Sunday, September 28, 2008

Pentecost 20 Sermon -- Matthew 21:23-32 (LSB Proper 21A)

September 28, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

When [Jesus] entered the Temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to Him as He was teaching and said: “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?”

“Who gave You this authority?” That question is posed to Jesus quite often in His ministry. Sometimes it’s asked in amazement of what Jesus says and teaches, like in the synagogue of Nazareth. Other times it’s asked in reaction to His actions, like when Jesus and His disciples were picking grain on the Sabbath to eat or when Jesus healed a demoniac. And the question is put to Jesus when He forgives the sins of a paralytic and sends him on his way.

The question “Who gave You this authority?” is meant to probe Jesus, to test Him against people’s preconceived notions about Him. When asked by the Pharisees or, as on this day, by the chief priests and elders, the question is asked in order to make an indictment against Jesus. What false claim will He make? Why does He teach in the Temple without permission? Who gave Him power over sin and death and demons? The questions are asked because Jesus is being accused of doing something wrong, accused of breaking the Divine Law.

That is the opinion that the chief priests and elders had of Jesus, just as they held the same opinion about John the Baptizer, the Forerunner of Christ. They believe that John was delusional or a crackpot and that Jesus is a fraud, even a false teacher. When Jesus heals the demoniac, the Pharisees called Him Beelzebub. When Jesus claims to come from God, the Jews call Him a Samaritan and even an illegitimate child. And when Jesus steps foot in the Temple, throwing out the moneychangers and teaching the crowds whose children call Him “the Son of David” and ask Him to save them, it is the last straw for the chief priests and elders. This Man has no right to do such things and is leading the people astray.

“Who gave You this authority?” That question asked of Jesus was answered by the Lord God months and years before this Holy Week incident in the Temple. It was answered when John baptized Jesus and the voice of the Eternal Father said: “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It was answered when the Eternal Father revealed Jesus’ identity to Simon Peter who confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” It was answered on the mountainside as Jesus was transfigured and again the Eternal Father spoke from heaven: “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”

And yet, Jesus is asked: “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” The answer is that Jesus received this authority from heaven itself. It is the authority that He carries as the Son of God. It is the same authority that was delegated to John the Baptizer, so that he could prepare the people for Christ’s arrival; the same authority bestowed to Ezekiel to call Israel to repentance and salvation; the same authority granted to Paul and the other apostles to establish new assemblies and teach another generation of believers; the same authority that has been given here, so that you may hear the judgment of God against your sins, but also turn from them and receive forgiveness, life, and salvation from Christ.

It is an authority that challenges and threatens those who seek their own power and privilege. But for those who are called to believe it, the authority that Christ Jesus carries is of great value and comfort. In the dialogue with the chief priests and elders, Jesus points out people who did believe it. He uses John the Baptizer as a point of comparison: “The baptism of John, from where did it come: from heaven or from man?” His question focuses on faith: What did you believe about John’s identity and actions? The chief priests and elders believed nothing good about John. But “[the crowds] all hold that John was a prophet” and “the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him.” And from the other incidents involving Jesus, we see that they believed in Him, too.

So what does Jesus say about those people who believed that John carried divine authority? “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before [the chief priests and elders do].” Those who recognized the divine authority that John was given and repented of their sins that John spoke against and received baptism from John: they are the ones who have entry into “the kingdom of God.” They are saved by their faith.

And the same holds true for those who believe likewise about Jesus. However, true belief about Jesus is not simply that He was someone given divine authority, but that as the Son of God begotten of the Father before all worlds, He always had it. Christ has that divine authority as He goes to accomplish the will of His Father, just as He testifies: “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. . . . For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise Him up on the Last Day.”

Jesus speaks about doing His Father’s will, which He perfectly fulfills. But He also tells a story to the chief priests and elders about a father’s will for his two sons. When told by the father “to work in the vineyard,” the first son says to him: “I will not.” But Jesus says: “Afterwards, he changed his mind and went.” When told by the father the same thing, the second son says to him: “I go, sir.” But Jesus says: “He did not go.” One of the two sons got it right; one of them repented and fulfilled his father’s will for him. And so it was in Israel: one group got it right—those who once were disobedient, who didn’t want to obey the Eternal Father, but who heard John’s message and believed it and repented, who also recognized Jesus and His authority and associated with Him. These are the ones who receive eternal life by the forgiveness of their sins.

This is what Jesus desires for each of you. He has fulfilled His Father’s will and He still carries “all authority in heaven and earth.” He has established His Church and delegated His authority to it, so that it can proclaim the Law of God which condemns sins and sinners, as well as the Gospel that forgives and saves. He has sent His Holy Spirit into the world, so that you can hear that proclamation about Christ and believe in Him and turn from death to life. The words of the Lord God spoken through the prophet Ezekiel stand true even today: “When a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”

This is exactly what “the tax collectors and prostitutes” experienced as they heard John preaching the message of repentance and salvation and “they believed him.” The same is true for each of you. But it isn’t a one-time, initial thing. It is ongoing. The turning takes place as you are first brought into faith (at conversion), but also every single time that the Law of God confronts you and your sinfulness and you repent and attach yourself to the righteousness of Christ by remembering your baptism, confessing sins, and receiving the Sacrament of the Altar. The turning and repentance is a way of going back to the authority of Jesus that the Church carries today, so that in these things it does you find salvation.

The same question that is asked of Jesus can be asked of us here: “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” You can answer that question: It has come from the Lord God. “The word of life” that I hear comes from heaven. The power of the sacraments I receive comes from heaven. The forgiveness of sins given to me in the Church comes from heaven. Because here is the authority of the Lord God: here is His Law that convicts me of my sin, but here is His righteousness given to me, so that I may live. Here is “the encouragement of Christ, the comfort from love, the participation in the Spirit” that the apostle Paul handed down. Here is “the way of the Lord” that the prophet Ezekiel proclaims. Here are “the paths of the Lord [which] are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep His covenant and His testimonies,” as the Psalmist declares.

That is what the chief priests and elders missed, what they got wrong, what they refused to believe. But it need not be so with you. For you can be just like the tax collectors and prostitutes who believed rightly and were humbled and repented and were given entry into the kingdom of God. You have been given “a new heart and a new spirit” in your baptisms. You continue to be given the Lord God’s “covenant and testimonies” which were fulfilled in the blood of Christ “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The authority from heaven is in these things, the same authority that Christ carried and which He delegated to His Church.

As you believe it, so you shall “go into the kingdom of God before [the chief priests and elders do].” For that is the will of the Father which you obey as you “change your mind” and repent and turn back to Him like the first son in Christ’s story. It is the will of the Lord God who “takes no pleasure in the death of anyone” and who calls you “to turn and live.” Believe the Divine Law which condemns you and your sin, but believe even more the Divine Gospel which is even more authoritative that saves. Turn and live, believing the authority of Christ who has fulfilled His Father’s will for you.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, September 22, 2008

St. Matthew's Day Sermon -- Matthew 9:9-13

September 21, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church -- Mechanicsburg, PA

As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and He said to Him: “Follow Me.” And he rose and followed Him.

The Gospel account for this day when we commemorate St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, is quite matter-of-fact. Jesus calls Matthew to be a disciple. He says: “Follow Me.” And Matthew rose and followed Him. That’s all the Gospel-writer describes as happening. Jesus speaks and the action He wants to occur takes place.

But what isn’t said in the Gospel account is how changed Matthew’s life becomes. In that simple two word sentence “Follow Me” are many things that are anything but simple. In those two words “Follow Me” is a whole new way of life, an exchange of past unrighteousness for divine holiness, a setting aside of what was most important for an entirely new set of priorities.

This is seen in the events that surround Matthew’s call to apostleship. Note where Jesus finds Matthew: “He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth.” What an odd place to find a disciple! The tax booth—the symbol of Roman occupation, the place of collaboration for unpatriotic Israelites, the tangible presence of Gentile uncleanness—in the tax booth sits one whom Jesus wants for His own. He goes up to that place with all its connotation of unrighteousness and impropriety and calls Matthew out of it, so that Matthew might follow Him.

And as if it weren’t shocking enough for a rabbi to find disciples working in a Roman tax booth, Jesus then goes to the tax collector’s house and is publicly seen with even more examples of unrighteousness: “As Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and His disciples.” The shocks keep on coming from Jesus’ actions: first calling a tax collector to be His disciple, then welcoming other tax collectors and sinners into His presence.

For Matthew and his friends and acquaintances, there is a whole new way of life that Jesus brings, something they had never before experienced. These tax collectors and sinners were part of Israel, but just barely. They were the outcasts, shoved to the edge of society because of their behavior. By their own choices, they had wandered from the righteousness of God. And the religious elite, the Pharisees who were dedicated to being set apart from such people, would not let them forget it!

Note how the Pharisees react when they see Jesus in the presence of Matthew and his ilk: “The Pharisees said to His disciples, ‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” Why, indeed! Just what sort of stunt is Jesus pulling? This entire enterprise—calling a tax collector to be a disciple, the eating and socializing with “many tax collectors and sinners”—is highly irregular. But so is the entire enterprise of Jesus’ mission beyond whoever happens to eat dinner with Him.

Everything that surrounded the call of Matthew was done with a purpose. But the intention was not to shock people, but rather to save them. Jesus tells the Pharisees and Matthew and the tax collectors and sinners: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus wants Matthew and the tax collectors and all sinners to rise up from their tax booths and former ways of life, so that they can follow Him and rise up in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

That is precisely what we see happening in Matthew’s life. He leaves behind the institution of the Gentiles. He abandons the sinful practices of collecting more than what was owed and pocketing it for himself. He renounces all behavior that leads to eternal condemnation. All of it is done at the invitation of Christ: “Follow Me.” Jesus speaks and what He desires to take place in Matthew’s life happens. And it leads to a share of the righteousness and healing that Jesus provides for those who need it.

In the life of Matthew, we see a depiction of our selves. He is left as a pattern to imitate. But more importantly, it is through his faithful and inspired witness that we are called to follow Christ and leave behind all covetous desires and love of riches. Through Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say to us: “Follow Me.” Jesus speaks and what He desires to take place—our salvation—happens. We hear Jesus make the statement: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” We know that both of those declarations of Jesus are meant for our ears, applying to us, as we read the witness that Matthew handed down to us. But not only do we have the record of Christ’s words from Matthew’s faithful witness, we learn what Christ has done: laying down His life as a ransom for many, pouring out His blood of the new covenant, and on the third day being raised to life everlasting for Himself and all His people.

That is the significance of this day which commemorates St. Matthew. He is a gift of God, living up to both his name and his offices of apostle and evangelist. Just as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, the witness of Matthew has been given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” The body of Christ is built up as sinners are called by Christ and receive the forgiveness and healing that He provides. The body of Christ is built up as you have been called to follow Him, being incorporated into Him through Baptism, participating in His death and resurrection, and leaving behind Satan and all his works and all his ways in order to walk in the way of life.

But the witness of Matthew is not just of the past events, ancient or recent. It also shows the Church what is to happen in the future, even what occurs today. The call of Jesus continues to go out as the Gospel witness of Matthew is carried by ourselves and others. In fact, the very witness of Matthew includes the statement of Jesus: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to keep everything that I have commanded you.” When that Gospel is proclaimed, there will be others called to fellowship with Jesus: other sinners will participate in the death and resurrection of Christ, finding forgiveness for their sins and gaining their own everlasting life.

So we must not fall into the error of the Pharisees were shocked and offended that Jesus would keep such company. People just like the friends and acquaintances of Matthew will also be welcomed by Jesus. So we should not ask: “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Rather, we should welcome them as our Teacher and Master does, recognizing them as the sick whom Jesus heals, the sinners whom Jesus forgives, the people whom Jesus calls to everlasting life.

Matthew’s new life, their new life, our new life: they are not different, but the same. All of us were dedicated to the pursuit of meaningless things, to covetousness, to lawlessness, to anything and everything opposite of the Lord God’s righteousness. We have been called away from that; we have a new source and purpose of life. Jesus says to Matthew and them and us: “Follow Me.” We learn what is good, right, and salutary from our Teacher and the witness of previous disciples. Like the Psalmist, we have our prayers answered: “Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in Your ways. Confirm to Your servant Your promise, that You may be feared.”

That is what Jesus gives to us, as we are brought into fellowship with Him, incorporated into His Body. It is first given to us in our baptisms. It is repeated as we hear and learn the witness of the apostles and the evangelists. And it is confirmed in our hearts, minds, and souls, as we eat with Jesus in the meal that our Lord provides us as a token, seal, and pledge of His forgiveness, life, and salvation.

All of this came to Matthew through the Jesus saying to him: “Follow Me,” and as he rose and followed Him. The same is ours to have through the faithful witness of Matthew who brought those same divine words and divine actions to us. And it will be given to still others, as we are also faithful witnesses to our friends and acquaintances and they are welcomed into fellowship with Christ. Jesus speaks again, and what He desires to take place in their lives happens. So it shall be through the ages until that day when all the sinners whom Christ has called will eat with Him in the banquet that has no end, receiving the full measure of healing that makes His people eternally well.

May it be so for all of you, as Jesus has told you: “Follow Me.” Rise up from your former ways of life, so that you may rise up in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come—just as Jesus desires to happen for you.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pentecost 18 Sermon -- Matthew 18:21-35 (LSB Proper 19A)

September 14, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

The master said: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”

“Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” That is the question Jesus poses to you today. It’s the same question asked of Peter, when the chief disciple wanted to know: “How often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Jesus speaks about debts, but His comments are that they should not be collected. The parable that Jesus tells regarding forgiveness destroys the concepts of justice and equity that humans, especially Americans, hold dear. Christ’s teaching and the way of life established for His disciples emphasizes His own nature: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Compassion, pity, forgiveness: this is the nature of Christ and His Christ’s work. It’s how the master in the parable is portrayed, a character that represents Him. When he hears the cries of the indebted servant—“Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything”—the master acts out of graciousness instead of justice, out of mercy instead of equity. The debt could never be repaid. “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”

Jesus’ parable shows you, His servants, how He considers you, how He treats you. He does not see you as debtors who will repay every last cent. He does not see you as objects for wrath or torture. Accounts are settled, but the ledgers are never balanced. Invoices are left unpaid, because the Lord Jesus pins them to His cross. Debts are forgiven, not collected. Christ’s actions are exactly what the Psalm for today said about the Lord God: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. . . . As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us”

That is how the Lord God has chosen to treat you. And on this day, as you come into His presence, the same has been done again. Your debts are forgiven, accounts are wiped clean. What you could never hope to repay will go uncollected. None of it is done begrudgingly our out of compulsion. Rather, it is voluntary, a deliberate act of compassion. And it involves your Master both forgiving your debt and settling your account by His loss.

How different that is from what you see going on around you. What the Master does in the parable is diametrically opposite to the creditors of our nation. They act according to justice and equity. If they could, they would “order [the debtor] to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.” That is equitable. That is right. That is just. No bailouts or relief. Debts incurred, debts repaid.

But know that Jesus does not preach this parable against lending establishments. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citibank, JP Morgan: none of them are the targets of these words of Jesus. The parable is not meant for them; it is not meant for those who operate in the sphere of the law, under the principles of justice and equity. Other scripture can be used to speak out against usury, oppression of the poor, or squeezing the lifeblood out of borrowers. That’s for another day.

The words of Jesus are meant for you, for His servants. He has described how you and all you had were not sold until you should repay your debt. And He asks you: “Will you do the same for those who owe you?” Or in His exact words: “I forgave you all your debt because you pleaded with Me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”

Think about those words of Jesus: “You pleaded with Me.” Put into your minds the imploring words and statements that you will speak or have already spoken during Divine Service this morning: “For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy. Hosanna: Save us now, Lord! Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” There’s an awful lot of pleading going on here today, and rightly so.

And just like that indebted servant, you will go out of here after all the pleading. You will depart from this place with your debts forgiven, your sins absolved. And you will encounter “one of [your] fellow servants who owed [you].” But what will you do? How much seizing, choking, and demanding to be paid will go on in your lives from Sunday afternoon to Saturday evening, or heaven forbid, even next Sunday morning? Will your fellow servants see what takes place and be “greatly distressed” by your actions? Will it be necessary for you to be summoned by your Master and be dressed down and labeled “Wicked Servant”?

Those are heavy questions. And you heard heavy words from Jesus about that very topic. The Psalmist accurately depicted the Lord God and His character: “He will not always chide, nor will He keep His anger forever.” But Jesus did not lie when He said: “In his anger his master delivered [the wicked servant] to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Both statements are correct, both are true: there are two groups of people, and each receives a proper response from the Lord God.

The heavy words of Jesus must be heard. And perhaps it is serendipity and providence that you hear them now, at this time, as the lectionary delivered them in rotation. Three years ago, these same words of Jesus were read from this pulpit, directly applicable to that time and place with all its troubles. The ledgers were full of red ink then and needed to be wiped clean. And this morning, you hear the same teaching from your Master Jesus. It is applicable to all time, but especially so for now, as the servants of Christ live together as His disciples.

Three years have passed, and in that time many debts have been incurred between servants and the Lord God and between fellow servants. But the action of the Master is the same for the servants who implore Him: “Out of pity for him, the master of the servant released him and forgave him the debt.” And the question the Master poses remains the same: “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”

Now is the time to settle accounts in the way that Jesus desires. Like Joseph, you have also received a command. Joseph’s father said to him: “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.” The same command to forgive comes to you. But the One who gives it is the Heavenly Father, and His orders don’t come with the word “Please.” Without doubt, there was evil meant against you and some themselves may have delivered evil against fellow servants, whether it was in the troubles of the parish or in other areas of life. But “the kingdom of heaven,” where Christ reigns as Lord over His people, has no place for either servant-on-servant crime or keeping a personal roster of debtors.

The call that goes out to you as part of Christian discipleship is to forgive the debts of your fellow servants. Your Lord has taught you both how to pray such a petition—“forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors”—and how to practice it. He has given you a story to learn from, showing you what not to do. And the history of “the kingdom of heaven” has great examples of behavior like Joseph to emulate. But even more importantly, Jesus has shown what He Himself does: forgiving those who wronged Him, making reconciliation between the Eternal King and His indebted subjects, welcoming people into His fellowship and binding them together, and canceling the sins of those who implore Him.

What Christ does has taken place for your benefit: all has been forgiven you who believe in Him, who have been made His servants. The amount you owed which was impossible to repay has been forgiven. Your eternal debt is removed because Jesus was sold with all that He had and payment for you was made, “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” There is no refusal to forgive seen in Jesus’ actions. And as you are His servants who “live under Him,” Christ expects no refusal from you.

The lesson is clear: Forgive as you have been forgiven. Show mercy as you have been shown mercy. That is the way of life Jesus lays out for His people. When that way of life is followed, then there won’t be “fellow servants who are greatly distressed” because one disciple of Jesus refuses to forgive the debts of another. Instead, there will be the loosing of sins both here on earth and in heaven above. The Master will say to you: “Well done, My good and faithful servant!” And Christ’s “heavenly Father”, will deliver you from the jailers instead of handing you over for all eternity.

That is what the Master Jesus wants you, His servants, to know. Forgiving fellow-servant’s sins is the behavior that Christ desires to see in this community of His: the people who implore Him for mercy and who receive His absolution. So may it be for you and your fellow servants, as you both receive Christ’s forgiveness and cancel the debts of sin among one another.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Pentecost 17 Sermon -- Matthew 18:1-20 (LSB Proper 18A)

September 7, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA

Calling to Himself a child, [Jesus] put him in the midst of them and said: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

In His conversation with the Twelve, Jesus says some tough words, as well as words of great promise and comfort. That is the way that the Lord God speaks to you and all humanity. There are times when no mincing of words is allowed. Strewn throughout the speech of Jesus that you heard today are many unminced words, statements that pull no punches. He speaks authoritatively as the Son of God. It is good that He does so, for you need to hear both the clear statements of disapproval, as well as the even clearer statements of promise.

The very beginning of the conversation starts badly. You heard what the disciples asked Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It’s an interesting question to ask Jesus, the Son of the Living God. The answer seems painfully obvious, but it was as if the disciples were totally oblivious to it. Note the wording again: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Most people would say: “Well, I suppose that Jesus is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And yet, the Twelve ask the question about themselves. They have heard Jesus speak about this kingdom, and they want to know their rank in it, hoping to be the greatest.

But the response that Jesus gives teaches the Twelve. He doesn’t immediately say: “What sort of question is that? Obviously, I am the greatest.” Instead, Jesus teaches His disciples a lesson about how greatness works in the kingdom of heaven, how it differs much from how the world assigns rank. “Calling to Himself a child, He put him in the midst of them and said: ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’”

Note both what Jesus does and says, for both are necessary to learn the lesson that He teaches His disciples. “He put [the child] in the midst of them.” Children are on the lowest rung in society. What is their worth or value, in practical terms? They constantly need things done for them. They occupy parents’ time, attention, and effort. Their production level of beneficial things is minimal. And yet, Jesus uses a child as the visual example of “who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Not only does He use the child as the visual example, Jesus also makes a comment about the character of that child: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Being humble, being low on the totem pole, being like this child makes one “greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” That is how greatness is measured by the Lord God.

This response that Jesus gives the Twelve teaches them about humility. But it teaches them something even more than that. What Jesus describes by showing the disciples the child and talking about self-humiliation is more than just a warning against arrogance or some self-help advice not to take yourself too seriously. In fact, it’s really not about that at all. Jesus’ actions and words talk about Himself. They are a roundabout way of describing what He is.

Last Sunday you heard about the necessity of Jesus “to suffer many things, to be put to death, and to rise again” in order to fulfill His mission as the Redeemer of the world. This humiliation makes Jesus “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And last week you also heard that being a disciple of Jesus requires “denying yourself, picking up your cross, and following Him.” Again, humility is essential to what Jesus and His mission and discipleship are all about. Whoever wants to be “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” must “humble himself,” make himself nothing, but then receive what the Lord God has to offer: forgiveness, everlasting life, and salvation. Being like that child that Jesus placed in the midst of His disciples brings a divinely-given greatness, something that cannot be earned but can be thwarted by self-pride or arrogance.

This answer that Jesus gives to the disciples’ misguided question teaches that He is the greatest. But Jesus also shows the Twelve that His greatness isn’t something that He clings onto and hordes for Himself; rather, His greatness is also meant to be shared with those who “turn and become like children.” That phrase that Jesus uses has language about repentance and rebirth, which both include humbling oneself.

Repentance means more than just admitting guilt; it is a confession that you are under the law, under someone else’s command, namely the Lord God. Repentance humbles you, because it dismisses any sort of notion that you determine what is right for your own life and admits that you are flawed and in need of help for salvation. Rebirth is the gift that the Lord God bestows on His humbled people. But it also means that you start from Stage One. Whether you have been given the rebirth in Holy Baptism as a child—as you witnessed today with Lily and Luke—or as a young adult or as a senior citizen, your life as Christ’s disciple began at spiritual infancy. The Lord God gives you a new life: you are made newborn children of God who follow their Father and grow into maturity, becoming like Jesus and being made “great in the kingdom of heaven.”

That is the promise made by Jesus for His disciples. Throughout the conversation that He had with the Twelve, there were references to the privileged status that even the least in the kingdom of heaven has. Those who “turn and become like children” receive good things from the Eternal Father. The Lord God’s children have a protected status, especially in youth: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” Jesus talks about the grave concern that the Lord God has for His children: “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

This humble status that Jesus wants His people to have, that He wants you to have, is meant for good. The Lord God doesn’t use the humility as a punishment, but as a means to lead you to a greatness that is beyond what you could ever achieve or arrogate for yourself. He makes you a child, so that you can be led by Him. The Eternal Father wants you to be part of His household; but to be part of His household requires being reborn and made reliant on Him. Your Lord wants to teach you, to mold you, just as your parents taught and molded you and as you do likewise for your children. There is a legacy to be handed down to these who have actually been adopted by the Lord God: “to enter the kingdom of heaven.” That is the end goal that is in store for the disciples of Jesus.

All of this hinges on “turning and becoming like children.” All of it depends upon being redeemed by and incorporated into the One who “is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” That end goal of “entering the kingdom of heaven” doesn’t come for those who are spiritually arrogant or want to make themselves great by their own efforts. Greatness here on earth really matters nothing in eternity. The pride-seeking question of the disciples was not commended at all; rather, such thinking would keep them from “entering the kingdom of heaven.”

What makes someone truly great, what brings salvation has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with Jesus and what He provides. He has the absolution, the total forgiveness, for the sins you have committed but repent of. Christ has the authority to give the life of the world to come to those whose earthly lives will draw to a close. Jesus has the righteousness that every human being lacks, but that He bestows to all who have been brought back into the fold, made right in the presence of God.

Jesus told His disciples: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of 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 who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” That describes perfectly how Christ fulfilled the will of His Father that none of you should perish. It describes what has Jesus has already done.

And the most remarkable thing about all this is that Jesus accomplished it by being practicing what He preached. He became “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” by being the least on earth. Christ was like the child that He put in front of the Twelve. Being the obedient Son of the Living God, Jesus humbled Himself unto death, even death on the cross, doing His Father’s will. And that same Jesus was raised on the third day and given “authority over all things in heaven and earth.”

Thus it is Jesus “who is the greatest,” seated at the right hand of the Father for all eternity. And what He has for you is the same destiny, as “you turn and become like children.” For by being humble, repentant, and dependent children here on earth, you shall also be raised up by that Greatest One and numbered with His saints in glory everlasting.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.