Father's Day is just around the corner (June 21), and should you decide to offer a message for the occasion, Mark Mitchell's look at a portion of the Lord's Prayer might provide some helpful direction for your preaching. For a batch of fresh illustrations on fathers and fatherhood, click here.
I confess that I often allow Father's Day to pass without preaching about fathers. With this sermon, I'm breaking the norm. I want to speak to fathers and about fathers. Specifically, I am going to talk about the responsibilities of fatherhood. What is a father supposed to do? I think there is a certain amount of confusion in our society over this question. Some time ago I had done the premarital counseling for a young man and his wife. It lasted about six months. He's now a father, and he came up to me one day and said, "I think we should require pre-parenting counseling and not just premarital counseling. The adjustment of getting married was nothing compared to the adjustment of becoming a father!" He was expressing what a lot of fathers feel, and most of the difficulty he speaks of comes from simply not knowing what to do.
One of the consequences of this confusion is spiritual in nature. We know that whenever Jesus prayed, he called God "Father." We might say, "Well, of course did! He was God's Son! What else would he call him?" But not only did Jesus call God "Father," he taught us to call God "Father." In Matthew 6, he said: When you pray, say this, "Our Father, who is in heaven."
But there are a lot of people in our society who have a hard time thinking of God as a father—much less calling him that. For them, the word "father" is hardly a term of endearment. It conjures up images of rejection, anger, absence, and even abuse. The spiritual fallout of confused fathers is a generation of people who are at best ambivalent about the fatherhood of God.
That's why I want us to look again at the prayer that Jesus gave us in Matthew 6:9-13. In this prayer we have a model of fatherhood. In this prayer we're told what a father is to do. In this prayer, then, we're told what is reasonable for a child to expect from his or her father. And in this prayer, we learn not to judge fatherhood by our earthly fathers, but rather to judge it by our heavenly Father. Our heavenly Father shows us how to be an earthly father, making it so much easier for our kids to come to God and say that word—"father." We can sum up what this passage teaches us about fatherhood in four words: priority, provision, pardon, and protection.
A father's priority is God.
Three words we will examine—provision, pardon, and protection—show how we learn to be fathers by imitating our Father in heaven. But the first word I want us to look at—priority—teaches us how to be fathers by telling us how to treat our true Father in heaven.
In verse 9, Jesus starts his prayer with these familiar words: "Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be your name." Fathers, I'm not saying that you should expect your children to keep your name hallowed! Instead, this verse reflects the most basic priority you have as a father: for the name of God to be hallowed in your life. When we say "hallowed be your name," we're asking that God be set apart as holy in our lives. It means we don't try to whittle him down to size. It means that we acknowledge that there is no one else like him. It means we know that he is above all other things. He alone is glorious, infinite, eternal, righteous, pure, and just.
When I was a youth pastor many years ago, I used to ask the kids in my group, "What is most important to your parents?" I was always a bit surprised by what they said. Most of them said grades were most important. Some said money or work or "how I do in sports." Few of them said God was the most important thing in their parents' lives—and most of these kids were in Christian homes! When God's name is hallowed in my life, everyone—especially my family—knows that he is the most important thing to me.
Fathers, what would your kids say is most important to you—not what you would say, but what they would say? Is the name of God the most hallowed thing in your life? Someone once said that "truth is caught, rather than taught." You might say that God is the most important thing in your life, but your kids will see beneath the surface. They will "catch" what's really important to you by what you say, by the choices you make with your time and your money, by what you talk about the most, by seeing what gets you most excited, by hearing what you say behind people's backs. That's why what Jesus says next in his prayer is so important: "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." When Jesus speaks of God's kingdom, he is speaking of God's rule and reign. In other words, God is hallowed in our lives when we allow him to rule as king in our hearts. God is hallowed in our lives when doing his will takes precedence over doing our will.
In Romans 12:17, Paul writes, "Never pay back evil to anyone." In essence, Paul says, "Listen, don't take matters in your own hands. Let God take care of it." But how few of us men really do that.
I had a friend who was ripped off by a former employer. To make matters worse, the former employer was a Christian. Everyone told my friend to sue the guy's pants off, but my friend refused to do so because Scripture indicated it would be wrong to sue a brother in Christ. "What would that do to the name of God in our community?" he asked those who were pressing for legal action. Here's what my friend did instead: he wrote the former employee a letter, explaining the toll the whole mess was taking on his family. He then graciously asked the former employee to pay him what he was owed. My friend demonstrated that he was more interested in God's will being done than his will. Because of that, God's name was ultimately hallowed in that situation. Before long, a check arrived in the mail. And you can be sure that keeping God's name hallowed spoke volumes to my friend's family.
A father provides for his children.
The first word that instructs as fathers is the word "priority"—a word hinted at in verse 9. The second word—provision—is hinted at in the next part of the Lord's Prayer. Jesus says that when we pray, we should say, "Give us this day our daily bread." In other words, it's right for us to expect our heavenly Father to provide for us. That's his job as our Father! Later in Matthew 6, Jesus says: Don't worry about what you will eat or drink or wear. Look at the birds of the air. They don't sow. They don't gather food into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You're worth so much more than they are!"
This kind of provision is what an earthly father is called to do for his family. In fact, earthly fathers are the primary means by which our heavenly Father provides for families. The food doesn't just appear in the refrigerator! It's there because the father works. Paul is rather straightforward about this in 1 Timothy 5:8. He writes: "If anyone doesn't provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he's denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."
If you want to encourage your father today, one of the things you might want to say to him is, "Thanks for working so hard," or, "Thanks for providing for our family." That's much better than what dads often hear: "Well, if you made more money, we could buy ________." Far too often a father is left feeling like he doesn't provide enough.
I confess that I have a rather traditional view when it comes to father providing for their families. There are legitimate exceptions to the rule! I just find that in Scripture, God ordains the father—not the mother—as the primary breadwinner. But one quick word of warning: a lot of men think that this mandate gives them permission to bury themselves in their work. The call to provide becomes an obsession so huge that other responsibilities are neglected. It's important to note that Jesus says, "Give us this day our daily bread." He doesn't ask for prime rib. He asks for daily bread. There is a tendency among us men to measure our worth and identity by how much we provide for our families. This is precisely the problem that Jesus was confronting when he said, "Don't worry about what you will eat or drink or wear." As fathers, we have to balance the responsibility to provide with the responsibility to put God first in our lives. I know men who have denied higher paying jobs or promotions because it would leave little time for the other things God has called them to do.
A father pardons his children.
The third word concerning fatherhood that our passage hints at is "pardon." Jesus says, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." As an expression of his love, grace, and mercy, our heavenly Father is a pardoning father, a forgiving father. God understands that a father can provide all the bread in the world for his children, but if he doesn't provide forgiveness, his children will be emotionally and spiritually malnourished. Of course, this pardoning didn't come without a great cost. The Father gave his only Son to secure such a pardon.
Being a father brings a lot of blessing, a lot of joy, a lot of laughter and fun. But it is also quite costly to be a father. The biggest cost is not financial; it is emotional. Fathers must make an emotional investment in their kids. Kids need affirmation, encouragement, expressions of love. And most of all, kids need to be pardoned, forgiven.
At some point in every father's journey, he'll have to offer what feels like a very costly pardon. After all, our kids are sinners—just like us! I believe our kids are growing up in a world where it's much harder than ever to be a follower of Christ. As fathers, we have hopes and dreams for our kids. But sometimes their sin can keep them from realizing those dreams. What do you do when that happens? What do you do when your kid goofs off in high school, and his grades are too low to attend college right after graduation? What do you do when he gets his girlfriend pregnant? What do you do when he gives up on a sport in which he could excel? You might say you forgive them, but will you hold on to the offense? Will you still withhold your love to some degree?
Bill Glass is the founder of Champions for Life, a ministry that shares Christ in thousands of towns, cities, churches, prisons, jails, and youth facilities across the United States. On the day before Father's Day one year, Bill was in North Carolina to visit a juvenile prison. While eating lunch with three boys, Bill asked the first boy, "Is your dad coming to see you tomorrow on Father's Day?" The boy replied, "No, he's not coming." "Why not?" Bill asked. "He's in prison," the boy said.
When Bill asked the second boy the same question, he got the same answer and the same reason for his father not being there. When Bill asked the third boy why his dad wasn't coming, he received the same answer once more, but this time the reason for the boy's father not being there was different. The third boy said, "He got out of prison about nine months ago, and he's doing good. I'm proud of my father. He's really going to be a good dad to me, and he's going to go straight."
Despite the kind words, Bill sensed the boy was hiding something. "How many times has he been here to see you since he got out nine months ago?" Bill asked. "He hasn't made it out yet," the boy replied. "Why not?" "Well," the boy said, "he lives way, way away." "Where does he live?" Bill asked. "He lives in Durham." Bill writes: "Durham was only two hours away. I had come 1,500 miles to visit the boy. His dad couldn't come two hours?"
What was it that kept that father away? Was it that he didn't care? I suspect it was an unwillingness to forgive, an unwillingness to let go. Of course, the key to being able to do that is understanding how much we ourselves need forgiveness. Fathers who haven't internalized the fact that they've received forgiveness from God—and continue to need forgiveness—are simply unable to extend forgiveness.
Bill White, a minister in California, was having one of those evenings when everything goes wrong. The kids were cranky while he was making dinner, so he gave them some hot chocolate to tide them over. His five-year-old son, Timothy, decided to throw his marshmallows at his little sister, knocking her hot chocolate all over her. As she began screaming, the phone rang and the doorbell rang. He decided to answer both—even with a screaming kid in the background. Probably not the best choice! After dealing with both calls, Bill returned to the kitchen, hollered at Timothy, and promptly had two crying kids on his hands. Exasperated, Bill put his daughter in the bathtub and loudly announced that he was so angry he needed a time-out. He slammed the door shut and tried his best to cool off. He writes: "Everything changed about ten minutes later when I caught sight of a yellow piece of construction paper sliding under the door. In the unsteady hand of a kindergartner was scrawled a message of grace that pierced my heart and turned me around: 'From Timothy. To Dad. I still love you even when you're angry.'"
Fathers, do you know God still loves you even when you're angry and bitter and selfish? Do you know how much you need forgiveness from God? From your own kids? If you do, let that forgiveness overflow in your own family. Create a culture of pardon in your home.
A father protects his children.
Priority—a father's first priority must be God. Provision—a father must provide for his family. Pardon—a father must create a culture of forgiveness for his family. Our final word is "protection." A father protects his children.
In our passage Jesus says we must come to our Heavenly Father and pray, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." When we pray this, what exactly do we mean? After all, we know we will still experience temptation in this life, and we know we are all touched by evil. I don't think this part of the prayer is about our asking that we never be tempted. This is an emotional plea not to be tempted beyond our capacity to resist. When we pray this, we're saying, "God, I'm weak. Please keep me from the temptation that will overpower me and cause me to sin. Please don't leave me alone in the face of temptation that will overwhelm me." And that's a prayer God will answer! In 1 Corinthians 10:13, he promises us that "no temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it."
Fathers, in this same manner, your children need you to protect them. This protection is much more than just physical protection, too. Your children need moral and spiritual protection. They need you to be aware of the dangers and evils that are out there. They need you to be aware of the world in which they live. They won't always see what is out there in the same way you see it. For example, your daughter might not see the danger in dating a guy five years older than her. But you do. Your ten-year-old son might not see the danger of playing contact football under the guidance of coaches who think it's the NFL. But you do. Your teenager might not see the danger of listening to music that is degrading and violent. But you do. As fathers, we need to be willing to be unpopular at times in our homes. We need to be willing to say, "No—I'm not going to allow you to do that. I'm going to protect you."
Twenty-six years ago, I became a father. I was just 24-years-old. Like my friend I mentioned earlier, I could have used some pre-parenting counseling! I really didn't know what I was doing. One of the mistakes I made as a young father was that I was way too hesitant to say no. I had placed too high a value on keeping my children happy.
Of course, there are some fathers who take their role as protector to the extreme. They see this responsibility as an excuse to control and dominate. There was an article in The Wall Street Journal a few years back that contained an expression that is hard to forget: "People want to be lightly governed by strong governments." I sometimes think that's the trick to being a dad. We need to be strong, but we need to govern lightly—with gentleness and tenderness. We need to be like a policeman on the corner: tough enough to handle any neighborhood bully, but gentle enough to hoist a child to his shoulders and help them find their way home. We need fathers with a lot of muscle and a lot of restraint.
Perhaps our children want to be lightly governed by strong fathers because that's how God governs. The omnipotent ruler of the universe is also the one who invites us tenderly: "Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
There are four words for us to keep in mind as fathers: priority, provision, pardon, and protection. But it must be said—and I'm speaking now to those who are children of all ages—that every earthly father falls short of this ideal in some way, shape, or manner. You may have an earthly father who didn't even come close to providing for you or pardoning you or protecting you. But I want you to know that you have a heavenly Father who wants to be for you what your earthly father wasn't.
And turning back to those who are fathers, keep in mind that these four things are what you are striving for in your parenting. Priority, provision, pardon, and protection—this is what we mean when we say "father." It's not rocket science, but it's hard work—maybe the hardest work you'll ever do. But with God as our Father, any father can do it.
The best thing about this is that if we do these things—even in our imperfection, our flaws, our mistakes, our sins—we can be a reflection of our children's perfect heavenly Father. And in the years ahead, they'll be far more able to approach God to say these precious words: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."
To see an outline of Mitchell's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________