“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:27 (ESV)
It was third grade and I was watching the events unfold. One kid, twice the size of a normal third grader, was picking on my friend who was on the opposite end of the size spectrum. As I sized up what was going on I feared my friend was about to be on the receiving end of a large knuckle sandwich. I decided not to let that happen. I went over stepped in front of my friend, and said, “Leave him alone.” The reply was, “No!” Then he raised his chubby fist and I hit him in the stomach as hard as I could and my hand just disappeared. He stood there for a second looking at me and then he just fell over on his back. Boom! The teachers and students came running over him and he was laying on the ground wailing. The teacher looked at me sternly and simply said, “Go to the office!”
As I walked to the office, told them the story, and saw the principal dialing my father’s number it was one of the worst moments of my life. Everything was moving in horrible slow motion and then she said, “You’re kicked out of school for the rest of the day. Your dad is coming to come get you.” I thought to myself, this is bad, real bad. My dad didn’t put up with this kind of stuff. We had the double spank rule at my house. If I got spanked at school (they did that when I was in elementary school) I got it again at home. My dad would say, “Don’t plead your case. Even if you are innocent, if they spanked you at school, you must be living your life poorly enough that they thought you were guilty so I’m going to spank you for being a suspect.”
I will never forget watching the principal dial my father’s phone number. When my dad got there he said, “Come on David.” After what seemed like a marathon walk in silence to the car trying to avoid eye contact he glared over at me and said, “What happened?” I recounted, “This big kid was picking on my friend who is a lot smaller. I went over there and he raised his fist at me so I hit him in the gut and he fell over hard.” My dad looked at me and said, “Let’s go to Dairy Queen and get a milkshake.” After a brief conversation that was about all he ever said about the episode.
My dad knew something intuitively, not from the Bible; I did not grow up in a home that talked about the Bible. Intuitively he knew that there are times when men have to fight to protect others. Not in the defense of self, not to vindicate one’s own name, but to defend others who are weaker, others who are needy. Now, my father was not promoting fistfights at school (I certainly understood that), and neither am I. But what I am saying is my father did not want to squash my desire to protect the weak. He did not want to drive out of me the willingness to protect the needy and helpless, and he didn’t want to stamp out the fact that I had the courage to do it. If my sister had done it, my father’s reaction would have been different. My dad was communicating to me, “You’re a boy and you’re a future man. Men protect the weak. Men help the helpless. Men fight wars to defend people.”
In the very beginning of the Bible, God uniquely called man to exercise dominion. The word simply means “to rule.” God represents Himself at the beginning of the Bible as the King of the entire universe. And He declares He created man in His own image to rule the cosmos under His authority. Man was to be His kingly representative on the earth and subdue it for the glory of God.
The Bible paints an incredible picture man’s kingly dominion:
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it
It is a picture of complete dominion. Man was to rule as vice-regent under the authority of God. Man and woman were both given the dominion mandate and had the responsibility to rule the world under the authority of God. But Genesis 2 makes clear that man was given the unique responsibility to lead in the exercise of dominion and that woman was to exercise dominion in the sphere that God had given her, but the leadership role belonged to the man. Genesis 2:18 contends that woman is to be man’s “helper” in fulfilling this dominion mandate. In Genesis 2, the dominion mandate includes man’s responsibility to work (Gen 2:8-15). The command to work was prior to the fall; it was a good thing, and a part of the way that man was to subdue the world to the glory of God. Man was to make the earth produce so he could provide for other image bearers. Man was given a unique responsibility to rule, to use the earth, subdue it, and to provide for those under his care. It was—it is—a responsibility of protection and leadership.
The Scripture teaches us woman was created to be man’s helpmate in this dominion responsibility. God made man from the earth and made woman from man. Then God took man and brought him to the earth and then God took woman and brought her to the man. The man was charged to work the earth. The woman was charged to be man’s helpmate. This is a picture of the spheres of dominion, the leadership responsibility of rule and reign in the task of dominion was given to man. Man was called to lead in this effort, to be provider, protector. To have those under his care, he helps provide a sense of identity and an inheritance. Who are you? You are those that I am committed to protect. Who are you? You are those that I will work and sacrifice to provide for. I will help you have a sense of identity under God. I will give you an inheritance because you are those that God has given me to care for. This is a man’s responsibility in the dominion mandate.
But immediately in our Bibles, we find Adam shirking his responsibility and leading his wife in rebellion. It is easy to miss because we say, “What do you mean Adam is leading his wife in rebellion? The text just says she is there with the serpent in the garden. He talks to her. She dialogues with him. He points to the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil that they aren’t supposed to eat. She takes it. She eats it. She offers it to her husband. What do you mean he leads her into rebellion? It seems to be the other way around.” But who was given the responsibility to lead and protect? Who was given the responsibility to lead in the dominion mandate? There should have been a snake on the ground with his head crushed. And a man a bloody boot who looked at his wife and said, “Come with me honey, I’ll take care of you.” The scene goes from dominion to rebellion and what we call the fall into sin.
In the fall everything is twisted and contorted. Genesis 3 explains this fall. Eve listens to the voice of the serpent and Adam, in his passivity, decides to follow, rather than lead his wife. We find them listening to the voice of the evil one over the voice of the King of the universe. The King says, “I will provide for you. You are my image bearers. Do you know what I’ll provide for you? An inheritance of the whole universe, it is yours, rule it under my authority.”
What happens? Genesis 3:6, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” They are essentially asserting, “I will establish my own identity. I will define what’s good and live my life in light of what I define as good. The inheritance that I provide me will be greater than what you provide. God, thanks but no thanks.”
Everything was twisted and contorted. For the man’s failed leadership in exercising dominion God declares, “And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:17-19a).
Do you see what is happening? The whole cosmos was to be subdued under the authority of God, man’s responsibility was to lead and create an entire civilization that sought its identity in God and received the inheritance God would provide. But now even the ground is raging against the dominion of man. Even the ground is thwarting man’s ability to provide for himself and others. The whole world was thrown into tumult and chaos. Now there was the desire of a wife to rule over her husband and the desire of man to be oppressive rather than lead and care for his wife. All of these things are thrown into churning and rebellion. In this rebellion against God there is the loss of identity and inheritance.
Man is created in the image of God, but now the image is marred. The man and the woman are no longer recognized as God’s own people. They have gone their own way and no longer have the blessing of the inheritance of an eternal kingdom. Having defiantly said, “I will produce my own kingdom” there is the loss of identity, but there is also the loss of inheritance. “You will provide your own kingdom? Okay, let’s see how that one works out.” Even the ground rages against you. There is sin, rebellion, murder and deceit in the world. Identity no longer is found in God but in rebellion. The Bible goes on to picture this as slavery and bondage. Thus inheritance is nothing. In the fall there is this loss of both identity and inheritance.
In other words, the fall resulted in fatherlessness, because identity and inheritance is what a father is to provide. That is why the Bible keeps talking again and again about the horror of fatherlessness. Have you ever noticed that? There are constant biblical admonitions in this fallen world to care for the fatherless, to nurture the fatherless, and not to forsake the fatherless. It simply does not talk about motherlessness in the same way. Why? Because it is easier to be motherless? No! It is awful, painful, and tragic, but in the biblical world identity came from the father. You were identified by what your father did. Inheritance came from the father as well. To be motherless was to be pitied and to know pain, anguish and agony, but it was not to be completely stripped of your ability to take care of yourself. It was not to have your entire future obliterated. 1
The father gave identity to the family. He protected, provided for, and he said, “I will give my children an inheritance. It is yours because you are my children.” To be fatherless is to have all the security for the future stripped away. And the Bible says that man, in his rebellion ended up, as a result of the fall, no longer able to look up to God and say, “Father.” He had no identity. He had no inheritance. And this wasn’t just true for Adam and Eve. It is true for every one of us, left to ourselves. We had no identity. We had no inheritance.
In other words—as a result of the fall, the entire world became a spiritual orphanage, all of humanity in rebellion against God, going its own way. Fatherless. No identity. No inheritance. Thus groping around in this world with the determination, “I will provide it for myself. I will go my own way. I will make a name for myself.” We find man building towers to the heavens to build a name for himself but it is an identity and an inheritance that would one day be swept away. But God the Father would not leave man to his fatherlessness. God would provide the answer to a world without an identity, without an inheritance.
Immediately after the fall into sin there is a promise (Gen 3:15). Ultimately, the promise is the promise of adoption. Look at Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” There will be mighty blows but only one blow will be fatal. Notice what is going on here. This promise of the coming seed born of woman is a He. “He shall bruise your head.” He shall crush the head of the serpent. The Bible keeps tracing the line that leads to that promised Son. All the way through redemptive history God is at work preserving that line. He keeps raising up deliverers, saviors that point ahead to the One who is to come. He keeps raising up men like Abraham, Moses, David, deliverers who have all kinds of flaws, all kinds of issues, but they keep crushing the head of what represents the enemy of God. They keep reminding us that there is another One coming who will crush the head of the serpent, fully and finally.
The Bible follows this line all the way to the Rescuer, the Deliverer, the Man, Christ Jesus. Do you know what the Bible is very, very specific to point out? That He is the Son of God. Hebrews 1:5 quotes Psalm 2:7, about this one who would come and reign and rule with a rod of iron, establishing dominion. Hebrews 1:5 declares, when talking about the One who was promised to come, this Son, “You are my Son.” Why does it say that? This promised Deliverer, Rescuer, Savior, Messiah, why is it so clear that he is the promised Son? Because as the Son, he bore the identity of the Father. In fact, the Bible goes on the say, “He was the exact representation of his person.” (Heb 1:3) He was the image bearer. You want to see the Father? Look at the Son. “You have seen me?” he said. “You have seen the Father” (John 14:9). He is the image-bearer. The identity of the Father was clearly seen in the person of the Son and it was the Son who would receive the inheritance of the Father.
How in a fallen world of rebellion where identity and inheritance have been lost by sinners can they ever be reclaimed? God sent his Son. His Son established dominion. His Son established authority. His Son always obeyed. His Son received all the blessings and favor of the Father. His Son who had no sin died for sinners so that they could be united to Him by faith. All who trust in the Son have their identity restored as His image bearers and have an eternal inheritance provided for them. Ephesians 1 hammers the point home that in Christ you have an eternal inheritance that cannot be taken away, laid up for you in the heavens. The issue is adoption. You are brought into the family by sovereign grace through faith. Identity is restored and inheritance given. What kind of inheritance? The inheritance of the Son. As much as the Father is committed to giving his Son, He is committed to giving this who are “in Christ” by faith.
In Hebrews 2:6, the writer quotes Psalm 8, making the point that God created man to rule and to reign. In fact, he asserts that everything was to be in subjection under him. There is a problem with what we now see, “But we don’t see everything in subjection under him.” The good news is, “But we see Jesus.” Do you see the flow? Man is to have his identity in God and to have his inheritance provided by God. Yet we do not see that. We see a spiritual orphanage of spiritually blank stares that are blind to the love of God. We see rebellion. We do not see man ruling the world under the authority of God. We see the prideful pursuit of power.
So what is the answer? The answer is Jesus, the Son of God. In Him we have identity. In Him we have an eternal inheritance. Look at how it goes, Hebrews 2:6 (quoting Psalm 8:4): “It has been testified somewhere, ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?’ The word “care” in Hebrews 2:6 is the same word in James 1:27, which is translated “visit.” What is man that you are mindful of him or the son of man that you visit him? Who is man, this rebellious humanity, that you would visit him? What does it mean that God visits man?
Hebrews 2:7-8 continues, ‘You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.’ Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” It is not like it should be. Things are not under the authority and dominion of man to the glory of God. Hebrews 2:9, “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus.” “But we see Jesus!” This is our hope!
Hebrews 2:9 continues, “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death so that,”—and here is the purpose—“by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Jesus came as the Savior, the Rescuer, the Deliverer. Notice Hebrews 2:10, “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
What does it mean that God “visits” man? God visits man in his spiritual fatherlessness. No identity and no inheritance as a spiritual orphan. What does it mean that God visits him? He comes and he dies for him. He rescues him. He delivers him. And through His love and self-sacrifice we are sons of God. He is not ashamed to call us brothers (Heb 2:11). There is family because of adoption. He makes us family by sovereign grace. This means that sinners whose identity was rebellion and whose inheritance was bondage; are swept into the kingdom of God in Christ and now call Jesus brother and God Abba, Father.
This is the answer, Genesis 3:15 is fulfilled through what God has done and what He is doing through the Son granting identity and inheritance to sinners in Him. That is why the Bible tells us that believers cry out, “Abba! Father!” On my own, I have no identity, no inheritance. In Christ, the Son of God, we become sons of God. Galatians 4:6 and Romans 8:15 both mention the “Abba” cry—or probably better stated the Abba scream of desperation: “I need identity, I need inheritance!” Apart from identity and inheritance we have no future and no hope. Spiritual orphans have become spiritual sons through the Spirit with all of the rights and privileges of Sonship. That is the eternally good news. Jesus is ready to embrace you as a brother and you can say with him, “Abba, Father.”
How do we respond to this truth? We certainly preach the Gospel. We proclaim to the world this incredible gospel that you can be received into the family of God, that you can have identity in Christ and an eternal inheritance. Men are to lead in this task of evangelism, this missions mandate to the world, this adventure, this rescue plan. Men are called to lead in this primary aspect of taking dominion to the glory of God. The prophets and apostles were all men who were called to lead in the proclamation of this message in a fallen world. Everyone is called to the task of missions but men have a unique responsibility to lead. The world will not be claimed for Jesus apart from men leading the charge into dark and dangerous places for the sake of the gospel in obedience to this command. Men must embrace those who live in darkness and are not now a people, and by God’s grace proclaiming a message that makes them a people.
Dominion is already restored when sinners “see” Jesus (Heb 2:9) and they live under His Lordship in a fallen world and will ultimately be restored by the return of Jesus Christ as people are gathered from every tribe and tongue when Christ consummates His Kingdom. We must respond by preaching the gospel, but, many people want to stop right there. Many people say, “Amen, but stop. Keep it spiritual. That’s what we should focus on, spiritual adoption. That’s what matters most. Keep it spiritual. Keep it out there. That should be our focus.”
Men often want to separate their lives in this way. That is why we have a whole culture of serial divorce in the church. “I love Jesus and I divorce all the time. What’s the problem? The gospel is about the spiritual. My marriage problems are just tough practical stuff in life.” No! Marriage is about the Gospel (Eph 5:22-33). I have got news for you; marriage exists for the sake of the Gospel. Therefore, marriage cannot be separated from the Gospel. And to be involved in walking away from marriage is to lie to the world about the Gospel. You must not separate those things, nor can you. And men you are called to lead in picturing the Gospel in your marriages and families. You have a unique role of leadership in this way; you have a unique responsibility.
What must those who have been spiritually adopted do? Those who have been rescued, delivered, given an identity, and granted an inheritance? They exercise dominion by reflecting the Kingdom of Christ, reversing one of the most horrific realities of the fall, fatherlessness. Churches, as outposts of that kingdom, must lead the way. Pastors, as the voice of Christ to their congregation, and other men, as leaders in the church and in their families, must lead the way. Rescued men need to be committed to lead the way in rescuing others, in seeing that others are granted an identity and an inheritance.
There are children right now, on this Father’s Day who do not know the phrase “Daddy” other than as an abstract concept. Identity? They do not have one. Inheritance? They do not have one. That’s because they don’t have fathers. What they desperately need is some man to commit himself to the self-sacrificial rescue of their lives. And to stick a face in their face and to say, “This is what a daddy looks like. You are mine. Your identity is bound up in me and in who we are as a family in Christ. I will give you an inheritance, I am your father and you are my son.”
Here is the way it looks: God in the beginning established man to lead in dominion, to rule the earth under His authority, to provide for those under his authority. Yet in the fall everything was distorted and perverted and one of the chief aspects of the fall is this issue of fatherlessness, the loss of identity and inheritance. In this sin filled world we see orphans strewn all over the streets and abandoned all over the world, and in this reality we are staring at a horrific effect of the fall. When a man is rescued and spiritually adopted, granted an identity and an inheritance by the grace of God, looks around the world and sees those who have been affected by the fall in this way and he says, “I will rescue you. I will be involved in providing you an identity, an inheritance,” he is involved in exercising dominion and reversing an effect of the fall.
You see how that works? Physical adoption is a reflection of God’s work of spiritual adoption in the lives of His people. It is a reflection of a people who are living as His vice-regents in a fallen world. That is the way it must work in the world. Who is to lead in that? Men! Everybody who loves the Lord Jesus Christ is to be involved in rescuing orphans, but men are called to lead. Now, there is somebody out there saying, “He is making too much of physical adoption. He is just on a hobby horse. I am tired of these adoption sermons and all of these references to physical adoption. I wish he would just focus on the Gospel.” Really?
James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this:” We immediately expect something here, don’t we? He is going to give us something spiritual. That is what is pure and undefiled. We are to focus on the spiritual. All this focus on the practical, that can’t be pure and undefiled. But he throws us a curve. He says that religion that is pure and undefiled before the Father is this, “to visit orphans and widows” (those who also have their security ripped out from them and who have their husband taken from them) “in their affliction to keep themselves unstained from the world.”
The word “visit,” is important and we have already have a sense of how it is defined. Visit, as it is used here, is not just to pat on the back or a chat. Visit, in the Bible, used in this way and in this context, is to visit for the purpose of caring for or rescuing. When the Old Testament, again and again, declares that God visited His people, it means that He came to deliver them, to rescue them. Hebrews 2:6, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you visit him?” And what’s the answer? Jesus. In Hebrews 2:9, Jesus delivers his people. He took on humanity and came to die for his people so that they might know the grace of God. He came to rescue His people, to deliver His people.
What does it mean to visit orphans? It means to care for them, rescue them, to deliver them. It means to take those who have no identity and inheritance and to give them an identity and inheritance. In fact, the word here can more literally be translated, not “orphan” but “fatherless.” To visit the fatherless is to deliver and rescue the fatherless. How do you do that? The most important way is to give them a father. Men, you are called to lead the charge. Pure religion calls for testosterone, courage, boldness. It’s going to take courage to march into dark, difficult, and disease-ridden places, and to take a child and say, “You will be mine.” It’s going to take courage to march in to some neighborhood here in our own town and to take some child who has all kinds of baggage and say, “You will be mine.”
But don’t ever question whether that is right. James says that it is, “Religion, pure and undefiled before God.” James is pulling the rug out from under those who desire to just keep it spiritual. He says, “Faith without works is dead. You want to see faith in pure form? It is to rescue orphans. It is to rescue widows.” Let me tell you what’s tragic. It is tragic that so many men pass off adoption as a woman’s issue. After all, if you go to an adoption conference you may find the room is often filled not with men, but with women. As one husband once said to me, “Women care more about adoption because it’s just their nurturing instinct.” True enough, women are called to nurture. But men are called to protect, provide, and rescue. I wanted to look at him and say, “Nurturing instinct? Where is your rescuing instinct?”
Those orphans need a champion. They need courage. They need self-sacrifice. Men, if you have been rescued by our saving God, I want you to ask yourselves: Where is your rescuing instinct? Men, you are called to lead. If there was a burning building and we knew there were children inside and a husband was with his wife walking by and his wife said, “I think we should do something.” And the husband said, “Oh, that’s just your nurturing instinct. Come on.” And he just allowed the children to be burned up in there. Nobody says, “Yeah that makes sense.” No! They ask, “Why weren’t you a champion man? Didn’t you understand what was at stake? Why didn’t you charge in there? Why weren’t you willing to sacrifice yourself? They needed to be rescued. They did not have any hope.” Well, there are burning buildings all over the world. And there are children all over the world in need of rescue. There are orphans in need of fathers.
I want you to hear the way the Bible positions this issue of rescuing the fatherless. Psalm 68:1-5 describes God as a divine warrior, the One who came to rescue and deliver His people. Notice, this is not nurturing imagery, this is the imagery of boldness, courage, and warfare. The issue is spiritual warfare. Notice what it says about God. “God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered; and those who hate him shall flee before him! As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away; as wax melts before fire, so the wicked shall perish before God! But the righteous shall be glad; they shall exult before God; they shall be jubilant with joy! Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is the LORD; exult before him! Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.”
Men, that is the vision He places before us to reflect him to the world as Father to the fatherless. As we are being conformed into the image of Christ, we will reflect more and more our Father God in the world. And in so doing, we will be all the more burdened for rescuing the orphans of the world. No matter the cost. Men, will you lead? Men, will you be men of courage? Men, will you take dominion? Men, will you be not only men, but fathers to the fatherless?
1. I am indebted to my friend Russell D. Moore in personal conversation for the observation of the distinction between fatherlessness and motherlessness. Of course, he is not responsible for the way I have articulated the issue in this sermon. Almost all of my thoughts about the biblical mandate of adoption have been influenced by his book Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).
I heard the words blare from the car radio and received them with that uneasy pang in the pit of your stomach that comes when you hear really bad news. The radio show host said it without hesitation as if nothing was at stake, “America’s new favorite pastime . . . football.” The worst part was, as he ran through his list of reasons for asserting that football is more popular in America than baseball, I knew he was right.
It is likely that you receive this news with a yawn, but not me. I enjoy football. I used to coach high school football, and there is certainly something special about Friday night lights. The pomp and circumstance of a college football Saturday is a sight to behold: marching bands, fight songs, cheers, grilling out and watching a game with 70,000 friends who all decided to wear the same color is its own unique pleasure. But while I enjoy football, I love baseball. My delight for the game is close to that of George Will when he asserted that “Baseball is Heaven’s gift to mortals.”
Famed Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver when he was being interviewed by a reporter concerned he might need to leave the dugout so Weaver could give his pre-game pep talk replied, “This ain’t football. We do this every day.” There is a rhythm and pace to baseball that synchs up to the rhythm and pace of real life. Baseball rewards persistence in the face of managed failure. The rosters of the Major League All-Star game are filled with hitters who fail seventy percent of the time. There are no perfect seasons in baseball and that ought to be one of the treasures embraced by every fan that drives, walks, or rides a bike away from the park.
Baseball is not played in something as impersonal as a stadium with a playing surface possessing the exact, cookie cutter, dimensions of every other teams playing surface. Rather, baseball is played in a park, on a field which shares the beauty of its diamond with every other baseball field, but which possesses its own unique character as well. The pre-game ground rules are a declaration of the glorious individuality of every ball park whether it has a green monster, a short porch, or a hole in the chain link fence.
Even in the wake of baseball’s steroid era a glance at the players who compete at the highest level serves as a constant reminder that the key to success is not monstrous height or superhuman body mass. It was only a handful of years ago that the world watched as the World Series M.V.P. trophy was hoisted by 5′7″ David Eckstein who is listed as weighing 175 pounds, which, if true, must mean he was weighed wearing full uniform and spikes. At that moment I saw a gleam of hope in my sons eyes that they do not possess when a seven footer dunks or a 350 pound lineman sacks a quarterback while running faster than they could riding their bikes. Fat, chubby, tall, short, muscle-bound, skinny, fast, and painfully slow are all represented among our baseball heroes and even among the elite enshrined in Cooperstown. Just like its parks, baseball’s heroes possess an odd sort of everyday beauty.
But it is not my unapologetic belief in the inherent beauty and superiority of baseball as a game that was the primary reason for that uneasy pang in the pit on my stomach that day in the car. It was what I believe to be the primary reason for the present preference of football over baseball in American culture. I do not believe that football’s surge over baseball in national popularity can simply be explained by ESPN’s promotion of college football or the NFL’s amazing marketing. No, I fear it is a symptom of a seismic shift in American culture, particularly in the relationships between fathers and sons.
Now, there can be little doubt that football fits the mood of contemporary America in a way that baseball does not. But there can and should be a great deal of discussion about whether or not the change in national mood is for the better. Football games are huge events, they are parties. After all, a football team will only have five or six home games a year. I think it is safe to say that many people love the atmosphere of football more than the game of football. I was amazed to learn that it is not uncommon for football tailgaters to stay in the parking lot and watch the game on television even if they have tickets. I cannot imagine a baseball fan making such a choice. Baseball fans love the park, the sound, and the smells and most of all the game itself.
The game of baseball is not an easy one to understand. The learning curve for being able to enjoy football is much quicker than it is for baseball. I know that contemporary schemes like the spread option offense and the Tampa 2 defense are complex and an NFL playbook resembles a NASA training manual. Nevertheless, at its base, simplistic level one can become a football fan quickly. In fact, many people become passionate football fans in their adult years after having paid very little attention to the game in their youth.
Almost no-one ever develops a love for baseball as an adult. That is not the way the game works. Baseball is a game full of mystery, nuances, and mechanics that have to be passed on from generation to generation for the game to survive. The one who does not understand baseball will not appreciate the game. And that is just the point at which contemporary American culture is working against the nation’s pastime. Baseball is only really understood in the context of countless hours of catch, shagging fly balls, taking batting practice, and never ending hours of watching the game with attendant conversations about all of its delightfully complex nuances and quirks. In a game with infield fly rules, balks, and squeezes; where shortstops are not necessarily short and the players run counter clockwise, even grizzled veterans take pleasure in knowing that they have not mastered the game.
“Baseball is boring” is a cry that is often heard today. Perhaps, in the same way a classic novel is boring or long conversations into the night with your spouse are boring. But that is just it; we do not have time for those things either. A love for baseball cannot be passed on without fathers spending a lot of time with their sons. I fear many modern fathers want football style fathering, a few big events a year where it is easy to get up to speed quickly. A father that refuses to take the time to teach his son a game like baseball probably will not take the time for other complex, mysterious things either, more important things.
As a Christian father this is where that uneasy pang in the pit of my stomach intensifies. The good news of Jesus Christ is a simple, yet infinitely profound message. The Bible takes us through the most important story in the history of the cosmos. The story has all kinds of twists and turns, nuances, and mystery (Eph. 3:3-10; 5:32; Col. 1:26-27). It is the story that defines every one of our personal stories. Passing on “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) to the next generation takes time, patience, and never ending conversations (Deut. 6:4-9; Psalm 78:1-8) about “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19).
I wonder if the changing mood of American culture has far greater implications than the fact football has vaulted over baseball as America’s favorite sport. We do not have time to read the long complex story of the Bible and have countless conversations with our sons about the good news so we simply drop them off and hope the professionals at the church can take care of the heavy stuff. We prefer the gospel tract approach to teaching the faith, just the facts, hopefully get them saved, and then move on to other things. But in a faith whose Savior commands His followers to eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:54-57) there is more to be said than can be put on a tri-fold and tucked in a jacket pocket.
In a baseball family, morning breakfast includes checking the box score of last night’s game and a discussion of the pitching match ups for the game that day. Those conversations are carried to school and continued with the other boys who participated in the same ritual in their homes that morning. The day is always better when time is carved out to play catch before dark or school is missed because first pitch is at noon. Every trip home from the store is received like Christmas morning when dad comes home with a fresh pack of baseball cards, complete with a sliver of cardboard gum. Little boys who grow up in this environment drift off to sleep thinking about their baseball heroes and invariably dreaming about becoming one. This is the way a passion for baseball, a love for the game, is passed on to the next generation.
Doesn’t this sound like Moses command to God’s people about their responsibility to pass on the faith and cultivate a love for God? “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6-7). Christian fathers have the responsibility to create an atmosphere in the home where talk of God and His Word is the norm and the gospel message overshadows all of everyday life because it is “on your heart” (Deut 6:6).
A dad who is passionate about baseball almost always extends his desire to teach and pass on a love for the game beyond his own sons. On a bright, sunny day in the middle of summer, a game of catch draws other neighborhood boys to the sound of leather popping with a magnetic attraction. My dad, and countless others before and after him, had a whole group of boys with absentee or disinterested fathers who attached to him as soon as the winter began to give way to the warmth of spring and a new baseball season was dawning. The last out of the season had to be especially difficult for these boys since more was at stake than a loss in the district tournament. Nevertheless, the investment my father made in these boys because of his desire to spread a passion for something he loved forged a bond that often transcended little league.
Likewise, every Christian father has, not only, the responsibility to teach his own sons to know and trust the Lord Jesus Christ but also the opportunity share his ultimate passion and love with “children who have not known it” that they “may hear and learn to fear the LORD” (Deut. 31:13). I remember those looks and whispers aimed at my father when he brought the fatherless kid with long, long hair and earrings to baseball sign-ups and later when he encouraged a couple of African-American kids from my school to play. He was no social crusader, by any means, but he thought every child ought to have an opportunity to learn and play a game that he loved and was passing on to his son. The glares and gossip did not bother him a bit. Far too many Christian fathers exhibit less passion and love for the gospel than my dad did for baseball. I wonder how many Christian dads are willing to scandalize others because every boy deserves an opportunity to hear and live the good news of Jesus Christ.
You may never develop my passion for baseball. You may always prefer other games like football, basketball, or even soccer, and I will accept that. I will not like it but I will accept it. If you give me the opportunity I will gladly discuss how baseball provides the best metaphors for life and the pursuit of godliness of any sport. If you keep the conversation going I am sure I will explain why the designated hitter in the American League strikes against the very character of the game. You may not even like sports. Your interest may be farming, construction, or perhaps even carpentry, like the father of a young Jewish boy named Jesus. But I will be content if baseball, whether you enjoy the game or not, helps every dad remember that teaching our sons to trust in Jesus and to serve His Kingdom takes time, effort, instruction, modeling, and countless conversations. If so, the cry “Play Ball!” could be some of the most important words you ever hear. Even if you, in defiance of all sound reason, are glad football is considered America’s new national pastime.
Snow recently covered a good portion of the country but I have not felt as warm and vibrant in some time. Pitchers and catchers reported to Major League Baseball Spring Training in mid-February and for some inexplicable reason that does something good for my soul.
Like George Will, “baseball has been the background music of my life” and I have never tired of the tune. A new season of the national pastime is full of hope and glorious possibilities for every club and its fans.
Since 1846, when Alexander Cartwright took the Knickerbockers to play the New York Nine in the first game of organized baseball on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., the game has possessed an irresistible and rhythmic hold on our nation. Generations of Americans are linked because of what happened on that green field in New Jersey and has been happening on subsequent diamond-stamped green fields ever since. Those fields have not simply preserved an enduring form of recreation but have helped promote vital traits which are fundamental to our health as a people.