Who Is The Greatest?

Delivered October 8, 2000 by Mrs. Terry Schlossberg.

Sermon Text:
Matthew 18:1-14

If you would please turn with me in your red pew Bibles to page 695 to Matthew 18:1-14. We will read the word of the Lord that Terry will be using as her text this morning. Matthew 18:1-14.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gauge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hill and go look for the one that has wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about the one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his holy Word. Terry…

It’s good to be with you this morning and join with you and worship. Let’s pray together. Heavenly Father, we ask you to be present with us now in our hearts and minds. Grant us the illumination of your Word by your Holy Spirit and give us ears to hear what you are saying to us in Jesus’ name, Amen.

I loved seeing this crowd of little children around Jerry this morning and I wish they were still up here. The sermon is appropriate for them. A Washington Post staff writer named Neely Tucker gave an account recently of his adoption of a child in Africa. The child who was finally to become his daughter had been abandoned at birth in the Highlands of Central Zimbabwe. When the ants swarming over her began attacking her right ear, she let out a scream that may have saved her life. A passerby waded into the tall grass following the wales and discovered the newborn umbilical cord still attached. The orphanage gave her the name Chippo, which means gift and she became one of more than a half million orphans in a nation of 11 million people. Chippo joined the virtual sea of sick and dying babies who have completely overwhelmed that country’s medical and social service system. Chippo’s story has a different ending than most because Neely Tucker and his wife became volunteers at the orphanage where she was placed. Chippo lay unresponsive in her crib and soon developed the deadly symptoms of the children around her. On one occasion while Neely Tucker was spoon feeding her, she reached out her long spindle of an arm and wrapped her hand around his little finger. “In so doing,” he said, “She softened a heart that had developed a callous in a land of so much violence and death.” The result of that sick little girl’s grasp was a commitment by the couple to do everything possible to save her life. Childless themselves that moment changed them from volunteers to people with a mission, and it dramatically altered their lives. They first had to save Chippo’s life after she stopped breathing due to extreme pneumonia. Then they had to ease her out of that dull unresponsiveness of an institutionalized child. They set their hearts on adopting her in a country that is very unfriendly towards foreign adoption and where officials repeatedly lost the paperwork that the Tuckers spent hours completing. The Tucker’s determination, in the face of the resistance, led to hours and days and months of persistent and aggressive waiting. Because he wouldn’t leave the country without Chippo, he took months of unpaid leave and then became unemployed. The lives of this couple were driven by their desire to rescue one child, and they did it. At the end of this horrible adventure, Neely wrote from their home in Washington, D.C., “We go to the mall, the church, to the park, just another American family lost among the many.” It could have been a very different loss among the many for Chippo.

What motivates some human beings to go to such lengths for another human being? Why would a man and woman be willing to pay any price to rescue another person let alone a sickly and damaged little person of unproven abilities? Whatever did Chippo do to deserve that depth of love and commitment? This is not an everyday story out of the orphanages of Zimbabwe, it is an extraordinary story. And in its extraordinariness, it bears the marks of the story of Christianity. Such foolishness, to say they went through all that to save one child. And yet, we here in the church recognize that kind of foolishness in the message of the gospel, don’t we? As our calling, we recognize in this account the ear marks of what our Savior did for us.

Christianity, from its beginning has been the great counter-cultural movement. Christianity is a different kingdom with a Ruler who defies all earthly understanding and comparison. He is a God who tells us that the last shall be first and the first last. That living is dying and dying is living. In other words, that what we see is not what we get. Reality and truth may be very different from what seems normative. The revelation of God in scripture often seems paradoxical and confronts us with the surprise of its resistance to what appears to be natural and reasonable.

The scripture for this morning is an example. In it is contained truths we could not have guessed for ourselves. Jesus is doing much more in this passage than chastening the competitive spirit of his disciples. He is telling us something important about the meaning and work of being human. The disciples must be instructed in this. Value for the humble, the weak, the vulnerable, the children was not something they entered the discipleship program already knowing. In another account they tried to block children from access to Jesus. They had to learn the value of the least of these. The disciples understood that children grow into adults, but here Jesus tells them that adults must become like children. Another Biblical paradox. And he warns them of the importance of protecting the little ones of the world. The language he uses becomes at once both literal and figurative. He brings a little child into their midst and he does not dismiss the reality of that child as he speaks to them and to us about those of any age who are naive or oppressed or weak or vulnerable. What does that mean, to be humbled like a little child? I think John Calvin caught a glimpse of it when he wrote in the opening to the institutes of the Christian religion. He said that, “It is in looking at ourselves, in our humanness, that we first begin to contemplate God.” But he added that, “It is in contemplating the true God that we come to understand ourselves as we contemplate who God is and who we are.” We are able to comprehend on the one hand how exalted we are as human beings and on the other hand how sinful and unworthy we are. From the vantage point of God we can see how humble we really are and how much like children and how needy. Without this perspective, this God perspective, we will end up with some other idea of what it means to be human.

Take for example the completely materialistic view of popular scientist Carl Sagan. He describes the human person as, “A collection of water, calcium and molecules.” Sagan’s world view openly excluded God and so the meaning of the human person bore no relationship to God. Without God, Sagan had no way to understand human beings as distinct from any other part of creation. Peter Singer is another example. He is an ethicist who recently was appointed professor at Princeton University. In an essay he wrote in 1983 Singer said that dogs and pigs display more characteristics of humanness than do those he refers to as “defective human beings”. Singer uses the language of “quality of life” as a measure of the meaning of human life. When he compares dogs and pigs to human babies with limited physical and mental capacities, it is not an academic comparison. He is among the intellectuals of our time who tell us that we should not regard a newborn as human until after the first several days of life or even a month or two so that parents will have time to decide if they want their baby to live or die. Singer says a baby’s membership in our species shouldn’t grant it any special privileges. The idea that humans are a special creation he says is, “Old fashioned Judeo-Christian mumbo jumbo that has a sentimental hold on us and once we get over the sentiment we will be in a better position to make the life and death decisions that our modern culture requires.”

The views of Sagan and Singer permeate our culture today. Overtly in some cases like the examples I have given and very subtly often in the guise of compassion in other cases. But, the really radical view is the Bible’s. It is in the Christian doctrines in creation and redemption that we Christians find the meaning of being human. Psalm 8 says, “When I look at the heavens the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has established, what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou doest care for him? Yet thou has made him little less than God and doest crown him with glory and honor. Thou has given him dominion over the works of thy hands; and has put all things under his feet . . .” Now this passage is filled with emotional power; but it is far from sentimental, because it is the truth about how and why we exist. The Psalmist surely was thinking of the Genesis account as he wrote this. God at work in creation and making everything and we, every one of us regardless of what we look like or what we can do are the crown of his creation made in his image. That is why Jesus points to children as the models of our worth.

A second doctrine of Christian faith that contains teaching about the meaning of our humanity is the doctrine of redemption. Tied to this doctrine is first the incarnation of Jesus Christ who identified with us by taking on our humanity and secondly his death to redeem us. Scottish theologian Thomas Torrence has written eloquently that the significance of our lives even before we are born is revealed in the incarnation of our redeemer. Jesus became human. Not as a man, but as an embryo. He became human exactly as we become human. It is in Jesus own incarnation that we begin to understand his teaching. Rather than measuring little one’s against some quality of life standard, they are the measure of greatness. We must become like them if we wish to achieve greatness in the kingdom of God. Torrence says that God intended that his presence in the womb of Mary was to aid our understanding of the being, nature and status in God’s eyes of the unborn child. That is why the Bible takes the trouble to record that the unborn John leaped with joy at the voice of the mother of his Lord. The purpose of Jesus’ own suffering and death also teaches us something radical about the meaning of our humanity. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,” the incarnate son of God, “but whoever offends or does harm to one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for them to have a millstone fastened around his neck and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Calvin says that Jesus is warning here that rejection of the vulnerable among us defies the will of God. “Instead, we must,” says Calvin, “stretch out our hands to the little ones who are abject in the sight of the world and help them lovingly on their way. Christ commends them to us as opportunities for our willing humility. From this,” says Calvin, “we can see how dear and precious God regards those who are mean and despised before the world.” This is the counterculture of the Bible that tells us that the most exalted among us in God’s view is the one who is despised and rejected by the world. Our Lord is our example. “He was despised and rejected by man,” says the prophet Isaiah, “as one from whom men hide their faces.” He was despised and we esteemed him not. So, it is the one who was himself despised and rejected by the world who, here in Matthew, warns us to take care that we do not despise those whom the rest of the world rejects; and elsewhere commissions us to offer lifesaving care.

Christians have done just that throughout history. We have carried the good news of the gospel and the cup of cold water all over the world. It is because we know, from God’s revelation to us that the ultimate meaning of being human is that Christ died for us and that we are the most vulnerable of all God’s creation because of our sin. There is the meaning of every human life redeemed; not because we measure up, but precisely because we do not measure up. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go and search for the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”

Inherent in redemption is God’s reclamation of lives both physical and spiritual. It is the searching out of one little person in the tall grass of Zimbabwe with an offer of life, but it is also the searching out and reclaiming of the mother who abandons her child with the offer of forgiveness. That is the promise. That is the good news. That is the reason for rejoicing in heaven over the reclamation of one person. Further on in Matthew, Jesus tells us that when we feed one hungry person or give drink to one thirsty person or clothe one naked person or care for one sick person or visit one person in prison, we are ministering to Jesus himself. We are worshipping and serving our Lord. This is a revelation about the meaning of being human that is an essential part of the truth we proclaim. This is what it is about – the Judeo-Christian tradition that Singer calls mumbo jumbo and urges us to rid ourselves of. How do we become active participants in this counter cultural mission of God? Very often it is simply through the faithful, and sometimes difficult, decisions we make in our own lives.

In one of your own Baltimore suburbs, a new family was formed several weeks ago when a young couple resisted the advice of their medical and other professional counselors to abort their first child. The professionals had detected what they said were severe anomalies. The couple felt alone in the community, relatively new to them, but clung to their convictions and their hope for a child they had already named. After the delivery, baby Hannah spent weeks in intensive care and endured surgery to insert a shunt into her skull. Parents and baby are now settled in at home putting in long days and longer nights than many parents of newborns because of their baby’s condition. As Robert Frost put it, “They still have miles to go before they sleep.” The young papa wrote recently “At every turn I see the amazing miracle that is Hannah’s life and thank God. During one of those late night/early mornings with Hannah this week I was struggling with the typical frustration and annoyance that can only come when an adult attempts to reason with an infant. My frustration in the middle of the night began to drift into anger. At that moment though, it struck us with great clarity that it was an honor and blessing to be there at that moment at 3:30 a.m. overwhelmed and exhausted desiring nothing more than quiet sleep. It was a blessing to be there because the doctors had predicted an alternative much worse. Her struggle to communicate her needs to us new parents at 3:30 a.m. is an incredible amazing miracle. Thank God,” he says, “for 3:30 a.m. Thank God for our exhaustion. Thank God for the joy and experience of being her parents.” These are our modern day heroes. People who hold true to their convictions in the crunch and some who will discover their convictions in the crunch and who will become lifesavers of those otherwise despised.

The first question of the Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man or the most important purpose of every human life?” And the answer is, “The most important purpose of every human beings life is to glorify God and enjoy or praise him forever.” There is not a single human being who cannot fulfill our primary purpose for living. “To glorify God and give him praise forever.” That is why, as followers of Jesus Christ, we cannot give our ascent to the death of any innocent member of humanity. Jesus leads us in a way that turns the voices and norms of our own culture upside down by telling us, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Go and search for them. “It is not the will of my father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” May God help us to find ways to live out our calling toward the least of these, our brothers and sisters, Amen.