Sermon from Rev. Zickler for September 10, 2017

20170910 Sermon Proper 18
September 10, 2017
Matthew 18:1-20

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.  This morning we will meditate on the Gospel Lesson especially these words, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

In our day, if we take a good look at it, we have an odd relationship with children in our culture.  To start on the one hand, look at travesty of abortion.  Here we have the littlest of all, and don’t protect them.  Likewise, in many ways we consider children a curse– by that I mean so many people who don’t want kids because it might put wear and tear on their bodies to all those who don’t want kids because it will get in the way of the career or their time for leisure.  So there’s this assumption of unwanted-ness with children on the one hand.  But on the flip side, we idolize children.  We treat them as though they are pure and innocent of themselves, that they are perfect, that we should cater to them, perhaps even their every want.  Not only that, but we idolize youth altogether.  We wish we were all young and didn’t know about the struggles of the world, nor that we had to deal with them.  It’s sort of odd when you think about this dichotomy, isn’t it?  And I say this, I think some of the challenge comes because of what Jesus said here.  You see even though our culture isn’t Christian, and I would argue never was truly, there has been a great deal of influence of Christianity on it.  And within that influence we hear those words of Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

As we hear those words, we see Jesus putting children in an exalted position.  And this was a very big deal at that time because children were considered some of the lowest in that society.  They were not catered to or adored as they so often are in our day.  That’s not to say that there weren’t loving parents and the like, but children certainly did not have the attention and protections that they have now.  Like I said, I think in part this is because of what Jesus said here.  But as we think about this, then, we should ask ourselves what this means?  What is Jesus saying when He says that we should become like children?

To start, I think we should clarify this a bit to understand what Jesus isn’t saying.  He’s not saying that children are inherently innocent or not sinful.  He’s not saying that all children go to heaven just because they’re children.  Scripture is clear that ALL have sinned, and in fact all die because of sin.  This is hard to hear, but we have to realize He’s not saying that.  Additionally, I have seen videos of kids preaching in churches—I would assume these would be more charismatic churches both based on how the children are speaking and the general response.  The justification or even response sometimes is for people to quote Jesus saying that “out of the mouths of babes” God has “ordained praise.”  Or they reference the prophecy spoken about Jesus that “a little child will lead them.”  Jesus isn’t telling us to do such things and to look to children as our spiritual leaders.  Finally, He’s also not saying that we are excused for having a depth to our faith.  I’ve heard people say that we are to have faith like a child so that means that we don’t need to worry about complex ideas and depth of understanding when it comes to God’s Word.  Jesus isn’t saying that either.

So, what is He saying?  Well, look at the words specifically: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  We see it there, don’t we?  What is it about?  It’s about humility.  If we’re honest about we can see why.  We talked about this last week a little bit too, about denying ourselves, about listening to God’s Word, about trusting that over our own ways of seeing things.  And this is along those same lines.  If we’re honest about it, we’re not humble.  We always think we know how best to go about things, what is best for us, what is best for those around us and the world.  We think a lot of ourselves.  We might try to hide it, but it’s true for absolutely everyone one of us.  We all think more highly of ourselves than we ought.  And so our Lord tells us not to do that, but to think of others as greater than ourselves, especially our Lord.  In particular we should hear our Lord’s Word and humbly trust it.  Trust it over what we see, what we think we know, even over what we experience.

As I say this I think there’s a great example, or perhaps contrast from Scripture that demonstrates this.  That’s the two stories of Mary and Zechariah, both from the Gospel of Luke.  Do you remember what happened in those stories?  To start with Zechariah, if you remember he was John the Baptist’s dad, and when he was serving as priest in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would be with child, the child John.  Now to put this in some context, you have to understand that Zechariah and Elizabeth were old, too old for kids.  Even more so they had been childless in their presumably long marriage.  So to say that Zechariah was shocked, would be I’m sure an understatement.  But in the midst of that shock Zechariah hears this word from the angel and laughs, saying, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And after explaining, Gabriel puts the judgment on Zechariah that he will forced to be mute.  

The story of Mary, on the other hand goes similarly, as the angel Gabriel comes and tells her she will be with child as well.  Mary, being a virgin responds saying, “How will this be since I do not know a man?”  And Gabriel gives explanation, but without any judgment this time.  So what’s the difference?  Zechariah looked at his experience, looked at his many years in this world, and said, “I’ve never seen a man as old as I and a woman as old as Elizabeth bear a child.”  So he concluded, “This isn’t true, it’s not going to happen!”  Mary on the other hand humbled herself to trust this word from the Lord over her knowledge and experience.  She humbled herself like a child and said, “Okay.”  In fact, Luke tells us that she said, “let it be to me according to your word.”  That’s the humility of a child.  That humility that when God speaks we say, “Okay.”  When He says He created the world in six days, we say, “Okay.”  When He says that He created the world out of nothing, we say, “Okay.”  When He says, “You are sinful and unclean and all of your righteous deeds are like filthy rags.”  We say, “Okay.”  Or maybe we say to that one, “That’s not okay, but it’s true.”

In fact, as we think about this humility and our sin in confrontation with this word of God we see what that looks like in the passage from Ezekiel.  Here Ezekiel is called to speak God’s Word to His people.  And the Lord tells Him to do this, or what?  The people are to be addressed in their sin.  Ezekiel is supposed to, “give them warning” from God.  In fact, if he doesn’t the people will perish, but God will hold Ezekiel responsible too.  God says, “his blood I will require at your hand.”  This is serious business.  This was serious for Ezekiel, and it’s serious for us now, especially as a pastor it’s serious for me.  This is part of the reason I’m always making that announcement about closed communion.  As we hear in the end of this Gospel lesson, Jesus gives to the church the authority to bind and forgive sins.  And what we see in Scripture is that this is given to the pastors to exercise this publicly.  If I don’t do this faithfully a part of which includes the forgiveness given in communion, I am accountable to you all, and even more so to God.  It’s serious.  I have to be humble to hear that word and say, “Okay.”  Just like all of us.  

Or in another example to see how serious sin is, what does Jesus say about it here?  He says, “if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”  In other words, sin is serious and you should treat it seriously by cutting off the cause of that sin. Now where do we know the true cause of sin is?  Is it in our eyes or our hands?  No, sin always comes out of our hearts.  We like to think our hearts are pure, but Jesus makes it clear that they’re not.  He tells us, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, adultery, murder, theft, coveting, etc. etc.”  And so what has to be cut out?  Our hearts.  Our hearts because we have to take this word about our sin seriously.

In fact, in our day this is why so many people think that we as Christians are so odd, isn’t it?  In our day, we aren’t allowed to take this word seriously.  We’re not allowed to hear it and say, “Okay.”  And why?  Because it makes us feel bad, right?  We can’t speak to anyone about sin, because it might make them feel sad about themselves.  We can’t be hard on ourselves about taking this sin seriously, because we just shouldn’t feel bad for just normal human things, right?  And people will be upset with the idea of a God who would take sin seriously.  People get upset with a God who would want to convict us of guilt and imperfection before Him.  They get upset at the thought of a God who doesn’t think we are just the cat’s meow because we are who we are.  And what do they say about Him?  Why would God want us to be unhappy?  What kind of God would want to be such a downer?  What kind of God would want to make us feel bad?

But is that the point, Christians?  Does God just want us to be unhappy?  Does He want us to humble ourselves and take His Word seriously just we can be glum prudes?  I hope you know that the answer to that is NO!  No God wants something far better than that.  He wants us to humble ourselves so that we would not make ourselves God, but that He would be our God.  He wants us to humble ourselves and hear that Word that says, “Yes you are a sinner and you must take your sin seriously, but beloved, I have taken it more seriously by accepting the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for that sin.  I have taken it so seriously that His blood was shed for you and I raised Him that you would know that it is utterly, totally forgiven, paid for and finished.”  He wants you to hear the word that says, “You, you individually are baptized into that death and I have given you a new heart.  You, you individually, have been fed with Jesus’ body and blood.  Washed clean in that mercy for you.”  He wants you to hear that word and trust it with humility like a child.

After all, no matter how confusing our views about children are in our day, it still holds true that the humility of a child comes to the fore in their willingness to trust.  If you tell them something is true they believe it and say “Okay.”  When you give them your word they believe it, sometimes even as a hope against hope.  That should be us Christians.  We should be humbling ourselves and hearing that word from God.  Not because it’s so serious about sin—in part yes—but in whole because it’s so serious about the forgiveness of that sin in Jesus.  Amen.