Sermon for Sunday, February 15, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani
THE FAMILIES OF MEN AND THE FAMILY OF GOD
The mood in America is bleak - as dark as it's been in decades. Whatever the objective problems, fears about possible disaster make them worse. Most of us are still working; some are not. But experienced adults wonder: Will I have a job in two years? Young adults wonder if opportunities will open for them as they have for others. I hope to offer a Christian perspective of the economy soon, but today: The family of God and how it bears on hard seasons of life.
In 1992, our youngest child had a serious eye injury. Within hours she was in surgery, but since our families lived far away, we were alone. A hospital waiting room is a dreary place; this one was dreary even by hospital standards - until our Christian brothers and sisters began to arrive, to sit quietly with us, to tell stories, to bring a sandwich, even when we said we weren't hungry. They were our family until our daughter emerged from a procedure that proved to be effective.
My mother said, "I wish I could have been there. I wish you lived closer." But God called us to work that took us far from home, so the church became our family. But just as families can be broken, so the church can be too. To live well as disciples, we need to get church and family life right. Matthew 12 helps us do so.
1. The family of Jesus (Matthew 12:46-50)
His physical family
One day Jesus was teaching a large crowd. At the end he called them to a decision, to choose sides: "Whoever is not for me is against me." Are you on Jesus' side or not? Just then, his mother and brothers arrive. He is inside a house; they can't reach him because crowds surround him. Someone relays the message. "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you" (12:46-47).
At this time, Jesus' family did not yet believe in him. Once, when Jesus was surrounded by a large crowd, his family got wind of it and came to drag him home, saying, "He is out of his mind" (Mark 3:21). John 7 reveals that "his own brothers" scoffed at him. Jesus' family appears to think they are free to interrupt him, even in the midst of a teaching session. He should stop what he is doing and come to them. This probably seemed reasonable to everyone there, but Jesus persistently put the Kingdom ahead of the family.
Once a disciple said he would follow Jesus as soon as he buried his father. There was no higher duty in the ancient world than to see to a parent's proper burial; it remains a high duty to this day. But Jesus tells the man to put him first and to "let the dead bury their own dead" (Matthew 8:21-22).
Later Jesus said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth… For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother… a man's enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:34-38).
We must love our families, but we must love Jesus more. For his sake, if necessary, we must let our family become our enemy. Since Jesus follows his own counsel, he does not stop what he is doing when his family arrives. He answers with a question: "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" (12:48).
He waves to the crowd, "Here are my mother and brothers" (12:49). Are they all Jesus' family? Not necessarily. "Whoever does the will of the Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (12:50). His true family is the family of God.
2. The spiritual family of faith
Hear the lessons. First, Jesus said his physical family can wait. He will not forsake God's family to please his biological family. He surveys his spiritual family and says his physical family can take its place beside them.
Second, Jesus said his spiritual family is open. Whoever does the will of the Father is his spiritual family. He does not say, "Whoever obeys the Father can enter my family." We don't earn entrance in God's family or become brothers and sisters of Christ by our obedience. Rather, "We identify ourselves as the brothers and sisters of Christ by our obedience." 1
Third, Jesus points us to himself. Those who do the Father's will are the members of Jesus' family. But where do we find the Father's will? Jesus will teach us. That teaching points us to Jesus himself and to faith in him.
Jesus' family expected preferential treatment because they were blood relatives. Everyone thought that way in the ancient world. They identified people three ways: by paternity and geography. People identify Jesus this way: as Jesus, the supposed son of Joseph (Luke 3:23, John 1:45, 6:42) and as Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 21:11, 26:71; Mark 1:9, 16:6; Luke 4:34, 18:37; John 1:45-46, 19:19). Paul is "Saul from Tarsus" (Acts 9:11, 21:39, 22:3).
To this day, people still largely define themselves by family – especially if you have a rare last name like Smith. In St. Louis, we use home town and high school. It locates people on the social grid.
Jesus tells us to define ourselves by our allegiance to him. We should not ask, "Where are you from?" or, "Who is your father?," but "What God do you serve?"
Jesus says loyalty to him trumps or supersedes loyalty to family. He gives first loyalty to his disciples, not his mother and brothers when they call on him. Jesus loved his family. He respects family as God's institution. But if there is a conflict, the love of God and his people comes first.
Suppose a skeptical parent despises the faith of a young adult. The parent says, "You'll grow out of it; you're just going through a religious phase." That young adult must politely but firmly say, "This isn’t like skate-boarding. I will not grow out of this; I will grow into it." If a close relative says, "If you really love me, you will stop reading the Bible and praying". Then we must say, "I do love you, but I cannot stop; I cannot turn off my relationship with the Lord.” So Jesus put the family of God first, even while he held his family in high regard.
3. Jesus loves the family – and sees its warts
Jesus had to distance himself from his family's claims on him, but he still loved his family. Every word from the Cross was laden with meaning. One of his "words" from the Cross is for his mother. With his beloved disciple John and his mother Mary at his feet, he directed them to each other: He told Mary "Woman, behold your son" and told John, "Behold your mother" (John 19:26-27). So he loved his mother even on the Cross.
Jesus also loved his brothers. They were skeptical about him during his ministry. They were confused, probably envious of his powers, his popularity, even his goodness. At one point, they mockingly urged him to go to Jerusalem so everyone could see his wonders. But after his resurrection, he appeared to his brothers and they came to strong faith – even became church leaders
By his example and his teaching, Jesus urged us to honor the family. He told his disciples to honor father and mother. Lip service will not do. If their parents are in need, children should meet that need, and let nothing stand in the way (15:4-9, 19:9).
He is realistic about the family. Jesus loves the family, but he does not romanticize it. The family is as fallen as any other human institution. Marriages end in divorce, parents are cruel to children. Jesus did not come to praise the family but to redeem it. Every family can bring joy to its members, but the family's highest glory and joy comes when it puts God first. God designed the family and knows it is a society of sinners. It blesses us most when we don't expect too much from it, when we give it secondary honor.
If we believe this, we must put God first in the family. Activities and entertainment options entice each family member to go their separate way. Even in happy families, everyone can withdraw to their room. A godly family resists this, and makes time to read the Bible and pray together. At meals, we do more than report on the joys and sorrows of the day. We take them to the Lord. We sanctify every pleasure and consecrate every pain, through God's truth and prayer.
Jesus also teaches us to adjust our goals for the family. When we focus on the physical family, we tend to seek time alone for ourselves with the world at bay. That is necessary at times. But a godly family is open, too. There is a place at the table; we find a bed. In the neighborhood we shovel the snow, prepare a meal for someone who can't.
Some will say: We need time alone, by ourselves. So true. Yet if we plan wisely, we enrich our family when we open it up to others – to friends and interesting strangers.
In the Bible, the gleaning laws show one way Israel's families could be open to others. The law of Moses says Israel's farmers must not scour their fields to pick up every stray head of grain or piece of fruit. It's hard work to glean the leftovers; but let the alien, the widow and the fatherless do it. That is, don't harvest or keep every asset for use by your family. Share with others, especially with the needy.
Today, we should make room for orphans, widows and wanderers at our table – and let them do the dishes. Jesus' disciples need to make room for all God's people in their hearts and at their tables – young or old, married or single.
Do you know that millions of people have never known a healthy family? They know nothing but tension, yelling, grabbing, coldness and selfishness. Members of God's family should open their doors and hearts to people who need a glimpse of a godly home where they can see love, respect and affection hour by hour.
OK. The church is God's family and we need to live like it. But let's be honest, God's family is broken, just as human families are broken. Remember: The church is the one "club" where you must declare "I am unworthy" to get in.
To gain admission to most organizations, we must present our credentials. To enter the church we present anti-credentials: I am unworthy to enter. But Jesus has invited me. Still, once we enter there are rules for society. Let me suggest three. First, loving-kindness, then loving speech and service. Start with service.
Three keys to family life in the church
Loving service (Galatians 6:2-5, 9-10)
Paul makes two statements which we must hold in dynamic tension: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" and "Each one should carry his own load" (Galatians 6:2, 5). To make sense of this, we need to define the terms. The word “load” in 6:5 roughly means a back pack. On a hike, everyone should carry their own water. When life is normal we should not expect others to perform our basic duties for us – wash our dishes, provide our living. This is biblical and common sense and it is consistent with the command of 6:2: "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." The burden is a different term. It is a heavy load, too heavy for one person to carry.
This command assumes that Christians will have burdens, burdens too heavy for them to bear. Paul just mentioned the burden of sin – getting caught in a sin and having a hard time getting out. Sometimes we get stuck in a sin – it may be anger or envy or despair or lust. We cannot break free and "those who are spiritual should gently restore" that struggling brother or sister.
There are other burdens: sorrow following death or great illness, failure, rejection, loneliness, divorce, depression, disability, strong fear, or anxiety. The loss of a job or the potential loss of a job can be a great burden. It can lead to poverty, hence to stress in the family. It can lead to anxiety, to loss of identity.
In an important way, God bears our burdens. Jesus bore our greatest burden – the burden of sin and guilt. Truly he alone could bear it. The Lord is willing to bear our other burdens, our anxiety, our fear. Psalm 55 says, "Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall."
But the Lord often lightens our load by sending fellow Christians "to do some of the carrying." If we are weary, perhaps it's because we are trying to carry too much weight by ourselves. God has made us his family and we all need to be ready to pitch in, to work for each other. "This means we do not need to keep all our troubles to ourselves." 2
In fact, it means we must not keep some burdens. When they are too heavy, we must let each other help. How? Tell a few close friends. Tell a pastor or another spiritual leader. Tell someone! The Lord does not want us to bear burdens alone, keep them to ourselves. Let them carry the load. They will do that in various ways: Prayer, words of sympathy and encouragement or a hug. They may also take practical steps – sharing a resource, bringing food.
Let's apply it to the economy: Some of us have lost a job. Some are working but hardly earning anything. Worse, we don't know what's next. First, don't bear this burden alone. Tell a friend. Friends can pray, offer encouragement, keep eyes and ears open for an opportunity for you.
I hope you already have friends here – C-group, discipleship, Wednesday night, Sunday School communities. If you don't have friends, look into one of these. Or, come this Thursday at noon. A small group prays about these things. Some people are also working on "find a job" resources but it's not quite ready yet. If in dire need, let a pastor, elder or deacon know. Don't try to bear your burden alone. Tell someone as the first step in letting the family of God bear your burden.
When we do this "we fulfill the law of Christ" (6:2). That law was given by Christ; he said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus also demonstrated it by becoming our neighbor – in the incarnation – and then loving us as neighbors. If you are needy, let others fulfill the law of Christ. If you are able, look for ways to love your neighbors.
Lovingkindness (Ephesians 4:31-32)
Love is both an action and an attitude. At best, it is both a way of feeling and a way of acting. Of course, sometimes we feel but cannot act. Unless we're in the medical field, we can't do much to heal a friend – pray and visit, but we should do what we can. Other times you need to act, even if you don't feel like it, because no one but you can perform this duty. You have the skill or the position to get it done, like it or not!
Now, Ephesians 4 says that once a believer follows Jesus and knows him, he must no longer live like a pagan. Believers have "put on the new self, created to be like God" (4:24). Therefore, he says, "get rid of" pagan attitudes: "all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling, slander [and] malice." Instead "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." (4:31-32).
To be as kind, compassionate and forgiving as Jesus is a great goal. But it's a challenge. Note especially the way we should love. As an idealistic young Christian, I was surprised to notice that I didn't like everyone in a church I attended. I asked someone how I could love people when I didn't even like them.
I received an answer you may have heard – loving and liking are different: You don't have to like someone to love them. After all, Jesus says, "Love your enemies." How can we love our enemies, people who hate us? The "standard Bible answer" is: The love God requires is "agape" and agape is not an emotion, but a will or resolve to do good to neighbors and enemies. Love is defined by what we do, not the way we feel. Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies and do good to them. Because agape love is dispassionate, we can love our enemies. That's the answer.
This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far. We can love enemies because love is more than a feeling. But love ordinarily involves our feelings. Indeed, the word "agape" often describe affections, desires (Matthew 5:46, Colossians 3:19, 2 Timothy 4:10).
In 1 Corinthians 13, the "love chapter," Paul is certainly talking about attitudes, not just deeds: "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames but have not love, I am nothing." Paul wants more than noble deeds and sacrifices. True love includes attitudes.
When we pray for an enemy, we ask God to be good to them. As we pray, animosity dwindles and compassion increases. Jesus’ love is our source and model. He engaged his enemies and prayed for them. God loved us when we were sinners, rebels - before we believed, before we were reconciled to him. We should "live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us (Ephesians 4:32-5:2).
David says, "As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him" (Psalm 103:13-14). Compassion is the feeling of love. When life goes against family or friends, compassion lets us feel sorrow and sympathy for them. We mourn when they mourn and rejoice when they rejoice, so they know they are not alone in the world. Compassion makes us tender. The Lord will not let us wallow in vague talk.
God told Moses his love is compassionate, merciful and patient (Exodus 34:6). Mercy is undeserved love. Mercy delights to give what no one has a right to ask, including forgiveness: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your lovingkindness; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions" (Psalm 51:1).
Patience is enduring love. It goes to those who are hard to love. And let's face it, everyone is hard to love on occasion. Patience perseveres until love once again comes easily.
If we love, it will show in interesting ways. Example: one day, years ago – 2009 – Central had a calendar problem so they had to schedule a marriage conference and men's conference the same weekend. Both groups were working on their events for a while. For the marriage conference, there was just one day to get their speaker. For the men's conference, only one day worked logistically - renting the retreat center. Here was potential for conflict.
When they saw the schedule, some people were critical: Only fools would put both events on the same day. Some people guessed the worst - rivalry between the sets of planners.
But "love is patient, love is not easily angered, love always trusts." (1 Corinthians 13). Was there disappointment? Yes. But neither group wanted the other to cancel their event. Everyone agreed to make the best of it. A small act of love born of affection and trust. Trust goes a long way, affection goes a long way, in the families of men and in the family of God. Problems shrink and fade. We bear each other's burdens and somehow they don't feel so heavy.
God has given us two families – our natural family and our spiritual family. We are most blessed when both are strong. Today our theme is the spiritual family and the way it strengthens life.
Once I was with a family member in a hospital. Up all night, troubled. Dawn was breaking at 6 a.m. and I had to walk around. Suddenly, I saw a friend in a nearby waiting area. One of our friends told this man what was happening, and asked him to pray for us. He did pray, but he also got up, got dressed, came to the hospital and waited by our room for two hours, guessing that he might see us eventually and that his presence would comfort us. He waited in silence, in the early hours, so that he might became family for us in a time of pain and heartache.
We live in a scattered age. People move. Families break apart. We need to heed the words of Jesus. Who is my mother and father, our sisters and brothers? Whoever does the will of our Heavenly Father is our mother and father, our sister and brother.
We come to communion as to a family meal, planned by our Father, provided by a loving brother, for all who are part of that family by faith. It is a response to love. Above all, the love that provided sacrifice for our sins.
1 Carson, Matthew 300
2 Ryken, Galatians, 248-9