The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached November 8, 2020*
Sermon Audio: Jesus and Children (Mark 9:30-42; 10:13-16)
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. 42 Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
…13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them. – Mark 9:30-42, 10:13-16
What makes someone great? If someone were to walk into this room that made all of us stop and stare, become silent, what would that person have to do? There is an unspoken hierarchy of significance and prominence in culture that usually centers around wealth, beauty, success, intelligence, and influence. The more of those you have the greater you are. Different things appeal to different people, or course. Someone might think that a poet or a power lifter, an academic or an athlete is the epitome of greatness. But we all agree that “greatness” is found in excellence, and excellence is made evident through setting oneself apart from the ordinary, the typical, the mundane.
Without a doubt, Jesus Christ is the greatest human being who has ever lived. You could not find a person in history of greater consequence and magnitude. But as we look at His life, what makes Him great? And what does He advise His followers to build their lives on to pursue excellence and greatness?
Greatness is defined by service, not status.
Entrance into the Kingdom is granted to the helpless, not the competent.
Jesus has now begun His final, climactic journey towards Jerusalem, so he begins to teach more and more about what is about to take place. He explains to his disciples that he is going to be killed and three days later rise again, but none of his disciples understand what Jesus could possibly mean by this, so they stay quiet, too ashamed to ask further (Mark 9:30-32)—likely thinking of Jesus’ stinging rebuke given to Peter after his first passion prediction (Mark 8:31-33).
Jesus and the disciples arrive at Capernaum and Jesus asks them to tell him what they were talking about while they travelled (9:33). They, again, are silent out of fear and shame because, “they had argued with one another about who was the greatest,” (9:34). Jesus’ disciples desire greatness, prominence, recognition. They want everyone else to know just how big of a deal they are. Their inflated ego is seen directly following this in the next pericope where they explain to Jesus that they tried to stop someone else casting out demons in Jesus’ name, “because he was not following us,” (9:38). Following us? You would have expected the disciples to stop someone because they aren’t following Jesus. But they think they have the standing and clout now to be followed, like Jesus. This is especially ironic because this is following a story where the disciples were just unable to cast out a demon! (9:14-29)
How does Jesus respond to these “big-shot” disciples, childishly arguing over which one is the best right after Jesus just explained that He was about to die? How would you have responded? I likely would have thrown my hands in the air and walked away. What does Jesus do? “And he sat down and called the twelve. And he spoke to them,” (Mark 9:35a). Jesus patiently sits and talks with them. What grace! What patience!
What does Jesus say? “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all,” (Mark 9:35b). This is fascinating for three reasons:
First, Jesus doesn’t condemn their desire for greatness. It’s not wrong to want to be excellent, at least, not according to Jesus.
Second, Jesus flips our understanding of greatness and importance on its head. Seniority and prominence are found in the lowly places, the places of a servant. We tend to think of great people are people, by definition, who are not required to do lowly, menial tasks. Not people who need to worry about the little guys. Not according to Jesus.
Third, the scope of this service is shocking—be last of all and servant of all. Not, “Servant to some…servant to the worthy…servant to the really important people.” Servant to all.
Greatness, according to Jesus, flows downhill; it pools up in the low places, the very places the world tells us to abandon to pursue greatness. It is demonstrated in the heart that knows that other people are just more important than themselves, not in the heart that is constantly aware that they are a cut above everyone else.
What is particularly interesting is the immediate illustration of this principle. “And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me,” (9:36-37). What is the way to pursue greatness according to Jesus? Be a servant. What kind of service immediately comes to Jesus’ mind? To care for children. Jesus takes it even a step further: not only is this a model of pursuing greatness, but in our reception of children we are actually receiving Jesus Himself, and in receiving Jesus we are receiving the Father (see Matt 25:40). Whatever care we give to the “least of these”—the poor, hungry, naked, lonely, sick, the outcast and overlooked, and even the children—we, somehow, are actually giving it to Jesus, and through Jesus, to the Father. Church, are you aware of the eternal significance your care for children possesses? When you babysit, when you work in the nursery, when you tie your toddler’s shoes, teach your sixth grader math and listen to your teenager’s problems—you are having an encounter with the living God.
Children really matter to Jesus. Jesus’ day was very different than our day. There was not the widespread warmth towards children we see now; there were no politicians kissing babies to earn approval of the masses. One commentator writes, “Societies with high infant mortality rates and great demand for human labor cannot afford to be sentimental about infants and youth. In Judaism, children and women were largely auxiliary members of society whose connection to the social mainstream depended on men (either as fathers or husbands),” (Edwards, PNTC: Mark).
This makes sense why Jesus’ disciples are trying to keep children from Him in 10:13, “And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them.” The disciples rebuked the parents bringing children—that’s the same word used throughout Mark’s gospel for how Jesus silences demons (1:25; 3:12; 9:25). The disciples weren’t politely telling the parents that Jesus was busy—they were reprimanding them. How does Jesus respond? “But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God,” (10:14). This is the only place in all four gospels that we are told that Jesus is “indignant.” What sparks anger and outrage in Jesus? Dismissiveness, condescension, and neglect of children, a posture that reveals that one thinks that children are simply not important enough to be taken seriously, “Come back when you’re older, kid.” Think of how shocked the disciples would have been to see Jesus’ response—they thought they were honoring Jesus’ own importance and status by keeping the children from Him, but Jesus is furious at their actions. The disciples simply don’t get it. They are still drunk on the world’s cocktail of superiority. But Jesus is here to sober them.
Jesus’ passion about children is seen earlier in chapter nine where he warns, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea,” (9:42). This sounds like a threat from some mafia kingpin. If you cause a child who believes in Jesus to stumble into sin, then having a three-hundred-pound rock tied to your neck and were pushed into the ocean would be better for you than what is going to happen in judgment. Jesus isn’t Mr. Rogers. He loves children, but He is ferociously serious about those who want to hinder or hurt them.
Friends, Jesus really cares about children. When the disciples were rebuking the parents for bringing their young children to Him, they were hoping that Jesus might be able to touch their children. Jesus’ touch in the gospel of Mark has been used to heal the sick, cast out demons, but also to show compassion and association. Maybe the children being brought to Jesus were sick, but here is what we are told Jesus does: “And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them,” (10:16). This sounds somewhat awkward because the phrase “laying his hands on them” has a negative, even inappropriate connotation in English. But that isn’t at all what this means. The parents were hoping for a passing touch from Jesus, but Jesus scoops the children up into His arms and blesses them. “Laying on of hands” to bless someone is a traditional practice in Judaism that was usually used to confer authority, favor, and status, particularly by the patriarchs in Genesis. Jesus blessing the children by laying His hands on them is not only showing His genuine affection for them, but the seriousness with which He is treating these children: “to such as these belong the kingdom of God.”
Friends, consider the dignity, weightiness, and opportunity of our calling to care for the children God has entrusted to us. God has blessed our church with an abundance of children (praise God!), so this means we need to think seriously about Jesus’ posture and His teaching about children. This is not just a sermon for parents or educators or nursery workers. If you are a part of this church than God is summoning you now to take seriously your responsibility to love, care for, disciple, and nurture the children that God has entrusted to our entire congregation.
Everyone wants to live an exciting life, a life marked by significance and impact. I don’t know anybody that says, I’d like to live a boring, mediocre life, that affects nothing, contributes nothing, means nothing, and then die. We all want our lives to matter! And, at times, it can be tempting to think that the only lives that matter as a Christian are the lives that are doing radical things for God. Selling everything and moving to Calcutta to care for lepers; becoming a missionary in a third-world country; planting a church in downtown Manhattan—these are the kinds of lives that really make a difference for the kingdom of God! And maybe God wants some of you to do those things. Maybe God is calling you to sell everything you have and move somewhere else to proclaim the gospel there.
But for many of us, were someone to write a book about our lives it likely wouldn’t be a very exciting read. We would so like it to be so! But our lives are marked by non-spectacular, non-thrilling, plain granola normal-ness. In Tish Warren’s book The Liturgy of the Ordinary she explains, “Everybody wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.” But Jesus says that it is in the ignored places, the unexciting and overlooked places that true greatness, true significance is found—the place of a servant. And He reaches into the area of our lives where we may feel most tempted to feel like we are trapped in a repetitive cycle of monotony and drudgery—caring for children—and says, “There, that’s the place where real servant-hearted greatness is found.” And it is most often in the normal, routine places where God’s opportunities for us to make lasting change happens.
In a world that views children as a drag, as an impediment that keeps you from living an exciting life of travel, adventure, and following your dreams, in a world that assumes that the only reason you would have or help care for a child would be to fulfill your own desires, Jesus presents us with an entirely different picture. Parents, teachers, uncles, aunts, nursery workers, grandparents: in your daily work for children the world may yawn, but heaven is awarding you with Olympic gold. Mom’s, are you ever tempted to think your life is nothing but menial task after menial task? Are you tempted to think that your life is just nothing but wiping runny noses and doesn’t really mean much? Jesus doesn’t think so. It is in the low places, the places of a servant, the “last of all” places where Jesus’ glory shines brightest; this is where true dignity, significance, and importance lies.
Jesus explains that we are to receive children in His name (Mark 9:37). What does that mean? To welcome a child in Jesus’ name? It is no small matter. When we welcome a child in Jesus’ name, we are no longer only receiving a child, but Jesus Himself, “Whoever welcomes one little child such as this in my name welcomes me.”
To welcome a child in Jesus’ name means that we receive children in a particularly Christian manner. We do not welcome children the way the world welcomes children, but the way Jesus does. How does Jesus welcome a child? From our text we can see that Jesus welcomes a child:
(1) with love and affection,
(2) with earnestness and attention,
(3) with seriousness and spiritual intentionality,
(4) with the sternest of warnings to those who would casually or maliciously lead them into sin.
Friends, is this how we receive the children God has put into our lives? Our children need a fully-orbed picture of Christianity, which means that we need to teach them both the doctrines of our faith, but also the culture of our faith. By that I mean our children need to know that God loves them but they also need to see and feel that love displayed to them in three-dimensional, technicolor vibrancy in our church and our home in how we receive, play, teach, laugh, and spend time together. If we tell our children that the Bible is God’s truth, that God is supreme, and His love for us is our greatest joy…would they be tempted to think we are hypocrites because they don’t see that in our life? Do we teach our children that being “last of all and servant of all” is actually a drag by our own demeanor as we serve our children?
Do the kids of our church know that they matter, that they are loved, that they are not a nuisance? Maybe you are a parent, maybe a grandparent, maybe an aunt, uncle, friend, teacher—whoever you are—would your engagements with children reflect the heart of Christ? Parents, are you taking seriously the dire warning Jesus gives about leading little ones to stumble into sin? This means many things, but it certainly means that we are not going to just choose the path of least resistance as parents. That means that sometimes we will have to make decisions for our children that they will not like. But when those times come (and they will) we must not let our children be tempted into thinking we are doing this because we don’t love them.
God has entrusted these children to us. What are we going to do with it?
How do we find the resources to love our children like this? Jesus tells us: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Mark 10:15 What does it mean to “receive the kingdom of God like a child”?
It doesn’t mean that children are models of purity. It doesn’t mean that we have an simplistic, childish manner of believing that is opposed to diligent thought—Paul actually exhorts the Corinthians to not be childish in their thinking (1 Cor 14:20) and warns of the danger of remaining immature like children (Eph 4:14). So, what does it mean then?
It means that we realize that we are just as helpless and inept in our spiritual lives as children are. We acknowledge that we are spiritually bankrupt (Matt 5:5). We are not accepted before God because we are competent or clever or moral, or even a good parent. Rather, Jesus was in our place. And now, through His death and resurrection, helpless, foolish, incompetent children like you and me can be accepted, loved, and brought in by our Heavenly Father. IF we are willing to admit our need, our helplessness. The only thing that keeps you today from that welcome is the refusal to admit that you are just as needy and hopeless as an infant.
And once you do, once you realize that God has accepted you not because you are impressive or helpful, but just by grace, that revolutionizes how you deal with children. You now have a permanent parable before your very eyes of your own spiritual state, of your own need. In our faithful, day-by-day care for our children we are getting a faint taste of what God’s love for us is like.
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you. – Isa 49:15
Even if a nursing mother could forget her child, God never will forget His children. We now turn to our children and parent them out of the overflow of that love given to us.
Now, “little ones,” is a phrase that is used throughout the gospels often as a metaphor for Jesus’ disciples. In just a few verses Jesus is going to explain that His disciples must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven (10:15) and then will explicitly call them, “Children,” in 10:24. So, some explain that this warning isn’t intended to refer to children specifically, but to disciples. But the parallel account of this in Matthew 18:5-6 seems to apply it specifically to children, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”