Friday, November 22, 2013

The Child in the Midst

 A Sermon preached in the Chapel of 
Trinity School for Ministry

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

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:1-6, ESV)

My daughter Helen is named for my grandmother on my father’s side, Helen Stromberg. Mom-Mom, as we called her, went to be with the Lord years ago, but I remember her very fondly. She was a very devout Roman Catholic. In fact, most of her younger sisters took religious orders as nuns. Mom-Mom also had a sweet tooth. As a kid, one of the best things about visiting Mom-Mom was that she kept little dishes of candy all throughout her apartment. I can remember one time in particular wandering into her bedroom looking for some Hershey kisses and discovering the statue of the Infant of Prague, the Child-Jesus, which she kept on her dresser surrounded with flowers. The rosy cheeked doll wore a crown and a glittering gown of white and gold. To my young protestant eyes, this doll was more than just creepy; it seemed dark and pagan, truly frightening! 

Oddly enough it is that very image that comes to me now, all these years later, as I contemplate our Gospel reading for today. It is the image of childhood crowned with honor and wrapped in majesty and splendor.Here, in this passage of Scripture, the Lord reveals to us his kind regard for Children and the special place of honor that they have in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The disciples—perhaps debating among themselves about which one of them was greatest—come to Jesus and ask, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” He responds by taking a child in his arms. The text does not say this, but I like to think that she was a girl. Given the circumstances it seems especially appropriate. Placing the child in their midst, he says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

I do not think—as many of the Church Fathers insist—that in asking his disciples to “become like children” Jesus is asking them to adopt some supposed virtue peculiar to children. In reference to this passage, one Church Father for instance (whose name I cannot pronounce) says that children “are not inquisitive and are free from malice, rivalry, and stubborn passion!” We can excuse the Fathers on this point. They generally lived a celibate and secluded life. Those of us who are parents of young children know better!

I think that Jesus is instead reminding his disciples that, in the Kingdom of Heaven, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. They are still thinking in terms of the world that is perishing. The world honors those who are strong and powerful, men of status and wealth, but the Kingdom belongs to the poor, the despised, the vulnerable, and those who are the least. The Kingdom is good news for these little ones, and Jesus teaches us to take our place with them.

Most of us would agree that children are to be cherished and protected. This was not always so. Much of the honor that children receive in our culture is a result of our Christian heritage. In the ancient world, and Roman culture in particular, the strong and the mighty were admired and the weak and the vulnerable were marginalized. Such a culture had little regard for children. We learn from Seneca that children who were weak or abnormal were often drowned at birth. In fact, in the ancient world, children were routinely left to die of exposure, especially if they were girls. Children were often sold into slavery as well. Even the disciples seemed to regard children as little more than pests. Jesus was unusual in the attention and dignity he gave to children. Through his teaching, he started a revolution of compassion in the way that children are treated around the world.

 It is alarming to note that as the Christian heritage of our culture erodes, so does much of the regard for children that the Gospel brings. Children are the first casualty of our idolatrous pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and status. They are increasingly seen as a nuisance to be avoided, a distraction from a life dedicated to the pursuit of self-interest. Unborn children are no longer even regarded as persons. It is permissible to terminate a fetus in the womb if its birth would be an inconvenience to us. In a world captivated by power and bent on self-aggrandizement, it is so easy for the weak and the vulnerable, especially children, to be forgotten or trampled on.

The Church too often is all too similar to the world in this regard. Who is it that we value? The beautiful, the charismatic, the wealthy, and the powerful. The church often seems every bit as captivated by status and celebrity as the surrounding culture. How often is ministry to children an afterthought? Have we taken time to know and love the children and youth of our congregation? Do we make their care and instruction in the gospel a priority? Jesus does not see Children as “second-rate” Christians. They are first in the Kingdom of God! To receive a child in Jesus’ name is to receive him, for such is the extent of his identification with them. Jesus pronounces emphatic words of warning for all those who would hurt or lead astray these little ones. The regard that God has for these little ones must be our own.

To humble ourselves and become like children, means to abandon any claim to power or status in this world.  Children have no authority, but are completely under the authority of their parents. They are utterly powerless and completely dependent. What do children have that they have not received? They depend on their parents for everything. Everything they have, and everything they know, they receive from their parents.

As parents it is quite daunting to see how much our seventeen month old daughter depends on my wife and I for everything. We feed her, wash her, dress her, and she in turn observes and imitate our every move. To humble ourselves and become as children means to take this posture towards our heavenly father. We must renounce ourselves and instead become what he would have us be. Nothing we have is our own and we should demand nothing but what he would give to us.

To receive a child in the name of Christ is to receive her as a representative of Christ and in some sense as resembling Christ. To return to the image we began with, my grandmother’s infant of Prague statue was not only an image of the dignity of childhood, it was also an image of God himself.
There is that in God which is like a child, the Son of God who humbled himself and became a child, who being equal in power and dignity to the father was content to become lowly and without status. Jesus eternally chooses to be the son of the Father.  He says, "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does” and

“By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”
Jesus is the perfectly obedient son of his father.  He came down from heaven, not to do his own will but the will of he who sent him, to be born in human likeness, to live and die as one of us, and to be raised for our justification. In being born as a child, he sanctified childhood, making it a fit image of his divine humility, and an example to us. Let this mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus who humbled himself and became a child.  

George Macdonald asks, “Brothers and Sisters, have you found our king? There he is, kissing little children and saying they are like God. There he is at the table with the head of a fisherman lying on his bosom, and somewhat heavy at heart that even he, the beloved disciple, cannot yet understand him well.”

Very soon it will be Advent and then Christmas. As we enter into the ache and longing of the season, waiting for God to come among us and set things right, Jesus invites us to look for God not in the places of prosperity, rulers upon their thrones, or the mighty commanders of armies, but in the despised and marginalized places of the world, and in the face of a child.