Transforming Fatherhood

fatherhoodWhile listening to a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909, Sonora Louise Smart Dodd was thinking of her father: a Civil War veteran and a farmer, he was also a single dad to 6 children. She began to work to get a day to honor fathers. The Lion’s Club helped to popularize it, President Coolidge gave the first presidential proclamation for Father’s Day and it was not until 1966 that President Johnson made the third Sunday in June the official holiday called Father’s Day.

While Father’s Day is not on the official church calendar, we are glad to recognize the role of fatherhood in the Bible because so much is written about it.

While in Charlotte this past week, I heard on the local radio that the police found a child abandoned in a downtown park. The little week old baby was carefully wrapped in a blanket and placed on a piece of plastic. A note was pinned to the blanket. It read, “Please give me a home and care for me.”

Every one of us comes with a note pinned to our souls: “Please give me a home and care for me.” One of the ways the Lord does that is to provide a family and a father.

Today, I want to read from Psalm 103.13-18; Ephesians 6.1-4 and I will be referring in the sermon to several other selected passages.

Introduction to the Sermon

Sofia Scicolone was born in a charity ward of a hospital in Rome in 1934. Her mother had been abandoned and had to play piano in seedy cafes of Naples to earn money to take care of Sophia and her sister. Later Sophia would use her beauty and her talent to escape the ghettos of her childhood. You knew her as Sophia Loren, an academy award-winning actress. But she could never escape the loss she felt of being fatherless. She only saw the man six times in her life but this is what she said of him:

“He shaped me as a person more than any other man. It was the dream of my life to have a father. And that is why I sought him everywhere. I spent most of my life looking for substitutes for him. I still wonder what he was thinking as he saw me up there on the movie screen. With all the grandiose gifts I have received in my life, my most treasured possession is the only toy my father ever gave to me¾a little blue car with my name on it.”[1]

The story is moving to us because everyone here can relate to the need for a father. God has placed within each of us a need for a man who will come alongside of us and care for us and be a father to us. T. Berry Brazelton, a former chief of child development at Children’s Hospital in Boston had it right, I think, when he wrote these words:

“Of all human relationships, the bond between father and child is one of the most powerful and complex. We may look to our mothers for unconditional love. But be we men or women, we often seek to validate our existence through the approval of our fathers. If our father dies or in some way is absent before we earn that approval, we live the rest of our lives feeling cheated.”[2]

It is God, of course, who created this need and in the Word of God we come to see that God has created fatherhood to be a transforming power in the lives of human beings. Our primary passage of the day is Ephesians 6.1-4, where Paul back in Ephesians 5 tells us to be imitators of God as dear children. He goes on to show how this must work in marriage and then he gets to the family. And he says of fathers,

“Do not provoke your children to wrath but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.”

In Colossians 3.21, Paul teaches this in another context. There Paul is calling the Church to seek Christ in all of life and, once more, he talks about fatherhood:

“Fathers do not provoke your children, let they become discouraged.”

Both passages give us the command “do not provoke your children” but Ephesians gives us a positive, “bring them up” and Colossians gives us a negative, “lest they become discouraged.” So fatherhood is a transforming power for the good or the bad¾positively or negatively.

I.  Transforming Fatherhood for the Bad: David’s fatherhood is an example of provoking children to discouragement

In the Bible there are plenty of bad examples: Abraham, who disobeyed God and had to eventually let his son, Ishmael and that boy’s mother, leave him. Can you imagine the pain in his heart? Ishmael, too, was transformed forever by that sad and sinful situation. Think of Jacob, who showed partiality to Joseph and had to deal with strife with his boys as they sought to kill their own brother. They were transformed by their father’s insensitivity as a father. Think of Eli, who worked very hard as being a priest, but not hard enough at being a dad and his sons went into public scandal. They were transformed by their father’s lack of attention. But of all of the examples of failed fathers in the Bible, the winner of that dubious distinction as most negatively transforming might be David.

David provoked, embittered, his children through his sin, his lack of attention, and his bad example.

1.  David provoked his children by compartmentalizing his faith in God (2 Samuel 12.10: “the sword shall not depart from your house”).

Here was the greatest Psalmist in the world, one of the bravest men in the world, a man of great intellect whose soul was a poet and a warrior, a priest and a king. He would compose some of the most beautiful words the world has ever known, but his sin with Bathsheba spoke louder and more poignant that anything else with his children who witnessed it. And his many wives were a sin against God, which caused his children great pain. As a result, his family would be cast into not only dysfunction, but also violence.

  • Compartmentalizing your faith is going to church and speaking words of Scripture and then going home and talking about others as you go.
  • Compartmentalizing your faith is talking about how important the work of the Lord is and then prioritizing other things and people and eve entertainment before the Lord. And you children watch and they are provoked, They are embittered.

I have a friend in Wichita, Kansas who was a Nazarene pastor, and he was forever competing, he felt, with people not coming to church in order to go to the lake all day on Sundays. He preached a message entitled, “Sending your Children to Hell in a Speedboat.” It got some folks upset, but I think he was being a prophet to fathers who thought they were helping their children but who were actually provoking their children.

2.  David provoked his children by failing to take the time to understand them (2 Samuel 13 and 18.31-33)

Chapter 13 of 2 Samuel is one of the saddest narratives in the Bible. It is about one son, Amnon, burning in lust for his half-sister, Tamar, who was the full sister of Absalom. Following a rape, Absalom murders Amnon and then leaves the country in apparent disgust with his seemingly clueless father. Of course, eventually, Absalom’s own pain turns to sin and he rebels against his father. In the final climactic scene, at a battle in the fields of Ephraim (18.6) Absalom gallops on his mule through the woods. I read from verse 9:

“Then Absalom met the servants of David. Absalom rode on a mule. The mule went under the thick boughs of a great terebinth tree, and his head caught in the terebinth; so he was left handing between heaven and earth. And the mule which was under him went on.”

“Left hanging between heaven and earth” not only described his precarious position, but speaks also to his hanging between life and death. But it is also a sad commentary on what happened to Absalom. He was left hanging by his father. He is the son who is misunderstood, who had to live with his father’s sins, and then became everything he hated in his father. So many are left hanging.

David’s military leader, Joab, then finishes off Absalom, as one might shoot a fatally wounded horse. Walter Bruggermann reminds us that earlier in 2 Samuel 11.25, David was cavalier with Joab about the sword in war, when he wanted Urriah dead. But here he had said to deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (18.5). I guess Joab was also confused about what David wanted out of him as a warrior, for he ran his sword through him.

Verse 18 is a tragic ending for Absalom, the boy who rode to his death seeking his father’s understanding:

“Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up a pillar for himself, which is in the King’s Valley. For he said, ‘I have no son to keep my name in remembrance.’ He called the pillar after his own name. And to this day it is called Absalom’s monument.”

There are Absalom monuments all over our world: broken sons and daughters whose pain became their own sin and their own ruin in search of a father’s understanding.

Verse 9 might be the Absalom’s monument, but verse 33 is David’s mourning of regret:

“O my son Absalom¾my son, my son Absalom¾if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!”

Before David refers to Absalom only by his name. But now, too late, he calls him what he has not called him before¾not once but five times¾he calls him, “my son.” But Absalom never heard it. Had he heard his dad say those words earlier it might have been a different ending. How many today are longing to hear their fathers call them, “My son; My little girl.”

“O Absalom my son, my son!” Those words have become a part of our language and our narrative. They are the words used by the 17th century poet, John Dryden ((1631-1700) in his classic poem of political satire.[3] The story also inspired Williams Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!,” a dark Southern tale set in antebellum Mississippi, about a mysterious man, Thomas Sutpen, who, as Faulkner wrote, “wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.”

It is the setting for a modern poet, Lucile Clifton:

“Oh Absalom my son my son”

Even as I turned myself from you

I longed to hold you oh

My wild haired son

Running in the wilderness away

From me from us

Into a thicket you could not foresee…”[4]

“Oh Absalom, Absalom!” is the lament of many a father today. I wonder if there are any of these stories going to happen here?  Is there a man here thinking that being flirtatious with the woman at the office doesn’t have a price? Is there a woman here who thinks that her unbridled fantasies aren’t slowly debasing her heart and preparing her for a fall? Is there a father here who really thinks that quality time really is more important than quantity time?

“Oh, Absalom, Absalom. My son, Absalom” is the sad end of every sin and every sin you commit against your own children.

David’s cry came too late but it is a warning for us to do something NOW. “Fathers do not provoke your children lest you discourage them” in Colossians teaches us the consequences of such fathering, and David is a bad example of provoking your children, but we thankfully are also told what to do: I read from Eugene Peterson’s translation:

“Fathers, don’t exasperate your children by coming down hard on them. Take them by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.”[5]

This mandate as given in Ephesians calls us to see how we should be:

II. Transforming Fatherhood for the Good: The Lord’s Fatherhood is an example of promoting healthy sons and daughters

I want to not only deal with the passage that says “train them up in the way they should go” or as Peterson says, “lead them in the Way of the Master” but look back at verse 1 of chapter 5:

“Be imitators of God…”

I think this is the way we can transform fatherhood for the good: by imitating the fatherhood of God. For this thought, I ask you to look at Psalm 103.13-18.

1.    Promoting healthy sons and daughters by compassion (v. 13)

Here is the NIV translation:

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;” Psalms 103.13

The word is “RaHam” and God shows “RaHam” to his own children. This is one of the marks of God: we know that He has compassion on us.

We lead them to God by showing them God’s compassion.

2.    Promoting healthy sons and daughters by condescension (v. 14-18)

In these verses God shows us the weakness of Man but shows that He knows our frame, our weakness.

God identified with His creation in a manger in Bethlehem, in a life among common people, and on a cross. And His love to these weak people we are told is ‘from everlasting to everlasting.”

Jesus said: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The God who is our Father is a God who loves us by being with us, identifying with us, and loving us to the end.

Some time ago, I saw an ad for a book called “How to Dad.” It was a whimsical book and promised to teach every man the fundamentals of being a father: How to skip a rock, throw a fastball, tell a joke, flip a coin and find it in your ear, how to make hand shadows, French toast and cootie catchers, how to fly a kite, build a campfire, row a boat, dig a sand tunnel…and, of course, how to change a diaper!

But the real way to “Dad” is to be an imitator of God. Now how is that practically worked out? Not having had a father to grow up with and looking at how God fathers us, I came up with some important things that I would want. Here is the Dad I would have loved to have had:

(1)  A Dad who would have cut off Hannity and Combs and would have read to me before I went to bed;

(2)  A Dad who would have put down the briefcase for a while and picked up the football for a while;

(3)  A Dad who would have not only shown me how to win, but how to fail;

(4)  A Dad who would have shown me how to cry when bad things happen;

(5)  A Dad who would have knelt beside my bed, put his hands on me and who would have prayed for me;

(6)  A Dad who would have taken me out for a snow cone even when I was the worst player at the game;

(7)  A Dad who would have loved my mother and showed her tenderness in front of me and always talked highly of her;

(8)  A Dad who would have sung songs to Jesus even when he was not in church;

(9)  A Dad who commanded my love through the switch and the tear; who disciplined me, but then held me tight.

I didn’t have a Daddy like that, but I did have an Aunt Eva who showed me those things. And I rise to call her blessed.

You know someone once said something to someone else and I overheard him. They said, “Mike Milton’s problems all come from the fact that he didn’t have a dad.” It hurt. And maybe it used to be true. Like many here today, I was like Sophia Loren. Maybe I was like Absalom and running like a rebel.

But I have a father. And you can have a father.

We have seen the bad example of David and how to provoke your children. We have seen the good example from Psalm 103 of fathering like God the Father and how to promote your children. I want to finally show you…

III.  Transforming Fatherhood to Create the Confident Child (Romans 8.15)

“For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’”

Well, whatever your family, whatever your failings, whatever your condition, God invites you to see that His Fatherhood gives you what you need as a person. He created you, He loves you. This passage is about our sonship through

(1)  Identity: Verse 14 says that as “many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” God wants you to be Absalom no more. You have a Father.

(2)  Assurance: Verse 15 says that “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.” You do not have to have a father to be a person. You do not have to have assurance to be a Christian. You are saved by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ by the grace of God. Period. But the Bible makes it clear that God wants you to know His love, His power, His Fatherhood, so that you have assurance. Assurance brings a release from the bondage of fear. This is saying, “Absalom no more!”

(3)  Intimacy: Verse 16 says that the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirits that we are His sons. God loves you and will come to you. Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans” and His Spirit will indwell you and empower you and He will be with you. If you don’t know Christ like that, then I invite you to ask Him into your heart right now.

(4)  Optimism: Finally, in verse 17, the Apostle Paul talks about the future. Join heirs who will be glorified with Christ. You have a future and a hope.

This is the confident child and you can have this no matter what you have been dealt in life. It is the sonship which I have found, and which millions of others have found.

IV. Transforming Fatherhood Redeemed: Now finally I want to deal with fathers who say, “I have blown it.”

In another town, in another pastorate, a man was found out by his own children to have been an adulterer and a liar. He had been one of my officers. I never knew a hint of the life he had been living. He came to see me when he was found out. When he arrived, he went over the details of the admission, but I sensed he was missing the damage he had done. I put my arm around him and asked him to take a walk with me. He said, “Where do you want to go?” I said, “Let’s walk to the cemetery.” We didn’t have a cemetery at this church.  He looked at me with a puzzled face. I said, “Let’s walk into the future and go to a cemetery. Look over there. What do you see.” He looked. “That is YOUR gravestone.” By now he was crying. “Do you know what it says?” Through heaving tears he told me, “Adulterer. Failure. Liar.” I agreed. Then I said, “David, if you will repent, if you will turn to the Lord of life and follow the Master, not in word only now, but in truth, He will heal you. He will forgive you. Your decisions have been made and damage has been done and I can’t promise what will happen with your wife. But I can say that God will forgive you and make you a new man in Christ. He will call you His Son.” We were on our knees. After a while of weeping, I told him that if he was truly repentant, if he was truly looking to Christ on the cross to take his sin, if he was trusting finally in the righteousness of Christ and not his own works, then a miracle would have happened. He said, “What?” I said, “The inscription has been erased. There is a new inscription: David Jones. A Sinner Saved by Grace.”

That is good news for fathers who have messed up; for mothers who have not been what God calls them to be; for men and women and boys and girls.

Through faith in a God who gave up His only Son, who became a broken father Himself, we may have life in His Son.

And that is the most transforming fatherhood of all.

Amen.


[1] Illustration came in part from Roger Thompson, manuscript from Preaching Today, Tape Number 140, “Becoming a Man” (1995), 2.

 

 

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Absalom and Achitophel.

[4] “Oh Absalom my son my son” by Lucile Clifton (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/foolingwithwords/Pclifton_poem3.html), accessed on June 14, 2003.

[5] Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1993), 409.

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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