This sermon was prepared for a worship event which was a fundraiser for ‘Children in Need’. The theme for the evening was Matthew 18:5.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. Matthew 18:1-5 NIV
It’s a wonderful scene. And it makes us smile. It’s one of those much-loved biblical stories that gives us a warm feeling.
The disciples of Jesus are concerned about status – who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus calls a child into the midst of the disciples – I like the phrase Matthew uses: ‘he placed the child among them’.
‘Unless you change and become like this child you will never get into the kingdom in the first place.’
How could the disciples not see something so obvious? But a word of warning, for it is easy for us to both sentimentalise and trivialise what is going on here. We live in a culture which in many ways is very child centred. One statistic will illustrate this. Last year 384 million toys were sold in the UK worth a total of £3billion. We spend vast amounts of time, attention and, yes, money on educating, entertaining and caring for our children. But it was very different in Jesus’ day. For a start, childhood was a dangerous time. Mortality rates were high. Children had no status in society. Oh, I’m sure that parents loved their children, but it was very much a case of be-seen-and-not-heard.
When Jesus brought a child into the room full of disciples, he didn’t say ‘isn’t she cute. You really ought to spend more time playing with the kids.’ He said ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Children had no power, no status and were the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
The lesson for the disciples is this: instead of worrying about yourselves and your own status, you should be concerned for others and especially the weakest and must insignificant members of the community. Concentrate on serving others – especially the lowest and the least.
Remarkably, Jesus seems to be saying that when welcome a child, we are welcoming Jesus himself. Just reflect for a moment on what this means. The way we treat the youngest children in our community is the way we treat Jesus. When they are welcomed and included, it is as if we are welcoming and including Jesus himself. If they are ignored or held as of little importance, then it is as if we are ignoring and disregarding Jesus himself. Let’s be honest: are we really all that child-friendly? How important is the children’s ministry in our church? Do we see only welcome children on our terms: be good, don’t talk, behave – rather than accepting the gifts that children have to offer?
‘He placed the child among them’.
It seems to me that that is a pretty good description for what God did that first Christmas. At Christmas God became small – small enough to take on human flesh. Small enough to live a human life, with all its limitations, its frailties and its pain. This was something totally unexpected, after all we expect gods to be almighty and all-powerful. We don’t expect gods to take on the risk, the danger, the powerlessness of a human life. But that’s exactly what the Christmas story is about – and never again have we been able to think about God in quite the same way. At Christmas God became very small. As Charles Wesley wrote:
Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.
Or, in less theological language, George MacDonald wrote:
Thou cam’st a little baby thing that made a woman cry.
The smallness of God. This is emphasised time and time again in the Christmas story. When Jesus came, it was not as the mighty Son of God. It was not as a king, or high priest, or anyone of recognised status. He was not born into a rich or influential family, but instead a poor family without the resources even to book a room in the local inn.
Consider this: if Jesus had been born in a palace, the shepherds would have been turned away at the door. He would have been out of reach of ordinary folk. By being born in a stable, Jesus was accessible not just to the rich and religious, but to the poor and the humble and the downtrodden. There is in fact only thing that he requires of us, and that is faith. It is faith that helps us to recognise him when he comes. It is faith that helps us pray, in the words of a carol:
Blessed Saviour, Christ most holy
In a manger thou didst rest.
Canst thou stoop again, yet lower
And abide within my breast?
As an Orthodox prayer declares: Blessed art thou, O Christmas Christ, that thy cradle was so low that shepherds, poorest and simplest of earthly folk, could yet kneel beside it and look level-eyed into the face of God.
‘He placed the child among them’
As I said earlier, it is easy to be sentimental about children, just as it is easy to be sentimental about the Christmas story. We bask in the warm glow of a cosy stable, with shepherds and wisemen surrounding the holy family with the baby at the centre; angels flying overhead and the ox and ass standing by. That’s because we usually stop reading the story at the point where the wise men return home. But of course the story doesn’t stop there. Furious at being deceived by the wise men, murderous old King Herod cannot countenance any rivals as king of the Jews, so he sends his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the baby boys.
Even to this day, the Herods of the world are killing the innocent. Young lives are destroyed, whether street children in Brazil, child prostitutes in the Philippines, child soldiers in central Africa, young victims of cancer near Chernobyl, under age workers in Indian sweatshops. Even in this country, children are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Sadly, organisations such as Children in Need are needed more than ever.
The story of Herod’s massacre of the Holy Innocents is a reminder of the darkness of the world into which the Saviour has been born. For whatever God calls us to do, wherever he calls us to go, we have the assurance that he has already gone before us. This is the true message of Christmas and the meaning of the incarnation. After all those stories of mangers and shepherds, heavenly choirs and wise men, Matthew brings us down to earth with a considerable bump. To the real world of refugees and suffering children. That’s the world that Jesus came to transform and if Christmas has nothing to say to the dark and desperate places of the world, then it doesn’t have anything to say at all.
Unfortunately, the world is a little darker and more desperate today. I am sure that you, like me, have been distressed and dismayed by the news of the most recent shooting in the USA. Twenty children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. That the children were so young, and the town was the epitome of small town America makes this tragedy seem even worse. And of course, it is Christmas time.
This morning I read some of the reactions to the killings on the internet. One of the most moving articles I found is a prayer by Max Lucado. I would like to conclude by offering this prayer on behalf of the children of Newtown, Connecticut, on behalf of children around the world vulnerable, exploited and dying, on behalf of children who will be blessed by the work funded by Children in Need. May it be our prayer too.
It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately.
These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated.
The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation?
Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod’s jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.
Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene.
Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won’t you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.
This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.