April 29, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Of Such Is the Kingdom of God
A mother was cleaning her house and singing Gospel songs as she worked. She began singing, “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king…” Her little son was in the next room and began singing along with Mom. But something was a little off, so Mom stopped to listen. The preschooler’s version: “Soon, and very soon, we are going to Burger King…”
Children are wonderful, aren’t they? In our culture, we value them, love them, and most of the time, want to be around them. They keep us young. But that was not the usual feeling in Roman occupied territories during the time of Jesus. As I mentioned last week, children were viewed no higher in value than a slave or a piece of property. Roman law gave the father absolute power over his family, which extended to life and death.
In Rome, there is a preserved papyrus letter from a Roman soldier to his wife. She was expecting a child. Her husband writes, “If our child is a son, keep him. But if our child is a female throw it away.” This is the world into which Jesus came.
Fortunately, the Hebrew people, did not think the way the Gentiles of the Roman Empire thought. In the Jewish culture, mothers and fathers considered children to be gifts from the Lord. They were a blessing and would carry on the family name, the family traditions, and the Jewish religion. When Jewish children reached the age of one year, parents would often bring their young children to the synagogue in order for the rabbis to lay hands on them in prayer and bless them As the rabbis ministered to the children, they would pray for them and the lives they would lead.
In our story today, we find Jesus in Judea on the eastern side of the Jordan River. It was probably Gentile territory and it was probably Gentiles who were bringing their children to see Jesus and have him touch them. People would have heard by now of the miracles and teachings of Jesus.
As you read through the scriptures, Jesus has always been closely connected to children. From infants to older children, Jesus has gathered them to him in love, time and time again. Jesus’ ministry was inclusive of children. Jesus spoke to children, healed children, blessed children, cast demons from children, raised children from the dead, and welcomed children into his warm embrace. Jesus knew what most of us have forgotten, that a child’s faith is pure and sincere and without reservations. They have not been jaded by life experiences or personal prejudices and emotional hurts. Jesus welcomed the children. Would you pray with me?
Children almost always seem to be interested in God. There is something in them that yearns to learn more about God. One Christian schoolteacher asked her young students to write some letters to God. Here are a few of them.
“Dear God, thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.” Joyce. Sam wrote, “Dear God, I want to be just like my Daddy when I get big, but not with so much hair all over.”
“Dear God, please put another Holiday between Christmas and Easter. There is nothing good in there now.” Ginny. And I like this one. “Dear God, we read that Thomas Edison made light. But in Sunday School they said that you did it. So, I bet he stole your idea.” Donna.
Rev. David Huss wrote in one of his sermons, “There’s something powerful and irresistible about a little child. A baby melts the heart of the cynic, opens the pocketbook of the miser, brings a smile to the joyless, gives hope to the despairing, and turns otherwise ordinary people into obnoxious grandparents.”
God is real to children. They don’t doubt his existence. They find it easy to trust him for the best. But as we grow older, pride takes over. We become skeptical of anything beyond our experience. We find it hard to trust someone else. Jesus knew that.
In our scripture passage today, we know that Jesus is on his way to the cross. He is now in Judea and making his way to Jerusalem. Even though the shadow of the cross is on his mind, Jesus still has time for the children. William Barclay writes in his commentary, “Even with such a tension in his mind as that, he had time to take [the children] in his arms and he had the heart to smile into their faces and maybe to play with them for a while.”
I think this tells us a great deal about Jesus. It tells us that he is the kind of person who cares for children and for whom children care. There must be a kindly sunshine on him. He must smile easily and laugh joyously.
But the disciples are finally beginning to realize that tragedy is ahead for Jesus and they can see the tension that he is under. They want to protect Jesus and don’t want him to be bothered. They don’t think Jesus will want children around him at such a time as this. Blessing the children will be one more drain on an already overburdened man. So, when the parents with children begin to swarm Jesus, as people usually did when he was around, the disciples are outside the house sending them away with a scolding.
When Jesus sees what is happening, our scripture says that he was “indignant.” The actual translation of the Greek says that he was “much grieved!” This tells us even more about the kind of person Jesus is. And Jesus says to the disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
How could the disciples have not known this? In the scripture leading up to our story today, the disciples and Jesus are in the house debating about divorce and adultery before the children come. They are so preoccupied with the debate about conduct in the Kingdom that they forget what Jesus taught them about the power and presence of the Kingdom. If you remember from our scripture last week, Jesus had taken one of Peter’s children aside while they were in Capernaum and said this, “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.”
How could the disciples have forgotten this? Their forgetfulness is not simply a lapse of memory, but it is a sign or expression of their blindness and their hardness of heart. They see the children, but they do not perceive the Kingdom of God. You see, they are still looking for the Kingdom in terms of the worlds’ standards of power and therefore are blind to the fact that God’s power reverses those standards and is present in the world in the powerlessness of children.
So, what is it about children that Jesus likes and values so much? Well first, there is the child’s humility. Ordinarily children are embarrassed by prominence and publicity. They have not yet learned to think in terms of place, pride, and prestige. They have not yet learned to discover the importance of themselves.
A one-year old toddler knows nothing about prejudice, lust, murder, and other sins of the flesh. We would do well to humbly imitate a child’s purity and stay away from things that we know are evil. After all, we don’t have to experience sin to be against sin.
Second, there is the child’s obedience. The natural instinct of children is to obey. They have not yet learned the pride and the false independence which separates us from one another and from God. All through the Bible, God asks for obedience from those who will believe in him.
Third, there is the child’s trust. Children accept authority when it is given in truth and love. There is a time when children believe that their father and mother know everything and that they are always right. To our shame, they soon grow out of that. But instinctively children realize their own ignorance and their own helplessness and trust the ones who, as they think, know.
Children also have confidence in other people. Children do not expect people to be bad. They will make friends with a perfect stranger. They have not yet learned to suspect the world. They still believe the best about others.
And lastly, there is the child’s short memory. Children have not yet learned to bear grudges and nourish bitterness. Even when they are unjustly treated they forget, and forget so completely, that they do not even need to forgive.
Humility, obedience, trust, and short memory. Such is the kingdom of God. This is how God wants all his children to be, young and old alike. This is why he said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Now I know I am preaching to the choir here, so to speak, but like our confirmands have been trained, it is important for parents to bring their children to church and to make sure they have spiritual training from the earliest age. Every now and then I will run into a set of parents who don’t want to influence their children spiritually. They just want them to grow up and be exposed to many difference ideas and when they are old enough they’ll decide for themselves. Folks, that’s a dangerous strategy.
Two fathers were discussing this very topic. Once man talked about how important it was to train his children in the truths of the Bible. The other man disagreed and said he wanted his children to grow up with no spiritual instruction. It was clear they weren’t going to convince each other, so finally the father who believed in spiritual training changed the subject.
He said, “Would you care to see my garden?” The other man said, “Sure.” They walked around the house and saw a patch of ground overgrown with weeds, thorns, and thistles. The guest said, “Why that’s no garden, that’s just an overgrown weed bed.”
The owner said, “My philosophy of farming is that I never want to prejudice the soil in any way. I don’t want to influence the soil with good seeds. I just let whatever is in the soil grow.” His friend said, “Now I know why you think spiritual training of your children is a wise strategy.” Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Whether you’re a parent, a grandparent, or a teacher, children are always watching you. The things that we do and the words that we say can either draw them closer to the Lord or drive them farther away.
Just like the children, we need to come to God and Jesus Christ with a sense of awe and wonder. A child knows that they are dependent upon others. As Christians, we also need to realize that we are dependent upon Christ. We cannot enter the Kingdom of God without being helplessly dependent on Christ!
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,” Jesus said, “for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.