How many of you grew up playing sports or games where you had to pick teams? That process of picking teams can either be one of the most humbling experiences for a kid, or a confidence building moment in their life. If you get picked last or not all you now know how everyone feels about your skills; but if you get picked first, you feel good about yourself.
I grew up playing a little basketball – pick-up games here and there at parks. And so I’m not that good. But I’m tall (if you haven’t noticed). So whenever me and my friends would go to a new park people would see me and many times end up picking me first. I felt bad for the person picking me because I was going to severely disappoint them. But they were making this decision purely based on exterior indicators – my height, I had my And1 basketball shorts, a bit darker complexion (you know, I fit the part of a good player).
And isn’t this how the world picks teams? Isn’t this how the world decides who is in and who is out? We look at all of the exterior indicators of wealth, status, and looks and we start to separate: Ok, you’re in, but you’re out.
But friends, that's not how God picks teams. That’s not how God decides who is in and who is out.
If Jesus were alive today and in bodily form here in San Francisco, where would he go and who would he pick to be on his team? Would he go into the beautiful cathedrals scattered throughout the city? Would he build an all-star team with all of the pastors in the city with me and Ben in the starting five?
I hope so. But my position as a pastor doesn’t guarantee me anything. The fact that you’re at church today doesn’t guarantee you anything. God is after so much more than something that is superficial. Nothing on the outside of me, or you, grants us access to God. We have to remember that “...The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) He looks at what is on the inside of us.
And so we have to ask ourselves, What is it that God is looking for inside of us? What are those qualities that he is drawn to?
In today’s passage in Mark, Jesus is going to give us the ideal team player – he’s going to give us a model that he wants us to emulate. But as you probably already figured, it’s not going to be who we expect. It surely wasn’t who Jesus’s disciples expected. So let’s take a look.
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
This is a short passage that highlights a few important things. For starters, in this passage Jesus raises the value of children in a society where they had little to no value. Secondly, this passage emphasizes the important role of parents in bringing, or leading, their children to Jesus. We will hit on those two topics in a moment. But there is a teaching here that is of even greater importance.
Jesus makes the astonishing claim that the kingdom of God can only be entered by the childlike. When you see the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ think, everything that is lived and experienced by someone who is in relationship with God: his presence and power; his love and salvation. Jesus says, that can only be accessed by those who are like little children.
So what does it mean to be childlike? Is he referring to their behavior? That can’t be right. Have you been around a kid lately?
Listen, I love my kids. And I love the fact that kids in general can be playful – they know how to have fun. Children can also be more hopeful and full of faith (willing to believe) – not as skeptical as adults. Those are qualities in kids that are admirable. But they’re not always little angels. Children can also be demanding, short-tempered, stubborn, thankless, selfish… (I could keep going!).
But seriously, is Jesus really saying that we should be like children?! Yes, he is; but not in that way. We are not to be spiritually childish — although some of us are. We are to be spiritually childlike. Childishness has to do with immaturity and recklessness. It has to do with behavior. But to be childlike, Jesus is pointing to something completely different. Strangely enough, he wants us to learn from a child’s passivity (helplessness), rather than their action.
Look again at what he says, 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not RECEIVE the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. Contrary to what many people believe, entering the kingdom of God has nothing to do with what you do or produce; but everything to do with how you receive it.
And this is where kids teach us an invaluable lesson. The children that were being brought to Jesus were primarily infants; or at most toddlers. The reason we know that is because it says that Jesus took them in his arms. (He’s not doing that for any teenagers.) But also, Luke uses the word babies instead of little children in his gospel when documenting this story.
And what do we know about babies and toddlers? That unless someone cares for them they won’t survive. They are utterly dependent on someone else. Even my kids, who are a bit older, are dependent on me. I just filed my taxes and I claimed my two sons as what? ‘Dependents’.
Here’s the kingdom principle for us: We are God’s dependents. We are not in-dependent; we are God-dependent. When it comes to our faith, when it comes to entering and gaining access to the kingdom of God, we have to realize how utterly dependent we are on God. This is so important. We are not deserving to be in the kingdom of God. We can not earn our way into the kingdom of God. We enter the kingdom of God only by turning to him and recognizing how completely helpless we are.
But this is so hard for us to do. Even me saying that, it’s so hard for some of us to hear. A big failure of modern and western Christianity is that it hasn’t emphasized enough our true spiritual depravity. And so we don’t see the need for us to turn to God for him to save us. But if we could enter on our own then Jesus died for no reason. We have to enter by what he has done on the cross and nothing else.
Look at the Message translation of a passage in Isaiah 30 (15-17 MSG). This is God speaking to the people of Israel: Your salvation requires you to turn back to me and stop your silly efforts to save yourselves. Your strength will come from settling down in complete dependence on me — The very thing you’ve been unwilling to do. Jesus points to little children to show us that we can’t save ourselves no matter how hard we try. We must be dependent on him.
And how do we know whether we are depending on ourselves or God? Here’s one quick way to gauge your level of dependence: just evaluate your prayer life. Prayer is a practice that God has given to those who are dependent and want access to him. I can’t remember where I read this quote, but it hits home: Prayer occurs when you depend on God. Prayerlessness occurs when you depend on yourself.
I like this quote about prayer because it’s a reminder that receiving the kingdom of God like a child is not about doing nothing. As Dallas Willard used to teach, "Grace is not opposed to effort; but to earning." Little children remind us that the kingdom of God is to be received and entered as a free gift; not because we have earned a spot in.
But here’s the thing, we swing to two extremes when it comes to receiving: we either believe that we have earned the right to receive something (which we have just shown is not the way to enter the kingdom), or we reject what is being offered because we feel undeserving. How many of you are in that camp? How many of you feel guilty when you receive, or unworthy of God’s love and favor?
If that’s you, that’s not childlike. Children teach us that we are worthy to be loved. One commentator writes: Children expect to be accepted. They expect to be loved. A 4-year-old walks in and is sure everybody is interested in what she or he wants to say. They’re positive everyone will find them completely interesting. They’re totally sure of acceptance.
Is that how you approach God – with that level of confidence? If not, you need to know that you can! What if you and I could start believing that God welcomes us and delights in us just coming to him?
What if we were to believe that God welcomes and delights in everyone coming to him – that he’s not trying to leave anyone off of his team? Let me ask that question in a different way. Are there certain people that you believe are not deserving of God’s love? The disciples definitely thought so. In verse 13 it says that when the people were bringing the little children to Jesus for him to bless them, that the disciples rebuked them. Maybe they were just trying to protect Jesus from becoming overwhelmed, or they were trying to conserve his energy and get him some needed rest.
But what many commentators say is that it is more likely that they didn’t want to waste Jesus's time with individuals of low status. They didn’t want to bother Jesus with those who weren’t important. You see, in that society kids didn’t have value until they could work and bring in income for the family. Until then they were just a nuisance.
But when Jesus saw what the disciples were doing he was upset. It says (verse 14) that he was indignant. He told the disciples, Do not be a hindrance to the children. Let them come to me. He’s saying, Make a way for the children to reach me. And as we will see in a little bit, when Jesus speaks of ‘children’ he’s referring to so much more than just little people. He’s speaking of the vulnerable, the powerless, those who are cast out. And he tells the disciples, and he tells us, Don’t you dare create a roadblock that will keep them from reaching me.
Epic Family, we've got to have a vision for the next generation. They can’t be an afterthought. We can’t just see them as a nuisance. A large portion of our resources and energy has to go into investing in and building up our kids and students. And for the past eleven years this has been our heart and pursuit. But we can’t do it alone. We need your help.
There’s a lot of research and conversation happening around the learning loss that has taken place with kids over the past two years because of distance learning and other factors related to the pandemic. But learning loss is not just a reality with school, but this is true spiritually as well; WHICH IS MORE IMPORTANT.
Do you realize that some kids have missed 100 Sundays in their classrooms here learning about Jesus and his word? We are only seeing about half of the number of kids that we were seeing before the pandemic. And many of these families didn’t move away – they are still engaged and watching. And we believe, and they have told us, that they will come back when it is right for their family.
Will you help us be prepared to receive them? Will you help us equip the next generation? I want to encourage you to grab the ‘join a team’ card that was on your seat and sign up for Epic Kids or Epic Students. This is how we lead and make a way for children to come to Jesus.
And let me also say this about the disciples: The disciples were trying to be the gatekeepers and control who had access to Jesus. What if we blew the gate open and invited everyone in? For those of you who are familiar with it, isn't this what Jesus does in his parable of the wedding feast? In the parable the wedding host invites the typical people you would expect at a wedding – you know, the respectable type. But they all respond that they are busy and give an excuse on why they can’t make it. And so the wedding host tells his servants, You know what, go into the street corners and invite anyone you can find. He blew the doors wide open.
Listen, I know that there are places that because of the systems of this world I don't belong. It may be because of my hair or my skin color or my education or my profession. And that's fine. But because God’s love for me is great I'm always invited into the kingdom of God. And so are you. And so is the poor, and so is the rich, and the sex worker, and the unhoused, and you name it. So come in. And, if you are in, make sure you let others in. Make sure you lead others in. Don’t be a hindrance like the disciples were.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the people that were bringing these little children to Jesus. It’s interesting that it says that ‘people’ brought the children. Which ‘people’? More than likely these were parents. Maybe some were siblings, or friends, or neighbors. I like the generic term because it emphasizes the role that we can all play as a community and helping children come to Jesus. But my guess is that the majority of the people were parents. So let me say a few things to parents.
Parents, I believe that you have one of the hardest jobs in the world. Intentional parenting is no easy thing. Maybe this is why you have so many parents bringing their kids to Jesus. This is unheard of. As we read the gospels it’s normal for us to see people bringing the paralyzed and the blind to Jesus; but now parents are bringing their children to Jesus for him to touch them. They’re like, Jesus, you need to help me with these kids. This one won’t sleep. This one won’t listen. This one won’t eat. Come on Jesus, place your hands on them and deliver them.
Maybe no one brought their kids to Jesus for those reasons. But here’s the likely reason these parents were bringing their children to Jesus. Because they wanted God’s hand and favor to be upon their lives. Because they wanted their children to know and follow him.
Parents, your greatest responsibility, and privilege, is to lead your children to Jesus. Now, none of us get that perfect. I’ll be the first to admit that. But I just want to ask, how is that going? Do you feel equipped to lead your child to Jesus? Are you being intentional about that?
It’s important to clarify that this is not the church’s responsibility. We are here to serve and support you. But you have to be the one that does the heavy lifting.
Now, I know that this can be hard to do. Especially if we didn’t grow up in a Christian home where we received that type of upbringing or training. And so parents, we want to equip you with a tool that will help you lead your child to Jesus. We have ordered some copies of a great book called Raising Passionate Jesus Followers. This is a book written by Phil and Diane Comer. They are the parents of John Mark Comer and three other kids who are all following Jesus in their adult years. We have a copy for every household with kids in it. So be sure to pick one up. It is filled with practical and Biblical tips on how you can create a home and family environment that will continually point your kids (from birth to teens) to Jesus.
And I’m telling you, if you invest the time and energy, it’s worth it. Proverb (22:6 ESV) says: Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. As a parent you are laying an important foundation for the rest of your child’s life. And nothing is more important than their walk with Jesus. It’s more important than what school they get into. It’s more important than their grades. It’s more important than the sports they play. You have to prioritize this.
As we close, I want to give you my title: A Kingdom Full of Children. That’s the heart and vision of Jesus. He says, Let the little children come to me. For those of us who are parents this means that we are called to bring and lead our children to him. As a church, this means that we are called to support parents in that process – and invest and prepare the way for the next generation. But more importantly, ‘a kingdom full of children’ is a reminder that we enter the kingdom of God by receiving it like a little child and becoming completely dependent on him.
As we respond, there are one of two postures that we can take:
1. Receive - some of you just need to sit there and receive. stop the striving. stop the worrying. receive his love and what he has done for you.
2. Come - some of you need to come to Jesus to be blessed. some of you don't know what that's like.