This past Lord's Day I preached a children's sermon. Twice. One was for the little ones in our congregation. Then a few hours later I used the same message, with a slightly different application, in the afternoon chapel with the folks in the dementia unit where my mom lives.
In some ways, the contrast in audiences could not have been greater. In the morning I was surrounded by little ones with fresh faces, tidy clothes, and squirmy bodies. In the afternoon gathered round me were the aged with dulled expressions, slept-in and spilt-on clothes, and tired, worn out bodies. The morning group's minds needed filling with new lessons perhaps never heard, while the afternoon group needed minds filled with old lessons now forgotten. Clearly, both groups needed a lesson fitted for a child's mind.
Noting the similarities was interesting. Both groups showed enthusiasm to be there. Both young and old showed some initial confusion over the lesson, then displayed knowing looks and nods as the message dawned on them. In both places the adults in the know had a loving chuckle at not-quite-right answers. Both times I had to pause as one was asked to sit back down, though of course in the a.m. it was due to a restless body while in the p.m. it was because of a restless mind.
Usually my children's sermons are quite simple. As our Lord so often did, I try to take a common object, ask some questions or tell a story about it, then reveal the spiritual lesson that God already has wrapped up in the item at hand. Yet being simple does not remove the element of the danger of children's sermons, as you never quite know what might happen.
Though like my regular sermons I have forgotten most of the ones I have done over the years, it seems as if the ones I remember are the times where unexpected things happened (again like my regular sermons). For example, one time I brought some honey in a cup to illustrate the sweetness of God's Word. It seemed simple enough, even after my medical technologist of a wife encouraged me to use baby wipes on the kid's fingers prior to dipping them in the pot so as not to spread germs, which I did. The unexpected? Each child, upon putting the honey in their mouth, started saying things like "Yuck!" and "Ew, gross!" in chorus. The problem? The soapy baby wipe taste on the finger overpowered the honey. I cannot remember how I tried to recover, but I have had fun teasing my wife since then when she makes suggestions to me. "Perhaps you should just leave this to the professional. Remember that children's sermon..."
This past message was a bit more involved than usual, as I used an old density illustration I must have picked up in a science class long ago. As I have been preaching in my regular sermons on the qualities of heavenly wisdom found in James 3, and came to wisdom being "full of mercy," I wanted the children to see how their lives should overflow with good works. So with a little box on my lap, I pulled out a jar filled to the top with large, brown rocks. When they said "no" to my question of whether I could get any more rocks in it, I brought out a jar with smaller, white rocks and poured them in until no more could fit. I asked again if any more rocks could go in, and I received the satisfying "no" answer again. So I brought out a third jar with sand (sand is just tiny rocks I explained) and again filled the original jar with it. When I asked one more time if I could fit anymore into the jar, _in both places _someone said "yes" because "you did it before." They were correct, as I brought out a jar of water, filled the first jar again and let it overflow a bit into the box, then assured them that now the jar was full.
What was the lesson? For the children I told them the jar represented each one of their lives, which is to be filled with deeds of mercy because of God's mercy to them in Christ. Some of those deeds are big, such as volunteering at the rescue mission, doing a service project, or going on a mission trip. Yet, like the smaller, white rocks, we are also to have many acts of kindness each day in obeying our parents, taking care of a sibling, or helping a neighbor. But we cannot stop there. Just as the grains of sand are too many to count, we must be kind and merciful in all the thoughts we think, the prayers we offer, each word we speak, and every small act we do. The water was then to remind them of the need of the Holy Spirit to fill their lives to overflowing, for which we then prayed.
For the afternoon gathering, I changed the message in one significant way. When I came to the bigger rocks, I asked them to share significant acts of service they had done in the past. Raising children, teaching, and other events were brought up. Then I spoke of how their age and weakness meant that they might not be able to do the big things they once did, and how this might at times make them feel useless or even worthless. Yet I reminded them they were still able to do many smaller acts of mercy in offering prayers, helping one another, encouraging the staff, etc. Finally, I reminded them that even if they get to a time when they cannot do those things, if they trust in the Lord then they will still be filled with His Spirit. As Psalm 136 repeatedly reminds us, "God's mercy lasts forever!"
That's a lesson every child of God, regardless of age, needs to remember.