You Must Become Like Children

This is a sermon that was originally preached on October 6, 1991 at First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama. The original title was “On Children, Young and Old.”  Some of the language has been updated.

Mark 10:13-16 (Revised Standard Version)

13 And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.

It’s a touching scene, and one we’re very familiar with. Some parents bring their children to Jesus in hopes that he’ll touch them. Quite an understandable desire on the part of these parents. Jesus is the great teacher come from God who has healed the sick and cast out demons and performed many mighty works. He’s even been so bold as to pronounce forgiveness to the paralytic who was brought to him on the stretcher (see Mark 2:1-12). Many, even if they weren’t aware of his identity as the Son of God, nonetheless perceived he was in some sense from God. It would be natural as a caring parent to want this holy man to bless their children with a touch.

Throughout his gospel Mark emphasizes the power and goodness that are communicated through physical contact with Jesus. In the very first chapter we’re told about a leper who comes to Jesus seeking to be made well. Rather than merely pronouncing him healed and leaving it at that, Jesus reaches out his hand to touch the leper, and he is cleansed. (The Old Testament law forbade the touching of lepers because it would make the person ceremonially unclean.  Out of love Jesus touched him anyway.)

Then in the 5th chapter there’s the story of the woman with the flow of blood.  She perceives Jesus is so full of power that if she can just reach and touch even the hem of his garment she’ll be made well. She does, and it happens just as she thought. We’re told it was the woman’s faith that healed her; nevertheless, the healing was communicated through the power of physical contact with Jesus.

So it’s not surprising these parents wanted this great man to touch their children; for if his touch could heal, perhaps by his touch he could pass on any number of blessings.

However, we’re told the Lord’s disciples intervened and rebuked these parents for bringing their children to Jesus. We’re not told why, but we can guess easily enough. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but Jesus is a very busy man. He’s on a tight schedule. He’s got to be in Jerusalem tomorrow and it’s a long walk, and between now and then there are many people he needs to see. So I’m afraid he just doesn’t have time for your children right now. Perhaps some other time.”

Or maybe the disciples thought Jesus was too important to bother with little kids. After all, he was the great teacher. He had a lot of important people in the religious community lining up to see him. Why should he take up with these little ones? Whatever their thinking, the disciples were evidently “running interference” for Jesus, and it would appear they fully expected Jesus to be pleased with their protection of him.

Imagine the disciples’ surprise when Jesus became indignant! They seem to have been expecting a pat on the back, but instead he gives them a mild rebuke, “Let the children come to me, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.”

This saying is very familiar to us. It warms our hearts. We’re touched by this image of a Jesus who’s willing to receive children, who doesn’t turn them away, is never too busy or high and mighty for them. Yet I think in some ways, this saying of Jesus may be a little too familiar. For it’s actually a very profound and challenging saying; its implications might even be a little radical.

“To such belongs the Kingdom of God.” What does it really mean to say the Kingdom of God belongs to children? Is this saying just meant to warm our hearts and make us feel good about the all-inclusiveness of God’s love?–that nothing or no one is too insignificant to warrant his attention? Certainly that message is there.

However, what we find in this passage is ultimately more than just a comforting story about the wideness of God’s love, acceptance, and mercy. Notice Jesus doesn’t say “to such extends the Kingdom of God” or “such children are included in the Kingdom of God;” instead he says “to such belongs the Kingdom of God.” And as if that weren’t enough, he adds that “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” From these words it would appear children not only have a place in the kingdom — they may in fact be foremost in the Kingdom.  (Kinda radical, wouldn’t you say?)

In a way, this idea goes against the grain for us, just as it did for the disciples. They expected Jesus to think of children as a very low rung on the Kingdom ladder, but in fact he says just the opposite.

I don’t think we’re really all that different from Christ’s disciples. For our society values the great things—and the great people—as well. We value wisdom and knowledge and experience very highly — qualities it’s impossible for a little child to have — and I would imagine we expect God to do the same. While we do value children and the innocence they display, we hardly think of them as the most important people of our society. We’d like to think instead that the most important folk are the most well-educated, the most cultured, the most sophisticated, the most intellectual. What a surprise it is to hear Jesus say the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like children, and that we must receive the kingdom as a child does in order to enter it.

Why children? They’re certainly precious to us, and they often can bring us delight. But not always. As many of you know, my office is located right in the middle of our preschool area. I really enjoy that fact, because I get to be around the children and have my day brightened by their presence. This past week I walked past the three-year-old classroom and caught a glimpse of one blonde little cherub asking her teacher a question, just as wide-eyed and innocent-looking as she could be. The question would have seemed very routine to you and me but by this little girl’s expression you’d have thought she was asking about one of the great mysteries of the universe. “How adorable!” I thought to myself, and I said as much to her father the next time I saw him. With a grin he wryly shot back, “I wish she was that way at home.”

Children are admittedly not all goodness and light, nor are they always angelic. To quote a well-known comedian, “If you don’t believe in the idea of human sin, just talk with a two-year-old for a while.” I don’t mean to be hard on kids; we all sin, and children are certainly no greater sinners than the rest of us; in fact, one could argue that children are less sinful than the rest of us because they haven’t yet been around long enough to be contaminated by the world. It is true, though, that children have their bad moments too, like the rest of us.

For this reason a distinction needs to be drawn between being childlike and childish. Jesus instructs us to be like children, but we must assume he’s emphasizing their best qualities. Besides, being childish comes all to naturally to us I’m afraid; being childlike is altogether different, I believe.

At this point we begin to ask the question, “What does it mean for us to be like children? How do we go about receiving the Kingdom of God like a child?” There are no direct indications in this passage which attributes of children Jesus is referring to. I believe we can make some reasonable educated guesses, though.

To begin with, “childlikeness,” if I may use that word, would appear to be ultimately an attitude or a way of being. We can infer from a word used in the passage that this attitude it characterized by receptivity to the Kingdom of God. “Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Being childlike means in some sense having an openness toward God.

Indeed, openness or receptivity is a quality which is especially characteristic of children. There is so much they don’t yet know, and they are perfectly comfortable admitting that fact. Therefore, children are eager and willing to learn. We adults, on the other hand, have been around long enough that it’s easy for us to think we have a handle on life and reality. This can make us think we don’t need anyone else — including God. Children freely and easily recognize their dependence on others and have no problem admitting it.

There’s another aspect to this openness of children. Have you ever known a small child who was cynical? It’s almost impossible for a child to be hardened in this way because they simply haven’t been around long enough to be so adversely affected by life and the world.

Now obviously there’s a fine line between receptivity and gullibility, and I don’t think that when Jesus calls us to be like children he’s asking us to throw our experience out the window. But I do believe what’s being asked here is that we never lose sight of the joy and wonder of living which is so characteristic of children, as well as the ongoing realization of our dependence on God.

Perhaps an explanation of what it means to be childlike is available to us in another saying of Jesus, in which he instructed his disciples to “be wise as serpents, [but] as innocent as doves,” (Matthew 10:16). While we need not throw our experience out the window in order to be childlike, we must also never allow our experience to close our hearts to God.

Something which should help us obtain a childlike attitude is the realization that in God’s eyes we’re all children. This is why we call him our Father. Even the most sophisticated and wise person among us, even the most seasoned or aged individual, is still a child before God. Even those who are most powerful and prestigious in our view are children in God’s sight. It’s a humbling thought, and it’s supposed to be. It is also the first step into God’s Kingdom.

This morning we’ll be celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In the Sacrament we encounter the living God, our heavenly Father. Therefore today, as we come to the Lord’s table, let us do so as children, in humility and openness, recognizing our dependence upon the one who died so that we might be called the children of God. Amen.

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