“Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: Who is the greatest? It seems to me that whenever a group of humans assemble in community, this question is asked. Who is the greatest? We have a natural, sinful inclination to establish the pecking order, to figure out who is on top and who is on the bottom. We jockey for position, seeking to find our place among the others around us. This happens in families, it happens in locker rooms, it happens in communities, and it certainly happens in the Church. We think that some congregations are more important than others, or that some pastors are greater than the rest. Within a congregation, there is always a pecking order, the people that you better not make mad, because they are the ones who pull the strings around here, their opinion really counts. The people on top know they are on top, and the people on the bottom, well, they know it, too. Competition is our default setting from birth, so it is little surprise that the disciples came to Jesus (as they seemed to do quite often), asking, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They knew the answer, of course: they were! If the twelve chosen disciples weren’t the greatest, who else could be?
Jesus has an answer to that question: “And calling to Him 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.’” Christ calls on us to turn, to repent, to give up on seeking influence and exaltation over others. Quit jockeying for position, stop looking down on those who are on the bottom; turn, repent, and become like children. What is it about children that we are called upon to imitate? Jesus isn’t saying that children are holier, more pure, or more righteous than adults. He is pointing to one characteristic that all children, especially little children, share: humility. Children are humble by nature because they are completely dependent upon others for all that they have.
Go down to the zoo in Omaha and take a walk around. You will not find any of God’s creatures who are born more dependent for as long as the human babies which are carried by their mothers or pushed in strollers. Many animals can stand within minutes; some are completely independent immediately after their birth. But the human child cannot care for itself for years. That is the posture that Christ calls you to have. You are to turn from seeking after power and influence and instead become as the little children, humble and dependent solely upon God for everything you have. This is simply reflecting reality; you truly are poor and humble, with nothing to offer God but your sin. You stand condemned to death—eternal death—under the Law. Any attempt to exalt yourself over others is pathetic, almost comical; you are just playacting, pretending to be something you are not. You are poor and humble, whether you know it or not: turn and believe it!
Christ came to save precisely that kind of people; those who could not save themselves, the poor, the downtrodden, the humble. He came to save everyone, for everyone is as helpless as a child, but those who jockey for position, who seek power, who ask, ‘Who is the greatest?’ want nothing to do with His salvation. It is those who are humbled by their sins, who realize they can do nothing to save themselves, that Christ delights to find and bring into His fold. “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.”
To seek and to save the lost sheep would cost Jesus; it would cost Him everything. In order to save the lowly, the poor, the downtrodden, the humble, Christ would humble Himself, giving up his glory for the mantle of a wandering rabbi. But that was not all, as Saint Paul tells us: “And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Christ’s humility led to death, death in the most humiliating way possible. The cross was His destination, and He walked that path in obedience. He made Himself the lowest of all to redeem all the lowly, to redeem you and me. He gave up all He had so that He could give it to you; in the great exchange, He took your sin and gave you His righteousness, all that was His is yours, and He took all that was yours and nailed it to the tree. He saved those who had no ability to save themselves, we humans who think we are great, who think we are better than others, but are all alike condemned to death. He came, He died, for the humble.
So the Church He has established is to do the same. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” The Church welcomes the downtrodden; it is a place for the humble, the poor, the meek. In the Church we find refuge from the competition that fills this world, as we confess together that we are all “poor, miserable, sinners” each and every week. In the Church, status is not considered; we are all alike sinners in need of a Savior. No congregation is greater than another, for all have the same promise: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” No pastor is greater than another, for each has the same calling to forgive and retain sins. The ministry of Word and Sacrament goes on no matter who stands in this pulpit. You are not greater than the one sitting next to you, but instead, no matter what office or position you hold in the Church, you are all together sinners redeemed by Christ.
The Church has a responsibility toward the downtrodden of this world; she is called upon to welcome them, to call them into her fellowship to join with the rest of the downtrodden already within her fold. Jesus says, “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” The Church calls to the downtrodden, the ‘little ones,’ with both Law and Gospel. Christians speak the Law to warn the little ones, acting as a watchman like Ezekiel, calling them away from sin that leads to death. But this is only done so that the Gospel can sound forth, trumpeting the forgiveness of sins, proclaiming the only message that can save those who cannot save themselves. The Church is always oriented toward this goal: calling sinners to humble repentance so that they can be forgiven.
Who is the greatest? Not the most powerful ruler, not the most successful doctor, not the most eloquent pastor, not the biggest congregation, not the richest member. Instead, Jesus says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who see their sin, their weakness, their utter inability to save themselves, and cry out to Christ for aid. They realize that they are utterly dependent upon God for everything, especially for eternal salvation. Christ humbled Himself like a child—less than a child—for such people, to redeem the humble, not only to set us a pattern to follow, but to actually deliver us from our seeking after greatness. His humility stood in the place of all of our sin.
Therefore, we follow the pattern that Christ set out for us. Although He humbled Himself below all men, humility wasn’t the end of the story, as Saint Paul reminds us: “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Humility is not the end of our story, either. We have glory up ahead, for Christ is eager to take you from this valley of sorrow to the green pastures and quiet waters of eternity. Because He died in your place, all that is His is now yours. Because He rose, you too will rise. Because He is exalted, you too will be exalted. Today, you dwell in humility; on the Last Day, risen from dead, you will dwell in eternal glory. Life eternal is yours even now, for your Savior humbled Himself for you, submitting to death, even death upon a cross. He is the Savior who seeks and saves the lost, even you, even me. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.