School has resumed and among the many things students may be learning about this year (if they’re still teaching history classes today) are the seven ancient wonders of the world. You remember what they are, right? No, me neither, because all but one have been destroyed. They are proof that man-made marvels just don’t stand the test of time. Is there anything you marvel at today? Anything that makes you go “how’d they do that?” Or have we become cynical, knowing that today’s marvels will be topped by tomorrow’s and none of them will really last? Did you know that there is one thing that is a perennial, perpetual marvel – not just in 2019 but in any year? Something truly rare and priceless? A faithful and active Christian young person. Now, I could recite some numbers from polls of religion in America detailing the loss of young people from the church, but I would argue that the best evidence is right here in this room: look around and see how few of the young people who were confirmed at this very altar still attend faithfully. Yes, a faithful Christian young person is a rare and precious modern marvel, and our text this morning puts one of the marvels before our eyes. The boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with God and with men. What parent wouldn’t love to have their child described in those terms? And so the question is: how did Hannah do that?
I’m fairly certain if we were to go around the room and ask the question: “what’s the secret to successful parenting?” there would be as many answers as there are people. Why would that be? Well, because in today’s world most people today see child-raising as a matter of personal preference. “You raise your kid the way you want to and I’ll do it my way and don’t you dare question or criticize how I do it.” Is that true? Are we free to raise our children however we want? God doesn’t seem to think so. Train up a child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6), he says, not whichever way you think is best. “Ah, but that’s just a dusty old proverb, and no one even knows what it means.” We learn what Proverbs 22:6 means by comparing and contrasting the interwoven stories of Hannah’s and Eli’s sons.
The Lord first directs our attention to Eli’s sons: Hophni and Phinehas. Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD. Literally, the Hebrew says that “they did not know the Lord” – they didn’t believe in him. That’s every Christian parent’s nightmare, right? And their unbelief manifested itself in their lives. Apparently Eli had adopted a very progressive style of parenting – he allowed them to live however they wanted. And do you know what happened? That’s exactly what they did. They abused their positions as priests. They would steal the best part of the people’s sacrifices for themselves through threats of physical force (1 Samuel 2:16), and they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Eli had raised two worthless, good-for-nothing, unbelieving sons. “That’s not very nice, who are you to judge another parent?” Fair enough. Here’s the Lord’s judgment: this sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight.
Eli knew all about his sons’ lifestyles, and what did he do? Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel…So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the LORD’s people. If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?” Eli did what a parent should do, right? He confronted his wicked sons with their sins. Well, kind of. He griped and complained about their behavior, but he didn’t do anything about it. He just made empty threats. He seemed more concerned about his reputation among the people than his sons’ standing before God. Eli’s failure was aggravated by the fact that he wasn’t just a father, he was also the high priest. As high priest, he should have stripped them of their priesthood and excommunicated them until they repented. When Eli finally rebuked them, it was too little, too late. He had tolerated his son’s wicked lifestyles for so long that by the time he tried to correct them, their hearts had become callous and hardened. And because Eli had failed to discipline his sons, God decided to do it for him: it was the LORD’s will to put them to death. Yes, this is the same LORD who wants all people to be saved (2:4). But as a result of Eli’s failure to discipline his sons (Proverbs 13:24) and the resulting hardening of their hearts, God had run out of patience and ended their time of grace in judgment. (Not long after this both were killed in battle on the same day (1 Samuel 4:11)). Eli serves as a cautionary tale against failing to discipline children when they need it.
So much for the pastor’s kids, what about Hannah’s? What do we know about Hannah? We know that she and her husband faithfully visited the tabernacle to worship and offer sacrifices (1 Samuel 1:3). We know that Hannah was barren for many years but that she prayed persistently to the Lord for the gift of a son (1 Samuel 1:12-13). We know that she remained faithful even after the Lord granted her request: first, she named her son Samuel which sounds like the Hebrew for “heard by God.” Second, she kept her vow to give Samuel back to the Lord once he was weaned. (Can you imagine sending your five or six-year old away to study for the ministry?) Just as important, even when Samuel was already serving the Lord in the tabernacle at Eli’s side, Hannah knew that her job as parent wasn’t finished. Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. Even though Samuel was no longer under her roof, she still took responsibility for his spiritual welfare. She was hands-on. She supplied and supported and encouraged his work in the Word.
Two families. Both with the same advantages and opportunities – but drastically different outcomes. Why? Well, while Eli’s highest priority seemed to be maintaining his position and reputation among the people, what was the highest priority in Hannah’s life? If you guessed Samuel, you’d be wrong. Samuel was not Hannah’s #1 priority – and that’s what makes her such a fine example. (Children are gifts from God, but they are not little gods!) God was the highest priority in her life demonstrated by the fact that she kept her vow to give him back to the LORD. Hannah was willing to sacrifice everything, even the precious time with the son she had prayed and prayed for, because for both her and her son, God came first.
Do we do that? Do we teach our children that the highest priority in life is God? Make no mistake, theology class is in session every minute you spend with your children. What are we teaching them when we send them to Sunday school but skip Bible study ourselves, when we prioritize academic and athletic success over Christian education, when screen time replaces devotion time, when our Bibles sit on the shelf at home gathering dust, when we only pray as a family in crisis situations, when summer vacation means a vacation from worship? When push comes to shove in our busy lives and first thing to get shoved out is God and his Word – what do you think your children learn from that? Who or what will they think is “god”? And when that’s the case, why would we expect the outcome to be anything different than Eli’s sons? Parents – you – not their Sunday school teacher or pastor – are the primary connection to God’s Word in your child’s life! If you have neglected God’s Word in your home and life, it’s not just your sin anymore – you are also causing one of Jesus’ little ones to sin. You heard what Jesus said about that, right? If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)
Do we deserve to be wearing a millstone? I do. I’ve found it far too easy to prioritize other things before God in the lives of my sons. And I know how easy it is to rationalize bad priorities. It’s easy to assume that they’re too young to learn or imitate my bad behavior. It’s way easier to throw on a TV show than read a Bible story. We come to church regularly, why would we need to have a family devotion at home? Giving them what they want is a whole lot easier than disciplining them. I know how tempting it is to follow modern parenting methods rather than the way God has laid out in his Word. Just thinking about it feels like a millstone around my neck. The guilt and shame are unbearable. Thankfully God is a far better parent than I am – because when I come to him dragging my millstone of parental malpractice, do you know what he says? “Come now, let us reason together…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18) Parents – you need to hear this and take this to heart. Whether your child is 3, 33, or 53, your sins of parental malpractice are forgiven, cleansed, gone. That doesn’t mean they were no big deal – they were – but God does not hold them against you. That’s the biggest question of all: how could he do that? Like Hannah, he had to give up his one and only Son to do it. He hung the millstone of our sin around Jesus’ neck on the cross so that we could be forgiven. And in the end, that’s why God and his Word must be our top priority – not because his Law provides guidance for this life, though it does – but because his Gospel is the only thing that can open the door to eternal life. If we believe that children really are sinful from conception (Psalm 51:5) then what could possibly be more important in life than giving them every opportunity to receive the forgiveness of sins God’s only Son purchased with his own blood?
Now for the million dollar question: if I do that, spend the time and money to train up my child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6) will that guarantee that they will be faithful throughout their lives and saved on the Day of Judgment? We should know better than to ask questions like that. In the end, each person is accountable to God for their sin and their faith (Ezekiel 18:20). We cannot force anyone, not even our own children, to believe in Jesus as their Savior. But we can encourage them, we can train and discipline them, maybe most important – we can teach them by our own example to treasure God’s Word. We can remember that our job isn’t done once they’ve been confirmed. And, here’s perhaps the part that gets overlooked most often, we can recognize that the primary classroom for this training is not in those rooms over there. It’s on the couch as you choose which TV shows to watch and which to turn off. It’s in the car as your children hear the language you use towards other drivers. It’s in the kitchen as they learn about marriage from how mom and dad treat each other. It’s in the crowded restaurant where you lead them in giving thanks for the food God has provided. It’s in how you talk about your neighbors and coworkers and governmental leaders. It’s in the “Jesus forgives you and I forgive you” when they repent color on your walls or crash your car or mess up their lives as adults. The biggest lie the devil has sown regarding Christian education is that it’s something that happens for one hour a week in Sunday school. If we believe that, then we’ve already lost the battle. Christian education is a life-long process and the world is the classroom. We cannot force our children to be faithful to God, but we can be faithful trainers in God’s Word like Hannah.
So back to our initial question: how’d she do that? How did Hannah’s son grow in favor with the LORD while Eli’s fell under God’s judgment? Was it nature or nurture? How about neither? Here’s the secret. When Samuel was old enough Hannah dedicated him to the LORD (1 Samuel 1:28 EHV). The Hebrew word contains the same idea as the one translated train up in Proverbs 22:6. It’s the word used for dedicating something to the LORD (Deuteronomy 20:5; 1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chronicles 7:5). In other words, Hannah knew what every Christian parent should know: we can’t raise children the way they should be raised, that’s why we need to dedicate, entrust, give them to our good and gracious Father in heaven. It begins with baptism and Sunday school and confirmation class – but it doesn’t end there. It continues as the Word of God fills our hearts and our homes and our lives and is absorbed by the little sponges God has given us. As we said earlier, manmade marvels just don’t stand the test of time. But when you entrust your child to your heavenly Father’s care in in Word and Sacrament, don’t be surprised if people come to you and ask you: “what’s your secret? How did you do that?” And now you know the answer. “I didn’t. The LORD did.” Amen.