This sermon series through Mark, we’ve been considering the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the start of his reign as God’s anointed King. As we begin Lent, we listen for our King’s call to deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him. This morning Jesus offers us a particularly appropriate image for what denying ourselves looks like. Lent’s invitation to self-denial sounds inconvenient and intimidating and maladjusted; Jesus makes sure we begin to understand precisely what he means, and what we can expect when we accept his invitation.
Mark 9:30-36, 42; 10:13-16
They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “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.”
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
If we have eyes open to see it and hearts ready to accept it, Jesus invites us to become like children in order to receive his kingdom of life. This may seem a simple, harmless request from our King, but this should give us some surprise. How are children better suited to receive the kingdom than we able, responsible adults? Our King’s request, which is really more of a command, should also give us some concern. Even if it does make sense, that children will inherit the kingdom, how is it possible for us able, responsible adults to become like children again? These are the questions we must answer if we are to faithfully follow Jesus Christ as our King, and as our Savior, on his way to the cross for us, and for the whole world
Children and the Kingdom
Our passage this morning begins with another journey through Galilee. These are not quick bus rides, or even car trips, but wearying walks, under the overbearing sun and in the clinging dust, over rugged mountains and through treacherous riverbeds. It is on one of these rigorous walks that Jesus is trying again to warn his disciples about what is to come. Jesus is trying to prepare these young men for what will happen to him in Jerusalem at the hands of those who should know better, the religious leaders who should be welcoming and worshiping Jesus, not rejecting and executing him. This is too much for the disciples to grasp, even though Jesus speaks plainly to them.
Somehow, the disciples skip over this lesson. All they catch of this is that the kingdom they were promised is getting closer. They miss the importance of how Jesus will bring in his kingdom: that the kingdom of God comes by a cross instead of a crown. The disciples ignore Jesus’ warning and instead bicker about who will be greatest in this new kingdom. Jesus catches them vying for prestige and status, which is the greatest possible irony of this story. Jesus is teaching them that this kingdom will come by being killed, instead of by killing, by being humiliated instead of by being elevated, and his disciples are playing “rock, paper, scissors” about who gets to be Jesus’ right-hand man. The scene is almost comedic, until Jesus tells them, “Whoever would be first must become dead last, and the servant of all.” This doesn’t make any sense. This is the exact opposite of how the world works. What kind of kingdom is run by servants and underdogs?
And to drive the point home, Jesus brings forward a child, to show them exactly what he means: “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.” Jesus shows his disciples a child: someone least able to appreciate status or power, someone who appreciates competition only in the context of play and never for personal gain, someone still filled with the wonder of innocence. It is this kind of person, this child-like character that Jesus offers the disciples as a lesson for what we are to become if we are to be able to fully receive and welcome the King and his kingdom in our lives.
But what do children have that makes them able in a unique way to receive the King? Aren’t we called to grow up into spiritual maturity? Aren’t we as adults more valuable contributors to the kingdom’s mission in the world? I don’t think we should be too quick to accept children as a perfect metaphor for Jesus’ lesson. Children are not perfect – none of us are – but they offer us an image of the kind of life that is able to truly welcome the kingdom.
Jesus doesn’t explain further. He only says we must become like children. But our best guess is that the childlikeness Jesus is asking of us is trust. Children cannot provide for themselves or defend themselves, but they usually don’t feel any need to do so. We all come into this world with the sense that we are to be taken care of, that we are someone else’s responsibility. Gradually, as we grow older, we are given increasingly higher amounts of responsibility, larger and larger obligations, which slowly remove from us that sense of being held, of being cared for, of belonging to someone else. Sadly, more and more children do not grow up with this care; and even if they do, we are asking them to grow up younger and younger, placing the weight of responsibility, and work, and college, and “real life” on their shoulders. How are our children to hold on to their child-like trust if we take it from them?
Our Lord and Savior places children among us as a reminder that we do in fact belong to someone else. For those in our Heidelberg Catechism class, this is review, but what does the first question and answer of our Reformed Catechism tell us is our only comfort in life and in death? That we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. This attitude of child-like trust makes us uniquely and particularly able to accept Jesus as he is, as the King of the Cosmos and Lord of Eternity. Without a sense that we already belong to him, we cannot welcome him as Lord and King because we are still trying to be our own lords, the kings and queens of our own castles, and that only leads to anxiety, and misery, and exhaustion. We are created beings, and pretending to be creators in our own right is sin: that’s why Adam and Eve were kicked out of paradise in the first place. Ruling over our own kingdoms, like the world expects us to as adults, is what the Apostle Paul calls “living after the flesh,” and it only leads to death. Jesus invites us to become like children: to trust, aware that we belong to a gracious King who offered his whole life for us.
Children of the King
There is still one question remaining: how? If we are able to believe that all this is true, that Jesus asks us to become like children if we are to welcome the coming new kingdom and our King with joy and gratitude, then how is such a thing possible? The world trains us well that adults are to be responsible managers of their appearance and reputation and job, their belongings, their children and families, etc.. In essence, our American world demands of us to assume a throne we assume is empty. The opposite is also true: if you do not have a job, or a good reputation, or a house, or a houseful of belongings, or children, etc., it is because you are not a good enough king or queen to deserve such a kingdom. We make judgments on “Have Nots,” even ourselves when we don’t match up, because we feel we must earn our way in this world, and whoever has not made their way did not earn it.
But children don’t earn their way. The comfort and stability and safety and love that children enjoy is given to them without any discussion of earning or deserving; or, at least, it should be. Jesus’ invitation to become like children flies in the face of all our attempts to earn our way in this world, and it is an offence to our American way of doing things. Nevertheless, Jesus invites us to become like children, and what is more, he himself makes it possible for us to become children of God.
In Romans 8, Paul reflects on how it is we can become like children:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Did you hear that? Jesus Christ, in his act of love on the cross for us, so embraced and identified with us, with all of humanity, that when God sees us, he sees his Son Jesus Christ, and claims us as his child. To confirm this adoption, God sends the Holy Spirit to live within us, as a guarantee of our adoption. That is what the sacrament of baptism is all about: baptism is the outward sign and seal of what is already true inside us. That is why we baptize children and infants in the Reformed Tradition, because the spiritual reality of baptism is that we are adopted as children of God in Christ! Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross have opened the way for us not just to become like children, but to actually become true children of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit working inside us.
Maybe what’s so intimidating or offensive about the call to deny ourselves and take up our cross is that we don’t really understand what kind of God would ask us to lose ourselves, to say “no” to ourselves. If God was a loving Father, wouldn’t he want us to be happy? This is the gospel that America has by-and-large bought into: God only wants us to be happy, and as long as we’re all basically good people, then we’ll all get to heaven where we’ll be even happier. But in the American gospel, there’s no real need for Jesus. Sure he’s an inspiring teacher who shows us how to be good people, and he’s our always-available best friend who helps us feel better when we’re sad, but in the American gospel, that’s it: Jesus does not need to die, to rise again, to suffer, to conquer sin. In the American version of Christianity, sin does not exist. If this is the gospel you have found yourself believing, you have missed some very important details. We are not basically good people, as our call to confession reminded us this morning. We are totally unable to live good lives, even with Jesus’ example. We are not called to be happy, but to be holy. And Jesus doesn’t tell us to sit back, relax, and let him handle it; he tells us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. And if we do, if we go all in on this backwards kingdom – where children and underdogs are on top, and able, responsible adults in charge of their own kingdoms are left outside – then we are adopted into the family of God, without doing anything to deserve it, without anything good in us to reward. Adoption into God’s family cannot be earned or won, but it is also a whole lot more than about being happy while we live the way we want.
What if I were to tell you that this is the good new of Jesus Christ? What if the gospel is about more than just a reserved spot in heaven and permission to live whatever way you wanted in the meantime? What if the gospel of Jesus Christ is that you have been adopted by a loving Father who claims you entirely as his own, and now you belong not only to him, but to his family as well? What if the gospel of Christ, and the kingdom of God, can only be welcomed by people who know how to receive it as children, instead of trying to win it or take it or earn it or deserve it? How would you live today differently if that’s true? If you are not the king of your castle, but really just the steward of the true King’s resources, how will you spend your money this week? If you belong not just to a nice church, but to a world-wide family of God, what does that mean for our disagreements, our conversations, our needs? If all that is asked of you is that you become like the child you truly are in Christ, how will practice your devotion to our Father in heaven? This might be a complete reversal of how you’ve heard the gospel before, and this might mess up some of the categories and rules you have in place. But this is the word of Christ for us this morning, if we have ears to hear and hearts to receive.
Maybe this is the first time you’ve heard the gospel. Or maybe you’ve heard it, but it hadn’t taken hold of you like this before. Maybe you’ve noticed that something inside you is looking for this, looking for a loving Father who has a plan and a purpose and a calling on your life, looking to belong. Know that the work is already done: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is seated at God’s right hand, advocating for you and praying for you now. And if something inside you is urging you to accept this gift of salvation, to claim this for yourself, then the Holy Spirit of adoption has already been given to you, and is working on you. What is asked of us, is to deny ourselves in order to receive Christ, to claim his sacrifice as a payment for our sin, to welcome the adoption that is offered to us. It’s that easy, and it’s that hard. We do not earn this; we only receive it.