By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Isn’t it amazing what little kids can do? I don’t know; maybe it’s just grandparents who think so, but isn’t it astonishing what children can do, and see, and hear, and say?
Several years ago, an 18 wheeler was making its way through Iowa and the driver misjudged the height of his trailer while going underneath a bridge. Sure enough; half way through, the truck got stuck; its roof lodged into the overpass. The officials consternated for hours as to how to remove this rig, but then an eight year old boy suggested that they try letting the air out of the truck’s tires. Now, why didn’t the experts think of that?
During a time of drought in a Midwestern farm town, citizens were asked to come to a prayer service for rain, and they were asked to bring a tangible expression of their faith. One adult brought a bible, another brought a cross, and still another brought a picture of Jesus, walking on the water. But a little boy brought an umbrella. Why didn’t the adults think of that?
And don’t forget “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – the child among hundreds of adults who had the courage to tell Hans Christensen Andersen’s king that he was naked! Yup, children are amazing, even when they spill their milk, or dent the car with their bicycles, or dent the family car with their driving.
But the wit and wisdom of children shouldn’t surprise us; because Jesus explains it in the gospel lesson that is ours today. “Father, I thank you” Jesus said, “because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Apparently, at the beginning of time, God decided that some things in this world would only be grasped by small children and not by intelligent adults. And further, Jesus would one day say “Unless you become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of God.”
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As we consider our gospel lesson today, it is a somewhat confusing text, because it begins in the middle of a chapter. We should have backed up to the beginning verses, where Jesus had been talking about John the Baptist, the prophet who wore funny clothes and ate grasshoppers, was one of the most misunderstood people of his time. Because Jews in first century were looking for a prophet who could tell them about the coming of the Messiah, but John didn’t fit their stereotype of a theologian. He didn’t have a seminary degree, he didn’t wear typical clergy clothing. John’s office was the Judean wilderness; his sanctuary was the banks of the Jordan River. And his message was astonishing simple: believe in God, turn from your sins, and be baptized. There was no list of religious rules to memorize, no complicated rituals to follow, no graduate-level courses to pass. Just “believe, repent, and be baptized.” So most Jews rejected the message of John; they ridiculed and criticized him; criticized him for being a strange sort of prophet.
Therefore, Jesus begins this 11th chapter of Matthew by chastising the Jews for their treatment of John. “You’re like children who tease other children” Jesus says; “those who reject other kids for walking to the beat of a different drummer. You criticized John for reaching out to the nobodies of this world. He was speaking the truth about me, but God has hidden the truth from you and, instead, revealed it to newborn babies.” These newborns – the infants in this case – are the Gentiles, the non-Jews, the “Johnny-come-latelys” of this world. How could the Jews – these faithful Jews; these chosen people – not be “in the loop” when it comes to spiritual truth? It’s because they refused to see the truth when it didn’t conform to their idea of religion. The truth was right in their midst and they failed to see it because of their pride.
And then they missed more good news. Jesus goes on to tell them that the simplicity of the faith is that you don’t have to carry around your garbage anymore. You can deposit it with Jesus and go on with your lives. “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”
Several years ago, Pastor Keith was counseling a couple. For weeks, they came into his office, which is Linda’s office now; an office that also has a door to a furnace room. And for weeks, they pointed fingers, they blamed each other, they brought up decades old complaints and accusations. Until one day, Keith had them write their complaints on butcher paper, and they wrote and wrote and wrote. Then Keith brought out a plastic garbage bag and said “Now put your garbage in here, and I’m going to place it in this furnace room. If you ever want your garbage back again, you know where find it. But today, you’re walking out of here and leaving your garbage behind.”
The load that most Jews carried was religious rules, and the guilt for breaking them. They had 612 laws to follow; plus our Ten Commandments. They had rules about dressing, and cooking, and eating, and washing, and marrying and burying; laws for working and laws for resting; laws for women, and different laws for men. Rules, rules, rules! And Jesus said “If you’re tired of carrying the weight of these rules, come to me, where the rules are few and grace is abundant.” Some did; most didn’t. But the ones who really understood Jesus’ message were the infants, the newbies, the Gentiles, whose lives were littered with sin, but were uncluttered by religious rules.
If Jesus were here today, I wonder if he wouldn’t begin his teaching in the very same way. “Because aren’t the religious people of this age just as consumed by rules as those 2000 years ago? Is the measurement of your religion how well you keep the rules? Is that it? Then no wonder unchurched people run from us! They don’t want a life of rules that people can’t keep anyway. So when they hear the gospel of Jesus, it sounds like good news to them. Because they don’t hear “do this!” and “don’t do that!” What they hear is “Come to me, if you’re tired of carrying you guilt and shame, and let me carry it for you.”
If children can understand how this offer is a wonderful gift to sinners, then I wonder why us adult sinners are so stubborn about hanging on to the garbage of the past. Why do we have such difficulty grasping a simple thing called “forgiveness”? Imagine how different the world would be, instead of harboring resentment and anger at our enemies, we just decided to forgive them. Imagine how different the church would look if we stopped carrying grudges from previous generations. Imagine for a moment how the political landscape would change if candidates refused to personally attack one another and instead, had simple conversations as to what each would do to make this a better nation. Imagine how peaceful life would be if we accepted unique and diverse people for the way they are, instead of being cruel to them until they become like us. These are the natural qualities of children. And I believe this is, in part, what Jesus had in mind when he said that we must become like children. But instead, we raise children to become like us; judgmental, self-centered, sometimes hurtful, often angry, and always right. And perhaps Jesus looks down on us and wonders “What don’t they understand about love and grace?”
There’s one more thing I need to say about the wisdom of children, and it has to do with our guests this Sunday morning, the Carlsen’s. Twenty-eight years ago, while I was on internship at this church, Glenn Carlsen died. Our son was four at the time, and we debated whether or not to take Kyle to the funeral, but Kyle loved Glenn, so we decided to bring him. That night, as we knelt to say prayers, this is what Kyle prayed:
“Dear God; I am glad that Glenn is with you, but I’m sad because I will miss him.”
So childlike. So simple. And so honest. How do we come to see life with fresh eyes like that? How do we get in the loop and understand things that make perfect sense to the simplest of minds, yet confound the wisest and most intelligent people of this world? “Jesus said ‘Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).