Sermon 23 October 2016 – 23rd Sunday After Pentecost – C

Readings for today:

Joel 2:23-32

Psalm 65

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:15-30

Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton

This morning as we prepare to baptise Darcy, who has been brought along by his mother, and other family members, we have this delightful snapshot from 2,000 years ago. And this story of Jesus blessing the children is the reason why we are able and indeed delighted to baptise babies, as well as children of all ages. The mothers of Jesus’ time were bringing their children to be blessed or maybe healed by Jesus- don’t forget that only 30% of children made it to adulthood. Babies were precious and needed all the help they could get in surviving. Our babies and children are still precious and still 2,000 years later we are still bringing them to Jesus. The disciples were acting as minders- perhaps they were trying to keep Jesus’ energy levels up so that he could deal with important people. They probably didn’t see the children as “people”, and probably not even the mothers- they didn’t rate much in the society of the day. Jesus says don’t “hinder them”, don’t make it difficult for them, maybe even don’t make these little ones stumble as they come to me. And Jesus uses the verb that suggests that it is the children themselves that are coming to him- not being brought- but coming because they choose. It is such a wonderful picture- the Lord of the Universe surrounded by babies and children in some kind of understanding relationship- Jesus wanted them, he loved them and they were drawn to him. Their mothers were drawn to him, just as were the disabled, the foreign, the ill and the outcast- they were all drawn into God’s loving embrace in the person of Jesus. And the disciples were trying to stop it, for whatever reason. I suppose it’s only human nature that when you have someone really important who has come to town that you want the most important people to meet and greet them. We want to try to impress someone who is important. But Jesus doesn’t want it that way- he doesn’t want to save his energy for the rich and powerful he wants to hold the little ones in his arms. It is always a mistake to try to restrict people’s access to God. And we as Christians have a long history of doing just that. There are always certain people who are not welcome in our churches- lepers, Samaritans, Eunuchs and gentiles- all of these at different times Jesus chose to embrace. Who are they now? The disabled, refugees, the unemployed, the homeless? You can’t keep anyone away from God because God demands they should be brought in to relationship with him.

But this is not just a matter of God’s compassion- this is a matter of God’s theology! Jesus is telling us that we have to come into the kingdom as a child. Now does this mean that we have to BE children- that no-one who is adult can make a commitment? I don’t think so because we all know that people can come at any age and that heaven rejoices over the change in every sinner’s life. So it must be that we have to be childlike? Well yes, but in what way?

I have heard it said that a childlike faith is an unquestioning faith. I don’t know about your children but mine were always asking questions- “but why?” was a constant theme. Certainly children take some things on trust but very few of them believe things unquestioningly for long.

No, I think it is more about a kind of humility. Children have not much power- they go where they are taken, they eat what they are given, they haven’t yet got a whole lot invested in what people think of them and the respect they might have gained, or wealth or property that they have accumulated- they haven’t got so much to lose. I think the thing you have to do to enter the kingdom is to shed your pretensions to being adult, to being in control. It’s interesting that not just here, but number of times Jesus says we have to be like children, or be freshly born, born from above, born of the Spirit, and the thing that characterises the new born, the baby and small child is its helplessness and dependence. I think he is saying that we have to be prepared to depend on God rather than on ourselves. And of course the other people who have easy access to the kingdom – women, lepers, disabled, society’s rejects- the neglected, despised and forgotten are already aware of their dependence.

So where does this leave us? What if we are capable, self-sufficient, wealthy, well-equipped? What if we are rich young rulers? How then are we going to get into the kingdom of God?

Well, that is where Luke turns next. A rich young man comes up to Jesus- I wonder if Jesus still had babies on his knee? – and wants to know how he is going to find eternal life. Is he thinking Jesus will tell him to build an abbey or a church, endow a hospital or a university- that’s how people have tried it down the centuries, right to the present day. “If I give to something really important people will know I am good and God will notice too”. Jesus’ listeners had the idea that heaven would naturally belong to the wealthy and powerful men of their day. We still have that kind of expectation, I think- that salvation will belong to the educated, the powerful, not to the illiterate, the poor, the powerless. But Jesus does not tell this wealthy young man that his education and money and power are enough. Jesus asks him about his life- has he kept the commandments? Yes, the young man answers- but that isn’t enough either. What Jesus requires is something just about impossible- he asks this young man to become powerless, poor and needy- he wants him to give away not a tenth- which he probably did anyway, not half which would have been a huge amount- but everything- all he has. Jesus is telling him to make himself into a child again- to give away his power and his control.

And not only that- even giving away everything is not enough- he has to “COME” and “Follow Jesus”. So Jesus is asking for a complete turn-around in this person’s life. Not only for him to become powerless and poor, but to become a follower not a leader -to follow Jesus himself. This isn’t the first time that Jesus has told people to give their wealth away, it isn’t the first time he has told people to follow him but it leaps out at us because the rich young man has everything in worldly terms and cannot give everything away- he goes away sad, and Jesus is sad too. Jesus recognises how hard it is, what a difficult choice it is for someone who has so much in worldly terms to give it all away. Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus is using Jewish hyperbole or exaggeration here. There used to be a theory that the “eye of the needle” was a gate and that a camel had to kneel down and have all its goods unloaded before it could go through- the theory has been dismissed- there is no evidence of such a gate- but it is a great image, I think. Unloading the things that we are carrying whether it is great wealth as for this young man, or maybe quite different things that hold us back from following Jesus, is what we all have to do. And the things that can keep us from following Jesus wholeheartedly can be good things. Wealth itself is not bad- we know that it is the LOVE of money that is the problem- or as Jesus said the fact that we can’t serve two masters wealth and God, at once. In the next couple of verses Jesus tells us that we might have to give up all kinds of things that are precious to us- family and homes and all sorts of things- not that any of them are bad in themselves but if they become our exclusive focus- if they distract us from God- then it might be necessary for us to give them up. But Jesus promises to the disciples and by extension to us that if we are prepared to give things up to follow him, we will be wealthy in the things that count here on earth and in the Kingdom of God.

Something that really struck me here is that Jesus is again talking in kingdom terms- he is always talking about the Kingdom of God, which is an active, dynamic state. What the rich young man was after was “eternal life” some sort of future reward in a heaven that would go on and on- sitting around on clouds playing the harp, perhaps, but Jesus doesn’t talk that way- he talks about God’s kingdom – a place where God’s will will be done. This is a kind of marker, I think, in the difference between a true servant, which Jesus was, and a person who thinks something is owed to them- what Jesus is promising is that faithfulness and willingness to serve will ensure you a place in the Kingdom of God- whatever that brings, not that we will “Rest in Peace.”

What do we need to do to be part of the kingdom of God?- we have to be like little ones, dependent on God. As we baptise Darcy this morning we are recognising that he is part of the Kingdom of God. He will, of course, have to choose how he lives that out as he grows to adulthood. The question is the same for each of us. How are we going to live right now, in the Kingdom of God? Are we prepared to become followers of Jesus and to live a life of humble dependence on God? Jesus wants to take each of us, not just Darcy, in his loving arms and give us his blessing.