Exodus 12:1-14, Matthew 18:1-14
September 14, 2008
A couple of very interesting stories about children that are juxtaposed here. Actually they’re not that much related, I just like saying the word “juxtaposed!” That’s a great word, isn’t it? (Can you imagine how many points that would get you on a Scrabble board?!) Actually, “Juxtaposed” simply means something “placed near” something else. But it sounds more impressive than that, doesn’t it?
The Old Testament story is one of great sorrow about children. Unfortunately, there are a number of such stories in the Bible. especially in the Old Testament. (We have a similar one at the time of Jesus’ birth, when Herod tried to eliminate the “newborn king.”) This one today is from the story of the Passover. That’s the great story of the redemption of God’s people in the Old Testament. Unfortunately it’s also a story a story of great tragedy for the Egyptian people.
Sometimes I think the Egyptians have gotten a bad rap. They’re seen only as the ones who oppressed and enslaved God’s people. When we come across them in the scriptures, we think “Oooh, Egyptians! Bad people!” I think that’s a shame. Yes, their leaders oppressed the Israelites. But the Egyptian people themselves were part of a great civilization! And I think we have to read this story as the horrible tragedy it was for those simple Egyptian families – despite the story of liberation that surrounds it!
I want us to keep that in mind as we look at this story from Matthew. Because Juxtaposed with that today is this story about Jesus and children. (We might even say that in this story Jesus was “juxtaposed” with the Children.) This is a great little story. And what I like about it is the way it shows the tender, joyous, innocent love Jesus had for children.
There have been many pictures drawn or painted of Jesus throughout the centuries. And there are two that are my favorites. The one I like best is a picture of Jesus laughing. We don’t often think of him that way, do we? Jesus came to do some serious stuff, and too often artists’ depictions of him are serious and solemn. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There is a serious side of Jesus’ life and ministry. He was indeed “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” But I believe he was also a man of joy and acquainted with happiness. And I loved that picture of him laughing!
The other picture I like is one you’ve probably seen, too. It’s one in which Jesus is sitting and there are children all around him. And again, he’s smiling! There’s joy on his face, and his love for children is brought out very well by the artist. I think about both of those pictures when I read this passage for today. Here, he says two things about children that we need to hear. One is, “don’t corrupt these kids!” And I think we’re fine with that part of the message. But the other message he gives here is “you need to be like them.”
I think that’s amazing! “Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What does he mean? Does he mean we are to be childish in our ways? I don’t think so. We’re not to be childish, immature, and self-centered. Those are ways we could interpret that statement. Many people have a “second childhood.” And for some people that’s a bad thing. Some people end up throwing off responsibility and reason and some even become very “antisocial” in their ways!
I’m sure that’s not what Jesus was saying here. Because remember what was happening. This was a response to the disciples ongoing argument about “who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” I see this as an almost exasperated reaction to that most silly of debates! “Guys! Come on! Stop that.” “That’s not what we’re about! Besides, like I’ve told you before, it’s the least who is the greatest!” So then, calling the children to him, Jesus said to them. “You’ve got to become like children – humble, innocent, naïve, simple. Then you’re considered great in my kingdom!”
That’s a message that’s hard for our world to hear, isn’t it? That’s partly because people don’t want to hear it. They want to gain importance – by the world’s definition. They want to make themselves more powerful, more wealthy, more the center of attention. Jesus says, “No! It’s not the world’s understanding that matters. The least are the greatest!” That’s the tough part of this message!
The other problem with this understanding is that in our world, childhood is changing. Children aren’t being allowed to be children any more. And I say that because if we’re going to become like them, we’ve got to re-learn what that means. Those two thoughts go hand in hand. We can’t be like children unless we know what it means to be children.
The world of children today is being intruded upon by the adult world. Children are being courted by people with political agendas. Because they know that changing the children will change the future. (We adults are usually too set in our ways to change. So the campaign is to try to reach the children!) Children are being scared by people telling them the world is going “down the tubes.” I remember having to ease my children’s fears of such things they were told at a very early age! Children are being exposed to so many things that children should not be exposed to. Their sociological, and even their physical development is too often being stunted by hours of sitting in front of computer screens. And their schedules are being filled so much that many of them are starting to suffer the same stress as adults. Children are playing less and less the sweet, innocent, imagination developing games of childhood.
Neil Postman, a professor at New York University, wrote a book in 1982 called “The Disappearance of Childhood.” In it he told about a study that was done in the 1970’s in which over 2,500 children’s games were collected and documented from around the world. And he stated that “Most of those games are never played anymore, anywhere, by anyone!” And I wonder what children are missing in such a world.
Think about your own childhood! Go back in your mind for a moment and see those images of your early days. I’ll bet it was very different from the childhood of kids today. I know mine was! Things have really changed! And it’s high time our world recognized that not all those changes are good! We played those games Postman referred to in his book. We climbed trees and stayed there all afternoon. (Insurance underwriters probably shudder when they hear that!) We played games, we rode bikes – and not to train for triathlons, but for the sheer fun of it! We stayed out until the 5:00 whistle blew at the fire station. That’s when every kid in the neighborhood knew it was time to go home. (Now they probably have pagers!)
We learned to use our imagination and creativity to make things fun. And we were never bored! That’s the biggest complaint of children in the modern world. That’s because they’ve come to believe that things must entertain them. They aren’t learning to entertain themselves! I have to tell you, given the choice between the new-fangled, gadget-oriented, “sensational” world of children today and my own childhood, I’ll take mine every time! No, we weren’t entertained. But we had fun!! And as Theodore Geisel once said about children’s activities, in one of the greatest philosophical books of all time, “these things are fun, and fun is good!” (By the way, that was Dr. Seuss in the book “One Fish Two Fish.”)
Well, those are my philosophies about childhood. You don’t have to agree with them. Or maybe not to the same extent. But I wanted you to hear them because I feel this comes shouting from these words of Jesus. The love and reverence for childhood and its innocence are palpable here in this story. I think we need that to understand the two-fold message Jesus is giving here. First, “Don’t corrupt these kids!” I think our society needs to consider that message. And the second message – that we understand only when we’ve heard the first – is, “you need to be like them.”
As we start Sunday School again this week, I think we’d all agree that it’s good to have our children here, learning about God, learning how to love and treat one another in a positive environment. In a world where children’s lives are indeed in turmoil, this is one place – hopefully – that’s upbuilding, encouraging, edifying, and all those great New Testament words – for Children! (Young people!)
I know we truly hope that’s the result of our Christian Education program! There’s too much brokenness and hurt in the world of children. I think we’re right with Jesus when he says about people who cause such turmoil for children, “it would be better if a great millstone were fastened around their necks and they were thrown into the sea.” That’s a visual exaggeration on Jesus’ part. But it gets the point across!
I don’t think any of us would argue against child abuse as being among the more heinous crimes in this world. The corruption of those who are innocent, the harming of those who cannot protect themselves, even the way the weak and innocent tend to suffer so much in the world’s problem areas, those are among the deepest concerns of our world. None of us is unmoved when we hear of those things or see those images. (They always made me want to hold my own children a little tighter!)
Then there’s this second part of Jesus’ message, which is actually the part he started with. “Truly, I say to you unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Again, He’s not implying childishness or immaturity. He’s telling us that we are to have the faith of a little child. We are to have that love for our Heavenly Father, like that of a child for a parent. Throughout the New Testament especially, the relationship between God and his people is described in such intimate, family ways. “The Church is the bride of Christ.” “Our Father who art in heaven…” That’s part of this message as well. When we have that close parent/child relationship with God, then we’re on the right track for the kingdom of heaven.
We say we are all “Children of God.” But sometimes it’s hard for us to make that translation in our minds. After all, we’re adults! We’re big people! And we’re proud of it! Can we really have that faith and understanding and love and innocence of little children? Jesus says yes. He says that’s what it’s like in the kingdom of God. And that’s the image I want to leave with you today. Think of Jesus, with the children gathered at his feet. See him smiling. See him blessing them. See him talking with them – on their level, encouraging them, loving them. And see yourself as one of them.
Eternal God, our Heavenly Father, help us to know we are your children, Help us to have that faith, that love for you, even that innocence in our understanding of things. Teach us the faith of little children and the love for you that you have for us. For this we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen.