This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on January 23, 2022. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Father in heaven, as as we look into your word, Lord, we pray that you would edify us — that everything that I say, Lord, would be clear and concise — whatever I say, Lord, might be edifying to all of us and might be understood and that we might be able to use it — take something away from it, Lord, that would transform us into the likeness of your son Jesus, which is our goal, Lord, to be to be like you in christ.
Be with, of course, those that cannot be here today because of illness, Lord, or for spiritual reasons, and we pray that you would comfort them and help them and bring them back again to worship with us.
We pray all these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
Turn over, if you will, with me to Matthew, chapter 18. I’m going to read verses 1 through 5. You could say that this is an anchor verse for our lesson today or for our talk — our sermon — but you’ll see that in just a moment. Matthew 18 starting in verse 1:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”Matthew 18:1, NIV
This is something that we all ask ourselves. Humans — people — are like this. They like to claw their way up to the top. They like to be number one, whether it’s in sport, in their competitive spirit; whether it’s on the job, looking for the next promotion; whether it’s being the smartest kid in the class, being on the honor roll; whether it’s playing games out in the, you know, stickball in the street or whatever it is; or even that kids game, which I’ve talked about before, which is King of the Hill where you just try to be the one that stands on top of the hill, and you knock everybody else down. And more than that, the thing about humanity is that we like to see other people fail, because when other people fail or they drop down a few rungs on the ladder, we don’t actually have to do anything to go higher. They just go down below us, and there was no effort on our part. This is one of the reasons why we laugh when people trip, why we feel more comforted when the neighbors are broke, and so on and so forth. It’s kind of a terrible thing, but it’s the way the human mind works, and the disciples were no exception.
They wanted to know what they needed to do to be number one. How do we get to the top? Who’s going to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Tell us the formula, and we’ll do it because that’s what humans want.
Jesus responds in a way that is not that encouraging, if you’re the type that likes to claw your way to the top.
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.Matthew 18:2-5, NIV
He says you will never enter the kingdom of heaven unless you take a lowly position like a child. That is to say, unless you knock yourself down a few rungs on the ladder. Unless you compete to be at the bottom instead of at the top — unless you change from the way we are, naturally, as humans — you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Those are very, very strong words.
“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” — and not only should we change and become like children, we should welcome people who are changed and become like children. That’s the opposite of clawing your way to the top.
I want to tell you a story — a vietnam war story — and it’s a little bit gruesome, and it’s quite sad. I’m telling you that in advance so you won’t be shocked by it. Most war stories are gruesome and sad, and so you can not listen if that’s something that’s disturbing to you.
There was an army — a soldier — driving a truck in early morning hours as the sun came up along a deserted stretch of road, and there were no cars in front of him, no cars behind him, no other trucks on the road, which is kind of odd. That’s a rare case, when a soldier is out driving alone in any war, but I’ve spent some time in vietnam driving the length and breadth of the company — country — back in the 90s, and I can tell you there’s a lot of deserted stretches of roads.
Cars are much less frequent there than they are in the United States, and that was certainly true back in the 60s and 70s. There also is no real median. There’s no shoulder. There’s no edge to the road. There’s no place for the primary vehicles that are on the road, which are bicycles, to get off the road out of the way of cars, so bicycles drive in the center of the lane, maybe a little bit to the right, and cars slow down and then go around them when there’s no oncoming traffic, and this is just the norm in that country of bicycles. It’s just the way it is. More so in the city, but out in the country, as well. Farmers have to get to their fields, and they don’t have cars, and so they drive their bicycles to get to work.
This soldier was driving along the road, and up ahead he saw three people on a bicycle — a man, a woman, and a child — and instead of [him] having a lot of room to go around them — instead of going around them — he ran them over. He was driving a five-ton truck, and you’ve seen these before in convoys on the road or in movies. They have a single axle in the front and the double axles in the back with two tires on the sides of each axle, and they’re rated to haul five tons of materials. They’re huge trucks. He didn’t have to run them over. He did it purposely, and he didn’t look in his rearview mirror to see what the damage was. He just kept on going, and he never told anybody.
The person who told me that story was that man who ran over those children and that man and wife, presumably, and when he told us — me — he did it with tears; he did it with remorse, with deep sorrow; and it was obvious that it was continuing to upset him a lot in his later life. My point to that story is there’s no real such thing as a tough guy. There are people who act tough in a moment, but sooner or later, it catches up with them. Sooner or later, they have to admit to themselves that they aren’t that person — that they aren’t that uncaring, tough person.
Jesus said unless you become like a child, but our culture teaches us the opposite. Unless you become tough, unless you become strong, unless you become like a soldier, you cannot succeed. Unless you become the best, unless you become athletic, unless you become strong — that’s what it takes to get to the top — intelligent, education… But Jesus says no. In heaven, it’s the opposite way around: becoming like a child.
From the time we are conceived in our mother’s wombs until we’re about 10 years old, everything is given to us. We are dependent on somebody else. We’re floating around, initially, in our mother’s amniotic fluid. It is warm. It is protected. It is comforting. All our food is supplied to us. All the things we need are given to us. After we’re born, we don’t even have to ask, but after we’re born, you know, we cry, and people rush to take care of us, usually our parents. They feed us. They change us. They cloth us. If we’re too hot, that they cool us off. If we’re too cold, they make us warm, and this continues on until about age 10 or somewhere around there.
Certainly there are times that parents begin to say no you can’t have this, and you can’t have that, but at some point, the attitude changes. Parents know that it’s a really hard world out there and that the people who do best, who get to the top, are the tough ones, and they begin to work hard to make their children tough. You have to be tough. Stop crying. Shut up. Stop whining. You know, tough it out. You can do it. It’s all about going, going, going, and never giving up, because they’re afraid that unless the child learns those skills and becomes hard-hearted inside themselves, they won’t be successful in the world.
And so, they take what is natural to us — to be sensitive — and they sort of train it out of us. I won’t say beat it out of us, but sometimes they do that, as well. They want to train us not to be sensitive to the things that go on in the world around us.
In Proverbs, we read this — proverbs 28:14: “Blessed is the one who always trembles before God.” (NIV) We think about trembling as being scared, and obviously that’s what it’s talking about. It’s talking about being scared before God. We teach our children not to be scared of things — to be bold and courageous — but it says, here, blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but then it goes on, “but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble,” (NIV) so this [scripture] verse says that if you harden your heart — if you become the tough guy — you’re going to fall into trouble, [and this verse] recommends — this proverb — that you do the opposite — that you tremble before God.
If we turn over to Ephesians, chapter 4, if you will — Ephesians, chapter 4, beginning in verse 17 — let’s read that.
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God…Ephesians 4:17-18a, NIV
They are separated from the life of God. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God. We don’t want to be there. We don’t want to be separated from the life of God. We want to be combined — joined — to the life of God, and he tells us why:
Βecause of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.Ephesians 4:18b, NIV
They are separated from the life of God because of the ignorance, and the ignorance is because of the hardening of their hearts — one of the very things that we we train people into, if you will.
Having lost all sensitivity…Ephesians 4:19a, NIV
Which I already mentioned a couple of times, like the sensitivity of trembling before God, as we read in Proverbs, the sensitivity that children have — unless you become like a child you cannot enter the kingdom of God… They have lost all sensitivity.
…they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity and they are full of greed.Ephesians 4:19b, NIV
So, the hardening of the heart leads to all sorts of bad things, just as we read in proverbs, just as we read here, in Ephesians. The hardening of the heart leads to bad things, but remaining sensitive, fearing God, being sensitive to the world around us, leads to good things. In other words, life in God.
The relationship between the follower of Christ and God is like the relationship of a toddler to a parent, but society wants to turn us into something else, not a toddler. They don’t want us to have that relationship anymore. They don’t want us to run into our mother’s arms anymore or our father’s arms anymore. They don’t want us to rely upon our father, anymore, for the things that we need in this world. They don’t want us to go to our father, to our parents, anymore, for comfort, for help. They say you can make it on your own — rugged individualism. Get tough. Get hard of heart, and you won’t need anybody, and you certainly won’t need your parents, and you won’t need your spouse, and you won’t need your brothers and sisters. You won’t need God. You can do it yourself by your own strength. This is what the world says, and scripture says the opposite: that we must remain sensitive.
Let’s talk about a couple of things. First, we should understand that toughness is an oppressive force that leads to violence against man and nature, so the toughness, which we’ve already read a couple of times, leads to all kinds of violence. It invites challenge, and you’ve seen this before. You know, you’ve got the chain link fence, if you’re really tough, or the the cast iron fence with the spikes on the top, or if you’re a little bit more sensitive, maybe the white picket fence, but they also have the beware of dog sign, the no trespassing and no solicitation clearly marked on the outside — don’t mess with me. Maybe they have the second rights amendment sticker on the window. I’ve actually been up to houses with a gun pointing at me from a picture on the window.
If they’re driving their vehicles, they got a bumper sticker [that] makes it clear that you shouldn’t drive too close to them on the back windows. They’ve got little pictures of cartoon characters urinating on things — things they don’t like. Maybe they got a flag to show which country they belong to or their allegiance is to. Maybe they’ve got a helmet — a warrior helmet — or grenades or guns or whatever. They’re saying, “I’m a tough person. I am a hard person. I’m a hard-hearted person, and I will protect what’s mine from anybody who gets too close to it.” And so, they literally invite confrontation wherever they go, and we’ve seen that. We don’t want to be like that.
Everyone wants to be that person at the top. That’s the foundation of athletic competition. Let’s turn over to the book of Jeremiah. In the book of Jeremiah, chapter 9, starting in verse 23 — we’re going to just read a couple of verses here — this is what the Lord says about this toughness.
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”Jeremiah 9:23b-24, NIV
We should not boast in our strength. We should not display our strength. Instead, we should be reserved in our strength. If we have riches, we should live as if we didn’t have riches. If we have strength, we should live as if we didn’t have strength. If we have wisdom, we should live as if we didn’t have wisdom, but rather, we should boast in kindness. We should boast in the Lord, who is kind, who is just. That’s what we should boast in.
Second, humility is honest and vulnerable. The opposite of the pride that we just read about is humility; it’s honest and vulnerable and is matter of fact about strengths and weaknesses. So, in other words, if you’re rich, you’re rich. That’s fine. If you’re poor, you’re poor. If you’re weak, you’re weak. If you’re strong, you’re strong, but everyone has limitations.
I can easily lift 50 pounds, even at my age — but there’s a day that’s coming that I won’t be able to — but I can’t lift 500 pounds. I never could lift 500 pounds, so I have weaknesses, and I have strength, if you’re talking about the physical. The same is true of emotional weaknesses and strengths, same as about intellectual and wisdom weaknesses and strengths. It’s just a matter of fact. Yes, we have some strength. Yes, we have some weaknesses. Yes, we have some gifts from God, but we should show restraint from using those things.
Let’s turn over to Matthew, chapter 26. Matthew 26, starting in verse 50. “Jesus replied…” This is when they came to arrest him in the garden of Gethsemane, and so they’re getting ready to arrest him, and so he replies, “Do what you came for, friend.” (NIV) He’s talking to Judas, specifically.
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.Matthew 26:50b-51, NIV
This is the normal thing. You’re going to do something I don’t want you to do — you’re arresting my master, you’re arresting the person who I follow — and I’m going to stop you, because I have a sword, and I can. I have the strength to do it, and it probably was Peter, who was a big guy. He was strong. He was a workman, and he had a sword, and he used it, but Jesus said,
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”Matthew 26:52-53, NIV
So, Jesus has the strength to stop himself from being arrested. Jesus has the strength to do anything that he wants to do, but he withholds that strength. He doesn’t boast in that strength. He allows himself, then, to be arrested. He glories in his weaknesses. He says he who lives by the sword will die by the sword, but you can put it another way. He who lives by his strength will die by his strength. As he said, he who hardens his heart will have trouble. He who draws the sword will die by the sword. He who lives by his strength, his wits, his wisdom, his wealth, will die by his wealth, his wisdom, his strength, because unless we become like children, we cannot enter the kingdom of God. We must glory in our weakness.
With that, let’s turn over to 2 Corinthians 12. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes — and I’ll start reading in verse 1 —
I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.2 Corinthians 12:1-5, NIV
So, this man who is honored by God, I will boast about. This man who is in christ, I will boast about. This man who God honors, I will boast about, but as for myself, regardless of how wise I am or wealthy I am or accomplished I am or gifted I am, I will not boast about those things, but I will boast instead about my weaknesses, Paul says. He goes on:
Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth.2 Corinthians 12:6a, NIV
That’s what I said earlier. It’s true that I can lift 50 pounds. If I boast about being able to lift 50 pounds, I speak the truth, but of what benefit is that to me, if I boast about my strengths. I would not be a fool, because it would be the truth,
But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations.2 Corinthians 12:6b-7a, NIV
People should think of us not about what we are capable of but what we do and what we say. It’s not a question of what the country is capable of. It’s not a question of what our armies, our navy, our marines, are capable of. That doesn’t matter. It matters what we do and say, so it’s not about our gifts; it matters what we do. It’s not about our wealth, but rather, it’s what we actually do — how we spend our wealth.
When the words that come out of our mouths… We show restraint. Just because we have the power, we don’t use the power. He goes on:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.2 Corinthians 12:7b-8, NIV
And we’ll read what the Lord responded in just a minute.
Paul is a very great man, a very educated man, a strong man, from a wealthy family. He has it all, and he would surely have, he admits, clawed his way to the top of the chain. He would become the apostle of apostles. He would become the foundation of all christianity. He would have climbed his way to the top and been the most powerful among his peers had not God given him a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble, and so he was blessed by God by this thorn.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV
I delight in weaknesses. I take my delight in weaknesses, not strength. I delight in insults. go ahead. Insult me, because you think that I will not use my strength, and you’re right. I won’t, so insult me, because I’m weak. Hardships, persecutions — these are what things that come upon the weak in our society, today, when they boast about their weaknesses, but he says, “I’ll do it anyway. There’s nothing you can do to me to make me turn around and use my strength against you.”
Throughout scripture, courage is commended — courage — and cowardice is condemned. We’re not talking about courage and cowardice. Courage is not prideful boasting, obviously, or violence. It is steadfastness to a principle even though it’s to our disadvantage. Courage is remaining steadfast even though we’re going to suffer because of it.
Let’s go back to that soldier in vietnam. What is his fate concerning his heinous crimes? In Christ, he is forgiven, because he broke out of society’s mold telling him what a man is, what a soldier is, what a patriot is, and he wept for his victims and himself.
Viktor Frankl — and this is where I’m going to end — Viktor Frankl, in that great book that he wrote, Man’s Search For Meaning, wrote this:
But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.Viktor Frankl