Friday, September 09, 2011

A Sermon for Grace (circa January 1997)

This evening I have a rare opportunity to speak as a pastor and a father during the dedication of our daughter to the Lord. I know that my comments tonight are no more unusual than those that would be offered by any father who could speak his thoughts before this congregation. Yet, I am compelled to speak not simply because I am your pastor, but more importantly to me, because I am Grace’s father. And, if there were ever a time that I would want to offer a sermon just for her, it would be now, before she hears too much. For the world is filled with opinions, competing voices that masquerade as friends with good advice. Since Grace is only two months old, the only voices that seem to matter to her now are her mother’s, brother’s, sister’s, and father’s. When I enter her room, she turns her head to look for me, as if I’m the only one she hears. I like it when she looks at me. But recently, the joy of her steady gaze has brought to my mind the weighty responsibility that I will be a voice that she will count on when she makes her way into the noisy world. As she grows up, I don’t expect to drown out the sound of other’s with my opinion—even when I shout in a heated argument over a boy friend, or school work, or career choices, or life decisions. But I don’t want to be ignored, either. It’s too much to expect that she will always hear the voice of God in my words; she will not always heed my advice and I will not always speak the words of God. Nevertheless, I’m hoping and praying that, tonight, as we entrust the care of our children to Our Heavenly Father, my daughter will stand one day before a congregation of believers, dedicating her daughter to the Lord with the same anxious desires, trusting that God will do for her child what He has done for my child. This sermon is for Grace.

I’ve been spending some time recently in the book of Job. Grace, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. The timing of your arrival, the third child in our family, has nothing to do with my interest in Job’s story. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how vulnerable we are as humans—how risky life is. Many of us would like to think that life comes with a promise of satisfaction guaranteed. But that is not the case. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow. Uncertainty leads to anxiety because every day we read in the papers, hear in news reports, that someone else has fallen—knocked down by the unsuspecting blows of evil and suffering. We wonder if it will ever happen to us, if the difficulties of life will fall upon our family, robbing us of the joy of living. That’s why we are all drawn to the story of Job. As a book of Wisdom, I’ve been searching its pages looking for clues, knowing that his story could be my story, your story, our story.

Job is every man. His desire to protect his children from the result of their sin illustrates very well the paternal impulse of every father. From the moment that your mother and I were told that you would be born, I’ve had this powerful urge to do everything I can to protect you. Sometimes, I feel like its my responsibility to keep you from harm, to ward off any possibility that you could be hurt, to protect your welfare. As parents, we all fall into the trap of thinking that we can create a utopia for our children, a garden of Eden, where life will always be as pleasant as taking a walk in the coolness of a summer night, and where the effort of your hands will always produce crops without weeds. But then we remember that we don’t live in Eden, that we have welcomed you into a world filled with thorns and thistles, and (the most sobering thought of all) that we are not creators—we are creatures of God’s hand just like you, just like Job. That’s the lesson, ultimately, that Job learned: that he is not God. It sounds too simple to be profound. You would think that, as human beings, we would never get our roles mixed up with God’s. But we do. Made in His Image, we are able to protect sometimes, create sometimes, rule sometimes, will our will sometimes. We have just enough success to foster this grand idea that we can control our destinies, that we have the power to create the future, that we can protect, defend, insure our own welfare as well as the welfare of our children. But then life reminds us, just as He reminded Job, that the world is fragile, time is uncertain, and that we are not our own.
Grace, I can be your father; I cannot be your God. Many things are out of my hands, beyond my control. I have to trust God that He cares for you more than your mother and I do. That He has your best interests at heart, that He will watch over you when I cannot, that He will guide you when I am gone, that He will be your God.

To be sure, I’ve made the mistake (perhaps like Job) of trying to be all things for my family. Although God has given me the privilege of experiencing the joy of fathering children, He will not share the exclusive right of being The Provider for all children. He reminds me of that often. When we brought your brother home from the hospital, like most first-time parents, neither your mother nor I could sleep that first night. Both of us kept waking up, putting our hands on his little body to make sure that he was still breathing. After surviving a few nights at home, we began to gain the confidence that we could do this—that we could watch over our child and protect him from harm. But things got progressively worse. As Andrew grew, life got riskier. At first, he was a one-dimensional creature. We put him on the blanket, he stayed on the blanket. We could even leave the room, return, and still find him where we left him. But then, he developed into a two-dimensional creature. He starting crawling around, moving to and fro. We found that we could no longer leave him in a room for any length of time. Evidently, all those times he looked liked he was innocently entertaining himself, looking around the room unable to go anywhere, he was secretly planning his strategy, taking inventory of everything he wanted to get his hands on when he could crawl. Not to be outdone by a six-month old, your mother and I secured the premises, trying to make our home child-proof. Just when we thought we had everything under control, Andrew graduated to three-dimensional status. He joined the world of the vertical. He learned to walk. At first, I tried to go everywhere he went, anticipating every fall, removing every obstacle. But that didn’t last long. Bumps and bruises are the prices paid for experimenting with the laws of gravity. I found that I was better at damage control than creating the optimum environment where a baby could learn to walk without the risk of falling. To pick him up when he fell, to doctor a scrape on his knee, to assure him that everything would be all right, this seemed to be my predestined role as father.

It’s hard breaking the news to your child that the world can be a harsh place. That bad things happen to good people, that good people can be cruel sometimes, that we all sin and fall short of what God hopes for us. That we all die. We want to keep that part a secret as long as we can. Adults don’t like talking about death; who looks forward to telling their children the truth? Last week your sister asked your mother about death. We were all in the car, driving past a cemetery, when Emma said, “Mom, is that the place where ghosts live?” Your mother delicately tried to tell her that cemeteries are for people. She couldn’t conceive of such a thing. As your mother tried to explain to a five-year-old girl about the reality of life and death, my heart died inside. I remember the first time it happened, when Andrew asked me a question about death and dying as we were driving down the road. I didn’t want to tell him the truth. I wanted to make something up, or assure him that he didn’t need to think about such things. But I told him the truth, for his own good.

Why does birth make us think of death? Why do those at the end of their lives seem to delight more than the rest of us at the sight of a baby? Why do we recall with vivid detail the birthday of our children and the death day of our parents, and much of life in between is a vague memory? Why do flowers greet the arrival and mark the departure of human life? Why did we cry tears of joy and sorrow? Because life is unpredictably desirable. Despite the risk, the disappointments, the sadness, we dare to hope that life is good because God is. Which brings me to the verse, Grace, that I want to share with you tonight. It is an incredibly honest verse. In the middle of his search for wisdom, Job exclaims, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless, I will argue my ways before Him” (Job. 13:15). I’m sure that you will find many passages in God’s Word that will help you find your way. I offer this one to you knowing that, to many, Job 13:15 may not sound like a very appropriate verse for the dedication of a two-month old baby girl. Nevertheless, I hope that you will add it to your list of favorite verses of the Bible, because I think the entire story of Job (and our story, too) is boiled down to this one truth: when it is all said and done, from the beginning to the end, God is our hope.

It means something to me that a man like Job would say something like this. He had come to the point where he knew hope would die if he could not believe. Even though he says God had been cruel to him (30:21), Job would rather hope in a God who does not explain himself than give up hope altogether. What I like about Job’s conclusion to life’s dilemma is not just that he is unwilling to stop believing, but that he refuses to stop talking. The fact that he is willing to take his case to God, “arguing his ways before Him,” tells me more about God than it does about Job. Although Job reminds me of Jacob, who refuses to let go of God until he is blessed (and has a life of pain to show for it), the one I admire most in the story is God. God lets Job talk. He lets him work it out, to talk it out, to take his case to God. Job questions the justice of God and heaven is silent. Job claims that there is no benefit to living a pious life, and no judgment comes. Job dares God to kill him with the truth, and no fire falls from the sky. Why is God so patient, so tolerant, so merciful? Because He knows that Job doesn’t know the whole story. We know the whole story, we’ve read chapters 1 and 2. We know why Job suffers, although Job doesn’t understand. We know why God doesn’t answer, although Job can’t hear. We know why God is merciful, although Job can’t see it. We know because we’ve read the Bible.

Do you see, little one? This is good news. God will be merciful to us, too, because Job’s story is our story. There will come a time in your life when you find yourself questioning the purposes of God. You will experience heartaches that will leave you disappointed with God. You will tell Him what you really think, how you are really upset, how you are so confused, and He will listen. He will listen to every word because He loves you more than any of us do, because He knows the whole story, because He knows that He is our only hope.

Which is why we are here tonight. He is the reason your mother brought you before this congregation of believers. He is the reason your brother and sister listened patiently as they watched you being dedicated to God. He is the reason your father speaks to you now. We hope in a God who gives Grace.


Darryl Schafer said...

Beautiful. I know your words are for Grace, but if you don't mind, I'll take them in, as well.

Darryl Schafer said...

And I don't know if it was your intentions, but this is very fitting given everything this Sunday entails.