Like a Child/August 27, 2017

Second Baptist Lincoln

Aug. 27, 2017          

Like a Child

Matthew 18:1-6

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
2 He called a little child and had him stand among them.
3 And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.
6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

I had heard about someone recently who was having trouble with their daughter. They have been to court several times because she is completely out of control. They have also taken her to professional counselors who have told the parents that she has a diagnosis of NPD: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) describes it this way: “Individuals with this disorder have a grandiose sense of self-importance (Criterion 1). They are often preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love (Criterion 2). They may ruminate about ‘long overdue’ admiration and privilege and compare themselves favorably with famous or privileged people.” It seems to me that this is not just the diagnosis of a few individuals; it is the diagnosis of the culture at large — narcissistic self-absorption and self-centeredness.

The term “Narcissism” comes from the Greek god named Narcissus who was known for his beauty. Many fell in love with him, but he spurned all lovers, until one day he became thirsty and went to a pool of water where he clearly saw his own reflection. He fell deeply in love with himself and could not pull himself away from his reflection, even to eat, so that he ultimately died. His death was caused by total self-absorption. How many beautiful and talented celebrities do we know who destroy their own lives because of a complete preoccupation with themselves? When we worship ourselves, we become our own god.

There’s a book by Robert Bellah Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  It came out in 1985. It is about the rise of radical individualism in our culture which is committed only to the self. It is even more relevant today than when it was written. He described how we are moving away from concern about family, community and what is good for society as a whole, to a culture that is narrowing its concern to what is good for us personally as individuals. In the book, he gives this fascinating illustration about a young woman named Sheila: “We interviewed, in the research for Habits of the Heart, one young woman who has named her religion after herself. Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as ‘Sheilaism.’ This suggests the logical possibility of more than 350 million American religions, one for each of us. ‘I believe in God,’ Sheila says. ‘I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.’ Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls ‘my own Sheilaism,’ she said: ‘It’s just trying to love yourself and be gentle with yourself.’” This is fast becoming the dominant religion of America: the worship of self.

In our text today, we see a couple of disciples who are really only acting human.  A discussion or argument arises among them, “Who is going to be the greatest in the kingdom of God.” The concept of “Greatest” ought to cause us to stop and ponder this word.  What does it mean to be the greatest?  If you were to research the term “The Great one”, you would come up with a variety of names. Jackie Gleason was called “The Great One”.  Wayne Gretzky, the Hall of Fame hockey player was called “The Great One”.  Mark Levin, the Talk Radio host and political analyst goes by that title as well.  So did baseball great Roberto Clemente, and pro-wrestler and actor, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Matt Lauer on the Today show, asked the question of a guest, “Is Michael Phelps the greatest athlete in history since he won 11 gold medals?”  The guest replied, it is apples and oranges to compare Michael Phelps to Tiger Woods.  Their sports are so different. So even the experts can not decide who is the greatest. Is Martin Luther King, Jr. one of the greatest people who ever lived? Probably. Others might suggest their favorite president, their favorite sports hero or their favorite theologian or religious hero .This past week, famous soldiers who had been revered by a nation for 150 years, their statues were removed from their pedestal, some moved to scrap yards, others to museums.  Our heroes change. Tiger Woods was once every golfer’s hero.  Today his great career is a distant memory as he struggles with negative media images of him being arrested.  He went from being the top golfer in the world to somewhere toward the bottom of the top 100. I’ve probably digressed long enough and I think you get my point.  The definition of greatness is pretty blurry.  But greatness is what most people strive for in their lifetime.  Whether you want to be the greatest politician of all time – or the greatest wood carver.   Greatness is defined differently within your field of excellence. 

So what did the disciples have in mind when they were arguing about who might be the greatest?  We get a clue from Mark 10:37. A couple of his disciples came to Jesus and said, “We have a request.  When we enter your kingdom, let one of us sit on your right hand and the other sit on the left.”  What they wanted was position and power in his kingdom. 

His response to them was, “You have no idea what you are asking.”  Jesus knew that the price they would have to pay for their position in his kingdom was going to be great.  He predicted their violent death.  He knew something they didn’t know. Jesus gives another answer some time later when he enters the upper room.  It is not so much an answer to their question of who is the greatest, but rather a demonstration of what it means to be great. 

He demonstrated that greatness is humility. He got up and wrapped a towel around himself and he knelt down – something a servant would do _- and he washed the feet of the disciples.  They didn’t want him to do it. Peter said, “No Lord, you shall never wash my feet.”  And Jesus replied, Unless I wash you, you have no part of me.” This has a couple meanings, 1.) the washing away of sin which is more a symbolic act in reference to salvation.  And of course, if we aren’t cleansed of our sin, we will have no part of him. And 2.) More importantly to this occasion, Jesus is saying to Peter, “If you can not receive humility or be served by me, then how are you going to be able to offer service and humility to those you will serve. “This was a lesson I’m sure Peter never forgot.  Peter learned that day what greatness is all about.Did you know that Servant Leadership has dribbled over from the Gospels into corporate life?  Corporations emphasize servant leadership in their corporate structure.  They honor employees who have exhibited extraordinary servant leadership.  Corporate Execs model servant leadership.  Employees are given comp days for doing community service.

So in our today’s text – which we’ve taken a long time to get here – Jesus states that we must become like little children.  "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.We don’t always think of children as being humble.  Children can be bratty, spoiled, self-centered, demanding, and high maintenance.  So what does it mean? First, the attitudes about children have changed from the ancient world to today.  Children were perceived positively only as they were valuable to the family.  More children meant a stronger workforce.  In western North Dakota, there is a small town of New England.  In that community, there is a private Catholic school called New England St. Mary High School.  In recent years, the school was turned into a women’s prison.  The school closed a couple decades ago.  They ran out of children.  As the dairy farms went out of business or become more automated, they didn’t need as many children.  Families got smaller.

 So it was in biblical times.  Children were primarily for the benefit that they brought to their family by enhancing the workforce, adding to the defensive power, and guaranteeing the future glory of the household. But they had no rights or significance apart from their future value to the family and were powerless in society.  The humility of a child was about their vulnerability.  They had no ability to advance their own cause. Yet Jesus celebrates this childlike humility that comes from a child’s weakness, defenselessness, and vulnerability.  

Those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven must turn away from their own power and self-sufficiency and become childlike in their dependence upon the heavenly father.  

Childlike faith and childlike humility is a metaphor of true discipleship and following Jesus.  True greatness is not found in celebrity status or wealth.  It is not found in athletic prowess or intellectual genius. True greatness is found in being a servant with a childlike dependence upon God.   “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”