Sermon for Evensong on the Feast of Holy Innocents

“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”.


#adventbookclub – Moses: part 1

A reflection on Exodus 3.1-8:

A few brief thoughts:

Moses is the one who takes the time to notice the burning bush. He turns aside to consider it. He wonders about it. I wonder how many others might have passed by without noticing it, without pausing to turn aside? I wonder how many signs of God we fail to recognise?

#adventbookclub – Isaiah: part 2

What comes across most powerfully to me in Stephen Cottrell’s portrayal of Isaiah is the urgent, burning need of the prophet to be heard. He knows how important the message is which God has given him, and is frustrated that people will not listen. I imagine I am not the only one who can relate to that feeling! And I wonder, who are the prophets of our own day whom we ignore? Who is speaking God’s word to us, if we would only listen?

#adventbookclub – Isaiah: part 1

A reflection on Isaiah 9.2-7:

We don’t usually use this passage uncut in public worship, or not at a Carol Service anyway. We want to hear about the light in the darkness, about the coming of the child who is the Prince of Peace. But maybe we don’t want the stuff in between: “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood…” It’s certainly not very festive.

But it’s there. And it reminds us that God isn’t only interested in the festive bits, God is interested in the blood and sweat and tears too. It also reminds us that this great moment of incarnation for which we are preparing isn’t an isolated incident. It’s part of the long, messy, complicated story of salvation. And we can’t understand it in isolation, we need the whole picture, whether we like it or not.

#adventbookclub – Mary: part 2

There is a lot in this chapter, a lot which could be a starting point for reflection. It contains a great many ideas and images of God to treasure up and ponder.

But one sentence in particular stood out for me. “Then there are moments within seasons, where one thing that wasn’t, suddenly is, bursting it seems from nowhere, but actually part of what always was and always will be.” How true. Turning points: a new idea, a new relationship, a new vocation. That which, from the moment it comes into being, seems always to have been.

And today we reach a turning point in our advent journey, as we move into the final octave of preparation, and renew our focus on the coming Christ. The O Antiphons which mark these days contain the essence of that which was from the beginning, and is anew. And so we prepare for the ultimate turning point of salvation: the incarnation. In the beginning, now and not-yet. O Wisdom, Adonai, Emmanuel….. come.

#adventbookclub – Mary: part 1

A reflection on Luke 1.26-38:

As this is one of the standard carol service readings, I have heard it read by a lot of different voices in the last few weeks. Each voice adds a new layer of meaning. This evening it was read by a girl in Year 10: 14 or 15 years old, a bit awkward, a bit shy, hiding behind her hair and teenage bravado, diffidently admitting to being embarrassed about saying the word ‘virgin’ in front of her friends and teachers. A very long way from a painted Madonna or stained-glass Queen of Heaven. But who God chooses and how God works is often a long way from the picture we might want to paint.

#adventbookclub – Elizabeth: part 2

What struck me most in this chapter was Elizabeth’s account of the Visitation. The moment when the child in her womb leapt for joy at the coming of Christ. That instant of recognition of the indwelling of God in another person, which happens when Elizabeth sees Mary.

I was pondering this as I got ready for yet another carol service this evening. I know, intellectually, that everyone is made in God’s image. I do try to remember to look for Christ in everyone I meet (and often fail). But every now and then, God leaps out at me in the faces of the most unexpected people.

And then it happened tonight. I processed in (as usual), singing Once in Royal David’s City (as usual), reverenced the altar and moved to my place (as usual). And then it stopped being usual. I glanced over to the front row where my friend J was sitting. J is 16, with Downs Syndrome and autism, and I am privileged to be one of the few people she enjoys having a conversation with. We had already had a quick chat before the service. But now, just as we sang “and he shareth in our gladness” I looked up, into J’s grinning, beaming face, and saw Christ looking back at me. And I grinned too.

#adventbookclub – Elizabeth: part 1

A reflection on Luke 1.5-15, 24-25, 39-45:

“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These words of Elizabeth’s are, in some form or other, repeated daily around the world by millions (myself included) as we pray the rosary. Part of the important role Elizabeth has to play is in pointing out, to Mary and to the world, the vital role Mary is playing as the theotokos, the God-bearer. Naming and blessing that gift is important.

For all of us, having our roles, our vocations, our very beings, recognised and blessed by others is important. Sometimes that happens formally by the church, sometimes it comes in words of encouragement or prayers from an individual, not always the person we might expect. What is intended as a passing remark, even, may take on great significance.

And how do we value and recognise and bless the vocations of others, we as individuals and as church communities?  What can we do to encourage one another, to build one another up, to affirm and bless the unique gifts and vocations of the people in our lives?

#adventbookclub – Joseph: part 2

A man facing scandal. A man full of uncertainty, full of questions and doubts. Yet a man determined to run the course he has chosen, the course God has set before him. This is how Stephen Cottrell portrays Joseph.

It’s that mix of determination and doubt that I find so engaging. Joseph says of love “It matures slowly in the fertile ground of commitment, of determined choosing: … this path and not that.” It seems to me the same could be said of faith. It is the commitment, the choosing, the discipline which sees us through. The high points, the experiences which leave us buzzing, the mountain-top moments are important, but it’s the daily dedication and re-dedication which sustains faith in the long run, and through the hard times.

[I am aware of the irony of writing about the importance of discipline in a post which I should have written yesterday, but failed to!]

#adventbookclub – Joseph: part 1

A reflection on Matthew 1.18-24:

What strikes me is Joseph’s willingness to listen to God and obey, his apparently unquestioning readiness to throw in his lot with Mary on the basis of something as tenuous as a dream. He doesn’t ask for confirmation, for another sign. He doesn’t test God. He doesn’t question why or how God wants to use him, unlikely though it seems. He simply trusts, and obeys.