The Gift Of Helplessness

Text:  Matthew 18:1-20

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In today’s current culture we tend to idealize childhood as this happy age of innocence.  We see childhood as a carefree time; we elevate children and certainly embrace them by devoting tremendous amounts of energy to them and their extracurricular activities.

Indeed, vacations are taken for the children, toys are bought for them, and families tend to organize their entire schedules around them, especially when they begin playing sports. 

Many individuals, given the chance, would love to leave their current pressures of everyday life and return to childhood where they could sleep in, play all day, eat food, and be unconditionally embraced by a parent. 

In the time of Jesus this was not necessarily the case though.  The children of Jesus’ day were often treated with scorn.  In other words, the children of the first-century were considered of no importance because they were physically weak compared to adults, thus not allowing them to contribute to the agricultural demands of the day.  Furthermore, these children were susceptible to sickness, and often took up a lot of the mother’s time and attention, especially in their early years.  In a word, children were weak, foolish, helpless, and dependent.  If they were not taken care of, they would die. 

Now, it isn’t that these children weren’t loved and cherished in the first-century.  Rather, they simply did not have an elevated status resulting in family schedules revolving around them. They were simply a part of the family with a low status; they were a bunch of little ankle-biters that were often times along for the ride.  They were not great, but inferior to adults because they demanded support. 

What this means is that children were never held up as an example to an adult.  Adults were never told during the first-century that they should be like a child.  No, it was the other way around.  The adults were the role models to the children.  Children needed to grow up; they needed to become hardworking self-sustaining adults. 

It makes sense now just how scandalous it was for Jesus to place a child before the disciples as a role model. 

Who is the greatest?  Here, look, this child in your midst is the greatest.  In fact, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!

This teaching must have shocked the disciples.  The reason why, Jesus uses a child – someone who was helpless, dependent, and needy – to teach the disciples, and us, that the kingdom of heaven is for those who are spiritually destitute. 

It makes even more sense when we see that after talking about children, Jesus introduces a parable about sheep.  You see, both sheep and children are essentially dependent creatures.  Sheep, like children, are helpless and foolish animals.  “Sheep need constant care, watching, and protection.  By themselves they are an easy prey.  All is well with them only when they stay close together within the shepherd’s care.  They can’t get along alone.”[1]

What Jesus is essentially doing in our Gospel reading from today is showing us that we need to become like little children.  We need to be changed. 

While most everything that we do in life with children is to equip them to grow up and become independent, it is not true spiritually.  Spiritually it is the exact opposite.  In other words, “In our human lives, growing up involves the gradual shift from dependence to independence.  But the reverse is true for us spiritually.”[2]

What this means is that the Holy Spirit through the Word of God needs to break through and wound you and me.  The Holy Spirit through the Word needs to come to you and me, and strip us of all our attempts at being self-sufficient and then ascribe everything to the blood of Christ.[3]  Yes, the Holy Spirit through the Word needs to tear you down, strike you down, and kill you.  You and I need to be reduced to a helpless, dependent, and needy child.  This, my friends, is very good.

But why is this good?  This is good, because it is what we properly call repentance.  When the Holy Spirit brings you from independence to dependence: that is in fact repentance.  When the Holy Spirit brings you from a position of strength to a position of weakness: that is repentance.  When He brings you from self-sufficiency to helplessness: that is repentance.  When He brings you from self-righteousness to the realization of your sin: that is repentance.  But why is this good?  “By repenting we admit our spiritual bankruptcy and turn to God as beggars to ask for His mercy and grace.”[4]  Yes, in this gift of repentance we are brought to the reality of our sin and are made to be receivers.  Indeed, being gifted repentance is to be brought to the point we realize that we can do nothing about our sinful condition. 

Being brought to repentance and being like a child actually brings about tremendous freedom too.  As we are brought to the end of ourselves, we quickly come to learn that we must look outside of ourselves in order to survive.  Yes, when we are changed into children and sheep, we look outside of ourselves and begin to learn that we don’t need to worry about being helpless.  We don’t need to worry about trying to look good and impress everyone.  We begin to learn that we don’t have to call attention to ourselves and that we don’t have to continuously work at building up our esteem and reputation.  Why?  Because through the Gospel we hear that we have a Father who cares for us and that we are sheep who have a good shepherd.  In helplessness and in repentance we are directed away from ourselves to the only source of our hope, Jesus Christ and His good gifts—for us.

I am reminded of a story in a book by Brennan Manning.  He talks about his neighbor, little John Dyer, who was three years old.  He shares, one night, little John Dyer “knocked on our door flanked by his parents.  I looked down and said, ‘Hi John.  I am delighted to see you.’  He looked neither to the right nor the left.  His face was set like flint.  He narrowed his eyes with the apocalyptic glint of an aimed gun. ‘Where are the cookies?’ He demanded…”  Brennan goes on to say about this, “A child doesn’t have to struggle to get himself in a good position for having a relationship with God; he doesn’t have to craft ingenious ways of explaining his position to Jesus; he doesn’t have to create a pretty face for himself; he doesn’t have to achieve any state of spiritual feeling or intellectual understanding.  All he has to do is happily [receive] the cookies; the gift of the kingdom.”[5]

My friends, “those who insist that they are not helpless sinners will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  On the other hand, those who are helpless, dependent sinners are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”[6] for they are gifted not cookies, but the forgiveness of sins purchased and won for them.   

You, who are helpless, are made into receivers of a God who spoils you with His forgiveness; who spoils you with His love and care; who spoils you with every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus; and spoils you with a heavenly meal. 
Keep in mind though that being brought to repentance is not a onetime event.  “Our repentance is not just an initial act or an occasional event in our journey with Christ; it is a daily event, a lifelong process.  Our whole life as Christians is a process of conversion from ourselves to God, a dying to self that is complete only when we die.”[7]  Yes, as Martin Luther once stated, the entire life of believer is one of repentance.[8]  Indeed, "we move [daily] away from pride in ourselves and our own achievements to a gradual awareness of our spiritual failure and Christ's work in us as we entrust ourselves to Him. We move away the conviction that we are self-sufficient to the repeated experience of spiritual bankruptcy. We move on from delusions of our spiritual importance to a growing sense of our utter insignificance and the glory of God. We move on from delight in our own power to the painful recognition of our spiritual weakness. We are brought from our self-righteousness to the increasing consciousness that we are sinful."[9]  We are continually brought to helplessness, where we are God’s children, His sheep. 

Like repentance, daily we also receive God’s answer to our sin, the Gospel.  In other words, we don’t just receive the Gospel when were saved or baptized and that is it.  No, our whole life as disciples of Jesus, as sheep of Jesus, and as children of God is one where we receive grace upon grace.  In other words, we don’t have to spiritually grow up to be dependent autonomous individuals, we don’t have to obtain some superficial pious level or status, we don’t have to bargain, and we don’t have to work to achieve grace.  It is freely given to you and me—as gift.  Yes, no climbing, no huffing and puffing, and no fear, for it has pleased your Father to ‘give’ you the kingdom.[10]  Take comfort you childlike repentant beggars and dependent sheep who are broken, crushed, destroyed, crippled, wrecked, collapsed, and torn down, for the Lord does not despise you.  Rather, He meets you and lavishes upon you His grace.  Indeed, He gave grace to Maverick in baptism this morning and gave this marvelous forgiveness to you at yours.  He gives you the kingdom in His Word and also in His Supper. 

Take comfort my dear saints for forgiveness and everlasting life has been paid for by the blood of Jesus.  It has been finished.  Forgiveness and righteousness has come to and for you; you can gobble it up like a little child, for it belongs to you.  It is indeed great to be a child of God.  

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Norman Nagel.  Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel: From Valparaiso to St. Louis (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2004), 167.

[2] John Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House,  2008), 32-35.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 12: Selected Psalms eds. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 225.

[4] John Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today, 32-35.

[5] Brennan Manning.  The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2005), 53.

[6] James Batchelor.  “Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost Sermon At Good Sheppherd Lutheran Church of Hoopeston, IL” (20 August 2014).

[7] John Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today, 32-35.

[8] See the First Thesis of the 95 Theses.

[9] John Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today, 32-35.

[10] See Luke 12:32.

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Anonymous said…
All the explicit emphasis on spiritual matters often leaves me feeling helpless regarding neighborly physical matters, because it's like none of this has anything to do with my everyday life. We are helpless beggars before God, but before our neighbors it does everyone harm if you go around begging for approval and favors. It's helpful to be "little Christs" to our neighbors, no? We should approach our relationships with the intent to give everything but expect nothing in return. The fact that I am forgiven for failing at putting others first is little comfort when you realize how harmful it is. I hate how self-conscious I am no matter who I talk to; I put so much effort into protecting me, I don't think about others at all. And I'm an expert at making excuses. I can't tell whether I can't do certain things or I won't do certain things. I don't know if there's even a difference.

My point is, do comforting words even exist for our worldly efforts? I don't want to be a leech. I mean I do, but I don't. I know well the end of Romans 7; it is haunting. Of course there is a word of comfort, thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. I mean communion every Sunday is surely the highlight of my life at this point. But still, in a purely worldly context, is the best we have simply "just do it" a la Nike?
To be continued (possibly)