May 12, 2013

Passing on the Faith

So a few minutes ago when we were busily dedicating James and Alison as parents of Samuel, I mentioned a verse from Deuteronomy.  I want to go back there for a few minutes with you now and see if we can’t explore what Moses meant in a bit more detail.  Now, I may have said a couple of things there that may not have made all that much sense to some of you.  Let me back up a bit.  When God began the process of introducing Himself to the world, He needed a vehicle for the interaction.  Had He just shown up in glory that would have spelled the end of the game.  No one would have had any choice but to fall down in worship of Him and besides, His glory would have simply burned away the world.  He had to find a way to essentially sneak in and start revealing bits and pieces of Himself and His plans in amounts that people could swallow.  As they wrapped their minds around each piece, He would reveal just a bit more until eventually He revealed all that He needed to for people to understand Him to the limits of our ability and freely opt to join His kingdom plans.  Well, the way He decided He would do this was to create a nation.  Through this nation, its laws, and way of life the rest of the world would begin to get a glimpse of who He is.  Now, He could have chosen to do this through any nation.  The specific nation really wasn’t all that important.  As it turns out He decided to create a nation from the ground up through a man named Abraham that would eventually be called Israel which somewhat ironically means, “One who wrestles with God.”

In any event, making a nation is a time-consuming process.  The producing of a sufficient number of people to constitute a nation takes a long time.  By the time Abraham died the nation consisted of exactly two people: Isaac, Abraham’s son, and his wife, Rebekah.  Now Jacob, one of the sons of Isaac and Rebekah was a bit more fruitful.  By the time of his death, when his family had traveled to Egypt in order to find relief from a regional famine thanks to the high position one of his twelve sons, Joseph, had achieved in the Egyptian government with God’s help, the nation had grown to 70.  It would be another 400 years, though, before we would learn anything more about the burgeoning nation.  In this time it finally grew to a respectable nation size, at least for that time.  Unfortunately, it was also enslaved by the more powerful Egyptians.  What this did, however, was to create an opportunity for God to reveal the first major aspects of His character to the world.

In exerting Himself over the Egyptians by freeing the people of Israel through the leadership of a man named Moses, God revealed that He was sovereign over and more powerful than the gods and armies of even the most powerful nation in the world.  He also revealed the extent to which He is willing to go to care for those people who are His.  He demonstrated unequivocally that He is God and all the other so-called gods are not.  Over the course of the next 40 years, God continued revealing Himself to the people of Israel in order that the world might see and take notice.  He revealed that He is holy and just and loving and gracious and forgiving and patient and loyal and much more.  He revealed all of this through both word and deed.  Through a variety of experiences God demonstrated a fierce desire to be known.  He acted in some pretty dramatic ways to do the initial revealing.  Since this initial push, however, God’s dramatic interruptions of the normal course of affairs of the world have become very much the exception to the rule.  Besides, experiences like that of the Israelites journeying from Egypt to the land God had planned for them to inhabit don’t engender the deep, practiced faith God desires for people to have in Him, just as an all-candy diet does not make for a strong body.

Instead, God planned for something else to be the method by which successive generations would come to know the character He had revealed.  Rather than doing the revealing directly, God called the people who had been witness to the initial revelation of His character to pass along what they learned to their children.  The children would then pass it on to their children and by this process each generation would come to know of God and, of their own volition, follow Him in faith.  This would give rise to a deeper and more robust faith as each generation followed.  The children would come to know God in a deeper, more personal way than their parents.

Think about why this is the case.  Each successive generation is further and further removed from the initial acts of revelation.  All they have to go on at first is the authority and words of their parents.  This meant that the only way the children were going to come to understand who God is was by listening to the words, but more importantly, observing the character of their parents.  Their act of trusting would engender a great deal of honor and respect toward their elders as they heard the stories of God and saw the relevant lifestyle based on these stories put into action.  This would, in turn, lead to glad expressions of love and care from parents to children—for as any parent knows, it is easier to love a respectful child than a rebellious one—and the passing on of faith from one generation to the next would continue unabated.  More and more people would come to know and trust this God.  Furthermore, as God revealed Himself in meaningful ways to those who came to trust in Him on the testimony of their parents and act on this trust, their faith would continue to mature.  And what God-fearing parent does not desire for his son or daughter to have even more faith and trust in God than he does?  By this, God’s kingdom would expand.  This was the process God designed for the faith to roll forward.

If, on the other hand, parents did not diligently pass on the history and lifestyle of faith it would become unknown and God would be required to take special action to remind people of who He was.  And if this happened, the lifestyle commended by the revealed character of God would not be taken up.  People would live however they saw fit.  Unfortunately, life the way we see fit usually doesn’t play out very well.  In fact history bears this out.  There was a period in the history of Israel, after the Promised Land had been settled but before the rise of the monarchy, when the people were led by a succession of men and women called Judges.  This was an incredibly dark time in the history of the nation capped by a story of a slave girl getting gang-raped until she died from the abuse.  When her master—who had willingly offered her body to the gang in place of his own—found her dead, broken body on the doorstep of the house in which he had just slept peacefully, he carried her back to his home where he cut her body up into twelve pieces and sent one to each tribe.  This message sparked a brief, but violent, civil war in the nation as eleven tribes punished the one tribe whose behavior had gotten so out of control as to allow this kind of travesty to take place.  The story of this period of history begins with the unsettling observation that after Moses’ successor, Joshua, and his generation died, “another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.  Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…”  How did this tragic period happen?  The answer is simple: parents stopped passing on the faith to their children.  The children knew nothing of God or His ways and so they lived however they wanted.

So why tell you all this story?  Wasn’t I going to look at Moses’ words in Deuteronomy more closely?  And so we have been.  As Moses, the man who led the Israelites from captivity in Egypt to freedom in their own land, was giving his farewell speech, which we preserved for us in an ancient document called Deuteronomy, as he prepared to get into the heart of what he was going to say, he spoke these words to the people: “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear [which here means “respectfully obey”] the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long.”

What’s he talking about?  He’s basically saying: “If you want to get along well in your new home, you need to do what the Lord has commanded you to do.”  They needed to obey the “house rules,” if you will.  In case he wasn’t clear enough, though, in the next sentence, he gets a lot more specific about how to do this.  He tells them exactly what they need to do in order to make sure their sons and their sons’ sons might fear the Lord.  These are the words I read to you earlier.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently [not casually, not when you remember it, not when you feel like it, not when nothing else is getting in the way] to your children, [how do you do that?] 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.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”  In other words, these words—the faith stories of the Lord revealing Himself to the people and the kind of lifestyle that necessarily goes along with being in a relationship with this God—need to be the foundational bedrock for every pattern your family has.  They should define everything about how your family works.

Bringing things to this side of the cross, the words and lifestyle of Jesus should be a frequent topic of conversation in our homes if we are going to claim rightly to be His followers.  Everything needs to be rooted in who He is, what He said, and what He did.  Got that parents?  Unless we pass on our faith—meaning we have to really have it first—our kids aren’t likely to pick it up.  Unless we both show and tell—showing by itself is not enough contrary to what many parents hope—the worthwhileness of the life spent following Christ, our kids are not likely to think it is really worth their time.  The culture we live in is too geared to call them to something else.  There are forces in this world that are eager for your kids to think like they do, to act like they do, to talk like they do, to see the world like they do.  They will use any means necessary to see that happen.  Unless you equip them with the necessary tools to resist this call, they’ll fall for it.  They’re not strong enough or smart enough to resist it on their own, just like you weren’t when you were their age and are perhaps still paying the prices for it.  You have to create a world for them where the Christian faith forms the lens through which everything is processed and understood.  You have to teach them why this is a right and intellectually sound thing to do.  If you don’t know why, find out.  That’s what I’m here for.  Just as Moses commanded, just as the system God set in place for the faith to be passed on, you must tell the stories, the histories, of who God is so that they might come to have faith in Him just as you do.  Why do you think our world looks the way it does today?  Because a whole generation of parents didn’t teach their kids the faith.  They may have had them in church, but they didn’t give them a Christian worldview.  Church by itself is never enough.  And as their kids’ view of the world was shaped by the world outside the church, as soon as they didn’t have to go anymore, they didn’t.  By the way, do you know how the story of the period of the Judges ends?  Just as hauntingly as it begins: “In those days…everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”  Sound like a statement that could describe…our culture?  Parents: teach the faith.  Tell the stories.  If you don’t tell it, it won’t be told.

Now, if all of this sounds like it’s way more than you can handle on your own, you’re right.  It is.  On your own you don’t really have a prayer of churning out joy-filled, well-adjusted, successful, Christian-thinking and behaving Jesus followers.  It starts with you and indeed must start with you.  You are the single most important human element in the process.  If you don’t tell it, it won’t be told.  But, you can’t do it on your own.  There, I said it.  You can relax now and not worry anymore about whether or not you are up to the challenge.  You’re not.  So does this mean you can give up and go on like you were before?  Of course not.  If you don’t tell it, it won’t be told.  God has graciously provided you some tools to help get the job done.  First, you have parents and maybe even grandparents who believe and are perhaps even more interested than you are in seeing your kids grow up as men and women of faith because they have more years of perspective on what a difference it actually makes in life.  Rely on them.  Let them help you.  If necessary, get in there with your kids and learn the lessons you didn’t learn when you were growing up.   Second, you have a community of faith here committed to creating a place where your kids matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  Have them here as often as possible.  But, and this is really, really, really important: don’t ever drop them off.  Don’t even have somebody else pick them up to take them without you.  Just don’t do it.  Every time you do it you send the message that church, that Christianity in general, is basically like school.  It’s something that you don’t really like, but is kind of important for social and intellectual and moral development which when you are finally old enough you can be free of so that you can focus your attention on things you’d rather be doing and begin the long process of forgetting it all.  If you do this your kids will come to think that the whole Christian thing is nice as far as a cultural identity marker, but other than that really doesn’t matter.  Third, you have the Holy Spirit.  Rest assured, God is more interested in the spiritual growth and development of your kids than you are.  When you reach out for His help, He’s going to provide it.  But again, you’ve got to reach out.  If you don’t tell it, it won’t be told.

What happens from here?  Might God still get ahold of them?  Yeah, He might.  I had a number of friends in college who came to a deep faith in Christ out of a home that was anything but Christian.  But the odds aren’t really in your favor anymore.  Well, what if they come out of the church as well-behaved members of society?  Isn’t that a net positive?  Yes and no.  Yes, having people generally behave well in society is a convenient thing, but a society filled with really nice people who aren’t Jesus followers is just as lost as a society of immoral pagans.  In fact, such a society is more likely to be resistant to the actual Gospel because they don’t really believe they need it.  And the kick is that without the actual Gospel we all become immoral pagans anyway.  Here’s the hard truth: nice people don’t go to heaven, Jesus following people do.  Now, Jesus following people should be pretty nice, but there are a lot of nice people who aren’t Jesus following people.  In fact, why do so many people today not really want anything to do with the church?  Because they experienced one and didn’t get anything out of it.  And why didn’t they get anything out of it?  Because their view of the world was not primarily shaped by the Christian faith, but by a world very much antagonistic to it; a world that is very much creative and intellectual sounding in its rebuttals to the church’s way of life.  And for most of them, because they had parents who didn’t pass on their faith.  If you don’t tell it, it won’t be told.

So here’s what we need to do and then we’re out of here.  Parents: teach the faith to your kids.  Talk about your faith at home with them.  Tell them stories of how God has acted in your life and what that has taught you.  Tell them stories of when you didn’t act on God’s way of life and what it cost you.  Read the stories of the faith from the Bible with them.  Remind them, though, that they aren’t just stories.  They are histories of how God has acted in the past on our behalf and guarantees of how He will act in the future.  If you don’t know how to do any of this, that’s okay.  Learn how to.  Come and talk to me and I will get you hooked up with resources that will make it much easier.  Better yet, learn with your kids.  Be honest with them that you don’t know very much and commit to learning alongside them.  Your kids want to spend time with you.  They desire to learn from you.  Give them a chance.  Have them in church as often as possible.  Do church with them.  Talk about what you are both learning at church.  If it doesn’t make much sense, work together to understand it better.  Take up Moses’ command here and work to make the Christian faith the lens through which your family looks at everything, not in some weird, religious way, but in a very relational and affirming way.  If you don’t tell it, it won’t be told.  Commit yourselves this morning to turning out children who are not merely well-adjusted, mild-mannered, well-behaved good citizens.  Commit yourselves to turning out children who are deeply devoted followers of Jesus.  Demonstrate your commitment to the same to them in tangible, practical ways.  As we all do this, the impact on our culture and our world for the kingdom of God will be immeasurable.  If you don’ tell it, it won’t be told.  But as you do tell it, the faith will pass on and the kingdom will grow.  Let us grow the kingdom together.