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Become Like Children

Sep 10, 2017

Passage: Matthew 18:1-4

Preacher: Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa

Category: Sunday, Pentecost


Text: “1At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’”

In Jesus’ Name. Amen. Not too long ago there was a movie released called The Shack based on the book. The movie tries to put forth the Christian message. It has its moments, but it also takes a great deal of artistic liberty (though I will say – if you saw it – that the “cave scene” was profound). At any rate and without getting into a serious review, there is one little saying that I liked. In the movie God says to one of His children, “I am especially fond of you.” Later, we find that God speaks that way about His other children. While there might be mounted a logical objection that if everyone is special, then no one is, the saying is nevertheless true in an amazing-grace kind of way. God loves all His children in a supremely wonderful way through His Son: all of them are forgiven all their sin; all of them are counted as righteous in Jesus. Therefore, the call to faith goes out to everyone. God has settled things in His heart: forgiven; one and all! In this sense, God says to everyone individually, “I am especially fond of you.”

This sort of view is foreign to us, because influenced by the power of sin and the way of the world, we play favorites. The little girl was feeling insecure, because for the first time in her life she wondered if her mother loved any one of her siblings more than she loved her. Sometimes such a suspicion can lead a child to go through deep emotions that can have life-long effects. Some children will dedicate themselves to trying to earn the love of their mother or father or both. This is a reminder of course of the tremendous responsibility given to parents. Parents are ambassadors of the Lord and the Word of God says that God does not engage in favoritism. How ‘bout that? This is humbling! Think of anyone you don’t particularly like. Well, here’s the Gospel truth: God loves that person just as much as He loves you!

So the Christian parent is to demonstrate both law and gospel to their children. They are called to teach the faith to their children even before pastors. It is a call from God that should make any parent shake with fear and trembling. Parents must pray that God help and guide them to be good parents. The call to be a parent is a sacred and holy call. It is a holy vocation. Given this, if parents convey favoritism, they can cause great harm to the consciences of their children.

Besides there is no reason to do this if we understand the concept of God-given diversity (to say nothing of true love). There is no reason to belabor wishing that one child was more like an another. This is a waste of valuable time and energy. Each one is created uniquely; each one – even with all their warts and all – have been gifted in unique ways. More importantly, God knows why each child was given you to raise. His plan is to bring good to you through each child whether you recognize it or not. Think of your family as a microcosm of the Church. Each member according to St. Paul in 1st Corinthians 12 is “indispensable” to the body…not everyone is an eye, not everyone is a hand, and not everyone is an ear…but all are necessary and all are blessings. This is the reality. The question is whether a parent will believe it and embrace it; or will they play favorites while hurting themselves and their family? None of this of course changes that sometimes love must be applied in different ways. This takes wisdom. Come Lord Jesus!

The little girl who was convinced that her mother did not love her as much as some of her siblings, lived her teen years and young adulthood always trying to compensate. She lived with profound insecurity, suspecting deep in her psyche that she was not loved as much as others.

We all play the game. We like to talk about our favorite actors, doctors, pastors, teachers, coaches, friends, etc. Both sides of the double-blade tickle our pride. It feels good to give praise and we feel important when we do so: we are approving and affirming another…lucky them; and it feels good to put others down; after-all we are so insightful and we know what’s wrong with everyone else. If only they could be more like us.

And playing favorites goes on and on, and it causes immense problems and more than anything else it raises sinful pride which is a cardinal sin. Pride readies a soul to fight and before you know it, people destroy one another. Favoritism is evil. It hurts and it can kill.

This concern was exactly what was on the mind of – of all people – Jesus’ first disciples. Our gospel today in Matthew 18 begins by addressing this problem, so I want to give you a little background from the end of chapter 17 and even the chapter before that. St. Chrysostom explains what was going on: “Apparently [feelings were] piling up [and] they became incensed. For Jesus had said to Peter, ‘I will give you the keys,’ and ‘You are blessed, Simon Bar-Jonah,’ [Matthew 16] and to Peter here [at Matthew 17:27] he instructed [about paying the temple tax], ‘Give it to them for me and for yourself.’ And seeing the great freedom allowed [Peter] elsewhere they were upset (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Ib, Matthew 14-28, ed., Manlio Simonetti. Downers Grove, Illionis: InterVarsity, 2002. 67).” St. Jerome said that the disciples were wondering that since Jesus allowed Peter to pay the same temple tax as Himself, that Peter was being elevated to Jesus’ status (ibid., 67).

This was basically driving the other disciples crazy! So – like us – they couldn’t help themselves. The question of the moment became: “Which of us is the greatest? Which of us is the best? Which of us are most worthy of your love?” They gave up their kingdom of God vision and faith; and they transferred themselves into the kingdom of the world. No longer were they living in faith, but pride; no longer were they living in love, but fear; no longer were they more concerned about others. All-of- a-sudden, it was all about themselves. That’s all they could think about. That’s all they cared about. “What about me?”

We have been praying for the people in Texas, and now we are also praying for the people in Florida and the other states in the swath of the storm. The hurricanes have taken me back to some personal memories. When Katrina was coming to Texas, I went to Walmart to buy a generator. The guy in front of me took two. I overheard him saying, “We will take the second one and sell it out in the parking lot. We can double our money.” I thought I was going to lose it. For this guy, it was all about him. In the evening news last Thursday, however, we saw a different account out in Florida. A woman was in a Lowe’s to try to purchase a generator for her father on oxygen. She was beside herself fearing what the coming storm would do to her dad when all power is lost. She just missed being able to purchase the last generator in the store. She broke down crying. In that moment a-complete stranger, who had just purchased a generator, gave her his generator!

But Jesus knew what his disciples were talking about, what they were debating. He had to nip this in the bud. They were on the verge of completely losing their way; they were on the verge of losing their faith. So the Lord came up to them, took a seat, got their attention – it was a “let’s talk” moment – and they gathered around. Then, Jesus does something that must have been considered a little weird: He called a child – evidently one that knew Him, perhaps a child living with Mary -- to come into their midst, to stand right in front of them. This is a “children’s message” in God’s Word, but it wasn’t for the child, it was for the adults. The child was the great illustration. The child was the object of the lesson.

And then Jesus said something that must have rocked their world: “Truly I tell you, unless you turn [or change] and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This must have shocked the disciples. Jeffrey A. Gibbs explains, “The crucial point is this: in Greco-Roman culture, in the OT, and in Judaism, children rarely, if ever, served as role models for adults in the sense that they were thought to possess positive qualities that adults should seek to emulate (Gibbs, Jeffrey A., Concordia Commentary: Matthew 11:2-20:34, St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2010. 890).” An adult would never strive to be a like a child. There was no gain in this. There was no pride in this. No one would do this in a million years. Even teenagers know this. They don’t want to be considered children anymore. They want to be adults. So who wants to be a child? Even Scripture points out their weaknesses. Isaiah 38:19 reveals their ignorance; Isaiah 3:4 and Ecclesiastes 10:16 teaches that they are unfit to rule; Isaiah 7:16 teaches that they cannot choose between good and evil; Isaiah 10:19 infers that they can’t even count very high; Isaiah 11:6-8 reveals that they cannot defend themselves; and [The Book of from the apocrypha] Wisdom 12:24 says that they are readily deceived (ibid., 892).

So who in their right mind would aspire to be like a child? That’s the last thing the disciples wanted to be, and that was their problem! They lost their way for the kingdom of heaven. They were stuck in the kingdom of the world.

Hilary of Poiteirs wrote, “For children follow their father, love their mother, do not know how to wish ill on their neighbor, show no concern for wealth, are not proud, do not hate, do not lie, believe what has been said and hold what they hear as truth (Simonetti, ed., 68).”

The disciples needed to change their minds about their approach to life. They needed to be like children who know they are dependent; who know that they need someone to take care of them. As far as God is concerned there is no better place to be. Jesus came for those such as these, not for the strong, but for the weak. But trying to be great would lead them to live in the grandest of illusions: the vanity of vanities; to begin to think that we are more than dust. To think we are strong. One of my first opportunities to second-guess my proud ways as a young man was the image of the great Oakland Raider (Lyle Alzado) I loved to watch. He played for the Raiders as I was playing varsity football in high school. He was a man’s man. He was as strong as an ox. As a defensive end he tore through offensive lines and had over 120 sacks in the NFL, but as I followed his life, this powerful man was diagnosed with a brain tumor and I saw him shrink to nothing. He gave this testimony to Sports Illustrated:

“I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969 and never stopped. It was addicting, mentally addicting. Now I’m sick, and I’m scared. Ninety percent of the athletes I know are on the stuff. We’re not born to be 300 lb (140 kg) or jump 30 ft (9.1 m). But all the time I was taking steroids, I knew they were making me play better. I became very violent on the field and off it. I did things only crazy people do. Once a guy sideswiped my car and I beat…him. Now look at me. My hair’s gone, I wobble when I walk and I have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way.”

But a child isn’t into who’s the greatest. That is not the concern of a child. I love the way Lenski tried to explain the attitude of a child: “A king’s child plays with a beggar’s child, and neither feels above the other or beneath the other (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943. 681).” The child doesn’t care about differences. The child doesn’t care about who is greater.

The child, however, knows that they need to be cared for. And when we get into real life – no matter how much people want to carry on about how tough and strong they think they are – we are just needy people. We all need to be cared for. The Lord Jesus was here teaching that all of us are to be considered children when we know how much we need God and to know this means that we give up on the favoritism game. It loses its luster. It isn’t important anymore. But what is even more important is that when we think of weakness, we are also tempted to think of that which is repulsive. That which seems so undesirable that we don’t even want to think about it, much less be around it. What happens though, when we are the weak one? What happens when the world might see us as the last person they want to be around…and see just how messed up we really are?

And this where the Lord comes in, because He says that such weak ones, totally dependent ones, completely needy ones that might be extraordinarily unattractive and unimpressive to the world are exactly those for whom the kingdom of heaven is for! Jesus did not come for those who think they are healthy, but He came for those who know they are sick. Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9). Jesus has come not for the perfect ones, but for the sinful ones. Jesus has come for you and for me. And to save us, the Almighty Savior – who was and is the ONLY ONE truly strong, truly healthy, truly powerful – chose to make Himself weak so that He could enter our lives to save the weak; He chose to know tears for those who cry; He chose to know suffering for those who suffer; He chose to know pain for those who hurt; He chose to know death for those who die. He chose to become like a child – completely dependent on the Heavenly Father – to save not just some of God’s children, but all of God’s children. He came to save us and He sends His Holy Spirit so that sooner than later, all of us here today would realize that we are children, children who need the Savior and children who have received the Savior, the Savior of children, for all children – regardless of their age – who call on the Name of the Lord. And children who with new eyes see God’s other children – who are hurting, who are lonely, who feel ostracized and helpless; insecure and afraid – and with new hearts and minds, love these fellow-children and live for Christ by living for them.