14th Sunday after Pentecost – Vicar Stoppenhagen
Text: Matthew 18:1-20 (Series A, Proper 18)
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
September 6, 2020
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
What are you afraid of? Some of our fears are rather obvious. Many of us certainly fear getting sick, of catching this dreaded virus. But other fears are more carefully hidden. Some fear a loss of freedom, a fear of government reaching too far into our lives. So they cover it up by disregarding public health mandates. Some fear injustice and oppression. So they hide it behind outrage and violent protests. And in an unfortunate twist, we have begun to fear of one another—fear that the other is threatening public health, fear that the other is destroying society, fear that the other has become our oppressor… But when we fear someone or something else, are we able to fear God?
Our cover-ups for fear, as reasonable as they might be, are simply sorry attempts to make them go away. And this is the problem—we are trying to find solutions to our fears. We think that there is something we can do to right the wrongs. And this is right where the devil wants us to be, because, in such situations, fear quickly gives way to pride. “I have found the remedy to my fear—whether that be not wearing a mask or staying home or joining the fight for social justice—and, by God, there’s nothing that anyone can say to make me do otherwise! I’m doing my part to protect the health, freedom, and security of myself, my family, and my community.” And in doing this we grant to ourselves a greatness which feeds our arrogance, our derision, our scorn for those who are handling their fears differently than us.
The disciples, too, sought to deal with their fears differently than Jesus intended. In the verses before our reading, Jesus reminds them of his coming passion: “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And, Matthew tells us, the disciples were greatly distressed (Matthew 17:22-23). They were greatly distressed because they knew that if men were coming to kill Jesus, they were coming to kill them too. The disciples feared the pain of suffering, they feared the weight of the cross. So they ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” In the disciples’ mind, the greatest will have power and glory; the greatest will surely have nothing to suffer, nothing to fear. The disciples’ fear leads them to a pride in their “privileged status” as disciples of Jesus.
Jesus can sense their fear. He knows that they are still seeking the restoration of the kingdom of Israel in all its glory. But the kingdom of heaven will be different. He answers them, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Can you imagine the look on their faces? They’ve been travelling with Jesus, witnessing the power of his miracles and absorbing the wisdom of his teaching. They themselves have been given the power to cast out demons and heal every affliction. But these mighty acts are not their path into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tosses aside everything they thought the kingdom was about. No bodily healings will heal the disciples’ own sin-sick souls, no casting out of demons will cast out the fear from their own hearts.
I see your hearts, Jesus says. I see your fears, and I see how you hide them with pride in what you think is to come. So turn and become like children. In other words, if you are going to be scared of the sufferings to come—the sufferings that the kingdom requires, be scared like a little child. When children get scared, they don’t try to remedy their fears and cover them with prideful facades. They turn to someone they know is stronger than the fear. The girl who wakes in the middle of the night scared of the dark or the monsters under the bed doesn’t try to take on the danger herself. She runs to mom or dad and simply says, “I’m scared.” What she’s really saying is, I know I can’t do anything about the darkness and the monsters, but I know you can. Your embrace is enough to make me feel safe. Your love is sufficient to cast out my fear.
And in such a way would Jesus have us live. Turn and become like a child. Repent and believe the Gospel. Die and be born again of water and the Spirit. Receive a new life as a child—a child of God—and enter the kingdom of heaven. For in your heavenly Father’s house, his room is right down the hall, and when the deep darkness of this hateful world begins to overshadow you, when the demons come to ensnare you in their traps, you need only call out his name. “Father, help me.” And no matter what time it is, Jesus will come running down the hall, pick you up in his arms, and say, “What is it, dear child? What has tried to lead you astray? Do not be afraid. For I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.” And on Jesus you can cast all your fears and anxieties, for he cares for you and will carry them back to the Father so that you no longer bear them alone.
For Jesus himself is truly the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and he knows exactly what it means to turn and become a child. In the act of perfect humility the Son of God came down from his heavenly throne and took on human flesh. He was the perfect child, never outgrowing his child-like humility. He didn’t become the jaded, anxiety-ridden adults so many of us are today. Instead, he knew no fear and trusted the will of his Father. In obedience, he suffered and died on the cross, so that you too might become a child of God. And because of his obedience, God has glorified him.
It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Forget the old self. Turn and become like a child. But we know the impossibility of the task. We know how the old sinful self clings so tightly to each of us. The child-like innocence is gone. There was a time when we believed everyone, because we naturally trusted what we were told. We never wished evil on our neighbor, because we knew it was more fun to call everyone “friend.” We were indifferent to riches and poverty, because somehow each of us had what we needed. But as adults, all of these attitudes fade into the past. And now, we can’t simply think or believe ourselves back into this child-like state. Children simply are.
And we are God’s children. There’s nothing we do. It is our heavenly Father who is carefully shaping and disciplining us in the image of his perfect Son, even at this very moment. The crosses that he places on us are not impossible to bear because Jesus bears them with us. So we fall in line with our Brother on the pathway to Golgotha. For if we are joined to him in a death like his, we will certainly partake in a resurrection like his, Paul reminds us. And on this road to the cross, perhaps we will begin to reclaim those virtues of childhood. We suffer, and die, and—the part the disciples always seemed to miss—on the third day we will be raised to new life. Reborn with Jesus, we receive the gift of an eternal childhood in His kingdom, where there is no fear and only perfect love.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.