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Sermon for Pentecost 12

Mathew 18:1-20

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 Audio 51 Sermon for Pent 12. mp3

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  Let me give you a hint, it’s probably not who you think.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Isn’t that sweet?  Little children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Except that that’s not the point Jesus was making.  We live in a world decidedly different from the world in which Jesus lived and taught.  Almost never in Greco-Roman culture, in the Old Testament, or in Judaism are children the role models for adults in the sense that they have qualities that adults should copy.  Today, it’s the exact opposite.  Children are often held up as examples of childlike faith, innocence, simplicity, and happiness probably even as a result of skewed understanding of Jesus’s teaching.  We are a culture conditioned by Dickens’ Tiny Tim and Oliver and that cute kid in the Home Alone movies.  But we’re not talking about the 10 year-old who bests the adults in an adult world.  We’re talking about toddlers up to about 2nd grade.  And truly Young children are not yet in possession of their ability to think rationally.  If you want to get a sense of their rationality try giving one a 5 dollar bill for 5 ones.  They’ll think you’re stealing from them.  They are physically weak and susceptible to illness.  Even in the OT, children are a blessing from God, but were not positive role models for adults in any aspect of life.

Children are often mentioned in the Bible but not as examples for grown-ups.  Paul starts chapter three in 1 Corinthians by saying, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” Later on in chapter 13 he writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (v. 11).  The author to the book of Hebrews uses an extended argument to make the same point:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.  (Heb 5:11-14)

The Bible typically portrays children as essentially needy, physically weak, untaught, and unable to provide for themselves.

And so this is the cultural context we need to have running in our head when Jesus declares: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus is making a profound point here but it’s not the point we’ve come to think it is.

When Jesus shows the disciples a child and says, “Be like this,” Jesus is urging his disciples to abandon all worldly thoughts about greatness in the kingdom and with them all these delusions of self-sufficiency.  We already know that the blessed ones in the kingdom of heaven are those with no spiritual resources of their own, they are truly the poor in spirit (Mt 5:3).  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for to them belongs the kingdom of heaven.”  The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are like little toddlers—needy and dependent on God for everything.  Jesus is saying, the only folks who enter the kingdom of heaven are those who realize that they have nothing and that God gives everything.  To become like a little child is to recognize and confess our insignificance and absolute dependence on God.  To become like little children is to repent of our pride, acknowledge our total need for God’s grace and to look to Christ alone for rescue.  Be like a child; live as a child of God completely dependent on God alone.

We don’t like to hear this because we’re proud.  We don’t like feeling needy.  It contradicts everything we have come to think about religion and about ourselves.  Who do we lift up as examples?  We lift up strong people of faith, maybe our faithful grandparents or parents or a dear friend who seems so strong.  Even in our life with God we presuppose that the relationship is strong because we are faithful in private devotion and prayer.  “In contrast to all this desire for spiritual improvement and self-development, Jesus teaches that we being, continue, and end our spiritual journey with Him as beggars before God the Father, the heavenly King.  We do not, as we follow Jesus, become increasingly self-sufficient.  Rather, we learn, bit by bit, the art of begging from God the Father, until at our death we can do nothing but say finally, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!’”[1]  Last month at the council meeting and then the voters’ meeting I read that quote and more from Dr. Kleinig’s book, Grace Upon Grace.  He uses the example of a beggar and I think it struck more than one person as odd that beggars would be our spiritual models.

But this is identical to Jesus is saying that whoever would be great in the kingdom of heaven must become like the little child, completely dependent on God.  Our life in Christ is not based on our performance but solely on our receiving from God.  This seems counterintuitive and hard but in some ways it makes it far easier to live as disciples of Jesus.  We don’t need to worry about what a 15 percent drop in the stock market is going to do to our 401k, or in my case 403b.  We don’t need to worry about the test results.  We are following Jesus.  A little less to retire on might help us to see our daily bread all the clearer.  If it is cancer, Jesus will bring you through it or bring you home.  You win either way.  And so, over the last several weeks, I’ve been trying to shift some understandings, or rather misunderstandings we have about God and life in God’s kingdom.  I may or may have been successful.  To be honest, it’s often hard to tell.  But, I will say this.  I am constantly tempted to run the way of spiritual ambition.  And Christians constantly measure themselves against what others have, or seem to have, even when it comes to our lives in the kingdom of heaven.  And can I just say it this way, “Our church leadership does not often measure greatness the way Jesus does.”?

But Jesus leads us in a different direction entirely.  He points us away from ourselves and back to God the giver of all things needful.  Jesus shows us that the true goal for the exercise of our devotion and piety is to be seen by God, open to his searching and yet gracious scrutiny, known and appreciated by Him.  Our life in Him does not depend on our devotion or spiritual performance but completely on Christ and His performance on the cross in our place.  We can face all our failures because out failures show us how completely dependent we are on Christ.  The burden of trying to be a super-Christian is lifted and we have relief from the intolerable pressure to show how much spiritual progress we have made.

Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  Thanks be to God it’s not who you thought.  Jesus has made it so.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.


[1] Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace, 29.

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