Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Utter Dark Sayings to Your Children

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
 I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,
 things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us (Psalm 78:1-3).

There is a story we should be telling. It’s about a people who forget an unforgettable God. This forgetfulness encourages them to ignore His patience and provision. It enables them to dismiss His miracles. This story is a captivating one because of God’s power, but it’s dreadful because of man’s sin.

I picture a Sunday school class full of kids sitting crisscross-applesauce, leaning forward, eye-brows arched. The flannel graph has been abandoned and it’s just a teacher telling her students something true.

The Psalmist tells us that he will utter dark sayings from of old. He will not hide these stories from children, because God did not (v. 5-8). The story turns out to be a familiar one and the purpose is clear: we share it so that our children will not forget the works of God (v. 7). By watching Israel in some of her grittiest moments of unfaithfulness we gain insight into our own complicated relationship with sin.

This is where the flannel graph can make a comeback as long as you are quick at changing out scenes and characters. The Psalmist mentions some of the most famous stories in Israel’s history like the ten plagues, (v. 12), God parting the Red Sea (v. 13) and providing water from rocks in the desert (v. 15, 16). Somehow, incredibly, these are the very miracles God’s people forget (v. 9-11).

And this should register shock, not just in kids, but in each of us. How could anyone forget the fearsome power behind the plagues? The awe of that parted sea? It’s impossible.  But what we can do is live as though those miracles aren’t enough, which is exactly what Ephraim did.

We test God when our desire to satisfy our cravings is greater than our desire to honor Him. After God’s repeated deliverance, Israel tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. So God gave it to them. They wanted meat, so he rained meat on them like dust (28). Have you ever had a child ask you for more food while they are still chewing? And do you ever demand more from God before appreciating what He has given you—before thanking Him for the food already in your mouth? Israel, instead of accepting God’s good gifts, questioned His ability to provide. They found His mercy in the past insufficient for the present.

It reminds me of that scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Violet demands a piece of Wonka’s new, experimental chewing gum. Despite being surrounded by edible plants and wallpaper, she wants the gum. Wonka warns her not to eat it, but she grabs it anyway and pops it into her mouth. He watches her, shaking his head. When she turns into a blueberry, he isn’t surprised.

After God punished Israel’s selfish cravings (30, 31), a positive arch should have developed. They should have learned their lesson, repented, and moved forward in faith. This was a time to sit down around the desert camp-fire and share stories about God’s faithfulness. Time to tell little Benjie just how red the Nile looked that day. How breathlessly eager they felt, escaping from Egypt during the first Passover. It was time for them to recall the way God guided his people out of slavery like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. (v. 52) How He acted as a Father to them; faithful and strong.

But they didn’t.

When God punished them after yet another rebellion, they seemed repentant for a while. They paid Him some temporary lip service. But in their hearts, they did not submit to Him (v. 34-37). Can we relate to this at all? Do our children ever say sorry because they want to get off time-out? Do we ever mumble a prayer of repentance before communion, knowing full well that sin still has a hiding place in our heart? It’s absolutely incredible the way God responds to Israel, and to us, when we are insincere:

Yet he, being compassionate,
    atoned for their iniquity
    and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
    and did not stir up all his wrath.
 He remembered that they were but flesh (v. 38, 39).

I wish I could say that this incredible compassion was received by humble hearts. But, like we so often do, Israel abused grace by letting sin abound (Rom. 6:1). They mocked God’s patience (v. 58, 59) and found idols they liked better. It is a dark, dark day when God the Shepherd is asked to remove his staff of protection from the fold. This is what Asaph recounts in the second half of the Palm. As with the meat, God gives them what they crave. He removes His presence and lets their idols protect them.

But God’s punishment, though fearsome, isn’t the darkest part of this story. Man’s sin is. It is the reason God’s judgement must exist. Sinning is the most outrageous response to a faithful and patient God (Deut. 7:9, 2 Thes. 3:3, Heb. 10:23, 2 Tim., 2:13).

In spite of all this, they still sinned;
Despite his wonders, they did not believe (v. 32).

Do our children grasp the depth of His wonders? If we don’t, they won’t.

We need to talk about what God has done in our lives, in the lives of our friends, in church history, and in the Word. Stories of His faithfulness should flood our living rooms and be stacked high on each night table. Stories of His creation, His hard-to-fathom knowledge, and His extravagant love in Christ should be on our lips so often that the idea of forgetting God causes us to gasp.

Tell your children this story until they gasp, not when God must punish Israel, but each time Israel rejects God.

What is the scariest story you can think of? The darkest one God can think of is when His own people, whom He purchased and guided to safety, forget Him, complain about His perfect provision, and leave Him for other gods.

If this is not the darkest story you can think of, you’re not telling it right.

…that the next generation might know them,
    the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
    so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
    but keep his commandments (Psalm 78:6,7).

Article also published on The Gospel Coalition