Sermon: “The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven”
LSB Series A; Proper 17
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost; September 6, 2020
Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:1-4
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
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” (Matthew 18:1-4).
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
Just imagine what it must have been like for this little boy. First and foremost, he was privileged just to be there in the crowd in the presence of Jesus. But then, all of a sudden, by no doing of his own, he was whisked toward Jesus to become his object lesson for the disciples. And not only was he the object lesson, but he was elevated in status as well. For Jesus says that he, a young child, was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Just imagine.
And just imagine the shock on the disciples faces when Jesus placed this child before them as the answer to their argument. We know that the disciples had a tendency to argue over status. But a child? Jesus, are you kidding? Children are naïve. Children are gullible. Children are dependent and needy.
The school is now filled with children, and depending upon the age bracket, the level of neediness and dependency ranges. The older the kids get, the more independent they become. But the younger ones, they need help with just about everything, opening their snack, turning on the faucet to wash their hands, putting up their chair, zipping their coats (when the time comes), reaching a higher shelf, and on and on it goes.
To be told that a child was the greatest just about flipped the world upside down for the disciples. In the first century, a child was “regarded as inferior because they were not guided by rationale thinking. As those who were physically weak, subject to the will of adults, and susceptible to sickness, children were not admirable. If children were to be praised, it might only be because of the potential they possessed for becoming something in the future” (Gibbs, Matthew Commentary, p. 891).
The point is, children were not examples of greatness. But as a father of four children and one who walks the hallways and into the classrooms of many-a-child, one just can’t help but marvel at children, and especially their faith.
Children have this remarkable level of acceptance when it comes to the Word of God. What they are taught, they do not tend to argue. They simply believe it because a trusted individual shared the good news with them. This speaks to the importance baptism which creates faith in children, catechesis which nurtures that faith, as well as our day school, Sunday School, and all forms of Christian education.
Children are also like sponges. They are not preoccupied with the cares and concerns of this world to the extent that adults are. They don’t watch what is on the news. When they hear a Bible story, they eat it up, and can often recite back what they learned to others. Also, because they are dependent upon others to learn about Jesus, they don’t try and add anything to the mix. They aren’t consumed with power and status, trying to prove themselves, or anything like that. They are humble, and just want to be fed and nourished.
Children have a God-given desire to learn, which is why they are probably always asking “Why?” They seem to recognize that everything that they know comes from someone who knows more than they do. They are not know-it-alls who think they have it all figured out. They know they don’t. So they delight in being fed knowledge. And what greater knowledge for them to be fed than the Word of God.
Conversely, adults have a way of being the exact opposite. No longer are we subject to the naiveté of a child. We do think we have things figured out. And often it is our human reason that gets us into trouble. We forsake trust for self-reliance. We trade dependence for independence. We forego humility for pride. And the more puffed up we become, the more we think of ourselves as better than others.
What is it about our need to one-up others? Why do we feel the need to compare ourselves with others and figure out a way to come out on top? Is what we see in our political atmosphere for the last several years a model of good behavior?
It just seems like everyone is determined to lift themselves up, while at the same time putting the other down. Isn’t that pretty much what we see in political ads from both parties today? But it isn’t limited to political parties, is it? How often in our conversations do we try and put others down? How often do we make efforts to show that we are the greatest?
Such an atmosphere and attitude only leads to losing what is of utmost importance. Those who are the greatest. What impact will such behaviors have upon the children of our nation? What impact will such behaviors have upon those who are truly needy and dependent? Will all such care and concern for those in need be lost in a mess of pride-filled parading of egos of all sides of the political spectrum?
As Christians, we are called upon to turn and become like children, to lay aside our egos. Lay aside our need to compare ourselves with others, and one up others. We are called upon to do the one thing that is most unnatural: Repent, and admit that we aren’t great. We are in need. We have nothing. We are dependent. We are weak.
Weakness, is by no means an easy admission. We would much rather put on the façade that we are strong, we are great. In a world of riots, violence, hurricanes, and more, how strong and great are we feeling these days? Are any of us feeling up to the task to conquer the world? No doubt we are all feeling a bit helpless. No doubt we are all feeling a bit weak.
And that’s because we are weak. We are not able to conquer the world. We are not able to fix all of the world’s problems. But even more than that, we can’t fix the greatest problem: sin. It is our sin that makes us the most needy, the most dependent. And it is our sin that drives us to a humble position on our knees before the Almighty God.
When we are on our knees, we see things from a different perspective. We see things from the perspective of a child. A child is always looking up to those around them. They are always looking up to those that can fulfill their needs.
If ever there is a time for us to get on our knees and take the perspective of a humble child, it is now. And while we are there, kneeling before God, it is a time to repent, and admit our weakness, admit our sins, and while we at it, to pray.
One thing has become clear during this pandemic is that our lives have been re-ordered in countless ways. And in doing so, there is the great risk that we have lost sight of what it means to be a child of God.
A child of God doesn’t have all of the answers. A child of God doesn’t jockey for position. A child of God doesn’t rely upon themselves for salvation. A child of God is just that…a child. And a child has needs.
What are our needs? We may think what we need is peace in a world of violence. We may think we need our candidate to win the next election. We may think a lot of things, but what we need more than anything is to be daily fed by God’s Word and to regularly receive Christ’s forgiveness.
Far too often as adults, we think we have outgrown our need for God and His gifts. Far too often we have cast what God gives in the Divine Service aside thinking we are just fine without it this week. Far too often we have thought that we are know-it-alls so we don’t need God’s Word like a child in Sunday School. But nothing could be further from the truth. We never graduate from needing God and the gifts of His Word and forgiveness. If anything, we need it more each day. We need Jesus more each day.
Let’s not forget that as Jesus said that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is a child, that Jesus Himself came into this world as a child. He came as an infant, dependent, needy, humbly born into a poor family in a stable and placed into a manger. Where the religious and political leaders were jockeying to be the greatest, He humbled Himself by taking the form of a servant and subjecting Himself to their conviction: death on a cross. Though He truly is the greatest One, He became the least. He laid aside His crown for a crown of thorns. He gave up His throne in heaven for the throne of a tree on which He died. And He did it all to forgive us and save us and make us His own. For we are now children of the Heavenly Father. (Pause)
Baptized into the name of the Triune God, no matter our age, we are children of the Heavenly Father. Which means that we, just like that boy Jesus brought before the crowd, are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Dependent, weak, and needy as we may be, we have been elevated to the status of greatness. And that’s all because of One who is our strength, who meets our needs, and who really is the greatest: Jesus Christ our Savior. In His name. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.