September 30, 2012
Pastor Joe Wittwer
“The least of these…”
You gotta love that! Today we are celebrating kids. Some of them are helping us worship, and all of them are going to come worship with us in a few moments—they will leave for Adventureland just before I give the talk and it gets really boring.
We love kids! Every Sunday, we love and serve over 800 kids in Adventureland. And we believe that what happens there is just as important—maybe more important—than what happens in here. We are raising the next generation of leaders for our church and community. (Cami?)
Today, we’re going to take a look at some of the radical things Jesus said about kids, the impact His words have had on history and culture, and what we ought to do about it.
Tell one of your favorite kid stories.
Last week, we were having pizza with my nephew and niece and some of my kids and grandkids. Jenna (5) had taken a huge apple and taken two tiny bites. Her dad asked her to share her apple, and she said, “No.” He asked again and got another, “No.” I leaned in and asked, “Jenna, would you share your apple with grandpa.” She thought just a moment, and said, “Ok, Grandpa, I’ll share my apple with you.” Then she stood up and hugged me and said, “Grandpa, all the true love had left my heart, but you filled my heart with true love again. I love you, Grandpa.” True love!
Introduction with Zealand
Zealand, how old are you? What grade are you in school? Your mom took some cool pictures for your first day of school. What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you like about school? You had your first cross-country meet—tell me about it. What do you like about your class here?
One day, Jesus’ friends got into an argument. Do you and your brother ever argue? About what?
They argued about who was the greatest, who was the most important. Who do you think is the greatest?
Jesus answered their question about who was the greatest by picking out one person, and saying, “Here is the greatest.” Do you know who it was? A child. A little boy like you. What do you think about that? Do you think Jesus likes kids? I know He likes you! Do you know the song, “Jesus loves the little children?” Would you sing it with me? Thank you Zealand!
So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to look at a few things Jesus said about kids that are really radical, and then we’ll see how those things have impacted history and culture. We’ll finish with a couple practical things—the “so-whats”—what Jesus calls us to do.
The Big Idea: Jesus changed the way we view and value children…and the weak, the powerless, the poor and the marginalized.
1. Jesus’ teaching on kids: the least is the greatest.
You see two passages from Matthew, Mark and Luke listed on your outline. Each gospel writer tells the same two stories from their own perspective. We won’t read all these—I hope you will sometime this week—but we’ll look at both stories.
The first story: the argument about who is the greatest. This was a recurring argument for the disciples. It comes up over and over in different settings, right up to the last night of Jesus’ life, when they are in the upper room! Matthew 18, Mark 9, and Luke 9 all tell the story of this argument and Jesus’ remarkable answer.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
In all three accounts of this story, Jesus answers their argument about greatness by standing a little child among them. “Here’s greatness.” It’s greatness radically redefined.
ILL: It reminds me of the story of a tourist visiting a village in Europe and hoping to find something of historical significance. He asked an old man, “Were any great people born in this village?” The old man shook his head and said, “Nope, only babies.”
What if babies were the greatest? We define greatness by importance, achievement, success, net worth, and fame. Jesus ditched all these measures of greatness and defined it by humility and service. “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last and servant of all.” In Luke, Jesus adds,
Luke 9:48 “For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.”
The word “least” is the Greek word micros, and the word “greatest” is the Greek word megas. To be mega, you must be micro. To be large, you must be small. To be great, you must be least.
And to illustrate this, Jesus stood a child among them. It’s greatness radically redefined. What was Jesus getting at? Why a child?
2 He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
There is something about children that Jesus wants us to imitate, to learn from, to become like. We all want our kids to grow up and become like us. Here, Jesus says that we need to grow up and become like our kids! In what ways should we become like children? Certainly not in every way. I don’t think God wants you to throw a fit, slug your brother, or pee your pants. Please! Kids aren’t perfect; we’re not talking about angels! But there are qualities that Jesus had in mind that we should aspire to. Become like children…in what ways? (Solicit feedback.)
They are dependent.
They are trusting.
They are pure and innocent.
They forgive easily.
They are humble. It may be this more than anything else that Jesus had in mind. He specifically mentions this in the next verse:
Matthew 18:4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
How are children humble? They know they are small. They have no pretensions. They are little sponges, eager to learn. They are comfortable in their own skin.
So there are things we can learn from children; we need to become like them. And then Jesus adds a wrinkle.
Matthew 18:5 “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.
As we’ll see in the next story, the disciples weren’t real welcoming toward children. They believed that children were not important. They were the least—the least productive, the least important, the least to offer—so they shooed them away. “We’re busy productive adults. You are just kids. We’re important; you’re not. And you’re in the way, so scram.” Jesus turns this whole deal upside down. “When you welcome a child, you welcome me. When you don’t have time for them, you don’t have time for me.” Let that sink in! Your receptivity to kids is your receptivity to Jesus! Jesus comes to us in the disguise of a child. He comes to us as the least of these. In Matthew 25, Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these brothers of mine, you do for me.” It doesn’t matter if “the least of these” is a child, or someone who is poor, or powerless, or marginalized. The way we treat the least of these is the way we treat Jesus. Real greatness is measured by our response to the least of these.
To be mega, you must be micro. To be great, you must become least, the servant of all. You must become like a child.
The second story: let the children come to Me!
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
This story took place after Jesus had told them they must become like children and that if they welcome a child, they welcome Jesus. These dudes are dense! Rather than welcoming the children, they shoo them away. And they rebuke their parents! “Don’t bring your kids to Jesus. He is very important; He doesn’t have time for your kids! Now scram!” Notice Jesus’ response: he was indignant. If you keep people from Jesus—especially kids—Jesus is ticked off!
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” There it is again: the Kingdom of God is populated by children and the child-like. Long before Walt Disney built the Magic Kingdom for kids, Jesus declared that His Kingdom was for children…and the child-like. “Anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
What does it mean to receive the Kingdom of God? In the simplest terms, it means that you receive Jesus as your King, the Lord and Leader of your life. You become a follower of Jesus. When you follow Jesus the King, you begin to live in the Kingdom of God, under the gracious reign of the King.
Children believe so easily, and trust so fully. I don’t think Jesus is asking us to suspend our judgment, or to abandon our adult intellectual capacities and become childish in our thinking. But Jesus is pointing out the difference between how an adult and a child responds to the call of Jesus. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and the adult lists the reasons he can’t. The child simply follows. Jesus is not asking you to stop thinking. He is asking you to humbly, simply surrender in childlike trust.
We are all about helping children come to Jesus. And we’re about helping adults become more childlike so they can come to Jesus.
Two stories. These two stories radically elevated children in the eyes of Jesus’ followers…and it changed history.
2. Jesus’ impact on history: we view and value children differently.
John Ortberg, in his wonderful book, Who is this man?, argues that Jesus transformed the way we view and value children. What I’m about to share with you comes from his book—I hope you read it.
In the ancient world, there was a dignity gap. At the top of the hierarchy were the gods, and just below them, the kings who claimed to be divine or rule by divine favor. Below kings were his court, the priests; then the artisans and merchants; and finally, the peasants and slaves—the vast majority that were the dregs of humanity. The gods and the king were treated with dignity; those at the bottom had none.
Jesus, like his Jewish ancestors, taught that there is one God, that He is good, and that every person is made in His image. This was a radical idea that:
… has woven its way into our world in a manner we often do not see. The United States’ Declaration of Independence begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
There is a raft of ideas here: that people are created, not accidents; that their Creator gives them certain endowments and confers worth on them. This worth means that they come with certain rights that ought to be respected for a society to be considered good. This is true for all human beings—all are created equal.
The idea of the equality of all human beings was not “self-evident” to the ancient world. Aristotle did not think all men were created equal.
…Who came in between Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson to change this?#
Jesus. Jesus taught that every human being is a child of God, created in the image of God, and is worthy of respect.
The ancient world didn’t teach this. Ordinary children didn’t share the image of God, and this is reflected in the way they were treated. Many babies didn’t grow up at all; they were left to die if their parents didn’t want them. This practice was called exposure. Many were left to die simply because they were the wrong gender—a girl rather than a boy. Disabled or disfigured children were abandoned, as were those born out of wedlock. Families who couldn’t afford another mouth to feed, or the rich who didn’t want to divide their estate also left their babies to die. Plutarch said that until a child was at least a week old, it was “more like a plant than a human being.” Children were disposable.
Then Jesus came. He came as a child. And He said things about children no one had said before. And a quiet revolution was started.
As the movement that Jesus started spread, it created an alternative community for children. Early instructions among his followers, such as the Didache in the second century, prohibit the widespread practices of abortion, exposure, and infanticide.#
The church began caring for abandoned babies. Over time, instead of leaving babies at the dump, people left them at churches or monasteries. It was the beginning of what we know as orphanages. Things started changing because:
…as the Shepherd of Hermas put it, “All babies are glorious before God.” Saint Ambrose of Milan said that the church must care not only for babies, but also for the poor, because poverty often destroys their ability to care for children.#
G. K. Chesterton wrote (in The Everlasting Man) that the elevation of the dignity of childhood would have made no sense to the ancients. It came into the world through Jesus. #
We love our kids. Most of us would never think of leaving a baby in a dumpster—and if someone does, we’re horrified. But it wasn’t always that way—and it changed because of Jesus. Ortberg concluded:
…those who live in a culture truly touched and changed by Christianity view individuals differently because of Jesus, whatever they might think of him. The ordinary and the lowly have great dignity. All children should live. All human beings are created equal.#
Jesus loves the little children…so do we.
3. Jesus’ call to us:
A. Value children like Jesus does.
We love kids! It’s why we invest so much in AdventureLand, our ministry to children from new-born through fifth grade. We invested big bucks to build a first-class facility, and more importantly, we invest every month, paying 8 Adventureland staff members to lead that ministry. They in turn invest their time and energy in hundreds of you who volunteer, and together you all invest in our kids.
Note this: Adventureland is not babysitting; it is ministry to kids. We don’t do Adventureland so you can attend church without your kids. We do Adventureland so your kids can attend church and get something out of it. We do it to help our children learn to love and follow Jesus.
So who should value kids? Anyone who follows Jesus. Not just parents and grandparents—all of us value kids because Jesus values kids—and we follow Jesus.
How do we express that value? Here comes my unabashed pitch for Adventureland: Volunteer to serve in Adventureland! I’ve always thought that every parent should volunteer in Adventureland just to be part of their child’s spiritual training. But don’t think that it’s just for parents. If you’ve never tried helping out, give it a try! You might be surprised by how much you love it, and how much fun it is hanging out with kids. And you will be surprised by how much you’ll learn from the kids. You can get more info about serving our kids in Adventureland at the Info Center or any of the Adventureland check-in stations. Volunteer to serve kids!
How else do we express that value? By loving kids. There is no substitute for time and attention and love.
ILL: I wrote this message on Friday at home. Around mid-afternoon, my granddaughters, Jenna and Savanna, came into my room and asked me if I could have popsicles with them, and then sit in the hot tub with them. I was trying hard to get this message done—then I heard Jesus say, “What are you talking about?” So here we are! And the message got done…
There is no substitute for time, attention and love. Welcome and receive children. That means setting down your work, stopping what you’re doing, and investing time in them. Remember, Jesus comes to us disguised as a child. Friday, I hot-tubbed with Jesus!
B. Bring your kids to Jesus.
Parents, you are the primary spiritual leaders for your children. They will take their cue from you. Bring your kids to Jesus. How do you that?
Be the example: follow Jesus yourself. You can’t give what you don’t have. So make sure your faith is authentic and growing, and live it out with your children. Be an example of what you want your kids to be.
Love your spouse. Failure to do this will send your kids running for the exits. But if you love your spouse, they’ll take your faith seriously and follow.
Train them. Teach them how to read the Bible, pray, listen to God, obey, be a servant, give generously, and love people. Share what you are learning at church or Bible study or what you get in your PBJ time each day. Talk about it. Ask them what they learned in Adventureland. Each week, their Adventureland teacher will give them homework to do with you: Do the homework! Read a Bible story each night when you tuck them in. Pray with them each night—or when they’re facing something difficult. If you want help, ask your Adventureland teacher; it’s why we’re here.
Bring your kids to Jesus—and remember what Jesus said about not hindering them. Don’t get in the way or make it hard for them to come to Jesus. Jesus said in Matthew 18:6 that if we cause them to sin, it would be better for us to have a millstone hung around our neck and be dropped in the sea!
ILL: Recently I heard from a friend whose marriage exploded—it’s a long and sad story. But she wrote, “The unfortunate thing in all this is that my children have rejected faith in God because they have all been so hurt by all of this.”
Better to have a millstone…I take that seriously! One reason—there are many—but one reason I am absolutely faithful to my wife is that I know the hurt it would cause my children, and many other people. I know some could reject Jesus—and that terrifies me! I take this very seriously, and I hope you do too.
Jesus loves your children—bring them to Jesus.
C. Learn from children.
God uses children to teach me—Jesus often comes to me disguised as a child.
I learned about God’s love for me when I had kids of my own. I had this crazy mad love for my kids—and they weren’t even aware of how much I loved them. And that’s when I realized how much God loves me.
I learned to trust from watching my kids trust me—without hesitation or reservation. They taught me to trust God.
My kids taught me to forgive. Every time I failed and asked them to forgive me, they did instantly and easily. They never bore a grudge, never reminded me of a previous failure—they just forgave me and went on like it never happened.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Earlier, I asked how we should become more like children. I don’t think you can answer that without being around kids. So I challenge you: make room in your busy life to hang out with kids, love kids, listen to kids, learn from kids, and teach kids.
It’s how we enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus comes to us disguised as a child.