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What Do I Want For Our Children?

 

Sunday School Teachers’ Dedication, 1996

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Romans 5:1-5

I have never looked upon the Sunday School as babysitting. I have never regarded Sunday School as a means of keeping adult worship free from distracting sights and sounds. On the contrary I know that Jesus Christ can surge over and forge himself within the youngest hearts and minds. For this reason I pray for our Sunday School teachers every day. After all, what can be more important than having a youngster awakened to God by God himself as the boy Samuel was three millennia ago? (I Samuel 3:1-10) I long to see our Sunday School children “arrive at real maturity — that measure of development which is meant by`the fullness of Christ’.” (Eph. 4:13 JBP) One aspect of such “real maturity” is to know the love of God. I want our children to have first-hand acquaintance with the God whose nature is love. (I John 4:8) I want our children to find themselves startled and awed and overwhelmed at the love God has for them, for others, for the entire world. I want them to come to know, together with the maturest saint, that the tidal waves of love that wash over them repeatedly are but a ripple in the seas of love that will remain inexhaustible eternally. Through our Sunday School I want our children to know — and keep on knowing — the love for them that streams from the heart of him whose love is undiminishing and undeflectible.

I: — First of all I want our children to know that God so loved the world; so loved the world that he gave himself for it in his Son; gave himself without hesitation, without calculation, without qualification — just gave himself — gave himself up, for us all. (John 3:16)

To know that God loves the world is to know that God loves those who don’t love him; don’t love him at all; hate him, in fact. Everywhere in the writings of the apostle John “the world” consists of the sum total of men and women who are hostile to God; and not merely hostile to God individually, but united in a semi-conscious conspiracy to resist him and mock him and repel him. And this is what God loves with unrelenting constancy and consistency. In other words, God loves to death what you and I would long since have given up loving out of frustration and anger, given up loving for reasons that make perfect sense.

The history of humankind is the history of our repudiating that which is our sole good: God. The history of humankind is the history of our preferring our fatal sickness of selfism to him and his healing love for us. Adam and Eve — whose names mean “humankind” and “mother of the living” (respectively) are awash in blessing upon blessing; unalloyed blessing, unconditional blessing, with nothing to mar their blessedness or even put it at risk. What do they do? (What do we all do?) They cast aspersion on the goodness of God and endeavour to prove themselves God’s equal. Yet despite this outrageous effrontery God refuses to quit on humankind, so incomprehensible is his love.

Noah, together with his family, is delivered from the flood, in the old, old story, in order that God might begin anew the fulfilment of his heart’s desire: a holy people who are the faithful covenant- partners of the holy God. And what does Noah do upon his deliverance at the hand of God’s measureless mercy? He gets drunk! The irreverence, the ingratitude, the culpable stupidity of his response is mind-boggling.

Undiscouraged in his quest of a holy people for himself, God liberates his people from degrading slavery, brings them through the Red Sea, and acquaints them with his will (their blessing!) at Sinai. Or at least he tries to acquaint them with his will, tries to press his blessing upon them. But they will have none of it, preferring to caper around a hunk of metal oblivious to their self-induced spiritual infantilism.

The prophet Hosea swears he hears God say of these people of perverse heart, “Lo-ammi, lo-ruchamah!”: “Not my people, not pitied.” Then Hosea knows he has heard God say in even clearer, louder voice, “Ruchamah, ammi!”: “Pitied — loved — and therefore my people still.”

I trust no one here this morning misunderstands the unrelenting intransigence of the human heart, its wilful blindness and deafness, its irrational folly. Remember, when the apostle John speaks of “the world” he means the sum total of unbelieving men and women hardened in their defiance of God and their disobedience to his will for them and their disdain for his gospel. So unimaginably senseless is the depraved heart of humankind that it will even despise the gospel, its one and only cure!

In our age of ascendant secularism we nod knowingly and say that secularized people are indifferent to the gospel. They are indifferent, to be sure, but such indifference is never mere indifference. In the face of a love that pleads and entreats, such indifference is nothing less than defiance. We must never agree with those who cavalierly suggest that secularized people are ignorant of the truth and righteousness of God. They are ignorant, to be sure, but such ignorance is never mere ignorance. Their ignorance of the truth arises from a suppression of the truth; their ignorance of God’s righteousness arises from a repudiation of righteousness. Truth is suppressed until it can no longer be discerned; righteousness is repudiated until it can no longer be recognized. Indifference to and ignorance of a gospel that is wrung out of the Father’s heart and displayed in the Son’s anguish; this is not mere indifference and ignorance. This is nothing less than contempt.

And in the face of it all God stands loving. Nothing can get him to stop. His love cascades ceaselessly; his love also infiltrates undetectably. Both are needed — both the torrent and the infiltration — if the calcified human heart is to be softened and wooed and won. Hearts are softened and wooed and won. The most stunning miracle of all is that people do come to faith and obedience and love of him.

The most stunning miracle that a child in our Sunday School will ever witness is the miracle of her own coming to faith; the most astounding development to amaze any of us, young or old, is the beginning of one’s own heart to beat in time with the heart of God. Nothing less than the love of God — both its “Niagaroid” torrent and its undetectable infiltration — is needed to remove us from the category of “the world”. It is as God loves “the world” that we are released from “the world” as we are made children of God by faith.

I want our Sunday School children to know that love of God which brings them and others to faith.

II: — Even as God’s love for us does this it continues to do something more: it continues to pulsate within us, with the result that we are little by little transformed in the midst of life’s unavoidable pain. Paul begins his first paragraph in Romans 5 (Rom.5:1-5) with the ringing reminder that we are justified by faith; that is, we are set right with God by clinging to the crucified one. Paul ends the paragraph by affirming emphatically that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit; has been poured into us and now fills us up. What happens in the middle of the paragraph between the ringing reminder and the emphatic affirmation? Suffering; suffering is what happens in between.

Because of our righted relationship with God, because God’s love fills us to the brim, our sufferings are never bare sufferings. Our sufferings, undeniably difficult, don’t render us desolate. Our sufferings are now the occasion of our endurance, and endurance of character, and character of hope (hope being our confidence that it all ends in our being bathed in the splendour of God’s glory).

When Paul speaks of endurance he doesn’t mean that we hang on grimly by the skin of our teeth. “Endurance” is a military term borrowed from the Roman army. Soldiers exemplified endurance when (i) they remained steadfast, (ii) they remained steadfast just because their commanding officer had acquainted them with the purpose of the battle and its unavoidable suffering. The soldier could remain steadfast — could endure — just because he knew how crucial the struggle was.

When God’s love floods the heart of those who have been set right with God through faith, suffering produces endurance; i.e., suffering produces steadfastness in those who know why it is necessary to keep up the struggle. Such endurance produces character, maintains the apostle. The Greek word Paul uses for “character” is DOKIME; literally it means refinement. He has in mind the kind of refining that a smelter does. A smelter subjects metallic ore to intense heat and pressure. In this process of intense heat and pressure base elements, worthless elements, are purged away; what’s left is a precious metal that is both valuable and attractive. Refining is a proving process that results in what is proved being approved. We who are set right with God through faith and flooded now with God’s love; we know the ultimate outcome of our suffering, endurance and refining; the ultimate outcome is “hope” — being bathed in the splendour of God’s glory.

Before I leave this point I want to make sure we understand something crucial. When Paul speaks of God’s love flooding us he is speaking of experience: immediate, visceral, palpable experience. He is not speaking of an idea, the idea of God’s love. We always tend to reduce concrete spiritual realities to mere ideas: we unconsciously reduce God’s love to the idea of God’s love. Odd, isn’t it, but we never do this with our suffering; we never reduce pain to the idea of pain. We can’t reduce pain to the idea of pain just because our pain is too real! After all, what is more immediate, less deniable, than pain? Paul’s point is this: in Christians what is more immediate, less deniable, than God’s love? God’s love flooding us is as immediate, visceral, palpable as our pain is piercing us. As God’s love surges over our pain, suffering yields endurance, endurance character, and character the confidence that one day it will all be taken up in the splendour of God’s glory.

I want our Sunday School children to know this when they are 30 years old or 45 or 60 years old.

III: — Lastly, Paul prays that the hearts of the Christians in Thessalonica will be directed into God’s love (2 Thess. 3:5 NIV); farther into God’s love, deeper into God’s love. Is this possible? Are we not at this moment either “in” God’s love or not “in” his love? To be sure, either the love of God is the sphere, the atmosphere, the environment in which our lives unfold, says the apostle John, or else “the world” is the sphere, the atmosphere, the environment in which our lives unfold. Of course! Either we are united to Christ or we are not; either we are “in the right” with God through faith in his Son or we are “in the wrong”. Nevertheless, even as believers are “in” the love of God, we can always move farther into God’s love, go deeper into it. We can, we should, and Paul prays that we shall.

In 1964 I came to know that Maureen loved me. She loved me then. She loves me now. To say that she loved me in 1964 and loves me in 1996 is not to say that nothing has happened in 32 years. Each year has found me moving deeper — and deeper still — into her love. Just when I think she loves me so much she couldn’t love me more, I discover that there are reservoirs of love in her that I never guessed and before which I can only marvel — and love her yet more myself.

Several months ago I did something that did not cover me in glory. In fact I was ashamed. It haunted me. I said nothing. Maureen knew something was wrong but didn’t guess what. Finally I told her. Now I know Maureen well. (Remember, we have loved each other since 1964.) Because I know her well, and because of my shameful misadventure, I expected her to react in any combination of the following: she would be hurt, she would be angry, she would think ill of me. Contrary to everything I expected from the woman I already knew so well she said only, “It took a lot of courage for you to tell me what you have.” It was obvious to me that as well as I knew her, knew her love for me, I didn’t know her and her love as thoroughly as I thought I did. More to the point, as deeply as I had lived in her love for years, that moment found me moving into her love yet again, deeper into a love that was plainly greater than anything I had known to date.

So it is with our life in God. As much of his love as we have known to date; as deeply in his love as we are at this moment, it is still the apostle’s prayer that our hearts be directed into, farther into, God’s love for us. So vast is God’s love for us that we can only plunge deeper into it, and deeper still, until we are astounded at it, then lost in it, thence to find ourselves, with Charles Wesley, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”

I don’t expect our Sunday School children to grasp now all that I have said in this sermon. I merely want the door to be opened for them, the seeds to be sown, the truth declared, the child’s first steps encouraged. Then when they are older and they are acquainted with the intransigence of “the world” plus the anguish of their own suffering and above all the fathomless depths of God; when they are older they will newly apprehend every day the love wherewith God loves them, loves an unbelieving world, and loves his own people yet deeper — always deeper — into himself.

Victor A. Shepherd
September 1996