Today’s texts include several good stories. The trick is not to lose the children in discussing those stories by using too many abstract theological terms. Faith, salvation, and grace are all related and woven through the stories. If they are all used in subtly different ways during worship, children will get lost. So, select one of them to highlight this week. My choice would be faith. Faith is living like you are God’s person. Faith is living your life trusting God every day. Faith includes living by God’s rules and trusting God to love you and forgive you when you mess up. Faith means living like Jesus.
I’m beginning to think that each Sunday of Lent this year has a key word and that it would be possible to let that word “sponsor” each week in the same way a letter sponsors each edition of Sesame Street. Go to the First Sunday in Lent for ideas about featuring the word each week. If you do a poster for faith, consider putting big shoes or boots for people of all ages across the bottom of it to illustrate the fact that faith is about what we do and where we go.
One way to use these stories is to compare Abraham and Nicodemus as God’s faithful adventurers. When God called Abraham, Abraham left everything he knew to move to a place that had not been named. That is brave and bold. Nicodemus on the other hand had heard Jesus, thought he was right about a lot of things, but was very cautious. He brought his questions to Jesus at night when no one would see him and maybe make fun of him. That is not very adventuresome. Abraham is the hero. While wanting to be like Abraham, we are encouraged to know that Nicodemus did later act more bravely. He stood up for Jesus at his trial and he helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ body after he was killed.
There are lots of hymns about living faithfully.
Probably the best for children is “Open My Eyes That I May See” in which we are called to use all the parts of our bodies to pay attention to God and what God is doing in the world.
When the image of God’s Spirit as wind or breath is briefly explored, children sing “Spirit of the Living God” as the prayer it is meant to be.
“The Lone Wild Bird” is a poet’s song about trusting God. Before singing it invite worshipers to imagine themselves flying in migration like a bird or to remember times they have felt as “on their own” as a bird flying alone. Any of these hymns could also have been sung by Abraham or Nicodemus.
Abram (and Sara) are the examples of faithful living. They are God’s adventurers. In their old age they set out for a new life in an unknown country.
Suggestion: unless you really want to explain about the name change and decide when to speak of Abraham – as Paul does – and when to speak about Abram as this text does, simply call him Abraham today.
Ask an elderly man who is active in the congregation’s ministries to read this passage. (For fun, find one who is exactly 75 years old and note his age before he reads.)
To further explore God’s call to us at all times in our lives, ask individuals of several different ages and life situations to reread this short story. Then ponder how God’s call feels different in different situations, but is just as real. Or, print the text in the bulletin and invite the entire congregation to read it together substituting their own name for Abraham’s. Either of these could be done at scripture reading time or within the sermon.
Mark Gellman’s Does God Have a Big Toe? is a delightful collection of midrashim, stories about stories in the Old Testament. In “Finding the Right Man” he suggests that God might have called several people who turned the offer down before Abraham accepted it. The reason for rejecting God’s offer that children can understand is “what’s in it for me (rather than for my great grandchildren)?” The other reasons make more sense to adults. Using Gellman’s approach, explore other reasons for turning down God’s offer that children will understand.
Abraham might have said, “I’m too old! I am 75 years old. I’m not as strong and able as I once was. I have aches and pains. Thanks for asking, but I do wish you had asked maybe thirty years ago.”
Another person might have said, “I’m too young! Everyone would laugh at me if I packed up what little I have to go to a place I can’t name just because you asked me to. Give me a few years, the ask me again.”
Yet another person might have said, “That sounds too hard! I’m not sure how to start. I’ve never traveled before. I don’t know what to take and I wouldn’t know how to act in new places with new people. It would be scary.”
After exploring all the reasons for not doing what God asked, either point out that Abraham simply went or explore possible reasons for Abraham (and for us) to go, e.g.
God called ME to start a great nation! God knows that I am alive and chose ME for a big job. Wow!
God NEEDS ME to do something important! I could keep on doing what I’ve been doing all my life which is OK. Or, I could do something that is important to God. God said the whole world would be blessed by what I do. I could really count for something.
This sounds like a really, big scary deal. But if it is important to God, I am guessing will GOD WILL BE WITH ME, helping me when I need help. So I won’t be on my own. It might just work.
“The God of Abraham Praise” is an obvious hymn choice for this week. Unfortunately, children are quickly lost in its unfamiliar, big words used to state reasons for praise in rather complex ways.
This is one of the psalms pilgrims sang as they trudged up the steep, dangerous road to festivals at the Temple in Jerusalem. Verse 1, “I lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come?” is the question pilgrims asked themselves. The rest of the psalm is a collection of answers with which they gathered their courage as they walked.
To get people into the picture, set the scene. Ask them to imagine themselves on the road. Point to the mountains that surround you, the rocks behind which bandits are known to hide, and the steep hot road to be climbed. Get a member who has been there to describe the scene. Or, project pictures of the road. Then ask the congregation to stand to read the psalm in unison, perhaps even walking in place as they read.
Abraham and Sarah lived long before this psalm was composed, but I bet there were plenty of times as they traveled when they could have prayed the psalm. Pray it imagining yourselves in Abraham and Sarah’s sandals.
And/or make a list of situations in which the psalm is needed today e.g. the first day at a new school, going away to camp alone, walking down a scary street on your own, doing something new and rather scary…
Tell a story about a time when your congregation did something brave for God and might have needed to sing this psalm. One church I served started an integrated elementary school in its building during the civil rights era. Another church that traces its roots back to colonial times, found itself one Sunday during worship surrounded by Indians in war paint.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Paul here is concerned about how Abraham was justified or saved. For children the simple fact is that God does not love Abraham because Abraham did what God asked. God loved Abraham long before God called him to move. Even if Abraham had decided not to move, God would still have loved him. To illustrate this point pass out heart stickers for people to wear on the back of a hand. If you do this during a children’s time, you can personally stick a heart on each child’s hand saying “God loves you” as you do. However, it is more effective if the hearts are passed out to everyone in the congregation and worshipers are asked to put a sticker on a neighbor’s hand saying the words “God loves you.”
Abraham did not obey God in order to get God to love him. He obeyed God because he loved and trusted God and was willing to try out what God wanted. So, talk about how we do hard things for people we love just because we love them. For children examples include
Ø playing a dumb game with a younger brother or sister just because he/she loves that game
Ø putting a friend who is not very good at it on your team to play a game
Ø letting your grandparent tell you old stories that you have heard before, but he/she like to tell
Children sympathize with Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus with literal, left brained questions and Jesus answered him with poetic metaphors. They understand Jesus’ answers about a second birth and the wind no more than Nicodemus did. For them the part that makes sense is verses 16-17. Here Jesus says to Nicodemus and to them that God loves you and everyone. Indeed God is more interested in loving us than in judging us. You can trust God to be like this.
This is another reason to use the hearts stickers described in the Romans section above.
Jesus is talking with Nicodemus about faith. Behind what he says is the definition of faith as the way you live your life. It is about what you do every day, not what you think. Believing and doing are inseparable. For example, you can think you can ride a two wheeler, but until you actually try to do it, thinking it isn’t worth much. In the same way, you can say that God is in charge of the world and loves everyone, but until you start living like that every day, it doesn’t mean much.
Being faithful often involves taking some risks. Jesus is also trying to get Nicodemus to be braver about what he is thinking about God and Jesus. Instead of coming to talk to Jesus at night, he wants him to be among Jesus’ followers during the day, no matter what others say. At the end of this story we don’t know how Nicodemus responded. Later we learn that he stood up for Jesus during his trial before the Jewish religious leaders (that’s brave!) and that after Jesus was crucified he helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus ‘s body (another brave act!)
Sing “There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy” to celebrate God’s love in verses 16-17 after pointing out that “mercy” is another word for “love” and urging singers to pay attention to all the things we are singing about God’s love.
For ideas about this text go to Transfiguration Sunday.