31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
February 7, 2021
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Innocent, accepting, enthusiastic, playful, and carefree. There are so many reasons why adults should be more child-like. Our blood pressures would be lower; we would sleep better. Heaven knows there are lots of adults who could learn a lot about sharing, playing nice, and having manners if they watched a little more Sesame Street. The world would certainly be a better, kinder place if instead of ignoring when we hurt people, we all followed the example of Mr. Rogers’ Daniel Tiger and asked “How can I make things better?”
There are so many reasons why adults should be more child-like however I don’t think those reasons were uppermost in Jesus’ mind when he told his disciples “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
Jesus was focused on the kingdom of heaven, otherwise known as the kingdom of God. It was always number one on Jesus’ “what to teach my followers” list. Money was number two and Jesus certainly has a lot to say about how we think about and spend money, but kingdom of God was always number one.
This particular lesson about God’s kingdom community comes on the heels of Jesus’ disciples “discussing” who was the greatest. Different translations use the word famous however the meaning is clear – the disciples somehow think that being a part of Jesus’ inner circle is going to get them something, something good – power, attention, fame, a reality TV show, or 3 million TikTok followers.
The writer of Matthew and the writer of Luke wrote decades after Jesus was resurrected however they wrote from the same original source material, which is why the core meaning of this story is the same and the words are slightly different.
Whether the disciples are arguing or simply come to Jesus with their ‘oh so innocent’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”, Jesus knows what is in their minds and hearts. They want Jesus to say it’s them, that they are amazing, simply the greatest. Who doesn’t want to hear that?!
The kingdom of God, the community of God, isn’t like the world though. God’s concept of greatness continuously flips our expectations upside down. The youngest son is God’s chosen leader; the first shall be last and the last shall be first; if you want to be great, be like a child.
That’s what Jesus says to his disciples and to us. “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And then Jesus goes on to say “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:3,5) The Luke version adds “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Luke 9:48)
Jesus isn’t telling us to change and be like a child so we can reap the health benefits of being playful and carefree so we can potentially live on this earth longer. Jesus is telling us to be like children so we can be a part of God’s kingdom, God’s community, so we can be closer, more connected to God.
Perhaps I am biased after many years of ministry with children and youth. I truly believe though that children are closer to God. My opinion is not only based on what I have seen. I’ve heard countless stories about the faithful wisdom that has come from especially the youngest of children.
We are born with a deep connection to our Creator. A connection that does not need to be taught; a connection that needs only to be nurtured; a connection we, as adults, need to reclaim.
In preparation for our Lenten series on prayer, I’ve been reading Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God by Sybil MacBeth. And one of the ways Ms. MacBeth stays connected to God is through prayer and not just any kind of prayer – through doodle prayer. In her book, she writes:
When I first started praying in color I wondered, “Is this really prayer? It feels serious, but also light and relaxing. It feels prayerful, but also playful. Can a spiritual practice be both prayerful and playful?” When I look at the words pray and play I notice they are almost physically identical. They differ by only one letter, with three letters in common. And they have other things in common, too. Pray and play are both about being childlike, being vulnerable, being open to the new, letting go, and surrendering to the moment. (Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God, Sybil MacBeth, pg 15)
To be like a child is not only good for us, to be like a child is also to be like God, in whose image we were created.
Children are filled with endless creativity – purple skies and green cows, igloos and ice castles made out of snow in the front yard, and tunnels dug to the other side of the world. The other day my 8 year old was learning about lightning rods, and he wondered why the electricity was directed into the ground instead of into a way it could be reused. And now I wonder why.
Children aren’t stuck in the status quo, in what is or was. They wonder. They dream. They are naturally attuned to the Creator and so for them and for God, anything is possible.
And that is not where the similarities between children and God end. Children laugh – all the time. They are filled with joy and delight and so is our God. I know that that is not always how God is spoken of and portrayed however there are over 680 references to joy, rejoicing, and delight in the Bible. Why would we be asked to make a joyful noise to God if God didn’t want to hear it? Why would the Apostle Paul tell us to rejoice in the Lord always and why would King David dance before the ark of God, if God wanted us to be dour and solemn? To be joyful and delight in God’s creation, to surrender to the moment and soak up the here and now, is to be like a child, is to be like God.
As is being vulnerable. God did not come to earth in a flash of power, dripping with gold and jewels, with weapons drawn and an army of angels behind. God came to earth in the form of a tiny, vulnerable baby, born in a humble stable. To be open, to be accepting, to be vulnerable is to be both child-like and like the One who created us in God’s image.
When Jesus invites us to change and be like a child, when Jesus encourages us to welcome a child and thus welcome God into our lives, the lesson from Jesus’ life to ours is the lesson Jesus teaches us all along – that in God’s kingdom, it is not the power-hungry, the wealth-focused, not even the serious and dour faced ones who will come out on top. If we want to be great in God’s kingdom community, we need to be like children – delighting in even the smallest joys; opening our circle to welcome one more in to play; to laugh, rejoice and praise God; to see possibilities all around us; to create possibilities all around us.
This is Jesus’ lesson in greatness for all of us – to be strong and faithful enough to be vulnerable, to pray and play, reclaiming the child in our heart, welcoming the children in our community, and through both creating God’s kingdom of joy, fairness, love, and delight in our world.