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Wonder: Week One

Wonder Week One First Sunday of Advent 2022 David R. Collins Listen

Today we’re beginning a new sermon series called Wonder. And do you want to know why? Because I need it. Megan needs it. And we have a hunch that you do too.

I know that we have it better than most people in history, but modern life is hard on the soul. We’re distracted and tired. Life starts to feel a little dull sometimes. So dull that we stop noticing. So dull that we can’t notice.

So we scroll on our phones, and the most common reaction to what we see, beyond more boredom, or the occasional feeling of envy, is that we exhale peculiarly when we see something interesting. Or if it’s an especially great reason to exhale, and you’re sitting next to someone, you hold your phone over and make them look. But they’re expecting something good, so they don’t usually exhale. They say something like, “That’s crazy”. Maybe you did this as a whole group after Thanksgiving dinner this past week. It starts to feel normal. Not great. But just the way life is now.

But then Christmas comes around, and we get these little glimpses of what it was like to be a child. Maybe it’s from kids on our own family, or from the movies that we watch every year, or maybe we’re lucky enough to see or hear just one thing that makes us feel like a kid again. And it’s wonderful. But then it’s over.

We’re not the only ones who want to recapture that feeling. God wants it for us too.

The gospel writers tell us that Jesus once made an important point about it. In his 10th chapter, Mark tells us

Mark 10:13 People were bringing children to him in order that he might touch them, and the disciples spoke sternly to them.

Can you imagine? Who gets mad at someone else’s baby?

Your own goes without saying. But who gets mad at someone bringing their kids near Jesus? Well, I guess some church people do. Just not here.

And the disciples did, too. But only because they had never heard what Jesus was about to say.

14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant

You know, this is a really strong word. This is Biblical greek for PO’d. A lot of people get indignant in the Bible, but it’s usually not Jesus. Even when he made a whip to beat up some bankers, it doesn’t say he became indignant. Even when he got into arguments with religious fundamentalists, it doesn’t say he became indignant. But here it does!

This is what gets Jesus’ dander up. Jesus takes children really seriously. And so should we. They aren’t distractions. They are an essential part of the community. So feel free to also get indignant if you ever see a church person not putting kids first.

So Jesus became indignant,

and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

Now, this isn’t just Jesus saying “I believe the children are our future”. This goes much deeper than that. When Matthew and Luke tell this story, they put it right after the Beatitudes, where Jesus tells us directly that God’s plan is to turn the world upside down, where he tells us who the kingdom of God really belongs to. And it’s not the rich and powerful. It’s the poor, the humble, the meek. They are the ones that the earth really belongs to. And children are all of those things.

I remember one time when my kids were still little and we went clothes shopping as a family and we brought our dog for some reason. This was back when we only had one.

When we went to check out, the line was enormous, so I volunteered to take the dog outside (really selfless of me), and Megan didn’t bring her wallet, so I left her with mine. Mac stayed with her and Andrew came with me, and the dog. We wandered around for awhile and Andrew said he was thirsty. But I didn’t have my wallet. We walked up and down the street, looking for a water fountain that didn’t exist, while passing all of these shops where I could easily buy him something to drink, but I didn’t have my wallet. Kids don’t handle thirst very well. It had been like 5 minutes, so he was close to death. But I couldn’t help him! In my frustration I announced, “I feel so powerless without my wallet!” And then I turned to my 7 year old son and asked, “Andrew, is this what it feels like to be you?”

Suddenly, his thirst was gone. It was replaced by the feeling of being seen for the first time, and he yelled out, “YES! And I hate it!”

Kids are small, and they don’t have any money.

That’s a part of what it means to be like a child. To know that we are completely dependent on God for absolutely everything, even when we have our wallets and are under the illusion that we are masters of our fates. The kingdom of God belongs to people like that, Jesus says.

But it goes deeper, too. Jesus also wants us to emulate them. He said

15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Jesus tells us to “Receive the kingdom of God as a little child.” Receive.

How do kids receive? They receive willingly. Gratefully. Excitedly.

Have you ever seen a child see snow for the first time? Or the second or twentieth time? How their eyes get so wide? Like they’re trying to make their eyes wider than they can really go in order to take it all in? That’s how Megan sees fireworks every time, by the way.

That is how we are meant to see the kingdom of God.

So what is the kingdom of God? Jesus talks about it so much that sometimes the word loses its meaning for us. Here’s what it is:

The kingdom of God is the idea that God is really orchestrating events in the world all around us. Not everything, but lots of things. It all started in Bethlehem so long ago, when God invaded his own creation in Jesus Christ. And it broke into every aspect of life when Jesus rose from the dead. Like when victory comes ashore into enemy territory, and its only a matter of time until it wins. That’s the kingdom of God. It is here on Earth right now. It is all around us, and you see it every day.

It belongs to the meek, and the poor, and the children. And to really become a part of it, we have to see it, and receive it, like they do. With gratitude, and awe, and wonder. That’s why Jesus was so passionate about the children.

16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

It’s all blessing. It’s all a gift. And we are meant to accept it all with open hands and hearts.

When did you last feel that way about your faith?

Was it when you were a child?

What happened?

For a lot of us….life happened. Pain and disappointment happened. Or we learned things about the world that seemed to contradict what we were taught about the Bible as kids, and it never seemed to be quite the same again. So when we hear Jesus say that we have to receive the kingdom of God as a child, or we won’t be able to enter it at all, and we don’t know what to do with it. If we can no longer believe the way we did then, what are we supposed to do? Just pretend that we do? Fake it till we make it?

Not at all. There’s another way.

I think the answer comes in our Christmas traditions. Especially the ones where we read stories together.

(I am indebted to Paul Walton of Australia for much of the following.)

Have you ever gotten to read a story that you loved as a child to a child? Maybe it’s the stories from Narnia, or Winnie the Pooh?

I’ll bet you loved it as much as they did. And not just because you were sharing precious time together and creating memories. It’s because of the stories, especially if you hadn’t read them since you were a kid. You have since learned that bears don’t talk, and all that inside wardrobes are old clothes, but reading those stories again…. You can’t believe how good they still are! You’re connecting with these children’s stories in a new way, a way that awakens something within. You knows it’s all imagination, yet—at the same time—it seems bigger and vaster than you and everything you’ve learned since you read them as a child.

The child you’re reading to is perfectly happy to accept that Winnie the Pooh is real—and now, when she sees an open wardrobe door she feels something… a chill runs down her spine.

You know, the same kind of thing might happen if you had read a story from the Bible.

“You might have long since given up believing that this story is literal history. Trying to look for the Garden of Eden would be as useful as setting out for the Hundred-Acre Wood. You know that snakes don’t talk, that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old, and that life evolved over unimaginable stretches of time.”

But the child you’re reading it to hears it just the same. If Winnie the Pooh can talk, why not a snake? Where’s the problem?

Yet reading it together brings a strange, unexpected warmth to your heart, because you read it with a child. You might even wonder if it might be saying something deeply true about life.

One day, the child will be older. They’ll be faced with doing well at school, and learning to dance or play sports.

“They’ll learn that there are no talking snakes, and a wardrobe is a wardrobe. They’ll put Winnie the Pooh to one side, and see it as something only children read. They’ll be too grown up. They may even put the Bible to one side along with poor old Winnie. In doing that, they’ll be putting a bit of distance between themselves and the stories of the Bible. They may even judge them as irrelevant, and inadequate to explain life in the world they now lives in.”

Just like you did once.

People read the Bible in different ways.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur called the stage in which people read the Bible at face value a time of ‘first naivete’. That’s how children naturally read it, and anything else.

People who say “The Bible says it, I believe it, that’s the end of it” also read the Bible this way. Some of them are child-ish, but some of them truly are child-like about it.

Some people comfortably read the Bible that way until the day they die.

Others find it impossible to keep on reading the Bible like that. We enter a critical stage. Snakes don’t speak! The story of the Garden of Eden is false. There’s no evidence of a worldwide flood; what’s the point in reading about Noah? The scientific account is all we need to understand the world.

People in this critical stage can start to feel very alone. They can feel like a voice crying out in the darkness, crying out for a lost faith. A faith discarded in the shadows, with no way they know to find it again. A faith that may eventually ebb away. A faith they one day just stop looking for.

People who still read the Bible with the eyes of the first naïveté don’t get it. But once you’ve crossed over to the other side, once you have distanced yourself from the texts and stories of the Bible, you can’t go back.

You have to go forward. Or stay stuck. Or lose your faith.

To go forward, we have to enter a second naïveté. We become like little children again. Not in the same way that we were before. There is no going back. But there is one thing that we can’t take with us into this second naïveté.

Cynicism. Once cynicism takes root in a life, it can be hard to uproot it. We can be proud of our cynicism. But you don’t enter the ‘second simplicity’ being a cynic. You can’t embrace mystery with cynicism. You can’t deepen in faith while you hold others in contempt.

Cynicism is death to the spirit. Not just to our faith, but to everything about us that wants to feel wonder again.

So, how does this work at Christmas? Let’s try something really easy, something like oh, I don’t know, what about the Virgin Birth?

Maybe you’re reading the Christmas story to a child for the first time, and they accepts it at face value. There are angels all over the place, and Mary is a virgin. The child believes all this, though right now she’s unsure what a virgin is. And you are oddly silent when asked about it. You know all about X and Y chromosomes. For years, you dismissed this story as simply unbelievable.

But what if your eyes were opened to wonder and mystery. As you read the story and sees a child engage with it, maybe the Virgin Birth is speaking to you again; maybe it’s telling you that God was fully present to us in this tiny baby named Jesus.

“You still know that virgins don’t conceive, but maybe you also believe the story again in a new way. Maybe you’re open to the truths expressed by the story, without letting go of your knowledge of how things work.

You don’t want to change the way the child understands the story; it’s totally appropriate for them.

And it can be appropriate for anyone to understand the story in the same way, with that first naïveté. Though they should not criticize those who read the scriptures differently, just as they should not be criticized for reading as they do.”

The only place I’d hate for anyone to get stuck is at that second stage, the critical stage. Not just because you will keep that distance from the stories of the Bible for good, and only trust what you can see and hear. Though that is a big one.

But you might just lose your sense of wonder about everything. Of course, I want you to come to faith in God, but I also want you lay under the stars and marvel at the vastness of the night sky. I want you to weep at the miracles of love. I want you to regain a primal spirit, a sense of wonder, the sense that reality is rich and full of mystery, that we do not yet understand.

Even if you never truly care about the One behind it all, I want you to have that sense of wonder. You see, it’s not just about who gets credit for amazing everything is. It’s about the kingdom of God, this new thing that has been happening in our world since Jesus was born, the reality behind what we can see.

Cynics can’t see it. Critics can’t enter it. We can only be a part of it when we receive it like a child.


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