Where have all the children gone? - Deuteronomy 6

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 16th July 2000.

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Stephanie was found by her parents one day with her eyes tightly closed and with an intense look of concentration on her face. She was meditating. This came as something of a surprise to her parents since this was not a practice with which the family was familiar. Stephanie had, in fact, learnt it at school as part of an educational programme entitled PUMSY: In Pursuit of Excellence. In the programme there is a dragon called ‘Friend.' And Friend teaches Pumsy that her mind is like a pool of water. There is a muddy mind, which tends to think negative thoughts, and a clear mind, which can solve all her problems by positive thinking. But the ‘clear mind’ doesn’t sound like a mind at all, more like a power or person. So Friend tells Pumsy : ‘Your Clear Mind is the best friend you will ever have. It is always close to you and it will never leave you.' Doesn’t that sound strangely familiar? It echoes religious language, the sort of language we might use with our children when we tell them that Jesus is the best friend they could ever have who will never leave them nor forsake them. But in essence PUMSY is much closer to pantheistic Hinduism than Christianity, or to be more precise New Age with its eclectic mysticism, sold to teachers as a means of promoting self-esteem.

Now, to my knowledge PUMSY is not used in this country. That example comes from the United States. Nonetheless, what that episode does illustrate is the fact that our children are being brought up in a culture which is not value-free, but a post-modern culture which is laden with values which are far from sympathetic to many of the values and standards we would espouse as Christians. In short, our children, like the rest of us, have to contend with the idolatries of Babylon. They too are engaged in a battle for the mind and so a battle for their souls.

The challenge, therefore, to those of us who are Christian parents or Grandparents or those into whose care parents have entrusted their children as Christian teachers or youth leaders is this: how do we help these children not only to resist the enticing influences of the surrounding culture, but actively challenge them?

Well, one passage in the Bible which is specifically designed to help us in this is Deuteronomy chapter 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? 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 (read to 17).

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 plagues our land? Only one answer is given - remaining close to God by adhering 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 ‘Hear 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 is a matter of hearing and believing. And it is this Word of revelation which is to determine and shape all our thoughts about him 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 - that is what that name Yahweh means - he 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, the keenies, 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 impressed in v7. 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 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, pouring 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, we 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 one who is the author of this amazing universe with all its 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 meting this morning, 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 the Christian and non - Christian - is out - vv6 - 9 (read).

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 here this morning, you have your own little church over which you are to exercise pastoral care, its 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 - include them in the prayer and so 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 cue Christopher simply blurted out ‘Jesus.' Talk about ‘out of the mouth of babes and sucklings’!.

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.'

And this is so important in a materialistic age like ours over the question of money. Is the way you view money and spend it any different from the unbeliever next door? It should be. This is how Richard Forster put it in his book in ‘Money, Sex and Power’, he says that consciously or not we will teach our children about money : ‘Our very reluctance teaches. Who we are and the daily transactions of life form the content of our teaching. Our children will pick up from us an all - pervasive attitude towards money: Should I fear money? Should I love money? Should I respect money? Should I hate money? Should I use money? Should I borrow money? Should I budget money? Should I sacrifice everything for money? All these questions and more are answered for our children as they watch us..... If we are free from the love of money, our children will know it. If apprehension is our automatic response to money, we will teach them worry and fear. Children need instruction in both the dark side and the light side of money. Without this, teaching them how to make a budget and write cheques is of little value.' And that is right. If they don't learn from us the right attitude towards money and possessions, arising out of the Word, they will learn the wrong use from the world.

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 and very briefly, this is a word for the future - v20ff.

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, who 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? God, you see, takes the long term view with children. And so should we.

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