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Erma Bombeck was right

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: 2 Timothy 1:1-7

Erma Bombeck was above all a mother. Here’s how she describes Mother’s Day breakfast in her home: “A mixer whirs, out of control, then stops abruptly as a voice cries, ‘I’m telling.’ A dog barks and another voice says, ‘Get his paws out of there. Mom has to eat that!’ Minutes pass and finally, ‘Dad! Where’s the chili sauce?’ Then, ‘Don’t you dare bleed on Mom’s breakfast!’ The rest is a blur of banging doors, running water, rapid footsteps and a high pitched, ‘YOU started the fire! YOU put it out!'” And breakfast arrives.

“Later in the day, after you have decided it’s easier to move to a new house than clean the kitchen, you return to your bed where, if you’re wise, you’ll reflect on this day. For the first time, your children have given instead of received. They have offered up to you the sincerest form of flattery: trying to emulate what you do for them.”

Erma is exactly right—your children will emulate you. Though bleeding on Mom’s breakfast is not the image I hope you remember from this message.

Tony Campolo’s homemaker wife was attending a faculty gathering at the University of Pennsylvania with her professor husband. A sociologist confronted her with the question, “And what is that you do, my dear?” Here’s her reply: “I am socializing two homo sapiens in the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition in order that they might be instruments for the transformation of the social order into the teleologically prescribed utopia inherent in the eschaton.” Wow.

That’s what mothers do—they “socialize homo sapiens.” Not just intellectually or emotionally or physically, but spiritually. It’s this latter role which I want us to explore for a few minutes today. Here’s my one point: every Timothy has a Eunice, and probably a Lois. Let me show you what that sentence means, and why it matters enormously to your life and mine.

Where Timothy got his name

Timothy was the son Paul never had. He partnered with the apostle through most of his second missionary journey and all of his third. He traveled as Paul’s representative to Thessalonica, to Corinth, and to Philippi. He was at Paul’s side during his imprisonment in the Roman dungeon. After the apostle’s release he became pastor in Ephesus, the largest church in all of Christendom. He returned to Paul’s side as he faced execution by Nero (2 Timothy 4:9).

Listen to the various ways the apostle describes the young man: his “beloved and faithful child” (1 Corinthians 4:17), “my fellow worker” (Romans 16:21), “God’s fellow worker” (1 Thessalonians 3:2), “faithful in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:17), “brother (2 Corinthians 1:1), “my son” (1 Timothy 1:18).

In Philippians 2 the greatest of all apostles pays young Timothy the supreme compliment: “I have no one else like him” (v. 20). He adds, “Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel” (v. 22).

Sort of makes your resume and mine pale by comparison, doesn’t it?

His name means “one who honors God.” How did he grow into it? Let me assure you, it wasn’t easy.

Timothy grew up in Lystra, a Gentile country town in the central region of modern-day Turkey. His father was a Greek, a Gentile and a pagan; his mother Eunice was a Jewess (Acts 16:1). And so theirs was a mixed marriage, both racially and religiously. This marriage was illegal in her religion, and disparaged in his.

Timothy was technically a Jew, as the son of a Jewish mother. But his Gentile father forbade his circumcision and thus kept him from entrance into this faith tradition.

By the time Paul met the young man, during his second missionary journey, Timothy’s father was most likely dead and his mother a widow. He is a young man with no financial support and no faith community, the son of parents despised by their culture and shunned by their society.

And things hadn’t gone well for Paul in Timothy’s hometown, either. During his first visit to Lystra three years earlier, the pagan populace tried to worship him as a Greek god. Then some of Paul’s Jewish opponents showed up “and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead” (Acts 14:19). But Paul “got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe” (v. 20). No wonder.

Just the sort of career every young man wants to emulate, wasn’t it? Imagine yourself in Lystra twenty centuries ago. You know Timothy and his shunned family. You were eyewitness to Paul’s earlier travails in your city. Now you watch them meet for the first time. Could you have guessed that this despised young man and that persecuted preacher would change the world together?

How did it happen? Paul tells us the secret to Timothy’s soul: “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also” (2 Timothy 1:5).

His faith is “sincere,” a word which means “without hypocrisy.” A “hypocrite” was technically a Greek stage actor who played many roles, wearing different masks to hide his true identities. Some of us never take ours off, but Timothy never put his on.

This faith “first lived” in his grandmother and mother. The Greek syntax means that it was theirs before it was his. They most likely were won to Christ by Paul during the brief days he spent in their city three years earlier.

And this faith “lived” in them—Jesus moved into their lives, took up residence in their souls, and could be seen at all hours of the day or night. He looked out their windows, built on rooms of spiritual growth, mowed down weeds of sin and neglect, greeted the neighbors, and generally ran the place. He was their Owner, their Landlord, their Master.

So it was natural that their faith would become his. Paul later reminds Timothy, “from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). Jewish boys began their formal study of the Scriptures when they were five. But Timothy’s mother and grandmother started him in God’s word even earlier, when he was just an infant. And over time, their faith became his faith.

So when the apostle arrived again in Lystra, early in his second missionary journey, he found this spiritual “son” he didn’t know he had. The spiritual offspring of his ministry to Timothy’s mother and grandmother. And the two would change the world together.

All because his mother named him “one who honors God.” Twice.

How to name your child

Where did you get your name? Your spiritual name, for good or for bad? To whom do you owe your identity of significance?

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: of the 69 kings of France, only three were truly loved by their subjects. They happened to be the three raised by their mothers and not tutors or guardians.

Napoleon was right. An aristocratic lady, sitting by his side at a great dinner, asked him, “My Emperor, will you tell me what it is France needs most at this present hour?” He turned to her and answered quietly, “France needs most of all mothers.” Does America?

Aurelius Augustinus would have made the cover of People magazine weekly, if it had been around in 354 AD. He had two mistresses, the first when he was only sixteen. He fathered an illegitimate child, and ran from one scandal to another. But his saintly mother Monica wouldn’t give up on her wayward son. Where he moved, she moved. While he sinned, she prayed. Finally, at 33 years of age, he came to faith in Jesus. He was ordained a priest, then a bishop; he wrote sixteen volumes of the greatest theology since Paul, and is considered the most brilliant Christian since the New Testament.

To whom do we owe Augustine?

Susannah Wesley was the 25th child of her father and the mother of 19. She taught each of her children to recite the alphabet by his or her fifth birthday; when they turned six, she spent six hours each day teaching them Christian theology. Two of her sons, John and Charles, would in time found the denomination known as Methodist. John Wesley later said, “I learned more about Christianity from my mother than from all the theologians of England.” To whom do we owe him?

Is the pattern clear?

C. I. Scofield published the famous Study Bible which bears his name. His mother died at birth, her last prayer that this newborn child would be a preacher of the gospel. His father didn’t tell him about his mother’s prayer until he had answered it.

The great expositor G. Campbell Morgan said, “My sermons were Bible stories which I had first learned from my mother.”

The remarkable evangelist Dwight L. Moody admitted, “All that I am or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”

The greatest Baptist preacher ever, Charles Spurgeon, agreed, “I cannot tell how much I owe to the solemn words of my good mother.”

John Newton’s mother prayed for her wayward, sinful son, until he came to the Amazing Grace of which his hymn testifies.

Erma Bombeck was right: children do emulate their mothers. Mrs. Campolo was accurate: you are “socializing homo sapiens.” So reflect today on two requests.

First, would you choose the example you want your children to follow? They will become what you are. What spiritual model are you giving to their souls? What model do you want to give to them?

And second, would you make their spiritual development your highest priority? Our society values their grades, their athletic achievements, their social status. God values their souls. One day, so will they. But before they can, you must. What are you doing for your children’s souls today?

Conclusion

It’s never too late to be Lois and Eunice to your Timothy. This grandmother had spiritual influence worth recording in the record of God’s word. So did this mother. So can we all.

If you don’t have a child, find a Timothy anyway. Ask God for someone you can mentor, some soul you can help to mold, someone to pray for, someone whose eternal destiny you can help shape.

And whether you have a child or not, you have a mother. To the degree you can, honor her today.

And as you honor your mother, worship your Father. Trust in Jesus as Lord; live fully and passionately for him; and you will bring the greatest honor to your mother it is in your power to give.

Hear Temple Bailey’s famous essay:

“The Young Mother set her foot on the path of life. ‘Is the way long?’ she asked. And her guide said: ‘Yes, and the way is hard. And you will be old before you reach the end of it. But the end will be better than the beginning.’ But the Young Mother was happy, and she would not believe that anything could be better than these years.

“So she played with her children, and gathered flowers for them along the way, and bathed them in the clear streams; and the sun shone on them, and life was good, and the Young Mother said, ‘Nothing will ever be lovelier than this!’

“Then night came, and storms, and the path was dark, and her children shook with fear and cold, and the Mother drew them close and covered them with her mantle, and her children said, ‘Oh, Mother, we are not afraid, for you are near, and we know no harm can come,’ and the Mother said, ‘This is better than the brightness of the day, for I have taught my children courage.’

“And the morning came, and there was a hill ahead, and the children climbed and grew weary, and the Mother was weary, but she said to her children, ‘A little patience, and we are there.’ So the children climbed, and when they reached the top, they said, ‘We could not have done it without you, Mother.’ And the Mother, when she lay down that night, looked up at the stars and said, ‘This is a better day than the last, for my children have learned fortitude in the face of hardness. Yesterday I gave them courage. Today I have given them strength.’

“And the next day came strange clouds which darkened the whole earth—clouds of war and hate and evil, and the children groped and stumbled, and the Mother said, ‘Look up. Lift your eyes to the light.’ And the children looked and saw above the clouds an everlasting glory, and it guided them and brought them beyond the darkness. And that night the Mother said, ‘This is the best day of all, for I have shown my children God.’

“And the days went on, and the weeks went on, and the years went on, and the Mother grew old, and she was little and bent. But her children were tall and strong, and walked with courage. And when the way was hard, they helped their Mother; and when the way was rough, they lifted her, for she was light as a feather; and at last they came to a hill; and beyond the hill they could see a shining road and golden gates flung wide.

“And the Mother said, ‘I have reached the end of my journey. And now I know that the end is better than the beginning, for my children can walk alone, and their children after them.’ And the children said, ‘You will always walk with us, Mother, even when you have gone through the gates.’ And they stood and watched her as she went on alone, and the gates closed after her.”

The children were right: she will always walk with them. All mothers do.