The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 2/6/2000
Text: Matthew 18:1-4
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Snow, snow, snow. Had enough? I bet. A quiet week this past week, but FIVE TIMES in the previous two weeks? Enough already. Schools and businesses shut down; airports closed stranding travelers; icy highways like bumper-car rinks...boom, bang, bam. No church on Sunday for two weeks in a row - the few people who could get out of their driveways could not safely venture on to the streets. We were reduced to joining the congregation of the Church of the All-Seeing Eye. The words of the Psalmist came to mind: "[God] gives snow like wool...scatters frost like ashes."(1)

For the kids, the whole thing was a magnificent adventure. Since we in the Carolinas do not get snow very often, even a little arouses great anticipation. They were thrilled. I was not. When the snows began several weeks ago, we turned on the television to see what had gone on in the world while we were marooned and to hear what more the weather had in store. We saw all the images one might expect in an event like that... accidents, fires, stranded motorists, cancellations...trouble! But interspersed with the trouble were pictures of youngsters having a wonderful time... sleds, snowmen, snowball fights, laughter. As I watched, I realized that the biggest shame in all this was that all of us could not become nine-years-old again!

In a way that sounds a bit like what Jesus said in our scripture lesson: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." We have heard those words so often before that they no longer shock us. But they must have been strange to Jesus' disciples. Think of it. Here were some folks who had been traveling around the country with the Lord for who knows how long by this time. They had seen some pretty spectacular things - the blind restored to sight; the lame made to walk; even the dead raised back to life. They had heard about the kingdom of heaven. But in spite of all that, those disciples were still creatures of their own culture, prisoners of a mind set that told them about rank and privilege and then showed them what fun it could be to be the top dog in a society. So it is almost to be expected that they would think in those same terms about the kingdom. Each one wanted a shot at being top dog, so each one had in their mind this question about who would get the job. ONE of them was even bold enough to come right out and ask about it.

But then these startling words...if you want to be top dog, you must become like a kid again. What did Christ mean? The traditional answer is that Jesus was trying to point out the need for humility in his followers. After all, the context about greatness in the kingdom lends itself to that interpretation. But anyone who has kids knows they are not that humble. They like to be top dog as much as adults do - class president, star quarterback, head cheerleader - nothing humble there.

So what else could Jesus have meant? Some interpreters have said that the Lord was trying to convey the idea of dependence. We must be as dependent on God for all of life as children are dependent on their parents for THEIR lives. Well, that is a possible meaning - we KNOW that God is the source of all that we are and all that we have. But on the other hand, I do not know of many more INdependent creatures on earth than children. Kids DO NOT want to be reminded of what their parents provide - they, for the most part, take it for granted. The meals are SUPPOSED to be on the table at the appointed hour. The clothes are SUPPOSED to be clean and in the closet when they are needed. Band-aids and hugs are SUPPOSED to be there when knees are skinned and elbows scraped. Of course, if all those things were NOT there when needed, there would be a problem, but no more a problem than adults encounter when expected things are not just as we wish. No, kids take things for granted just as much as grown-ups do.

Of course, there is another interpretation of what Jesus meant here. Some would say that the Lord was trying to convey the necessity for TRUST that children evidence toward their parents. According to that kind of thinking, there is something innate within the heart of the child that says Mommy and Daddy are dependable and will do nothing that would not be in a youngster's best interest. Therefore, adults should get to that same frame of mind as concerns God. Because God loves us, God will never act out of any other motivation than OUR best interest.

Now, tell me, is that the way kids really feel? C'mon! Tell my kids that it is time to go to bed. What response do I get? "O gee, Daddy, you are right. I know I have to get to bed right away so I can grow up to be big and strong and healthy." RIGHT! Or tell them to eat all their vegetables - "They are good for you!" The response? "You are right, Dad, I know that these tasteless things are exactly what I need." RIGHT! Children do not act without questioning or complaint on the basis of what parents tell them is good for them. And needless to say, adults do not do that when it comes to God either.

Now, I will admit that there is an element of truth in all of these interpretations: we DO need a degree of HUMILITY in our Christian walk; we DO need a sense of DEPENDENCE on God for a proper relationship; we DO need to TRUST that God loves us and has our interests at heart. But honestly, children do not have a leg up on grown-ups in any of those - they are not that good as examples to us old dried up, stick-in-the-mud adults.

Hmm! If these interpretations are NOT quite what Jesus meant, then what was it? To come up with an answer, I think we would have to look at what makes children and adults really different, and then hone in on that. Then we have a better chance at understanding what our Savior had in mind: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Do you have an answer? The one that jumps to my mind comes from all the snow. I hated it and the kids loved it. They looked at the snow and saw a wonderful time, while I looked at snow and saw shovels, frozen feet, aching backs, and spinning wheels. Here is surely one way that kids and grown-ups are different: children look at something and see fun while adults can look at the SAME thing and see trouble.

Think about it. Kids can get fun out of the rain. Daddy and Mommy do not like rain. We get wet, and we do not like to get wet. It is dangerous to get wet. We might get pneumonia and die. If it rains, we must carry an umbrella, but if we carry an umbrella, we might lose it, and that is even worse than getting wet. But little boys and girls LIKE to get wet. They do not need an umbrella and do not want a raincoat. They love to go out in the rain and get their feet wet. They love to wade. They even love a mud puddle - after all, it has RAIN in it. They do not mind the mud. They can make mud pies. They do not have to be bothered with a stove; they do not have to worry about burning the crust; they do not have to worry about ingredients. After all, you do not EAT mud pies. The fun is just in making them. But old people do not like mud. We think it is a nuisance. It ruins our shoes. We see no fun in a mud puddle at all, but a little kid does.

Kids collect butterflies and sea shells and strange colored pebbles and baseball cards. Grown-ups collect stocks and bonds and interest on their savings and receipts to back up our income tax deductions. Kids clip pretty pictures out of magazines and paste them in scrap books. Grown-ups clip coupons in an office at the bank. Lots of old folks have no other sport than that. Such a pity. Scraps of paper with numbers on them are not nearly so appealing or interesting or beautiful as the things our youngsters play with.

Our children can have fun with the simplest things. Do you remember your baby's first Christmas? No doubt you wanted to make it a very special occasion buying lots of cute rattles and trinkets for that little darlin'. Do you remember what was most popular that day? Probably the wrapping paper. Forget the presents, just give me the paper. As that little beauty grew, what other things struck the fancy? Broomsticks became great stallions; the cardboard center of the toilet paper roll became Gideon's trumpet; a bent stick became a pearl-handled revolver; the box in which the new refrigerator was delivered became a mansion. Kids know how to have tremendous fun with tremendously simple things. Sadly, most adults seem to have forgotten how to do that.

If you put your mind to it, I am sure you would come up with all sorts of other pastimes in which children can find fun that we adults do not think of as fun at all. There are big differences between kids and grown-ups when it comes to knowing how to have fun, and perhaps this is a part of what Jesus meant when he said that we must become as little children if we are to ever see the kingdom of heaven.

Now I realize that some will object saying that kids can have more fun than us grown-ups simply because they are young - they have not experienced the hard knocks of life yet. They do not know how tough things can be. We grown-ups do not have so much fun because we know that living is serious business. I wonder. I really wonder whether life IS all that serious. I wonder if there might not be a whole BUSHEL of fun out there if we would only let ourselves notice it.

Think about what you looked like when you got up this morning. If you are anything like me, you probably stumbled your way into the bathroom on legs that did not want to work the way they used to. You looked into the mirror and saw something that might have well come out of the prop room of a Frankenstein movie: puffy eyes, hair going in all directions at once, and for me, little tiny hairs growing out of my face. Things of beauty we were this morning, were we not? Did we laugh at that image in the mirror? Probably not. But you must admit, we could have.

Think about those hard knocks in your life. Was there anything fun or even remotely enjoyable about them? The job that was lost or the marriage that broke up or that dear one who died? It is difficult to see anything joyful in such times, but perhaps we do not see anything but the bad because we, in our grown-up seriousness, will not allow ourselves to see anything else. We will not allow ourselves to see any humor in the mirror when we look and see mascara eroded down the cheeks. We will not allow ourselves to listen to our sobs and, instead of pain, hear a concert sung by our souls. No question that much of life does not appear to be much fun at all, but we might do well to ask sometimes, in the midst of those dark, dark hours, "Where is the joy in all this?" After all, the Lord who told us to become as little children and who told us that he would always be with us, is the same Lord who said, "I have said these things to you so that MY JOY may be in you, and that YOUR JOY may be complete."(2)

Speaking of the Lord, what about our relationship to him? Can there be any fun with Jesus? Well, think back to your own childhood. You probably had more fun in coming to church then than you ever have since. You enjoyed the fellowship of your playmates in Sunday School. You enjoyed hearing the Bible stories of the great heroes of the faith. You enjoyed making the crafts and coloring the pictures of Biblical scenes. You had a GOOD TIME! Then you got a little older, and somehow, coming to church was not as much fun anymore. Why? Your friends were still there. Those great stories of the faith were still there. But, for one reason or another, the package was not presented as attractively as it once had been. You see, the church is run by grown-ups and grown-ups often forget that there should be any FUN in knowing Jesus.

I believe Jesus is dishonored by that. I think that if we had had the chance to walk with him and talk with him and really know him during his earthly ministry, we would have found him FUN to be around. Jesus liked people, he liked parties, he even liked jokes. In a wonderful book called The Humor of Christ,(3) the late Elton Trueblood points out over thirty times in the gospels where the people hearing Jesus speak would have understood him to be making a joke. I suspect that, if there had been such back then, Jesus might have spent time, not only teaching his disciples, but throwing snowballs and sledding and playing touch football with them too. Jesus was FUN to be around. And that is why little children liked him so much.

Can we old fogies recover any of that? I think we can. Joan Davis [one of our St. Paul members] sent me something this week that she found on the Internet. She writes, "I want to go back to the time when:

  • Decisions were made by going "eeny-meeny-miney-mo."
  • Mistakes were corrected by simply exclaiming,"do over!"
  • "Race issue" meant arguing about who ran the fastest.
  • Money issues were handled by whoever was the banker in "Monopoly"
  • Being old referred to anyone over 20.
  • The worst thing you could catch from the opposite sex was cooties.
  • Having a weapon in school meant being caught with a slingshot.
  • Taking drugs meant orange-flavored chewable aspirin.
  • Ice cream was considered a basic food group.
  • Nobody was prettier than Mom.
  • Getting a foot of snow was a dream come true.

Amen? Amen! Can we equally adjust our thinking as relates to our Christian discipleship? I think we can...if we put our minds to it. Public worship can be a joy as creativity joins music and message to let the soul soar. Bible study can become a delightful challenge as we gather together to grapple with texts that will improve our walk. Christian service, instead of being a nuisance and a chore can be intentionally structured so as to make it fun. Some years ago our Presbytery youth had a project to gather food for the needy; they kidnaped three ministers and held us for a ransom of canned goods...they called it "A TON OF FOOD IN EXCHANGE FOR 600 POUNDS OF HOT AIR." the name of Jesus Christ!

One does not normally expect a lesson on theology from a blizzard. But I learned a good one. As the snow came down, the thought came up: "Why can't we all become nine-years-old again?" Why? After all, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become as little will never enter the kingdom of heaven."


1. Psalm 147:16

2. John 15:11

3. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1964

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