●    “Why Do We Dedicate Children?”
Feb. 15, 2009  1Sam.1:1-2,9-11,24-28
Ah-choo! What’s that, a sneeze? Are you catching something? This is the season for epidemics - particularly flu epidemics. So far this year the worst outbreak at one local hospital was for a ‘gastro-enteral’ digestive tract bug, not the full-blown respiratory tract flu bug. But there’s another type of epidemic affecting the population, particularly religious folks - it’s not a flu epidemic but a FAITH epidemic.
    Here’s the deal. It kind of works in reverse from a flu epidemic. A sneeze can spread contagious bugs. You ‘catch’ a cold from someone already infected. But with the faith epidemic, the next generation is NOT catching faith from the former generation!
    In the United States, national youth ministry specialist Dawson McAlister stated, “90% of kids active in high school youth groups do not go to church by the time they are sophomores in college. One third will never return.” What a huge drop-off: 90% don’t go to church; 1/3 never come back. What a loss! They’re ‘dropping like flies’!
    How can we in the faith community that follows Jesus Christ fight this trend, this epidemic? In the hospital there are special measures we take to reuce the spread of infection - washing hands, donning gowns gloves and masks before entering a room, then doffing them when you come out. But how do you fight an epidemic of faith? More mid-week groups and Vacation Bible Schools? Double the number of youth groups? Offer parents a wider choice of programs they can drop their kids off to?
    Good (and tiring) as that sounds, studies tell us that’s not the solution. In fact, George Barna sees reliance on church programming as part of the problem. This well-known researcher says, “A majority of churches are actually guilty of perpetuating an unhealthy and unbiblical process wherein the church USURPS the role of the family and creates an unfortunate sometimes exclusive dependency upon the church for a child’s spiritual nourishment.”
    Search Institute conducted a survey in America of the most significant influences among mainline protestant youth. Girls and boys in grades 7-12 said the most significant religious influence in their lives was — mother (74% girls, 81% guys). What about next most important? Second place was taken by — father (50% girls, 61% guys). Church programs were way down the list: youth group 30%; Sunday school 26%; church camp about 24%. Actually, ‘Grandparent’ was at least as important or more important than any of these church functions.
    As we stop to ask today, “Why Do We Dedicate Children?”, we’re reminded that parents have an highly significant responsibility in the spiritual formation of their offspring – faith is ‘caught’ as much as it is ‘taught’. Martin Luther put it this way: “Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel.” The story of Samuel in the Old Testament, nurtured by his parents Hannah and Elkanah, demonstrates how parents can play an important role in providing spiritual and religious bearings for their children to navigate by.
One reason we dedicate children is appreciating that children are truly a gift from God, not something to be taken for granted. It’s not necessarily to be assumed that a couple can have children just because they get married and have physical relations. Infertility is a barrier that prevents many couples from having children today; some of you may know this struggle or burden first-hand. In frustration, some would-be parents go to extreme measures: recently the news told of a 60-year-old woman who had finally succeeded in becoming pregnant, after flying to her native India to have embryos implanted - she gave birth to twins. But that’s pushing the envelope ethically, in danger of treating embryos like merchandise. Another woman in the news gave birth to octuplets - 8 children all together; can you imagine...! In vitro fertilization may offer a solution but raises other problems. For couples choosing to adopt, the cost can be high, as much as $10,000. So being able to have babies is not something to be taken for granted. Even for those who conceive, there can be miscarriages; problems at childbirth; or fragile young children can become ill and die after birth, too.
    Elkanah’s wife Hannah experienced distress as a consequence of not being able to conceive a child. Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, had children, but Hannah didn’t, and Peninnah rubbed this lack in Hannah’s face every opportunity she could. 1Samuel 1:6 says, “Her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” Again the next verse says this went on year after year; one time when they went to Shiloh for the annual sacrificial festival at the house of the Lord, “her rival provoked her until she wept and would not eat.” Note the other adjectives in this passage that describe Hannah’s emotional state as she turned to God in prayer: “bitterness of soul”, 10; “deeply troubled”, 15; “great anguish and grief”, 16. NRSV has “great anxiety and vexation.” This was very troubling for her, an extremely low period in Hannah’s life. She wanted so badly to have children like other women.
    She pleaded with God - as perhaps some of you have - and made a vow. V11, “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” The boy would be a Nazirite, dedicated exclusively to serving the Lord his whole life. And in the mystery of God’s sovereignty - as He opened the womb of Sarah and Rachel in response to prayer (Gen 21:1; 30:22) - God granted her request, he made it possible for Hannah to conceive. This does NOT mean God loves you any less if you’ve likewise begged Him for a child and received a ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’. He will give grace for other paths and fulfilment if we can accept His mysterious wisdom and plans for arranging His Kingdom.
    In Hannah’s case, “the Lord remembered her” and enabled her to conceive and give birth to a son.(19f) Hannah breaks into praise in recognition of the tremendous gift with which she has been blessed. The first third of chapter 2 is a great hymn celebrating God’s sovereign goodness. Instead of irritation, vexation, weeping, and bitterness of soul, now she sings that her heart rejoices in the Lord, “I delight in Your deliverance.” Hear the mystery of both divine sovereignty and undeserved mercy summed up here: 2:5b-8a, “She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap...” Who are we to argue or be arrogant before such a powerful, awesome Creator?
    And so, conscious of God’s great mercy when a new baby is born into a family, one reason parents bring children for dedication is because these wee ones are definitely a gift, not to be taken for granted.
Looking back, at what’s already happened, they’re a gift; looking ahead, at what may yet happen, we may be overwhelmed at the thought of the world they’re going to experience in coming years and the possible effect for good or ill they may have on that world - even on into decades when we’re no longer around!
    In previous weeks we’ve looked at what a disastrous effect Eli’s wicked sons had on the nation - promoting immorality and participating in a misguided plan that allowed the Ark of the Covenant to be captured by the Philistines, and the house of God at Shiloh to be destroyed. Yet we’ve also seen what a turnaround came about 20 years later through the ministry of the prophet Samuel. For decades he was a faithful ‘judge’ for Israel, anointed its first and second kings, and by his circuit of justice and teaching laid the groundwork for Israel’s Golden Age.
    In the latter part of chapter 2 we see an interweaving of good and bad as the author intersperses the account of Eli’s sons with snippets of Samuel growing up. V17, “This sin of the young men was very great in the Lord’s sight...” then v18, “But Samuel was ministering before the Lord – a boy wearing a linen ephod.” Again, v25, “His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke...” followed by 26, “And (or, Now NRSV) the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favour with the Lord and with men.” What a contrast! By such juxtaposition, placing opposites alongside, the Spirit-inspired author highlights the contrast in effect different people can make.
    Each new baby, each fresh unique individual life, offers great potential to impact our world. The NBC refused to show during the Superbowl a pro-life advertisement sponsored by a Catholic group; the video showed a baby in utero, describing the hardships it would face, ending with the comparison to recently inaugurated US President Obama; the theme could be expressed, ‘imagine the potential’ of an unborn child. When we as parents realize what impact our young’un may have on future generations, it prompts us to turn to God for help in raising them the right way.
We realize we need to ask God’s help for this awesome responsibility. Many of us can probably think of families we know where the parents seemed to do everything right but still, for some reason, the children rebelled and made bad choices. Eli was a priest at Shiloh, and seems to be a relatively God-fearing man - but his sons were ‘bad apples’. Even godly Samuel appointed his sons as judges, yet 8:3 notes, “But his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.” Doing everything ‘right’ as a parent is no guarantee that all your kids are going to turn out 100% OK. Our children are ours to influence, model behaviour for, and provide exposure to good values, but ultimately they have freedom to choose otherwise; they’re beyond our control. We need to ask for God’s help, and acknowledge faith is the territory of the Holy Spirit. We can try to make the Good News of Jesus attractive to our kids, but we can’t ‘make’ them Christians. 2Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
    So dedicating a child is spiritually, religiously, formally handing the child back to God (as it were), yielding our control as parents and acknowledging His Lordship, asking for His help with this task full of challenge, promise, and possibility. In v10 Hannah asked God for help in her low estate, promising to give her boy back if God would only enable her to have a baby. This becomes central to the newborn’s name: v20, “She named him Samuel, saying ‘Because I asked the Lord for him.’” Samu-el can be derived from sha’al, “asked of God”. A related meaning is to loan or give over in response to a request; we see this in vv27-28, “I prayed for this child, and the LORD has granted me what I asked (sha’al) of him. So now I give (another tense of the same verb, sha’al) him to the LORD. For his whole life he will be given over (sha’al) to the LORD.”
Babies are born so helpless, so dependent, so passive. They cry, and eat, and sleep - and a few other bodily functions - but most of life happens TO them. As parents we nurse them, feed them, burp them, change them, etc.etc. When you put them down, they generally stay in one spot; it’s not until months later they start crawling or walking all over the place. As such, infants are a picture of our passive or helpless state spiritually speaking until God’s grace happens to us. The Gospel is all about how much Jesus has done FOR us, while we were yet sinners, spiritual ‘road-kill’ as it were. On our own steam we are slaves to sin; “the wages of sin is death” - and that would have been our eternal destiny, deserved punishment for our corrupt selfish nature and deeds falling far short of God’s glory - unless Jesus had gone to the cross for us.(Rom 6:16,23) So dedicating children is a picture for the church of God’s covenant grace acting for us even before we knew Him.
    The Bible has this theme that God blesses those who come to Him with child-like faith. Precisely because we were ‘born with the bents’, captive to sin - our only basis for appeal to God is on the basis of what He’s done. The Lord delights to respond to those who acknowledge they’re at the end of their rope and turn to Him. Hannah was ‘deeply troubled’ in spirit (literally, ‘hard’ or ‘tough’ - not giving up?), pouring out her soul in prayer, so troubled as to seem drunk - at least to Eli looking on from a distance. She had bottomed out. Yet ‘several years later’ she could stand before Eli and say - and I’d like to have seen the expression on both their faces - v26, “As surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the LORD.I prayed for this child, and the LORD has granted me what I asked of him.” God responded to her simple trust.
    When parents brought little children to Jesus so He might touch them, the disciples rebuked them, probably supposing the Master had much more important things to do. But Jesus not only objected, Mark says He was ‘indignant’. He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mk 10:14-15) What’s He saying here? Faith doesn’t take a Ph.D.; it’s not based on smartness, or status, or net income, or looks, or anything else we humans commonly measure up people by. God is pleased to bestow His Kingdom on those who come with hands outstretched with simple trust like a small child. It’s not by works, I can’t earn it, there’s no accomplishment in my past that can possibly warrant it. It’s purely by grace.
    As parents we bring our children even before the age of understanding, not wanting to hinder that mysterious process, but trusting God to use even our faulty and fumbling parenting to draw our youngster to Himself.
Of course, there’s much more involved than just a one-time ceremony. Parents have a big job to do in fulfilling the promises made at a service of dedication, modeling real live Christian living before their daughter or son. Paul writing to the church at Ephesus termed this bringing “them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:4) Proverbs 22:6 counsels us, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (Pr 22:6)
    ‘Training’ has a little different nuance than just ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’: more hands-on, walking with the person through the steps, practicing with them over and over until they get it. What’s that look like in discipling youngsters? Mark Holmen in Faith Begins at Home identifies 5 aspects using the word ‘train’ as an acronym: Time, Repetition, Acceptance, Intentionality, and Never Ending.
    Time: that doesn’t have to be a lengthy sit-down discussion at the kitchen table with the Bible open, though that’s good when it happens. With today’s busy schedules, it’s important to grab time for faith-talk whenever you can. that can be - Car time: turn off the radio and ask your kids their highs and lows for the day. Sick time: watch a video that will naturally lead to talking about issues of life and faith. Bed time: Pray together, perhaps asking your teen if any of their friends need prayer for anything. Meal time: develop a list of a variety of graces, from “God is Great” and “Johnny Appleseed” to “For Health and Strength” and even the traditional sung Doxology. Vacation time: with all that free time, tithe it or maybe make an effort for a family devotion each day. Memory-making time: a family can come up with a service project of doing someone less fortunate a good turn. And One-on-One time: you may be surprised how much they crave a heart-connection with you and your Heavenly Father!
    T-R: Repetition. One man started the ritual of saying a blessing over his daughter every evening. Even when she left for college, she called them back from their car to bless her right there in the parking lot.
    T-R-A: Acceptance. Accept your children with their unique gifts God’s given them - along with their imperfections, because you know you’re not perfect yet, either.
    I is for Intentionality – intentionally involving ourselves in the lives of our children. Don’t give up talking just because there’s a bit of resistance; do what you can to keep the lines of communication open. Share your own struggles with them, so they can learn how to deal with problems and challenges. Mark Holmen spent a night in jail for Driving while Under the Influence. Afterwards, his father intentionally involved himself in Mark’s life by having an honest discussion with him about the dangers of alcoholism, having been free from his own alcoholism only a few years. His sharing helped Mark avoid the same pitfalls.
    T-R-A-I-N: Never ending. You never stop being a parent. Faith-talk doesn’t need to end even when children have grown up and are on their own. Holmen recalls listening to his dad preach, filling in for a pastor on vacation; the last time he’d hear him preach before he died. After the sermon, the organist started playing the hymn I Love to Tell the Story. Mark’s mom leaned over when they stood to sing and with a smile on her face said, “This was your grandpa’s favourite hymn.” Mark had never known his mom’s dad, yet he was speaking to him through his mom. Mark says, “I know that he was a man who had a very strong faith, because he shared this faith with her. At some point, he’d told my mom that I Love to Tell the Story was his favourite hymn, and she passed this on to me. And now, when this hymn is played in my church, I love to lean over to my daughter and tell her, ‘This was your great grandpa’s favourite hymn.’ Although my grandfather has passed away, his faith continues on through his children and his children’s children.” Let’s pray.