March 6, 2016
I like this story in Luke’s Gospel, pretty much because of the context! As I said last week, Luke seems to have collected some of Jesus’ parables and stories and grouped them together. And that’s fine. None of the Gospels claim to be written in strict chronological order. They’re written to tell a story, and to tell people about the most important event in history!
So, in this case, we have this story, and again it quickly becomes a lesson about the kingdom of God – which we’ve been talking about this year. Luke puts it right after “The Parable of the Unjust Judge,” and even more striking, “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” Go back and read that one sometime. And when you do, read it and go right into this one.
That’s the story of the Pharisee who came into the Temple, and prayed in a way that showed that he thought himself to be high and righteous. He thought that because he had been so good at all his “religious duties.” But then a tax collector – one who would have been equated with the worst of sinners – came in. And he fell on his face in sorrow, humbly throwing himself on the mercy of God. Jesus then asked the crowds, “Who do you think went home ‘justified?’” They knew what he was getting at that day, didn’t they!
That too was a lesson about the kingdom! And that leads right into this little story of Jesus and the children. And I think there’s a similar message here.
Maybe you have a mental image of this scene. I believe my old bible had one of those illustrations on this page. I’ll have to check on that. Better yet, I should just ask Chip! Apparently he has the same Bible I grew up with! And after the service a couple of weeks ago, he showed me the very picture of “Jesus before Pilate” which I had been talking about!
I think this is a great story, because here I think Jesus recognized that the grown-ups he was talking to needed to have this image of “the kingdom.” They needed this image of the “unseen” – the “spiritual,” we’ve been talking about. So far, they had heard Jesus say a lot of things about that kingdom. And a lot of what he said had been hard for them to hear, or to accept. Because what he said about the kingdom was different from what they thought it was all about. And his vision was beyond what they wanted to hear!
If you go back a few paragraphs, you find some Pharisees asking Jesus about that vision. They asked him when the kingdom was going to come. What would be the “signs?” they asked. Now, we know what they meant! They meant the earthly kingdom of Israel. They were interested in that, perhaps more than anyone else! Because they thought they would be very important people in that kingdom! Think about that! They were the leaders of the people. They would rule right along with the new king when he would come! But Jesus said, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst!” They were not expecting that!
In this story, Jesus turns this little “incident” into a message about that very kingdom. And instead of that message being about rule and authority, it had to do with the innocence of children and simplicity of thought. Those people needed to hear that. Their vision was much too complicated. Too many of them had refused to accept Jesus’ vision of the kingdom because of their earthly concerns. They wanted an earthly deliverer! They had also refused to see the kingdom as Jesus presented it, because of all the spiritual and theological “traditions” and “understandings” – the “webs” of those things they had woven around their faith. I wonder if we have done that. Is it possible that some of the things we believe about God, and some of the ways we practice our faith in God, keep us from seeing God?
Jesus needed the people to see beyond all of that. And here was a perfect opportunity to show them! Here as he was speaking, some of the people began to bring their children to him. And his disciples – who were often seen as the “comic relief” of the Gospels) – his disciples said, “Stop!” “Take your children away.” “Can’t you see that Jesus is talking about some important things here!” “He’s talking about things that are way too deep for them!” “They wouldn’t understand!” But Jesus said, “No!”
One of the reasons I love this story, is because it goes along with something I heard years ago. A pastor of mine once said that the Gospel message can be so deep and profound that the greatest theologians can spend years studying the depths of it, and barely scratch the surface. And, at the same time, it can be so simple, and so personal, that a child can understand it beautifully. I love that! And I see that in this story!
Maybe you know the famous story about Karl Barth. Barth was a great theologian who was famous for his writings called “The Church Dogmatics.” That was a shelf-long series of books – thick books! And they were all about the beliefs of the Christian faith. Well, one day, as sort of a joke, one of his students stood up in his class and asked Dr. Barth if he could sum up all of his writings, all of his “Church Dogmatics,” in one sentence. Barth thought for a moment and said this. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
The Christian faith is so profound, and yet it is that simple. It can be preached from the highest pulpit. It can be taught by the greatest scholars. It can be sung sweetly by the smallest child. Jesus took those children that day and he blessed them! Our faith is deep and profound, and it is yet so simple.
I once heard another story about a pastor who walked into his office one day and found a young boy from his congregation sitting at his desk. He decided to play with the boy a little bit, so he said to him, “Pastor, I have a problem. I’m not really sure if God loves me. What should I do?” The little boy thought for a moment and then said, “Love God!” The real preacher asked, “How much should I love God.” The boy thought for a second and said, “A Ton!”
There’s the Christian faith right there. “Love God… a ton!” No wonder Jesus said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom like a child shall not enter it.”
Children are great to have around churches for just that reason. They keep us from thinking too highly of ourselves. They keep us from over-complicating life. And they keep us from “theologizing” our faith to death. They keep us from doing what Paul warned about, when he talked about those who would “keep to the form of religion, but deny the power of it!”
I’ve heard a number of times lately, that the message of the Gospel, in fact, the story of the Bible, is “Love.” It can be summed up in the words Jesus said o Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world…” We could spend years studying the depths of that, and we would barely scratch the surface!
The people brought their children to Jesus that day, and his disciples tried to send them away. But Jesus said, “No!” He said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and hinder them not, for I like the little squeakers.” No! He said much more than that! He said, “Let them come to me for of such is the kingdom of God!” He had been trying desperately to tell the people about the kingdom, about the “things unseen,” and this was his example that day. “You want to see the kingdom? Look here! You see these kids? This is the kingdom.”
So, what about us? Where do we put ourselves in this story? Are we like the disciples? Do we lean more towards the profundity and depth of the Gospel story, maybe even “poo poo-ing” those who over simplify it? Do we fill our faith with our own “comfortable” understandings, and look away when someone presents something that might be a little different? Or do we embrace the simplicity of the message of God’s love, not worrying about whether we understand it fully, trusting God that he will show us his kingdom, if only we will open our hearts to him.
The Gospel story is so profound. And it is so simple. God loves you! So love God. And how much? A ton!
Eternal God, your love for us is beyond our comprehension. Help us to be filled with that love, and to give it to others as well. Help us to see the simplicity of the Gospel story, and to revel in your love for us as your children. We thank you, and we praise you, and we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.