+ Pentecost 14 – September 10th, 2017 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series A: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:1-20
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”, the disciples asked Jesus.
It’s a rather odd question if you think about the context. Jesus just finished telling his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer an be killed and raised on the third day. “What does this mean?”, the disciples wonder. Jerusalem? Suffering? Death? No, no, no Jesus. That’s sounds so depressing. Let’s change the subject to something happier. Let’s talk about the kingdom of heaven instead. And who do you think will be number one?”
It sounds so foolish and oblivious, and it is. But before we utter a collective sigh and plant our face firmly in our palms, remember that we’re really no different from the disciples. We ask this question all the time.
“Who is the greatest?”
Lately, athletes have been quoted saying, “ I want to be the GOAT. Now, they’re not talking about hooved barnyard animals – they want to be the greatest of all time. We think of great athletes like Michael Jordan, Serina Williams, or the Great One Wayne Gretzky, who dominated the court or the ice. In business, we think of Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, or the Forbes top 100, men and women who build huge companies, employ thousands, and are worth billions. In politics and history, the great figures change the course of events, for better and worse.
We sing along proudly with the song of the times: you can be the greatest; you can be the best. You can be the King Kong bangin on your chest! In one way or another we’ll all like the wicked Queen in Snow White, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” We think of greatness in terms of achievement and accomplishment. Greatness is winning, not losing; success, not failure; power, not weakness.
That’s greatness, at least in the kingdom of this world. But what about greatness in the kingdom of heaven?
And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Greatness in a child? Seems like a rather foolish, weak, and lowly example of greatness. You see, in the first century children were considered lowly, and utterly dependent – the opposite of great in most peoples’ minds.
But the kingdom of heaven isn’t measured by achievement. It’s not about the greatness of our religious works or accomplishments, but the greatness found in the weakness of the cross. And so, Jesus teaches his disciples then and now that in the kingdom of heaven greatness is found in littleness.
Little children don’t have much in the way of achievements. They live by grace through faith (trust) in another. They’re “giveable to,” on the receiving end of everything, utterly dependent.
This makes a child a perfect picture of faith. The greatness of faith, trust in Jesus is found in what He has done for you and what He gives to you, that’s greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
Unless we turn and change our way of looking at things, unless we become little we cannot know the greatness of the kingdom of heaven. It’s the greatness of humility, of becoming as nothing. As C.S. Lewis writes, “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” As John the Baptizer declares, pointing to Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
But this was the disciples’ problem; it’s ours too. We want to increase. We want to be great. We want to be kings of our own kingdoms, whether it’s in Christ’s kingdom, or in our daily kingdoms we live in in this world. In other words, we want to be god. We fear, love, and trust in ourselves.
Such is our sinful delusion of grandeur. We are only the greatest at one thing: the greatest of all sinners. We are the lost sheep in the parable. We are curved inward on ourselves, in love with our own sinful thoughts, desires, and deeds. We are dead in our trespasses and sin. We are the ones who deserve to have the millstone hung around our necks and be cast into the depths of the sea.
Thankfully, the kingdom of heaven isn’t about our greatness, or our anything at all.
It is completely unexpected. In the Kingdom of heaven, Humility and weakness are greatness. Little and lowly ones are exalted. Lost are found. Losers are winners. Failures are victorious. The last are first. The least are the greatest. The guilty go free. We who are dead in sin are made alive in Christ. Sinners are justified.
Jesus drives the point home with a parable. “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes away, doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go searching for the lost one?” Well, what do you think? The world would tend to write that one sheep off as dead.
And yet it’s the joy of the Good Shepherd to seek and to save the lost. He is restless until we are found safe and sound, not wanting one of these little ones to perish.
This is why Jesus became a little child for you so that in his dying and rising he would call you children of the heavenly Father. Jesus who knew no sin became sin for you. Jesus became the least, the last, the lowly, and the loser to place you at his table in the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Jesus became the stumbling block, the stone the builder’s of Israel rejected. Jesus died the cursed death so that you, baptized and believing as one of His little ones, might enter the kingdom of heaven through the small and narrow door of His death and resurrection. Jesus took the millstone of death and our lawlessness and hung it around is own neck, so that he would cast all your sin into the abyss of his tomb.
Jesus sought you in His death and He found you. He baptized you. He absolves you. You feeds you. He sustains you. He carries you to the flock of His Father’s kingdom with the joy of a shepherd who has just found His favored, lost sheep.
This is what true greatness looks like, Jesus crucified for you. The love of God in Christ revealed in the shepherd who is willing to lose everything in order to save one who doesn’t deserve to be saved. You’re that sheep. He came to save you in your helplessness, lostness, death. For the joy set before Him, for the joy of returning you to the Father’s fold, for the joy of forgiving you, for the joy of your salvation, Jesus endured the cross and scorned its shame. Jesus wins by losing; accomplishes victory for you by defeat; and brings us his great salvation through weakness and humility.
This is greatness in the Kingdom of heaven. God’s outrageous forgiveness for undeserving sinners. Greatness in weakness. Greatness in humility. Greatness in forgiving others as God in Christ has forgiven you.
And that brings us to that last part of today’s Gospel reading, greatness in forgiveness, especially among God’s people in the Church. The Church, as Luther said, is a “mouth house of forgiveness.” A place where this seeking, saving love of God in Christ comes to bear on sinners. We have a charge. If your brother or sister sins against you, go to him. The world would have you go to get even. Christ would have you go to forgive as you have been forgiven. Go to him. Tell him with the intent and purpose of forgiving. If he refuses, bring a couple of others. The whole church, if necessary. Can you imagine congregational life if we did this? Can you imagine the impact of the church in the world if we actually forgave one another and sought out opportunities to forgive? Sadly, it doesn’t happen all that often. We leave. We avoid. And in the end, we only cheat and hurt ourselves.
Go to your brother or your sister who has sinned against you. This is what the Church is to be about – binding and loosing. Binding Sin. Liberating sinners. Forgiving; being forgiven.
Jesus is bound to His Church as Bride and Groom. They are one flesh. What she says in His Name, He says. What she does in His Name, He does. And even as small a gathering as two or three in the Name of Jesus has the promise that He will be there too, right there in our midst.
Two or three may not seem like much of a congregation. Certainly not a great one by today’s mega-church standards. But it is a holy quorum in the eyes of the Lord. Jesus is fully present here in the humblest of gatherings with the fulness of His gifts.
Who is the greatest? A little child, a lost sheep, a congregation of two or three, a crucified Savior who comes in the humility of simple water, spoken words, bread and wine. All for the joy of seeking and saving you, a sinner redeemed by Jesus.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.