Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2020

Matthew 18:1-20

A fault in many man-made religions is that they have no idea what to do with children. It’s easy to make a way of life for adults, encouraging them to deeper mystic spirituality, a more moral way of life, or a higher way of thinking. Throw a two-year-old into the mix and the whole thing breaks down. If a child, or an infant, can’t participate in a religion, then it what sense is it really for everyone?
In ancient pagan religion, children were especially excluded and treated as non-persons. Abortion or leaving an unwanted infant to die of exposure was common among the pagans, as it is common again in our culture today. It was the early Christians who cared about children, who saved and took in the infants left to die, because they knew these little ones were of value to God. It was Christians who moved culture to value children. Too often our sinful way of thinking pushes us in the reverse, and Christians think instead of greatness and value in the way the world thinks.
This is demonstrated in terrible ways like the widespread acceptance of abortion, but in more subtle ways as well. There are the churches who do not baptize children, and while we do, the idea that children are not fully part of the church until they reach a certain age persists. Children are not the “future” of the church, they are the church, and according to Christ the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
How are children the greatest in the kingdom? Certainly not in anything they have achieved. Jesus doesn’t talk at all about achievement, and the littlest child hasn’t done anything particularly noteworthy or morally great, despite what his grandparents may say. Neither is it that children are the greatest because they are innocent. We are all born in sin, and naturally inclined against God, even from the youngest age. Jesus is not talking about innocence. How could one become like a child if it meant to make ourselves innocent? No, children are the greatest in the kingdom because they have pure, unadulterated faith in their Father in heaven.
          This faith, simple trust in the Father, comes from humility. Not humility as some kind of virtue or accomplishment, but the fact that children know they aren’t the greatest in the world. Children are faced with the fact that they depend on others for everything they have, even to the little infant on his mother’s breast, and therefore do not put themselves in the way of their trust in God. Again, this is not to say that children are sinless or unselfish. They are as sinful as adults. The faith that God grants in baptism and in his Word is shown to be greatest in children. They trust in what God gives.
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” We receive children by receiving them in Christ’s name. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we baptize them, giving them faith and forgiveness of sins, and gathering them with all believers into the holy Christian church. We receive them by preaching to them and teaching them that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he has died for them to save them from their sins and has risen from the dead. Next week we will be receiving the confirmation students and the Sunday school teachers for this year. This is formally saying that we are here to teach and receive these children in Christ’s name.
For our Lord Jesus Christ receives them. He died for them. The person who is most called a child in the gospel is Matthew is Jesus himself. The Son of God became man to redeem all people, he became a child to redeem children. So even what children suffer, their struggles and temptations, Christ has suffered also. For the children here, Jesus knows and understands your needs. He was a kid too. He is with you during all your problems. Pray to him, learn the Lord’s Prayer, encourage your parents to pray with you, and pray it every day so you can depend on Him more and more.
Let us all encourage each other to do likewise. For “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.” To cause a little one to reject the faith, to keep him from receiving the gifts of God, or teaching wrongly about God leads to a fate worse than the worst death. God does not treat this lightly. We must be on guard for temptations to sin, and pray continually “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Temptations will come. God tempts no one, but temptations come, and we pray that God will preserve us through them. His Word and Spirit help us to do so, as we hear his Word and receive his body and blood to strengthen us. We by example of children that everyone in the Kingdom of God is of great importance to Jesus. Even when we fall, Christ does not abandon us. Like the shepherd with the lost sheep, he seeks out those who have wandered. These have fallen into temptation and have been caused to stray. We know Jesus does not abandon them, because he died for them. Our Father wills that none of them would perish. We know because He sent His Son to die and rise again. The Holy Spirit gathers them into the church.
Christ’s work of gathering, of protecting these little lost ones, works no other way than through the church. This is how the kingdom of heaven is extended – through baptism, through the preached Word. Therefore, it is important that nothing be allowed in the church which could cause the little ones to stumble. It is also important that everyone who causes stumbling be allowed to repent and become again like a child themselves.
That is the point of church discipline, as we read in the final part text today. It protects the little ones and helps those who err come back into our Lord’s sheepfold. Christ is a shepherd who cares for all the sheep. He wants to protect us on every side. Therefore, if someone sins against you, go to him directly. Do not go to others, do not complain and spread gossip. Most importantly, go in prayer that you may reconcile with one another. For God cares about your brother who sins against you just as he cares about you.
Discipline is necessary because we care about what is taught through word or action in the church. We do not want anyone to be led to sin. We also care about the souls of those who sin against us, who may lead others into sin. Therefore we work to restore them in a spirit of gentleness. If some refuse to repent, they may be removed from the church for a time for their own good, in hopes that they will one day be restored.
This is how the Good Shepherd cares for his sheep. All are important to him. He especially cares for the weak and the small. The way the church works may seem weak and full of problems, but Christ promises to be with us where we are. In his death and resurrection, we have been given the promise of forgiveness of sins. As we have been forgiven, so we forgive, and we can be sure such forgiveness is true on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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