In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It probably doesn’t strike us as at all strange that Jesus would welcome a little child and embrace him, and hold him up as an example of the people whom the disciples must serve. After all, we would probably do the same thing. We like children; we want them around (most of the time); we treat them like little adults, we give them all kinds of rights and responsibilities; we buy them expensive things; we let them make their own decisions. Whether those things are good or bad is a discussion for a different time, but it does show how far removed we are from the people of the first century and their thinking about children. At Jesus’ time, children were more burden than blessing. They couldn’t contribute to society; they couldn’t work in the fields or in the home; they couldn’t give anything, they could only take. They could only consume their parents’ resources. To us, what Jesus does seems like exactly the right thing, but to the people sitting in that room, it would have been strange, if not shocking. Jesus is not talking about what children might be in the future, He’s saying the disciples must serve children and other helpless ones now. Whoever receives one such child in My Name receives Me, and whoever receives Me, receives not (only) Me, but the One who sent Me, God the Father.
If you want to be first, you must be last of all, Jesus says.If you want to be first, you must be servant of all. The disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest, who was most important, maybe who was closest to Jesus. Maybe each of them was putting forth the case for himself, why he was the greatest. Or maybe they were arguing about whether Peter, or James, or John was the greatest. They were the ones closest to Jesus, His inner circle. They were the ones on the mountain of Transfiguration; they were the ones who would be in the Garden of Gethsemane. Whatever it was, when they come to the house, Jesus asks them what they were talking about, and they suddenly have nothing to say. Ashamed of being caught, once again, doing exactly what Jesus had commanded them not to do. After all, they should know better by now. They’re arguing about who’s the greatest when they couldn’t even cast out an unclean spirit. They couldn’t do what Jesus had given them the authority to do. They’re arguing about who’s the greatest when Jesus had just finished telling them that He—and they had to agree that He was really the greatest—is going to be handed over into the hands of men, and they are going to kill Him, and then He’ll rise from the dead. They don’t understand it, they don’t want to ask Him about it, but maybe they’re thinking twice about whether they really want to be so close to this King. Maybe they don’t really want to be in the inner circle when this Jesus begins to reign. Who knows what might happen to them.
But Jesus doesn’t need them to answer. He says, If you want to be first, you must be last of all; you must be servant of all. Humble yourself, as James would say later. But that’s really hard to do. Because I don’t really want to be last. I don’t want to be weak. I don’t want to be thought of as foolish or helpless. And even when I try to humble myself, because I know I’m supposed to, all I can think about is how humble I’m being, and how I hope everyone else is seeing this, and how I’m the most humble! My sinful nature—Paul calls it the law of sin—prevents me from doing what the law of my new nature knows is right. Your sinful nature prevents you as well. We are an adulterous people, trying to love both the world and God. We want the importance and greatness of the world, and still to be in good with God. But if you are a friend of the world, you are an enemy of God. And how close we are to the world, how intimate! We want people to think we contribute; we are always campaigning for ourselves and how good and nice we are. Enemies of God.
There’s only one who has ever been last of all—because He’s first of all. There’s only one who’s ever been servant of all—because He’s Lord of all. He comes into a world that hates the weak and the helpless; where the infant in the womb and the person in the nursing home bed are thought to be worthless because they can’t contribute; the ones who are more burdens than blessings; where we can kill our own children because they might interfere with our lives or happiness; where we rationalize the intentional deaths of those whose quality of life is low as far as we judge it. (Maybe we’re not so far removed from the first century as we thought.) Into this world God enters as an embryo, as a zygote, as a fetus. He is weak and helpless; He barely contributes; He consumes His parents’ resources. He lives, and then He dies on a Roman instrument of execution. What does He actually give? How important is He? What does He say that a million other philosophers and religious leaders didn’t already say? But His weakness is stronger than all our strength put together; His foolishness is wiser than all our wisdom put together. It is exactly where He appears to be doing nothing that He does everything. He does it like this so He can serve the weakest and the most foolish and the helpless. He is the God of the orphan and the widow, who have no one to help them. It’s not that He doesn’t love the rich and the powerful; they haven’t committed some sin that He cannot forgive. But how much harder it is for those who have a lot of stuff and a lot of money and a lot of power to think that they need a Savior? How much harder is it for us to know that we are the weak ones, the helpless ones, the ones who have nothing to offer, nothing to give Him? But Jesus will dwell only in and among sinners. His life is for the dead. If you are not a dead, damned sinner, what do you need from Jesus? He is the servant of the weak and the helpless, not those who can help themselves. This is His Divine Service, not ours. He must serve us before we can ever serve anyone else. And so He does, in His Church that continues to welcome little children, even receiving helpless infants in the Name of God, Father-Son-and-Holy Spirit, receiving them and everyone like them by water and the Word. Teaching them, serving them. And where that happens, Jesus is there, too, eating and drinking with sinners, serving them with just His Word of forgiveness. What looks like nothing, like it does nothing, like it contributes nothing to the society, there Jesus is doing His great work. Serving you, welcoming you, forgiving you and making you holy.
Sort of strange, isn’t it, that God would stoop this low? No, not strange at all. Not strange that Jesus would receive you with the welcoming Word of His forgiveness. You are joined to Him, and that means that Jesus’ Father is your Father. You are His own dear children; you are that child in Jesus’ arms, whom He accepts just because of what He does, and not what you can do. It looks like nothing to the world; to those who are perishing, it is the stench of death; but to you, to the ones whom Christ has embraced with His Word, it is the sweet scent of salvation and life. You and I were last, but He has put us first, into the very presence of God, in the arms of His embrace.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/22/12