Here is a sermon from my archives about Jesus and the children. It links Jesus’ call to become as children with his invitation in John 3 to Nicodemus to become a newborn.
A Second Childhood
A Sermon on Mark 9:33-37, 10:13-16 and John 3:1-10
Jesus’ disciples had a hard time letting go of wanting to be big men in the Kingdom of God. Today’s scripture is only one example. Read on in the gospels. There are more. But focusing on today’s lessons, in Mark 10, when little people—children—came seeking Jesus, the disciples had already forgotten what Jesus had just said in Mark 9! There, when Jesus saw that his disciples were arguing about which one of them was the most important in God’s kingdom, Jesus could not have been more clear: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he declared. And then Jesus himself had sought out a little child, taken it in his arms, and added, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and welcomes the one who sent me.”
The disciples had already forgotten this when some parents came bringing little children to Jesus. They were eager for Jesus to touch the children and give them a blessing. Instead of welcoming them, the disciples shooed them away.
I’m sure the disciples meant well. Jesus was under a great strain. As he made his way to the site of his death, Jerusalem, crowds of needy people pressed in upon him. And all along the way Jesus’ opponents kept trying to catch him making a mistake on some point of God’s law. Even as the parents and children approached, Jesus was fresh from yet another dispute, this time with the Pharisees over the laws pertaining to marriage and divorce.
The disciples probably thought they were protecting Jesus by screening the people that came to him. “Jesus is tired,” they thought, “and his time is too important. These parents ought to know better than to interrupt! Jesus shouldn’t be bothered with such small matters. After all, he’s in the process of launching a great kingdom.”
And so the disciples exercised their authority and sternly sent the children and their caregivers away. “Jesus doesn’t have time to see you today. We’re sorry.”
The visitors’ faces fell. The parents turned, hitched up their babies in slings, hiked up the toddlers on their hips, and took others by the hand. In their hands the children clutched all the little things they had brought to show Jesus. Together they set off the way they had come.
Perhaps it was the sound of the children crying that caught Jesus’ attention. He turned from the theological discussion, and when he saw what the disciples had done, he was angry. This wasn’t a small matter at all.
“Let the children come to me!” Jesus exclaimed. “Do not stop them, for God’s kingdom belongs to them and to those like them.”
Christ Jesus was indeed launching a kingdom, but it was not a kingdom of the powerful, wealthy, and highly regarded. The greatest subjects in Jesus’ kingdom are the least ones: the small, the weak, the lowly. The poor and the meek, those who hunger and those who mourn are the blessed ones.
And here came these least ones, the weakest and the youngest, and the disciples had turned them away. In that day, the children truly were the least ones. They had no power, no rights at all in that society, no voice. They had no highly regarded reputation or big accomplishments to claim Jesus’ attention. They had no skills or economic assets to offer him. The children just were, and they wanted to see Jesus.
“Let the children come to me!” Jesus said. “Do not stop them, for God’s kingdom belongs to them and to those like them.” “And,” Jesus added, “And, I’m telling you what’s the truth: if you—meaning you grownups—don’t receive the kingdom as a little child receives it, you will never enter it.” And as he said this, Jesus lifted every last one of those children into his arms and blessed them.
Now what does Jesus mean here? Does he mean we have to return to childhood somehow? No, certainly not in the sense of trying to recapture some state of innocence or purity that we supposedly once had. There is no clean slate we can regain and thereby earn Christ’s attention.
What Jesus means is that the life of faith is not about meriting a place in the kingdom. It’s not about repairing ourselves, fixing our lives so that maybe, just maybe—God will let us in. Receiving the kingdom as a child means pure receptivity. Citizenship in the kingdom is pure gift. We can’t earn a place in the kingdom. All we can do is open our hands and hearts like a child and receive. Instead of convincing Christ to bless us, we let him bless us. We let him take us in his arms. We let him lay his hands on us and care for us and bless us and transform us. We let him save us.
Take a look at the picture of Jesus and the children that I put in your bulletin. (See the picture at the top of this post.) I think the artist really understands what Jesus is getting at. Notice that there are grownup children and young children, and they’re all little compared to him. Even the pastor, the one holding a shepherd’s crook, is little in Jesus’ arms. Those arms are big and strong and carry the wounds of love. They all look like they feel safe in his arms, while he looks like he is on the lookout to protect them from anything that might threaten them.
We don’t earn a place in those arms. We can’t work our way into those arms. We can’t achieve our way into those arms. We can’t get there by being spiritually big. We get there by coming as children, and letting him lift us into his arms.
Speaking with Nicodemus, Jesus states the way things are in even more radical terms. Nicodemus was about as accomplished spiritually as any person could be. Pharisees were high achievers in spiritual discipline, and they were trying to do what they thought was right. As in every group in the family God, there were some hypocrites. But by and large, Pharisees like Nicodemus truly wanted to honor God by keeping the law as carefully and fully as they could.
If anyone deserved to be big in the kingdom of God, it was Nicodemus. And we can see in today’s lesson that in wanting to talk with Jesus, he was genuinely seeking more. Nicodemus was not among those who were out to “get” Jesus.
To Nicodemus, Jesus put things in radical terms: Jesus didn’t just tell Nicodemus, “You must come as a little child.” Jesus told Nicodemus, “To get into God’s kingdom, you must become a baby. You must be born again into the kingdom of God like a baby.” Just as our first birth is one hundred percent a gift to us, so is our second birth. “You must become a newborn,” Jesus said.
The littlest children, newborns, cannot do anything to earn their parents’ love. Absolute newborns can’t even smile at their parents. All they can do is receive their parents’ love, and we take them into our arms and give it to them just because they are. We’re glad to do it. We want to do it.
Sixteen years ago today a tiny premature baby was born to us under very anxious circumstances. We already knew she was a girl, and we had named her Laura. I remember the first time I held her, and I remember wanting to hold her all the time. We just about did hold her all the time, and you all helped us. We have so many pictures of the church family holding little Laura.
I remember the day Elizabeth was born. I have a very vivid memory of her grandmother holding Elizabeth with strong and loving arms shortly after she was born. Elizabeth, your grandma is still holding you in love. And there are many pictures of your church family holding you, too, as on the day when we baptized you as a child of the covenant.
That’s how it is for us and all the babies God sends us. We want to hold them. And even when they grow up and move far away, we still want to hold them, not because they have earned it, but because we are their parents, they are our children, and we love them. Period.
God wants to hold all of us in just that same way, with a love that is far deeper than we, who know something about love, can ever imagine. God wants to hold us in God’s arms. Christ Jesus wants to lift us in his arms and bless us. He wants you to let him lift you, and keep his arm around you.
Mamas and Daddies don’t just love their children every now and then, only when they deserve it, only when they earn it. It’s a love without end, as a song Hootie sings says. It’s a love without end.
This is good news for sinners. We can’t earn our way into Jesus’ arms. And we don’t have to. I will never forget one of the stories we read in Sunday School when I was a child of about five or six. It was one of the Covenant Life Curriculum storybooks for children. Maybe those stories were read here. The story was called The Broken Vase. A little girl grew very angry when her mother prohibited her from going out to play with her older brother and his friends. She was so angry that she grabbed her brother’s baseball bat, swung it around, and deliberately smashed her mother’s special vase. The child wanted to do something that would really hurt her mother, and she succeeded.
The mother was hurt and angry. She swept up the pieces, and left her daughter alone. The child cried herself to sleep. Hours later, she woke up and went to find her mother.
Now some parents would start screaming at such a child. Some would beat the child. Some would push her away with icy coldness. But not this mother. No! Not this mother. Her arms were ready to receive her repentant child. She took her child up into her lap. How much more are the arms of Christ ready to receive his children!
“Let the children come to me,” urges Jesus. No sin is too big. No sin is too big. “Let me do the lifting and the washing and the saving.”
The arms of Jesus strongly around us children even when we become literally helpless again, as when our bodies or minds or sometimes both fail, and humanly speaking, we must receive care in the way infants and children do. It’s going to happen to us all in some way, when we won’t be able to lift ourselves up in the way we once could, when we can’t do any jumping and achieving any more. Jesus says, “I’ve still got you.” And when your eyes close in death, I’ve still got you!” We are his little children. He wants to hold us all the time, and he will, all the way through sickness, all the way through death, when we are born into the life to come.
“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, arms open and ready to bless. “Let all the little children come. Here is where you are safe. Here is where you are saved.”
Thanks be to God!