Mark 9:30-37 (New International Version)
Who is Greatest?
33They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37″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.”
Mark 10:13-16 (New International Version)
The Little Children and Jesus
13People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14When 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. 15I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Growing up in the 1990’s was quite an experience. I grew up during an era when the cartoons on television were worth watching. We watched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-man, The Thundercats, and perhaps one of my favorite cartoons of all times, Animaniacs.
During my Junior High years I was quite the hit among girls and boys alike because of my ability to mimic the voice of Wakko Warner, one of the characters from Animaniacs. I even had a Wakko shirt, which I bet still hangs in my closet in Ohio.
But something happened between the summer of my last year of Junior High and my first year of High School. I remember being in the 9th grade, a freshman, and speaking in my Wakko voice in a mixed gender group. And this comical voice that had so often brought forth laughter in the 8th grade now elicited a different response. I got told by a girl that I was immature and that I needed to grow up.
What the heck! Last year I was cool. Now I’m immature? That hit me hard. I still remember that 15 years later. Not only the experience, but the feelings with which I was overcome. So what did I do? I tried to grow up, to mature. Gone were the silly voices and the silly T-shirts. They were replaced by sarcastic banter and polo shirts.
Perhaps you have a similar story of when you made the decision that it was time to grow up. But today I want to encourage you to be childish once again. Today I want to show you that there are characteristics that most children posses at some point in their lives that we should all seek to reacquire today. And we will get there, but let’s first start by looking at the context of our scripture for this morning.
I sometimes feel bad for the twelve disciples. They really are not made to look too bright in the Gospels, are they? In the text leading up to our scripture for this morning we find that Jesus and his disciples are passing through Galilee and they stop for a teaching moment. Jesus reveals to them yet again that he is going to be handed over to the authorities, killed, and then rise again on the third day. And yet again the text tells us that they don’t get it. And when these things really do happen, we see that the disciples still didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about until after the resurrection.
So I feel kind of bad for the disciples because I think I can understand why they seem so confused so often. Jesus was always teaching in parables. He was always talking about mustard seeds, yeast, lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons, sowers, reapers, and now he was talking about dieing and rising again. I would assume they were trying to figure out what it was that Jesus was trying to tell them in this parable, only what they didn’t know was that this wasn’t a parable at all.
In addition to the fact that Jesus often did teach in parables, the disciples may have assumed this was a parable because it did not fit into their understanding of who Jesus was. They understood him to be the next great king of Israel, like David and Solomon. Jesus was going to reunite the chosen people and they were going to drive the Romans out of their Promised Land. So there was no way that Jesus was going to die. This must have been a parable.
So these poor confused disciples are walking along the road to Capernaum after Jesus throws this non-parable parable at them and you can see by their conversation that they are still expecting Jesus to be some kind of militant leader or physical king. They are talking among themselves and arguing about which of them is the greatest. I would think that they are trying to establish some kind of hierarchy for their future positions under Jesus when he becomes the next king of Israel. Jesus hears them chattering back and forth as they walk and after they arrive at their destination Jesus asks them what it was that they were talking about back there. Oops, they just got caught.
Now Jesus launches into a parable, or perhaps more of a metaphor. He takes this teaching opportunity and sits down to tell the disciples something important. “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” To illustrate this, Jesus gets a hold of the closest child to him and says that whoever welcomes one like a child welcomes him and welcomes the one who sent him.
At first glance it might seem like Jesus is just rattling off random things here about humility, children, and being welcoming. But I think that these things are very much connected.
How old was Jesus when he began his public ministry? Around 30 years old. Why would he have waited 30 years to begin his ministry? This is God incarnate, he was probably more knowledgeable at three years old than most of us are at thirty or sixty for that matter. No, Jesus waited until he was thirty to begin his public ministry because that was the common age for someone to be considered to have lived enough to be able to teach others. Think of Paul’s letters to Timothy when he tells Timothy to not let anyone look down on him because of his age. Your credentials in the first century included your birth certificate (okay they didn’t actually have birth certificates) that confirmed that you had gone around the sun at least 30 times and were therefore experienced enough to have something worthwhile to teach others. This makes Luke’s account of a twelve-year-old Jesus teaching at the temple all the more impressive.
Children were to be seen and not heard. Sure, children were a blessing, especially sons, but they also got in the way when grownups were trying to have a serious discussion.
So Jesus says that if you want to be first in his kingdom, you need to be a servant to all. Even to the little children, welcoming them in as your guest. That is humbling, especially for these disciples that were thinking that they were going to be the great decision makers, the great political advisors, and the great generals in Jesus’ kingdom. No, they are getting stuck with diaper duty.
Evidently the disciples were not listening to Jesus when he spoke these things to them because if we look ahead to Mark chapter 10, people are bringing their children to Jesus and the disciples are chasing them off! He just said to welcome them, now they are chasing them off! Jesus rebukes the disciples for doing this and he gives them a stern lesson. He tells them that anyone that does not receive the kingdom of God like one of these children will never enter into it. The parallel in Matthew 19 says that unless we become like children, we will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.
So I am getting pretty excited about being a daddy in a little more than three months. This last week I painted our nursery (Yukon Gold) and I found myself full of anticipation, more so than I have been for a while as I thought about the opportunities that I would have to raise up and teach another living, breathing human being. But as I looked at these scriptures from Mark about Jesus and the children, I realized that perhaps there was something that we should be learning from children. We are to receive the kingdom of God as a child does and if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven we need to become like a child. So what does that mean?
I started thinking about what characteristics children have that we as adults should emulate. And don’t worry, I know that there are also things that we should not seek to emulate. The first thing I thought of is that children are inquisitive. If you have ever been around children, you know that they ask a lot of questions. How much longer until we get there? Why can’t I have a candy bar? Why is the sky blue and the grass green? Why can’t I have a pet snake?
Many of you will remember Greta Shenk, who was a YPCA member that came to Staunton Mennonite as a part of the Y-church program. Both of Greta’s parents are seminary professors and I had the opportunity to study under them both in my seminary days. Greta’s parents, Sara and Gerald, are both quite intelligent people. Gerald has a PhD in Sociology of Religion and Sara has a doctorate in education. So they wanted their children to grow up with the opportunity to learn as much as they could.
Sara and Gerald made an effort to answer all of the “why” questions that their children asked. They didn’t want their children to just mindlessly do as they were told, but to be informed even as little children. So when asked “why?” they would take the time to explain things rather than just say “Because I said so!”
But Gerald shared a story one time about when they rented a boat for a family vacation and they were having some issues steering the boat. I don’t remember what they were heading toward, but I will say that it was a waterfall because that makes the story better. So they were on this boat and they were heading toward this waterfall and Gerald just starts barking out orders to the three kids. Grab the sail! Lower it quickly! Throw the anchor overboard! And the kids kept asking, “Why daddy? Why daddy?” That was a time when he needed them to just do as he said and not take time to answer questions!
But kids are naturally inquisitive. They ask questions. They realize that there is a lot that they have to learn yet, and they believe that they can learn from other people. I believe that the same is true for us as Christians.
So often we are discouraged from asking questions as Christians because I guess that we are afraid that asking hard questions will damage our faith. But I find it much more damaging to my faith when people just throw orders or doctrine or scripture at me than when they actually sit down with me and have a discussion, even if that discussion involves us all admitting that we don’t always have all of the answers.
I come back to the text leading up to our scripture for today where Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to be handed over, killed, and then rise again. Chapter 9 verse 32 says, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
I remember being told that when you ask a question you run the risk of looking like a fool for a few minutes, but when you don’t ask a question you run the risk of looking like a fool for the rest of your life. The disciples did not ask questions and they didn’t seem to understand Jesus’ role here on earth until after the resurrection.
How many of us have never asked the difficult questions that we have, either because it will make us look less intelligent or less spiritual or for whatever other reason you can think of? I encourage you to ask those “why” questions like a little child. Ask the tough questions.
As I shared with someone from church that I would be speaking about the childlike characteristics that we are to emulate he responded by asking about the scripture form 1 Corinthians 13 where it says something along the lines of when I was a child I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child. But when I became a man I put away childish things. He asked me why the Bible seems to say in one place to be like a child and in another to put away childish things. Why does the Bible contradict itself? Those are the kind of questions I want you to feel free to ask. Children are inquisitive and I believe that we as Christians should be inquisitive as well. Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find.
The next characteristic of children that I think we need to adopt as our own is that children are inviting. We were all children at some point in our lives, and we were probably all told, “Don’t talk to strangers.” Why did our parents teach us to not talk to strangers? Because most of us would talk to strangers. Kids don’t understand the norms of society. They look at people that they don’t know, they smile at them, they talk to strangers.
Maybe you have had this experience as well, but I have been in a conversation with a young family, meeting them for the first time, and I always try to talk to the little kids as well. And every now and then these little kids will invite me over to their homes.
I think that the parents are sometimes a little embarrassed by this. “Hey little Johnny. We just met Mr. Kevin. I am sure that he doesn’t want to come to our home.” Or maybe “He’s a busy man and he probably can’t come over to play right now.”
I think that it is great that kids are so open and inviting to other people. Now obviously there are some safety issues involved when we are talking about kids, but at what point in our lives do we become so privatized? When do we begin to walk past our neighbor on the street and not even make eye contact, yet alone say hello. God forbid we invite them over to our home like I’ve been invited by a little child! Our lives are private. We build fences, both figuratively and literally between us and our neighbors. We go to work in the morning, come home late in the evening, throw something together for supper, eat in our homes, watch television all evening, do it all over again the next day and we never have to interact with anyone else.
We have made our lives private, and following along those same lines we have made our faith private. We even use terminology that indicates that our faith is private. We talk about Jesus as our personal savior and we say that we have a personal relationship with God. Where do we get this stuff? That isn’t biblical. Yes it is important to have a relationship with God, but it should never just be about you and God. It is about a communal relationship with God. Jesus isn’t your personal savior like you have a personal assistant or a personal trainer. This even seems to suggest that there is another savior. Jesus is my personal savior; you better go find your own. No, John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son. Jesus wasn’t just sent for me, he was sent for the world. Privatized lives lead to privatized religion. My God is too big to be my personal god. We need to be more inviting, inviting people into our homes, into our lives, and into a life of following Jesus.
The third personality trait about children that I want to point out that we should emulate is that they are accepting. Children are not racist. Children are not sexist (until girls/boys become yucky). They do not discriminate based on class, level of income, occupation, education, hair color, eye color. Maybe even more impressive is that children do not judge other people based on what they have done in their past. They just play with whoever is close by. They might disagree on their favorite toys and their favorite baby food, but they don’t fight. I’ve never heard of a baby killing another baby over the rights to oil, gold, or diamonds. That’s something that they learn later in life, probably from watching us.
This accepting nature is the way that Jesus models relationships for us in the Bible. Dining with the tax collectors and the sinners, hanging out with the prostitutes, even lifting up the actions of a good Samaritan as the way his followers should respond to people in need.
We as Christians are quick to say that we need to love the sinner and hate the sin. But how are we living that out? I fear that too often we attempt to isolate ourselves from “sinners”. And believe me, I get this. I know why we avoid certain places and things. We try to avoid certain temptations. James tells us to resist the devil and he will flee from you. But there is a big difference between resisting temptation and avoiding the very people that we are told to love; the very same people for whom Jesus died.
As we begin now to decorate the nursery in our home, Sonya has made the executive decision that she wants to decorate the room with items from Ten Thousand Villages. She wants to decorate it with handicrafts made by artisans from around the world. Wall hangings and toys from Africa, Asia, Europe, South America. And though this will be a more expensive alternative to shopping at Target or Babies-R-Us, I support this idea. I want our child to embrace the diversity of this world. I want our child to know that all people are not just like him or her. I want our child to respect other people’s opinions and their culture. I hope that we can allow our child to maintain that characteristic that all children are born with that says all people are okay, even if we don’t agree with them. But yet I also want my children to stand up for what they believe in. Not to be wishy-washy on their theology, but to approach God with awe, reverence, and confidence.
Inquisitive, invitational, and accepting. Those are three of the personality traits of children that I believe we should seek to adopt. Which ones do you think would be helpful?