Sermon November 3rd: Childlike Faith

We’re still with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, and looking at some of the things He taught on the way; I’d like to think particularly about Mark 10.1–16, because it brings us to a subject about which the more I read what Jesus has to say, the more important I realise that it is—and it’s a subject that’s easy to give less attention to than Jesus does. I’m referring to this whole business about being like children. At least, that’s the way we most often think of it, and Matthew’s gospel certainly reports Jesus as saying on this occasion, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. But in Mark Jesus doesn’t quite say that; He says we must receive the kingdom of God like a child which isn’t quite the same thing. Mark is presumably giving a more detailed account of what Matthew sums up in a generality; at least, that’s what I make of the difference between the two accounts. Luke agrees with Mark, by the way.

It’s important to make this distinction clear, because for college students, who from my perspective have so recently put childhood behind, it would be particularly difficult to have Jesus tell you to go back to it, but I hope to persuade you that in this one respect, in this matter of receiving the kingdom, Jesus is right. When it comes to faith, we do need to recover a certain aspect of child-like behavior, even if in all other respects, as Paul says, we should put away childish things. And I can tell you that my own experience has been that recovering that aspect of childhood doesn’t get any easier the longer you put it off, and people are nor more likely to do it when they’re forty than when they’re twenty, so you might as well start thinking about it now!

Everybody loves those words, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. If you look in any Bible that has illustrations, you’ll always find an illustration of that verse, with a picture of Jesus with children on his knee. It’s a favorite subject for  stained-glass windows, too. People have always loved the thought that Jesus loves children. When we have children of our own we are encouraged in our own love for them when we see how Jesus treated them, and we encourage our children to draw strength from the love of Jesus, and many churches work hard at being child-friendly in their service style, rightly believing that this principle requires Christian churches to welcome children and to make it easy for them to participate in the life of the church.

But I think we have to go a bit further than that if we’re to learn all that Jesus is trying to teach us here. Let’s look a bit closer. Chapter 10 starts with Jesus in the middle of one of those situations He often got into, where a big crowd has gathered round Him, some of the religious teachers are asking Him questions about controversial subjects and so on. In this case the discussion is about marriage and divorce, and the details of the discussion occupy the next several verses. What Jesus had to say about marriage and divorce was as controversial and challenging to people of His day as it is to people today, and it’s clear from the word ‘again’ in v 10 that the disciples were having a hard time getting their head round it. Matthew even tells us about some of the questions the disciples had. For the purpose of understanding Jesus’s words about children, we need only note that it is as Jesus is repeating His point about the permanence of marriage that Mark says, in v 13, that people were bringing children to Jesus and asking Him to bless them. In other words, they were interrupting this important discussion about marriage and divorce. So when the disciples rebuke these people, it’s not because the disciples don’t like children; it’s because they think this is one of those important discussions that need the grown-ups’ full attention, and that Jesus ought to have arranged child-care for this class, so that they could concentrate. My own imagination immediately suggests Peter sticking his head out of the door of the house where they are and saying ‘not now, for heaven’s sake, we’re in the middle of a very important discussion, come back later’.

But Jesus makes it very clear that the disciples have got it wrong—as they so often do. Mark especially seems to enjoy pointing out how often that happens! But to be wrong about this is no light matter, as far as Jesus is concerned. Our translation says Jesus was indignant when he realised what the disciples were doing, but angry is the word Mark actually uses. There are only three times that the gospel writers talk about Jesus being angry: when the Pharisees told Him He shouldn’t heal people on the Sabbath, when He saw people selling things and exchanging money in the Temple, and when the disciples think this discussion about marriage is more important than children coming to Him. Those words we love so much are Jesus’s rebuke to the disciples; it wasn’t ‘aaah, aren’t they cute’, but ‘don’t you dare hinder them, they’re as important as you, as a matter of fact’.

And then Jesus goes on to explain why it’s so important. Not only because to such as children belongs the kingdom of God, but because truly I say to you that whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. The Kingdom of God, all the wonderful things that Jesus has come to restore to sinful men and women, belong to people who are like these children. In fact, those who don’t learn to receive that Kingdom the way children do will not even be part of it. Children are the example the disciples are to follow, and it is as important to know this, perhaps more important, as it is to get the truth about marriage and divorce. Marriage and divorce isn’t a salvation issue; receiving the kingdom like a child is.

How do children receive the Kingdom of God? The first thing to be aware of is that it is little children that Jesus is talking about, and some translations use that phrase instead of just the word ‘children’. The word Jesus uses refers to children from the tiniest infants up to about ten or eleven. We are not being asked to receive the kingdom like teenagers, thank goodness—sorry, I know that most freshmen are still in their teens, but when I hear the word teenager I immediately think thirteen or fourteen, but in fact they are adults as far as this subject is concerned. Jesus is telling them too that they must receive the kingdom like little children.

What do you think must be the key characteristic in little children that Jesus is thinking of? What is He actually asking the rest of us to imitate?

I think it must be their faith. Jesus is constantly calling people to have faith in Him, to believe in Him, to trust Him; and in the teaching of the disciples as they begin to spread the word about Him after His ascension into heaven they talk about faith in Him as the essential element that makes us part of the Kingdom He is building. So it seems likeliest to me that it’s the trusting nature that young children have that Jesus is thinking of when He says that the Kingdom belongs to such as these, and to receive the Kingdom like a little child is in fact to have the faith of a little child, to accept what Jesus says without questioning, without arguing, without insisting that we understand why. If you tell a five-year old you’re going to give him the best cake he’s ever had in his life, he won’t ask how you’re going to do it, or whether you really mean it, or whether it’s really the right thing to do, or refuse to have any unless everyone else in the world can have some too, he’ll just jump up and down and clap his hands and say ‘hooray’. I think Jesus is saying that’s the only way to have the good things He brings to people—take Him at His word, trust Him implicitly, and leave any complications to Him.

People sometimes say it’s impossible for grown-ups to have that kind of faith, but I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people give up all sorts of things—not just for Lent, but for their whole lives—just because Jesus says they should. I’ve seen people refuse to contemplate divorce even in what looks like a terrible marriage just because Jesus says what God has joined together, let not man separate. I’ve seen people give a tenth of their income to the church just because God’s word sets that as the standard. I’ve seen people turn the other cheek in all sorts of ways, just because Jesus says life is better when you do that. And in addition to all the individuals who are determined to follow Jesus with a child-like trust in Him, I’ve even seen whole communities do the same—not many, it’s true, and I wish I could give examples of the church being faithful more often, but there are communities of Christians who live in simple trust in Jesus’s promises, expressed in unquestioning obedience to his commandments. I’m still blown away when I remember the people of Nickel Mines, PA back in 2006, when five of their children were murdered in the most appalling manner, and who refused to let even that awful experience shake their commitment to living by Christ’s teachings. We all know Jesus told us to love our enemies, to do good to them that hate us, to pray for those who despitefully use us, and we think it’s a wonderful ideal, but don’t really expect anyone to live up to it, not in the real world. But the community those children were part of did live up to it. One witness told how as he stood by the body of one of the murdered girls, he heard the girl’s grandfather, teaching the rest of his grandchildren, ‘We must not think evil of this man’, referring to the person who killed them. One member of the Christian community in Nickel Mines said ‘I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive, and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss, but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts’ and then shot himself. And that wasn’t just talk: people around the world sent in money towards the medical expenses of the children still in hospital, far more than was needed, and the community shared it with the murderer’s family, because they had lost a husband and father.

That was turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, in a way I can’t imagine I could ever do. It made me want to become Amish. But I know what they’d say if I drove out to an Amish community and told them I wanted to become one of them: ‘go back to Pittsburgh,’ they’d say. ‘You can live according to Jesus’s teachings there. No one’s stopping you. You don’t have to wear an old-fashioned hat or say thee and thou, that’s not what it’s all about. It’s just following Jesus, that’s all. It’s just doing what he says. You can start any time, anywhere. No more excuses, just do what He says, no matter what.’

That’s the faith of a child. That’s accepting the kingdom the way a child does, and according to Jesus that’s the only way to enter that kingdom. And it can be done, by ordinary men and women, even us. Jesus blessed those little children just because their faces were turned to Him in eager expectation, with no desire to negotiate a better deal, to say ‘well I like this part of what you teach, but this other part, that’s a bit old-fashioned, you can’t expect people today to follow that, you know.’ If we can look to Him with that same trust, knowing that He wants better things for us than we can either desire or deserve, as the Prayer Book puts it, we will find blessing beyond our own wildest expectations; abundant life here, and eternal life hereafter.

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