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Measuring success as God does

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 Samuel 12:24-25

The Pythagorean theorem in mathematics can be stated in 24 words. The Model Prayer takes 66 words to recite in English. Archimedes’ Principle requires 67 words. The Ten Commandments (in the King James Version) comprise 179 words. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was composed of 286 words. The Declaration of Independence was written in 1,300 words. And United States government regulations on the sale of cabbage require 26,911 words.

But if you had to pick one word as your favorite, the one word which creates in most of us the strongest emotional reaction, the greatest immediate warmth and gratitude, you would likely pick “mother.”

It has been so for a long time. Mother’s Day was first celebrated in ancient Greece. In the 17th century, England began “Mothering Day.” Mothers who worked as servants lived in the homes of their employers, but were allowed to go home to their families on this one day. Most mothers would still say they work as servants in the homes of their employers. Not much has changed. But the rest of us are grateful.

In our David series we have watched his greatest victory and greatest failure. Today we’ll consider his greatest legacy. Here’s the one simple point of the message: God measures our success as parents by our faithfulness to him. Not by our society’s definitions of our children’s achievements. By our faithfulness to our Father.

Here’s why: our children typically become what we are. For some of us, that’s not necessarily good news. But God can redeem anyone and any family who will measure success by faithfulness to him. We’ll prove it today.

The story of Bathsheba

No one names their daughter Bathsheba. Last week we revisited the sin with which her name is most frequently associated. Today let’s take a moment to remember the rest of her story.

After her first child with David died, the Lord gave her a second son they named Solomon. But the Lord gave their baby a second name, “Jedidiah,” meaning “loved by the Lord.”

And indeed he was. Through his life and work, Israel reached its zenith of significance and wealth. Through the family line he continued, the Messiah would one day come for all of humanity.

After bearing Solomon, Bathsheba would later save him. His older brother Adonijah tried to claim the throne. If successful, he would have killed Solomon and any other threat to the crown. But Bathsheba alerted the dying king David, and he guaranteed Solomon’s ascension (1Kings 1).

According to Jewish tradition, Solomon later wrote the beautiful Proverbs 31 in honor of his mother. This text, so often read from Mother’s Day pulpits across the land, closes with words which are ironic, given Bathsheba’s earlier story: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate” (vs. 30-31). Despite the way her story began, her son knew her to be “a woman who fears the Lord.”

No matter how our story reads today, this is how it can end. And should.

Others in the family line

Now, let’s continue the story of mothers in the family of David. Matthew’s genealogy gives us four others, each worth remembering on this Mother’s Day.

Here is the first in his list: “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar” (Matthew 1:3). Her first husband was put to death by God for wickedness, as was his brother, her second husband. When the third son grew to marriageable age, Judah was afraid for his boy’s life and refused to give him to Tamar. So she pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law. The result was twin boys, Perez and Zerah, children of incest. But she’s in the story.

Second comes “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab” (v. 5a). Rahab was the town innkeeper and prostitute in Jericho. You already know her story.

Third is “Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth” (v. 5b). While her courtship with Boaz is a story of romance and beauty, her heritage was anything but.

Ruth was from the Moabite race, located east of the Dead Sea. Moab was the son of Lot (Genesis 19:36-37). Lot’s daughters got him drunk, and became pregnant by him. Moab’s name sounds like the Hebrew for “from father,” a perpetual reminder of the incestuous beginnings of this nation.

Later the Moabites led the Jews into sexual and spiritual immorality, so that 24,000 of Israel died in the wrath of God.

The Jewish people never forgot what Moab had done to them: “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation” (Deuteronomy 23:3). Further, the Jews were to remain perpetually at war with them: “Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live” (v. 6).

And so we find in David’s family line a woman whose history should have barred her forever from such inclusion. Imagine a German descendent of Hitler as the mother of the Jewish prime minister, and you’d have a situation no less shocking than this. A woman forbidden by her race and history from ever entering into the worship of God, now an ancestor to the very One we worship.

Last we read, “Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16).

She is today the most famous mother in all of history, but things certainly did not begin that way. Mary was a young teenager, a seventh-grader if she were alive today, when Gabriel called her to be the mother of the Messiah. The Jews had taught their girls to pray every night that they might be chosen for this honor. But they all expected the mother of the Messiah to be chosen from the royal family in Jerusalem, or the powerful among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Sanhedrin. No one would have expected a peasant teenager living in the country hills of Galilee.

Measure success by obedience

And so we have five mothers in the line of David. What do they have in common?

They were all outsiders, foreigners of sorts. Tamar was a Canaanite (Genesis 38:1-6), as was Rahab (Joshua 2:1). Ruth was from Moab (Ruth 1:4). Bathsheba was married to a Gentile, which made her one in Jewish eyes (2 Samuel 11:3). And Mary was from Galilee, the rural hill country despised by the sophisticates in Jerusalem and Judea. They were each outsiders to proper society.

Theirs were troubled families. Incest in Tamar’s family, and Ruth’s race; Rahab a prostitute, Bathsheba an adulteress. Mary became pregnant before she was married to Joseph; while she was, of course, beyond reproach, her society didn’t see her that way.

And so all were unlikely choices to be useful to God. Matthew could not have found more scandalous names and stories to include in his genealogy. But matters were out of his hands. They were chosen by the Lord as ancestors for his only begotten Son, our Savior and Lord.

What’s the point? God measures success differently than we do.

I often think of the time Mother Teresa was opening a new ministry center in New York City. Of course, the media turned out in force for the event. A reporter asked the tiny nun how she would measure the success of this new effort. She turned, smiled into the glare of the cameras, and said, “I don’t believe our Lord ever spoke of success. He spoke only of faithfulness in love.” Do you agree with her?

Our culture says parents are successful to the degree that our children achieve status and social recognition. We are measured by their class rank, their sports achievements, their friends and popularity, the college they attend, the vocational success they attain.

But the Lord’s word to Samuel concerning David is his word of assessment for us all: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

And so the Lord calls us successful to the degree that we are faithful to him, and teach our children to be faithful to him. They have freedom of will, and can choose to reject our example and teaching. But it is our responsibility to teach them the word and will of the Lord, whatever their response to his truth. This is not the job of the church, or the schools, or society. It is our job to teach our children the word and will of God. And to live what we teach.

With this knowledge ever before us: our children will do what they see. They will likely become what we are.

Aurelius Augustinus would have made the cover of People magazine, 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?

The mother of George Washington was known for her integrity and moral courage. And so her son “could not tell a lie.” To whom do we owe the character of the “father of our country?”

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?

Abraham Lincoln said, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Dwight Moody testified, “All that I have ever accomplished in life, I owe to my mother.” 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 every day. Finally he came to Christ, and later wrote Amazing Grace, the most beloved hymn of all time. We have it because of his mother.

Do you believe that children usually become what we are?

Conclusion

That fact will be encouraging to you, if you are leading a godly life of biblical integrity and teaching your children to do the same. To you the message on this Mother’s Day is, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

But if today’s message is not encouraging to you, take heart. God is still on his throne, and he can still redeem us and use us for eternal good. No one would have thought Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, or Mary likely candidates for a Mother’s Day sermon 20 centuries later. But God measures success by faithfulness. If you will be faithful to your Father, and faithful to your children, you can trust eternity to God.

So, is today a good day to renew your obedience to your Father? A good day to submit and surrender your family, your future, your hopes and dreams to him? A good day to ask him to help you be all your heart longs to become? A good day to pray for your mother, or for her continuing influence in your life and soul?

Let’s close with the story of Jesus’ last days, when his friend Mary “took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12:3). This was actually twelve ounces of one of the most expensive perfumes of their day.

She broke the clay vessel and poured its contents out unto her Lord. In the very same way, God has given every mother the privilege of pouring out the child given to her, unto God. Listen to this song about that event—may this be your commitment to God this day. Would you give your most precious treasure, that which God has given to you, back to him, right now?

One day a plain village woman,

Driven by love for her Lord,

Recklessly poured out a valuable essence,

Disregarding the scorn.

And once it was broken and spilled out,

A fragrance filled all the room

Like a pris’ner released from his shackles,

Like a spirit set free from the tomb.

Broken and spilled out just for love of You, Jesus;

My most precious treasure lavished on Thee.

Broken and spilled out and poured at

Your feet in sweet abandon;

Let me be spilled out and used up for Thee.

Lord, You were God’s precious treasure,

His loved and His own perfect Son,

Sent here to show me the love of the Father;

Yes, just for love it was done.

And though You were perfect and holy,

You gave up yourself willingly.

You spared no expense for my pardon;

You were used up and wasted for me.

Broken and spilled out just for love of me, Jesus;

God’s most precious treasure lavished on me.

Broken and spilled out and poured at

my feet in sweet abandon;

Lord, You were spilled out and used up for me.

In sweet abandon, let me be spilled out

and used up for Thee.

Benediction prayer:

Let’s close again this year with Peter Marshall’s beautiful Mother’s Day prayer, and express in its words our commitments together:

“On this day of sacred memories, our Father, we would thank Thee for our mothers who gave us life, who surrounded us early and late with love and care, whose prayers on our behalf still cling around the Throne of Grace, a haunting perfume of love’s petitions.

“Help us, their children, to be more worthy of their love. We know that no sentimentality on this day, no material gifts—no flowers or boxes of candy can atone for our neglect during the rest of the year. So, in the days ahead, may our love speak to the hearts of those who know love best—by kindness, by compassion, by simple courtesy and daily thoughtfulness.

“Bless her whose name we whisper before Thee, and keep her in Thy perfect peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”