Sunday, September 4, 2011
Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (September 4, 2011)
“Become Like Children” (Matthew 18:1-20)
If you had the chance, would you like to become a child again? No responsibilities, except for maybe a few odd chores here and there. What about school? Sure there’s homework … but there’s recess! And then there’s all the little things that thrill you: a dollar seems like a fortune, an inexpensive toy from the toy aisle at the drug store gives hours of pleasure, a trip to the ice cream parlor is a gastronomic delight!
Children have a straightforward honesty and a refreshing naïveté. They look at the world with wide-eyed wonder. They are like “sponges,” as the saying goes. They have an openness to learn, to receive, to soak up everything that is put into their little eyes and ears.
I’ve also noticed that children are quick to forgive and forget and not hold grudges. One moment siblings will be yelling and screaming in anger at each other. Moments later, they will be laughing and screaming with delight as they chase each other around the room playfully.
That’s not to say that being a child is without its problems. That straightforward honesty can be brutal and embarrassing. Have you ever been in line at the supermarket, and your child loudly declares that the person in front of you is “fat” or “ugly”?
That refreshing naïveté can become gullibility. That’s why we teach children to not talk to strangers.
Or what about this? Your child comes home from school and you hear a naughty word come out of their mouth. “Where did you learn that?” you ask. “From my friends at school,” your child replies. Well, I did just get through saying that children are like “sponges.” They are quick to learn. It’s just that they sometimes learn things from their peers that you might not want them to learn.
Children also have an innate sense of fairness and justice. That can be a good quality, but it also can create conflict. How many times have you heard these phrases around the house? “He got more than me!” “She hit me!” “She hit me first!” Children can be tattle-tales. They hit and grab and scratch and bite.
Contrary to popular opinion, children are not innocent … they are sinners, too. Like all of us sinners, they are selfish, self-centered, disobedient, in need of training and discipline.
So when Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading to “turn and become like children” he’s certainly not telling us to become innocent. We’ve already established that they are not. That’s not the point he’s making. So, considering what we know about children, why does Jesus hold them up as an example? This would have been quite foreign to his initial hearers. Children were loved in first century Jewish society. But they were also seen as irrational, impulsive little creatures needing to be trained.
Consider the question posed to him: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” This wasn’t the only time they discussed this question (see also Mark 9:34; Luke 9:46; 22:24). Among the disciples, there was often a concern for pride of place. Who was going to have the highest position in the kingdom? Recall the sons of Zebedee, James and John, and their request to sit at Jesus’ side in his glory, one at his right and one at his left (Mark 10:35-37). Their mother even butted her nose in and tried to butter Jesus up a bit on behalf of her sons (Matt. 20:20-21). Pride was an ongoing problem in the hearts of the disciples. It’s an ongoing problem in our hearts, too. We are constantly making judgments of others and trying to find ways to make ourselves appear better than them, even if it’s only in our own minds.
So Jesus takes a child and focuses everyone’s attention on him and says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” What characteristic of the child does Jesus highlight? Humility. How is a child humble? Compared to adults, children are weak, helpless, dependent, vulnerable. Jesus is teaching us to repent of our pride. He redefines for us what true greatness is. True greatness admits that one is completely, totally, absolutely helpless and dependent upon God and his grace and mercy. “It is only those who realize that they have nothing that God offers everything.” (Gibbs, Matthew 11:2-20:34, p. 894) This is what Jesus meant in the Beatitudes when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
The One who spoke those words and the words of our text today is the One who first and foremost became a poor, weak, helpless, dependent, vulnerable child so that the world might be saved through him. In the womb of Mary, he humbled himself and was completely dependent upon that safe, warm abode and the umbilical cord that sustained his growing body. As an infant, he was dependent upon Mary and Joseph to care for his earthly needs, to feed him, to nurse him, to change his diapers, to keep him warm and safe. When Herod sought his life, Jesus was dependent upon his foster father Joseph to protect him and carry him to Egypt until the king died and it was safe to return to the land of Israel (Matt. 2:13-23). Although Jesus was God in the flesh, he continued to live as the faithful Son of God, taking time to pray and acknowledge his relationship with his Father in heaven. And although as God he held all power and authority in the universe, yet Jesus willingly allowed himself to be weak, helpless, vulnerable as he hung on the cross, suffering for your sins and mine … especially our sins of pride, our sins of self-centeredness and thinking we are self-sufficient. Through Christ, these and all other sins are forgiven, and we remain connect to the life of Christ as we remain connected to the umbilical cord of the means of grace … the preaching of the Gospel, Baptism, Absolution, the Lord’s Supper.
As God’s forgiven children, we are free now to see one another as fellow forgiven children of God. As God’s forgiven children, we can view our fellow forgiven children as the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And if they are the greatest, then we are to give them the utmost care and attention … and forgiveness, too, of course.
When you receive one of God’s children, you receive the Son of God himself. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,” Jesus said. Receive them in the name of Jesus, the name with which we have all been marked in Holy Baptism, the Savior who dwells in every believer. So the next time you are tempted to turn your back on one of God’s children because they have offended you in some way, look at them and see Jesus in them.
And speaking of temptation, it is an eternally serious matter if you are the one who is the source of temptation to one of God’s children. Jesus says that it would be better for you to be drowned with a millstone tied to your neck. Temptation is such a serious matter that it requires radical action. However, it sure wouldn’t take long before you and I realized that we can’t keep cutting parts of our body off to avoid sin. There wouldn’t be much of us left. We can’t really get to the root of the matter, and that’s our sinful nature. Only Jesus can deal with that. We are helpless without his forgiveness.
Like children, sheep are helpless and dependent, too. So when one wanders and goes astray, we should seek them out and bring them back into the fold. Even one is valuable in God’s sight. He doesn’t want anyone to perish.
Great effort must be expended to bring someone back into the fellowship of Jesus’ followers. Sin breaks that fellowship. Go to your fellow “child” who has offended you and seek to be reconciled. When that fails, take one or two others along. When that fails, it may be necessary to involve the whole assembly … not an inquisition, but an intentional reaching out to care for one of those lost sheep and bring them back to repentance. When it gets to the point that we treat them as a Gentile or a tax collector … that is, as if they were an unbeliever … if we do it in a prideful way, then we have missed Jesus’ whole point in this section of Scripture. It’s to be done with the utmost care and humility on our part, acknowledging our own sinfulness, and calling sinners to repentance when their spiritual welfare is in danger.
And notice what Jesus says at the end of the text: “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” This is not about praying and agreeing with someone and getting whatever you want. This is all in the context of forgiveness and reconciliation. When two people agree that forgiveness is necessary, then forgiveness is given. The bondage of sin is loosed not only on earth but also in heaven. Jesus is present wherever two or three are gathered in his name, and his name brings forgiveness. And that is exactly what the Church is to be all about … a community of forgiveness and reconciliation … a community of children who know that they are completely, totally, wholly dependent upon the grace and mercy won for us at the cross of Christ.