James 3.13 to 4.3, 7-8a
Who is the most important person in this congregation? I’ll give you a few seconds to think about it, it’s not that hard… Who is most important? It’s me, of course! I’m the most important person here. I have a theological degree and I’m a doctor in two different ways. Where would you be if I weren’t here? I teach, I preach, I marry and bury and baptise people. What would you do without me?
I do hope you can hear that I’ve got my tongue firmly in my cheek. I hope you realise that if I actually believed what I’ve just said, then I’d probably have a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock.
But you know, if I were serious, I wouldn’t be the first. The disciples were dead set serious about it on the road with Jesus, when
on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
Sounds petty, doesn’t it?
I’m the greatest.
Are not, I am.
Am too! Etc.
Perhaps we shouldn’t blame them, perhaps we should just say it’s human nature. We also jockey for position; we compare our treatment with how we think others are treated; we want ‘the leader’ to notice us. Isn’t that the point that James makes in his little book of Wisdom?
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?…you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.
We see others as rivals and threats to us. So we try to make things go our way. But honestly, I can’t help but imagine the disciples acting really childishly, as if they’re saying Pick me, Jesus! Pick me!
You can imagine the arguments. Peter says he should be most important because he’s a gun fisherman; James and John remind him that their dad’s richer than his dad and they know how to run a business. Matthew says if they want someone who can run a business, he used to be a tax collector. They all have a story to tell, and a reason to be head of the pack, top of the pile, cock of the walk. They each have something to prove—and something to hide.
Mind you, it’s bizarre that they were arguing this way while they were walking with Jesus. Not because Jesus is obviously the greatest—but because of what he had been trying to tell them… He had said (Mark 9.31),
The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.
What do you think they might say when Jesus said that? How terrible! Let’s do what we can to stop this! We won’t let them touch you!
No, there was none of that. Jesus’ words just went in one ear and out the other. They could think only of their own personal greatness.
Mark tells us (9.32):
they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
They certainly didn’t get it at all. Wouldn’t it have been so much better if they weren’t too scared to ask what he meant?
Jesus senses their difficulty. He decides to help them see things more clearly. More truly. More rightly. To see things without the corroding acid of naked ambition spoiling the view.
So he sets a child in front of them, in the midst of the circle. How cute! We’ve had a child in our midst today. And Z is very cute!
We love cute kids. So when Jesus places a child in the midst of the disciples’ gathering, is he saying, Seek cuteness not greatness? I don’t think so. There’s definitely a place for cuteness, but I don’t think Be cute, not great is a Christian motto or even a Christian concern.
2000 years ago, in a place and time when children often died young, people didn’t think about cuteness. They thought about survival. If an infant didn’t survive, you’d have to try for another. If it survived, it could be useful one day. Till then, it was another mouth to feed. Of course, it’s still the same way in many parts of the world today.
A child was a net drain on resources. A child was expendable. Girls were given to be married if the bride price was acceptable. Children had no rights.
Jesus often spoke in parables; here, he is giving us a parable in action. He says, To be great in the community of God’s kingdom is to take notice of those who have no power. Those who cannot speak for themselves. Those who are expendable. To quote him properly, Jesus says
Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
We serve one another in the Christian community. We support those who are in need, we strengthen the weak, we encourage the fallen. Who is the greatest here? The one in need. And friends, our children need us.
Our need is to realise that we are just like Z. God loves us just because we are. God is no threat to us. God wants us to blossom, just as we want Z to blossom.
We welcome children, but perhaps we may forget how they come to us in the name of Jesus. How is that? Children come in Jesus’ name in their vulnerability and need. Jesus too was ultimately to be made needy and weak, and to fall into death itself. Jesus has lived a fully human life for us, as a child and as a man. Jesus has died for us, whoever we are. And Jesus now lives as the risen Lord—again, for us, to bring us new life every step of the way.
Z has been declared a daughter of the eternal God, a member of the body of Christ, the family of God on earth, the Church. In her joy and in her sadness, in her success and failure, in her strength and her weakness, she belongs with Jesus. Let us not only welcome her in Jesus’ name, but also commit ourselves to fulfilling the promises we made to her today, to bring her up knowing Jesus as her Lord and friend. Amen.