I had a sermon planned for this Sunday. It was going to be all about how at the beginning of a new year we might renew our covenant with God, and perhaps make something like some faith-focussed new year resolutions. I find the words of the covenant prayer always a challenge and an inspiration to renew my own faith, so I thought I would see if you felt the same way. Perhaps we could all of us have decided to pray more, study the Bible more, make an effort to renew and deepen our faith. Inspired by a book I’d been reading called ‘An Adult Christ at Christmas’, I was all set to challenge you all not to settle for the faith you might have learned at Sunday school, but to keep on renewing and deepening and maturing your faith. It was a very earnest thought…. But I decided to scrap it.
The thing is; I’m not sure that faith does necessarily mature when we try to be grown up about it. I’m not even sure, despite having done it for years, that reading theology always makes faith more mature. If it did then I ought to be far better at Christianity by now than I actually am… Faith doesn’t always come to us because we strive at or work at it or make a decision about it. And it doesn’t always improve with age either. Sometimes I think that getting older and more sensible doesn’t always helpwhen it comes to faith. Moments of renewed faith actually come to me when I’m not looking for them, and they come to me not when I’m trying harder, but when I let go a bit and, as someone once said, when I let God be God.
There was someone else, Jesus in fact, who once said, ‘Unless you become as a little child you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven.’ And so I wonder whether trying only to be grown up about faith, trying to be an adult kind of Christian, is actually what we really need after all. Perhaps the best thing we could do instead is to try to recapture the sense of being a child again. And perhaps that’s why the Christmas stories, so beloved of children, are better at renewing our faith when we remember how we experienced them as children. Perhaps there is something about the wonder, the playfulness, the open-eyedness of children, the sense of awe and mystery and fascination with life and God and everything, that is really what we need renewing. Perhaps we need to find again the faith we might have known as children or find again the child within us.
Of course sometimes we adults simply laugh at children and find them amusing, in perhaps a rather patronising way. You can waste hours looking on the internet at children being ridiculous and funny at Nativity plays, for example. John Bell of the Iona Community once told the story of one child’s view of Christmas following her school nativity play.
‘Christmas is a time for children because the baby Jesus was a child. So were his Mum and Dad. Mary was ten when she had her baby, because that is how old Cheryl Foster is, and Joseph was eleven like Ravinda Singh. Joseph was not the real Daddy of Jesus; the real Daddy was Mr Montgomery, our school caretaker, who is also Santa Claus. Mary was pregnant, but stayed very thin, unlike my Mum when she was having little Sandra. Mary always wore a blue nighty, and Joseph wore a dressing gown like Ravinda Singh’s Dad.
Caesar Augustus wanted the whole world to be taxed. That is why everybody went to Bethlehem and it was so crowded. People had even come from Africa and Australia because there is no snow there. Mary decided she was going to have the baby right away in the snow because there was no room in the inn. The innkeeper had a wife whose name was Veronica; she was one of the ugly sisters who had big feet. The innkeeper’s name was Low, because Joseph said to him, ‘Low my wife is great with child’.
Mary had her baby in front of everybody. When he arrived, everybody knew that she was dressed in blue because she knew it was going to be a boy.’
There is plenty more where that came from. But actually there are different, better, kinds of stories we can tell about children and the nativity. I can remember the year that, at one of my previous churches, we erected a very simple nativity scene outside the little village chapel, just with silhouettes, with a manger and an MDF baby shape. While we were singing carols one day, a little girl came and simply knelt on the ground before the baby. And we all knew that in her imagination she was in Bethlehem. Perhaps some of you remember how last year a little girl from the Methodists danced outside in front of the nativity, as good a reaction as any. At the midnight service at St John’s, I found myself kneeling at the prayer desk right within their large crib scene and, well, I wasn’t just in Taunton any more. I remember one Christmas, at a Christingle service somewhere, singing ‘Away in a manger’ with my then very small granddaughter and being so moved by the thought that I was teaching her what I had taught her mother and my mother me…
St Francis was the one who really invented having nativity scenes in and outside churches. He once took a trip to Bethlehem and was fascinated by the experience, feeling close to the Christ child and the mystery of God’s birth among us. In his lifetime Jerusalem was captured by people who were unsympathetic to Christian pilgrims and there were travel restrictions (sound familiar?) so Francis encouraged people to create the scene for themselves, at home in Italy. And so began the way that the nativity story still comes to us in art, in crib scenes, in music, in our imaginations. We sing and look and imagine. And the work of the imagination is not just childish, not just ‘made up’, and the stories we tell at Christmas, the stories of Luke and Matthew have just as much theological depth as the high theology of John’s Gospel. But we need imagination and child-like wisdom to take them seriously so that God can come to us through them. Children know how to do this better than grown-ups, so we will need to learn from them. They love stories and imagination, and so know how to find the deepest truth of Christmas. It is perhaps not they who should become more like us grown-ups, but the other way round. Maybe faith does not ‘mature’ in the sense of becoming more adult and serious, but it is renewed when we discover once more how to be truly child-like – which means perhaps letting go of adult pretensions.
What’s fascinating about the Jeremiah text that we shared together, is that God doesn’t say that we need to do anything very much at all, but God tells Jeremiah what he will do. God says,
‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’
That new covenant, and any new covenant, is not really ours to try and make. It is God who will do it. We are God’s people and it is God who is all about renewing us. God will write on our hearts; on yours and mine.
The communion service is, of course, another place where we need, I think, to stop worrying so much about what it all means, and how to do it correctly and properly, in a serious grown up kind of way. We are taken here to a manger again, to a place where we are fed with the bread of life. We are taken in imagination too to other places in the story of Jesus; the time when he fed thousands of people with bread on a grassy hill, or when he sat down with tax collectors and sinners, or the evening when he broke bread with his friends before he died, and even that time when he was with the disciples at Emmaus and known in the breaking of bread. We need the gift of imagination to let the bread and wine become more to us than bread and wine, but the body and blood of Jesus, what he called ‘the new covenant’. Here, at this table, on the first Sunday of a new year, God is truly present and will renew our faith. We don’t have to try or resolve, we only have to receive and to give thanks. Like children at Christmas, we are here to wonder and to rejoice.
So let us pray that our covenant with God will be renewed this new year. And let us open our hearts to make that possible. But let us rejoice too that it is God who has promised to renew us and redeem us, and that God will fulfil the promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.