January 25, 2015
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Becoming Less
#6—The Key to the Kingdom
Luke 18:9-30

Introduction:

This is part 6 of our series, Becoming Less, which is all about becoming more like Jesus by becoming less.  Jesus emptied Himself, humbled Himself, and became a servant—all for us.  We are called to do the same.  Today we’re going to look at three consecutive stories in the gospel of Luke.  Each of these stories shows that becoming less is essential to entering the kingdom of God. 

ILL: In Touch and Live, George Vandeman wrote:

A young climber was making his first climb in the Alps, accompanied by two guides.  It was a steep hazardous ascent, but he felt secure with one guide ahead and one following. They climbed for hours.  Finally, breathless, they reached for the rocks sticking out of the snow above them: the summit.

The forward guide wished to let the climber have the first breathtaking view and moved aside to let him go first.  Forgetting the gales that blow across those summits, the young man leaped to his feet.  But the guide dragged him down.  “On your knees, sir!” the guide shouted.  “You are only safe here on your knees.”

In the same way, in these three stories, Jesus seems to say, “On your knees!  Do you want to enter the Kingdom of God?  You must do it on your knees.  There is no room for human pride here.”  You must become less and empty yourself of your pride.

The Big Idea: Becoming less—selfless humility—was central to Jesus’ life and teaching, and is a requirement to enter God’s Kingdom. 

Let’s look at these stories one at a time.

 

1. Become less by humbling yourself before God.

Here’s the first story:

Luke 18:9–14 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’   This guy is a piece of work! 

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

First, notice to whom Jesus told this story: “those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.”  Religious, self-righteous snobs!  We call them “holier-than-thou”.  Now none of us would ever do that, would we?  I would never think that I’m better than others; I’m better than that.  Oh wait…I just did it!  How many of you have ever felt like you’re a pretty good person?  Have you ever said, “I’m a pretty good person”?  You are confident of your own righteousness.  Or how many of you have ever looked down on another person, felt you were better than him or her?  We’ve all done it.  We’ve all been this guy.

So maybe Jesus is telling this story for us.  Maybe we should pay attention.  It’s so easy to become self-righteous, and think we’re better than others, and we’re often not even aware we’re doing it.  Someone said, “Pride is the only disease known to mankind that makes everyone sick except the person who has it.”  Pride is like BO—you don’t know you stink, but everyone else does!

Two men go to the temple to pray, and they could not have been more different.  The first man was a Pharisee, a respected member of the most pious religious sect in Israel.  The word “Pharisee” meant “separate”.  They separated themselves from the common people so that they could devote themselves to keeping God’s law.  Think of monks or nuns who separate themselves to be fully devoted to God.  We respect people like that and the Pharisees were widely respected for their devotion to God. 

The second man was a tax collector, a member of a despised occupation because they worked for the Roman oppressors collecting taxes from their own countrymen.  They were considered traitors.  And many of them got rich doing it, which earned them not only the contempt, but the hatred of their fellow Jews.

A Pharisee and a tax collector come to pray: one a respected religious leader, the other a despised traitor.  Who’s the hero?  And who’s the heel?  Once again, Jesus surprises us.  

“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed.”  He separated himself from others who were praying, but stood so he’d be sure to be noticed.  Then he prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”  That’s quite a prayer!  “God, let me tell you how good I am.  I am not like other people—I’m better—better than all of them!  And I’m especially better than this guy!  God, I thank you that I’m so marvelous!”  For good measure, he even lists a couple of his over-achievements.  A Jew was required to fast only once a year, on the Day of Atonement; this guy fasts twice a week!  A Jew was required to tithe only on certain things; this guy tithes on everything!  His goodness meter is pegged out!  He is dripping with awesome sauce!

This was his prayer, but of course, he wasn’t really praying, just informing God how good he was. He doesn’t need God to do anything for him; he has done it all himself.  He makes no request of God, and he offers no honor to God. In fact, we read his prayer and wonder if God should apply to be his assistant!  I can imagine God saying, “Dude, you’re awesome!”

Contrast that with the tax collector.  He keeps his distance, won’t even look up to God, but beats his chest and says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  (Repeat action and words a couple times.)  No pride here; no listing of accomplishments; no comparison with others.  Just a simple, humble cry for mercy. 

This prayer, or some form of it, has been called, “the Jesus prayer.”  Millions of people the world over regularly pray this simple prayer.  We’re going to do that right now.  Simply think of a need you have: it could be forgiveness, or God’s help.  And whisper this prayer: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Prayer.  I hope you’ll make this prayer a part of your daily life.  I pray it often, and I hope you will too.

So the tax collector prays, “God have mercy on me a sinner.”  And here comes the punch line!  Jesus said,

Luke 18:14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The sinner went home justified before God—right with God; the saint did not.  Do you want to be right with God?  Then throw yourself humbly on His mercy.  You will never be right with God by your own efforts.  Your self-righteousness will never be good enough. 

ILL: Let’s do a quick self-assessment.  Here’s the goodness scale.  0-100: zero being totally evil (Satan), 100 being totally good (God).  So where would we put Hitler?  5?  (I’m being generous.)  Mother Teresa?  80? 90?  (She would never put herself that high.)  Where are you?  Most of us would put ourselves somewhere above Hitler (I hope) and below Mother Teresa (I hope again).  But none of us are anywhere near 100.

Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven in perfect.”  100—that’s the standard.  I can’t do it and neither can you, no matter how hard you try.  And, the closer you get on your own efforts, the more danger that you’ll be like this Pharisee, proud of your own accomplishments. 

So what do we do?  We cast ourselves on God’s mercy.  We believe that Jesus died and rose to make up the difference between you and 100.  That’s the gospel. 

So rather than trumpeting our achievements, we empty ourselves.  We get rid of our pride and comparison, and simply throw ourselves on the mercy of God.  “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”  And He will. 

Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted.  This is first: we become less by humbling ourselves before God. 

 

2. Become less by investing in children and becoming childlike.

Luke 18:15-17 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

It was customary to bring your baby to a rabbi for a blessing, so these parents weren’t doing anything wrong or even unusual.  So why did the disciples rebuke them?

If we give them some credit, it’s possible that they were simply protecting Jesus.  When our kids were small, occasionally I’d come home exhausted, spent.  Laina would let me go to our room for some cave time, and would tell the kids, “Dad is really tired; let’s give him some time to rest and then he’ll come out and play.”  Maybe that is what’s going on.

But more likely, the disciples were shooing them away because they saw the kids as insignificant, unimportant, a nuisance.  We live in a culture that values, almost idolizes children.  It wasn’t that way then.  Children didn’t count for much in that adult society; they were nuisances, best kept out of sight and mind.  In the disciples’ minds, Jesus was a VIP—He didn’t have time to be bothered with children.  It was beneath Him.  So the disciples shooed them away.  This is more likely what’s going on here, because Mark tells us that Jesus was indignant.  He got a little hot—a little ticked with his guys! 

Luke 18:16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

First, Jesus becomes less by making time for kids.  At this point in the story, He is on His way to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world.  Do you think He has a lot on His mind?  The fact that He would make time for children shows that He would make time for anyone.  No person or task is beneath Him.  Not long after welcoming these kids, a little later in Luke 18, Jesus stops just outside Jericho to heal a blind beggar who was crying, “Jesus, have mercy on me.”  Blind Bartimaeus made a ruckus trying to get Jesus’ attention, and in a scene very much like this one, everyone was telling him to be quiet, shooing him away.  He was a nobody; Jesus was a VIP who wouldn’t have time for a guy like him.  But he just shouted louder, “Jesus, have mercy on me.”  Jesus stopped—I love those two words.  On His way to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world, Jesus stopped for a blind beggar.  Jesus, who became less to hold babies, became less to heal Bartimaeus. Jesus had time for people, young or old, high or low, it made no difference. No person or task is beneath Him.

We become less the same way: by making time for the least of these.  It may be that we make time for children.  Kudos to all of you who volunteer and serve in Adventureland, our children’s ministry.  I think your humble service for our kids makes Jesus smile.  Well done!  And kudos to all of you parents who make time for your kids and their friends.  I know there are moments when you are tired, frustrated, or busy and everything inside you wants to say, “Not now.”  But you swallow your selfishness and empty yourself and love your kids and give them the time and attention they need. 

ILL: Many of you have heard me say that one of the lessons from my son’s death in 2006 was that I wanted my default answer to my kids and grandkids to be yes.  Can you play Grandpa?  Yes.  Can you read this book to me?  Yes.  Can we wrestle?  Yes.  Can we hang out?  Yes.  Obviously, it can’t always be yes.  But I find that it’s so easy to be selfish and default to no.  I don’t want to do that.  So my default answer is yes, even when I’m tired, or busy. 

Many of you do the same thing—you empty yourself for your kids.  Good on you!  It’s the Jesus thing to do.

We become less by making time for the least of these; it could be children, or it could be someone like Bartimaeus, someone who is being ignored by everyone else. 

ILL: Several years ago, Keith wanted to lead worship at Life Center.  He sat right up front every Sunday and sang his heart out.  And every week he told our team that he wanted to lead worship.  That was his dream.  Take a look at this.  Keith video.

May his tribe increase!  I love Keith’s heart.  I also was so proud of our team.  They brought Keith in one day, and fired up the whole system—lights, cameras, sound, screens—the whole enchilada.  They gave him a mike, put him on stage and the whole band played behind him as he led worship.  They didn’t have to do that.  But they made time for Keith, and made his dream come true.  I think it was a Jesus thing to do.  They became less…and in the process became more like Jesus.

We become less when we make time for the least of these.

Then Jesus adds this kicker: We must become less by becoming more childlike. 

Luke 18:16-17 the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 

We have to receive the kingdom of God like a child.  In other words, we have to become less to enter God’s kingdom.  We don’t walk in tall and proud; we stoop, we empty ourselves and become like children.

What does Jesus mean by this?  How does a child receive?  With simple trust: kids trust you. 

ILL: When I tell my granddaughter she is beautiful or smart or brave, she smiles and says, “I know.”  That’s not pride; it’s trust.   Sometimes you’ll see them up here after a service.  They love to jump off the stage, knowing that I’ll catch them.  Ruby, who’s two, just steps off fearlessly—I have to keep an eye on her—because she trusts me to catch her. 

How does a child receive?  With simple trust.  With openness and eagerness.

ILL: I give the grandkids M&M kisses.  I put an M&M in my lips and give them a kiss.  How many of you are grossed out?  So are their parents!  But the grandkids love it.  “Grandpa, can I have an M&M kiss?”  I’ve got to try this with Laina!

There is an openness in kids, an eagerness to believe, to try things.  They aren’t jaded and suspicious, but open and eager.

How does a child receive?  With simple trust, openness and eagerness, and with wonder.

ILL: Some of my adult children and their spouses are still living in sin—they have not bought their kids a puppy!  You can’t expect kids to grow up without a puppy.  So when the grandkids come to our house, and are getting acquainted with Lucy, our dog, there is a sense of wonder, of fascination.  “Lucy.  Lucy,” Ruby says as she toddles after the dog.  Pray for my kids!

I love to watch the grandkids’ faces when a deer walks by on the lawn, or when we visit the alpacas down the street, or when they watch Frozen.  Wonder!  “Let it go!  Let it go”

The lesson for us is that children are good models for a disciple. Children trust their parents and rely on them. So we should rely on our Heavenly Father. To be a part of His kingdom, we must receive it the way a child does: in simple trust.  You won’t enter the kingdom if you don’t trust the Father.

We become less by making time for the least of these.

And we become less by becoming more childlike. 

 

3. Become less by giving more to the poor.

Luke 18:18-30 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”

21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It’s an important question.  And Jesus answers it by telling this young man that he has to become less. 

First, Jesus tells him to keep the commandments and the young man insists that he has.  But something is missing.  He can feel it.  He has done all the right things and still isn’t sure that he has eternal life.  This unspoken question hangs in the air: “What am I missing?” 

Jesus answers the unspoken question: “You still lack one thing.  Here’s what you need to do.  Sell everything, give the money to the poor, and come follow me, and you’ll have treasure in heaven.” 

He couldn’t do it.  Even though his eternal life was at stake, he couldn’t do it.  He became very sad—he wanted eternal life, but he just couldn’t let go of all that money and stuff.  Could you do it?  If the choice was eternal life or your money and stuff, could you let go of everything? 

It turns out that he hadn’t kept the commandments after all.  He had missed the first and most important: You shall have no other gods before me.  Or love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.  He had another god, and he loved that god—his money and stuff—more than he loved the real God. 

Jesus knew what was at stake here.  He knew this young man was trapped in idolatry, which is why Jesus insisted that he get rid of his idols.  The problem wasn’t that he had money; it was that money had him.  Jesus didn’t ask this of everyone.  In fact, in the next chapter, Luke 19, Jesus meets another rich man, Zacchaeus.  There is no record that Jesus told him to give it all away.  But Zacchaeus offers to give away half his wealth to the poor, and to repay fourfold anyone he has cheated.  Zac offers to give away most of his net worth!  Why?  He was converted.  He became a follower of Jesus, and suddenly Jesus was way more important than his money.  Eternal life was more important than his money.  He suddenly became very generous. 

I believe this is what supernaturally happens to followers of Jesus.  Our values change.  We begin to care more about God and people, and less about money and things.  We become more generous.  We are more willing to share with those in need.  And if that isn’t happening—well, maybe you’re not converted yet.

If you think that’s too strong a statement, consider the rest of the story.  Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  How hard is it for a camel to go through the eye of a needle?  It’s impossible.  It’s impossible for someone who loves money more than God to enter God’s kingdom. 

This shocked the disciples.  They believed that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing or favor.  “If the rich—those blessed and favored by God—can’t be saved, then who can?” they asked. 

Luke 18:27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

Salvation is impossible for humans to achieve: you aren’t going to earn or buy your way in.  But it is possible with God.  Zacchaeus’ story shows that!  All of us, whether rich or poor, young or old, are saved by a merciful God, and not by ourselves.  Salvation is the gift of a gracious God who receives humble sinners: people who say, “God have mercy on me a sinner,” rather than, “I have kept all the commandments.” 

Luke 18:28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

You gotta love Peter.  He watches this young man walk away sad, unable to part with his idol, and he says, “Lord, we’ve done it!  We’ve left all to follow you.” 

“Yes you have Peter.  And you—and anyone like you who leaves anything for my sake—will receive many times more now and eternal life to come.”  In other words, it pays to follow Jesus.  You never really sacrifice, because whatever you give up to follow Jesus comes back to you many times over.  You can’t outgive God.  You will never be more generous than God is!  You can’t lose!  Jesus said over and over, “He who loses his life for me will find it!

To enter God’s kingdom you have to become less.  And in this story, it means that we become less by becoming more generous with those in need.  We lose our grip on our money and stuff and willingly share it with others.  We do it knowing that we’ll never lose—we’ll never outgive God.

 

 

What will I do?

 

Who will I tell?