Today marks the close of our little mini-series on the kingdom of God. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and I hope that it’s helped you to feel a little more comfortable thinking, talking and learning about your place in God’s kingdom on earth.
Of course, I hope you’ll share what you’ve heard with others. To this end, I’m going to put the four sermons together in a little booklet for you to have. When they’re ready, I hope you’ll take two. Keep one for yourself and give one to someone you know who might benefit by it – perhaps someone who doesn’t go to church regularly, or who’s going through a difficult time, or who might need a little extra boost.
In the previous sermons, we’ve found Jesus and his disciples to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee. In today’s text we find them on their way back home. As they walk along, Jesus tells the disciples what to expect in the coming days. He says,
“The Son of Man is being handed over to the hands of men,
and they will kill him;
and when he is killed,
on the third day he will rise again” (Mark 9:31).
Now, you might wonder, when Jesus prophesied his own crucifixion and resurrection, why the disciples didn’t stop right then and there and demand an explanation: “Whoa, Lord! What are you talking about? What do you mean, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed?’ Betrayed by whom? Why? What’s this all about?”
You’d think Jesus’ pronouncement would’ve stopped them in their tracks, but no, according to Mark, they just kept walking, as if he’d said something innocuous like, “It looks like it might just rain this evening.” He tells them that he will soon be arrested and crucified, and the next thing we’re told is, “He came to Capernaum….” (Mark 9:33).
So, why didn’t Jesus’ disciples pay attention when he told them of his impending passion and death? Mark says they were afraid to ask, but I think there’s more to it than that. Just look at the next verse. It’s right there in the text: They were too wrapped up in their own sense of importance. Mark says,
“He came to Capernaum,
and when he was in the house he asked them,
‘What were you arguing among yourselves on the way?’
But they were silent,
for they had disputed one with another on the way
about who was the greatest'” (Mark 9:33-34).
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The disciples missed one of the most significant moments in history because they were absorbed in their own self-importance. They wanted to know which one of them would be greatest in the kingdom of God. And this is what I hope you’ll get out of the sermon today: The greatest people in the kingdom of God are not the rich and powerful, but the weak and powerless; not the ones with the most servants, but the ones who serve others the most. To make his point, Jesus took a child and held her in his arms and said,
“Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me,
and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me,
but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37).
If you read on to the next chapter in Mark’s gospel you’ll find where people brought their children to Jesus hoping that he might bless them. The disciples thought it was a waste of time: “Don’t bother him; he’s got more important things to do.” Mark says,
“But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation,
and said to them, ‘Allow the little children to come to me!
Don’t forbid them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Most certainly I tell you,
whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child,
he will in no way enter into it.’
He took them in his arms, and blessed them,
laying his hands on them” (Mark 10:14-16).
The Greek word for children is mikrone, and it’s sometimes translated, “little ones.” For example, Jesus said,
“Whoever gives one of these little ones
just a cup of cold water to drink
in the name of a disciple,
most certainly I tell you
he will in no way lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).
On the surface, that sounds touching and sentimental, like a politician kissing babies. What we need to understand is that, most often, when children are mentioned in the Bible, they’re usually lumped together with the women, cattle and sojourners. In other words, when it comes to the kingdom, children are low on the food chain.
But Jesus puts them at the top of the heap: “To receive a child is to receive me,” he says “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them.… Whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, he will in no way enter into it.”
In Jesus’ day, children represented the epitome of powerlessness. They had no rights or legal standing. They were totally dependent on their parents to provide for them and protect them. They were totally subject to the authority of others. Yet, Jesus said, “If you want to be a part of the kingdom of God, become as a child.”
What does it say about who’s greatest in the kingdom? And what does that tell us about the value system of this world in which we live?
First, it tells us that it’s not what we have, but who we are, that’s precious in God’s sight.
It’s no secret, the world values material wealth, and the more you have, the better. “The one with the most toys wins!” That’s the mindset of the world in which we live.
Every year Forbes Magazine pulls out all the stops to name the richest men and women of the world so we can ooh and aah over them – as if this were the all-important measure of success.
But we needn’t blame Forbes. We’re constantly looking over our shoulders and comparing what we have with others. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” we call it. And just look at how we go gaga over “VIPs” – how we give them preferential treatment.
All the while we ignore what Jesus taught us about the nature of God’s kingdom; how, in the kingdom of God, the widow’s single mite is greater than the riches of the wealthy and how, in the final judgment, a lowly beggar like Lazarus will sit at the heavenly banquet while a wealthy miser like Dives will watch from the flames of hell below. (Lk. 16)
The Bible speaks of a God who loves us with an unconditional, unending love … so that the one sheep who is lost is more precious than the ninety-nine who are safe in the fold; a repentant sinner is praised over a self-righteous Pharisee; and how not a single sparrow falls to the earth without grieving the heavenly Father.
This is a word we need to hear because, as far as the world is concerned, we’ll always come up short. We’ll never have enough faith, or do enough good works; we’ll never have enough education or knowledge, or be righteous enough to stand in God’s sight. And yet, in the face of all these shortcomings and more, Jesus says,
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,
for I am gentle and lowly in heart;
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
In God’s sight what’s important is not what we have to offer – or what we lack – but who we are. That’s what it means to become as a child.
It also means to rely on God’s strength, not our own. In fact, it’s to live with the paradox Paul discovered in his own life when the Lord said to him,
“My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
And Paul responded to him,
“Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses,
that the power of Christ may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Paul’s not the only one: Remember how God called the young boy, Samuel, to bring the people of Israel back to faith? Remember the story of David and Goliath? Why, David was only a kid! And then there’s Solomon. Just before he was to be anointed as king of Israel, he confessed,
“I am but a little child.
I don’t know how to go out or come in” (1 Kings 3:7).
It was a child who gave his lunch to Jesus and Jesus used it to feed a multitude. Jesus himself came to earth not as a gallant warrior, the son of nobility, but as a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, the son of a carpenter. Little wonder, when Isaiah prophesied the coming of the kingdom, he said,
“The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf, the young lion, and the fattened calf together;
and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
It’s not our strength that’s important, but the power of God’s Spirit working within us. It’s not our ability, but our availability, that counts – our willingness to let God use us as instruments of his grace and love. This is what Paul said to the Corinthians,
“Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men,
and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For you see your calling, brothers,
that not many are wise according to the flesh,
not many mighty, and not many noble;
but God chose the foolish things of the world
that he might put to shame those who are wise.
God chose the weak things of the world,
that he might put to shame the things that are strong;
and God chose the lowly things of the world,
and the things that are despised,
and the things that are not,
that he might bring to nothing the things that are:
that no flesh should boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:25-29).
That’s what it means to become as a child, to rely on God’s strength, not your own.
It also means to give up your stubborn, independent nature and trust God to direct your life and provide all that you need for a full and abundant life. To be more specific, it means,
• When you’re faced with obstacles you can’t overcome;
• When you encounter problems you can’t solve;
• When you’re given a task you can’t accomplish;
• When you’re faced with a challenge greater than your wisdom or ability …
… you’ll look to God and know that, with God, all things are possible.
Here’s the bottom line: The greatest in the kingdom are not the rich and the powerful, the strong and the capable, the independent and the resourceful; the greatest in the kingdom are those who know their limitations and are willing to lean upon the everlasting arms of Almighty God.
If the Lord asked me to nominate just one individual to be considered as the greatest in the kingdom, I think I’d nominate John Danhoff. John was a graduate student in seminary when I first met him. He stood out because he’d had polio as a child and walked on two crutches, half dragging his legs behind him. His body was crippled and distorted, but not his spirit. He always had a big smile on his face and a hearty laugh and a razor-sharp mind that would never compromise the integrity of God’s grace and love.
His footprints were everywhere. He was the Bible teacher at the Women’s Conference at Mo Ranch. Years ago, he served a church in Midland. The folks out there still talk about his sermons, his witness, his style. He touched the lives of no telling how many young Christians and left an indelible impression, not because he had a lot of money, or because he was tall, dark and handsome, or because he was politically astute; but because he was a child of God who relied on God to lead the way and give him the ability to succeed. His weakness was his strength; his humility, a lasting virtue.
Friends, if you want a place of honor in the kingdom of God, become as a child. Divest yourself of all earthly trappings, and you’ll be among the greatest the world has ever known.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.