By Sam Harbin
Saturday, May 01, 2004
The sermon begins in a traditional format, then switches into a first-person dramatic narrative format, and finally back to a traditional format for the conclusion. The speaker did not use period costuming for the dramatic narrative portion of the sermon. Platform positioning was utilized to indicate when the speaker was “in character.”
A frustrated father was heard to quip, “By the time a man is old enough to recognize that his father was right, he has a son who thinks he is wrong.” Well, it is Father’s Day again — it’s time to honor that man we used to think was so wrong until we grew up and he suddenly got smart.
We chuckle at the joke, but to be honest the humor awakens a sense of uneasiness in us. From deep within us, we feel that, among all the human relationships we experience in this life, there is something unique about the relationship of fathers and children. There is something about it that runs very deep, that touches close to the very center of our lives. When that relationship is good, it positively affects every other relationship in your life. And when that relationship is bad, it hands you a heartload of pain that chips away at the joy you feel about the good parts of your life. Such is the power of the father/child relationship in God’s world.
Malachi was a Hebrew prophet who apparently recognized the power of that relationship. Ministering about 100 years after the Jews returned from the captivity, he encouraged a people who had rebuilt their temple but failed to rebuild their lives with God. The priesthood was corrupt, worship had become routine, divorce was widespread, social justice was ignored, tithing was neglected. Malachi had plenty of sins to preach against.
That is why it is so unusual that the last words of his prophecy, which would be the last words the Jews would hear from God for over 400 years of deafening silence, are words which talk about the relationship of fathers and children. These words are found on the final page of our Old Testament,
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
Malachi is speaking about that special Elijah-like messenger from God who would come and ultimately point people to Jesus as the Messiah — we know now that special person is John, the Baptist. As a matter of fact, these very words are repeated in
And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
This morning, I would like to examine with you a question related to that phrase, “he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.” This is what I am wondering . . . if John’s job is to point people to Jesus the Messiah, what does knowing Jesus have to do with the relationship with fathers and children? In what way does pointing people to Jesus affect their relationship with their children or with their father?
Since today is a holiday, you are all probably expecting something a little different from the norm, anyway. So, I am most happy to oblige. I have taken the liberty to invite to the platform this morning someone from the day of John and Jesus, one man from the crowds of thousands who heard John preach, a man who might have a unique insight to help us understand what John’s pointing to Jesus has to do with you and your kids or you and your dad.
(Walk to left of pulpit. Head down. Then, assume character stance forward on platform).
“Did I hear somebody say there is a question about something John the Baptizer preached? (Points to the verse on the screen behind him) You mean, about these words, ‘ . . . he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers’? Well, I was in the crowd the day he preached that sermon. It was just a little over three years ago. I’ll never forget his words, I have come to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers.”
“Please forgive me — I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Abraham. No! Not that Abraham, “Father of Many Nations”. I am Abraham Cohan, “Father of Two Teenagers” (two teenagers who really eat a lot, I might add!). I live just outside the city of Jericho with my wife, Hannah, my son, Benjamin, and my daughter, Rachel. I am not proud to tell you that on the day I heard that sermon about turning hearts, my heart had turned away from my two teenage children, and their hearts had turned away from me. Our relationship had been strained ever since they became old enough to realize I wasn’t the hero they earlier thought me to be. As a matter of fact, Hannah’s words from that difficult conversation earlier that week were still ringing in my ears . . . ”
“Abraham, honestly, sometimes it seems that you look for excuses so you won’t have to spend time with your children. You rarely talk to them. And your anger is so unpredictable, they are afraid to talk to you. Abraham, this is a critical time for our children — they will be gone from our home soon. They need you!”
“Hannah — what more can I be expected to do? I work myself weary to put food on their table. I have provided a good education for them.”
“Abraham, when will you understand — they don’t want yours. They want you.”
“Hannah — when will you understand? I am just not good at relationships. Maybe if my father had ever spent any time with me, I would know better what I am supposed to do.”
“There you go again, blaming your father. How can a man you haven’t spoken to in 25 years possibly be at fault for this?”
“You see, our generation has in many ways become the fulfillment of Malachi’s chilling prophecy four centuries earlier. To look upon our families at synagogue, sitting attentively for the reading of Torah, everything looked normal. But, if you could look upon our hearts as we sat there, or peek into our homes later that day, you would see so much anger, so much pain, so much brokenness. In my youth, my own father was warm and sociable at synagogue, but cool and distant in our home. I felt I could never please him — and his angry, demeaning words cut deep wounds upon my heart. After a while, the wounds turned into scars — and those scars left my heart, once tender, calloused with hatred. I said it didn’t matter, I didn’t need him anyway. I would prove it by setting out on my own and never looking back. How sad it was for me, when all those years later, I realized that I had become to my children the very things I despised about my father. It wasn’t hard to imagine that things might break down completely in our society, that God really would come “smite the earth with a curse” — he would come and judge us for our hardness and our hypocrisy.”
“But then, John exploded onto the scene. He was so different from our religious leaders — and he pushed them way out of their comfort zone. I mean, who ever heard of a camel-hair coat on a theology teacher? It was outrageous. And he certainly wasn’t very scrupulous about his diet — locusts and wild honey? (Although someone told me — if you season locusts just right, they taste like chicken). John’s preaching was so huge, so fiery — it wouldn’t have been safe to try and confine one of his sermons to a building. No — you had to stand out under the starry twilight to hear what John had to say. And that voice, crying out . . . bouncing off the rocky landscape, it would just go right through you.”
“John the Baptist was a warrior. He preached against sins which had long been accepted as part of the fabric of our culture — that made lots of people very angry. And John was a poet — he talked in pictures. Axes laid to the root of trees, a brood of serpents, baptism by fire — he really evoked some powerful images. He was a warrior-poet.”
“The day I heard John preach that sermon about turning hearts, I stood close enough to him to see his face. I saw in his face a strength so forceful that it frightened me. But I also saw in his eyes a love so genuine, it was unlike any love I had ever experienced. I had never seen that kind of love in the face of my father, and I certainly had not shown such a love to my children. John explained that the reason people are not able to love each other the right way is that they do not have a right relationship with the true God. He said that once you have the vertical relationship right — then the horizontal relationships will tend to take care of themselves.”
“John’s preaching always convicted me — the sins he named always included some of mine. But his preaching also comforted me — I began to almost hope that things could be different in my life if I just had the right relationship with God. I could not stop listening.”
“Well, I kept listening to John’s voice. I was listening the day he pointed to Jesus, the great teacher from Nazareth, and shouted, Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. I came to understand that John was pointing me to Jesus as the only hope for me to have a right relationship with God. He was pointing me to Jesus as the God who would change my heart toward my father and change my heart toward my children. Finally, I understood the lesson John had proclaimed in that sermon about turning hearts: When you open your heart to Jesus as Messiah — he opens your heart so you can really love your loved ones.”
“It was only a year or so later that John had his appointment with Herod’s executioner. He died with courage and conviction. I continued to follow Jesus and listen to his teaching. One day, the Master made a statement that at first I heard to be a contradiction of what my good friend John had taught me . . .
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. (
“Eventually, I understood that John and Jesus did not contradict each other. John promised that coming to Jesus will change your heart toward your loved ones. Jesus simply reminded us we have no guarantee this will change the hearts of our loved ones toward us, or toward him.”
“That is exactly what happened in my story. After I began to believe in Jesus, I went to my wife and children and humbled myself. I confessed my anger, my silence, my avoidance of them. I asked them to forgive me. Graciously, they all did. They also became followers of Jesus. We are learning together just how Jesus has opened our hearts toward one another.”
“Jesus was taken up from us about a year ago. Several months later, I decided it was finally time to set things right with my father. I went to him and told him I had been forgiven by God, I had become a follower of the risen Lord. I told him that God was willing to forgive him for all the sins of his life, including his sins against me. I told him I was willing to forgive him also, that I had already done so in my heart.”
“I thought I saw a mist in his eyes, but he quickly covered this with anger. He said he would expect such nonsense from a weak person like me. Then, he announced his plans to have a funeral for me and my family. Many months have passed, and still not a word from my father.
“And yet, my heart is still open toward him. I do not hate him. I pray for him. I am willing and ready to forgive him. So, now I know John’s sermon was right. When you know Jesus, he really does open your heart to love your loved ones.”
“John’s words are still pointing people to Jesus all over our country, and we are seeing some miracles happen. It wouldn’t surprise me if, for many generations to come, John’s legacy will still cry out about Jesus to fathers and children lost in the wilderness of life. And I know that, when they come to Jesus, he will open their hearts to share the love which only he can give.”
(Head down to leave character. Pause. Enter pulpit again).
On this Father’s Day, though we are twenty centuries removed from John’s original sermon — his voice still cries out to you in your wilderness today. “Behold the Lamb of God — he takes away your sins. Behold the Lamb of God — he gives you hope in your hurting. Behold the Lamb of God — he opens your heart to love your father, to love your daughter, to love your son. Behold the Lamb of God.”
____________________________Sam Harbin is Chaplain and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, PA