Date: December 11, 2022
Festival: Children’s Christmas Programme
Text: Matthew 11:2-15
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI
Exegetical Statement: In this text, Jesus turns the societal understanding of greatness upside down. He does this by addressing John the Baptiser’s patent greatness, yet saying “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (v. 11). This fits the wider context of Matthew, that the greatest are those who serve (20:26; 23:11) and, above all, the greatest is a little child (18:1-4). Therefore, if you want to be the greatest, be a servant, and become like a child. The text therefore challenges the ego of the hearer. How do I think of myself? Do I seek honour and glory? Am I willing to serve others? How might I learn from the faith of a child?
Focus Statement: Jesus became the least on earth for you.
Function Statement: That my hearers might achieve greatness by having faith like a child.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Gospel lesson assigned for this third Sunday in Advent comes from Matthew the 11th chapter. I would like to read a smaller portion of it today. John the Baptiser sits in prison, and he wonders if Jesus really is the Messiah who is to come, so he sends some of his disciples to inquire of the matter, and Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them… Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptiser. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” [vv. 5, 11].
What Jesus says is a little troubling. He seems to belittle John. No one is greater than John, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” How could anyone possibly be greater than this awesome preacher and prophet? How can the least in the kingdom of heaven be greater than this famous preacher? Just what, then, does it mean to be great? How does one achieve greatness? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Climbing the corporate ladder, getting excellent grades, graduating magna or even summa cum laude, getting a master’s or Ph.D., becoming social media famous, getting tens of thousands of likes and shares, getting your children into the most prestigious college or university, buying a huge house, having the most fashionable car, the trendiest clothes, and so on. Sorry, but that ain’t it. Greatness in the kingdom is the opposite of what is considered greatness outside of it.
In the wider context of Matthew, the greatest are those who serve. When the mother of James and John the sons of Zebedee asked Jesus if her sons could sit in a place of honour next to him in the kingdom, He says, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” [20:26]. And He later repeats this to the scribes and Pharisees, “The greatest among you shall be your servant” [23:11]. This isn’t even true for us in our culture. Do we consider our servants like waiters, waitresses, and janitors to be the greatest? But above all, Jesus says, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the child [18:1-4]. Now, this was an extremely counter-cultural thing to say at the time.
In the near-eastern culture in which Jesus lived, a child did not represent cuteness, innocence, purity, or any other modern western ideas of children. Rather, a child in near-eastern culture was someone who had nothing to offer because they need constant care and supervision, and therefore a burden until they can finally do something useful for the family. In fact, this thinking has been seeping its way back into our culture. So, in the kingdom of God, the greatest are those who need the most care and are most burdensome—the exact people whom Jesus was serving by opening their eyes and ears, making the lame walk, and making the dead alive again; whereas those who are the most honourable and noble in the world are not so great at all.
As you know, your children need your care and support; they cannot survive in this world without you. For Jesus, that is precisely what makes them the greatest because Jesus—the greatest of us all—came as a servant. As He said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” [20:28]. Jesus, the King of the universe, took on the weakness of human flesh not only as a servant but also as a helpless little baby to do what His name means—to bring His salvation to you. Jesus, the greatest of us all, became the least of us—a baby. He had no place to lay His head [8:20]. In just a little while, you will hear the simple faith of your children as they tell the true story of Jesus becoming human for you, that you might have salvation.
With a little child in His lap, Jesus 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” [18:1-4]. Therefore, if you desire greatness for your children, place them in the lap and forbearance of Jesus and teach them about Him. Take them to church with you so they can learn more about Him. And if you desire greatness in life, have faith like a child. I recall a time when a child—maybe 5 or 6—asked a friend of mine, “Why did Jesus die?” He answered simply, “He died for you, to save you from your sins.” And all the little boy said was, “Okay!” and he ran off and continued playing with his friends. He knew nothing of the doctrine of original sin, or exactly what sin means, and nothing about soteriology or any other fancy theological terms. He simply heard the Good News of Jesus, and he believed. That simple. Childlike faith. And Jesus, brothers and sisters, is the greatest thing anyone can believe in, as you shall hear momentarily.
To Christ be all the glory, forever and ever. Amen.