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Sermon (12/5): A Little Child Shall Lead Them

December 9, 2010

I know that last week I preached that Advent is not a penitential season. That unlike Lent, Advent is meant to be a joyful time, pregnant with marvelous expectation.

Well, all that said, today I have a confession to make. I have something for which I may always need to make amends:

I love Will Ferrell. You all know Will Ferrell—the comic genius who got his start on Saturday Night Live and now stars in movies?

Well, I love him. I think he’s great. And as I thought about today’s readings, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. It was the passage from Isaiah that did it, with its famous line, “and a little child shall lead them…”

In our Christian tradition, this passage has long been viewed as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus into the world, as a baby “born of a woman.”

“and a little child shall lead them..”

This got me thinking about a scene from the Will Ferrell movie, “Talledega Nights.” Have any of you seen that one? It’s a send-up of Nascar stock-car racing culture and Ferrell plays a champion racer named Ricky Bobby. There’s a scene in which Ricky, Ferrell’s character, tries to say grace with his family before a meal.

He closes his eyes, clasps his hands and says, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus,” but then his wife interrupts him.

“Um, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby. It’s a bit odd and off-puttin’ to pray to a baby.”

Ricky says: “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

That prompts someone at the table to say, “I like to think of Jesus as wearin’ a Tuxedo T-shirt, ‘cause it says, like, ‘I want to be formal, but I’m here to party too.’ I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”

That gets Ricky mad. “Look. I like the baby version best, do you hear me?! I win the races and I get the money.”

Ricky begins his prayer again. But now he’s annoyed. He’s going to grind his axe, as only a Will Ferrell character can.

“Dear eight-pound, six-ounce, newborn baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent, in your golden fleece diapers, with your curled-up, balled-up little fists pawin’ at the air, lying there in your manger, lookin’ at your Baby Einstein developmental videos, learnin’ ‘bout shapes and colors…  Thank you for all your power and your grace, Dear Baby God. Amen.”


Now, I know this is just one goofy scene in a completely ridiculous movie, but I actually think Will Ferrell has something to teach us about Jesus and God, something to reveal to us about how we will be led to the Kingdom of God.

As Isaiah puts it, “A little child will lead them.”

And in our Gospel reading today, John the Baptist takes aim at the religious authorities of his day, calling them a “brood of vipers” and mocking their sense of self-importance as leaders of God’s people, the children of Abraham.

These scripture passages make me wonder: Who are the authorities of the people of God? Who will lead us to the Kingdom of Heaven? Who should we look to as representatives of God on earth? As God incarnate?

Will it be those of us with collars around our necks and stoles draped over our shoulders? Or will it be those of us who know the prayer book by heart and the Bible backwards and forwards? Or perhaps it will be those who work so diligently to serve the poor and comfort the afflicted?

Perhaps those sorts of leaders will get us there… But perhaps those of us in the traditional roles of churchly authority need to be careful not to become too full of ourselves, lest we become a “brood of vipers,” ramming our vision of the Kingdom down everyone’s throat.

Perhaps the true authority figures to whom we should look to guidance are, in fact, the least of these.

As Isaiah says, “a little child will lead them.”

In Jesus’ teaching, as related all the Gospels, little children are to be “foremost” in the age to come. In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus is asked by the disciples who is the greatest among them, he says “The last shall be first and the first last,” and he then illustrates his point by taking into his arms an abandoned, street child and telling the disciples that unless they imitate a child such as this, they will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

And, of course, in both Matthew and Luke, the culmination of the Advent story is the first appearance of Jesus as a child.

What if children are to be the great leaders of the people of God into the kingdom of heaven?  What if we were to uphold children, in their weakness and guilelessness as exemplars to imitate and learn from?

Perhaps, children are, or should be, for us as Christians, our foremost authority figures.

Perhaps we, as adults, are called to let little children lead us. We are called to recognize our savior in children, to see in every little child that mythical child Isaiah eventually names Emmanuel. Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”

In short, perhaps we are called to do as Ricky Bobby does—to worship the Christmas Jesus, not the grown-up Jesus, not the teenage Jesus, not the bearded Jesus, not even the tuxedo t-shirt Jesus.

As adults, I think we can sometimes talk ourselves into the idea that success in this life depends upon how tough we are, how strong we can be in the face of life’s slings and arrows. And therefore, we see children—who are anything but tough, anything but strong—as inherently lesser than adults. We see children as beings to be formed and molded into tough, strong adults—like us! Childhood, therefore, can become defined in negative terms—by all the ways in which children are not like adults.

But the Gospels and today’s passage from Isaiah push us to see something else, something deeper in the children all around us.

Judith Gundry-Volf, a New Testament Professor at Yale University has written eloquently on this topic. Summarizing all of the passages from the Gospels in which Jesus exhorts his disciples to follow children, to imitate children, as well as all the passages in which Jesus equates himself, God incarnate, with children, she writes:

“The most significant challenge before us [as Christians] is to recapture in our own particular contexts the radicalness of Jesus’ teaching on children. Children are not only subordinate but sharers with adults in the life of faith; they are not only to be formed but to be imitated; they are not only ignorant but capable of receiving spiritual insight; they are not “just” children but representatives of Christ. What makes that challenge so difficult is that it would entail changing not only how adults relate to children but how we conceive of our social world. Jesus did not just teach how to make an adult world kinder and more just for children; he taught the arrival of a social world in part defined by and organized around children. He cast judgment on the adult world because it is not the child’s world. He made being a disciple dependent on inhabiting this “small world.” He invited the children to come to him not so that he might initiate them into the adult realm but so that they might receive what is properly theirs—the reign of God.”

To be honest, when I first came upon that passage in seminary, it took my breath away. Listen to what Professor Gundry-Volf says. She calls the work Jesus calls us adults to do with children, “the most significant challenge before us [as Christians].” That we must recognize and fully integrate into the our Christian communities the belief that children are not only subordinate but sharers, that are not only to be formed, but to be imitated, that they are not only ignorant, but capable fo receiving spiritual insight, that they are not “just children, but representatives of Christ.

And she points out that if are to fully live into what she calls “the radicalness” of Jesus’ teaching on children, we will have not only have to change how we adults relate to children, but, as she puts it, “how we conceive of our social world.”

In this season of Advent, therefore, if we are to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that “a little child will lead them,” we must look forward and work for the arrival of a community that is, in the words of Gundry-Volf, “in part defined by and organized around children.”

Not quite three weeks from now, on Christmas Eve, our Cathedral kids will present a Christmas Pageant. You might think that the pageant, as well as the various Kids Lead and Youth Lead services we’ve offered this fall, are meant to benefit the kids who participate in them.

And you’d be partly right. Partly. But the pageant and our Kids Lead and Youth Lead services also present opportunities for us adults to grow in the knowledge and love of God that might not otherwise arise during a typical service. The pageant and Kids Lead services give us a chance to let a little child lead us. They provide us with the opportunity to reimagine and recreate our Cathedral community by placing children at the center of it, by recognizing children as authority figures.

And so I want to quote Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby character one last time as he prays to Jesus—but now with a little more sincerity:


“Thank you for your power and your grace, Dear Baby God. Amen.”


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