Have you noticed how many of our songs refer to children? "Jesus Loves Me" is an example. Another song emphasizes God's loving care for every one of us by asking if we can count the many children in their beds at night. But the most familiar illustration is the song that pointed out that Jesus loves the little children. Whether they are red or yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight.
That thought was in Israel's songbook, too. The great psalms of the Old Testament often spoke of children and of God's care for them, and even compared his love for all people to a father's love for his children (Psalm 103:13). At Psalm 127, verse 3 said, "Behold children are a heritage of the Lord." In other words, they are regarded as God's gifts, and they are quite precious to him. As we deal with little children around us, or raise our own, we are dealing with what is precious to God.
The whole tone of the Bible emphasizes that the Lord has a deep interest in how we treat children - not just our own children, but all children. The Lord has an interest in how the church treats children and how the church thinks of children and what our attitudes toward little ones really are.
You can see what I am talking about in the way life stories of people are told in the Bible. There are several long sections when it will just say that s certain person lived so many years and he became the father of (and it will name the child) and then he died. In some ways an individual's whole life story is bound up in his relationship with children and how he treated or raised his children.
You can see the same point again in the provisions of God's covenant with Israel. One of the ten commandments involved the need for children to honor their father and mother. But the covenant also included a number of places where God made special provision for fathers and mothers to be able to teach their children about him (the Passover celebration, for example) One of the greatest passages in all of the Old Testament, one that Israel sang in synagogue worship in later years, was from Deut. 6. It said, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, 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 up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be frontlets before your eyes. You shall write them on the doorpost of your house and on your gates." God's idea was that in the life of Israel their relationship with him and his word would form the whole environment in which households of children were brought up.
You also can see the Lord's deep interest in children in the way the Old Testament prophets spoke of the coming of the Messiah. For example, the very last verse in the Old Testament said of the coming of one Elijah, the prophet, "He will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction." It was important, in other words, for parents to have their hearts turn to their children and children to have their hearts turn toward their parents. And it would be destructive in the land if that did not happen.
You can see this point emphasized yet again in Jesus' ministry in both his teaching and in his actions. There is a beautiful passage in Mark 9 in which the humanness of the Lord's disciples shows up and the greatness of God's love for little ones shows up. Mark 9:33 says, "And they came to Capernaum and when he was in the house, he asked them, 'What were you discussing on the way?' But they kept silent for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. (There is the humanness I am talking about.) And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, 'If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.' And he took a child (notice there were children around the Lord) and put him in the midst of them and, taking him in his arms, he said to them, 'whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives not me but him who sent me.'" Jesus not only emphasizes the importance of being like children, but also he insists on the fact that if you and I receive just one such little child, then we are receiving him. Our attitudes toward children are a part of our attitudes toward the Lord.
But maybe most of all the scripture emphasizes this tender care of God for little ones through the terms God chose to describe our relationship with Himself. The Lord chose family terms. In Matthew 6:9 Jesus taught his people to pray, "Our Father who art in heaven." The Lord wanted us to think of the God of heaven as a Father. In I John 3:1 it says, "Behold, what manner of love has been bestowed upon us that we should be called children of God." And so, all through the Bible you see the theme that I am talking about here. There is a special care that our Lord has for little ones.
Now let's apply that to the church today. It is the task of the Lord's church in this world to reflect the same care for little ones that God has. We want to have the kind of values, the kind of mind set, the kind of heart for little ones that our heavenly father has always had and has consistently emphasized throughout the whole of scripture. I call your attention to two episodes in the New Testament which help us to understand this. The first one talks about our attitudes as the church of the Lord. The second one talks about our actions as a congregation of the Lord as far as little children are concerned.
The first episode is a well known picture from the ministry of Jesus. It is found in Mark 10 beginning at verse 13. The passage says, "And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them. And the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, 'Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them." Now think about the attitudes toward children that are suggested in this passage. First, when the disciples rebuked the little ones, Jesus rebuked the disciples. Now why would they try to keep the little ones away from Jesus? Did they think the little ones were not important enough to be there? If that is the case, Jesus rebuked them. Did they think that the little ones made too much noise or that they were in some way a nuisance or that they were hard to control or that it was no place for them? If so, Jesus rebuked that attitude. And then when Jesus had said to them to such belongs the kingdom, don't hinder them, let them come to me, he set forth forever what the spirit of his people toward little ones must be. We want above all else not to stand in the way of little ones and a healthy picture of God and a right relationship with him finally. You realize it may have been, when Jesus said that, that some little child was crying or some little one was making noise. He took them in his arms. To me, that is a wonderful picture.
Now think for a minute what this says to the church today. We want to be a people who are understanding and supportive of those who have little children. We want to highly value the fact that parents are trying to bring their little ones to church. It can seem like a full time job for an hour when you have a little one in church. That time won't last forever. Your child will only be two or three for just a little while. And while that time is going on, one of the great things that you can do is to see to it that your little one has the opportunity to be among the Lord's people and to remember who God is and what he has done. What the Lord's people want to do during that time is to be as loving and as understanding and as supportive of you in your role as a parent that we can possibly ever be. We want to try to model the attitude that Jesus showed here.
Now that means, to those of us who are a little older, take the time to bend down and look that little one in the eye and to get to know his name. Shake his hand. Encourage him. Make coming to church something that will be a pleasant memory to that little child. That means that we want to never be guilty of looking around and thinking if a little child makes a noise, that is a disturbance. What would our meetings be like without the noises made by little children? We want to try to see to it that we do not communicate an attitude that makes us think that somehow the little ones are a problem to us. And, in our attitudes toward the little ones, the privilege that we have as a congregation to try to be involved in helping to care for little ones who need care is one of our highest privileges and honors. We ought to think of it that way always.
A second picture I would like for you to see comes from the end of Acts 20 and the beginning of Acts 21. Here is the only time in the whole New Testament that children are specifically mentioned in connection with Christian fellowship. It is quite an emotional time because Paul is on his way to Jerusalem, and there have already been messages presented to the effect that trouble is going to befall him there and his life is going to be in danger. So along the way he stops and meets with old friends. He says what he wants to say to them, and they encourage him. For example, at the end of Acts 20, he has been talking to the elders of the church at Ephesus, men who are beloved to him. Verse 36 beginning says, "And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all. They embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word that he had spoken that they would not see his face again, and they accompanied him to the ship. And when he had parted from them and set sail, we came by straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Pataca. Having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. And when we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload cargo. And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the spirit they were telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem. (Now look at verse 5). When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey and they all (all these disciples) with wives and children accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed and said farewell one to another."
Now why do you suppose the Holy Spirit would see fit to especially mention the children who were there in that picture? I believe the fact that this word is not used real often in Acts would indicate that these were probably little children. And yet, having had a week to get to know and love and respect the apostle Paul, and in this touching situation where they go out to the ship and kneel down on the beach and pray, those little ones are there as if they needed to be there, as if it was an important point. Harvey Porter, who preached a long time in Albuquerque, wrote about this and observed, "Little children ought to be included in Christian activities. They ought to hear the church and Christians spoken of only in the most favorable way. What does it do to a young tender mind to hear the church is made up of hypocrites? You cannot think well of any institution that is only interested in money. Young minds trust what parents tell them. They are not able to know that there is another side of the story. It appears that these Christians who spent seven days with Paul learned to love him and respect him for his great work. Those children received a great heritage. They were included in a touching moment which I doubt they ever forgot." Then Bro. Porter observed, "Our children today need to grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. It should be an unbroken progression of spiritual feeding and exercise. There is an unmistakable direction toward God, Christ, and the church. They grow up with fond memories of happy occasions with the church. They remember times in which they wept together with other Christians and times when they laughed together."
We want to see to it that there are times like that that stick in the minds of all the little ones who come and worship with us here at North National. And it is not merely the job of the parents. It is the job of the whole church to create an atmosphere like that. It is our mission that when little ones think of having grown up with us, it is a joy to them. How grateful we are to you who serve as teachers of little children, for the time you give, for the excellence that you pursue. But all of us want to work together to create that kind of a care for the little ones.
One of the ways in which we need to work toward this goal is to love and instruct and encourage as much as we can those who are raising those little children. With that in mind, I want to kind of finish our study this morning by calling your attention to some principles that will be helpful. These are principles that we want all members of this congregation who are helping to raise little ones to have in mind and to practice.
First, to every parent and to everyone having an influence in a child's life, I would urge you to remember the importance of knowing your own spiritual story. Know who you are spiritually, who God is in your life, what He has done to bless you, and how your faith in him makes your life different. I was reading this past week the book of Joshua, and I noticed in Joshua 4 when they are getting ready to cross the Jordan River, God has twelve men to pick up twelve big stones to carry with them and then to set up at the river. The reason is described at the end of Joshua 4: "So that when in days to come your children ask you 'What do these stones mean?' then you shall let your children know, 'Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground for the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.'" What that is saying is to know well enough your own spiritual history that you can say to your children - that we can say to all of our children - what this means and what this is all about. How did you become a Christian? Who was important in helping you to do that? Who was a good influence in your life? Who led this congregation? Who sacrificed and served? Who has been a blessing? Make sure your kids know that.
Secondly, understand your responsibility for your child. See raising that child as your service to the Lord. Do you realize that once you decide to have a child, you give up your right to ever make any major decision in your life without thinking of what the affect on that child will be? Once you decide to have a child, the welfare - emotionally, spiritually, physically, and every other way - of that child has to be at the top of the list in your choices. You do not have the right just to pursue what makes you feel good without thinking of the affect on that child. A child is not a thing. We don't go out and get one just because we want one. A child is a responsibility, a priority. In Colossians 3 the apostle Paul makes the point that everything is to be done in word and deed in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And then he begins to discuss the applications of that principle. He says, "Fathers, do not provoke your children lest they become discouraged." What he means by that is to care for your children so that they are not discouraged by life.
Third, to all who are helping to raise little ones, I would call on you to aim above all else to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, Eph. 6:4. That great aim will give you a sense of direction in all of your other responsibilities toward that child. Do you want to know how to discipline the child? Remember you are doing it for the Lord. Let that fact govern what you do. Do you want to know how to train or instruct a child? Remember, you are trying to bring them up in the Lord and let that guide you. Do you want to know what kind of values to teach a child? Remember you are raising that little one for the Lord. Give that child a healthy sense of proportion in life - a picture of himself and of God.
And then the fourth principle is to go about serving the Lord so that an atmosphere is created where children are valued and children are loved but where children do not govern the home and are not the focus of the whole thing. It is not good for a little child to be made the center of the whole universe. It is interesting in the book of Acts, it is grown- ups first in their responsibility to the Lord, and then children come in in that kind of situation.
And a fifth principle is to remember to draw on the wisdom of the ages as you raise your children. One of the problems with raising little ones is that by the time you get to the place where you realize, "Boy, I wish I had done this differently. If I had known this! What can I do now?" By the time you can see all that perspective, you have raised your children. The only way I can see to avoid that kind of a problem is for us to make sure that we draw on the wisdom of those who have already done it. Value the wisdom of experience. Don't assume everything before your generation is invalid. Especially in a congregation, draw on grandmas and grandpas around you. Draw on their wisdom and their love for little ones and their blessing to you and your family.
The privilege of caring about children is one way of having a partnership with God that goes on through all of our lives because God cares for little ones. What that means especially is that we want to examine the blessing that we have in being God's children. Those who receive Christ, who believe in him, have the right to become children of God, John 1:12. We can live as children in God's family. Maybe today you would like to make a beginning at that. Maybe you would like to become a Christian this very morning. Maybe you are a Christian and you need the prayers of your family in the Lord. If so, or if there is some other way we can be of help today, would you please let that be known right now. Come, while we stand and sing.