God Blesses Us with/in/by/through Families
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“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The church was packed for the funeral of a lady in her upper eighties. She and her late husband had had five children, and here they were, along with a whole bunch of grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren. Add in the spouses of the various generations, plus nieces and nephews and their children, and the church was pretty much filled with family, all coming before God to thank Him for this woman’s life and to commend her back to Him.
But what if this woman had not happened to meet her husband way back in the 1940s? What if they had not gotten married? Half of the people in the church, from the middle-aged grandparents to the little kids squirming in the pews, would not exist. The union of that man and woman had consequences they could never have dreamed about, leading to untold numbers of new lives, numerous baptisms, new marriages, and new generations being born. Clearly God was working through this woman along with her husband in the family they had started over sixty years earlier.
The family: what a great gift of God! A gift we have all received to one extent or another. Every Christian—indeed, every human being—has been called by God into a family. Our very existence came about by means of our parents who conceived us and brought us into the world. Now, God could have populated the earth by creating each new person separately from the dust of the ground; but instead He chose to bring forth and care for new life by means of the family. The family is the most basic of all vocations, the one in which God’s creative power and His providential care is most dramatically conveyed through human beings.
Anthropologists affirm that the family is the basic building block of every culture. The family, with its God-delegated authorities, is likewise the basis for every other human authority. Thus the vocation of citizenship has its foundations in the family, and the father’s calling to provide for his children gives rise to his calling in the workplace. And even in the Church, the family is lifted up as an image for the intimate relationship that God has with His people: God is our Father in heaven, we are His children; the Church is the Bride of Christ.
We were born into a family, our very existence being due to a mother and a father. That the very creative power exhibited in Genesis—the capacity to make new life—is manifested in ordinary human beings who come together and have a baby is an incredible miracle. Yet t happens so often that people tend to forget that it is astounding and that it is a miracle—except, usually, when it happens to them. Though mother and father have conceived the child, it is, of course, God who has made the child through them from conception through birth. The psalmist writes of God’s handiwork: “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13).
When babies are born, they must be taken care of in their every need—washed, changed, fed, and comforted. They depend utterly on their parents. This, too, is an image of the dependence we have on God throughout life. Again, God cares for the child through the parents, and their love for their child is an image of the love of God. That is to say, parents are not so much being “like God” as God is operating in and through what they do. He is hidden in the vocation of the parents.
Moreover, parents—like God, or as vehicles of God—work to bring their children to faith in Jesus Christ. The poet Sir Edmund Spenser wrote about how, in the conception of a child, an immortal soul comes into existence, a potential citizen of heaven. It is the parents’ calling to “train up a child in the way he should go.” In his catechisms, Martin Luther rightly assigns the instruction of children in the truths of the faith not merely to pastors but to “the head of the family.”
Part of the way parents exercise their responsibility is to see that their children are raised in the Church. But most of that spiritual nourishing occurs in the context of the family. When Scripture says of the commandments, to “teach them diligently to your children,” it goes on to specify that families should “talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the road, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Family devotions, Bible reading, moral instruction, and—especially important—the mutual forgiveness of sins and the proclamation and application of the Gospel are part of the spiritual formation of children that happens in the family, most often in the ordinary, everyday situations of life.
The remarkable power fathers and mothers have to create, nurture, and shape their children—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—has to do with the fact that God is the true parent. St. Paul writes of “kneel[ing] before the Father from whom all fatherhood in heaven and earth derives its name” (Ephesians 3:14-15). Throughout Scripture, God reveals Himself as our “Father.” Jesus taught us to pray to “our Father in heaven.” He is the source of our lives, our provider, our ultimate authority. For those who do not have fathers in their lives, God promises to be their father directly, the “Father of the fatherless.” That God chooses to exercise His Fatherhood through such earthen vessels is another of His miracles.
Being a child is a high and holy calling, with a particular work and particular obligations. Even when we are still adults, as long as our parents are living, we are children to them, and this continues as a major part of our family vocation. To be sure, a baby does not have much to do—eating, sleeping, excreting, and being at the center of attention of Mom and Dad who wait on him hand and foot. As they grow up, children continue in the vocation. What children do is part of their calling. Playing, for example, is what children do and, arguably, what they are supposed to do. Learning is part of the calling of childhood. Everything they do to grow up is part of their vocation, and it is the one vocation that everyone has had.
Since childhood is a vocation, God hides Himself there as well. Since God is our heavenly Father, human beings are always children to Him. Yet, in the mystery of the Trinity, God is Father, and He is also Son. Jesus Christ is Son of God and Son of man. In His incarnation, He was born as a baby, was subject to His mother and father, and perfectly fulfilled His heavenly Father’s will. Jesus is the divine Child, the model, the source, and the sanctifier of all childhood.
The purpose of vocation is to love and serve our neighbor—in this case, the child’s neighbor is his or her parents. And the work God assigns to children—of every age—is of such importance and moral significance that it is enshrined in the Ten Commandments and repeated in Scripture eight times: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving you”1 The commandment is clear and binding, a moral principle on the order of not killing or not stealing. As a matter of fact, in Leviticus, God tells His people, “Anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (20:9). Proverbs adds a gruesome description: “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures” (30:17). The commandments given at Mount Sinai were to prepare God’s children for life in the Promised Land. The Fourth Commandment connects obedience with being allowed to stay in that land. If Israel obeyed this commandment, they would prosper; if not, they would die out as a people.
So what does it mean to “honor your father and your mother”? In his Large Catechism, Luther speaks at length about this commandment, elaborating on both the high distinction of parenthood and the holy work assigned to children: “To the position of fatherhood and motherhood God has given special distinction above all positions that are beneath it: He does not simply command us to love our parents, but to honor them. Regarding our brothers, sisters, and neighbors in general, He commands nothing more than that we love them [Matthew 22:39; 1 John 3:14].
“In this way [God] separates and distinguishes father and mother from all other persons upon earth and places them at His side. For it is a far higher thing to honor someone than to love someone, because honor includes not only love, but also modesty, humility, and submission to a majesty hidden in them. Honor requires not only that parents be addressed kindly and with reverence, but also that, both in the heart and with the body, we demonstrate that we value them very highly, and that, next to God, we regard them as the very highest. For someone we honor from the heart we must also truly regard as high and great.”2
Unbelievable! Such a high and holy command, and God deigns to give it to children! We are to regard our parents as “high and great.” We are to submit “to a majesty hidden in them.” Thus, honoring parents involves recognizing that in them and in their vocation God Himself is hidden. Looming behind an earthly father and working through him is the heavenly Father. That’s why Luther explains: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”
This commandment covers all of God’s representatives on earth who carry out His will—in the home, in government, and at work. These positions are an extension of parental authority, and, as such are also to be honored as God’s servants for they hold evil and chaos in check. The authorities God gives must be honored and obeyed or all hell—literally—will break loose. Luther explains this further: “God knows very well this perverseness of the world; therefore, He admonishes and urges by commandments that everyone consider what his parents have done for him. Each child will discover that he has from them a body and life. He has been fed and reared when otherwise he would have perished a hundred times in his own filth.”3 “The person who thinks about and considers this will give all honor to his parents without force and bear them up on his hands as those through whom God has done him all good [Psalm 91:12].”4
Luther, ever-realistic, recognizes that parents will still have failings, despite their high calling. Therefore it is necessary that “children should be reminded that however lowly, poor, frail, and strange their parents may be, nevertheless, they are the father and the mother given to them by God. Parents are not to be deprived of their honor because of their conduct or their failings. Therefore, we are not to consider who they are or how they may be, but the will of God, who has created and ordained parenthood.”5
Luther here makes a distinction that is helpful in understanding all vocations—the difference between the person and the office. Vocation is a matter of a person being called to a particular office. The authority, the prerogatives, and the divine presence belongs to the office, not to the person who holds it. One’s parents might be “lowly, poor, frail, and strange,” but they still hold the offices of mother and father. Not by virtue of their own abilities, but because of the creative power in God’s design of the human body, they became parents.
The same goes for other authorities. A judge, for example, is an ordinary person with foibles and faults; but when acting in office, robed with the law and the authority of the state, the judge can exercise powers of life and death. The boss may be a jerk, but an employee must still follow his or her directions. A pastor may be weak in the faith, but by virtue of his office the weddings he performs are still valid, as are, more importantly, his baptisms and the Word he preaches.
The person who holds the office is a sinner in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, and though it is possible to sin in and against vocation—as with parents who harm their children instead of loving them, with pastors who fail to preach and teach the full counsel of God’s Word, or with government officials who care more about getting reelected than serving their constituents—the office itself is a gift of God.
Parents are a gift of God. And the relationship between parents and offspring continues even after children grow up into adulthood. They are still sons and daughters. Therefore the Fourth Commandment applies for life. As long as their parents are living, those parents are to be honored. Discussing the treatment of widows in the church, St. Paul says that “if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4).
Most of us recoil against being dependent on our children. We don’t want to become “burdens.” But dependence is what families are all about. Earlier, children—lying helplessly in their cribs, dirtying their diapers, and needing to be cleaned and fed—are utterly dependent on their parents. There may come a time when their parents become similarly dependent on them. Though the role reversals are traumatic for both sides, repaying our parents and grandparents is all part of the family vocation.
In this context, St. Paul goes on, giving a stern warning: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Rejecting the family is equivalent to rejecting God, since He is in the family. God takes care of us through families! Families are an important part of God’s eternal will and plan. When we honor, love, and respect our parents, we honor God, our perfect parent.
Ultimately, God’s whole purpose and plan is to make us His children. That is why He sent His Son Jesus Christ. St. Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:4-7, ESV).
There is great joy in naming God as our parent. Jesus taught us to pray to Him. With the words, “Our Father who art in heaven,” God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.
God is the Father who loves even the prodigal son. He waits for him, eager to restore him. This Father’s forgiveness is perfect and full and free and eternal. He lifts up His humiliated son. He puts the signet ring of authority back on his finger. He puts sandals on his feet and covers his ragged body with the cloak of dignity. He kills the fattened calf and invites all to celebrate a son restored.
This is what your heavenly Father does each time you enter His house. Though you had strayed from Him, though you still fail to honor Him and the authorities He has placed over you, He loved you enough to send His Son to die to pay for your sins. In Baptism, God names you as His child, and clothes you with the robe of Christ’s righteousness. He invites you to His Table, where His Son is your host—a host who gives His body and blood to fill and restore and renew you. Your loving heavenly Father speaks to you of His extravagant, unconditional, steadfast love: “You are My beloved child. You are forgiven for all your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1(Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16; Matthew 15:4; 19:19; Mark 7:10; 10:19; Luke 18:20; Ephesians 6:2).
2Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (371). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
3Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (373). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
4Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (374). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
5Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (371). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
Many of the thoughts and wording of this sermon come from the works of Gene Edward Veith, Jr., especially God at Work and Family Vocation.