This is the text of a sermon I delivered at Parndana Uniting Church on Sunday 3rd January 2016.
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 8; Psalm 147:12-20; Colossians 3:12-17
Over the course of this past week I have been uncle-ing. This has been the longest period of time that I have spent with my little nephew in one go, and since he grows so much in the times between us getting together it has been a real adventure for the both of us. His parents have been with him, as of course have been his grandparents, but I recently had the pleasure, sometimes through gritted teeth, of the company of Elijah for six straight days.
For Kingscote Uniting’s Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services last week Elijah came to church with us all, including his parents and grandparents. Elijah’s maternal grandfather is of course Rev Rob, so when Elijah came to church on Christmas Eve “Gumpa” was at the front. “Grammy” was there too, singing with “Gumpa”, and “Unca Damie” was operating the PowerPoint display and keeping the microphone under control. This allowed me, the Unca Damie of the previous sentence, to observe the ways in which Elijah interacted with the matter of church, including our liturgical furniture, and the presence of his grandfather in celebratory action. As we sang our songs of the newborn King, the one who didn’t cry even though cattle were lowing, and Rev Rob reflected on the story of Hannah and Samuel as a type for Mary and Jesus, I was struck by the contrast. Here was Elijah, completely happy to walk around church, (he didn’t run and he wasn’t noisy), happy to visit with his parents at the back and his grandparents at the front of the congregation, happy to look at the Christmas tree and feel the tinsel along the altar rail, happy to be picked up by Daddy to be cuddled and fed the elements during communion, happy to sit on Gumpa’s knee while Mummy read the lesson from Luke 2, happy to generally be a well-behaved version of his own sweet self. Here too was the story of two mothers desperate for children, Hannah and Mary, desperate for different reasons but delighted to be mothers of their dearly loved boys. The story from the Bible and the pantomime from my beyond-a-toddler nephew made for a good fit.
In her song for Easter “Worthy is the Lamb” Darlene Zschech describes Jesus as “the Darling of Heaven”, a phrase I very much like. It is easy for me to imagine Mary thinking this of her little Jeshua, and I know that my mum thinks of me as her darling even as much as my sister, Elijah’s mother, thinks of him as such. Perhaps Elijah and I are not actually “the Darling of Heaven”, but certainly we are each the darling of our mothers and we are each regularly reminded of that. (I hasten to add, lest word get back to the contrary, that my sister is also a darling, mine as well as her mother’s and father’s.)
We know that Samuel was the darling of his mother: listen to the story from 1 Samuel 2: 18-20, 26. I love that Hannah used to make for him a little robe. So cute! Why a little robe? Because he’s a little boy. And the robe he wore we are told was an ephod, a priestly costume. I don’t believe that Samuel had the full turban and breastplate of gemstones in miniature, but that he wore the robes of a little priest rather than the play clothes of a little boy is significant: this is very different to our Elijah’s brand new yellow construction helmet and pull-ups ensemble worn around the manse last week. Samuel is very much in the robes and on the job even from a young age. But the point of the story for me, today, is Hannah and her love for her little son. Every year she would arrive at Shiloh with a slightly bigger little robe, and we are told in 2:26 that Samuel grew up in favour with God and with people. He was obviously a lovely and much loved child, and since our Psalms this morning have told us in 8:1-2 and 147:13 that even the smallest of children can be powerful worshippers and intercessors I have no doubt that small Samuel was a mighty man of God even in his cute, wee, cuddly robe.
But as with Elijah in his “hasn’t had a sleep today” times there is a sense in which our darlingness, our choseness, can be lost. When Paul wrote to the Christians of Colossae and Laodicea, cities he had not visited, he was addressing the way in which they had begun to worship creation rather than the creator. Get rid of all that superstitious junk, says Paul, put on the new life in Christ, and when you do this is what it will look like, he says in Colossians 3:12-17. Be nice to one another, “be excellent” as Bill and Ted would have said. (Does anyone else remember Bill and Ted?) Elijah, when he’s tired, or just acting like a two year old, can be not nice. I’m pretty sure Elijah hasn’t read Colossians, and there’s not much moral value in Dorling Kindersley’s Noisy Digger Peekaboo, but the principles of good Christian practice are evident in the people around him. Yes you are a darling says Mummy, and yes you are Chosen by God says Paul, but don’t allow that thought to spoil you for the work of loving service. Be kind, patient, and quick to forgive, and seek harmony with each other founded upon love because love is the highest virtue.
I love Elijah, and Elijah loves me. We’ve told each other that in the past week. But sometimes I find him unlikeable and I don’t want him around. “Unca Damie needs some sleep,” and more so as the week went on. Apparently Eli, the priest of Shiloh, didn’t have that sort of trouble with Samuel but he certainly did with his own sons. The Bible doesn’t tell us anything of the infancy and early childhood of Jesus, and I’ve never trusted the apocryphal childhood gospels that arose in the first few hundred years of the Christian age, but we can be pretty sure that Jesus did actually cry and poo and throw a strop like any little boy of his age. I wonder how obedient and meek a fully human Jesus really was at the age of 2 and 6 which Elijah is right now. I don’t have a problem with small Jesus having said “No!” to Mary; if anything that would make the incarnation of God even more specific to God in human flesh than less so. I don’t have a problem, but I can imagine Mary having a problem, handing the wriggly squawking little saviour over to Joseph and saying “you deal with him, mummy needs a nap.”
In my nephew I see the infant Jesus. In my nephew I see the little Samuel. I see in Elijah a little boy totally comfortable with being in church, having a look about and a wander around while worship is going on. I see a boy transfixed by the singing and dazzled by the candles, a boy who feels safe and comfortable and the deepest sense of belonging in a worshipping, learning, celebrating congregation of disciples trying to live with love and harmony as the word of Christ takes hold amongst them all. In my sister’s proud smile and her loving chuckle I see and hear the delight of Mary and of Hannah in their miracle boys, each one the greatest gift of God to his mother and one in whom she is so much more than well pleased.
This year, in the natural and carefree behaviour of my two year old darling boy, a child of God showed me what the Son of God looked like when he was the little son of Mary: far too big for a manger but never too big for a cuddle and a giggle.