A meditation delivered for The Hanging of the Greens, 11/28/2021 by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
This evening’s text is best understood if it’s placed next to its sister verse that was introduced in the previous chapter in Matthew. Jesus, along with Peter, James and John come down from the mountain where Jesus has been transfigured before their very eyes. They come down off the mountain and Jesus is immediately confronted by the needs of the crowds. He performs some healing and then has a series of teachings leading up to our primary text.
It appears that some of the disciples were more concerned about their place in Jesus’ power structure than they were about Jesus’s idea of what the Kingdom of Heaven would be like. In Matthew 18:1ff., we read
18.1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Jesus then spells out teaching on God’s extravagant love for the lost, how the culture of Jesus’ realm is based on forgiveness and grace, and how God demands fidelity from his beloved. It’s right here at Matthew 19.13-15 that Jesus continues to remind his closest followers on what it means live in a world where God rules supreme. Hear the scripture:
13 Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.
We get the feeling the disciples really don’t listen very well.
You see, Matthew is redefining the primary character trait necessary for people to display in the community Jesus is founding and the social structure of Jesus’ community begins with humility. In order for Jesus to be Lord in their lives, the disciples would have to get over themselves and check their egos and old social habits at the door. Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven the disciples ask? Jesus pulls aside a little child and declares the greatest in heaven is like this child who approaches God humbly, meekly, and full of awe and wonder. A child in the first century lived solely at the whim of their parents or slave owners. They had no civil rights as we think of them today. They were lowest of the social pecking order and did what they were told. So, when Jesus physically pulls a child aside and declares you have to become like this child to live in my community, you would think they would have understood his rather radical object lesson. They didn’t.
We meet the kids again in Matthew 19. This time, people were actively bringing children to be blessed and prayed over by Jesus. And yet, we hear that the same disciples who recently heard and saw about what it means to follow Jesus with a live example of child being singled out are now shewing the children away. Matthew says in verse 13 the disciples rebuked those who were bringing the kids; in other words, they were not being gentle about their consternation and made it abundantly clear. And once again, Jesus responds to the disciple’s prideful ignorance and encourages the children to come. “Don’t hinder them,” Jesus says, “For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” What did Jesus mean by this?
I imagine Jesus was looking at the disciples with a steely focused stink-eye during this particular conversation. Once again, the disciples are given a living object lesson that the community Jesus is creating is one that is totally upside down to the one they were living in. It’s community where the simple and humble ones are held up as examples for us to follow. It’s a community where there is no room nor patience for people with power trips and big egos. It’s a community where power is measured with gentleness, meekness, trust, and with a sense of awe and wonder. It’s a community where the first will be last and the last will be first.
Sadly, after over two millennia neither the Church nor Jesus’ disciples who comprise her have heard and believed this lesson. We still value power over others instead of walking beside and empowering others. We still value those with impressive resumes and credentials over those who don’t. We still value and pay attention more to the social influencers than to the humble servant of God who disposes of their self-dignity and performs difficult tasks of ministry and service away from the eyes and accolades of others.
And so, on the very first day of the church’s new calendar year, we pause to stop and bless our newborns. Their very presence demonstrates with bright boldness what it is to be a member of Jesus’ community. These infants have to be held because they cannot stand on their own. There in the parent’s arms we see a living symbol of what it means to be loved by God and receive the gift of grace; all these newborns can do is to receive being held. They don’t reason their way there and neither are they able to do anything to prove they should be loved. Their egos have not been muddied up by the swirl of the world and neither have they learned anything more than gentleness, meekness, and reliance on someone other than themselves. These little ones can teach you and me a lot, if unlike the first disciples, we will listen to them.
© 2021Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.