( Based on I Samuel 16:1-13 & Matthew 18:1-6, 10-11)
Today we kick off a month long look at what has become one of my favorite chapters in all of scripture – Matthew 18. I think there is not only plenty of great stuff in this single chapter for a month worth of sermons, but plenty for a church like ours to chew on and work on for a long, long time. I’m very excited and hope you are too.
We all know and remember that when Jesus was asked by his disciples who would be the greatest in the Kingdom or reign of God, he took a little child and said to all the adults around him, “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” Such a powerful moment! Such a profound challenge! We all know it is important, but we don’t know exactly what to do about it. We probably all feel a little like that old Pharisee Nicodemus. He’s the one that when Jesus said, “You must be born again to enter the kingdom of God, replied, “What am I supposed to do? Crawl back inside my mother’s womb?” I might say, “Jesus! I’m 54 years old! I’ve got bad hips; I’m bald; I wear trifocals, and can barely bend over half the time! How am I supposed to become like a child?” But I am! And so are yoy! And some of you are a lot older than I, so we had better figure this out together!
Writer Amy Johnson gets us started in her piece entitled “30 Simple Things to Make You Feel like a Child again.” She notes that, “Being an adult means life is filled with commitments and responsibilities, and these demands can often leave us feeling stressed out. Instead of living in the moment, adults find themselves thinking mostly about the future and the past. While children, on the other hand, see the world through curious eyes and find inspiration in everything. Instead of worrying about careers and bills,” Johnson writes, “children spend every day living in the moment, seeking out happiness and joy.
She’s right! I’ve seen just how right she is in the 8 years I’ve had so far with my one and only daughter, Eloise. Eloise is so present in the moment. We’ll be taking a walk in a woods, and my mind will be running all over the place – next week’s sermon, the paint I need to get for the next day’s job site – and suddenly she’ll whisper, “Dad! Look! There’s a bunny over there.” She’ll point and I won’t see a thing. But with her guidance, soon I’ll see it – something beautiful and amazing that I would have totally missed otherwise, if I were on my own.
Eloise has given me some incredible gifts in her 8 years of life, but one of the very best is the way she pulls me into the present moment, when my mind tends to keep me regretting the past or worrying about the future. I happen to believe that that is one of the exact things Jesus had in mind, when he said we have to become like children to enter the kingdom. We have to get out of our ever-churning minds so we can notice the myriad gifts that are right in front of our noses!
Amy Johnson addresses this with concrete suggestions in that article I quoted a moment ago. Let me read you a couple of the items on her list of 30 things we all should do to become more childlike. Notice how they all have to do with complete presence in and openness to the moment – the now:
Be impulsive. You want that ice cream? Buy it and enjoy it.
Show physical affection to the people you love — the best way to show someone that you love them is to give them a big hug.
Sing whenever you want to — burst into song on the streets if that’s what you feel like doing.
Instead of avoiding puddles, splash through them.
Don’t worry about getting dirty. Instead, focus on all of the fun you are having
And here’s my favorite: Live in awe of all of the things in the world that amaze you.
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind, folks, the one place Jesus wants all of us to be, no matter how old we get, is in this moment – right here, right now. Cause if we’re not there, we’ll miss the kingdom of God, even if it’s staring us straight in the face.
I think we get some further assistance figuring out what Jesus meant about becoming like a child from social psychologist Steve Bloom. He has focused his research on the way children think. He’s interested in learning more about how children think and then getting adults to think like that! He writes:
“In some ways, our society seems dedicated to eliminating childhood. We often tell kids to stop acting like a child and grow up. Even the word “childish” has a negative tone to it.” He goes on. “At some point in all our lives, we stop being kids and start being adults. Eventually we all put down our toys and stop playing so we can take on bigger responsibilities. But as we grow up, we might be letting go of a little more than we should. Kids see the world in ways that we lose as an adult. When you’re young, you use your mind in creative, imaginative ways, ways that can really help you throughout your entire life, not just childhood. The good news,” Bloom continues, “is that childlike imagination and creativity still rests inside you – no matter how old you happen to be. Simply thinking back to when you were a kid will bring you into that mindset again.”He then goes onto point out five things kids all do when they think that we adults need to recapture. Ready? Here they are:
1) use imagination and play to boost ourcreativity 2) open up to more possibilities – don’t limit our options so quickly 3) don’t take life so seriously 4) seek more playful interaction with those you live and work with, and 5) reduce your inhibitions – we worry too much what others might think of us! Stop it!
I believe that Jesus wants us to think more like children think, and as Bloom said, we all still have these five thinking capabilities within us! We just need to use them again! Bloom cites all sorts of university level studies where groups of adults were divided in half. Both groups were given the same problem or question to solve. But one group was challenged to think like 7 year olds, while the other group wasn’t. Care to guess which group consistently came up with better, more creative solutions? Yep, the group that endeavored to think like 7 year olds. As we get older, Bloom claims, “we start to narrow our thinking as a result of entering the so-called ‘real world.”’ We don’t flex our imagination muscles as much as we once did. And like every thing else, if we don’t use it…we lose it!
There are all kinds of great reasons for us to become more childlike – to be more present in the here and now, and to free our thinking from all of our habituated adult restraints. But the best reason of all to become more childlike might be found in that story from I Samuel 16. Israel was ready for a new king. Saul had proven to be a big disappointment, so the people turned to the priests and prophets to go through the established protocol of anointing a new one. God sent Samuel to a man named Jesse who had 7 sons. Jesse paraded each of his first six sons before Samuel, starting with the oldest one, Eliab. Eliab was huge, handsome, athletic. Samuel assumed this was the one God had in mind, but no! Then came the next oldest, Abinadab, another strapping stallion of a son, a real warrior. But, again, God told Sam to wave that one off too. This process repeated itself – five more times – as Jesse brought his sons out from the oldest down to the second youngest. And after the seventh son passed by Samuel, Samuel asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” I can’t imagine that old Jesse was too pleased with how this king contest was going. To have all of his 7 sons rejected, especially when they were all big and strong and handsome, genuine warriors! So then Jesse says, “Well, there is still the youngest, but…you’re not going to want him. He’s the runt, and he’s out tending sheep, which is about all he’s good for at his age. “Send for him,” Samuel commands.
The Lord had whispered to Samuel early on in this parade of Jesse’s sons. The Lord said, When you’re looking for a king, do not consider his appearance or his height, for the Lord does not look at the things you humans look at. Humans look at the outward appearance; but the Lord looks at the heart.” So in comes David, small, pock-faced, and covered with sheep turds. And God says, “This is the one, Samuel. This is my choice. Annoint him.” God judges the heart, folks. God judges the heart. And kids have great hearts; they’re open, they’re not jaded, they’re trusting, they’re not prejudiced. They’re willing to believe and to have faith and to try new things. But sometimes, as we grow older, as we live through some disappointment, some loss, some nastiness at the hands of others, our hearts sour and shrivel up. Jesus warned us about this in Matthew 24:12. It’s on the cover of your bulletin. He told his disciples before he left them that they were going to go through a bunch of really hard stuff in their lives. And he said, “As the wickedness in the world is multiplied, most people’s love will grow cold.” But Jesus went on in verse 13 to say, “But the one who keeps loving, who keeps a loving, open, child-like heart, will be saved.”
That’s our job, folks. That’s our mission. That’s what is supposed to make us different out there in the world. We, who dare to follow Jesus, are supposed to maintain our child-like hearts. Even as wickedness is multiplied; even as people continue to do horrible things to other people; even as terrorists wander and roam the earth; even when it looks as though the world is going to hell in a hand basket; we’re supposed to be the ones who maintain our loving, trusting, and open hearts.
Can you do it? Can you get back in touch with that child deep inside you? Can you recapture that childlike mind, that incredible imagination? Can you learn how to come back into this moment, the holy here and now? I hope so, for Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like a little child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Amen.