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St Matthew 18:1-20

Pastor Dean M. Bell

Pentecost 12, Proper 18, series A
Unknown Location  

Wed, Dec 31, 1969 

+In Nomine Iesu+

+In Nomine Iesu+

Pentecost 12

St Matthew 18:1-20

4 September 2011

"Just grow up, will you?" "Why can't you act your age?" We've all heard variations of those statements.  At one time or another they were probably aimed to us.  It's always the same.  People want children to stop acting like children.  For many parents the "growing up" of Jack and Jill can't happen fast enough.

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But if adulthood is so great, why doesn't Jesus praise it?  Why doesn't He put adults on a pedestal and encourage children to be like them?  He doesn't, you know.  In fact He does the opposite.

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Jesus' disciples had a question.  "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Do you think they might have had an ulterior motive for asking that question?  A vested interest in the answer, maybe?  Do you think they might have been expecting Jesus to say something like, "Well, you guys are, of course. You're the greatest."  Why shouldn't they expect that?  After all, they had left everything to follow Jesus.  They had given up livelihoods, careers.  They had been toiling away just like good disciples should.  At the very least some future reward should be theirs.  They'd earned it.  At least they thought so.  They were simply looking at things the way adults could be expected to.

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So, how does Jesus respond to His disciples question?  "And calling to Him a child, He put him in the midst of them."  It isn't the disciples who are set apart for praise, it's a child.  Not someone with 'grown-up' ideas - grown up ways of doing things.  No, the opposite.  Someone the adult world would label as immature and naive.

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Seems odd, doesn't it?  After all, what is a child capable of?  Not much.  They are too young to be intellectually stimulating companions.  Too small physically to be all that useful.  Too inexperienced to remember much.  Unskilled in vocabulary and conversation, or most everything else for that matter.

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But they are capable of one thing.  Trust.  Faith.  Devotion.  And they are also capable of very openly wearing their heart on their sleeve.  This is what Jesus has in mind when He says, ". . . unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."  It isn't a matter of becoming a child in terms of age.  Rather, it is the un-nuanced attitudes of children that Jesus is pointing to.  For instance, in their love for mom and dad the young want to satisfy, and that desire will show.  If mom or dad needs to rebuke the child, what usually happens?  Tears.  Anguish.  Grief.  Regret.  Repentance.  The words come pouring out.  "I'm sorry, mommy.  I didn't mean to do it.  Please don't be mad.  I'll be more careful.  Please forgive me."  The thought that they have done wrong against mom or dad - disappointed mom and dad - can devastate a child - as it should.  In children we are able to see the law - theologically speaking - doing its proper work of killing.  Killing in order that the gospel - forgiveness - might do its proper work of making alive again.

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It is with all this in the background that Jesus sets a little child before His disciples.  "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."  "Unless you turn."  What does that mean?  Well, it's a matter of repentance.  To turn from our sins to God for forgiveness.  But the language here is passive, not active.  Literally it means, "unless you are turned."  "Unless you are repented."  "Unless you are brought to repent."  Really, it's a matter of God acting on us.  It's never a case of, "Well, I think I'll repent this week.  It's been awhile.  God will appreciate my sincerity."  Rather, to repent is to come to recognize and act upon the truth of God's Word.  As the psalmist writes, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight."  To repent is to recognize that the psalmist is speaking the truth and any "ya, but" attitude on our part will show we are liars.  And notice also that according to Jesus, without such repentance there will be no hope - ever - of entering the kingdom of heaven.  Only to the one who repents - the one who is turned - will the door of the kingdom be opened.  Here is the narrow way that Jesus speaks of elsewhere.

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Jesus continues.  "Whoever humbles himself like this child . . ."  The one who has been turned humbles himself.  But what does it mean to be "humbled."  Let's use another word - a synonym.  Let's use a word that is more pointed - more direct.  Actually, a word that is less attractive.  "Whoever humiliates himself like this child."  To be humiliated is to be shown to be without ability - shown to be helpless.  Weak.  Totally dependant.  Feeble to the point of powerlessness.  Really, it is to be at the mercy of someone else.  And that's who we are - even if we don't like to admit it.  But think.  When you got ready to drive here this morning did you make the car engine run?  When you planted you garden last spring did you make the seeds grow?  When you went to bed last night, did you make the stars shine?  And did you make the sun come up this morning?  You know the answers.  And in those examples you get a glimpse of your humiliation - your humility.  We are completely dependant.  And if we are so totally dependant in earthly things, we will certainly be dependant in heavenly things.  It can't be any other way.

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There is a great deal of law in this text.  If we cause a believing child to stumble in his faith we deserve to be cast into the sea with a millstone tied round our neck.  If we are the source of temptations to sin for someone else, woe to us Jesus says.  If our hands or feet or eyes cause us to sin, Jesus says, remove them. 

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We also find here a lot of instruction as to how we should live.  We are to seek the lost in the same was that a shepherd would seek a lost sheep.  We are given directions as to how to restore peace among divided Christians.  First, go privately.  If that fails, bring witnesses along.  If the offending one will not listen, eventually it becomes a matter for the entire church to deal with.  It may even become necessary to excommunicate someone if they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge their sin and repent.

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Lots of law.  Lots of instruction.  But is there any gospel?  Is there any forgiveness for the sinner here?  Any hope for you and me?  Any hope for us who always fail at the law, always do poorly in living the Christian life?  Yes.  And I think we see it at the very beginning of this text.  The gospel appears, I think, in this business of being turned - being brought to repentance.  After all, if God causes us to turn and to repent - if He causes us to become humble - why does He do it if not to forgive?  It is, after all, Jesus who is speaking.  It is He who as the Good Shepherd once found us - baptized us - and brought us to the safety of His sheepfold, the Church.  If God the Father were not the One who rushes to forgive because of Jesus' perfect obedience - Jesus' perfect sacrifice on the cross - if our heavenly Father were not the forgiving One there would have been no reason for this text to have been written.  If there were no forgiveness for our failures there would be no hope.  And without hope we would despair of life, and hate God.

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But it was written.  And it was written for your learning so you might know how repentance works.  So that you might learn that everything is from God.  Indeed, this text was written so that you might "believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name."

Amen

+Soli Deo Gloria+





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