Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A New Kingdom - How Small Can You Get?

Preached on Sunday, March 15, 2015

Scripture reading: Psalm 8; Matthew 18:1-14

There is so much I don’t know about life. Years ago there was a mother who had recently given birth. She came to church the following Sunday with that baby in her arms. She came up to me and introduced me to her new child. I said, “It’s so amazing. It’s so tiny.”
Columbia River at Desert Aire: March 2017
Did you notice my mistake? Without thinking, I had used the word “it” to describe her baby. It was not an “it”, she was a “she”. It wasn’t going to be the last time I that I have made that mistake; there is so much I don’t know about life.
The little child in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew was an “it”. It’s written in Greek. Greek has masculine nouns, feminine nouns, and neutral nouns. In Greek, “little child” is a neutral noun. It’s an “it”.
Ancient Greek culture didn’t really respect children. They tried to train the childlikeness out of children as soon as possible. And Greek culture and its influences around the ancient world were very keen on supporting the superiority of boys and men over girls and women.
If Jesus had wanted to make a special point about humility and littleness, he might very well have chosen a little girl to stand in the middle of the disciples who were obsessed with greatness. Even if he had, we wouldn’t know it. Since the gospels were all written in Greek there is no way of knowing what gender of “it” the child was.
For the Jews, who were the people of Jesus, the first born son, or the oldest son mattered a lot. Little children, in general didn’t matter so much. They were an expense until they were old enough to work, or until the boys were old enough to fight (Psalm 127:4-5). It was even better when they got married, especially because the girls would leave home when they married. Jesus saw them all in a different way.
Jesus believes in humility. He believes that a little child is the clearest example of humility. He believes that humility and childlikeness are necessities. So Jesus tells us to be childlike and to be faithful to those who are childlike. Be careful about them. Handle them responsibly.
But remember some more of the gospel. Jesus talked about caring for the people he called, “the least of these my brethren.” (Matthew 25:31-46) Here, in the story of Jesus and the child, Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” In the story of the sheep and the goats, Jesus said that when we help the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger or alien, those without adequate clothing, the sick and those in prison: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
My yard, Desert Aire: March 2015
There was a connection for Jesus between “the least of these” and “the little ones”. Jesus said that his little ones can get lost. When I was about six, I got lost in a department store. There are far worse ways for little ones to be lost. But that’s not what Jesus was talking about. The little ones who were these lost sheep were people who had wandered away from Jesus. Their lives were separated from the good shepherd. 
Jesus used the same story about the one sheep lost from the flock on more than one occasion. He used this story to tell why he spent so much time with the traitor tax collectors and other sinners. The lost sheep was a lost grown up. The lost sheep was a sinner. (Luke 15:1-7)
The little ones may be lost grownups. Jesus says, “See to it that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
There may be people whom we look down on, and we give them up as lost. These are the little ones of Jesus, just as much as any child. What would Jesus say, and what would Jesus do, if we looked down on one of his lost little ones and gave up searching for them?
“These little ones” and “the least of these brothers of mine” seem to have something in common. Jesus sees their importance. Jesus identifies himself directly with both of them.
Think about what heaven is. It’s the place where God is at the center. The way we know what heaven will be like is by watching and listening to Jesus and what he cares about.
If we want heaven we will want Jesus. Will Jesus ever believe that we want him if we don’t want all those “little ones” and “the least of these brothers of mine”? He said they were his personal representatives. “What you do to them you do to me.” How can you honestly say you even like someone if you don’t like their friends?
Dinosaurs in Vantage WA: March 2015
We think this story about Jesus and the little child is a nice story. It’s a heart warming story. We think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be a little bit more childlike?” And it’s fine to think like this if it’s OK to not take Jesus completely seriously.
But if you take Jesus seriously you realize that he is not being the gentle Jesus here. Jesus is being the scary Jesus. “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Never! Scary!
Yet Jesus with the child was also the gentle Jesus. The disciples had been boasting and bragging to each other about being better than each other, and Jesus didn’t put them down or scold them. Jesus just answered their question. Jesus was someone you could ask anything, and he would give you a surprising answer: a child’s answer.
Jesus was gentle enough to take a little child by the hand and put that little child in the middle of a huddle of big men and that child would stand there, and not be afraid, because Jesus had put him there. The little child knew that he or she could trust Jesus wherever he put them. The child knew that Jesus would stay there with them and be their real friend.
Jesus said childlikeness meant humility. We see that humility in the child in the center of the disciples. We see that humility in the child’s security. A well-loved and well cared for child is not afraid of most things. Loving parents have to pray for the wisdom to know how much fearlessness they want their child to keep.
When I was four or five, I knew that I was supposed to be afraid of sticking something in an electric wall socket. What I didn’t know was that I needed to be afraid of experimenting to see how close I could get a metal coat hanger to that wall socket without getting killed. So humility is brave.
Humility loves doing things for others. Kids love making gifts for their parents, and grandparents, and other people.
Humility loves grace. Humility likes being helped and cared for. Jesus wants us to give this kind of grace to others. This is what he wanted his disciples to do for each other. It’s Jesus’ rule for his people. He wants us to give grace to others so that they might imagine being God’s children.
Grace is his rule for us. Grace is what he gives to us. Grace is how we belong to him. Grace is how he wants the world to find him through us.
Jesus told us to be childlike, but not to be childish. I think childishness is something that children learn from grown-ups.
Humility is not about thinking how small you are. It’s easy to misunderstand this. Big things (when they get too big) make grownups feel small. When you are feeling especially small grace changes how you feel. The help of a parent, or a spouse, or a friend, or a little child helps you to stop feeling small. That is humility.
Little children don’t feel small when a parent helps them. We don’t feel small anymore, when the Lord helps us.
Humility is like being a geometric point. Remember what you learned in high school. A geometric point is not truly small. It simply has no dimension at all. There’s no use studying the size of a point, and (in all humility) there’s no use in thinking about your size at all.
The little child was humble, and so he saw how big the disciples were, and how big Jesus was. In that house full of grownup men, only Jesus could look at the child and see how huge that little child was. If the disciples could change and be humble, they would also see how that little child was truly a giant: the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
When was the last time you sat on a lawn and saw that it was really a vast jungle of trees (even when it had just been mown)? Remember seeing all the animals running so fast through that jungle.
Suddenly you became a person in that jungle, wandering among the trees and discovering the new wild creatures that roam there. Humility sees the whole world like that. Humility enables you to see what others don’t see, and to do what others can’t imagine doing.
Psalm Eight tells us about a way of seeing that comes from humility. It tells you that you can look at the sky by day or by night. You can see the sun, and the moon, and the stars. You can see that they have glory. They have a message and a meaning that pushes in on you. Then you look at a baby. You hear his or her baby talk, and it is just as full of the glory of God as the sky above you.
The Psalm tells us that God sees babies as one of his greatest defenses against the evils of this world. “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.” (Psalm 8:2) Babies look and sound like giants to God.
The writer of the Psalm realized he was making a mistake when he thought that humans didn’t count much when compared to the size of the universe. I think it must have been the babies who told him so. They told him that humans were crowned with the glory and honor of God.
The Hebrew words in this phrase, “You have made him a little lower than the angels”, or “the heavenly beings”, has an odd tradition. The simplest translation would say, “You have made him a little lower than God.” Perhaps some of the early translators were too humble about human nature to translate this Psalm in such a daring way. And angels seem godlike to us poor humans. The Psalm actually says the daring think; that the Lord has made humans “a little lower than God.”
The Psalm tells us that we are crowned with the glory and honor of God. This means that God has made human being in his image. Even though we have lost a lot of the wisdom, and goodness, and ability that we had before we rebelled against God; that image of God tells us that, if we are to rule the natural world around us, we are to rule it for God, and not for our selves.
This is humility: to rule our lives and our world for God and not for ourselves. God has seen us as though we were much bigger than we are; and God has been glad to share his work with us. God has been glad to make us more than we seem to be. Humility loves to give grace and gifts to others, and this is what God is like. If we become like children we will see how to do this work with God.
This Psalm contains a kind of prophecy about Jesus. (Hebrews 2:5-9) Jesus became small for our sake. He became human. He became one of those babies who were full of the praise of God in order to beat the foe and to silence the enemy and the avenger.
He became one of us, and he became smaller yet; to die unjustly, as a criminal, on a cross. He worked hard to put himself into a great gift to us. He wore a crown of thorns in order to give us a new crown as his rescued and recovering children.
In Jesus, we see God. In Jesus we see that God does not really care about being bigger than us. He cares about giving us big gifts. If we remember this, we will stop being childish and start being childlike, because there are always more gifts to look forward to.

We will become children like Jesus and the very least of his brethren will seem huge to us. The needs of others and the needs of this world will also look huge, but they will not scare us, because Jesus has taught us to be childlike. We will trust Jesus. We will trust that Jesus will always give us grace and, he will always be with us. We don’t have to fear what will happen if we become like a little child.

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