Saturday, September 19, 2009

Children and God

Mark 9:30-37 (New International Version)

30They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise." 32But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

Who is Greatest?

33They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" 34But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

35Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."

36He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

Children and God


What Jesus said:

A Kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they were drawing. She would occasionally walk around to see each child's work. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, "I'm drawing God."

The teacher paused and said, "But no one knows what God looks like."

Without looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, "They will in a minute."

One thing we may overlook when we read today's passage is Jesus' comparison in the final verse. Let's look at it again:

"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

Now in mathematics and logic, there's a law called the transitive law. The transitive law states that if A=B and B=C then A=C.

So when we welcome that child, we welcome Jesus, and when we welcome Jesus, we welcome God-the-Father. Or, using the transitive property, when we welcome the child, we welcome God. Which means, to an extent, the child is God.

Wait, what?

First, we've got to remember that irrespective of what athiests and "feel-good believers" might say, Christianity is inherently logical -- there's a reason Christ is called the logos.

So when Jesus, an educated Jewish man (as we know from Luke chapter 2), tells his disciples that a child is mathematically equal to God, we ought to pay attention.

We should ask three questions whenever we want to know what's "going on" when Jesus talks -- and, unlike the disciples, we shouldn't be afraid to ask those questions. The questions are:

1) what prompted Jesus to say such a thing?

2) what did Jesus want his audience to learn?

3) what does Jesus want us to learn?


Why Jesus said it:

Okay, at the beginning of today's passage, we've got Jesus and the disciples -- and they're in hiding. This is hardly the first time Jesus took his "inner circle" away from the crowd; sometimes they went to the forest, the desert, the gardens, on a boat -- but Jesus and the disciples often went on "retreats."

They're on retreat here, in Galilee, because Jesus is teaching the disciples -- specifically about His impending death. He tells them, a little more than halfway through Mark -- and well before their entry into Jerusalem -- that He is going to be killed and then raised from the dead.

The disciples, though, they don't get it. And what's more, they're too afraid to ask Jesus what on earth he means. They'll play guitar and sing "Kum Bah Yah" but when Jesus talks about the difficult stuff, they're stumped. At least they didn't fall asleep on him.

To make matters worse, on the bus trip home, instead of trying to figure out what Jesus meant by the fairly clear statement "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise," the disciples start bickering about who is the greatest. Good thing Cassius Clay wasn't a disciple.

It's in response to this silly debate about the best among the mediocre that Jesus tells the disciples that "if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all," and then grabs a little kid (by the way, the Greek is unspecific about gender -- so maybe the NIV should say "it" not "him") and says "by the way, if you want to be nice to God, be nice to these little ones -- because they're just like God."

Now the disciples are so stunned that they try to focus Jesus' attention elsewhere -- "hey, there's this guy casting out demons in your name" but Jesus just brings the focus back to children -- "don't make them stumble, or else."

I think it's pretty clear here that in response to ignorance, pride, and boasting on the part of the disciples, Jesus says -- "be childlike."

Don't be prideful, ask questions. Be a child, Jesus tells his disciples -- because they all would know that, under Roman law, children were the property of their father -- they were the least, legally speaking. Be a servant -- be a child, Jesus says, and then you will be like God.

Of course, Jesus was the ultimate servant, as he tried to tell his disciples on the retreat and showed them on the cross. In this, Jesus mirrored God the Father -- what is the definition of a servant but one who gives to us? Gives us life, everything really -- and yet is the master of us all.

So Jesus was saying "look guys, don't talk about who is the best -- that's not important -- what is important is being like a child -- being the servant of all."

It's a pretty strong rebuke, really. Here all the disciples are thinking they're hot stuff and Jesus says "nope, kids are more important and closer to God."


What He wanted the disciples (and us) to learn


That's pretty easy, right?

Well of course, it's not. Humility is a pretty hard lesson to learn.

And we know, right, that the disciples weren't very good at learning it.

So why try?

Well the first reason is that all of Jesus' lessons are hard to learn. They're counterintuitive, difficult, and frequently even dangerous -- remember that following His own advice got Jesus killed.

Heck, the entire point of Lutheranism is to pretend that Jesus wasn't talking about our lives on earth but our lives in some "other kingdom."

Of course, if that were true, Jesus wouldn't have needed to die -- or really even come to earth.

But Jesus did come here -- to talk about our lives on earth and how we should behave, not just what we should believe.

Luckily that's one of the reason Mack and his buddies rethought Lutheranism and one of the reasons we're here today.

We know that it's hard to follow Jesus.
And we can ask the questions the disciples were afraid to ask.

Unfortunately, we've only got the text of the Bible to speak unequivocally to us. Just those collected words, shifted and translated a bunch of times -- some folks even think the whole thing is made up.

But even there we can see what the disciples didn't -- and THAT's why Jesus said what he did to the disciples. So that they'd remember it and we'd read it one day.

It's great that the disciples were so confused by most of what Jesus said -- that way they'd debate it, remember it, talk about it, and eventually write it down.

If they "got it" the first time Jesus said it, they'd have probably forgotten all about it twenty or thirty years after Jesus died and was raised. Lucky for us they tended to be on the "slow side."

So what does Jesus want us to learn?

We'll pretty much what He always wants us to learn:

Don't worry about life, 'cause God's got it under control.

That is, don't worry about being first. Instead be last. Be a servant, not a master. Be good to children, be like children. Because what are children, naturally? Last time I checked, little children were happy. Sure, they throw fits, but the default setting for little kids is joy. That's why we like being around them.

I mean, here's Jesus, living at the height of Roman power in a provence where folks frequently railed against the government -- and he says "don't worry about being in control -- be like a child -- no rights, no control, servant to all and master of none -- and be joyful."

Because ultimately, folks, whether we love Jesus or not, whether we're the President or the King of France, or the Emperor of Rome, or the Pharaoh in Egypt, a bum in the street, a lawyer, a doctor, or a french-fry maker, we're never in control. I don't care if you blame fate or randomness or the stars -- everyone "knows" we aren't in control of our lives.

So why pretend? Why complain?

Jesus says, as he always does, that we should embrace our existence as given to us by God. We should accept what comes with a joyful heart and we should give love and joy to everyone we meet, especially the children and those who aren't in control.

Which is everyone.

God bless, y'all.

Pray with me,

Lord, we know that we are children.

Help us remember that you are in control

and that we can only serve

and that we will always be the last

and the least

and that we can rejoice

knowing you love the least

most of all.

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