Our Lord Jesus loves children. He calls them to himself. He takes them in his arms. He blesses them. He speaks of the angels who watch over them. And here in our Gospel he even tells us to become like children. He warns us that if we do not, we will never enter into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus points in particular to the humility of children. “Whoever humbles himself like this child,” Jesus says, “is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Now anyone who deals with little children knows that they are among the most prideful creatures on earth. The proof of this is just about any two year old. Take my daughter Dorothy. Witness her for a day and you will be completely disenchanted of the silly Protestant dream that children are born without sin. And she’s no anomaly. If you observe little children, you’ll often witness their blissful confidence that they are the smartest or the fastest in their grade and that they will grow up to be the President of the United States or have some other ridiculously lucrative and famous career. Little children don’t have humble opinions of themselves.
But when Jesus praises the humility of children, he’s not talking about how children view themselves. He’s not praising their complete lack of pride, as if children were born without sin. No, when Jesus calls little children humble, he’s pointing to the objective fact of their natural condition. No matter how prideful a little child is, he can’t escape his humble state. Little children are helpless things. Little children are dependent; they can’t survive on their own; they rely on the help of their parents. They instinctively depend on Mom and Dad to feed them, clothe them, house them, and clean them.
This is how God makes children, and it’s a beautiful thing. God meant it from the beginning to be an image of the nature of faith, of our relationship with God. In the very basic functions of life, little children are completely reliant. They cry out and their father comforts them. They cry out and their mother feeds them. They cry out and their parents clean their soiled and stinky bodies. And this is the most natural thing in the world for little children. They are born in this humble state, born to expect everything from their parents. And in this sense they have no pride at all. They’re willing to lie there naked, filthy, hungry, and needy, and simply beg and cry out for help.
And this is the humility that Jesus tells us to imitate when he declares, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you shall by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” So unlike our Protestant friends who deny what Jesus explicitly says here, that little children can have faith, Jesus insists that if we want to have faith, we must become like the little children. This means needing God to work on you, depending completely on God your Father for your very life, boldly and instinctively expecting every good from Him, like helpless children depending on their parents. This is why Jesus calls your Baptism a birth from above, why Paul calls it the rebirth of the Holy Spirit. You become a child in Baptism, a child of God. And becoming a child of God means depending on God, living in the humble state of needing and expecting all things from God your Father, through your Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what faith is. That’s what the Kingdom of heaven is.
We are children of our heavenly Father. Children are helpless, and that makes them vulnerable. Children don’t just need the basics of life from their parents. They need constant protection from the dangers all around them. And these dangers are everywhere. The sad list is endless, from abortion to poverty to neglect to disease. But Jesus today speaks of the greatest danger to children, not only to those who are children in age and stature, but also to us who have been reborn as children of our heavenly Father. Hear again the words of Jesus: “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 is no hyperbole, no exaggeration. We are talking about the God who sent His angel to slaughter the firstborn of the Egyptians because they would not let His children go and worship Him. We are talking about the God who sent his angel to decimate the army of Sennacherib because he sought to destroy Jerusalem and God’s children within her. God is serious about defending His children. And so He commands His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
Angels are not the effeminate characters that our modern culture makes of them. They are constantly pictured in Scripture as fierce warriors. But their war is always for the sake of the Word of God. Listen again to the Introit we sang earlier this morning, “Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word.” This is what angels, these mighty warriors, do. Theirs is a concern not only for our bodies – lest we strike our foot against a stone – but especially for our souls, to keep us unharmed from sin and unbelief. “Woe to the world because of temptations to sin,” Jesus says, and He warns us against scandals and offenses that threaten to lead the children of God from the faith.
Think of that. Of all the dangers that face us and our children, Jesus focuses on this one, falling from the faith. Jesus isn’t minimizing the other dangers. Death is an enemy, abuse and neglect and poverty are terrible things. But with God as our Father, as our protector, with his angels defending us, since God’s great love has led him to send His only Son into death for us, since Christ is for us, we can endure all these other things. But to lose God as our Father, no, that we cannot endure. Death is simply not the worst thing that can happen to us. The angels carry the souls of departed saints to God’s presence, to unspeakable joy. How could that possibly be the worst thing that could happen to us? No, to live in sin, to live apart from God, to deny the faith, this is infinitely worse. What would it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his own soul?
And so Jesus never gets angrier, he never speaks more harshly, than here. And He speaks the words of His Father. Our Father is protective of us. He is jealous to keep us His own. Because He knows the misery of life outside of His goodness. As a mother cannot stand to see her children taken away from her, so our Father in heaven is jealous of keeping us his, so that he can continue to care for us eternally and keep us with Christ Jesus in the one true faith. And so Jesus tells us to cut off anything, any thought or limb or person, who would keep us away from Christ our Savior. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Anything that leads you away from your Father, that threatens to tear you away from life as God’s children, cut it off and pluck it out. Believe Jesus. They’re not worth it. The booze, the weekends on the mountain, the internet addictions, the social commitments, the job, or anything else you’ve fixed your desires on above and beyond God and His gracious Word to you. It is better to have life without them and with your Father than to bring them all with you to hell. Anything that leads you away from God your Father and causes you to fall from being his child simply isn’t worth it. Repent. Become as a humble little child. And receive everything in your life as a gift from your Father in heaven.
Because that is what everything you have is. God gave you parents to raise you up in the faith and keep you from harm. He gives you government to protect you from evils both domestic and foreign. He gives you a church and a pastor so that you can be kept safe from sin and the devil and remain His children. He sends angels to protect you. He gives you all your possessions and godly enjoyments as tokens of his fatherly care. He does all this, all of it, to keep you a Christian, to keep you hearing His Word.
And this is the word that Jesus speaks today, that he has come to save the lost. And you were lost. This was you. Don’t forget it. How could you? The sin that would dominate your life crouches always at your door and its desire is for you. The problem is not with your eye or your hand; even if you cut them out and cut them off and threw them away, you could not stop the lust and pride and envy of the heart. Left to yourself, you are a moment away from being totally lost again, from the devil snatching you into the pride and despair of unbelief. But you are not left alone. The Lord Jesus came to save the lost. And He has saved you. The Son of God has joined your ranks. He wears your humanity. So much does He love you, so much is your salvation a care to Him. He overcame every temptation for you, his heart remained steadfast for you, it didn’t cause him to sin or to stumble but to obey His Father’s command and suffer your death and your punishment on the cross. He rose for you, to share His eternal life with you. He ascended to all power in heaven and on earth to care for you and forgive you and give you His Spirit. He hasn’t left you alone. He saves you and guards you and protects you.
So remember that you are his children. Forget your shameful pride, forget what it means to be independent and self-reliant, and blissfully come before Jesus with all your stink and soiled baggage, relying on him to cleanse us and wash us clean, like a mother does her child. We know our humble condition as helpless sinners and so we cry out like children to our Father. We hunger for righteousness, and he feeds us with the body and blood of Christ our Savior, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. We soil and dirty ourselves, and our Father never fails to cleanse us, to wash our sins away in Jesus’ blood, and to send us on our way refreshed by His Spirit, ready to give up anything rather than lose the God who has so loved us.
And the angels rejoice to see this. They rejoice to see the lost found, rejoice to see us remain children of the Father. Your angels look at your Father’s face in heaven. That’s what Jesus says. The holy and powerful warriors of heaven, who do whatever God instructs them to do, these angels who have been sent to guard and protect you, who are among us even now to defend us, they look continually at your Father’s face in heaven. And there in your Father’s face, they see pure and unadulterated love for you. They marvel that God became a man to save you. They wonder at how precious God counts you, that he would leave his heavenly throne to save you. They wonder and marvel at the Word of the Cross, that the Son of God has become the Son of Man and bound himself to you forever. And they rejoice and thank our Father in heaven that you will join them in heaven for eternity to praise the God who has revealed his everlasting love in Jesus Christ our Savior. God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.