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The Revelation of God in Human Life: Through Children

September 23, 2012

 

Sermon:  The Revelation of God in Human Life:  Through Children
Text:  Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16

 

Last Sunday night, Carrie and I started a program called Summit Seekers for children up to Grade 4.  I took my guitar, we sang some of the old campfire songs, and I told a Bible story.  Carrie led a Bible study for fifth and sixth graders while I was with the younger children.  Then all children went with their leaders while I met with the parents and grandparents, talking with them about the challenges of parenting and grand-parenting.  We want to invite all of you who have children and grandchildren to come and be a part of Summit Seeks on Sunday nights.  It is a good program that will benefit your family.

I will never forget the day I met with a Bible School class.  I sat down in one of those tiny chairs so that I could talk with the children for a few minutes.

A little boy came over and said, “Dr. Kirk, you remind me of my dog.”

Somewhat startled, I asked, “I do?  Do I smell bad?”

“No, your hair looks like my dog.”

I had just washed my hair that morning, but I asked, “Is your dog’s hair greasy and matted?”

“No, just the color of your hair reminds me of my dog.”

I started thinking about his comparison and took it as a compliment.  What would be better affirmation for a pastor than to remind a little boy of his favorite pet?

Jesus addresses the importance of children in our world in two passages from Mark’s Gospel.  I invite you to turn with me to Mark 9:33-37.  Hear now the Word of God.

33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Now turn to Mark 10:13-16:

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

As I was preparing today’s sermon, I saw something that I had never seen before in these passages though I have read them many times.  In Mark 9, Jesus went with his disciples to Capernaum.  The Scripture says, “When he was in the house…”  Whose house?  We read in other accounts that when Jesus went to Capernaum, he went to the home of Simon Peter.  It was there that he cured Simon Peter’s mother-in-law on the Sabbath.  She got up and served everyone a meal.

On their way to Capernaum, the disciples had argued about who among them is the greatest.  Jesus actually addresses their argument several times during his ministry.

When they arrive at the house, Jesus discusses this disagreement by using a child.  Whose child?  Did Jesus use Simon Peter’s child?  We know that Simon Peter was married.  Jewish men were expected to marry and have children.  It is entirely possible that Jesus puts one of Simon Peter’s children in the midst of the disciples and says, “Look, I want to show you what it means to be great.  Look at this child.  If you welcome a little child, you welcome me.”

Jesus brought a gospel to people Howard Thurman calls “the ones with their backs against the wall.”  Thurman is talking, of course, about all kinds of people:  those we read about in the Beatitudes, those who are poor, those without education or much education, those without status, those labeled as sinners, those who are sick, those who lived on the margins.  He is speaking of the forgotten, the outcast, the strangers, the misfits.  Included among those were the little children.

Throughout the centuries, we have tended to neglect the relationship Jesus had with children.  They were regarded as half-people who lived life among the giants, who lived in a world of kneecaps.  I suppose you could say that children were to be seen and not heard in the day of Jesus.  Very rarely did anyone take time to notice them.

Visit the Sunday School rooms in the children’s wings.  You will find scenes of Jesus with children in the pictures on the wall or those in an illustrated Bible.  Any great cathedral likely contains a stained glass window, depicting a scene of Jesus with children.  Children were certainly an important part of his ministry.  He used a child to make his point with the disciples about greatness in the Kingdom of God.

It is entirely possible that children become a kind of litmus test for Christians, especially Christians who are prideful.  If we are given to pride, we can certainly get our comeuppance through children.  After all, they may say that we remind them of their dog.  A person’s spiritual maturity is revealed in the way they relate to children and in the way they regard children.

Put a child in a room, and watch what happens.  Pay attention to the way people react to little children.  You will see a variety of reactions.

Some people may have been bothered that a girl could not find a place to sit during the Children’s Sermon.  She first went over there but then came back to this side.  Many of us celebrated that she found a place in the circle, but some may have thought, Why doesn’t she hurry up and find a seat!

Did you see how the children left the Sanctuary to go to Children’s Church?  Some were skipping and hopping across the front of the church.  Two young boys were running, though one tried not to run, which was a mistake.  He fell but quickly jumped up and continued to the door.  Some may have thought, Those children should not be skipping across the front of the church.  They should not be running.

The reaction of people to children is a litmus test.

Jesus makes a comment that is even more striking when he talks with his disciples in Chapter 10.  He claims that our relationship to children is connected to our fellowship with God.  If we receive a child, we receive Christ.  If we receive Christ, we receive the Father.  He says, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

Recall just for a moment the ways Jesus relates to children.  In Mark 10 we see that Jesus takes every child in his arms, blessing and accepting them all.

It is somewhat surprising to see that a large number of healings throughout Jesus’ ministry were performed on children.  He heals a boy with epilepsy.  He heals the daughter of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, raising her from the dead.  He takes her by the hand and speaks the Aramaic words which mean, “Little girl, arise.”  Following a bad-tempered conversation with a Canaanite woman, Jesus heals her daughter.  Jesus says that the mother’s faith allowed him to heal the child.  He also heals a Roman official’s son in Capernaum.

Consider this combination of people.  Notice the diversity in this group.  Jesus’ healing of these children crosses status lines, racial lines, religious lines, and nationality lines.  He does not heal just because they need healing.  He heals them out of unconditional love.  Our offertory hymn this morning was “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”  Jesus does love the children.  He loves every single one of them.

Some years ago I was able to make a trip to the land of Israel.  While there I especially wanted to visit Hadassah Hospital, which was built by and supported by Jewish women around the world.  The hospital is located in the center of Jerusalem, in the heart of Israel.  Hadassah, the Hebrew name for Esther, is a women’s organization in the Jewish faith similar to our Women’s Missionary Union (WMU).

I had read about and seen pictures of twelve stained-glass windows Marc Chagall created for the synagogue at that hospital, but I wanted to view them for myself.  I did see the windows, but I saw something even more remarkable when I went to the maternity and pediatric units.  Many Palestinian mothers and children were there as patients.  You might think that a Jewish hospital would have nothing to do with Palestinian families.  Not so at Hadassah.  The staff’s willingness to treat every person who comes to them for assistance was remarkable.  It is an example of how caring for children and their families can cross all boundaries.

Consider other examples of Jesus interacting with children throughout his ministry.  He used the lunch of a child – five loaves and two fish – to feed a multitude.  He multiplied the food the disciples brought, but a boy gave the food.  When Jesus came into Jerusalem, the children waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!”

Jesus said that we are to become as little children.  This requires a comeuppance.  It requires humility.  It requires dispensing with pride.  When we humble ourselves like a child, we can then begin to understand what Jesus meant about true greatness in the Kingdom of God.

If Jesus had this kind of relationship with children, it stands to reason that we should never regard working in the nursery a menial task.  We must regard that responsibility as one of the most important in the church.  After all, children offer a way to see the revelation of God in human life.  Children become for us a clear vision of the future of the church.  The children here on the stairs during the Children’s Sermon are our future leaders of the church.  They are the future deacons, Sunday School teachers, and choir members.  When we love children in the name of Christ, we love God.

American author Mary Gordon remarks that Jesus is unique in ancient literature as an “affectionate hero” who loves being in the presence of children.  He wants their company.

In the two passages from the Gospel of Mark, we read that parents and grandparents bring children to Jesus.  Not understanding, the disciples try to repel them, explaining, “Jesus is too busy for this.  He does not need to be bothered.  He is doing grown-up work.  Do not bother him.”  Can you imagine how the parents and the grandparents must feel as they are turned away from the person they want to see most?  They simply want Jesus to bless their children.

The passage says that Jesus interrupts the disciples, “indignant” about the way they are treating the children.  We hear serious disapproval in his voice.  “Let them come to me.  Don’t hold them back.  Don’t forbid them.”

Years ago in another church a group of boys, including one of my own sons, was running in the hallway.  A grumpy old lady fussed at the entire group but particularly at my son.  Preacher’s children have a hard time.  She protested, “You, of all people, should know better!”

My son came to me and said, “Dad, we were only running.”

I said, “Let’s go run!”

The two of us gathered a group of his friends, lined up at one end of the hall, and raced to other end of the church, having the best time.  I have a lot of kid in me, too, and a pretty good rebellious streak, you may have noticed.  Our running was like sanitizing the hallway.  What is a hallway for, anyway?  On a rainy day at home, do you turn your hallway into a bowling alley?  Hallways are made for having fun, not just for moving people from place to place.  Any child can clearly see that.

Soon after I came to Morningside, I hosted an event for the youth and their parents, a great paper airplane race.

In those days our big church bulletin made perfect paper airplanes.  I created the rules. Each person was to make an airplane, using one copy of the church bulletin and one paper clip.  Our three categories of competition included distance and accuracy, time aloft, and aerobatics.  Some pilots would be positioned on the floor to judge the event.  The youth brought their airplanes, as did their parents.  We went into the balcony and sailed airplanes for an hour or more while no one else was in the Sanctuary.  One airplane sailed straight through the Sanctuary and landed here on the pulpit.  It won the award for distance and accuracy.  I wish we could have an airplane contest now, this morning!  Does anyone up in the balcony have an airplane?  Go ahead and let it fly!

Being in the house of God can offer great joy.  You must think that God, who loves little children and welcomes them, wants them to enjoy being in His presence.  I certainly do.  Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15).  That is a very difficult translation, but Matthew uses even stronger language:  “I tell you the truth, unless you change and receive the kingdom of God like a child, you are not going to get in” (Matthew 18:3).   We see a similar teaching in John 3:3 when Jesus replied to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  You can count at least seven times in the Gospels when Jesus offered a teaching such as this.

In asking ourselves what “becoming like a child” means, we need to consider at least four characteristics of children.  First is a sense of wonder.  Children come into the world with a sense of curiosity, a sense of wonder that needs to be nurtured.  Jesus said, “Open your eyes.   You will see the Kingdom through the wide-eyed wonder of little children.”

I am so happy to witness my children doing things with their children like Clare and I used to do, like taking them to the zoo or walking along the Cottonwood Trail or in the neighborhood.  Walking with a child is like walking with God.  We see things that we would never see otherwise: every bottle cap, flower, frog, butterfly, and broken piece of glass.  We must walk slowly with a child in the same way we must walk slowly with God.

Years ago one of our boys, a Cub Scout at the time, needed to take a five-mile hike.  I promised to take him, though of course, I was very busy, running around at a frantic pace, trying to accomplish every little task.  As soon as I got home one Friday afternoon, I ripped off my tie and jacket and put on a pair of old pants and boots.  My son was so ready for our hike together.  This was going to be a big adventure for him.

I did not tell his mother until later that we hiked along a railroad track.  I used to do that when I was a boy.  I got hit in the head one time when I was walking down a track.  I still have that scar on the back of my head, which lets you know which way I was running when I got hit.

The two of us started our hike and came to a siding that led into a grove of pine trees.  More and more vegetation grew between the ties the farther we hiked.  After a while, we saw good-sized trees growing between the ties.  We continued into the woods and came to an old abandoned Southern Lady, one of those boxcars that had just one door.  My son ventured around one side of the car, and I went around on the other.  Then we met at the back.

He observed, “Dad, this boxcar has been here a long time.”

Ever the teacher, I asked, “How do you know that?”  I thought he would talk about all the growth between the tracks and ties or maybe mention the rust on the wheels.

He explained, “Look, Dad.  There’s a bird’s nest.  A bird can’t build a nest on a moving train.”

I had a moment of insight.  A father cannot rear his children if he is always on the go.  As parents we must stop and take our children for walks.  We must spend time with them and see the world through their eyes.

Second, children have an active imagination.  To be created in the image of God is to have an imagination.  God imagined us.  He wants us to imagine.

One of our sons was tested at his elementary school in Winston-Salem to see if he qualified for an honor’s program.  On the very morning that I was to meet with the counselor to receive the test results, this same child bit a piece of toast into the shape of a submarine and submerged it under the surface of milk left from his cereal.  Then he alternately took another bite, making a smaller and smaller submarine, and dipped it into the milk.

That afternoon I went to the school and sat down with the guidance counselor.  She said, “Your son did very well on all the cognitive parts of the test, but he has absolutely no creativity.”

I said, “Really!”

“Yes, he has no creativity at all.”

“Please explain that to me.”

She said, “We just asked him to draw a picture, and that page of his test is completely blank.  He cannot get in the program.  It requires creativity, which he does not have.”

I said, “That really surprises me, but I’ll talk with him about the blank page.”

That night after supper, I asked this son, “Do you remember that test you took?  I looked at it today.  You left a page blank.”

He replied, “No, I didn’t.”

I said, “That last page was blank.”

“No, it wasn’t.  It was white.  They told me to draw a picture, and I did.”

“What picture did you draw?”

He explained, “I drew a fight between a polar bear and an abominable snowman at the North Pole.  They were fighting in a blizzard, so the whole picture was white.”

He had no creativity, I was told.

Children do have an imagination.

Third, children are very honest.  Art Linkletter made a career out of examining this trait with his television show “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”

I heard about a teacher showing a little girl in Sunday School class something at her table.  The little girl looked up at the teacher and said, “You remind me of my grandpa.”

“I do?”

“Yes.”

Assuming the girl had given her quite the compliment, the teacher thought, Maybe her grandpa is kind.  Maybe he is wise.  He asked the child, “How do I remind you of your grandpa?”

“He has hairs coming out his nose, too.”

Children will say anything.  They have this intense honesty.

Bill Cosby says that the older we get, the more confused our hairs get.  They start looking for other ways out.  Bill Cosby is right.

Fourth, children have a basic sense of trust.  The adults who care for children must cultivate this trust early.  Children will let us know when they are hungry and when they are hurt.  They will tell us when they feel bad and when they need to be held.  They will crawl up on our lap.

Following the disciples’ discussion about who was the greatest.  Jesus puts a child in their midst and says, “Unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

We need to consider one more teaching of Jesus that comes from Matthew 18:6-7, a lesson that illustrates his desire to protect the innocents.  Jesus was very protective.  He says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Does anyone want to take that statement literally?  Do we have enough millstones for those who have abused and neglected children?  Do we have enough millstones for those who have allowed children to go hungry?  I doubt we have enough millstones to represent those students at Penn State.  We must regard all children as children of God.

Do you remember the story of Jesus, a baby born out-of-wedlock, a baby born out back in a stable, a baby born into poverty and raised in Galilee in a carpenter’s shop?  This child played with blocks on the floor of Joseph’s business.  He went flew kites, kicked soccer balls, and ran up and down the hillsides.  I bet he went fishing, too.

Then at age twelve, he went to the temple.  He was missing for three days.

When found and confronted with, “Didn’t you know we would be worried?” he answered his parents, “Didn’t you know I would be about my Father’s business?”

Then we read a great line about Mary and Joseph:  “They did not understand.”  Jesus, however, understood; he already knew that God was his heavenly Father.

We see in the life of Jesus a regard for children, but we also see what these children can become.  In children we see the revelation of God’s nature and the revelation of His will.

Henri Nouwen, a theologian, left Harvard and moved to Toronto in order to become a caregiver in a community for mentally handicapped adults.  He lived the rest of his life there.

One day before evening prayers, Janet, one of the patients, said, “Henri, I want you to bless me.”

After he made the sign of the cross on her forehead with his thumb, she said, “No, that’s not enough.  That does not work.”

Not exactly sure what she meant, he told her, “Let’s wait until others gather for prayer.  Then I will give you a blessing.”

Following the group’s time of evening prayer, Nouwen said, “Janet has asked me for a blessing.  She feels like she needs that now.”  Henri called her to him, put his arms around her, enfolded her in the robes he wore, and said, “Janet, the blessing of Christ is upon you.”

Afterwards, Janet returned to her seat.

Then another patient asked, “May I have a blessing, too?”

One after one, Nouwen took each patient in his arms and spoke a blessing.

After Nouwen had blessed all the patients, a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, working there as an intern, said, “I would like a blessing, too.”  Henri Nouwen took the student in his arms and spoke a blessing.

Jesus blesses little children, little children of every age.  If you are going to enter the Kingdom of heaven, you must become like a child.  If you do that, Jesus has a blessing for you.

Do you want the blessing of the Lord Jesus Christ?  You can have it simply by acknowledging him as the Lord of your life and accepting him as your Savior.  Make the decision today to accept Christ as your Savior.  Some of you know that you have other decisions to make.  We invite you to respond.

 
 Kirk H. Neely
© September 2012
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