“Whoever Accepts a Child Like This” September 23, 2018
“Whoever Accepts a Child Like This”
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
One of my favorite authors of all time is a man named Leon Uris. He wrote mostly historical fiction, a lot of his books were about the Jewish struggles in the mid 1900’s. His book “Exodus” is a remarkable telling of the founding of the nation of Israel in the 1940’s. Mr. Uris didn’t limit himself to stories of modern day Jewish people, however. The book that came to mind while reading our Gospel text today was one called “The Haj.” It was a fascinating inside look at the life of a typical Muslim family at about this same time, and it didn’t paint a very pretty picture. One thing that stuck in my head was Uris’s description of the somewhat loveless way that Muslim children were raised. It was almost as if they were expected to raise themselves. Sure, there was a very strict code of ethics that was drilled into their heads from birth, but as long as you didn’t dishonor the family name, a child of Islam was on their own. I got the impression that children were considered lesser and not worthy of time or consideration. Unfortunately, the same held true for society in the time of Christ. With that in mind, let’s hear the words of Mark again (vs 36) 36 Then Jesus took a small child and had him stand among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said, 37 “Whoever accepts a child like this in my name accepts me. And whoever accepts me accepts the One who sent me.” Our first thought is that Jesus was trying to teach them that everyone has equal value in the eyes of God. It’s a theme he taught over and over. And some folks like to get all sentimental about this connection between God-likeness and childlikeness; that Jesus likens children to God because children are so purely good, or unselfish, or accepting, or meek. Now, if I had never raised kids of my own I can see how I might get swept up into this sort of “Kumbaya” attitude, but to be honest, I don’t know any kids like that. The kids I know are feisty, clever, quick, fierce, generous, selfish, naughty, obedient, curious, bored, quiet, loud, challenging, funny, surprising, solemn, and exhausting. So why would Jesus say such a thing? Whoever accepts a child like this in my name accepts me. What’s the connection?
In our gospel text today, Jesus tells his disciples that he must die and then in 3 days be raised from the dead, and I dare say they didn’t get it any better than the first time. (vs 32) But the followers did not understand what Jesus meant, and they were afraid to ask him. Instead, they ended up arguing about who among them was the greatest, who does Jesus like best, who can do the coolest stuff. So this is where Jesus sits them down and shares a basic principle of living a life in Christ as he says to them, (vs 35) Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all. Now at this point, I imagine that his followers, once again, did not understand what Jesus meant, and they were afraid to ask. So what does he do? He picks up a small child, wraps his arms around him, and says, Whoever accepts a child like this in my name accepts me. This image – the image of Christ holding this little child – has always intrigued me. It’s so pleasant, so peaceful.
But what if? /// I know, I know, you’re thinking, “There he goes. We just had a good thing going, and he has to spoil the moment.” But really – what if? What if there is a different way of looking at this; a story within the story, if you will. After all, the phrase was, “whoever accepts a child like this in my name accepts me.” Maybe there is a connection, and so the question stands, “What can we learn about God by welcoming children?” It was the writer Debie Thomas that had some ideas on that topic. For one thing, kids can teach us the value of our imagination. When a child hears the story of a baby born in a manger, they quickly fill in all the blanks. They can smell the stable smells, they can hear the sounds of animals, they can feel the excitement of a new birth. They have no doctrine or dogma to hold them back.
Another might be that kids can teach us to ask the hard questions on our way to God. When a child asks things like, “Where did the animals on Noah’s ark go to the bathroom,” we have to chuckle to ourselves, but really it’s a valid question. And how about, “Are angels girls or boys?” and my all time favorite, “Did Jesus walk on the water because he couldn’t swim.” But we would never ask such things; we are adults.
I could go on and on, but the connection that touched my heart was that children can teach us what divine power looks like. Let’s break this down: a young child is the very picture of helpless dependence, of powerlessness, of need. In some cultures, children are invisible. In all cultures, children are at the mercy of those who are older and bigger and stronger than they are. And this-this picture of dependence and vulnerability – is the picture that Jesus offers of God. In our world, we gain power by pushing our weight around; by running over anyone and anything that gets in our way. In the world of the divine, true power comes when we consent to be little, to be vulnerable, to be invisible, to be low. We gain greatness not by muscling others out of our way, but by serving them, empathizing with them, and sacrificing for their well-being. Whatever human power structures that we subscribe to, Jesus flips the whole thing on its head when he holds a small child in his arms. Once again from Debie Thomas, “Do we want to see God? Do we really want to see God? Then look to the child abandoned in an alley. Look to the child in detention at the US border. Look to the child who shows up to school beaten. Look to the child who can’t access healthcare, an education, or a decent meal. Look to the child drowning in anxiety or depression. Look to the weak, the small, the simple, the vulnerable, and the helpless. Look to the ones who are not in charge. Look at the tiniest faces, and see God.”
One of the most central and amazing truths about Christianity is that God became a helpless human child; God among us, God in the flesh, Emmanuel. God came to us helpless and vulnerable and little – just like a child. “Whoever welcomes a child like this welcomes me.” Do you want to see what God actually looks like? Are you curious about the truest nature of God’s power and greatness?
Then welcome the child. Welcome the child and you welcome God. AMEN & SHALOM