Transmitting Faith to our Children

This is the text and notes from the sermon I gave on April 21, 2013. Some parts I elaborated on more than is written here. The scripture passage was Joshua 24, the second half of Joshua’s farewell speech to Israel. It includes the oft quoted passage “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Opening prayer:

Dear Father. We are all gathered here today to worship you, to acknowledge you as our creator, and to listen to your holy word. Make these words come alive in our hearts. You have preserved them for us throughout the ages. They are still going forth. I ask that you send your holy spirit to work in our minds and lives and make a difference. We don’t need another history lesson. We need everything you have for us – to know how present you are with us today. Amen.

Begin with slides and light discussion on the Joshua 24:15 “money quote” and posters. See this blog post for details and lots of pics.

Have the people stand and read the part of the people from Joshua 24, 1,13-24:

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and called for the elders of Israel, for their heads, for their judges, and for their officers; and they presented themselves before God.

Joshua: ‘I have given you a land for which you did not labor, and cities which you did not build, and you dwell in them; you eat of the vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.’

“Now therefore, fear the LORD, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the LORD! And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

People: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for the Lord our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went and among all the people through whom we passed. We will serve the Lord, for He is our God.”

Joshua: “You cannot serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after He has done you good.”

People: “No, but we will serve the Lord!”

Joshua: “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord for yourselves, to serve Him.”

People: “We are witnesses!”

Joshua: “Now therefore, put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord God of Israel.”

People: “The Lord our God we will serve, and His voice we will obey!”

Everyone can sit down. So y’all will serve the Lord? Yeah right. Of course, Joshua knew you wouldn’t (he said as much!) and God knew it too, before he even chose these people. But he gives them this land and makes these promises anyway.

We find out in the book of Judges, right after Joshua, what happens.

Judges 2:7,10-11
So the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the LORD which He had done for Israel.

When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel.

Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers.

And later in Judges we hear:

Joshua 21:25
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

So all the immediate folks that were alive when Joshua was around, who saw the conquest of the land, they followed the Lord, but their kids ditched it.

Moses –>
Joshua –>
Joshua’s Children –>

If you were a parent who remembered the walls of Jericho falling down when you were a little boy, but your own kids thought God was a sham, you would be distraught. If you bought up your son to respect his mother and worship God and memorize his laws, but then when he was about 18 you found him cavorting with the prostitutes down at the temple of Asherah, would you not be angry, and feel like a giant failure? But that’s what happened to much of the next generation.

A total failure right?
Kind of looks like it, but this is just a snapshot. We need to look at the big picture. Let’s expand this timeline of the nation of Israel a bit.

Abraham –> Isaac –> Jacob –> Joseph –> Egypt –> Moses –> Joshua –>
Joshua’s Children –> Judges –> Saul –> David –> Solomon –> Civil war –>
Bad kings –> A few good kings –> More bad kings –> Babylonian Exile –>
Nehemiah –> Roman empire/Pharisees –> Jesus (Rejected Messiah) –> Diaspora

When we zoom out and look at a longer timeline, we see the situation is more complex. There is an undercurrent of believers who are steadily faithful to YHWY, even when the popular consensus or the monarchy is against God and his law. There are good kings who lead many (not all) of the people back in the right direction, and there are terrible kings that revel in evil, corruption, and murder, dragging down (again most, not all) the people with them. But even at the low points, the good guys (so to speak) are still there.

The prophet Elijah lived during the reign of King Ahaz and Queen Jezebel. HORRIBLE rulers! He got very depressed at one point and what he said is recorded here.

1 Kings 19:14,18
And he [Elijah] said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”

Then the Lord said to him: “I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

We actually discover this sort of thing happening throughout scripture. When evil men are leading the country in a certain direction, there is always a remnant that is faithful and when the evil passes, they spring back up and flourish. When a good ruler is in charge, things are generally better for everyone, but they pass too.

Proverbs 29:2
When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice;
But when a wicked man rules, the people groan.

Keep in mind that history has to boil things down and rely on key indicators (like who is currently in charge of the country) or the state of the physical temple is Israel. The actual situation on the ground with real individuals and families and tribes is always going to be much more complex. What is going on at a national level doesn’t have to define what you do on a personal and local level.

In fact, at the time Jesus came, they (the law abiding Pharisees) were dominant in many aspects of Jewish culture, even though it was now subject to the Roman empire. In a sense, the “good guys” were in change again. Idol worship was way down and had been for several hundred years. The temple was bright and shiny and the piety of the Pharisee bible teachers was highly respected and influential, even while the national government was in the hands of the Romans.

I don’t think it’s difficult to draw parallels to the state of our culture in America. People do it all the time. The story we sometimes here about the US often goes something like this:

Christian Founding fathers –> Great awakenings –> Christianity dominant through WWI and WWII generation –> Everyone went to church in the 1950s –> Sexual revolution (Free love) –> Bad (Abortion) –> Worse! (No God?) –> ACK!!!

Again, total failure, right? A lot of people are worried about this stuff today.
Talk about Christianity off-limits in public schools (and often, public discourse) legalization of abortion, gay marriage, “nones” generation. This is what we see all around us. In particular, the Pacific Northwest is least religious region of the country. And our own kids are being born into this current vortex. Are they going to get sucked into it too? How not?

Keep calm and look at the big picture.


Early Christians –> Constantine –> Evangelization of British Isles –> Fall of Roman Empire –> Medieval kingdoms –> Muslim conquests and crusades –> Some good kings –> Some bad kings –> Reformation –> Conquest/colonization of Americas –> Christians and secularists found USA –> “Manifest destiny” –> Great awakenings –-> Civil War –> Christianity dominant –> World wars –> Sexual revolution –> Immigration/diversity/globalization –> Decline of Christianity and fertility in the West –> Rise of the Christian global south?

I tell you all this because I think we can very easily get hung up on thinking about ourselves in the here and now. We are the center of our own little universe and all of the hundreds of people that came before us and will come after us are off the radar. I think it is calming to study history and see how we are part of the huge story that is Jesus redeeming mankind. To someone that does not fear God or believe in him, the idea that their life is just a blip on the radar or a drop in the ocean is a terrible and fearsome thought. Considering how big the world is and how vast history can make us feel small and meaningless. OR, it can show us how we are part of something much larger outside of ourselves. If we fear God and love him, then zooming out can relieve us of the pressure of living. We can’t possibly handle this world. Our efforts are like a bad joke. We need a redeemer with total power over creation. Fortunately, that is what we have.

Still, that’s nice, but what about us right now? I feel myself getting dragged down by today’s materialism. I REALLY want that new iPhone. Everyone else at my work has one. I want one too! And many guys at my work have traded up for a new wife too. I want one! Maybe a blonde this time. Good grief. Shake that off! Like that will make anything better. Ha! I love God. I believe he made the whole world. I believe He made me. I believe he loves me and saved me from my own slavery to sin and death. And I believe he loves my children as well. What do I do about them? How can I grow the up to not fall into the snares all around us? How can I teach them? Maybe if you have older kids, you are thinking, “They used to listen to me and now I don’t think they do. It seems they love the world now too and the world tells them over and over that God is meaningless.”

Proverbs 13:22
A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children,
But the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous.

We transmit our faith our faith to them. I think we as good parents want to leave an inheritance for our children, and I’m not talking about money. Proverbs 1 says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. How can we give that to our little ones?


The Connection:

  • Modeling, living like Christians ourselves, giving them something to imitate
  • Teaching, propositional truth, facts, catechesis
  • Participation and experience, Worship, sacraments, labor and service, mystical experience*

Modeling (Discuss)
How you talk, what do you talk about?
What do you spend your time doing?
What can be inferred about what you really care about?
Are you a friend of God? A servant? A distant casual admirer?
Example: Want kids to read books but don’t have time to read yourself.
Example: Want kinds to have a good attitude about chores, but you complain about doing the dishes all the time.
Example: Spending lots of money on entertainment, but rarely give any away to people in need or causes
Example: The cliche “Actions speak louder than words” is very, very true.
Example: Lying doesn’t work – kids have very good B.S. detectors. Hypocrisy is just “slow lying”.

Teaching (Discuss)
What you teach them at home, where you send them to school or in homeschooling or private school, with tutors, etc.
Teaching them about the greatness of God, the lowliness of man
Example: New England Primer alphabet versus secular motivational rhetoric
Example: Sunday school, Christian school, Christian summer camp
Bible teaching, religious education
How much does their secular education counter Christianity? Preempt and mitigate that sabotage.
Example: You know your children are going to be told by a lot of authority figures that having multiple sex partners is totally fine and not a bad idea in the slightest. But you live with them – you get to them first and give them the straight dope.

Modern motivational posters versus the lowness of man taught in the early New England Primer



Participation and Experience

Worship together
Bow your head in prayer, sing praises to your creator. This is something they can start doing very very young. They don’t have to pass a theology test to pray. Little kids will just follow their parents in this right away. And in doing so, they participate – it becomes part of their life.

The Lord’s Table. This is a big one. Jesus explicitly gave us the bread and wine of the communion table to eat and drink with each other, to eat of his body and drink his blood. Now Christians throughout history have, to vary degrees, debated about how special or magical what happens at the Lord’s table is, but it is something tangible that all of us who follow Christ can participate in directly and personally. It’s not just listening to somebody up here talk or observing someone else serving. You eat and drink yourself along with everyone else.

Special dates and times
Do you celebrate birthday’s in your house? They draw attention to an individual and show that they are loved and that family and friends care about them. And everyone gets to participate in that with presents or cake or games or whatever. What about Christmas and Easter. There are other Christian holidays and festivals too, though they are lesser known unless you came from a tradition that emphasized them. The point is, these are things that your children can participate in. They are great moments. Make Christmas special. You probably already do. Make Easter special too. Talk about why they matter. Act like they matter. Take a break from working and driving around everywhere. Break out the really good food and drinks – not the stuff you have every day! Children will remember that. We need to stop and remember these things too. When these holy days and seasons are hijacked by modern marketers though, they lose their power and meaning. You can minimize how much that happens in your own house though.

Labor and service
It’s one thing to hear someone say, “Help the poor”. It’s another to see your father helping the poor. It’s a third thing, and an even better one to help the poor yourself. Even if you are young child and can’t articulate all the theology behind it, it still has an effect on your heart as you labor. Maybe your motivations don’t feel like they are all there. It doesn’t matter. Work and the fruit of your labor will make the motivations clear. Don’t know who to server? Help you mom do the dishes. That’s a good start. My wife recounts how her father would often go to the grocery store on Thanksgiving or Christmas eve and get a bunch of food and take it down to the really seedy hotel on the edge of town and find some down-and-out family to give it all too. She went along with him and carried the grocery bags. It’s a little thing, but it made a lasting impact on her. My own parents went on two short-term mission trips when I was a child. I think that it would have been even better if I could have gone with them, but just knowing that taking several weeks off of work – not to go on a vacation – but to go work at a medical clinic in the slums of Haiti – that that is just the sort of normal thing a Christian would do – that shaped how I viewed the world. I mention those as positive memories of my parents and inlaws. I could recall plenty of negative ones of course. It’s a mixed bag of course. But I can grow up and forgive them for those. Just like me, they probably didn’t know what they were doing half the time anyway.

Mystical experience
I put this one on the list, but it doesn’t really belong here as a way that you transmit your faith to your children. When most people talk about “experience”, they mean some sort of very meaningful event in their life where it seemed like God touched them or spoke to them. Maybe it was that time you went camping and you felt like God was with you when you prayed all afternoon on that hike. Maybe it was when you were heartbroken and then after coming to church and singing praise songs, you felt a strange overwhelming sense of joy and peace, even in the midst of your trouble. Perhaps you were studying the bible and suddenly a passage jumped out at you and you seemed to hear it ringing in your head everywhere you looked the rest of the day or week. These are really great moments and I believe that God absolutely does touch people like this all the time. This sort of thing has happened to me several notable times. But these aren’t things you can set up or give to your kids. These things come from God. They are the work of the Holy Spirit in inidivuals lives. I think the best thing you can do is, if you perceive that they may be going on with your children, don’t stop them. Don’t poo poo it. If they come home from summer camp and are really excited about Jesus, don’t get all cynical on them and act like it’s no big deal. These moments may be subjective and fleeting, but I think they are completely legitimate and if you were to talk to almost anyone here in this church, they would tell you that these sorts of experiences are a big part of their faith in Jesus, a big part of their Christianity. If you talk to someone of a more Pentacostal background, they may talk about these things more frequently. If you talk to a Christian of a more Reformed or intellectual tradition, these might not be the first thing to come up, but they are still there. Let God do this stuff – with you, and with your kids. You may get to share in some of it, you may not. Don’t try to make this stuff happen, but let it happen. A lot of time these sorts of experiences come at low points in our lives or in the lives of our kids. Pray for your kids. When they are really in the dumps and hurting, and you hurt for them, this could be when God will touch them.

Institutional Christianity
Now I want to take a moment to talk about something that is pretty much the exact opposite of personal experience. I’m talking about institutions. It’s very popular to rail against the “institutional church” these days. It’s pretty him to just read Christian books and hang out on internet forums and maybe have coffee with other friends that quit going to church too. When an organization gets big, it also can get impersonal, wasteful, and stupid. A big church, even a good one, is usually an easy target for criticism. So why should we still support them and belong to them? Well, there are many reasons, but on of the main ones is that they outlive us. Our lives are short. We just blow away. We live a max of 80 productive years.
An institution can span generations and centuries. Our great-great-grandchildren can worship in the same place and way we did. War and tragedies can tear families apart, but the church, as an institution, can help keep us as a people glued together. As many problems as they may have (and of course we have some of the usual ones here at Bridge Bible Fellowship), they are worth keeping healthy. The apostles thought so too. The church is the primary one, but this goes for institutions of learning, and to the state as well. Religious freedom is a good thing and not so common. But states and empires come and go. Ours in the USA has been around a while, but not super long. Remember the big timeline again. Someday it may too pass or change into something quite different.

Now, none of what I’ve been telling you so far has been the gospel. It’s been some history, hopefully some of what I’ve said is good advice. But none of it is good news. Not really. Now for the good news.


The Disconnect:

Before I get to this, I want to stop and say that this is really hard to talk about. We humans absolutely love lists of stuff to do. We are just enamored with this idea of “we are the change we have been waiting for”. The gospel just flies in the face of all that. It’s like the opposite of karma. What Jesus did for us just blows our mind. It’s funny, we can hear it a hundred times and then we still need to hear it again because we just can’t process this stuff. I really want to talk about grace today, but it’s challenging to do well. I really care about this and I wrote a bunch of stuff down and then deleted half of it and I still don’t know if much of it is in a form that I can get across, but I’m going to try.

Look back to what Joshua said in his farewell speech in the passage we read. He said “You cannot serve the Lord!”. Joshua’s name in Hebrew is Yeshua, it means, “The Lord Saves”. It’s actually the same as Jesus. Joshua was a savior of sorts but here, at the end of his life, he’s thinking, “I’m about to kick the bucket! I’m no savior. These people need a real savior.” The good news is that we have a real savior in Jesus Christ.

Let me try to approach this from another angle. We are all worried about how our kids turn out, and what we pass on to them, but what about all the good stuff WE have? Most of it was an unwarranted gift. It will be the same for them.

Notice what Joshua reminds everyone of in verse 13:

Joshua 24:13 – You were given a land you did not labor for.

Sound familiar? That’s us right now too. We have this beautiful prosperous country to live in and we didn’t labor for it. You know the last WWI veteran died last year. We haven’t had a major nation-threatening war in over 60 years. We have big houses and grocery stores full of every kind of amazing fruit – just down the street. And though our grandparents did work hard for us – billions of people all over the world work really hard too and still live in poverty. The truth is, so many of the good things we have, materially, have just fallen in our laps. We have been given a land of vineyards we did not labor for too.

Here is another case, this time from the 10 Commandments of all places. His Grace, that is, his undeserved gift, transcends all our failings and the failings of our parents.

Exodus 20:5-6
I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

This verse is part of the heart of the hard OT law, but it’s also a verse for children whose parent’s screwed up, and a verse for parents who have screwed and are maybe still screwing up right now. Do your sins affect your children? You bet. It is genuinely destructive. Does the love of Christ cover and extend over that failure times a thousand? Yes indeed. Even in the Old Testament we find promises like this at every turn.

What if your parents divorced? Left you hanging? Abused you? Never told you about God? Told you hokey confusing things? Gave you a lame education? Didn’t leave you any inheritance (money or otherwise)? You’re in luck. All the really best stuff is free and it comes out of nowhere.

Isaiah 55:1
Everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters;
And you who have no money,
Come, buy and eat.
Yes, come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.

Good parents pass on an inheritance to their children, but our God has adopted us into HIS family. Through the waters of baptism, our old life of flesh is put to death and we are given a new life of the spirit. We may have no inheritance from our earthly parents, but he gives us a marvelous one out of nothing. Creating things out of nothing is his specialty.

Let me return to Joshua and looking at some of this tension between the old and new covenant.

Joshua 24:20 – He will not forgive your transgressions nor yours sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you.

You hear that? God will not forgive you. Uh oh. But wait – that’s not the end of the story. This is the problem with taking bible verses out of context. You need to read the whole bible. God knew you were a lost cause from the beginning. That’s why he sent Jesus as a substitute. That is why we read later in Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 31:34, I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.

The thing is, even if your children fall away from the faith, that’s not the end. How many of you fell away in your twenties, but came back? If it seems that your kids don’t care about God anymore – it’s painful to watch, but it’s not over. People come back, and you can find a new way to relate to them, even after they are grown up. For example, how many people have terrible inlaws? I mean, it’s so common as to be cliché right? Well, guess what, if your kids are moved away from home now and running away from God, you blew it and there is nothing you can do now right? No. You can be a kind and generous mother-in-law or father-in-law – one that really helps when they can and knows when to butt out. As some of you know, that is something precious and rare! Your children were at home with you for 20 years, but now you have to figure out how to relate to them for the next 40 years after that. Don’t count it out. Living as a Christian during this later time still works it’s way deep into their lives.

Here is another example. In college I spent several years volunteering with a campus youth ministry. It was very similar to Cru, though with a different affiliation. I remember I used to be so disappointed that a couple of friends I knew at the university would never come to our bible study meetings. I figured they wanted nothing at all to do with God. But now I have them on Facebook. They are in their thirties now and have several kids. And waddayaknow, now they talk about how they love Jesus and go to church all the time. What gives? It turns out they grew up nominally in the faith, but needed some time to figure out what they really believed and for a few years in college they were kind of in limbo and it didn’t look like anything was happening. Don’t give up on these people. It’s not the end of the story. This could be the situation with your own distant kids too. We don’t work this out. God does. We may play a part, but he doesn’t need our help. And that’s a relief.

Disclaimer about parenting advice. (See this blog post.) Take what I say with an appropriate grain of salt.

I will only add a few more things, hopefully in the “general guidelines” category:

The more effort you put in up front, the greater the pay-off. Put in a lot of energy when your kids are toddlers, and they are, generally, less likely to stray as teenagers and young adults. Wait until later to invest a lot of time and it won’t have near as much return. It’s like a saving account. Load it up front for maximum effectiveness.

Going back to modeling versus teaching – What you do, how you act and what you talk about day-to-day, carries more weight than what you say or teach directly. Concern yourself with living for God and it will rub off on your kids, regardless of what form their education takes or even their religious tradition (what church you go to.) Don’t get too hung up on specific methods.

So, in conclusion, I’d like to go through just a brief recap. The people of Israel saw God do many wonderful miracles for them, but their children didn’t see them. Just the next generation on down gave up on serving God. Our situation is not so unlike theirs. Our children will, presumably, do the same if we do not effectively instill our faith in them or transmit our loves and beliefs to them. This all goes not just for our own biological children, for those of you who are parents, but also for anyone with friends, or anyone who interacts with young people – even grown up young people. We transmit our faith to them through modeling, teaching, and participating in their lives. They absorb what we say and do. They fill up their minds with what we and others teach them. They live with us and are nurtured by us and much of our lives are shared – sometimes even throughout adulthood. We have a great responsibility on our shoulders! This stuff doesn’t happen if we are asleep at the wheel. But, at the same time, even our best efforts are nothing without the direct action of the Holy Spirit of God in their lives. The Lord can take failures and turn them into something beautiful. We can count on God and his gifts to get through to our young loved ones, even when times seem dark and irrational to us. Indeed, his grace is the only thing that can make a substantial difference in our lives and their lives. He is making everything new. We, and our children are part of a long history, a long timeline spanning from the beginning of creation to now and beyond. Jesus Christ raises the dead (that’s us) and so transcends all our failings, both now in part, and completely at the end of the age. So, as Joshua says, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” As for me and my house, we will serve the our Lord Jesus Christ, who does ALL the heavy lifting.

Let us pray.

Father. Thank you for making us your children. Thank you for being a perfect father to us. Thank you for loving us. We want to love our children and our friends just as you love us – even when they are terribly difficult and rebellious or stupid, just like us. Lord, for the parents in the room, bless their difficult efforts to raise their children on the right path, wherever they may be on that journey. But also God, make good on your promises and blow their efforts out of the water with your own grace and by your own actions and involvement. Do that in our own lives too with our own aging parents. For the children in this room, lead them to a place where they can learn to love you more than life itself and everything that seems cool and meaningful around them. We can’t take them there God, but you can. Cast out anger and fear from our midst. We ask you to strengthen your church Lord and to bind our families tighter together in love and friendship. Amen.