Nothing delights us any more than the birth of a new baby. Everybody gets sort of squishy and sentimental around a baby. And I suspect that it is not only because they are cute and cuddly and helpless and small, but also it is because they are full of promise. Babies are nothing more than a bundle of promise; what they might become, what they could be, it’s limitless. It’s boundless.
When you hold in your arms that tiny life, you do not know but what you are holding a future president of the United States or some kind of rocket scientist or someone who will discover a cure for cancer or whatever. You only know that this little life has infinite promise. This child may have the potential for greatness. Somehow we never think, I could be holding a future mass murderer in my arms! I could be cradling the next Charles Manson or Jim Jones, the next drug kingpin or compulsive wife-beater. We don’t think that way. We don’t like to imagine all those negative possibilities.
And yet, as someone has so eloquently put it, every baby is nothing more than a few pounds of flesh with an insatiable appetite at one end and total irresponsibility at the other!
Babies, children, have infinite possibilities for good, but also for evil. We don’t like to think about them becoming totally irresponsible, but it can happen. It has happened. And there are reasons why it happens.
In ancient Israel there lived a man who was called upon to carry out two sets of responsibilities. There were two kinds of demands placed on Eli. He was a priest and he was a father. And without question he was expected to discharge the responsibilities that go with both tasks.
The picture we get of Eli the priest is of a reasonably capable and conscientious man. So far as we know, he got the job done. He showed up every Sabbath and did what was expected of him. On the surface, anyway, Eli was a good churchman.
But the Bible is ruthless in its assessment of Eli the father. It minces no words at all in describing the character of Eli’s two sons: "The sons of Eli were worthless men; they had no regard for the Lord."
"Worthless men". How did they get to be that way? Hophni and Phinehas, once little bundles of joy held in the arms of their mother and father, but now grown into "worthless men." Once sweet little children, playing and delighting their parents with their charm, but now written off as "worthless”. How could it happen?
There is a significant clue in the scripture. I want to make the connection between two verses a chapter apart. And every one of us who is a parent, every one of us who teaches, every one of us who is in a position to provide for children, whether in the schools or in the community or in the church … every one of us who cares about how children grow up needs to make this connection.
As I have said, chapter two of I Samuel opens with the harsh judgment that the two sons of Eli the priest were "worthless men; they had no regard for the Lord." But at the beginning of the third chapter there is also a harsh judgment about the whole climate, the whole scene, in which they lived.
We are told that, "the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision."
"The word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision."
There is your clue; there is the explanation for the worthless children. The word of the Lord was rare in those days and there was no frequent vision. Connect these two assertions and the result is: "Rare words yield worthless children". "Rare words yield worthless children."
Let me expand on that.
Clearly Eli, the priest, had plenty of knowledge of the things of God. Obviously anyone in his position had to have been well aware of God’s laws, God’ s expectations. Then how can it be that "the word of the Lord was rare in those days"? Somehow Eli never found the right time or the right way to share that with his boys. Somehow Eli bottled up all his knowledge and never uncorked it for the people who mattered the most.
And so rare words, rarely spoken teachings, rarely used insights, the word of God, seldom brought forward, rare words yielded worthless children. Children who were never carefully and lovingly taught the word of God, children who saw their father at work and knew what his commitment was, but never really heard him express it. And so they grew up ignorant of the truths of God, devoid of life-giving vision.
Someone said to me once, "Well, I think that Christianity is better caught than taught. I think that the children will learn more about God by what they see us do than by what we say." And that has a certain ring of truth about it. Of course they will learn from what we do. Of course they will pick up what our real values are by the way we treat them and not just by what we tell them. But that is only half the truth. They must also be taught.
This, you see, is the "osmosis" theory of Christianity. If you just sort of snuggle up next to a Christian, it will seep in by osmosis. But it’s not true. Ask old Eli, man of God, who cradled these infants and grew them up in the shadow of the tabernacle. Osmosis just won’t work. It won’t work because you and I are not very good incarnations. We don’t embody the truth of Christ very well. We make mistakes. We sin. We do all sorts of things that are a long way from what we ought to be. And they catch by osmosis the bad as well as the good, the ugly as well as the beautiful.
No, children must be taught the word of God. They must see the truth fresh, for themselves, without its getting all blurred. Children must discover God’s word themselves.
Otherwise, I’m afraid, rare words yield worthless children.
If your child never sees the Bible opened and used except at church, what will that say to him? Will it not suggest that this book has very little to do with real life?
If the Bible is a book dusted off when the pastor or the deacon is coming over to the house, but is never used to help anybody find real answers to real problems, will that not say to a child that it’s unreal and pointless?
If we come to Sunday morning and decide we’ll go to Sunday School and to church only if the weather’s OK and we didn’t stay up too late on Saturday night and maybe there is a special incentive the church is pushing this morning … if going to Sunday School and church is only a sometime thing rather than the normal thing, what does that say? Why can we insist that our children drag out of bed, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, to go to the public school, but, Sunday School, well, dear, if you don’t want to.... What will that say?
No, let’s teach the truths of God •• let ’s teach them regularly, frequently, consistently, specifically. Let it not be said of your house that the word of God was rare and that there was no frequent vision, lest it also have to be said, from that household there grew up worthless children.
Look at it another way: here is Eli, priest of God, carrying on services in the tabernacle, handling God’s truth every day, and yet it can be said that "the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision."
I suspect that Eli had become so accustomed to dealing with holy things that he just took them for granted. I suspect that Eli spent so much time in church doing churchy things that he lost the sense of mystery and awe. He quit studying, he quit exploring, he no longer expected any new truth to break through for himself. He just went ahead and did his religious thing, supposing that the very routine would be all that would be necessary, and he forgot the freshness, the excitement, of new discovery. Eli went stale.
And when Eli went stale, so did his boys. He had nothing fresh, nothing new to share with them. They all went flat and stale, no frequent vision. Rare words yield worthless children.
Several people have said to me in the last couple of weeks, "I quit Sunday School a long time ago. I learned all those Bible stories, I memorized all those verses, but it got boring. It wasn’t interesting anymore. I quit. I kept on going to church, and I stayed active in church life. But I quit studying the Bible."
But do you know what those same people are saying now? They are saying, "I find I need something like that. I find I need to know more. I’m getting challenged out there, and just going on habits and feelings isn’t enough. I need to know the Bible. I need to know my faith.”
And I would say, "Yes, you do. You do need to know the faith. You need it not only for yourself, however; you need it for your children. You need to know it and be exploring it so that you can have something fresh to share with the children.
Otherwise we’ll be like Eli, busy doing our churchy thing, but losing touch with our own spiritual depth and dimensions, getting stale. And thus letting our young people get stale.
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days, and there was no frequent vision." If you don’t want that to happen, then get into serious study yourself. Do it for yourself and do it for your children. If you find fresh experiences, you will communicate them. If you are putting yourself in the path where vision canes along, you will be able to communicate your excitement to young people.
What does it say to a child if Mom and Dad pack him off to Sunday School, while they themselves get in a leisurely look at the Sunday paper and a second cup of coffee?
What does it suggest to a young person if the adults he knows do not use the principles of the Bible as the bases for the way they make decisions?
What is really being communicated if the only time prayer is offered is at church, in some formal setting, but never at home, never in the crunch where real decisions are being made?
Eli was a churchy man, a man busy with the things of God. But it seems entirely possible that in all his business he lost touch with what was primary. He lost his own sense of new discovery, and his boys went stale.
And rare words and an infrequent vision yield worthless children.
I know you enjoyed seeing the children this morning. I am confident you feel good that they are being taught in our Sunday School and in our Children’s Worship and Missions groups. But there is more, much more, that needs to be done if these bundles of promise are not to grow up to be worthless children.
They must learn at home, from you, that the word of God speaks to their lives. We have them Sunday morning. You have them every day and every night.
They must see, at home and at church, that you, the adults, are in serious study of God’s word. Even if you have no children, you can model spiritual growth and intellectual curiosity for them.
They must be helped by you to discover how the truths of the Scriptures can help them make decisions. The Bible must be a lively, relevant book. Shame on any teacher that comes to this place on Sunday and makes the Bible boring. Shame on this pastor if he comes to this pulpit and does not show how the Bible instructs life and understanding.
And more. I believe this morning that if we do not work harder at reaching the children of this community, our name should be called Eli. For we have been awfully good about doing our churchy things without reaching out to the scores of children within our community who are not learning the scriptures.
The time has come for us to do all we can to bring them here. Bring them here for Sunday School, for Vacation Bible School, for other opportunities. And if that means renovating some classrooms to accommodate them, so be it. If that means organizing a transportation system to pick them up and take them home, we ought to do it.
The time has come to go where they are to teach them the Scriptures. If that means offering Bible study out in the community, in the parks and on the playgrounds and in somebody’s back yard, then, yes, by all means, let’s get to it.
Some have even suggested that the day will come when we should offer a distinctively Christian preschool program, so that solid foundations can be laid at any early age. That would be a tough one to do, but if that is what we need to do, then let’s dream big dreams and catch powerful visions.
And, men and women, if it means … and it will …spending more money on our children, investing more dollars in facilities and training and staff and materials and whatever else we need, then we will dig down and do it. We will pay the price to teach the children.
Otherwise, we know we have only one alternative, just as Eli found out: that rare words yield worthless children.