What would happen if an entire generation failed to recount the mighty works of God to their children? What if these children could recite humorous lines from their favorite cartoon characters, or the lyrics to every hit in the Top 40, or the statistics of all their sports heroes – and yet couldn’t say the Ten Commandments, the Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer?
What if a child’s daily routine included toying around with Mammon, sitting enraptured before the Screen, and exchanging digital grunts with disembodied acquaintances on Social Media, but did not include a single moment of hearing the Word of God or praying? What if Extracurricular Activities regularly trumped church attendance, or parents provided their children with myriad distractions during the Divine Service when they did bother bringing them? What if children could relate the plots of fifty droll movies, but couldn’t tell Noah from Moses, Adam from Ahab, or the exodus from the feeding of the five thousand?
What would all of this mean? Catechlysm. It needs its own word. Catechlysm (ˈkatəˌklizəm) n. destruction resulting from the abject failure of parents to teach their children the faith; combination of catechesis and cataclysm. The Book of Judges is the history of a catechlysm. We heard some of the faithlessness of Israel last week. This week we double back and hear the reason for the faithlessness.
6 Now when Joshua dismissed the people, the sons of Israel went, each man to his inheritance, to possess the land. 7 And the people served Yahweh all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who lengthened their days after Joshua, who had seen all the great work of Yahweh that he had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Yahweh, died, being one hundred ten years old. 9 And they buried him in the territory of his inheritance, in Timnath-heres in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. 10 And all that generation was also gathered to its fathers.
It is easy to skip over these verses as a brief historical note, indeed a note that we’ve heard before (Josh. 24:29-30, Judg. 1:1). Yet these verses direct our attention to a very important changing of the guard. Joshua and Caleb, who had crossed the Red Sea and witnessed the plagues against Egypt (and the only two who then made it to the land of promise), have died. The elders of the people, some of whom very likely spent their youth journeying through the wilderness, many of whom took part in Israel’s campaigns against the inhabitants of the land, have also died. Yea, the entire generation that crossed the Jordan on dry ground, that saw Jericho fall with a shout, that witnessed the sun stand still in midheaven, that inherited the land of mighty nations, has died as well.
The children of this generation knew only the land of promise. They saw no waters part, they saw no cities fall, they witnessed no miracles other than the quotidian ones we all experience in this life. But we don’t need to be eyewitnesses of the Lord’s extraordinary work in order to believe in him. The Lord knew quite well that the majority of his people would not be witnesses of the first Passover or the exodus, just as most Christians are not eyewitnesses of Jesus’ miracles, death, resurrection, or ascension.
But the Lord instituted means by which later generations would come to know his saving work: his Word, which he entrusted to parents. The Lord also endowed children with a blessed curiosity that is meant to draw his words out of the mouths of their parents. And the Lord instituted certain rites that give occasion for the questions. For example, the Lord said concerning the Passover, “And when your sons say to you, ‘What is this service of yours?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Passover of Yahweh, who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt, when he struck Egypt but delivered our houses’ ” (Ex. 12:26-27). The Lord established the Passover, knew the children would ask about it, and he gave the Israelite parents the very words to say in response.
The Lord gave Israel many such set practices that commemorated his mighty deeds of old, and that, in fact, made the benefits of those deeds a present reality so that they were never “old.” Whole families took part in these practices: circumcision, the Passover, the redemption of the firstborn, the Day of Atonement, the appointed feasts, all the sacrifices at the tabernacle. Between the practices themselves, the natural curiosity of children, and the answers that the Lord had given parents, it seems nearly impossible that a generation wouldn’t know what the Lord had done for them. But when it comes to sinning, mankind is woefully skilled at doing the nearly impossible…
And another generation arose after them that did not know Yahweh, nor, moreover, the work that he had done for Israel. 11 And the sons of Israel did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh, and they served the Baals. 12 And they forsook Yahweh, the God of their fathers, who brought them out from the land of Egypt. And they went after other gods from the gods of the peoples around them, and they bowed down to them, and they provoked Yahweh to anger. 13 And they forsook Yahweh, and they served Baal and Ashtaroth.
What? What on earth happened? Catechlysm. The Lord, speaking through Moses, had bound parents with a strict command: “Hear, O Israel! Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one. And you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them incisively to your sons, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way and when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall bind them as signs upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes, and you shall write them on the door-posts of your house and in your gates” (Dt. 6:4-9). And the Lord had made this a light and easy thing to do: the Lord had given a plethora of corporate rites, put questions in the mouths of children, put answers in the mouths of parents. Catechesis should have happened more naturally than breathing. But it didn’t.
Instead, catechlysm happened. The parents didn’t teach their children. Families probably participated in the corporate rites, for a while at least. Children probably asked the right questions, and learned to stop asking because their parents blew them off, or didn’t think the questions were worth answering. Who knows what families talked about when they sat, and went, and lay, and rose? Who knows what adorned their bodies or their gates? Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with the Word of the Lord. Thus a whole generation arose that knew neither the questions nor the answers, neither the corporate rites nor the God who had instituted them.
The verbs “serve” and “forsake” stick out in this passage like malignant tumors. Because the verbs are exactly backwards. Recall that these are the two verbs that permeate Josh. 24. Joshua had said, “Fear Yahweh and serve him in totality and in faithfulness. And take away the gods that your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt, and serve Yahweh. But if it is evil in your eyes to serve Yahweh, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods that your fathers served that are from the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But I and my house, we will serve Yahweh” (Josh. 24:14-15).
The people had responded, “Far be it from us that we should forsake Yahweh to serve other gods” (Josh. 24:16). Joshua warned them, “If you forsake Yahweh and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you after he has done you good” (Josh. 24:20). But the people insisted, “No, but we will serve Yahweh” (Josh. 24:21).
And here we are, with the verbs reversed: “And they forsook Yahweh, and they served Baal and Ashtaroth.” Behold, the fruits of catechlysm!
We find ourselves in a situation eerily similar to that depicted in these verses of Judges. We stand on the brink of catechlysm. Work and sports compete for the Sunday morning time slot. We need to stop deluding ourselves into thinking that we can have it all. We can’t. We have to choose. Whom shall we serve, and whom shall we forsake: Mammon, Entertainment, Jesus?
The Church’s children continue to receive catechesis, but not from the right catechism. Television, movies, music, news (and ever increasingly, public schools) – all of these teach a set of commandments and a creed, and have their own associated liturgies and movements. But their laws and tenets clash with the Word of the Lord. The devil, world, and flesh pull children one way. Where are their parents pulling the other way?
Yet for those parents who care, who desire to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4), there’s no need to fear the forces of the world. The Lord has put us on good footing – better footing, in fact, than that which he gave to Israel.
Like Israel, we have certain rites instituted by God: the reading of his Word, the preaching of his Word, prayer, Baptism, Confession, the Sacrament of the Altar. Our fathers have brought all of these together in the liturgy, with its ordinaries and propers, movements and sounds and sights and smells. We also have the Church Year, which received its broad shape from Jesus himself (it is an annual chronology of his life), and which has been filled out and refined in a glorious way by our forebears.
And in the face of these things, children still retain their God-given curiosity. By nature, they’re prone to ask, “What is this?” The questions are not difficult ones. “This is the baptismal font, where Jesus saved you.” “This is the body and blood of Christ.” “This is the Gloria, which the angels sang at Jesus’ birth.” “This is the Easter season, when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.” “This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.”
The Lord made catechesis easy for his people of old, and he has made it just as easy for us. We have the rites he has instituted, we have inquisitive children, and we have the sound Word of God with which to answer. Martin Luther has also given a precious gift to the Church in the Small Catechism. Not only does it give the answers to life’s greatest questions, it also provides a simple and fool-proof practice of piety in the daily prayers.
We go to church every Sunday. We pray with our children. We answer their questions. We forsake the gods of the peoples around us. Catechesis is as easy as that. The alternative is catechlysm. Unfortunately, that’s what happened in Judges. As we move forward through the rest of the book we can take warning from the consequences of catechlysm. And at the same time, we can take heart that the Lord never hands his people over to it entirely. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and the Lord has means of turning people back to him.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will pour forth dark sayings from of old,
Which we have heard and known,
Which our fathers have recounted to us.
We will not hide them from their sons,
Recounting the praises of Yahweh to the following generation,
And his strength, and the wondrous works that he has done.
He raised up a testimony in Jacob,
And set a Torah in Israel,
Which he commanded our fathers,
That they should make them known to their sons,
In order that the following generation may know them,
Sons who will be born,
In order that they may arise and recount them to their sons;
That they may put their confidence in God,
And not forget the deeds of God,
And that they may keep his commandments;
And that they may not be like their fathers,
A stubborn and rebellious generation,
A generation that did not establish its heart,
And whose spirit was not faithful with God.