January 21, 2007

Text: Matthew 18:1-6

If you found out the Queen of England, Elizabeth herself, was coming to your community, what kind of preparation do you think would begin to take place? We would expect the mayor and other important community dignitaries to step forward to become involved. The streets would get cleaned, all the flags would be put up, the marching band would learn “God Save the Queen,” and we would get ready to welcome a world leader. 

What if you found out she was not just coming to your town but had decided to make a personal visit to your home? I know what would happen at our house. We would start cleaning! My wife would start baking! I would be mowing the lawn and trimming the bushes. We would get ready to welcome an important guest. 

We know how to welcome the important and great members of our society. However, do we know how to welcome those not so important in our culture? In our sermon text for this Life Sunday, Jesus teaches us to:

Welcome the Little Ones
Jesus extends an invitation to a little child to stand among His disciples. He called this child forward because His disciples had been arguing about which one of them would be the greatest in the kingdom. Jesus surprised them when He called this little child to come and stand among them. What was Jesus thinking? Children were not to be part of adult discussions, especially an important discussion about greatness in the kingdom of God.

This reminds me of the old adage “Children are meant to be seen and not heard.” Do you remember hearing those words? A generation ago that saying was probably truer than it is today. Children were important but not the center of attention. 

We may have more difficulty understanding this text today. It no longer surprises us that Jesus would take a child and make him the center of attention. In our culture there are many parents indulging their child’s every wish. There is probably more money spent on children today than at any time in history. In many families, children are the center of attention. 

This was not the case in biblical times. While many children were loved and cared for by devoted parents, children were not the center of attention. Children worked right alongside their parents as soon as they were able. Children who lost their parents were especially vulnerable in a culture where poverty and hunger were so prevalent.

A little child as the example of greatness was outrageous. Rather, if Jesus really wanted to teach the children about greatness, then he should have chosen one of His disciples to stand up. He could have used one of the twelve to show the children who was the greatest. That is, as you recall, what they were arguing about. Jesus is not teaching the children about greatness. He is teaching His disciples about humility. 

The little child is an illustration, an object lesson. He tells His disciples they need to change the way they think about greatness. Jesus wants each of His disciples to see themselves as a little child, just as He wants each of us to see ourselves as a little child. He wants each of us to see ourselves as a first-century little child; one who is not the center of attention but a child who is in need of someone to take care of him. Jesus wants us to learn the humility of knowing that apart from God’s goodness we are helpless and vulnerable. This stands in such contrast to what we have been taught by our culture. We like to picture ourselves as strong and resilient people, self-made men. 

Jesus even uses this little child as an illustration of Himself. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5). He identifies Himself with the child. Jesus is the Little One laid in a manger. Surrounded by the sight and sounds of a barn. Worshipped first by shepherds. He comes to us as a helpless infant. What a beautiful picture of the humility of Christ. If you welcome the weak and most defenseless in your culture, in your community, in your heart, that is when you welcome Me!

I would have loved to have seen the faces of the disciples of Jesus as He spoke these words, especially the faces of Peter, James, and John. They had been with Jesus just a few days before this on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured. Now that was a great day! There He displayed His greatness in the presence of Moses and Elijah. That is where they wanted to stay. However, when Jesus teaches us about greatness in the kingdom of God, He does not remind us about the transfiguration. Instead He points to a helpless little child and teaches us by saying “unless you change and become as little children.”

The disciples needed to change. They needed to change their ideas about greatness, about children, and even about Jesus. The kingdom of God was not going to come about by a magic mystical moment on a mountain or by a glorious personal rise to power and fame. The kingdom would come through the humility and shame of a cross. If the disciples were taken aback by the example of greatness in a child, imagine the scandal that awaited them when they faced the events of Calvary! On the cross, Jesus fully humbles Himself for you and me.

What makes the little ones great? How do we measure greatness in our society? What makes the Queen of England great? She and all her relatives are considered great simply by the name they bear. They are of the House of Windsor and if you can trace your lineage back to that family, I guess you must be great as well. 

What about in our community? How do we measure greatness? One way it is often measured is by your net worth. How much money do you earn? What neighborhood do you live in? What kind of car are you driving now? There are other ways to measure our value or greatness. We may base it on our level of education. We may even be counting up our volunteer hours in our community or even our church as our claim to greatness.

On this Life Sunday we need to be watchful about the words we use in our defense of the unborn. There are times in our effort to defend life we talk about how great a child might have become. I have heard people remark that perhaps the child that is aborted today might have been the child who would have had the wisdom to cure cancer. While there may be some truth in that argument, that is not the truth Jesus taught in this text.

He is teaching us that the more helpless we see ourselves, the more dependent we become on God, and the more childlike we become in our relationship with God, the closer we are to the kingdom of God. Jesus has a radical view of greatness in God’s society, in the reign of God. Jesus invites us to welcome the little ones. Who are the little ones? We are all the little ones for whom Christ has died. We are all the Children of God.

On this Life Sunday, who are the little ones we are called to welcome? Who are the helpless and vulnerable ones in our culture? Jesus invites us to welcome the little ones, the conceived pre-born children who are unprotected and defenseless in our community and by our culture. 

Jesus invites us to welcome the little ones. Welcome the frightened young woman who is pregnant and doesn’t know what to do or to whom to turn. This little one is so afraid, what will others think of her? What will her parents say? 

Jesus invites us to welcome the little ones. Welcome the little man or little woman who stay away from church, particularly on Life Sunday, because every time the word “abortion” is even mentioned, they experience yet again the shame and guilt of a decision made long ago.

Jesus invites us to welcome the little ones. Welcome the little elderly person alone and discouraged thinking that the world might be better off without them.

What makes the little ones great? God does! God is the Creator of all life. This alone makes all life of great value to God and God’s people. What makes the little ones great? Jesus does! 

The little ones are of such value to Jesus that He chooses to become one of them. Jesus identifies Himself with the little ones in our text and in doing so He joins us in our humanity. St. Paul said it like this, And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:8)

Through the cross Jesus welcomes all of us. He welcomes all the little ones. Jesus connects Himself with the little child in the womb. He is there for He humbled himself to be born of the Virgin Mary. We welcome the little ones as we seek to protect the helpless and shield the defenseless from harm. These are great and important to God.

Jesus brings peace to the little ones, the young woman, who is locked behind the door of fear. He comes to her and says, “Peace be with you”. We welcome the little ones, and say to her, “Peace! Come, share your fears with us”. We welcome you as your sisters and brothers in Christ. We will not leave you alone. Jesus used little ones to teach us about humility so that we would treat all people with respect and dignity.

Jesus brings forgiveness to the little ones burdened with the shame and guilt of abortion and other sins. Jesus said to one caught in the act of adultery, “Then neither do I condemn you, Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). We welcome the little ones of God, for we share in the shame and guilt of sin. We welcome all with the promise of God, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Herein lies the greatness, not of the transfiguration where life seems perfect, but the humility of the cross where Jesus makes our shame His own and takes all our guilt away.

Jesus brings His presence to the little ones who feel alone, who live without hope. In Hebrews 13:5 God said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” We welcome the little ones when we visit the sick, the homebound, the lonely and the discouraged. “For where two or three come together in My name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). We have the great honor to bring the presence of Jesus among us as we come together in His name.

What do you think the odds are that you will be welcoming Queen Elizabeth into your home in the future? Not likely! However, you will have the opportunity to welcome an even more distinguished guest. You will have the opportunity to welcome Jesus. He will come to you as a little child. We are called by Jesus to welcome the little ones. The little ones are all someone for whom Jesus died. The little ones include you and me. He invites us to welcome among us the little ones of our world.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.