Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Father's Love and Sacrifice: Sermon for Father's Day 2017

Maybe you've heard this quote before – versions have been attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and James Edward McCulloch, among others – but one version goes like this: “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” Have you heard that? I've heard that before. If that's true, though, I can think of a fair number of folks in the Old Testament who are in pretty deep trouble!

I mean, let's be honest. The lively characters we find there – and I mean the ones portrayed mainly as heroes of faith, as bold servants of God – have their flaws and foibles. And one key area where those are put on display is in the home, as fathers. Let's take a look at the record. Adam failed to disciple his firstborn son in how to handle disappointment, frustration, and sin. Abraham, at his wife's urging, sent his eldest son out into the desert, effectively ending their relationship (Genesis 21:14). Isaac showed clear and explicit favoritism toward his son Esau, to the relative neglect of his son Jacob (Genesis 25:58). Jacob learned that lesson and magnified it when he became a father: he showed even more obvious favoritism toward his son Joseph, and later to Joseph's little brother Benjamin; he valued his sons according to his unequal esteem for their mothers, and it spurred plenty of family conflict (Genesis 37:3). Generations later, we don't know much about Moses as a father, but he neglected having his little son included in Abraham's covenant family – it had to be his wife who performed the circumcision when divine wrath was descending upon Moses' head (Exodus 4:25). Sounds like a bit of weakness in the home to me.

Not that things improved in the promised land. We don't get much insight into the private lives of most of the judges, but Jephthah – who grew up in a rough situation himself, expelled by his half-brothers from their father's house (Judges 11:1-3) – went on to be totally careless with the life and future of his only daughter, vowing to sacrifice whatever came out of his house first to greet him (Judges 11:34-40). Toward the end of the era of the judges, there's Eli, the priest at Shiloh, who raised his sons to be “worthless men,” the Bible editorializes; they officiated like priests but had no real relationship with the LORD (1 Samuel 2:12-17). Eli's discipline was just too lax (1 Samuel 2:22-25). And the same could be said for his successor Samuel, whose sons traveled the same sorry track (1 Samuel 8:2-5).

So we switch to the monarchy, where the tribes are somewhat united under Saul. Saul starts well, but amid his downfall, he harshly insults his eldest son Jonathan and then literally tries to murder him – if that doesn't spell “failure in the home,” I don't know what does (1 Samuel 20:30-33). But we all know Saul ends up as a bad role model. How about his successor, David, the man after God's own heart? For all his credit, David's sin with Bathsheba leads to the death of their infant child (2 Samuel 12:18). And what's more, the ramifications just keep spiraling out of control, and David's family falls apart in horrific ways, as his one son does unspeakable things to his own half-sister, then gets murdered for it by another son, who proceeds to be the first of two sons of David to wage war against their own father (2 Samuel 13f.). And when all was said and done, David's final advice to his son Solomon was to murder David's surviving enemies (1 Kings 2:5-6). In light of all that, it seems at least a little fair to question David's grasp on fatherhood. And as for Solomon, his reign started well, but as he continued to disobey God's Law and accumulate wives and wealth and war machines, he started looking more and more like a pharaoh – and he set a bad example that his son Rehoboam followed, to the ruin of self and country (1 Kings 12:13-14).

So really, what information we do have about fathers in the Bible is mostly not inspiring stuff. Maybe for some of us, that's sort of encouraging – it might be more relatable to our own experience with or as fathers, sad to say. More on that later. But if we do want a positive example of godly fatherhood in the Old Testament, where should we turn? Which of these ancient worthies doesn't let us down in that department?

If you were paying attention to the scripture reading this morning, you already know what I'm going to say. I submit to you that Job may be the best father in the Old Testament. Usually, that's not the reason we read his book. Usually, when we think of Job, we think about a story of deep suffering. We think about an intense dialogue with his three so-called friends. We think about the lesson in patience that it models for us. We think about the end message: that we don't have the capacity to understand the way the universe works; we can't comprehend even the mysteries of the physical world (at least, not yet, not in our immaturity and weakness), much less the ones of the moral world; and so even if God tried to sit us down and explain our suffering in words, it wouldn't do us much good, and so he just invites us to trust him.

But none of that is what we're talking about today. I'd like to take a look at Job's family life, his life as a father. In some ways, it's difficult to quite get a handle on. His story opens by saying that “a man was in the land of Uz,” but nobody can quite agree on where that was – some think it was a region northeast of Galilee, while other scholars suggest a well-watered part of what today is northern Saudi Arabia. Nor do we know exactly when this story is supposed to be set, although the style of living would seem to put it in the era of the patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Some later Jewish authors actually made Job into Jacob's son-in-law, and suggested he was an Edomite king. Scholars can't even totally agree on whether Job is a literary character or is meant to be understood as a real guy. But we do know that the name 'Job' was a real one – it shows up in old Canaanite and Egyptians texts.

So there's a lot we don't quite know about where to situate this story. But we do know what the text tells us, including at the start of the story that he has “seven sons and three daughters” (Job 1:2), and that when everything ends, he has another set of “seven sons and three daughters” (Job 42:13) – both numbers that to the Hebrew mind suggested something complete and perfect. So it's fitting that, by my count, the text also says seven clear and definite things about Job as a father. And that's what I invite us to focus on for the next few minutes.

First, as a father, Job is a provider. Job became very rich somehow – maybe he inherited some of it, but surely his industriousness had plenty to do with it, and as a result he came to possess a very vast estate. He had livestock numbered in the thousands, as well as servants in his employ, and the text says that he was “the greatest of the sons of the east” (Job 1:3). As a very wealthy man, Job was able to give his children something enjoyed only by the sons of kings or the super-rich: their own separate residences scattered around the family estate, even before they were married. The text tells us that each son had his very own house, which he'd live in and invite all the brothers and sisters over for a feast – more on that later (Job 1:4). Whatever else you say about Job, that's one thing that's true: he provided for his family. And after he'd lost everything, had his resources destroyed and his life shattered, God blessed him to build it all back again, twice what it had been before (Job 42:10). He was not lazy or selfish. As a father, Job is a provider.

Second, as a father, Job is fair. Job isn't like Isaac or Jacob, who pick and choose among their sons – 'I like this one best; no, I like that one better.' Job isn't like that at all. There's no hint that he favors his eldest, or his youngest, or any of them more than the others. What's more, Job is one of the very first egalitarians in the Bible. The text says, toward the end, that Job gave his three beautiful daughters each “an inheritance among their brothers” (Job 42:15) – and we're meant to assume that's an equal share. To us, that may not sound unusual. But in his world, it was highly irregular. In every country in that part of the world in those days, daughters usually didn't inherit. There was an exception sometimes if the father didn't have any living sons when he died; then daughters might inherit. And sometimes there could be an exception created through a bit of legal trickery: we know of cases where fathers adopted their own daughters as sons to give them a share in the inheritance! But here, Job just... does it. Job treats his daughters equally, giving each a tenth of the immense bounty of land and property and riches that was his. Job doesn't play favorites – not even favoring his boys above his girls, which was totally normal in his culture. As a father, Job is fair.

Third, as a father, Job is a role model. The text is pretty clear on that. I mean, look at how it describes Job: he was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). He was a devout and respectable man, someone who had a very healthy consciousness of who God is; and that trait shapes the way he lives his life. He's rich, but he's far from arrogant. Nor does he oppress or exploit his neighbors. Nor does he lie and cheat and steal to hoard more riches.

The text is very clear: he lives a lifestyle of honesty, integrity, generosity, purity, and faithfulness. In no area of his character has he set a bad example for his children to follow. The text doesn't tell us how he got that way – doesn't portray Job's childhood or young adult life, doesn't indulge our curiosity about any past mistakes or character flaws he might have had to triumph over. But triumph he did. And now he's a good role model for his children. If they imitate him as they grow, they'll be on the right track. And all his lessons come from a place of credibility, a place of authenticity – when he sits his kids down to teach them something, they know it's the best. As a father, Job is a role model.

Fourth, as a father, Job is a spiritual leader. The text tells us that Job's sons “used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them” (Job 1:4). And there are two ways to read that. One is that, seven times a year, each boy had an appointed time to celebrate a multi-day feast at his house. But the other way to read it, and one I personally like even if I don't know if it's a truer way to read it, is that each son has a designated day of the week to host, and so every week is a week of feasting as they cycle between each house!

But whichever it is, here's the point. Job is very concerned for the spiritual lives of his children. So much so, he's attentive to the possibility that, during the course of their celebration, when the wine is flowing and it's easy to get carried away and lack perspective, well, there's at least a chance that one of the kids might've sinned secretly, deep down in his or her heart, and not even be aware of it. And Job refuses to let that possibility go unaddressed. Notice how he is with his kids: he doesn't put them on a pedestal – he knows they're sinners, knows they stand in need of God's grace – but neither does he ever write them off or leave them to fend for themselves.

And so, at the end of every feast cycle (however exactly it worked), Job sends servants over to their house to have them purify themselves; and then, in a morning ceremony, just like the priests of Israel did for the nation each sabbath day, Job offers up whole-burnt offerings on behalf of each of his children (Job 1:5). He prays for them, he intercedes for them, even at a cost. The smoke of his sacrifices rises up to the LORD, an ascension offering, to make peace and satisfy any debt incurred by their sin. He sacrifices so that they can stand before God and know that God holds nothing against them. Job is their intercessor. Job is their prayer warrior. Job is their spiritual leader, not just the father of their bodies. Job provides for them spiritually every bit as much as he does for them physically and financially. And clearly, Job has taught and discipled them through their whole childhood, and is continuing to do it even as they live their own lives in their own homes. As a father, Job is a spiritual leader.

Fifth, as a father, Job loves his children deeply. You might think that's a strange item to place fifth in the list! But it's a point that becomes most clear when calamity strikes. The text gives us the backstory about Satan accusing Job in heaven, saying that he's only God's fair-weather friend (Job 1:9-11). But Job doesn't know any of that. All he knows is that, while his children are off having their feast, news comes to him about the destruction of his flocks (Job 1:13-17). And then another messenger comes and says, “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you” (Job 1:18-19).

And Job grieves a grief deeper than I can understand, deeper than just about any of us can understand. No one should have to receive news of the death of a child on the verge of the prime of life. And yet there are some members in our church family who have had to bury sons or daughters. There are some members of our church family who have felt a pain more painful than any other in the world, a pain that to this day has not really gone away. That pain is a pain reserved only for a mother or father's love. So I'd say imagine – but most of us really can't imagine – Job's pain when he hears that all ten of his beloved children have been killed in one and the same event – that all ten bodies are trapped in the dreadful rubble of the same house.

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshipped” (Job 1:20). Job never took them for granted while they were alive. And at their death, he is completely and utterly broken, as much so as it's possible to be – or at least, until Satan compounds it by making him repulsively ill and stripping away his support network, too. Make no mistake: Job is in radical grief for the remainder of the story. He has a lot of questions, a lot of objections, and a lot of internalized rage as well as sorrow – that all comes to the fore in the debate poems throughout the book. There is no platitude that will satisfy Job. No “They're in a better place.” No “God must have needed another angel.” No “Everything happens for a reason.” Trite answers and explanations are, in fact, what got Job's so-called friends in mortal danger by the last chapter. Job is reduced to grief, and there really is no explanation that will satisfy him, no words that will make it all better – only time and the presence of God can soothe a wound like this.

But notice what Job does. I mean, first, Job grieves – that much is clear. He grieves and doesn't let any misplaced sense of social propriety stand in his way. He doesn't put on a happy face, he doesn't try to be strong, he doesn't limit his tears; no, he rips up his clothes and shaves his head and throws himself in the dirt. But second, he worships. He doesn't turn his back on God, even if he has a lot of mixed feelings about God. Even when he can't see any justice, even when he doesn't trace any love, even when he isn't sure what's going on, Job worships: “In all this, Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22). And then, at the end of the story, Job finds new life on the other side of tragedy. Nothing can replace his ten children – not even the next ten children. But Job learns how to experience joy and happiness again, even under the far-reaching shadow of past grief and loss. Job finds it in his heart to welcome more children, to love them on equal terms with those who came before. Job refuses to be incomplete or to remain a hostage to past tragedy, even while his love for his lost children remains strong as ever. As a father, Job loves all his children deeply.

Sixth, as a father, Job extended his fatherhood beyond the family. He says it himself: “When I went out to the gate of the city, when I prepared my seat in the square..., I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to help him. … I was a father to the needy” (Job 29:8-16). Job acted in a fatherly role to people outside his family, especially those who had no father figure, no mentor, no provider. And Job stepped into that role for so many people. Never failing in his devotion and commitment to his own household, Job offered his fatherly mentorship to others who had a need for provision, protection, and guidance – Job took under his wing those whose lives were most unlike his.

And seventh, as a father, Job learned fatherhood from God. This is something that only becomes truly apparent when you start to get into the deep theology of the Book of Job, but it's very interesting. A few things tie the book together. First, Job is portrayed almost as an Adam figure. Job lives in “the east,” that mystical land in Hebrew consciousness where God planted his garden in the beginning. Job lives an idyllic life, almost like he dwells in the garden; and just like Adam, Job has every blessing of material wealth he could possibly want. And yet that's not quite enough to satisfy God. At the opening of the text, Job is a “son of the east.” But he stands in contrast to those who meet in heaven: the “sons of God.”

And so what Job does for his sons – sanctifying them by sacrifice – God does for Job. Through fire and the mighty Spirit coming against the four corners of the house like an altar, Job's household ascends to God as a sacrifice. Job himself is described at the beginning as 'blameless,' unblemished, like an animal fit for sacrifice (Job 1:1). And so through his trials and through his questions, Job becomes a living sacrifice fit to be treated as one among the sons of God, whom God addresses from the heart of the storm. Job, perfected through suffering, comes to experience God as a Father. And so when Job goes on to raise his second batch of sons and daughters, and when Job lives on as a patriarch into the lives of his grandsons to the fourth generation (Job 42:16-17), he does it as a father learning from the Father. It's fitting, because as it turns out, scholars' best idea of what the name 'Job' means, judging from how it's spelled in Canaanite writings, is as a question: “Where is my father?” And through these experiences, Job found the answer to his life's big question.

As a father, Job is a provider for his family. As a father, Job is fair to his sons and daughters. As a father, Job is a role model of a wise and godly life. As a father, Job is a spiritual leader and intercedes for his children's spiritual health. As a father, Job loves his children deeply. As a father, Job is a mentor and protector to others who need a father figure. And as a father, Job becomes a son of God and learns to imitate God's fatherhood. And that, you could say, is Job's strategy of surprising success.

So what's the practical take-away? Today, after all, is Father's Day – a day when we honor our fathers for their fatherhood, and when the fathers among us receive that recognition. For those of us here who have had a father like Job – a fair provider, a role model, a spiritual leader who loved you, and so on – if that's been your experience, be glad and rejoice in that! It's something to celebrate.

But there are others here whose fathers may have been very unlike Job. Maybe your father didn't provide for your family, and you grew up in needless poverty. Maybe your father wasn't fair-minded and didn't treat you and your siblings equally. Maybe your father set a poor example, and you're still trying to untangle it. Maybe your father wasn't a believer or otherwise didn't give you spiritual nurture in your upbringing. Maybe your father didn't show you much love. Maybe your experience with your father on earth makes it hard not to bring that negative baggage with you when you hear about “our Father who art in heaven.” Maybe they were all-around bad examples, or maybe they were like other saints in the Old Testament: they loved God but just weren't so strong in that one crucial area of life all the time. Whichever it was, if that's been your experience, still there are Jobs out there, and the one God who can revive and restore us where our pasts are dead and broken.

Or maybe you are a father. And maybe you're a father on the same track as Job. Or maybe you haven't had much success in the home, and you're not very much like Job. Or maybe you're somewhere in between. But if you're a father, whatever kind of father you've been, you can be like Job in fatherhood. And you can be like Job because you have available to you the power and presence of Jesus, the Last Adam, the One Greater Than Job. Jesus, as the Son of God, was offered up as a sacrifice – on that old rugged cross, he suffered sufferings that even Job could never understand. And yet, on the other side of it: behold, our Redeemer lives! And through his mighty rushing Spirit, he re-creates us as children of his Father, the Teacher of All True Fatherhood. And as living sacrifices and children of God, we can be all we need to be – including, if it's our lot in life, a good father. Thanks be to our Father for his unfailing love, through his Son and Spirit, who live and reign with him: one God, world without end. Amen.

[Credit for many insights in the seventh point is due to Toby J. Sumpter's essay "Father Storm: A Theology of Sons in the Book of Job," in The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift in Honor of James B. Jordan.]

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