Building for a covenant future
A sermon on Psalm 78.1-8
Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done. For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that they may arise and declare them to their children, that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments; and may not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that did not set its heart aright, and whose spirit was not faithful to God.
Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we call upon the Lord for the future. We pray, Thy kingdom come. We are aspiring that the world tomorrow looks more like the heavenly kingdom.
We pray it. We hope for it.
But too often, we leave it right there. It's out of our hands, and there's very little more we are prepared to do.
Psalm 78 teaches us that it is our responsibility to build for a covenant future. It is our responsibility to ensure that our children put their trust in God and keep His commands.
This morning, I want to address this responsibility, very simply and very briefly. Build for the covenant future: confessing that your home belongs to God; and impressing upon your home the Word of God.
1. Every year, children from Christian homes depart out of the house, and never darken a church door again, except perhaps to get married. Every year, we find that there are young adults who were raised in the church, and drop out. Some of them turn to wild living. Some of them just live average lifestyles and don't bother with the church. It means nothing to them.
One common response to this has been: "Ah, this only shows that each person must make his own decision. This is why we should not baptize babies. People need to come individually and in a mature and responsible way, decide for themselves that they want to walk with the Lord."
I need to tell you this morning that that is precisely not the biblical response. If you want to follow the way of the Word, and if, in terms of that Word, you want to build for the covenant future, you need to do so by confessing that your home belongs to God.
And I believe that as you begin to take this seriously, you will see that one of the primary reasons why Christian kids leave home and drop away from the church is precisely because we never believed what God said about them to begin with. And what we truly believe dictates what we do.
Psalm 78.4 tells us that we are not to hide from our children what we have heard; rather "we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, His power, and the wonders He has done."
What lies behind that? Is it just the thought that we need to communicate this good stuff, in order that our children - who are neutral and have every right to be neutral - will grow up and one day "make their own choice"? Is that what lies behind this call for instruction of the next generation?
Listen again to Deuteronomy 6.6-9:
And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 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.
Again, what lies behind this? Is it just so that your child will be able to make an informed, "objective" decision?
I think if you consider what is actually commanded here, you will find that to be impossible to suppose. When you are called upon to speak of God's ways and His Word, when you get up, when you sit in the house, when you walk, when you go out and come in and lie down.... you're not posing alternatives. You're saying, "This is the way: walk in it." "This is the way that you belong to; this is your God; these are the things that He expects of you."
The apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 6.4, "Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." Notice that word in. Paul is saying, "Raise your child in the training and discipline of the Lord." Not: raise your child in such a way that he or she might at some point come into some sort of relationship with Christ. No! It is your responsibility, fathers, to ensure that the whole context of your child's upbringing is God and His Word.
Listen to what Moses speaks to Israel in Deuteronomy 29.9-13:
Therefore keep the words of this covenant, and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do. All of you stand today before the LORD your God: your leaders and your tribes and your elders and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones and your wives - also the stranger who is in your camp, from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water - that you may enter into covenant with the LORD your God, and into His oath, which the LORD your God makes with you today, that He may establish you today as a people for Himself, and that He may be God to you, just as He has spoken to you, and just as He has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God makes covenant with Israel, and He doesn't say, "Now, this is for you adults - your children are in some sort of limbo, some sort of independent or neutral state until they grow up"!
No, He says, all of you are standing before Me today, including your little ones. They belong to God, they belong to His covenant. And whether intentionally or not, when you deny that, you are implicitly denying your own responsibility. You are making excuses for yourself, providing a way of escape, so that you don't have to speak of God's ways and commandments when you get up and when you go out and when you lie down.
Brothers and sisters, I'm well aware that we live in a highly individualistic age. Everybody decides for himself what he will be. One's loyalty is first of all and ultimately to "number one," and "number one" decides what every other relationship will be. You don't tell your child what to believe; you don't tell your child what to do, because that violates his "individuality." It encroaches upon his "freedom!"
Joshua lived among a rebellious people, and everybody loves to quote him: "Choose ye this day whom ye shall serve!" And we like that, because it stresses choice, freedom!
But was Joshua being individualistic there? Why don't we finish what he said? "But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD!" He doesn't say merely, "Well, as for me, I will serve the Lord, and everybody else do what you want to do!" No, he believes what Moses said in Deuteronomy 29. He believes that his household is bound in covenant with God, and as the head of that household, he affirms: "As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."
Paul preached to the Philippian jailer in Acts 16.31, and he said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household." Paul hadn't yet so much as seen the jailer's family, and he's saying, "Look, you believe, and God lays hold of you and your household."
That's what underlies Psalm 78, congregation. Promise and responsibility. When God saves you, He says, "You're mine, and your household is Mine, too." That's why Psalm 78 puts such heavy stress upon this teaching. It isn't just something kind of nice to do. Teaching your household in the ways of the Lord is one of the most fundamental areas of obedience that God calls you to. Listen to what God says about Abraham in Genesis 18.19:
I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.
God says that this is why He has "known" Abraham. That language is elsewhere used in terms of God's call. To be known by God is to be loved by Him and called by Him.
When God called you - and I'm speaking especially to you fathers - when God called you, He called you in order that you would command your children and household after you, in order that they keep the way of the LORD.
He didn't call you in order to raise your children in such a way that they would be educated and trained, so that they could earn more money than you did and have more nice things than you had.
He didn't call you in order to raise your children in such a way that your children would suffer less hardship than you did when you were growing up.
He didn't call you in order to raise your children to make names for themselves in athletics.
He didn't call you in order to raise your children to be "important people" in your hometown.
He didn't call you in order to raise your children in such a way that they would make you proud of them.
He called you, in order that you would command your children and household after you, that they would keep the way of the Lord.
And so I need to ask you: Is this what your lifestyle and your parenting is all about? Is this the bottom line for you? Or is "the bottom line" the bottom line?
It doesn't matter how many things you do for your children. They may be all very good things. But if you don't do this - indeed, if this isn't at the heart and center of everything - then all that other stuff means nothing. You're just teaching your child to gain the world but lose his soul.
God isn't going to ask you if you managed to secure a $100 grand a year career for your child.
But He is going to ask you if you nurtured your child in the fear of the Lord.
What will you be able to answer?
2. So now we know why we must build for the covenant future; now we must investigate further what is involved in that task. As we have seen, you are to build for the covenant future, confessing that your home belongs to God; now, second, build for the covenant future, impressing upon your home the Word of God. In speaking of impressing the Word of God upon your home, first I want to talk about extent, and then I want to talk about content.
The extent of teaching we have already heard indicated in Deuteronomy 6. If you have "taught doctrine" and "Bible," but it's not integrated at all into life, if it's an "add-on," then you aren't yet doing what God has called for. This impressing of the Word of God upon your home is something that is constant and total: it is something you are called to do when you get up in the morning, when you sit in the house, when you walk by the way, when you go in and out, when you go to bed.
We live in an age where it is simply assumed that the "spiritual" and the "secular" are two separate spheres. And so we tack something called "Christianity" or "faith" onto the top of everything else, and say we're done. Perhaps we see Sunday morning as our "spiritual task." That's where we get the spiritual fix. If we're really dedicated with our children, we might send them to a Christian school. And then, we can wash our hands, because look at all those hours devoted to the "spiritual."
If we are to fulfill the mandate described in Deuteronomy 6 and Psalm 78, however, we need to think in an entirely different way. We need to stop dividing up our lives into "spiritual" and "secular." Yes, there are specific times set aside for corporate worship, times when the church gathers as a church, and there is something very special and even foundational about that.
But the other times are not now "secular," simply because church is special in some way. No, to the contrary, the worship of God sanctifies us - sets us apart - so that our lives are set apart. That is what is involved in speaking of the ways of the Lord at all times and in all situations. It doesn't, of course, mean that when you get on the job site, you can't tell your workers what to do, because you're too busy talking about the Bible. It doesn't mean that the children don't learn mathematics, because they are only allowed to learn the Bible.
But it does mean that whatever you are doing, on the job, doing yard work, entertainment, leisure - you do all of this, and speak of all of this, in the light of God's Word. His ways and His commandments permeate and shape everything you do. Paul says (Col. 3.17), "Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him."
Now, if this is the case, parents, I think you see what is involved. If you are not in the Word, if you are not learning and growing and being mastered by the Word of God - this just isn't going to happen. How are you going to integrate God's ways and God's commands into every aspect of life before your children if that Word is not feeding you and sustaining you and shaping you? If your life revolves around your job and your things and your entertainment, that is what your children are going to imbibe, no matter what you may say on occasion.
So that is the extent of our teaching. We must pass on God's Word to the next generation in everything. But we must briefly deal with content, just what it is that we are to pass on to them.
We notice in Psalm 78 that the impressing of the Word of God upon the next generation is not simply providing a list of moral no-no's. The Christian life is not simply a checklist.
If you read through this entire psalm, you will find that it is a memorial, not only to God's commandments, but also to His deeds. We notice in verse 10 that Ephraim did not keep God's covenant and refused to live by His law - but why? Verse 11: "They forgot what he had done, the wonders He had shown them." And then the psalmist recounts God's wonders and powerful deliverance that He had worked out for His people.
It is not enough to tell your kids not to get drunk. It is not enough to tell them that fornication and lying is wrong. That isn't yet communicating the faith. Christianity isn't simply about "good values." We're here this morning because of a story - the story of God's ways with His people. Unless and until you have communicated the practical issues of holiness within the context of that story, unless and until lifestyle issues grow out of what God has done - all you've taught is moralism, and you don't need the Bible for that.
When the psalmist says (Ps. 78.4) that we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, His power and the wonders He has done, he is saying that we will proclaim God's works as ours, as our children's history. If we are really to do that, we are going to need more than the proverbial "Sunday school knowledge" of the Bible. We are going to need to see the whole of Scripture as a narrative, a history, our history, the story of God's actions on our behalf. That's what it means to teach our children of the Lord's ways.
And so again, the question comes: how well do you know this story? How much of this narrative do you even recognize? Fathers, if you do not know who you are by knowing what God has done, how do you expect to instill that into your children?
And it is then, when we know the deeds of God, when we recognize the shape of the story - then the commandments make sense. The rules become something more than rules. They become... an outline, a pattern of life. As your children learn who God is, what He has done, His covenant, how He works, then the pattern, the shape of biblical instruction slowly begins to "hang together."
If you want to teach biblical standards of living in a way that makes sense, this is the route you must take. You cannot teach your child the necessity of forgiveness unless and until you yourself understand and model God's forgiveness. You cannot teach your child purity unless and until you have shown from the story why it is so important to be pure, what is so valuable that it must be kept pure. You cannot teach your child to come to church unless and until you recognize what God is doing, in building Himself a people to worship Him and serve Him.
Congregation, God's kingdom has a future. And that future is guaranteed. The kingdom is coming, and will come. With or without you, with or without your children - that is the question.
"I will be God to you, and to your seed after you," God says. But the promises of God bestow purpose and responsibility upon us. If God is our God, we must live before Him as His people. And if He is our children's God, then we must treat them as His people, and train them as His people.
This will not be without cost. This will not happen without sacrifice. This will not happen without discipline.
But when we give ourselves to the promise of God, we discover that that promise becomes anew a fulfillment of "the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, His power, and His wonders." We discover with wonder that God is continuing His story of faithfulness and love, to a thousand generations, to those who fear Him and keep His commandments.