By: Rev. Dylon Brown
One day I was driving through the city and I saw a woman running really hard uphill. She seemed to be a serious athlete and ran with a sort of intensity that suggested competitiveness and drive. She wasn’t just out for a jog – she was training for something. And then all of a sudden she stopped. She turned around and jogged back to a flower bush that she had just passed and she stuck her nose in the bush and inhaled deeply. Then she continued on her run.
That image stuck with me. This woman who was driven and competitive and was very focused on the task at hand, simply paused. She paused to take in the beauty that was around her.
Advent is upon us, and Advent is a celebration of the coming of Jesus and looking forward to the time when he will come again.
But, the beginning of Advent signals the beginning of the cultural Christmas season too. It’s a time of sales, shopping, parties, and stress for many. Billions of dollars are spent in our country on stuff. Black Friday can become a feeding frenzy. And as we minister to the children in our congregations and communities, we need to remember that they are targeted heavily in the midst of this season.
We need a pause.
And in that pause, we light a candle, we read a meditation, and we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We peel back the door on the Advent calendar with our children. And as pastors, we preach. All of this can be especially tricky when kids are brought into the mix. How do we preach or teach kids in meaningful ways about Advent?
I think it can be as simple as immersing the kids in the story of Advent. It’s not always possible, but to do this means that we need to help parents set a rhythm for their families that avoids the pitfalls of Christmas consumerism chaos. I’ve found that holding an “Advent Workshop” for parents can be extremely helpful for those interested. You can make an engaging presentation of what it might look like for a family to enter into Advent in what can be a busy season.
In Advent we use the colors of the candles to help the children (and us) understand theological significances. We light the candles and we explain how the church has used this season as a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ. And we go even further into looking at the story of the Scripture. From a teaching standpoint, there are many ways to do this.
Using the lectionary can be difficult with children, but still possible. The main problem being that the lectionary readings don’t go in chronological order, and many times, such as this year, the text of John the Baptist crying out in the desert takes place in weeks two and three of Advent, with Mary’s song coming in week four. So it still works for us to structure storytelling in that way, but it is more difficult since kids tend to want to process things in the order that they happened. Telling the story in some sort of coherent order, helps children to get a better feel for the narrative. That being said, with enough preparation this method can still be presented in meaningful ways with the children.
Old Testament connecting to New Testament
We can also structure a children’s church series that begins with an Old Testament passage and draws a connection to a New Testament passage about Jesus. In that way, we begin with the expectation, and we move into how Jesus truly fulfilled that expectation. I’m not talking about applying all OT passages as simple prophecies about Jesus. But again, to help the kids see how old Israelite expectations were fulfilled or surpassed in Jesus. With some preparation you could turn to texts like the book of Amos (chs. 3 and 4 as an example), Isaiah 9 or 40, Micah 4, and create connections to the Kingdom of God as established in Jesus. You could give some context for “beating swords into plowshares,” for instance, and then share about Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
As I’ve already alluded to, a third option is to simply tell the Advent story as told in one of the Gospels, such as Luke. A possible structure could be:
Week 1: John’s birth announcement (Luke 1:1-25)
Week 2: Jesus’ birth announcement (Luke 1:26-45)
Week 3: Mary’s Song (Luke 1:46-56)
Week 4: Zechariah’s song (Luke 1:57-80)
This method allows the children, week by week, to listen to the events leading up to Christ’s birth, and reflect on the significance of Christ’s coming and eventual return.
Embracing the Pauses These are just a few examples of how to journey with kids through Advent. As we read through that Lukan narrative, we see that in the narrative itself, there are pauses. The narrative is paused for Mary’s song. In the midst of this new story with all the expectation of the coming of John and Jesus, Mary bursts into song, reminiscent even of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2.
The text pauses as Mary sings about a God who reverses structures of power, lifts up the lowly, and even sends the rich away empty. She ends the song by remembering the source of all of this expectation, going all the way back to Abraham.
The narrative continues, describing the birth of John the Baptist. But then comes another pause.
Zechariah has to sing.
And he sings about the Messiah that is coming, and he sings to his newborn son, and he looks forward to a time when light will be given “to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). That’s quite a song.
These pauses of Mary’s and Zechariah’s songs are woven into the Advent narrative. And their function is important. It reveals the God they know, and it reveals their expectations for the one who is coming in the midst of the unfolding story.
So often, we recognize that in the preaching moment with adults, the words we speak must resist the “powers that be.” The sermon imagines a new world in light of the gospel, and illustrates how the gospel breaks the chains of the powers that enslave us. In his book, The Word Before the Powers, Charles Campbell even talks about how the demonic forces in the world use rewards and diversion as strategies employed to enslave us and keep us from living and participating in the kingdom of God.
But children are just as susceptible to this as adults.
The cultural Christmas season is a time when kids are absolutely bombarded with wish-fulfillment fantasies. This season is almost like an evil twin to the Advent season. Santa becomes the new idol for them, representing the fulfillment of all their wishes. Compounding the temptation of all this consumerism is the fact that many kids believe Santa is actually real and put quite a bit of faith into this assertion. This sets up a situation where families try to cram Jesus and Santa both into the Advent mold.
Through preparing for Advent properly, we can invite families and children to experience the season in a different way, a way that celebrates the pause. And as we pause, it gives us a chance to inhale the fragrance in the midst of the rush, much like the woman I saw during her workout that day.
It invites us to pause, and to listen to the music of Mary and Zechariah, and to embrace a new song that paints a new reality that is found in the humble birth of the Christ child.
I have included a possible children’s sermon, along with a possible worship outline, in order to simply spark some ideas. I have included the whole lesson because I think it is especially important for kids that the sermon does not stand alone. What leads into it and the methods made available for them to process that sermon are just as important. Working through the story helps kids not only to retain information but to think about what the content actually means for them.
The example included fits with moving through the Lukan narrative during Advent. You are free to use the lesson provided, but perhaps it will spark your own creativity to come up with something that will invite children and families to embrace a new rhythm for this upcoming Advent season.
Week 1: John the Baptist: Birth Announcement!
Welcome the Kids
Explanation of Advent
Say, The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word “Adventus” and it means “Coming” or “Arrival.” During the season of Advent, which is right before Christmas, we celebrate Jesus coming into the world! Jesus has already been born, of course, but we celebrate the time of getting ready for his birth, and ready ourselves for his return! All our stories up until Christmas, will be all the stories that led up to Jesus being born.
Teacher: So what does Advent mean?
Teacher: Who is coming?
Lighting of the Candle and a reading
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Two Truths and a Lie
The kids say two things that are true about themselves and one lie about themselves and the rest of the kids try to guess which statement is the lie. Some kids will want to write these down to keep them straight.
The Story: Luke 1
(Begin with stick of incense burning on a table on the stage.)
In our game this morning, we had to figure out the lie that you were telling us. Have you ever been lied to? Or have you ever had trouble believing what someone was telling you, even if maybe it later turned out to be true? Sometimes we hear things that are difficult to believe!
Well a priest in our story today had difficulty believing what he heard.
The priest was a man named Zechariah, and he and his wife Elizabeth were both old, and they were never able to have children.
One day, it was his turn to go inside the sanctuary of the temple and burn incense, similar to what we have here today. Can everyone see this? Can you smell it? The incense was offered to God, and a psalmist in the Bible even compared how the incense rises up, to be like our prayers rising up to God (Psalm 141). So the incense reminded the people that their prayers rise up to God!
And God heard Zechariah’s prayers.
Because the next thing he knew, an angel had appeared.
Zechariah was terrified.
But the angel told him not to be afraid. And the angel told Zechariah about an unusual birth that was going to take place.
This baby was going to be great in the sight of God, and turn many of the people of Israel back to God. Even before this baby’s birth he would be filled with the Holy Spirit and people were going to rejoice and celebrate and have great gladness when he was born.
Do you have a guess to who the baby is? (Allow the kids to guess – some may guess Jesus.)
It wasn’t Jesus…this baby would grow up to be John the Baptist! And it was going to be Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby! She was going to be pregnant! The angel was telling Zechariah that a miracle was happening. They had prayed for years to have a baby, but they physically were not able to – but now she was going to have a baby, and that baby was going to grow up and lead people to God.
Zechariah had trouble believing. Remember our game? It’s hard to know what to believe sometimes. He said, “How will I know that this is so? I am on old man! My wife is old! How could we possibly have a baby?”
But the angel didn’t appreciate Zechariah not believing.
The angel said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to bring you good news! But because you did not believe my good news, you will be unable to speak until the baby is born.”
That seems harsh!
(At this point, an option could be to show a popular clip from a show or a movie that the kids enjoy, but muted.)
Something about watching that clip wasn’t right…what was going on with that movie clip? It was silent. We couldn’t hear it!
Do you think you would have had trouble believing what the angel said?
What do you think it would be like to not speak for 9 months?
How would life change for you?
Would you be able to do less?
Would it slow you down at all?
When Zechariah came outside, the people were confused as to why Zechariah couldn’t speak, but they actually said, “He must have had a vision.” They were good guessers! They guessed correctly that God had appeared to Zechariah!
Well, while it seems harsh and mean of the angel that old Zechariah couldn’t speak for those months leading up to his baby’s birth, he did eventually get his voice back, and when he did, he ended up saying something incredible.
In fact, he ended up singing a song.
And the song was an important one for the people to hear. But we will hear more about that in a couple of weeks.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. As we head toward Christmas, it’s good to begin by thinking about Zechariah. What do we normally think about when we head towards Christmas?
A lot of times we think about stuff that we want!
It’s exciting because we like getting presents! And getting and giving presents is a lot of fun. But we celebrate Advent to remember that this season is not about presents. It’s not about school Christmas parties, or watching Christmas movies, and it’s not even about seeing our uncles and aunts and cousins as they head into town to visit us.
Advent is about preparing ourselves for Jesus coming into the world. We relive the story about what happened leading up to Jesus coming into the world, and we remember too that Jesus is coming again someday.
God did amazing things leading up to Jesus being born in that stable. He gave a gift to two old people who loved him. God used them to get people ready for Jesus. And the baby that they were going to have was also going to get people ready for Jesus.
And just as Zechariah lit the incense in the temple as a reminder that prayers rise up to God, today as we lit our Advent candle and see a little bit of heat and smoke rising up, may we remember that God hears our prayers. And we can pray that this season helps to prepare us for a better understanding of Jesus coming into the world.
(Say a prayer and send the kids to small groups.)
Small group Time (following children’s sermon)
Read Luke 1:5-25
Game: Telephone Charades
The kids line up single file facing each others backs. The first person gets a clue, and then taps the person in front of them on the shoulder. That person then watches the one who got the phrase or word, acting it out. Then that person has to tap the next person so that they turn around to see them acting it out, and then the last person has to guess what the phrase or action was. No noises or sound effects allowed!
When it’s over say something like, “In our game, you had to communicate without talking! This was how Zechariah had to communicate! Would that be difficult? Why do you think the angel made him be silent for all that time? We will find out in a few weeks what eventually happened with Zechariah, but do you predict any good came of it in his life?”
Why do you think Zechariah had a hard time believing the angel?
How do we become better at praying?
What are some ways that we can prepare those around us for Jesus?
In Bible times, writing letters was a way to communicate with people from far distances. Today we have texting, phones, facetime, skype, and all sorts of ways. But back then they wrote things down, and for a while, that was the only way Zechariah could communicate! Write a letter to someone explaining to them what you know about God, and why you think God should matter to them. You don’t have to give the letter to someone, but it might be a good way for you to think about how to invite someone to church, or how to invite someone to start thinking about God. And as you think about what to write, remember that God hears our prayers. We can pray that we know God more, and that we can help others to know God too.
Dylan Brown is a Children’s Pastor at South Portland Church of the Nazarene in Portland, Maine.