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LSB Proper 18A Sermon – Matthew 18:1-20

September 17, 2014

September 7, 2014 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, but 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.”

All of Jesus’ words are to be heard, received, and kept. That is because Jesus is the Word of God incarnate. He is the Word by which the creation was made, when the LORD spoke and the cosmos was brought into existence. That reason is behind the way that Luther teaches about the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

When Jesus speaks woes and promises, then His words should be especially heard, received, and kept. You heard woes and promises in the Gospel Reading for today. They came after Jesus responds to a question from His disciples: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to Him a child, He put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” Jesus teaches the disciples a lesson about true greatness: it comes from first being humble before God, so that He can grant you access to the kingdom of heaven. Without that taking place, there will be no entry into His kingdom.

Jesus’ statement presents the truth in stark and blunt ways. Those who think they are great will not enter the kingdom of heaven. The reason for this is that there is no one truly great before God. None meet the standards that the LORD establishes. The commandments that the LORD carves in the stone tablets express His holy will. They are the criteria by which He evaluates the world. Using them, He sees no one as great. Instead, He sees failures. The LORD finds fault and flaw with all people. How great are such people? Not great at all. No, they are bottom rung. That includes you. That is why there is no bragging about oneself when conversing with the LORD. You can recall the story of the Pharisee and Tax Collector that Jesus tells which presents that truth in vivid detail.

But Jesus does speak about people entering His kingdom. Not the braggarts and boastful, mind you, but those who “turn and become like children”. Jesus speaks about repentance in those words. He speaks of humbling oneself. That repentant station is the rightful place for all humanity. It is the recognition of the truth that the LORD’s Word exposes about you. That truth is what you confessed on your knees in the Preparatory Rite: “We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.”

So entry into the kingdom is not based upon what you have accomplished. But it is granted because of what has been accomplished for you. Jesus’ statement alludes to that: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” That statement refers to what Jesus was doing. In His life as the Incarnate Word of God, as the Eternal Son of God who became flesh and dwelt among us, Jesus lived as a servant. He humbled Himself. He became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. It was done according to His Father’s will. Jesus acts as the truly obedient child. And the effect of His work is to bring salvation to the world.

That truth is also what the LORD’s Word reveals. That truth is what you also confessed: “For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name.” You have identified salvation in Jesus and His work, not in yourselves and what you have done. Continuing to be turned and being like children, you have asked for guidance and leading. That is taking the status of dependence. The reliance is on the LORD for all that is truly good. And that is what grants access to the kingdom of heaven.

So that has happened for many. Jesus has a whole bunch of disciples who have been made part of His kingdom. They have turned and become like children. They recognize Him as the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, as the true Lord of all. You are included in that group of followers. That is your place as you have been baptized and taught to keep all that Jesus has commanded.

But look further at the statements that Jesus made. He doesn’t stop the discussion at the point about entry into the kingdom of heaven. No, He begins to lay out the woes and promises about those who have become His disciples: “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, but 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. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”

Jesus’ words reveal the concern that He has for those who have become part of His kingdom. His statements demonstrate the connection that He has with His disciples. They have particular connection to the weak and vulnerable: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven…. It is not the will of My Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” The woes are big for those who will cause any of Jesus’ little ones to sin and fall away from the faith. And when it is the Creator and Lord of all who speaks such woes, everyone’s ears should perk up and pay attention.

This year, the world has seen the despising of Jesus’ little ones rise up to levels that aren’t unprecedented, yet haven’t been witnessed for a while. The temptations to sin are great and many; not all advancements in society are beneficial, since many have led to all sorts of ways to violate the LORD’s Law. Even more so, there has been the open, violent hatred that the world has shown. This has been on display in the Levant right now with the brutal oppression of Jesus’ disciples. The attempt is to bring them to disavow their belief in Jesus and to renounce the salvation that He has brought to them. To such people, Jesus’ statement is made: “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.”

But before you turn your attention outward, thinking about how all sorts of people are due for millstones or concrete shoes, there is reason to look within. Remember that you acknowledged your failure to do all that the LORD commands. So the questions are raised: Have you caused one of the little ones who believe in Jesus to sin? Have you despised any of His little ones? These are not idle questions, since they address specific things which Jesus has mentioned. And He has very specific woes for those who have done so.

On this day when those who will instruct our congregation’s children and those who come to our parish preschool, the questions are quite appropriate. Jesus’ statements are to guide all that is done in these efforts: “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me…. It is not the will of My Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Those statements undergird what is spoken to these parish educators in the rite of installation: “You are to assist me, the minister of Word and Sacrament, in the instruction of God’s people according to His holy Word…. While holiness of life and obedience to Christ are expected of all members of the congregation, it is especially important that you show yourselves, by word and example, to be faithful to Him in service and Christian devotion.” They also form the basis for what will be asked of all of you: “Do you promise to support them in their work, to remember them in your prayers, and to work with them to the best of the abilities that God has given you, so that He may be glorified and His work be done in our midst?”

Why are such questions asked? Because Jesus acknowledges all who have turned and become like little children as members of His kingdom. He has granted the status of disciple to those—young and old—who have been led to faith and reliance in Him. And when Jesus grants such status, He is all in with them: He becomes eternally concerned with them, just as His Father is: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” 

Remember that all who have turned, become like little children, and have entered the kingdom of heaven are identified by Jesus as His own. That you heard in the Preparatory Rite as well: “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all our sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.” There is no God who is distant from His people. No, He knows all of them, even doing what He describes: “Does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one who went astray?” Jesus has worked for the little ones, just as He has worked for you. His humble obedience unto death was meant for them too. And so those who instruct the young and those who support the instructors are bound to them in the same way.

So the One who humbled Himself and became your Lord gives you the command: “Turn and become like little children and enter My kingdom.” That you have done. Since you are among the group of His disciples, He gives further instruction to you: “Receive the children in My name. Don’t despise them, for they belong to Me. When you welcome them, you welcome Me. My Father’s will is that none who have entered My kingdom would perish. That will be so as you have received My work for your salvation; these little ones will receive the same. I have opened the gates of heaven to you and to them. Do not cause them or yourselves to stumble and fall. Cling instead to the Word that I have spoken to you. Teach that faithfully to them as well. Pray to My Father that this will be done. And when you all gather in My name, I will be present with My gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.” That is what the Lord Jesus would have accomplished. Let it be so among you who have entered His kingdom in this place.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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