Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Finding My Voice with Such as These

Last night I preached my first sermon. I am taking a grad course in Homiletics, and the "big day" finally came. (In fact, my life has been wrapped up in grad school, thus the reason for lack of blogging.) My emotions were all over the place...nervous, excited, anxious and peaceful--all at the same time. This class has been big for me in a lot of ways. I intend to write more on that later, but for now, here is my first attempt at a sermon.

Such as these

Mark 10:13-16 And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, "Permit the children to come to me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all. “And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them. (NASB)

It’s quite a story, quite a concept. The kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is near…The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you…This is what the kingdom of God is like…What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?...The kingdom of God belongs to such as these….Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!....You are not far from the kingdom of God.

What is the kingdom of God? Is it the far off eschatological reign of God, or was it Jesus’ ministry on earth. Or is it God’s presence within the church now? Whatever the full answer may be, what we do see is that the kingdom of God is very important in the world imagined in Mark’s gospel, and it seems to be inextricably linked to the identity of Jesus.[1]

And the question of the hour for Mark centers around the identity of Jesus: Who am I? And in this whirlwind of narrative, miracles, and teaching, Mark begs the question from us in return: Who are we? It’s kind of unfair, you know--we get the inside scoop with these questions. We know the beginning, we know the end, and Mark gives us great direction for the journey. We have the benefit of knowing from the very beginning that he is “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1) We know that “He has risen. He is not here.” (16:6) And we know, too, that “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (10:43). And I think that is where Mark wants to take us in this journey today.

Now, as usual in Mark’s narrative, the disciples just didn’t get it. Their confusion about the elusive kingdom of God was greater than ours. And Jesus takes time (and time and time again) to try and show them, tell them about his kingdom. Jesus’ ministry is coming to a close. He is on his way to Jerusalem; He knows his time is quickly approaching, and the kingdom is closer to his heart than ever. He’s predicted his death twice already, and the disciples repeatedly respond inappropriately. They are ready to be the trusty sidekicks to their “superhero” Jesus who they think has come to save the day from villainous Rome—march in, take over, set up shop. Can’t you see it? James and John, fighting for position of “Robin”, second in command to their “Batman” Jesus. But Jesus reminds them that the first will be last in his kingdom--that his kingdom requires a life of service and sacrifice, not honor and glory. And that is where we land in our text today. Listen, once more, to the words of Jesus in this narrative:

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch 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. I tell you the truth, 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, put his hands on them and blessed them. (NIV)

These few verses raise several good questions: Why were people bringing their little children to Jesus…Why did the disciples turn them away?...Why was Jesus so angry with them? But in light of our kingdom context, in light of the question posed by Jesus “Who Am I?”, and in effort to shed light on our response to Jesus’ question with another question, “Who are we?, I’d invite us to settle down and spend some time with Mark considering what it means to be “such as these.” After all, the kingdom of God belongs to “such as these.”

Please, Mark, tell us more! What did Jesus mean? Mark seems to make the point, time and again, that the heart of the kingdom is found in unexpected places and through unexpected people. In this story, the little children are those “least likely” people. The little ones described here are truly the smallest of children. And I think part of what makes them so unexpected is simply the fact that they are literally the “least.” They are small, helpless, needy, and quite unable to make it on their own. But even more than this, Jesus sees something in the hearts of these little ones that he wants us to see.

Now, let’s be honest. There are attributes of children that may make us question Jesus a little bit here. Aren’t children selfish? Aren’t they completely self-centered? Don’t they deliberately disobey and then lie to cover it up? Well, yes…they can be and yea, sometimes they do. But I’m not sure this is what Jesus was getting at.

I asked some good friends what they thought about Jesus’ words about children. I received replies from mothers, fathers, teachers, grandmas, and preachers.[2] A common thread throughout their responses was the idea of a child’s trust, faith, simplicity, ability to forgive, honesty and purity. My friend Brenda, a special education teacher, shared her thoughts rather poignantly: I believe that children have some qualities early in life that are often twisted and thwarted by the devil in those of us who have grown older. One of the most important qualities is authenticity. Children have not yet had the world batter and bend the spirit that God gave them into something else that the world might find more "acceptable." They are honest, brave, willing to take a risk, willing to learn something new, willing to be taught and molded by those who have more experience, and willing to always give you another chance to do good. They will forgive and forgive and forgive even the most chillingly hateful and neglectful parent. They will share too little food with a younger sibling, or curl up in your lap and hold you through the deepest depression. They will always reach out first, and ask what risk or cost it will have for them later. They say things that we are all thinking. This sometimes makes us cringe at the brutal honesty found in what they have observed. It often makes us confront our own lacking example to them.

Truly the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I have to ask myself, is my heart one that is moldable? Do I speak truth and forget wrongs before I even have the chance to forgive? Do I truly have a heart authentically seeking Jesus? Do you? And isn’t that really the heart of the matter? A child is completely dependent on someone else to meet their every need. Children realize that they need someone in their lives to care for them, and they desperately want to be close to that person—for their life utterly depends on it.

I have a good friend who told me a story about his 3-year-old son, Derek. He would often sing himself to sleep, and especially at that age, he would sing out just as loud as he could. My friend would often tiptoe down the hallway and sit at the bottom of the stairs – just to listen to him. Derek would sing songs he learned in Sunday school or songs he heard his parents singing around the house or playing from a CD. But every once in a while, he would just sing what he was thinking or feeling – almost like a 3-year old writing a song, or even singing a prayer. One night he went on at length about how much he wanted to be close to God, addressing Him in first-person, and saying over and over again how he wanted to be close to Him and see what He looks like. And at one point, little Derek sang out as loud as he possibly could, “I just wanna be close to you, I just wanna see you, Jesus!”

Oh for the heart of a child. A child knows just how needy they are, and they aren’t afraid to ask for—even cry out for help. They can accept the gift of the kingdom for what it actually is without thoughts of earning it or deserving it. They know they need it—and they know they need the one who feely gives it. Indeed, the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

I have been on this journey with Mark, Jesus, and the little ones for some time now. And our journey, rather vividly one day in particular, took me to the world imagined in scripture. Maybe today I can take you with me and Mark a little further into that world. I think we’ll see that “that world” is not so different from “this world”. I think we’ll see that we can find our story in the story.

-Let’s go Benjamin; I don’t want to miss him.

-Okay, I just want to finish this building. See? It’s our house.

-That’s nice honey, but we need to leave now. Your aunt Mary just told me that he passed by the fish market and is on his way toward the road out of town.

-But mom!


-Auhghghhh. Fine.

-Come on, take my hand.

-Where are we going, mom?

-We are going to see Jesus.

-Jesus? Who is he?

-He is a very special man, Ben. He can make sick people better and Jacob’s mom told me that he even raised a little girl back to life in Galilee.

-Oh. Why are we going to see him? Is someone sick?

-No, Ben. I want him to touch you. He is a holy man, and his touch will bring special blessings for you.

-Come on, hurry! I see a crowd over there…maybe….Yes, that must be him. There he is… there’s so many people here…I guess I’m not the only one who wants a blessing….Jesus, Jesus! Please, will you bless my boy? Jesus!

-Whoa, whoa, Everyone just step back. Jesus doesn’t have time for all of these little children. We’re on our way out of town, and he’s tired…we’re all tired…please, just leave him alone right now. …

-Why won’t those men let us see Jesus, Mom?

-Well, there are a lot of important people here, honey…I think we are just in the way…Come on, let’s go home…

-Wait, Wait! What are you doing, Peter? (let’s be truthful…we all suspect Peter was in the middle of all this) James? Stop! Don’t turn these little ones away—don’t get in their way! Don’t you see? I have tried explaining this so many times! My kingdom is close to their hearts. My kingdom, God’s kingdom—these little ones get it. They know it and accept it for what it is. They can accept me for who I am…. Learn from them. To be a part of God’s kingdom, you must accept it like these children do—simply, with faith and trust. They know no other way. Let them come to me…

-Wow, I didn’t expect that. There’s something different about him… Mary, look at Jesus picking the children up and embracing them! What is he saying to him? Will you look at Benjamin—look at him laughing—he can’t take his eyes off Jesus. I can’t remember the last time he looked at someone like that…the last time I looked at someone like that ….

-Mommy, mommy! I got to see Jesus. He gave me a hug and spun me around like Papa used to.

-That’s wonderful Ben. What did he say to you?

-He asked me a funny question.

-He did?


-What did he ask?

-He asked if I knew who he is.

-Oh? …What did you say Ben?

-I said that my mom says that you are a special man who does special things…. And then he asked me what I thought.

-He did?


-And what did you say?

-Well, I just hugged him again and said that I think that he must love me like my Papa loved me and that I love him, too. Do you think we could go and see him again sometime, Mom?

-I hope so, Ben. Come on, let’s go home

-Hey, who’s that guy coming down the read?

-I don’t know honey, but it looks like he is a very rich man. Look at all the animals and servants he has with him.

-Yea. Where is he going, mom?

-I don’t know…maybe he is heading toward the big city to do business.

-Oh… Maybe he wants to talk to Jesus.

-Probably not, Ben. I don’t think he really needs anything from Jesus.

-Why not, mom?

-Well, he seems to already have everything he needs...

-Oh… Mom?

-Yes, Ben?

-I think I need Jesus.

-You do?

-Yea, I think we all need Jesus.

-(Pause) I think you’re right, Ben, I think you’re right.

Indeed, the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

[1] Frederick Aquino notes that the concept of kingdom is “inextricably linked in the person of Jesus” in his essay, “Mark and Becoming Fully Human” from Preaching Mark’s Unsettling Messiah; ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland.

[2] A special thanks to my friends, my community of interpretation, my “scholarly seminar” for their thoughts and ideas around this text: Kellie, Brenda, Josh, Larry, Tom, Lynne, Shannon, Rubel and Janet.