Becoming little children

3 October 2021    The 18th Sunday after Trinity

Our text is from from Matthew 19:13-14:  Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

To truly understand the full impact of Jesus welcoming the little children, you must consider the verses that follow this text.  It is the account of the rich young man who comes to Jesus, asking Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life? (v. 16). Now, the disciples would have liked to dismiss the children as unimportant and to regard the rich young man as important. Jesus, however, does just the opposite. He receives the children with open arms and He says to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. But the rich young man embodies and exemplifies the opposite of what it means to be a child, and so eternal salvation is beyond his grasp. It reminds me of these words from Mary’s Magnificat: [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty  (Luke 1:53).

The rich young man was living a life of deceit by thinking that he could earn eternal life by his good deeds. And the disciples themselves apparently thought this young man to be a prime candidate for heaven because he was rich and important. And the truth is that you and I are prone to think the same way. We like to think of ourselves as “good people” and we strive to be as self-sufficient as possible. 

And that’s our problem—that we want to be self-sufficient. We do not like to think of ourselves as poor, needy, and helpless. We do not even like to think of the possibility of us being in such a state.  Once, I was watching the Weather Channel reporting on tornados wrecking havoc in the states.  And as the weatherman was showing images of homes that had been flattened to the ground, he said, “Isn’t it something how one can lose everything in just seconds?” I found myself wanting to turn off the tv.  I do not like to think of that possibility, that I could lose my house and possessions, even my life, in just seconds. I want to be in control. But if I am in control, then what need is there to pray? And if I think I am in control, then I am not trusting in God.  

But then Jesus tells us to be like children, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. Now what is it about children that makes them such good examples? Well, it is not that they are innocent or without deceit. Children can deceive and manipulate as well as the rest of us to get what they want, and they, like us all, are sinners from the moment of conception. What makes children such great examples of saving faith is that they are poor, needy, and helpless, and they know it.  A child may be born into a wealthy home, but the wealth belongs to the parents; the child himself is poor, needy, and helpless, with no resources of his own and in great need of someone to provide his daily necessities. Children know that they cannot provide for themselves, that they must receive all good things from their parents. Jesus is calling you and me to become like children who acknowledge their own poverty and who expect to receive all good things from God. Only those who know themselves to be spiritually poor, needy, and helpless and who trust in God will enter the kingdom of heaven, and to their prayers alone does God give ear.

Again, our problem is that we want to be self-sufficient.  We do not like to think of ourselves as poor, needy, and helpless.  We want to be in control.  But if we are in control, then what need is there to pray?  And if we think we are in control, then we are not trusting in God.

But in the midst of our sinful pride, Jesus comes to us through His Word and He says to us: “Become like little children.  Be poor, needy and helpless, so that I can fill you with good things!”  Here, we have a very important truth.  Those who are self-sufficient, their prayers—when they do pray—will not be heard, and God will send them away empty.  But to those who confess themselves to be poor, needy, and helpless, and who trust in God, God will fill them with His good and abundant blessings.  By God’s grace, then, let us repent of our pride and self-sufficiency.  And let us embrace our poverty, our neediness, and our helplessness, for only then can we draw near to God so that He draws near to us.

This is a BIG theme in Scripture, that God draws near to those who confess themselves to be poor, needy, and helpless sinners who are completely dependent upon the riches of God’s grace in Christ.  Listen to how God receives such sinners:

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; 

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. 

(The LORD) heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.  (Psalm 51:17; Psalm 34:18; Psalm 147:3; Psalm 34:6) 

I think you see the point.  God draws near to the brokenhearted, to those who repent of their pride and self-sufficiency and who confess themselves to be poor, needy, and helpless sinners completely dependent upon the riches of God’s grace in Christ.  To you and to all who cry out to the Lord with such broken and contrite hearts, the Lord draws near and He saves you.  Oh, this does not mean that all your struggles and troubles will disappear overnight, for God has a greater good in mind.  In His time and according to His will, our gracious God intends to rescue [you] from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when [your] last hour comes, give [you] a blessed end, and graciously take [you] from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven  (Small Catechism: Seventh Petition).    

It is not an easy thing to do: to repent of our self-sufficiency and to give up the control of our lives and to humble ourselves before the Lord.  It is a long and weary road.  But remember, Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem and walked without hesitation toward the death He knew awaited Him there. He knew, though, that death would not have the last word; that He would rise victoriously, having paid the price for our salvation, having won for us the forgiveness of all our sins, including our sin of self-sufficiency, of wanting to be in control.  And now, through Word and Sacrament, the risen Christ walks with us, giving us His grace, so that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever  (Small Catechism: Baptism).  

By God’s grace, you and I daily deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow our dear Lord Jesus.  Our long and weary road of repentance becomes a sweet journey as Christ accompanies us every step of the way.  He gives us the grace to confess that we are poor, needy, helpless sinners, and He gives us the faith to expect to receive all good things from our heavenly Father.  And our dear Saviour also teaches us how to pray.

One of the best books I have ever read on prayer was simply titled “Prayer”, written by O. Hallesby, a Norwegian Lutheran theologian.  One of my favourite insights from that book is that prayer is simply telling God what we lack.  Of course, we can do that only if we have left the popular, well-travelled byway of self-sufficiency and are walking as poor, needy, helpless sinners the lowly path of self-denial and of following Jesus.  And as we walk this path, we experience a peace that the world cannot give.  What peace is ours when we cast our sins and our cares upon God, knowing that He loves us and cares for us.

If you dare to hold on to your self-sufficiency, then you either are not going to pray or you are going to pray prayers like “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”  (see Luke 18:11).  But if, by God’s grace, you humble yourselves before God, then you will indeed find great joy and peace in telling God what you lack as you trust to receive the good things you need as God sees fit.

“Father, I come to You broken and worn down by my sins.  Please forgive me!”

“Father, I lack the patience I need to be the loving person that I should be. “Please help me!”

“Father, I am struggling with doubts.  Please strengthen my faith!”

“Father, I am overwhelmed with grief and depression.  Please give me hope!”

“Father, my future seems so uncertain.  Please help me to trust You!”

“Father, I am suffering from poor health.  Please heal me!”

Do you see?  True prayer happens only when we give up our self-sufficiency and we relinquish the control of our lives to God.  True prayer happens only when we acknowledge ourselves to be poor, needy, helpless sinners who expect to receive good things from God.  Of course, the very fact that we can pray, that we can cry out to God as brokenhearted sinners is all because of Jesus.  Jesus, the eternal Son of God, was nailed to the cross bearing the sins of the whole world.  He became what we are—poor, needy, and helpless—so that we could become what He is—rich in grace and righteousness.  Yes, by God’s grace, you have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us in Christ Jesus, who died on the cross to win for us our salvation from sin, death, and the devil and to give us eternal life (1 John 4:16).  

And as you trust in Christ, something marvelous happens.  Christ becomes your sufficiency and He gives you the sufficiency to love and to serve in His Name to the glory of God.  In Christ, you are helpless no more, for He is your strength.  This was the experience of St. Paul.  He writes: Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God…And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work  (2 Corinthians 3:5;9:8).  Do you see?  In yourself, you are never sufficient.  We all have fallen short of the glory of God.  And so we can never boast of our accomplishments.  But in Christ, we have the sufficiency that is from God, and God is able to make all grace abound to us and to give us His sufficiency so that we abound in loving and serving others in Jesus’ Name.

Today, the risen Christ comes among us through His Word and Supper to give us the grace to become like children.  After all, that is what He has made us in the waters of Holy Baptism.  And now, as baptized children of God, we can come before our Father with great boldness and confidence and pray: “Father, I repent of my self-sufficiency and I give up the control of my life.  I confess that You are in control, and that is as it should be, for I am but a poor, needy, helpless sinner who seeks from Your gracious hand all the good things I lack.  Please give me Your grace and sufficiency to love and to serve in Jesus’ Name.”  Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, today Jesus comes to you to give you the grace to pray such a prayer your whole life long.  This is what you pray everyday as you pray: “Ty kingdom come. Thy will be done.”  And as your life draws to a close and you look back on your life, by God’s grace, you will be able to say:  [I, a] poor [sinner] cried [to the LORD], and the LORD heard [me] and saved [me] out of all [my] troubles.  (Psalm 34:6).  Praise be to God!  Amen.