Monday, September 11, 2023

Who's the Greatest?

[Below you'll find the message presented during both worship services at Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You'll also find live stream video of both services.]

One of the stories we often tell in our family revolves around something that happened when our kids were about ten and seven.

We’d visited family in Columbus and stopped at a Columbus shopping center before heading back to Cincinnati, where we lived.

After we’d finished our errand, we got into the car and were pulling out, when we heard a kind of whimpering yell from behind us. It was Philip, who wasn’t yet in the car. We stopped and Phil jumped in.

Now, why did we stop to get him?

I mean, we’d successfully collected 50% of our kids and, with Phil being ten years old, he was costing us a lot of money without generating any income. And besides, it was a hassle taking him to this event and that activity. Phil hadn’t attained any great achievements, led any governments or armies, or made his first billion dollars. He was completely dependent on us.

So, why did we bother bringing him back into the car?

We stopped, of course, because every member of a family, from the child awaiting birth in its mother’s womb to the infirm parent no longer able to take care of themselves, matters

In the section of Matthew’s gospel that starts with this morning’s gospel lesson, Matthew 18:1-20, Jesus talks about how the people in His family, that is, His kingdom, His Church, are to regard one another. The key to understanding today’s lesson is found in the first five verses. So, today, we’re only going to address those verses. 

It all begins with the disciples asking Jesus a question: “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1)

This kind of question is very important for people trying to get ahead in the world…or, if they’re of a religious inclination, to impress God. We human beings complain about rules, but we really like rules, mostly because we think if we can stay on top of the rules of the universe–or at least appear to be obeying them, we’ll be top dogs.

At the first church I served as pastor, we had a five-week long summer school for kids in the third through eighth grades focusing on the Bible and Catechism. We had 85 students. For recess during the last week one year, I set up a kickball tournament. I announced that we would play the tournament March Madness-style, only with a twist: the losing teams would advance. One boy, troubled by the set-up, asked, “How will we know which is the best team?” When I told him that we wouldn’t know, he offered a quietly disappointed, “Oh.”

So, these questions of who’s most important, who’s the best, who has the most, who’s on top, and even who’s the best Christian, seem to be important to us, even from a young age. 

When Jesus is asked who is most important in His kingdom, Matthew says: “He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’” (Matthew 18:2-4)

We mustn’t miss Jesus’ point here. Jesus is not saying that children are innocent and therefore, we should imitate them. Children may be gullible or credulous; but children are not innocent.

Like King David, writing in Psalm 51, Jesus knows and we know that every child conceived by human parents is born in sin. That means we’re all born wanting to be in charge.

Part of the job of those God puts in authority over children–parents, grandparents, teachers, governments–is to keep them and the rest of us from running roughshod over others who are just as loved by God as we are.

What Jesus is pointing to in this child is their status.

No one is needier than a child.

All children need someone to take care of them. Think of what Jesus is saying to the question posed by the disciples then. He tells them, essentially, “Set aside for a moment.” To anyone trying to be the greatest in HIs Kingdom, Jesus says, “You won’t even enter My kingdom unless you recognize that there is nothing you can do to make yourself acceptable for life with God!” When it comes to life with God, the number one requirement is our neediness, our complete inability to be good enough or righteous enough for life with God!

When I was growing up, I was filled with all sorts of ambition. I had delusions of grandeur. I took an early interest in history, government, and politics. I was sure I was destined for greatness, whatever that is. I think that’s part of why I became an atheist: I was sure I was better than anyone who might get in my way and I didn’t want any God pretending He was more important than me.

When Jesus stepped back into my life a few years after Ann and I were married and I understood that God and His love were for real and that, despite my egotism and selfishness, God wanted a knucklehead like me for all eternity, I fell in love with Christ. I came to understand that all my egotistical presumption and Mark Daniels, the egotist, had to die. I had to daily take up the cross of all my sin, including my pretense of self-sufficiency and intrinsic goodness, submitting it and myself to daily crucifixion so that, unburdened of my sin, I could walk with Christ in newness of life, an undeserved forgiveness and hope.

It has been a hard lesson for this hardhead to learn, which is why I pray quite regularly, “Father, in Jesus’ name, make war on my ego. Please, make war on my ego.”

I visited a shut-in this past week. At one point she told me that she was surprised I took the time to visit her. Later, I read the first five verses of this gospel lesson for today to her and said, “Earlier, you wondered why I would visit you. It’s simple. You’re like that little child. You have physical issues and it’s hard for you to get around. You may think you have no value. But in the eyes of Jesus, precisely because in your weakness you know how much you need Jesus, you are the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul says he was afflicted with “a thorn in the flesh.” This thorn could have been a physical affliction. It could have been depression. We don’t know. Paul says that he asked God to remove this thorn three times and each time, the God Who loved him, just as He loves you and me, told Paul, “No.” God explained to Paul, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God was telling Paul, “Your faith in Me and in My grace grows when, in your weakness, you learn to depend on Me.” Paul writes in response to God’s refusal to remove the thorn from his flesh: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Friends, if you’re tempted to feel everything is going so well that Jesus and His Church are optional accessories in a life over which you’re sure you have control, watch out! The reality of your neediness may soon smack you in the face.

If though, as a mortal sinner, like the rest of us mortal sinners, you know that you too are a little child, dependent on the God we know in Jesus for every good and perfect gift, then rejoice!

Rejoice in the gift of Christ crucified and risen!

Rejoice in the gift of grace by which, at His cross and empty tomb, He has already saved you from sin, death, and hell for life with Him!

Rejoice in the power Christ gives you to live each day in God’s forgiveness and love!

Rejoice too, because it is to children like you who know you need Jesus that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs now and forever! Amen