“Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What a reading to give to the Children’s Minister! Receiving God’s kingdom as a little child. What does that mean? Traditionally Jesus’ command to become like little children has been taken to refer to having a simple, innocent faith. But I’d like to suggest it’s a bit more complicated, and a bit more radical than that.
“Receive the Kingdom of God as a little child”. I’d like to concentrate on three aspects of what that might look like. Children are complex beings, and to understand fully what it means to receive the kingdom like one of them could take a lifetime. Perhaps it should take us a lifetime. But these are just three of the things I’ve observed about how children receive and respond to the good news of God’s kingdom.
Firstly: openness. Children have very open minds. They don’t come with the preconceptions and baggage, prejudices and assumptions that we all pick up as adults. Children approach the world with open curiosity, and they approach God the same way. I have heard children relate in the most matter-of-fact way profound encounters with the divine, which adults might hesitate to speak about for fear of sounding silly. Not everything about how we encounter God makes sense, not everything can be explained – that is the very nature of faith. We can all benefit from following the example of our children in looking for God in the unexpected and being open to finding God in the very last places or people we would expect. Openness to God is one aspect of child-like faith.
Secondly: excitement. On Christmas morning I sat in the Quiet Garden with the children and asked “Who’s excited about Christmas?” And they all said “Yes!” And you might expect them to have been excited about presents or Father Christmas, and they were, but that wasn’t for any of them the most exciting thing. The thing they were most excited about was the thing I’m most excited about at Christmas: Jesus, the incarnation, God made flesh among us, the light that shines in the darkness.
And how often do we, as adults get excited about our faith? Not often enough, I’d suggest. But it is exciting, amazing, exhilarating. Truly the greatest story ever, and greater because God invites us to be part of it. God taking on our humanity so that we can share in God’s divinity. If we can’t get excited about that, what can we get excited about? And if we can’t get excited about it, how do we expect others to understand the reason for the hope that they see in us? So another thing we can learn from the faith of our children is being excited about faith, about what God has done and through the Holy Spirit is still doing, and not being embarrassed to show that excitement.
The third thing I think children have something to teach us about is wonder: approaching God in awe and amazement, being moved to worship by the sheer enormity of who and what God is and does. A child who worships regularly here once said to me: “the closer you get to God, the more you realise there is of God that you didn’t even know about before, and the more you want to know God, even though you know you’ll never know all of God”. Truly, God has revealed to children what the rest of us sometimes find so hard to grasp: that there is more to God than we can know or imagine, more than we can even come close to with words. The great unknowable mystery at the heart of God is something children instinctively ‘get’ because they don’t try to solve it. The mystery and the wonder of God is a gift to be savoured, not a puzzle to be solved or reduced to something we find more comfortable. Abiding in that mystery is something we would do well to learn about from children.
So, openness, excitement, wonder. These are some of the things which characterise the way children receive the kingdom of God. But somehow we loose them, at least some extent, as we get older and cynicism and caution start to creep in. So how do we hold on to child-like faith in this weary world and receive God’s kingdom afresh as little children?
Perhaps it might seem that we’re right to be a bit cynical, or at least cautious. Perhaps the world makes us so. On this feast of Holy Innocents, when we remember the children massacred after the birth of Jesus, it is impossible not to think of the holy innocents of our own day. Children gunned down in their school in Peshawar, children homeless, frightened and freezing in so many refugee camps around the world, children persecuted for following Christ, children in our own town who will go to bed hungry tonight. It is easy to look around us and say: why shouldn’t we cynical, why shouldn’t we lower our expectations, guard our hearts, protect ourselves from the inevitable disappointment of trusting too much? This is how the world is.
And this is how the world is. But it calls, I think, for more trust, not less. Trust: another aspect of faith about which we have much to learn from our children. Trust, not in the powers of the world, not in human nature, not in a vague idea that everything will be alright in the end, but trust in the enduring promises of God. We heard some of those promises in our reading from Isaiah. “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” – that is God’s promise to us, a promise which should fill us with wonder. “I will not forget you” – that is God’s promise to us. “Those who put their trust in me will not be put to shame” – that is God’s promise to us. “I will save your children” – that is God’s promise to us, and it is still God’s promise to us, in the face of all possible evidence to the contrary.
And how can we trust in these unlikely-seeming, perhaps even impossible-sounding, promises of God? Because God has already fulfilled God’s greatest, most incredible promise to us: God has become one of us. In the incarnation God fulfils the great promise declared through the prophets that God would not abandon us, would save us, would come among us as one of us. Imagine how impossible that must have seemed to the first hearers of Isaiah and the other prophets. And yet we know “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth”. The greatest mystery. The greatest fulfilment of God’s promise. The greatest source of hope.
And so however dark the world seems, however unlikely God’s promises seem, we can look to the promised light which shines in the darkness and can never be overcome, the Light of the World, and we can say with Mother Julian of Norwich “all will be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”.