Summary: Mothers’ Day sermon: We need the structure of the home, for there is no substitute for moral living, which means there is no substitute for authentic religious teaching, which in turn means there is no substitute for responsible parenting.
Lord, help the poor soul who serves as a substitute teacher. When I was a schoolboy and our teacher had to be away, we plotted what we were going to do to that substitute. There was something about the idea that we would have her for only one or two days and would likely never see her again. She didn’t know our names, she didn’t know our parents, and, most of all, she didn’t have access to that thing they were always holding over our heads – our “permanent records”. Have any of you ever actually ever seen your “permanent record”? I have this image of some day going back to the headquarters of the Louisville Public Schools, there to find a musty vault, in which there sits a bearded scribe with a quill pen, still putting finishing touches on the permanent record of the crimes and misdemeanors of third grader Joseph Miles Smith at Longfellow School! But the substitute teacher didn’t have access to our permanent records, and so we felt free to go on a rampage. We talked, we giggled, we threw paper wads, we even committed the most serious crime an elementary student can commit: we chewed gum. And then we stuck it on the bottoms of our desks. General disorder whenever we had a substitute!
But, oh, the next day, when the regular teacher would return! How we changed our tune! How we shaped up, sat up, and straightened up! A real authority was among us. Not a substitute. Not a stand-in. The real deal. It made a huge difference. We needed that structure, we needed authority.
Incidentally, I’m wondering what it was like around here last Sunday, when there was a substitute preacher. Did you misbehave ? Did the ushers let you walk the aisles when prayer is being offered or the Bible is being read? Did you break out from the usual restraints and maybe even shout an “Amen” or two? I certainly don’t think of myself as an authority figure, but maybe you acted out a bit just because you had a substitute. Have I told you about the church where, one day, the pastor was absent, and so the preacher was introduced to one member as the substitute preacher. She said, “Substitute? What does that mean? I don’t understand that word.” So he tried to explain. He said, “Well, a substitute fills in for the real thing.” He pointed to a window pane that had been broken out; someone had put a piece of cardboard in the open spot. He explained, “You see over there, where a pane of glass is missing? That cardboard is a substitute. That’s what I am like today. Just filling in.” Well, after he had preached, that lady came to shake his hand, and gave him – I guess it was a compliment – but it didn’t sound that way. She said, “Oh, preacher, that was a good message. I don’t think you are a substitute. I think you are a real [pain]!”
Ah, but, you see, authority is always a real pain. Discipline is not fun. Making sure that people do what they are supposed to do is always tough. But it is necessary. For authority there is no substitute.
Toward the end of the Book of Judges, there is a strange story, and it is punctuated by something that is said over and over again. Four times in the closing chapters of Judges, the author writes, “There was no king in Israel in those days.” And twice he adds to that piece of history an important observation, “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The decline of God’s people came because there was no authority, no guidance, no discipline, so “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The result was a society in which might made right, and money mattered more than justice. A way of life in which there was a form of religion, but it had no power. And if you ask what was the cause of all of this, where did such a mess come from, the story I am dealing with today suggests that the whole thing can be traced to the home. It began with parenting. We’re going to learn about a mother whose carelessness in parenting started the whole sordid thing.
Let me today tell you the story backward. I want to start with the end results and work backward so that we can see how the mess began. My theme is clear: there is no substitute. First, there is no substitute for lives committed to justice; next, there is no substitute for authentic obedience to the living God; and finally, there is no substitute for responsible parenting. If there is no authority, all of us will do only what is right in our own eyes. And it will be a tragic mess.