not see the speaker, but I could hear a sneer in its voice. "I don't say it doesn't sound very pretty, and all that, but you and I both know it isn't true."

I tried vainly to say something, but the words seemed to stick in my throat.

"Oh, maybe its true sometimes," the voice went on, "I won't argue with that. There are really people who live in a world of greeting cards, and if you want to get up and pretend that everybody does, I suppose that's your business. But don't try to pretend with me. You know that to many people Father's Day is nothing but a joke and not a very funny one. Do you realize how many children grow up never knowing their father, either because he died, or because their family split up--or worse? Do you know how many children grow up knowing their father, and wishing they didn't? I don't suppose in your little paper house of greeting cards you have heard of those horrors which happen under the sun--that there are people who cringe at the very word father? Or, at the very least, who have no particular reason to rejoice at its sound? Do you know how many children do love their fathers and then have them taken away by the stroke of death and tragedy? Don't you know how little even the best fathers usually get along with their children? So many children in the world are fatherless or worse than fatherless. You know all that and I know all that. And yet do you really have the nerve to stand up behind a pulpit and say your little platitudes and pretend that these things are not so? In a world of the fatherless, do you still have the brashness to celebrate Father's Day?"

When the voice stopped, I tried again to speak, but I did not know what to say. I knew that all it said was true. I knew that all the pretty sentiments were true, but they were not the whole truth. In the face of all that, was there anything that I could say? And then I turned, and my eyes fell on my Bible, which lay open by chance to Psalms 68:5.

Then I stood to my feet, and at last found my voice, crying out: "A father of the fatherless... is God in his holy habitation."

But when I turned, the figure who had spoken to me was gone.

We are told in Scripture that all things were created to show God's glory. One--if not the primary--reason God created a world was to be an expression of His nature. Thus in Psalm 29 the psalmist uses the power of the wind to give us a picture of the power of God. Thus John shows the purity of God by pointing to the purity of light. We are told that God is fierce as fire and yet as satisfying as springs of water and living bread.

And if the physical creation was made to show us about the nature of God, it is even more true regarding the the creation of man, for we are told that man is made in the very image and likeness of God. Since God does not have a body, this image and likeness must refer to man's inner nature and character. If we did not have within us at least the ability and hunger for honesty and purity, we could not even imagine the truth and holiness of God.

This is a familiar truth--that man was made to reflect the moral image of God. But we must remember that the Bible does not describe man as created in the abstract. God always works in concrete. God did not create humanity as an ideal. He created a family--he made Adam and Eve. God did not just make humans, but the human race--the human family. For it is not good for man to be alone. Just as God is in Himself is a community--a Trinity--so God created man to be a community and to display by his interaction a picture of God's glory. We all remember Paul's sermon on husbands and wives, where he says that the love of marriage is a picture of Jesus' love for His church. And, in the same way, when God first ordained that the human race would be promulgated through the means of fathers and children, it was not by accident. It was no passing figure of speech when was the psalmist proclaimed that God was the Father of the fatherless. It was no empty formula when Christ taught us to pray: "Our Father, which art in Heaven..."

It was God's original design that the human family should reflect His nature. But sin broke God's original design. Creation still shows us something of God's greatness--but it is marred by death and disease. We can still find hints of God's goodness in the nature of man, but it has been warped by sin and frailty. We still see a picture of God's love in the love of a man and wife, but that picture is often blurred by selfishness and ignorance. And we can still see something of God in the relationship of a father to his children, though that relationship is often far from what God intended it to be. There are at least five specific things that the Bible says about the duties of fathers to their children. With one exception, I regret to say that these things are not always true about the relationship between fathers and their children. But what I can say--with complete confidence and without reservation--is that all five of these things are true about the relation of the Heavenly Father and His children.

(1) There is one thing that a Father always gives to his children. He may fail in many other things. He may--through ineptitude or iniquity--fall behind in other matters. But there is one thing, under the circumstances, which he cannot fail to give his children--and that is existence.

Genesis 5:1-3 reads: "This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created. And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth."

We read here that Adam had a son in his own likeness and his own image. In one sense, all children are in the image and likeness of their parents. It expresses a very real and serious truth to say that a child is a "chip off the old block." The inheritance of existence is something which is always passed on, even if you think it is more like the passing on of a debt. You may feel the baton of life to be nothing but a club, but we still must pass it on to our children.

The whole human race is connected through the fact of birth. C. S. Lewis said that if you could look at humanity from outside of time, you would see it as a single tree, because all people are the children of their parents and ultimately all people are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.

Without parents, there would be no children. We might all not have existed, if it had not been for our parents. G. K. Chesterton commented that it is common to speak of some ruined man as a "Great Might Have Been." He said he found it more startling to realize that every man he met was a "Great Might Not Have Been." Everything we are and everything we do, we do indeed owe in a real sense to our parents. In more than one way, they have been the making of us. Though the gift of existence may be given to the child thoughtlessly or even unwillingly, it is always given, and without it, there would be nothing more to say.

And just as a human father gives to his children the gift of existence, so God has given to us the Gift of Existence. For just as Adam gave birth to a son in his image, so this passage also tells us that God created Adam in His image or likeness.

Of course, the figure is not perfect. God does not give existence to man in exactly the same sense that a father gives existence to his children. In many ways, it is more accurate to picture God's relation to man as the relation of an artist to his painting or a novelist to his novel--yet there is no doubt that God did through creation gave existence and nature to man--and, like a father, in so doing He gave to man part of himself. There is no doubt that just as without fathers there would be no children, if God had not created us, we would not be here.

This fact--the fact that children entirely owe their existence to their parents--brings about a double-edged responsibility. First of all, since children owe their very existence to their parents, it is only right that they owe them also respect and allegiance. It was on this basis that in ancient societies the father was given absolute authority--even to life and death--over his children. It was reasoned that since the parent had brought the child into existence, he should have complete control over it. And though we do not carry the matter so far today, it is the basis of the family, that the children owe respect and obedience to their father, because he is their father.

And if this is true of human fathers and their children, it is infinitely more true about the Heavenly Father and His children. Because God's creation of man was freer and more deliberate, so our debt to Him is even greater. It is sometimes said as a cheap joke that if parents knew their children ahead of time, they would never have children. But God created us--knowing how we would turn out.

And so, just as we know we ought to honor our father and our mother, so we ought a hundred times more honor our Father, which is in Heaven. But this fact--that Children exist only because of their parents--cuts the other way. If it means that the children owe something to their parents, it also means that the parents owe something to the children. And that brings us to the second thing the Bible says a father is give to his children.

(2) A father must give to his children sustenance or provision or the supply of needs. It has always been recognized as the foundation of the family that the parents have the duty to supply the needs of their children. For instance, the roman Statesman Cicero wrote this simple truth: "Every man should take care of his own family." Paul said contemptuously that if any provide not for his own family than he is worse than an infidel. (1 Timothy 5:8)

After all, since the parents brought the children into existence, they do have a duty to supply their needs, at least until the time when they can supply their own. In the wisdom of God, He ordained that children should come into the world in such a state that they would be utterly dependent on their parents for some time. As Chesterton said somewhere, the foundation of the family is the fact that children are generally younger than their parents. Children need the provision of their parents in order to survive.

And, usually, though other things may fail, parents do their best to give their children this basic provision. But there are cases where this is not true. There have been before fathers who did not care enough about their children to provide their needs. In ancient Rome it was the custom to abandon unwanted babies in the wilderness and so doom them to destruction from want. There are still times when children are abandoned to neglect and perhaps destruction. Also, because of the evil world in which we live, there are times when, despite the best intentions, parents are simply unable to meet their children's needs. Sometimes, no matter how hard a father may work and strive, he cannot give sustenance to his children. And though I do not know, not being a parent, I have sometimes wondered if this might not be the hardest thing of all to bear.

But though earthly fathers may fail through vice or poverty to supply the needs of his children, our Heavenly Father never fails. Jesus said: "What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" (Matthew 7:9-11) And He also taught us when we pray to our Father in heaven, to ask for our daily bread.

After all, God is perfectly good and so never lacks in intention to provide for His children. "The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works." (Psalm 145:9) We are told that even the young ravens cry to God for their food, and are we not worth more to Him than the birds? And since God is the source and ruler of all things, He never lacks in provision. "Old Mother Hubbard/Went to her cupboard/To give her poor dog a bone./But when she got there/The cupboard was bare/And so the poor dog got none." But God never goes to his cupboard and finds it bare, for His cupboard is the whole universe, and his storehouse is His own omnipotence. "For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine." (Psalm 50:10-11) As Hattie E. Buell wrote: "My Father is rich in houses and lands;/He holdeth the wealth of the world in His hands!/Of rubies and diamonds, of silver and gold,/His coffers are full--He has riches untold."

But more than this, God can reach in to meet the needs that a human father can never really meet. The needs within can never be fully met by another other human, but only by God.

In short, the second thing a father ought to give to his children is sustenance and supply. Sometimes, though, a human father may fail in this--for many reasons. Sometimes parents may even forsake their children--but in Psalm 27:10 we read: "When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up."

But though the giving of sustenance might be considered the most basic duty of a parent, it not the greatest. If it is the first, it is certainly not the last. And that brings us to the third thing a father should give his children.

(3) A father should give his children training and discipline. This is really only an extension of the last point. If fathers owe to their children provision for bringing them into existence, then one part of that provision is training. This fact is often forgotten in modern controversies about education. The main responsibility for educating children does not lie with the state or with the church or with anybody else--it lies with the parents. The privilege of bring a child into the world entails the responsibility of training him to take his own place in the world. The adult must do their part to raise their children to be in their turn the adults. As people have often pointed out, all knowledge and training and art in the world could disappear in one generation, if the adults failed to pass it on to their children.

This responsibility is certainly recognized in the Bible. The most familiar verse on the topic is Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." More sweeping are the words of Deuteronomy 11:19, when God commanded the people to teach His laws to their children, "speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up."

Lest one should say this is only an Old Testament principle, we may also find these words of Paul: "And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." This verse is often quoted for its warning ('provoke not your children to wrath'), but don't miss the other side of the command. 'Bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.' Nurture and admonition are not common words in my conversation, but, nurture--at least here--means education or instruction. Admonition means to call attention to something or give warning. So these might be seen as both the positive and negative sides of education--instruction in the right and warning against the wrong.

When I say that the parents--and particularly the father--have the responsibility of giving training and discipline to his children, I am thinking of far more than the few subjects we usually call education. This training is a training for all of life. The word discipline is defined as "Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior... controlled behavior resulting from disciplinary training." (American Heritage College Dictionary) The concept of discipline is to instill into the child the pattern of behavior necessary for good living, and to curb those tendencies that would lead to bad living.

Of course, it has always been understood, that discipline must include at times a forceful attack in order to achieve the desired results. Countless verses could be taken from Proverbs to prove this, but I take Proverbs 29:15 and 17 as typical. "The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame... Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul."

And I assure you that as we are God's children, He has promised to teach and train us in His ways. As far as instruction goes, one needs simply think of the Bible--it is the word of our Father, given, we are told, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be thoroughly furnished for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) God has not left us without instruction and training in this world. It was prophesied of Jesus that when He came, "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young." (Isaiah 40:11) Jesus did this in person with His disciples (for remember that the word discipline comes from the same root as disciple), but he promised even that after He left the world, His Spirit--which He gave as an inheritance for all Christians--would guide us into all truth. (John 16:13) Just as a father trains his son, so that someday he may take his place and live successfully in the world, so our Father is training us so that we may sometime take our place and live in His World.

But the simile can be taken farther. A human father must sometimes take drastic and even violent measures to bring about training and discipline. This is not from selfish or violent motives, but is born out of deep love and concern. And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that this same thing is true of God: "If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?" (Hebrews 12:7)

(4) So this represents one aspect of a father's duty to His children--a duty to train and discipline. But there is another side to this matter, for a father must also be ready to give mercy and forgiveness to his children.

I cannot find a verse in the Bible where it is specifically commanded that father ought to be merciful and to forgive their children. In fact, when the fact is mentioned, it is mentioned as a fact taken for granted. It seems that this is so basic an idea that it never needs to be directly outlined. Because of the bonds of love and affection which bind the child and parent, it is only natural that there should be a desire to forgive and bring about reconciliation, when fracture has occurred. And if the father has the responsibility to punish, he must also have the right to forgive. A parent can be strict, he may even be stern, but he should always be merciful. There should be a substratum of love and forgiveness which undergirds even punishment.

This is the truth about human fathers. And we are told in Psalms 103:13 "Like as a father pitieth [or has compassion on] his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him." The mercy God has bestowed on us all is a subject so vast that it would take many more sermons to even give an adequate introduction. Suffice it to say that even when God laid the curse on the world, even when God first announced judgment upon all things--even then His mercy was at work, preparing a way for man to be saved. In that first moment when the wrath of God was turned upon the earth, thorns began to grow--but only so that in the end, the thorns could become a crown which Jesus would wear when He purchased our forgiveness.

(5) So we have learned that a father is to give to his children existence, sustenance, discipline, and forgiveness. There is a final point I see, though it is not exactly the same kind of point. It is not something a father gives to his children, but it is a fact about the relationship of fathers to their children. A father is emotionally connected to this children.

Psalms 127:3-5 says: "Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate."

That children can bring joy to their parents seems to be a fact so common that it appears to all people. (Though our modern cynicism and nihilism has been relatively successful to concealing it.) If we tried to collect all the quotations, poems, and stories to this effect, we should never come to an end of our project. Because of the way God has designed life, no man lives as an island to himself. We are all connected in one way or another--but parents and children are connected more closely than any other people except for husbands and wives. We are not like bubbles floating freely and unconnectedly on the surface of the world. We are bound together by the bonds of families, and the things that happen to one, affect others.

And so children can bring great joy to their parents. But there is another side to this. Proverbs 17:25 says: "A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her that bare him." It would be mere sentimentalism to admit that children can bring joy to their parents, without admitting that their children can also bring great sorrow. Children can be a curse just as much as they can be a blessing. There are times when a parent raises a child, only to be saddened and heartbroken by the choices that child makes. And it is no idle fact that writers have so often dwelt upon their sorrow--for I suspect there are few sorrows bitterer in this world.

In short--for good or for evil--a father is emotionally connected to his children. Solomon summed up the matter in Proverbs 10:1: "A wise son maketh a glad father: but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother."

And let me assure you that in one way or another, God has chosen to become emotionally connected with us. It is one of the mysteries of the world that we cannot understand and yet know to be true. We read that when God saw the sins of man in the days of Noah, that "it grieved him at his heart." (Genesis 6:6) When Jesus walked on the earth, we read that He was grieved by the hardness of men's hearts (Mark 3:5), and that He wept over the city of Jerusalem because of its sins. On the other hand, we read that in Heaven, God will joy in His people (Isaiah 65:19), yes, God "will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing." (Zepheniah 3:17) One way or another, we--we, finite human beings--shall either bring joy or sorrow to the heart of the infinite God.

In conclusion, there are many things that the Bible teaches us about how fathers should treat their children. It is one of the many sad facts about this world, that these things are not always true. Either through sin or ignorance or carelessness, fathers fail in their task, just like everybody else--for nothing in this world works the way it ought to, and especially not human relationships. But those who have known the wrong side of Father's Day--those who have only seen the failures and the faults of fatherhood--still have this hope and this comfort--that if the reflection has been cracked, the original is still whole--for "A father to the fatherless... is God in His holy habitation."

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And God said, let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God saw that it was good. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let us make him to be a father, as I am a Father. Let him give existence to his children, so that he may remember that I have given existence to him. Let him be charged to supply the needs of his children, so that He may not forget that I have supplied his needs. Let him have charge to train and discipline His children, so that he may know that I will train and discipline him. Let us put in his heart mercy and forgiveness, so that, when the time has come, he will know that I will have mercy on him. Let his children be a joy or a sorrow to him, so that in the deepest chamber of his heart, he may know that he is a joy or a sorrow to Me. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created He him. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. And God saw everything thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

And the evening and the morning were Father's Day.

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