"Launching them into the Future"

June 16, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Genesis 22:1-14 and 1 Samuel 14:43-44


The other night, Karen drew my attention to the difference between how we celebrate Mother's Day and Father's Day in the church. It seems that whereas in May we thank mothers for their many contributions to family life, in June we challenge fathers to try harder. Is she right?

Well, let's first start out by affirming that fatherhood is good! One of life's great blessings is not only to have a father, but also to be a father. Granted, some fathers have not lived up to their calling. Likewise, those of us who are fathers may know our faults all too well. Still, it's great to be a Dad, isn't it? Not just on the bright days when our kids adore us, or at least say they do; but also on the rougher days when real parenting happens.

While roles are changing a bit in the family, there still is a difference between motherhood and fatherhood, isn't there? Maybe it comes down to how we use our arms. A mother's task is to embrace, beginning with those first moments of sustanance at her breast, if not before. A father's task is to launch. Of course, fathers also embrace, and mothers also launch.

Yes, to be a father is to embrace our young ones, though our arms may become less literal as the years go by - especially when it comes to our sons. An important part of who we are as fathers, however, is also the launching, the sending forth of our children into the world. It doesn't happen all at once. There are little launchings all along the way. It's risky business to launch our offspring. It involves a great deal of trust: trust that we've properly prepared them for the next step - thus trust in our own ability; but also trust in something beyond us.

Is it a father's task to lay a firm foundation against which a young person can get a grip in stepping out? I believe so. If we're to launch our youth, we need solid footing ourselves, just as they do. Maybe that's why Father's Day sermons are often full more of challenge than of thanksgiving. Hopefully, Dads, you've heard some of the gratitude. How about we now move on to the great challenge?

This morning I want to connect us up with two fathers in the Bible. One we've already heard about: Abraham in relation to his son Isaac. The other is King Saul and his son Jonathan. These men are in different stages of life as we view them. Abraham's son is a boy in the episode we just heard. Of course, we need to remember that Abe was himself no spring chicken, but a "late in life" father. In the story as told in 1 Samuel 14, King Saul's son is a young adult, and Saul is at an earlier life stage than Abraham. Still, both these men, in the scriptures to which I'm referring, face a common challenge as fathers. As I said, launching our children involves a huge amount of trust. These stories are about trust, trust and challenge. Ready?

Let's first turn to the incident we did not hear, from the first book of Samuel in the Old Testament. Saul was the first "King" of Israel, a man of strength and valor, someone who could inspire others to follow. He was also a pious man, though it was this very characteristic that proved to be a problem between him and God. He was "religious," but sometimes his piety was not firmly grounded. He easily forgot the purpose behind his acts of faith. For this reason the God who chose him to be King rejected him.

Throughout Saul's reign, Israel's common adversaries were the Philistines. In chapter 14 of 1 Samuel, things were going poorly against them until Saul's son, Jonathan, took the initiative and made a bold, personally risky strike on a Philistine outpost. The element of surprize sent the enemy into chaos. Sensing the changing advantage, Saul sent his forces into battle. In the process he made them vow not to eat anything until the contest was over, under threat of God's curse if they disobeyed.

Now, fasting is an effective spiritual discipline. Not only does it help focus the mind and spirit, but it also works for the health of the body, as brother Dave Fouts pointed out a month ago. When Saul sent his troops forth with this discipline, he had the best of intentions. He was seeking to fulfill his responsibility with God, to trust in God's hand to save and not in his own. As I said, Saul was a pious man. He trusted God's promise to deliver Israel. He was a bit rash, though, in his piety.

Unfortunately, word of this oath didn't get to Jonathan, until after he broke it in front of the troops. When they informed him of his father's command, he didn't see any sense in it, and went right on eating. The soldiers around him, being mighty hungry at this point, followed Jonathan's example. In fact, they sort of went hog-wild. They won the battle and fell upon the cattle, slaughtering them on the spot like savages. Not a pretty sight. A major commandment was broken. Saul tried to bring some order to it all, but the damage had been done.

What's important for us to catch this morning is what happened when they tried to make things right with God. It was discovered that Jonathan, the real hero of the day, was the guilty party. Without regret, Jonathan conceded that he had eaten and violated the oath. "Here I am, I will die," he said to his Dad. To which Saul replied, "God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan!." The King was prepared to sacrifice his own son for what he thought was right. To find out what happened, you're going to have to read the last part of 1 Samuel 14 for yourself.

Here, Saul was ready to sacrifice his son. Was it really an act of trust in God? ...Launching our children into the world is a sacrificial act. When we nudge them forward, challenging them to fly, we do so with shaking knees. Will they succeed? Will they fail? Are we ready for their success, or failure? Sometimes success is as hard to swallow as failure - that certainly was the case with Saul. At this stage in the game, Jonathan was not just Saul's son, he was also his rival as King.

Launchings are exciting and frightening, aren't they? We trust that we have done the Dad and Mom work to the best of our abilities. We also know all-too-well the many failures that accompany our successes in parenting. Therefore, we lean heavily upon a higher trust - a trust in God's promise. These children we launch are ultimately not our own. They are God's children. We trust that God will be faithful, and will deliver them from evil.

Let's turn, now, to Abraham and Isaac's story. Like Saul, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his own son. This is, undoubtedly, one of the most disturbing narratives in the Bible. This is no simple, pious act on the part of Abraham. Unlike Saul, he did not arrive at this point through his own imprudence. God had earlier promised that this childless man would become the father of a great nation. Upon this promise, Abraham stepped out by faith. After many years of trusting in this promise without any result, finally along came Isaac. As it turned out, Isaac was it. The promise depended on this kid. And God then commanded the unthinkable. Sacrifice Isaac. Say "yes," Abraham, to the promise. Say "yes," Abraham, to the command. He did say "yes" ... to both.

Of course, we know the rest of the story - how Abraham went to the brink, with his knife raised, ready to do what was right. Like Saul, he was willing to sacrifice his son. But he, unlike Saul, was trusting in what he could not comprehend. His faith was not in his own sacrificial act, his own piety. Rather, it was in the One who was calling him to do the incomprehensible. This One did provide an alternative, but not before Abraham's faith was tested to the uppermost. "Jehovah-Jireh," Abraham called that place. "God will provide."

As I said, launching our children is itself a sacrificial act: from nudging first steps to propelling first bike rides; from the first day of Kindergarten to the day after graduation; from their wedding day to our dying day. We place our trust, ultimately, in the One whose commands we may not fully comprehend. In a way, parenting is a test: Do we really trust God's promise - even as we see all the dangers that surround our children, whether they be young or grown? The knife which can pierce their heart may not be in our hands (though sometimes it is). Still, we place them on the altar by releasing them, by sending them forward.

Do we trust, really trust in the One who will provide a way for them in this world? Do we trust in God's resurrection power - which resides much closer than our dying day? Every launching is a resurrection, you know. Something old is dying, but something new is being born - the promise of resurrection. That's why people cry at weddings. I wonder if fathers don't feel the knife's edge as they walk their daughters to the altar. Marriage is a risk. When this woman and man say "I do," family as it once was dies. A new family is born. We trust in the promise they make to each other. Lord knows, though, how much more we trust in "Jehovah-Jireh," in our God who will provide "till death do us part" and beyond.

Well, fellow fathers, we do have a great challenge. Ours is a vital role. Yes, may these arms embrace our children. But may these arms also wisely launch them into the future - toward God's promise. Like Abraham, let's say "yes" to the promise, and "yes" to the challenge. God will provide the way.

1996Peter L. Haynes

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