The descendants of Abraham were gathered east of the Jordan, standing on the threshold of the promised land, preparing to enter that land after 40 years of wandering in the desert. Not one person who had left Egypt as an adult, save for Moses, Caleb, and Joshua, remained alive.
The throngs of people standing around Moses had left Egypt as little children, or had been born during the 40 years of desert wanderings. Before they entered the promised land, Moses wanted to be sure of one thing — that they would remember what God had done for them, and would teach their own children about how God delivered them. Moses wanted to make certain that the next generation would not be ignorant of the God who had done so much for their parents and grandparents. Moses wanted to be sure that they would know what it meant to be God’s own people, and what it meant that they had been set apart to be a holy people for God’s special possession.
Moses turns slowly in a circle, surveying the crowds of Hebrews, those whom God entrusted to him to teach them about God’s covenant, God’s commandments which were to guide their every act. He knows that this is the last address he will ever give to the people, for he will soon die. He opens his mouth and shouts:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Do not forget God! Do not get so occupied with your new houses and fields and happiness that you forget the God who gave you these gifts! Do not forget the Giver or the debt of obedience and loyalty that you owe Him! And above all else, don’t let your children fail to know the Giver. Don’t let them miss out on the best gift of all gifts God has given — God’s own self.
Moses knows that doing the acts — obeying the commandments and doing the rituals — will not be enough. Perhaps the Hebrews would keep doing the commandments and would keep performing the rituals, but their children needed to understand why. So Moses prepared them for this:
When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The LORD displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that He promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case.'”
The Jewish people understood the importance of providing for the passing on of the covenant, the Jewish way of life, from one generation to the next. Many sought to teach their children to honor God and to rest in God, to pass on the torch of faith and commitment. As the centuries passed, they discovered more and more that they could not take for granted that their children would adopt a Jewish way of life in their adulthood. As Israel fell under the domination of one Gentile power after another, remaining Jewish was no longer something Jews took for granted. After all, it was frequently advantageous to “get with the times,” to leave behind antiquated ways of life and religious commitments in favor of becoming like the people who had power — the non-Jews. Jewish parents had to take special care to teach their children about the covenant and its benefits, or they might throw away their birthright for a lifestyle that seemed more appealing.
Let me take you now into one Jewish home, a little under 200 years before Christ. Zerah was 32 years old when he married Miriam. After their wedding, he brought her to his house. Prominently displayed on the doorpost was the mezuzah, a piece of decorative enamel behind which was kept a portion of Deuteronomy, including the verses we read today. Inside the house, two candles and a glass for wine stood on a small table, ready for the next Friday’s Shabbat service, the first they would celebrate together as husband and wife. Every morning Zerah would strap to his right forearm a small leather case which coined the same portions of Deuteronomy, a perpetual reminder to him that he was bound to God by the covenant and that everything he stretched forth his hand to do must be done in obedience to God’s law. Every day that Miriam went to draw water or buy necessities in the market, she would return to see and kiss the mezuzah on the doorpost, a daily reminder to her of God’s covenant.
Many of their peers had already grown rather lax in keeping God’s law. These neighbors were excited about the progress that Jerusalem was making, becoming more and more like a “real” Greek city every day. Some had even stopped circumcising their children, so that they would not be so obviously different from Gentile children when they grew up and began to take part in Greek athletic contests. Soft-pedaling religion, not being so rigorous about keeping God’s way of life was the way to success in this emerging global culture.
Nevertheless, Zerah and Miriam continued to wake each other up in the morning by reciting the reminder of the covenant: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the door-posts of your house and on your gates ….” They continued to keep the Sabbath, to pray, and to live out each day in the observance of God’s law — loving God by honoring, and by doing, God’s commandments.
When they began to have children, Zerah and Miriam were careful to teach them about the God who rescued their ancestors from slavery, who went with them to exile in Babylon and back and whom they themselves had known though prayer and obedience. Two sons asked Zerah, “Father, why were we circumcised?” and Zerah explained that it was a sign that they had been born into a special birthright — an eternal covenant with God. Another asked, “Why do we treat the Sabbath differently from other days?” and Miriam explained that the Sabbath was God’s gift to God’s people, a perpetual reminder of God’s saving power to bring them out of slavery.
A fourth asked his mother, “Why do you buy only certain foods and why do you prepare them only in certain ways?” She answered that God had set apart certain foods for God’s people to eat, just as God had set God’s people apart from all other nations of the earth. Every day began and ended with prayer and the recitation of the heart of the law; every meal was preceded by prayer; every dinner was followed by conversation about God, bedtime was preceded with stories about the heroes and heroines of faith. Miriam and Zerah involved each child (they had seven sons before they were done) in religious rituals at home, especially in the annual family Passover celebration which was the highlight of the year.
There was little left for Sunday School teachers — I mean, Sabbath School teachers — to do for these children. Their parents made it their first goal to arouse in their children the faith and commitment to God which they themselves possessed. They could not have had a better education in the meaning of their faith than they received from Zerah. After his early death, Miriam remembered her husband’s active engagement in their children’s religious upbringing this way:
“While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and of Joseph in prison. He told you of the zeal of Phinehas, and he taught you about Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in the fiery furnace. He praised Daniel in the den of the lions and blessed him. He reminded you of the scripture of Isaiah, which says, ‘Even though you go through the fire, the flame shall not consume you.’ He sang to you songs of the psalmist David, who said, ‘Many are the afflictions of the righteous.’ He recounted to you Solomon’s proverb, “There is a tree of life for those who do His will.’ He confirmed the saying of Ezekiel, ‘Shall these dry bones live?’ For he did not forget to teach you the song that Moses taught, which says, ‘I kill and I make alive: this is your life and the length of your days.'” (4 Maccabees 18:9-19).
In this litany of lessons, the father both told his children about the great promises of God for those who commit themselves to God, and prepared them for the trials of life which seem ever so frequently aimed at those who are committed to God. He told them about the cost of being faithful in a faithless world but also about the wisdom of paying that cost.
The fruit of this upbringing? I wish their story had a more pleasant ending, but with the eyes of faith it still has a happy — that is, a blessed — ending. You see, these seven brothers had to face the ultimate contest for their commitment to God. In 167 BC, when the oldest was perhaps 25 and the youngest but nine or ten, Judaism was outlawed throughout Judea, beginning in Jerusalem, where the family lived. Everyone in the city was commanded to renounce the Jewish way of life and adopt the Greek way of life. “Progress,” as the renegades liked to think of it, was being enforced on pain of death. So these seven children, along with their mother, are brought before the Gentile king Antiochus, master of Judea and Syria. They witness an old priest choosing to die under torture rather than eat a mouthful of pork as a symbol of his agreement to put God and Jewishness behind him.
The seven brothers might easily have “gone with the flow,” avoiding a painful and untimely death and even gaining the personal assurances of the king that they would have enviable futures in his government. The faith of their father and mother, however, has been firmly implanted into their hearts, and they know that no advantage can be found where God and God’s laws are dishonored or rejected.
As they face their final contest, the mother shouts to them as if their coach in a wrestling match, urging them to remember the lessons of the heroes of faith — the very lessons their father had taught them — and to keep faith with God at any cost. Because they do remain faithful to God, their neighbors are emboldened to return to God’s law, to fight for God’s law, and eventually to drive the foreign tyrant from their land. Their faithfulness meant that the torch of faith would continue to burn for new generations of Jews. According to the author of the letter to the Hebrews, these brothers “refused to accept release, in order that they might attain a better resurrection” (Hebrews 11:35) — their own story ends with honor and life in the presence of God, the God of the living.
Where does our story connect with the story of Zerah and Miriam? How are we living so as to set the heart of Moses at rest, assuring him that our children will not forget the God who has set us free and made us a people? If we learn anything from the words of Moses or the example of Zerah and Miriam, it is the importance of the role given to parents in the passing on of faith to the young. If our children are to be strong in the power of the Lord and know the companionship of Jesus, it is we who are their parents who must teach them to love the company of God and desire to belong to God. We, too, believe that our children have a birthright. In baptism, we express our conviction that our children are born into a covenant with God. We set them apart to be God’s sons and daughters and pledge ourselves to bring them up to be faithful members of that covenant people.
Like Zerah and Miriam, we also face a challenging cultural environment, in which it is impossible to assume that our children or grandchildren will enjoy their inheritance as members of the family of God. The contest is not violent, but it is none the less strenuous. Pluralism, which suggests that anyone’s religion is as good as another’s, or as none at all, and materialism, which makes us think that worldly comforts and advantages are the top priority in life, conspire against giving ourselves to Jesus in faithful service.
Coming here this morning with your children or grandchildren is a good beginning. The first thing that strikes us in Moses’ words, however, is the importance of bringing our faith into our homes. We are challenged to find ways to remind ourselves and our families throughout the week of the One who is the God of our lives, and to make times during the week for teaching our children about what God does on our behalf and how we are to live so as to show gratitude to God. Notice, please, that this is not for mothers to bear alone.
In the division of labor, many American families have left religious involvement and training to the women in the household. In the biblical examples, however, it is usually the father who bears the primary responsibility for educating the young children in the faith. The author of Proverbs writes: “Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight. When I was a son with my father, he taught me, and said to me, ‘Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live.’ Hear, my child, and accept my words, that the years of your life may be many. I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness.”
Men, what role do you have in the religious education of your children? Your grandchildren? Wives and husbands, how are you working together to pass on the inheritance of God’s promises and covenant? Setting aside just a half-hour in the evening for family prayer, Bible reading, and conversation about applying that reading would be more than enough, done daily, to bring parents and children both to a deeper walk with the Lord and to a firmer commitment to God’s ways. If you need some extra ideas about getting started, there are countless resources available to help you. Don’t let lack of a plan stop you (call me if you want some ideas) — all that is needed is the desire to begin. Only when we bring Jesus into our homes and our daily lives will our hearts, and the hearts of our children, find their anchorage, their harbor, in Him.
“When your children ask you in time to come …” In the past few months I have become very familiar with the question “Why?” which falls from the lips of Adrian, our three-year-old son, 70 times each day (my wife would say “70 times 7”). “Why?” “Why do we keep these commandments?” “Why should we act this way and not do our own thing?” “What use is baptism and communion?” “Why go to church?” “Why bother with reading Scripture or praying?” “Why do you do it, Mom? “Why do you do it, Dad?”
In order to pass something on, you must have it yourself. Do you know what God has done for you in Jesus? Do you know it not just as a history lesson, but as a personal experience? Do you know not only the story of how God saved us in Jesus, but how you have become connected to that story in your own life? This passage from Deuteronomy beckons us to a deeper walk with God, to searching out the meaning of our own redemption and the nature of the new life which God’s Holy Spirit makes available to us.
We can only pass on what we have ourselves attained. If we do not know the power of the Spirit in our lives, how can we hope to pass on that inheritance to our children? If we do not know how to discern God’s leading, how can we teach our children to value and listen for the voice of God? The good news is that, if you have not vet discovered the riches of your own birthright, you can still discover it with your children as you pray, read, and talk together.
Miriam, reminding her children to keep faith with God, was praised for “giving rebirth for immortality to the whole number of her children.” The gift of life is, of course, a great gift given by parents to their children, but our task as parents does not end with the nurture of this life. Miriam and Zerah worked toward the rebirth of their children to the eternal by spending time with them daily in conversation about God and teaching them the lessons of the Scriptures. Because of this upbringing, nothing could make them break faith and abandon God’s promises. Do we desire to give our own children not only birth, but second births?
If you have never had natural children, or have already seen them grow up and leave home, you still have many children in Christ. How have we kept faith with our promises at their baptisms? How have we participated in their rebirth for immortality? And what on earth could be more important than doing this very thing?
Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters in Christ, talk about this with one another today. Ask one another how you are preparing your natural children, and all the children God has entrusted to our care, to fight the contest for their faith. Will they be ready to face and overcome moral dilemmas, loss of a job, sickness, or death? Will they live out their lives with purpose and integrity, contributing to the solution of life’s ills? Will they honor the Source and Giver of their lives through how they use the gift of each day’s life? Ask one another how you are assuring that they will take hold of their birthright in Christ, namely the gift of God’s friendship, the Spirit’s guidance, and the new life to which Jesus calls us. And may God, whose sons and daughters are entrusted to us, stir up our hearts to care for all God’s children!
I am grateful to my colleague, Marvin McMickle, for our conversations about the art of preaching and especially for his helpful suggestions as I framed this sermon.

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