I’d like to speak to you today about “Receiving/Welcoming the kingdom like a child” from our Mark passage
Now, anyone that was awake during the Gospel reading noticed that the first 75% of the passage was not about this topic. Jesus was talking about divorce. Nearly all of you don’t want to hear a sermon about divorce. I don’t want to preach a sermon on divorce. But Jesus talked a lot about divorce. So let’s strike a deal. I’ll just talk for a few minutes about divorce, and then I’ll invite you to an ongoing conversation one-on-one conversation if you’re concerned or impacted by Jesus’ teaching. Deal?
As you might have noticed, Jesus is not a big fan of divorce; but then again, who is? The main problem with speaking about this passage in Mark is that it doesn’t give us any outs. Pharisees are trying to drag Jesus into a debate that they were having at the time about reasons that divorce was permitted. One camp said it was only in cases of serious sexual misconduct. The other camp said it was permitted for any reason. Jesus won’t be pulled into their argument. Of course the OT law permits divorce, but this was always a concession because the people had hard hearts. Jesus goes back to the beginning of the bible and says that in a marriage, the two become one flesh. God has joined the husband and wife together, and so humanity shouldn’t separate them.
Then Jesus as Jesus follows up privately with his disciples, he doubles down, saying the part that stings the most. Whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery.
Did I mention I don’t want to preach about divorce? But aside from it being uncomfortable at best, there is another problem. You hear what Jesus says. He says what he says. And the longer I talk about this, the more I have to soften what he says. I don’t want to be the guy that tells Jesus Christ my savior and Lord what he should have said.
Sometimes I think we we just need to sit with the hard things that Jesus says. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons we read so much scripture in worship. I want us to know what Jesus says, even if I’m not going to talk about it. We need to let God get under our skin with the tough parts of the Bible rather than always reviewing the stuff that makes us comfortable.
We can and should contextualize Jesus’ teaching. Yes, Jesus was protecting women from being tossed out with little hope for the future simply because they weren’t pleasing to the husband anymore. Yes, Jesus introduces a new level of reciprocity and equality to the marriage relationship the would have been foreign in ancient times. Yes we’re all sinners in need of a savior and we praise God for his great mercy. But what Jesus says is still hard!
I do want you to know, though, that this is not the entirety of the New Testament teaching on divorce. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does give a concession to marital infidelity. In 1 Corinthians 7, we learn a lot from a pastoral situation that Paul finds himself in with the Corinthian church. Paul makes it clear that he knew what Jesus taught about divorce, and so he reiterates that. But then he comes to the case of people that are in mixed marriages– one is a believer and the other is not. That’s something that would have been very common in a church where 100% of members were recent converts. He begins his teaching saying “I and not the Lord” say this, meaning, Paul knew that he was about to give a concession that we don’t have any record of Jesus teaching.
Paul says that we are called to live in peace. If the unbelieving spouse is ok to stay married, then good. But if the unbelieving partner separates, then the believing spouse is no longer bound.” So in this way, Paul allows a sort of pastoral concession. So, I and not the Lord, I and not Paul, say that in situations of abuse and violence, divorce is permitted.
Still, just because we allow some concessions doesn’t mean we can fully buy into the world’s take on easily dissolving marriages. Jesus took them very seriously. Followers of Jesus have to take them seriously. His words are meant to shock us as much as they are meant to command or teach us.
If you find yourself feeling condemned by Jesus’ words, I would remind you of 1 John 3:20: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
Jesus’ forgiveness extends so deeply, but forgiveness does require confession. We’ll have an opportunity to do that in our liturgy before Holy Communion. The Lord wants to meet with you today.
Hardness of heart
Jesus tells the Pharisees that “because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” Ultimately Jesus isn’t out to heap loads on us that we can’t bear. What Jesus does offer is a cure for hardness of heart. And perhaps that’s the transition point into sermon number 2. Excuse the whiplash.
Jesus says “whoever doesn’t welcome/receive God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.”
Remember that the kingdom of God is not the same thing as heaven. It’s heaven come to earth. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
It’s not just going to heaven when you die, it’s getting heaven into you before you die. To put it the other way around, it’s not just about getting you out of hell, it’s about getting the hell out of you. It’s the cure for hardness of heart. As Paul said, it’s righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Yes, it’s got a future component. But it’s got a present component too!
For some reason, this talk about entering the Kingdom of God got me wondering, “What if I wanted to enter a literal kingdom these days?” So I went on the website of the first kingdom I could think of: the United Kingdom. So take notes if you want to get out of dodge. Here are the requirements for becoming a naturalized citizen of the UK.
You must have lived in the UK for at least 6 years.
You must be aged 18 or over and are not of unsound mind.
You must be of good character.
You should be able to communicate in the English language (or Welsh or Scottish Gaelic).
You should intend to live in the UK…
To many people, God’s kingdom has similar entry requirements
You’re got to be of a certain age, or at least maturity level
It’s definitely only for people of good character
You have to speak in english, because when God spoke, it was in king james english (that’s a joke)
And you’ve got to go to heaven to enter that kingdom
So often we treat the kingdom of God like that. We’d never say it, but we think we’ve pretty much earned our way in. I’m a pastor, so for sure that gets me in, right? You’re a church member, and maybe you’ve even been a member for decades. Certainly by now you’re part of God’s kingdom.
This passage of Jesus with the children challenges all of that though.
Unlike the passage on divorce, this passage on Jesus welcoming the children is so familiar and loved. And it’s obvious why. Children are adorable. And we love the image of them on Jesus’ lap!
But we usually approach it with our modern, glamorized view of childhood. Children are so innocent and trusting. Don’t get me wrong, there is a case to be made for innocent, “child-like” faith. I am so inspired by the faith of children. But I really don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about here.
In the ancient world, childhood was not glamorized. Children were at the bottom of the social ladder. They were primarily valued for their future earning potential and ability to care for their parents in their old age. Obedience was critically important. We don’t like it, but the reality is that children had no rights. Let’s read this passage again, keeping that in mind.
Read Mark 10:13-16
13 People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 15 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” 16 Then he hugged the children and blessed them.
What we have here is a case of the disciples seeing one thing while Jesus sees another. The disciples see people of little importance being brought to Jesus. They probably thought they were protecting Jesus. Everyone has to set up boundaries, after all. Jesus didn’t have an endless source of physical and spiritual energy. He had to sleep. He had to eat. He had to pray– and he’d often get alone to do it. So it’s not crazy that his disciples would try to shield him from less urgent needs, and it makes sense, given the view of children at the time, that they would have done that in this case.
I wonder how often the church has taken that posture. We protect Jesus. We stand between them and Jesus. Perhaps the disciples offered Jesus on their own schedule, on their own terms– to the deserving, to the right type of people.
But Jesus says, “actually, these are exactly the type of people that the kingdom belongs to. In fact, you have to receive the kingdom of God like a child or you’ll never enter it.”
Now what could he mean by that?
Jesus teaches his disciples that the kingdom of God has to be received by anyone in the same way that a child receives things. Children don’t receive things because they’ve earned them. They receive them because their parents are good and care for them. In the same way, we’ve got to get rid of any piece of ourselves that thinks we’ve done anything to deserve God’s grace. It’s a gift to be received, not pay to be earned.
But remember, parents in the ancient world particularly valued and cultivated obedience. Again, we might not like this, but I really think this is what Jesus was saying: in the same way that children do what they’re told, that’s how you have to accept the kingdom. It’s a kingdom after all. It’s the dominion of the king. It’s where the king’s will is done. In the sermon on the mount, Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. [That’s Matthew’s way of saying the kingdom of God] Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.”
We adults have an authority problem. We think that we’re in charge. If we stay like that, our desire for authority over ourselves will clash with God’s authority. You can’t be in the kingdom and not be under God’s authority. That’s not me building a fence, it’s just me speaking to what a kingdom is. By definition it’s the people and places under the authority of the king.
Will doing what Jesus teaches merit you entering the kingdom? Of course not. In my engineering days, we would’ve said it was a necessary but not sufficient condition. Even if you do God’s will, you still do it imperfectly. You still aren’t good enough.
Jesus says, in effect, “get over your self-importance. You’re just not that good.” The kingdom doesn’t belong to those who think they deserve it. It belongs to those who in their heart of hearts know that they don’t. The least, the last, and the lost– those who aren’t good enough for it.
The whole reason for Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees was because they tried to convince themselves that they had it all together. They followed the law outwardly with perfection, but their hearts were hard.
But here comes Jesus with his cure for hardness of heart. He enacts the kingdom. It says “Then he hugged the children and blessed them.” Or the more literal translation, “he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
That’s what it’s like to receive the kingdom. It’s to allow ourselves to be lifted up by Jesus. It’s to be among those who know they don’t deserve it, but who receive Jesus as a gift. Jesus is the King, and to enter into the kingdom we must receive Jesus as our King. When we do that, it’s like Jesus sweeps us up in his arms and embraces us. He lays his hands on us, and blesses us.
That’s what being a Christian is like. It’s like receiving the embrace and the blessing of Jesus, even though we don’t deserve it.