Preached 16 February 2003 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
It has happened to all of us, I’m sure. You are doing something really, really important when someone interrupts you with something really, really trivial … Normally, the trivial thing wouldn’t bother you at all; but because of the important thing you’re engaged in, it makes you react really badly. You know the sort of thing. You’re rushing across town, already late for an appointment, when some market research person with a clip board blocks your way and asks you if you can spare a few moments to answer some questions about competing brands of toilet tissue! Aaaaargh!!!
Well we need to understand that something of that sort lies in the background to that story I’ve just read you from Mark’s gospel. The story can also be found in Matthew’s gospel, and in Luke’s too; and all three gospel writers place it in what we can work out to be the start of AD 33 … very probably February, the point in the year that we’re at now. Less than two months before the April of AD 33 at the beginning of which Jesus was crucified. In other words, this incident concerning Jesus and the children happened within weeks of the end of Jesus’ earthly life.
And it happened somewhere in Peraea. Where is Peraea? Well, Peraea doesn’t exist anymore, but it was part of what is now the kingdom of Jordan. Down the centre of the Holy Land, like a straight line, runs the river Jordan. First it flows into the Sea of Galilee, then out of the Sea of Galilee and, 70 miles or so later, down into the Dead Sea. Well, to the east of the River Jordan as it travels those 70 miles from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea was Peraea, or Trans-Jordan as you will sometimes hear it called.
And Jesus was there because the authorities in Jerusalem, a little to the south-west, wanted to arrest him … but they were powerless to do so for so long as he stayed in Peraea, because Peraea was out of their jurisdiction. The authorities — the chief priest, the Pharisees, and the doctors of the law — wanted to kill Jesus because they considered him guilty of blasphemy; the worst crime in the book so far as they were concerned. In December of the previous year, just a month or two before today’s story, Jesus had visited Jerusalem to attend the Festival of the Dedication. And his public preaching and teaching in the temple had again, more than ever, provoked the fury of the religious leaders. So much so that they had tried to have him stoned to death. “You, being a man,” they screamed at him, “are making yourself God.” And they tried to seize him but “he slipped out of their hands.”
So Jesus is on the run. A fugitive. He is not avoiding the death by crucifixion that he knows lies ahead of him, but he is delaying it until the time is right. And he is seizing every opportunity, in the time he has left, to impress upon his disciples the brutal, hard fact that he is indeed about to die. And that they themselves will be caught up in all the horrors of what awaits him. Back in June he had told them that the time was approaching when he must “suffer many things, and be rejected, and be killed, and on the third day be raised up” … but for months they have been in some sort of denial and have refused to believe him. I mean, he has been so popular. For three years, he has moved all over Palestine, preaching, teaching and healing. The ordinary people have flocked to him, loved him, hung on his every word. Why would anyone want to kill him? And how … with all that support behind him … could anyone kill him, even if they wanted to?
Well, just now, in Jerusalem, they had begun to see how! And the truth was beginning to dawn on them. It was all going to get very nasty indeed, and they were going to lose the one person they had all given their lives to, the person they loved most. Their mood was sombre, and their hearts were heavy …
But here, coming round the bend in the road, running up to them, like a gaggle of silly geese, are all these women with babies in their arms. All talking at once, and jostling with each other for position, and all trying to get to Jesus — the famous teacher and wonder-worker — so that he will bestow a special blessing on runny-nosed little Rachel or smelly little Samuel.
It is the “market researcher with her clipboard” syndrome I talked about at the beginning. And the disciples react just as badly as we might expect. “Oi! Clear off! Just get lost will you! The master has enough on his plate without having to cope with the likes of you. Go and be a nuisance somewhere else!”
But then from behind them comes a voice like a pistol shot: “Peter! … James! … Judas! Stop that this instant! Do you hear me?”
“Hear me?” They heard him all right. And they had never heard him sound so angry with them. The word Mark uses when he says that Jesus was “indignant” is a very strong word and one which is never used of Jesus, except here. He was outraged at their behaviour, and he pushes through them and holds out his arms to the village women who have backed off in dismay at the disciples’ show of hostility. “Let the little ones come to me,” he says gently. “Do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And then he goes on to utter those words with which we shall try to get to grips this morning …
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall by no means … that’s how it reads in the Greek, shall by no means … enter it.”
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall by no means enter it.” What did he mean? What does he mean?
Clearly, Jesus loved and welcomed little children because he found in them qualities that he wanted all human beings to possess but which he found to be sadly lacking in most of the adult members of the human race. But what were those qualities?
Lots of answers have been suggested … innocence and humility are two of them. But it seems to me that the people who suggest those things have never had much to do with children. My little nephew, Matthew, is delightful, but I wouldn’t call him humble. “Look what I’ve done, mummy!” And innocent? “Did you take a biscuit off there, Matthew?”[Shake head from side-to-side, wide-eyed.] “Oh, yes you did. I saw you.” [Shake head from side-to-side, wide-eyed.]
So what, then, if not innocence or humility?
Well, first of all, receptivity … to give it its proper word: receptiveness … that readiness and willingness simply to receive what’s given without trying to pay any sort of price for it. That is so clear from the text. “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall by no means enter it.” The kingdom is a gift to be received, not a reward to be earned and not a commodity to be bought. And although there will be hardly a person in any church in the land this morning who would disagree with that, countless numbers have very real difficulty with it in their heart of hearts. “I must have to do something to gain the kingdom of heaven,” they say to themselves. “There must be some sort of quid-pro-quo.” But no — a true gift carries no price tag of any sort … and the kingdom of heaven is a true gift of God. Only children really understand true gifts, because only children do not have the wherewithal to pay, by any manner or means, for what they are given.
Which leads me to the other quality that I believe Jesus saw in children and which he insists upon finding in us: dependence. Imagine what would happen if a little child were ever to take it upon itself to accept nothing from its parents for which it couldn’t pay, in one way or another. It would very quickly die. And it would die because it does not have within itself the power to earn the price of the things it needs to sustain its life. It is a dependent being, and it can live only if it accepts as a gift what it cannot earn as a reward or buy as a commodity. So it is, says Jesus, with the kingdom of God.
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall by no means enter it.” The kingdom is not just a gift to be received but a realm to be entered. And how does one enter that realm that is the kingdom of God?
Well let’s ask ourselves: how does a little child enter Disneyland … the Magic Kingdom? Answer: In its mother’s arms or on its father’s shoulders. It is carried in. And though there is a price to pay, the father pays it. The child never even thinks about the price. In its dependence and receptiveness, it just accepts that gift as it accepts everything else that it is given from morning till night, day in, day out, till childhood ends. Food, clothing, warmth, light, books, toys, trips, holidays … everything.
So how may we enter the kingdom? What is the only way we can enter the kingdom? By being carried in … in the arms of God or on his shoulders. That is what Jesus is trying to tell us in Mark 10. He takes the children in his arms to show us the only divinely-approved method of transport into the kingdom of God. Let me say that again so that we don’t forget it. He takes the children in his arms to show us the only divinely-approved method of transport into the kingdom of God. And yes, there is a price to pay … but, yes, the Father has paid it. That’s how the kingdom can now be a gift to be received. Less than two months after showing us the way into the kingdom of heaven by taking babies in his arms, God in Christ – Jesus – allowed those arms of his to be stretched out and nailed to a Roman cross so that our entry to the Magic Kingdom might be secured … so that we might receive our oh-so-costly golden ticket.
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall by no means enter it.”
As I said earlier, many people … particularly church-going people … find this very difficult to accept as the plain, unvarnished truth. Because, once you start to live a life that begins, in some degree, to match up with God’s requirements for a holy life, it’s very easy to begin to feel that your efforts must be “counting” in some way as regards your salvation. And once you’ve begun to go down that road and to recognise that you’ve established a track record of being good and serving God over a long number of years, it actually begins to seem unfair almost that others should get into the kingdom by simply doing nothing except saying “Yes”.
Which is why I believe Jesus gave us another text to chew on concerning admission to the kingdom: Matthew 5:20 “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” What was the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law? It was a right standing with God that depended on complying with and carrying out all the commandment and rules laid down in the Old Testament.
It was the right standing of performance … very much akin to the right standing of performance that so many churchgoers in so many churches have devotedly set out to attain over so many years. But, says Jesus, whatever the merits of your performance, (and it might have very real merits and it might be very much to God’s liking) it can never get you into the kingdom because it can never be good enough. Another, a different sort of right standing is required. And Paul spells out for us what it is …
Romans 1.7 “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.”
Romans 3.22 “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”
Romans 4:4 “To the person who trusts God … his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Paul sums it all up in a verse in his letter to the Philippians … the book we are studying in our post-Alpha course … Philippians 3:8-9 “I want to gain Christ,” he says, “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
Do you see where Paul has brought us? Right back to those arms of Jesus in which the little children are cradled. “I want to be found in him” Paul says. “To be found in him” is to be in his arms; and there alone we acquire — by doing nothing except being helpless and accepting and being wholly dependent on him … there alone we acquire a right standing from God that perfectly qualifies me for entry to his kingdom. That is the blessing with which Jesus blesses all who take refuge in his arms, just as he blessed those little ones in Peraea a few weeks before he died.
One more thing and I’m through. In Matthew’s record of what Jesus said after stopping the disciples from sending the children away, there are some additional words which it is important that I draw our attention to. According to Matthew Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like a little child you shall by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“Unless you turn.” Jesus recognised it as a fact of life, it seems, that once we have ceased to be little children and have become young people or men and women we will inevitably have lost that dependent receptiveness which is the one thing needed for us to enter the kingdom. So if we are to gain heaven we really do need to turn. We really do need to lay aside our “cash and carry” mentality towards the things of God. We need to get alone with him and as a serious act of faith to put aside, one by one, all the things that, over the years, we may have come to think might count with him, and then simply to offer ourselves to Jesus in our helplessness asking him to lift us up, to place us against his heart, to lay his hands upon us, and to bless with the gift of the kingdom.
The plain fact is this. None of the many wrong things I have done since I came empty-handed to Jesus just 50 years ago as a child of 11 years old have had the slightest effect on my salvation. But equally none of the right things I have done over those 50 years have had any effect on it either. I am no less saved now and no more saved now than I was then, on that wonderful wet and windy night that I first came to Jesus in accepting, dependent, trusting faith at a Scripture Union meeting in darkest Manchester in 1953. That was when I received the kingdom as a gift and entered it. As a child. It is how we must all receive it and enter it, if we are to enter it at all. Amen.