Topical Scripture: Matthew 18:1-4, 12-14
Vacation Bible School begins Monday; here’s a sense of what our teachers are up against. A boy named Tim was in the garden filling in a hole when his neighbor peered over the fence and asked politely, “What are you doing there, Tim?” “My goldfish died,” said Tim tearfully, without looking up, “and I’ve just buried him.” The neighbor observed, “That’s an awfully big hole for a goldfish, isn’t it?” Tim patted down the last heap of earth, then replied, “That’s because he’s inside your stupid cat.”
Despite the challenges they present, God believes in children. So much, in fact, that he became one. And that he tells us to do the same. Here’s why your eternity depends on it.
The perennial question
“Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” our text begins. After the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples are now convinced that their Master is indeed the Messiah, the King of heaven come to earth. Now they want to know how they can get in line to share in his power and glory. Think of a presidential candidate who becomes the front-runner and finds himself with all sorts of new friends. “At that time” is literally, “in that hour,” relating to his time in Capernaum, most probably at Peter’s home.
The disciples’ debate has been going on for a while. Mark tells us, “On the way they had argued about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34). Their argument would continue from here to the cross: “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom'” (Matthew 20:20-21). The disciples want to be “great” in the coming Kingdom of God, as do the rest of us.
Their very human question reminds me of something John Claypool said in his Yale lecture series: “People used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was shrewd enough to fashion my answer according to what I thought they wanted to hear. For some it was a policeman, for others a fireman or a preacher. However, in my own heart of hearts, I had my own private fantasy that I never dared to share with anyone. Do you know what it was? I am telling you the gospel truth: I wanted to be president of the world!” (The Preaching Event 64, emphasis his). Most of us want the same.
New Testament scholar William Barclay comments: “In life it is all a question of what a man is aiming at; if he is aiming at the fulfillment of personal ambition, the acquisition of personal power, the enjoyment of personal prestige, the exaltation of self, he is aiming at precisely the opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven; for to be a citizen of the Kingdom means the complete forgetting of self, the obliteration of self, the spending of self in a life which aims at service and not at power. So long as a man considers his own self as the most important thing in the world, his back is turned to the Kingdom; if he wants ever to reach the Kingdom, he must turn round and face in the opposite direction” (Mt 2:175).
The shocking answer
So Jesus “called a little child and had him stand among them.”
They are staying in Capernaum, probably at Peter’s home. Perhaps this is his child. Or, according to early tradition, this child grew up to become Ignatius of Antioch, a great theologian, preacher, and martyr.
Whoever he was, there is no question what he was. In their day a child was a possession, not a person. He had no legal rights, protections, or standing. He lived at the very bottom of the social ladder. To “change and become like little children” was counter-cultural in the extreme. This is like telling a four-star general to become a draft dodger, or a Supreme Court justice to become a prison inmate, a person with no legal standing whatever.
But Jesus was insistent: “I tell you the truth” (v. 3a). In fact, if they don’t “change and become like little children,” then they “will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” By contrast, “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Remember that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, the twelve who would lead the Church to reach the world, the apostles who would be foundational to the Christian movement across all time. But even they must “change” and become “like little children.”
Not because children are faultless and perfect–any parent can tell you stories about the early age at which their children discovered disobedience and selfishness. My parents spent as much time in my elementary school principal’s office as I did in the classroom.
Rather, we are to become “little children” for one reason, in one word: dependence. Children do not try to find employment and support themselves. In danger they instinctively run to their parents. They know that their lives, safety, and future are dependent on their parents.
In the same way, those who try to save themselves are lost. Those who think that Christians are good people who believe in God, that God helps those who help themselves, who believe that they are moral enough for the Lord and his heaven–they are the deceived and the lost. They “will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But those who depend on God, who yield every day to his Spirit and word, who live as children trusting their Father, they are “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 4). Dependence is the key to spiritual and eternal success, for God always gives the best to those who leave the choice with him.
Do you remember the day when you admitted that you were a sinner, that you could not save yourself? The day when you asked Jesus to forgive you, take charge of your life, and make you God’s child? If you don’t remember that day, make today that day.
And if you have, reject the self-reliant culture in which you live. Decide that you cannot make your life what God can make it, that he can do more with your time, money, and abilities than you can. Enter or return to a life of dependence on the God of the universe. And you will learn that your Father saves all who are humble enough to receive what he died to give.
Jill Briscoe was right: “Christianity is the ‘I’ crossed out. Think of that every time you look at a cross.”
At the University of Edinburgh there was a beloved and brilliant Old Testament scholar known affectionately to his students as Rabbi Duncan. The “rabbi” could speak several languages fluently; he could translate the Old Testament Hebrew at sight, and was known across the larger academic world for his brilliance. One night some of his students, knowing their professor’s meticulous personal schedule, decided to hide in his study to hear his nighttime prayers. Right on time, the distinguished scholar entered the room and bowed his head on his desk. The students expected a theological discourse with the Lord, replete with brilliance of insight and learning. They were shocked to hear their esteemed professor pray, slowly and with great reverence, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, pity me a little child. Suffer my simplicity, and grant me grace to come to Thee.” And he did.
The transforming purpose (vs. 12-14)
Now Jesus changes the metaphor from dependent children to dependent sheep. A sheep has wandered from the flock and is now lost.
This was notoriously easy for sheep to do in Judea. The pastures are in the hill country, a narrow ridge-like plateau, only a few miles across, running like a spine down the middle of the country. There are no restraining walls. The sheep are liable to wander off in search of grass, and to fall into gullies and ravines where they will be attacked by wolves or trapped and starve to death. Finding a lost sheep was a common task for shepherds of the day.
These men typically worked in a communal setting, with two or three to watch over the sheep of a village. Thus one can leave the flock to the care of others. But would he?
He could easily give up on the one lost sheep. After all, he’s got 99 more to care about. They are the ones who are here, who want him to be their shepherd.
Or he could wait for it to find its way back to the pen. A few sheep occasionally did.
But not our Shepherd. Our Good Shepherd takes the initiative to find his lost sheep. And he calls us to do the same. Our God saves to send. Nothing makes him happier than when a sheep returns to the fold. Or when his undershepherds go to find another of his lost sheep. In this light, our members will please God greatly this summer.
Vacation Bible School will involve more than 1,400 children and workers.
24 summer camps will involve 1400 campers and 120 workers.
Six mission trips will engage 180 participants.
Children’s first-ever Fish Camp has enlisted 100.
Youth Thee Camp will involve more than 400 youth and adults.
VBS at four locations besides PCBC will serve at least 200 children.
Summer reading club will enlist more than 200 participants.
In total, more than 2,000 different people will be involved in a mission or ministry project this summer.
God saves to send. If he has saved your soul, now he wants to send your life. The question is not whether you are called and commissioned, but whether you will be obedient to the call of God on your life.
Are you saved? If so, you are sent. Are you willing to go, to make this our greatest summer of ministry and missions? If our church were as faithful to God’s call as you are, would that be a good thing?
The God who saves and sends is a God you can trust with your time and your life. Dr. Shadrach Lockridge makes the point better than I can, with this remarkable description of the God we are called to trust and serve today:
“God is greater than all the superlative statements of supremacy ever shared. No far-reaching telescope can bring into focus the shoreline of his unlimited supply. No deep-digging dredge can discover the depth of his determination to deliver you. You can trust him. He doesn’t need me, and he doesn’t need you. He stands alone on the solitary pinnacle of his omnipotence. He is enduringly strong, and entirely sincere. He is eternally steadfast, and impartially merciful. He is unparalleled and unprecedented, unique and inescapable. He is the cornerstone of all civilization. He is God’s Son, our Savior, and you can trust him.
“He can meet all your needs, and he can do it simultaneously. He gives you hope when you’re hopeless, help when you’re helpless, peace when you’re in pain, strength when you struggle, rest when you’re restless and courage when you cry. He sees and sympathizes. He guards and he guides. He heals the sick, cleanses the leper, sets the captive free and forgives sinners. I’m telling you, you can trust him.
“He is the key to knowledge, the wellspring of wisdom, the doorway of deliverance, and the pathway to peace. He’s the roadway to righteousness, the highway to holiness, and the gateway to glory. You can trust him. He is the master of masters, the captain of the conquerors, the head of the heroes, and the leader of the legislators. He is the governor of governors, the prince of peace, the prince of princes. He is the Lord of all lords, the king of all kings. You can trust him.
“I wish I could describe him to you. He is indescribable, irresistible, irreplaceable, indisputable, invincible. His word is all you need. He is love, and it never ends. His grace is sufficient, and his mercy never fails. His yoke is easy; his burden is light.
“I tell you, you can’t outlive him, and you can’t live without him. Pilate couldn’t stop him, Herod couldn’t kill him, death couldn’t handle him, and praise God, the grave couldn’t hold him. He is alive forevermore, and forevermore you can trust him.”
This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.