A word to parents - Deuteronomy 6:1-25
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Should we be utopian about our children? For over a hundred years now, many in the West have given an unequivocal ‘yes’ to that question. So here is the romanticism of William Wordsworth : ‘Trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy." The view that children are somehow immune from the effects of what Christians call ‘the fall’ and are naturally well disposed towards the good soon began to infiltrate education. So in the 19th century for example, the German educationalist, Friedrich Froebel founded the first ‘kindergarten, which literally means ‘children’s garden’. Have you ever thought why? Well, whereas the goal of classical education is to transmit a cultural heritage, values which have been tried and tested and proved true, here the focus is on the future, nourishing something new. And so Froebel saw children as plants who must be allowed to grow according to their own law of organic development from within rather than having rules imposed from without. Another 19th century educator, Francis Parker actually went so far as to call the child divine. He wrote, ‘The spontaneous tendencies of the child are the records of inborn divinity.’ For Parker’s child-centred education, the adult had to get out of the way of the child’s natural tendencies and refrain from stifling the child’s progress by making moral or academic demands. The belief is that left to themselves, children would spontaneously tend towards love, selflessness, hard work and creativity. And such assumptions, it seems to me, underlie much present educational and child- rearing theory. Only in what are considered to be extreme cases do we bring in super-nanny, although sadly, they seem to be becoming more the norm.
Interestingly enough the therapeutic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, who translated such ideas into educational practice found that his pupils developed an ‘almost paranoid certainty of their own absolute virtues and correctness.’ That is, having been taught they were autonomous individuals who were to make up their own minds about right and wrong they became- unteachable. And we could add- unmanageable.
If the romantic utopian view is so right, then why are so many of our schools finding things so difficult? Why are more and more parents preferring schools which do have clear standards of right and wrong backed up with appropriate sanctions and rewards? The answer is that the humanistic dream is turning into a post-utopian nightmare and we cannot cope.
The fact is, ideas have consequences. Believe that human beings are naturally good and practices based upon that belief will be adopted. By the same token believe, as did Plato, that children are like wild animals to be tamed, then harsh regimes will be put in place. But as always, the Bible comes to our aid and presents us with things as they really are, avoiding both extremes. Human beings are made in God’s image and therefore have the most amazing potential for good; there is no question about that. But they are also born with a nature which is off centre and also have the most fearful potential for evil. The former is to be nurtured while the latter is to be discouraged. No one has better summed up the Biblical view than the French Christian writer Pascal, ‘I blame equally those who make it their sole business to extol man, and those who take it on them to blame him and those also who attempt to amuse him. I can approve none but those who examine his nature with sorrow and compassion. It is dangerous to show man in how many respects he resembles the lower animals, without pointing out his grandeur. It is also dangerous to direct his attention to his grandeur without keeping him aware of his degradation. It is still more dangerous to leave him ignorant of both; but to exhibit both to him will be most beneficial.’ And it is on that basis that Moses gives direction on how God’s people are to raise their children in Dt 6.
Here Moses is addressing the next generation of those who came out of Egypt as they stand on the threshold of entering into the Promised Land. Their parents, with the exception of a handful like Joshua and Caleb, had forfeited their right to that land by failing to trust in God’s promises. They rebelled and so perished in the barren heat of the desert. So it would appear that everything is down to these people-the future appears to rest upon their delicate shoulders. And as we look at the deteriorating state of our nation today in the midst of cultural and social decay, not to mention the spiritual malaise afflicting the churches, we might well feel the same way about our children. How will they fare? Is there a future for them? Well, God is only too aware that the greatest threat to the well being of his people does not in the first instance come from outright opposition, but ideological corruption-the tendency to be seduced away from God by the prevailing beliefs and practices of those who currently occupy the land of Canaan or by the nations which surround it, hence vv 13-19- ‘13Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. 14Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; 15for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. 16Do not test the LORD your God as you did at Massah. 17Be sure to keep the commands of the LORD your God and the stipulations and decrees he has given you.’
Now what possible hope is there that they can resist the prevailing thought forms and idolatries which inevitably appeal to their corrupted nature? What hope is there for our children to swim against the tide of materialism, hedonism and the new superstition which plague our land? Only one answer is given-remaining close to God by sticking to the Word of God.
In v4 we begin with that Word from God, which transpires to be a Word for all, a Word for every part and a Word for the future.
v4 ‘Here O Israel: The Lord our God, the LORD is one.’ This is the cornerstone of Israel’s creed, called the Shema, from the Hebrew imperative ‘Hear’. You see, in contrast to all the other religions with their emphasis on seeing through idolatry or feeling through ecstatic experience, the true and living God reveals himself by a Word which as we saw last week, is to be heard, understood and obeyed. And it is this Word of revelation which is to determine and shape all our thoughts about God and how we are to rightly respond to him. And what is it that is revealed but that the LORD-Yahweh, who is ruler over all and is the personal God who forms a loving relationship with his people in a covenant-, is One. That is, he is the ultimate reality which stands behind all other realities; what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and edifies and what is ugly and degrades. So the only way we are going to get our lives ordered aright is by getting our thinking about God right.
So the first thing we notice about this Word from God is that it is a Word for all- ‘Hear O Israel…..’ As God is indivisible in his being-one-so are his people Israel, the church. Therefore, God’s revelation -the Bible-is not the private possession of a spiritual elite, it is for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest. In fact, in this passage it is children who are singled out in particular upon whom this word is to be pressed home. However, it is to the adults that the command is addressed in the first place-v5 ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.’ Then comes v 7 ‘Impress them on your children.’ One thing children can spot a mile away is a religious fake. If we are not taking God seriously, then why should they? But they will be impressed with the genuine article. As they see how important God is to us, meeting with his people regularly, the value of prayer, the way we pour over his Word-what we do will reinforce what we say.
This is how the Christian writer, Don Carson talks about how his parents Christian lives had an impact on him and his sister as children:
‘It was very difficult to get them to contradict each other, even though we children often did our best to drive a wedge between them, as children do, in the hope we could get our own way.....They pulled together in family discipline, avoided favouritism, and thereby made the home a secure and consistent shelter.....We grew up seeing Christianity at work. My parents weren’t perfect; but more important they weren’t hypocrites. They did not simply talk about the Lord, they put their faith to work.....they could not and doubtless would not shield us from the drunks who occasionally came to our table, from the difficult family situations with which they sometimes had to deal....One of my most powerful memories concerns a Sunday morning when Dad had preached an evangelistic sermon in the church. After that service a curious little son crept up to the study door looking for his Daddy, only to discover him weeping and praying for some of the people to whom he had just preached. If in later years I had to learn to struggle with large questions of doubt and faith, truth and revelation, obedience and world view, at least I was never burdened with a heritage of parental hypocrisy. My parent’s faith was genuine and self-consistent; and there are few factors more important in the rearing and nurturing of children in a Christian home than this one.’
Isn't that right? Those of you who were brought up in a Christian home, was it not the love of your parents for the Lord that had some effect in drawing you to him? Or those of you like myself who don’t have a Christian background; I bet some older Christian’s played some part in pointing you to the reality of God in Christ. Didn't they?
The fact that it is the whole of our lives which testify to our children the reality of God underscores the truth that the Word of God addresses every part of our being, calling for a response of the whole person-heart, soul and strength-v5.
You see, in order to love someone, you need to know them. Knowledge of God precedes love of God. If we and our children are to love God then we all need to grasp what he is like, what his priorities are, his likes and dislikes. And where does such knowledge come from? The Bible of course. And such a love in response is to come from the heart, which in Hebrew thought was not so much the seat of the emotions, but the very centre of our being. The heart is, if you like, the true self.
This too has implications for how we are to minister to our children. We must engage the whole person. First, the mind at a level which is appropriate to them and in a way that will fire the imagination. If ever we give the impression that God is dull and Christianity is boring (although it has to be said there comes a stage in a child’s life, round about the mid teens when everything is boring, except saying everything is boring!)-but if we give that impression then we have failed miserably because whatever God is as the author of this amazing universe bristling with diversity and wonder, he is far from boring. What is more, we are to engage the emotions, while avoiding emotionalism which can be so manipulative, with its hype and attempt to by pass the mind, getting children to do whatever we want them to do. That is a deplorable practice which must be avoided at all costs. No, we will not lower ourselves to that, but we will want to put over the faith in such a way that the children respond with that unselfconscious spontaneity of theirs. So yes, we will use art and music and drama with our children, as we do in our children’s groups displaying the same creativity in getting over the Gospel as our Creator God displays his creativity shaping the world he has made.
Secondly, this is a Word for all of life -compartmentalism, dividing life up into those things which are Christian and non-Christian - is out -vv6-9, 6These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Now here we have the forceful reminder that the spiritual well-being of a child is primarily the parent’s responsibility. Let me tell you that if you are a Christian father or a single Christian parent, you have your own little church over which you are to exercise pastoral care, it is called the family. You are their minister, not me, certainly not in the first instance. So without becoming a bore, this passage does insist that we take -and make- every opportunity to relate God’s Word to the world in which our children find themselves, to help them develop a Christian outlook on life ,as it says in v7 - ‘Talk about them when you are at home or when you walk along the road.’ Not just in church once a week.
Here are just a few practical pieces of advice.
Start young. Some parents make the mistake of thinking that it is only when the children get a little older that they will ‘introduce them to church’. No lower age limit is given here. I take it that that means from the cradle we seek to share with our children the beliefs we have. Now that is not as silly as it sounds. The parent sings lullabies to the child in the cot, that has more than a soothing effect as they get older, why not sing some Christian lullabies? They exist. And what about praying over the cot before you turn in for the night-both parents maybe taking turns in doing this. And as they start to grow, invest in a children’s Bible and there are some excellent children’s bible notes-spend time reading and praying with your child each night, make it a priority, and vary the prayers and so make it an interesting and intimate experience. For you know, often that is the time the child will open up about what has happened that day at school, sharing their difficulties, their pleasures- so include them in the prayer and by example show how to thank God for his goodness and rely upon God for our worries. At the breakfast table before the meal, ask if there is anything which is especially going to happen that day to pray for -that is teaching the child that God cares about the whole of our lives, that he is the Lord the one true God.
As you know, I am not in the habit of revealing personal details of our family life from the pulpit, but one amusing illustration of the importance of starting young was when I was in Oxford training for the ministry. Christopher was only two years old at the time and we were at the meal table listening to a radio programme which had a well known theologian who had just contributed to a notorious book entitled ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’ and as we were listening to this person espouse their unbelief, following the argument through, I simply said : ‘Well, if we take this person seriously, how can we know anything about God at all.’ And as if on queue Christopher simply blurted out ‘Jesus’. Talk about ‘out of the mouth of babes and sucklings’! He is now a curate in Carlisle and you will be pleased to know that he is still giving the same message but in a slightly more sophisticated way!
As the children get older still, you may want to let them in on your decision making process, how you yourself as a family reach decisions from a Christian point of view, so that they learn what biblical principles apply and how .Look at v 8 :‘Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads-symbolising that God’s Word is to effect our thinking-foreheads-and action-hands.’
You start the day with God, you end the day with God- ‘when you lie down and when you get up’-the Jews measuring the day from sunset to sunset-so that you live the rest of the day with God. Perhaps having watched something together on TV or having listened to the news on the radio, why not reflect on it from a Christian point of view, asking one or two strategic questions? It doesn’t have to be anything deep, but it is attempting to cultivate a certain mind-set, a habit of thought which is healthy, Christians are meant to view things in a distinctive way.
Furthermore, this love of God, which his people are to have, is to be shared with the wider community-as it puts it in vv 9 ‘Write them on the door frame of your houses and on your gates.’ Our profession of faith is not a private affair, it is public and we need to help our children see this too, so that they might be open about their faith to others. Do you see?
Finally, this is a word for the future-v20ff. ‘In the future, when your son asks you, "What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?" 21tell him: "We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22Before our eyes the LORD sent miraculous signs and wonders--great and terrible--upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. 23But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land that he promised on oath to our forefathers. 24The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. 25And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness."
The way in which faith is preserved and kept alive for future generations is by recounting to the next generation the saving action of the Lord. Do you realise that what you are doing when you pray with that child and share your faith with them, is not only going to be of eternal value for them, but could well be of eternal value to others, indeed, maybe changing the face of our nation. Think of it this way. That child now in the Scramblers group at St John’s or in your home, is going to be so impressed by your love and devotion to Jesus Christ that she will marry a godly Christian man. They in turn will so impress their children, who also have children, so that by the middle or end of this century from that family which can be traced all the way back to here in Hull, there comes the next Billy Graham or John Wesley. Isn’t that an amazing thought to have before you? Why not? God, you see, takes the long term view with children. And, you know what? So should we.
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