From a Child's Point of View
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17. Children easily follow the action in this story as it is read. When they are reminded that one purpose of baptism is naming, or claiming identity as one of God's people, children are primed to explore Matthew's use of the story of Jesus' baptism to tell us who Jesus is. Matthew tells us that Jesus is both the Messiah ("This is my Son," from Psalm 2:9) and the suffering servant ("my servant, with whom I am well pleased," from Isaiah's "suffering-servant" song). That combination was unusual for Jewish readers and is unusual for today's children, who seldom see a king as a servant, but usually as one to be served.
If it is pointed out, older children will follow with interest Matthew's strategy (repeated throughout his Gospel) of quoting Old Testament verses that would be familiar to his Jewish readers, to explain the importance of who Jesus is and what Jesus did.
Epistle: Acts 10:34-43. Peter's sermon at the home of Cornelius is a summary of Jesus' ministry and passion. Unfortunately, no translation presents it in words and sentences children can understand. If it is introduced as a very short story about the whole life of Jesus, from his baptism to his death and resurrection, older children can trace the sequence of those events as they are read.
The main value of reading this passage to children shortly after Christmas is that it helps them connect the stories of Jesus the baby, with those of Jesus the man.
Old Testament: Isaiah 42:1-9. There are two distinctive ways to deal with this text.
1. The text can be read as an explanatory footnote to God's statement at Jesus' baptism. Thus God is giving Jesus his "servant" job description. Jesus is described as one whose whole life is to be dedicated to working for justice and caring for those who need help. Just as we receive a name and become one of God's people at our baptisms, Jesus received a name, "My Son," and a job description, "my (Suffering) Servant," at his baptism. (It helps to point out before the reading that all the "hes" and "yous" refer to Jesus.)
2. Or the text can be read in its Old Testament context, in which the servant is the nation, or the faithful. Read thus, it becomes a mission-oriented job description for the church. In this case, children should be instructed to imagine that God is speaking directly to them and their church. If worshipers follow in pew Bibles as Scripture is read, point out before the reading that verse is just a very lengthy "God said." This will help older children to follow God's interrupted message.
Psalm: 29. This psalm traces the path of a thunderstorm coming in from the Mediterranean Sea, crossing the mountains, and moving out into the desert. With help, children can hear the thunder out over the water (vss. 3-4), watch the lightning break cedar trees and make the hills seem to skip in the flashing strobe-light (vss. 5-7), and see the damage caused by hail (vs. 9). The final verses speak to the frightened child in all of us, reminding us that God is Lord of even the wildest storms, and praying that God will give us both strength to survive the storm, and peace in spite of the storm.
Do not assume that children know that Messiah means God's king, or that suffering servant was a term that referred to a person or group of persons who would suffer in order to rescue God's people. Speak of Jesus as the Serving King for clarity with children.
Translate Isaiah's bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks into people who have serious problems.
Explain that Peter hanging on a tree is another way to say that he was crucified.
Let the Children Sing
Sing "Tell Me the Stories of Jesus" or "O Sing a Song of Bethlehem," to review Jesus' life.
Praise Christ with "Come, Christians, Join to Sing," with its chorus of repeated Alleluias.
Pair "Fairest Lord Jesus" with Psalm 29, to celebrate God's lordship over nature.
The Liturgical Child
1. Psalm 29 is a text for Baptism of the Lord also in Year C of this series. "The Liturgical Child" for that day gives directions for a congregational reading of this psalm, complete with stormy sound effects.
2. If baptisms are part of today's worship, introduce them with emphasis on the fact that baptism gives one a new identity as a child of God, a member of God's family, a disciple, and so on. Invite children to sit or stand near the baptismal font to hear this explanation and to observe the sacrament where they can see well.
3. Select as an affirmation of faith for the day a creed that tells the story of Jesus in simple language. The Apostles' Creed is one that many children know and that can be read easily by older children who do not know it. In the invitation to recite the creed, urge the worshipers to pay partiular attention to what it says about Jesus.
4. Provide illustrations of Jesus' activities as the Serving King. Point out any examples in stained-glass windows, paintings, or symbols in the sanctuary. Consider posting around the sanctuary large pictures of Jesus at work (from the church school picture files).
5. If you focus on the Isaiah text in its Old Testament perspective, paraphrase it to address the congregation in the Charge and Benediction:
God says, Behold, you are my servants, whom I uphold. You are my chosen, in whom I delight. I have put my Spirit upon you, to bring forth justice in all the world. Do not be discouraged or accept failure. Justice will be done. Remember, I am the Lord. I have called you. I have taken you by the hand and led you. You will be a light to the nations.
1. Open the sermon by talking about the significance of names. Tell your full name and explain what the pars of that name say about you (i.e., you are a member of a given family, and you may have been given a significant first or middle name). You may or may not want to pay attention to the titles such as Miss, Ms. Mrs., Mr., Reverend, or Doctor, added to names to tell more about who a person is.
Next, speak about names given at baptism. Point out that a person's given name is always stated. Then note any other names that are given in your congregation's rite. For example, in the Presbyterian ritual, the words are, "(Given name), Child of God." Explain what it means to accept those new names.
Finally, explore the new names Jesus received at his baptism: My Son and Suffering Servant.
2. Introduce and explore the title Serving King to describe Jesus. Compare that vision of a king with the kings in fairytales or a winner in the game King of the Hill. Cite familiar stories about Jesus to show how Jesus lived up to that title. Describe life for his subjects in the kingdom of Jesus, the Serving King.