These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.
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 to your children, 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.
It’s no secret that the church in the UK has been in massive decline for decades now, and this has been down to an unholy cocktail of secularism + affluence. It seems that the reasons to be a Christian have been swept away. There is no longer and intellectual reason to believe, since (it is felt) we have explained life and the universe without God. There is no longer a moral reason to believe, since we have moved past the outdated morality of the Bible and into a more enlightened age. And there is no longer an emotional reason to believe, since we have all we need, and we can do what we want.
Against all of this the church has failed to offer a compelling reason to look at Jesus. And the first victims have been our own children.
We are dedicating some children today as an act of defiance against the currents of culture. Why? It’s not because we are saying these children are Christian. Faith is not passed down in your genes, and growing up in a religious home does not mean you know God. Neither is it because we are attempting to do something to them to make them Christian. A lot of people see infant baptism as a kind of magical act, but in my view, baptising a baby is about as effective as baptising your cat. Faith is the important thing, of which baptism is the sign not the precursor. So what are we doing? We are offering up a prayer to God to have these kids, to work in their lives, and we are committing ourselves with promises to seek to do all we can to raise them to believe. Which leads to this huge question:
How can we present a compelling reason to believe?
1. We want to tell them the truth
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (v.4)
In the face of a pluralist society with many competing truth claims, and the undercurrent of skepticism about all and any religions, this verse stands as a defiant flag in the ground making the bold claim: there is one God, and we must meet him on his terms. Jesus echoed this exclusivism when he said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14.6). And so it compels us to counter the feeling that there is no intellectual reason to believe, by offering a compelling case that indeed there is. We need to tell our children (and anyone else who will listen) that this is the truth, and there is no embarrassment or shame in owning that.
Accusations will fly. Attempting to make this kind of claim in a culture like ours is like trying to cross a six lane motorway blindfolded without getting mowed down; to say that it is counter-cultural is an understatement. We’re accused of arrogance. How can we be so certain of our beliefs? How can we be sure that we know the way to God? We’re accused of abuse. How can you so indoctrinate your children and take away their freedom to choose for themselves?
Against this my answer always comes back to Jesus. We can line up the speculations of the prophets, the philosophers, and the scientists, but ultimately we are going to find it hard to decide between them and figure out who is telling us the truth. But then there’s Jesus. He is the one who stepped in from outside, and he silences the voices of all the contradictory religious prophets, the speculative philosophers, and the blinkered scientists. They all must answer to him.
So it is not arrogant to take Jesus’ word for it. It would be arrogant to assume I knew more than him. And it is not abusive to tell my children or anyone else that Jesus is the truth; it would be wrong for me to withhold this reality.
2. We want to tell them how to live
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (v.5)
This is one of the most important verses in the Bible, since Jesus paired it with Leviticus 19.18 (‘Love your neighbour as yourself…’) as a summary of the entire Law. Every other command is a footnote to these two. And so by teaching this to our children we are wanting to counter the belief that there is no moral need for Jesus.
Many people would hear these calls to love and think they can pretty much go along with this. We all think love is good. It’s a simple, clear, and manageable ethic.
What they don’t realise is that this is a profoundly searching and difficult command. The implication is this: You can’t do good unless you first love God!
How can we say this? For one thing, you can’t know what good is unless you know God. CS Lewis came to this basic yet mind-altering realisation and it was part of his conversion from atheist to Christian. He writes:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?… Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument God collapsed too — for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies.
— Mere Christianity
When God is taken out of the picture then morality is simply each person’s private fancies, and then only power can win in deciding what society believes is right and wrong.
We want to offer our children an understanding of reality that sees God as the foundation of all good, and loving him as the essential core of a righteous life.
3. We want to show them that life is about living for one thing
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, 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. (v.6-9)
The picture here is of a family whose whole lives are built around the love of God, saturated with wanting to know him and his ways. It is a knowledge passed on from father to son, mother to daughter. But there is never a doubt that God is at the centre. This is the answer to the emotional question, of what our need is for God. How so?
We all have obsessions that sit at the base of our hearts, guiding and directing us, forming our worldview, shaping our ambitions, provoking us to act. The only question is whether these base desires are truly meaningful. Matt Damon describes the realisation he experienced the night he won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting at age 27:
[I] suddenly had this kind of thing wash over me where I thought, ‘Imagine chasing that and not getting it, and getting it finally in your eighties or your nineties with all of life behind you, and realising what an unbelievable waste of your [life]’… Because it can’t, you know what I mean… It can’t fill you up. If that’s a hole that you have, that won’t fill it. Right?… And I literally… my heart broke for a second. It’s like, I imagined another one of me, you know, an old man kind of going, ‘Oh my God, where did my life go? What have I done?’ And then it’s over.
Sadly, so many people pursue lives that will end in futility. What is driving you? What is your passion? It is my conviction, and the conviction that I want to pass on to my children, that nothing in this life is strong enough to hold the weight of your deepest hopes — everything will ultimately collapse, except God.
Some may ask: Isn’t this too much of a burden to put on your children? Won’t they collapse under the expectation of living a life solely for God and his glory?
If it were a matter of simply giving our children rules, I would agree with this. It would be too much for anyone to carry. Jesus spoke of burdens too heavy to carry being laid on the shoulders of weak people, weighing them down (see Matthew 23.4).
So what is this about then? It’s about showing our children that they are the privileged recipients of the love of God, who has loved them before they were even born: ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation [atoning sacrifice] for our sins’ (1 John 4.10). Our children need never doubt that they are loved, and it is that love of God that summons them to live their lives for him, completely.
And how can they know this love? Simply by looking to Jesus, the one who gave his life for us.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53.4-5)
I don’t want my children to get the impression that life for God is a heavy thing, and that they will never measure up. Instead, I want them to realise that while they are deeply flawed and imperfect, God has already poured out his extravagant love by sending Jesus to die for them! This is truly a compelling faith.