Becoming Like a Child (Matthew 18:1-5)
Ascension Lutheran Church
Sermon for the week of September 4 (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Our text is from the 18th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “1 At 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. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’”This is the text.
Friends in Jesus Christ, Just imagine that you were there with the disciples. You were there when they were having that debate about which of them was the greatest. Why were they talking about that? The disciples had been learning all about the Kingdom of God from the very mouth of the Lord Himself; they had each left everything in this world to follow Jesus Christ; and they probably started to think that they were some pretty extraordinary, spiritual people. Perhaps they began to put themselves on bit of a pedestal. We tend to think of the disciples as almost like superhuman men of God. But here and throughout the Gospels we see that they were very human indeed and very prone to having an inflated sense of pride. Not one of them though would have predicted what Christ would say next. When Jesus spoke about who was the greatest He pointed not to Peter; not to John and not to James; He pointed to a cute, cuddly little baby. The baby was the example of greatness. Huh? What does that mean?
Jesus is saying that we must all become children in order to enter heaven. Now that doesn’t sound too hard right. After all we can do anything children can do. Surely anything children can be, we’ve been before and we can be again. Really, how hard can it be for adults to become children of God? The surprising answer is, it is really hard!
The world in which we live is basically a survival of the fittest environment. To survive and thrive we have learned to be self-dependent and as a result, we have developed a tendency to be like the disciples, wanting to be the greatest. We hate to let slip any signs of weakness. One does not normally want to be seen as being humble like a child.
And yet Christ says, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So, the question is, what does a child have that we need? Young children typically are trusting; they don’t tend to question what they are told as much. You might be thinking, ‘But God has given us an intellect and reason. Aren’t we supposed to think critically and ask questions to discern the truth in the world around us?’ Absolutely, this is true for so many areas of life. But our intellect can only take us so far. An over-reliance on human reason is what keeps many from embracing spiritual truth.
When it comes to the things of God, the Divine, there is so very much we don’t know in this time and space that are just beyond us. This is where trust in God comes in. God is so much bigger than our little minds. Trying to understand all of God’s ways is like trying to fit the ocean into a seashell. As Proverbs 3:5 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” In time God will reveal His mysteries and the richness of His glory. But right now we have the instruction simply to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ; He gives us the eyes of faith and He leads us to the light of eternal life. As Paul wrote in First Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.”
If you have ever read the story Alice in Wonderland you might remember how Alice could fit through the door into Wonderland only by drinking a potion and becoming very small. Well, the door to heaven is tiny, and we must cease being big in order to enter it. We must become like little children through faith. The Word and Sacrament is the potion, so to speak, that humbles our spirits and transforms our minds in becoming children of faith. Jesus is the only door, and He is a narrow door. Unless we come through the small holes of His hands, His feet, and His side, we have no access. But through faith in what He has done for us by His atoning blood, we “tall” adults become “small” children. We are not asked to crawl back into our mother’s womb, as Nicodemus initially understood when Jesus spoke of being born again (Jn 3:3–5). But instead we crawl into the womb of God, so to speak, through the faith-giving water of Holy Baptism.
How hard it can be for adults to become children of God. It is too hard for anything we can do by our own power. One might try to cut himself off from the world. History is filled with such attempts like monks living in monasteries or Quakers living in communities similar to 19th century society. But we’re only deceiving ourselves if we think we can escape the world’s influences. They are around us whether we like them or not.
To enter God’s Kingdom some try to cut themselves off from the Church. Some Christians isolate themselves from the congregation for various reasons and live a sort of “lone ranger” Christianity. But essentially, that is more of an adult-minded self-reliance approach, quite unlike the child who would surely perish if it were left alone.
Some Christians throughout history have even tried to cut themselves off from themselves. In extreme cases in church history some men have resorted to castrating themselves as a way to be free from sexual lust. But the problem is not in any part of the body, per se; the problem, essentially, is in the heart that has been corrupted from conception.
How hard can it be for adults to become children of God? It is so hard that we can’t do it on our own. It is so hard that we have to turn and become children of faith. Our minds must be transformed by the word of Jesus, as it says in Romans 12:2. We can become children of God, thankfully, because Jesus Himself became a child who was destined to die for the world. He came to search out and give His life for every one of these little ones.
Emergency and rescue crews have a very effective strategy for serious car accidents in which the victim is trapped inside a wrecked car. They use the Jaws of Life, a monstrous chainsaw-scissors device that literally cuts the dying person out of the death trap. Though it looks like a scary strategy, it is an effective way of saving lives. Our Lord has an eternal life-saving strategy, which may also appear rather frightening to us. It is the cross of Jesus. That cross was a gruesome and horrible sight but it was also God’s beautiful display of love. As a human being, that is where God gave Himself to save us; it is where He atoned for our sins by giving Himself in our place. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the greatest display of God’s rich and profound love.
The Holy Spirit is at work to this day. He reveals how, through faith we see ourselves as dependent and helpless babies but cradled in the arms of our loving God. He supplies what we need and He watches over us. And when our hearts and minds are reshaped by Word and Sacrament, we gain an awareness of this truth.
When I was a young boy I used to fall asleep downstairs in the family room. At night my parents would carry me up to my room. Otherwise, I would never have made it there. Since we are by nature asleep and weak with sin, the only way into heaven is by being turned from our adult-like ways of self-reliance and letting Jesus carry us children there through faith.
Becoming children of God is indeed hard for us adults since we are so very hard-hearted at any age throughout life. In fact, it’s impossible for us. But the good news is that it has happened already. Jesus, the only Son of the Father, makes us children of that same Father by Holy Baptism. This is why infant baptism is such a clear and beautiful display of the Gospel, because it visually demonstrates our complete dependence on God and His grace. There we see so clearly that every Christian, every believer is a tiny child in the arms of Jesus. Go in His peace friends. Your Father is with you always. Amen. The peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.