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The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Children are Blessed
Mark 10:13 - 10:16
August 15, 2021
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
Central’s new Executive Pastor Chris Hildebrand begins a new three-part sermon series entitled “The Upside-Down Kingdom” about Mark 10. This week’s sermon, Where the Children are Blessed, explores what it means to follow Jesus, specifically how having childlike, fearless faith that is radically dependent upon God enables us to live life to the fullest.
View Sermon Transcript
Hello to all of you. The last time I was here was five years ago, preaching and filling in for Jason. When I was preaching at the time, I was a friend of Jason and a friend to many of you in this church, so it's a real joy and privilege to be here now part of the Central family on pastoral staff. I'm really thrilled to get to know you, to serve alongside you and to see what God has in store for the Central family over the next hopefully, God willing, many, many years. For those of you who don't know me, I'll give you a little bit of background. My family and I have been in Brooklyn for many years. Jeannie and I moved to New York City 17 years ago, and have been serving mostly in Brooklyn the last five years. I was the lead pastor of a church called Resurrection Park Slope. My wife, Jeannie, and my kids Owen, Evie, Jacob and Wells, made the move from Brooklyn to Manhattan, which is only two or three miles, depending on what neighborhood you're going to and from, but it took us about 500 miles because we went on a long diversion. We got to see some family for the month of July. We're here, we're settling in and we're getting our city legs back underneath us. We’re really thrilled to be here.
For the next three weeks, I'm going to go through Mark 10. I'd like to spend time in these passages for a couple of reasons. First, Mark 10 is a pivotal point in the ministry of Jesus. This is where Jesus really begins to clarify what he's been alluding to, in many ways up to this point—what it means to be a follower of Jesus, what it means to be his disciple. As we seek to discern what it means for us to be followers of Jesus, as we close out the summer of 2021, and look to the new ministry and the complexity of the world in which we are living, we want to understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus. So Mark 10—These next few weeks I hope will allow us to do that. The second reason is, in this passage, and in this chapter, Jesus is explaining the true nature of the kingdom of God. The kingdom that had been promised and longed for in the Old Testament with Israel has now come to fruition in Jesus, and nobody really understands what is going on—even his disciples, the ones who've been waiting and expecting it. It hasn't come with the power they had thought. It hasn't come in the time that they had thought, so Jesus is explaining exactly what it is that this kingdom of God that he is proclaiming is all about. What Jesus says and what he does, and who he welcomes in Mark 10, overturns everything. All conventional wisdom of his day for both religious and irreligious, about power and strength and wisdom—everything here in chapter 10 gets turned on its head. For us this might, at least on the surface, not sound like good news to many of you because what I think you want, I know what I want, what the city, what this country, what the world wants is anything but something to be turned on its head. We want stability. We want certainty. Maybe a little bit of the status quo would be really nice. So normalcy is what we're all hoping for. Our world has been turned upside down for at least the last 18 months. This is the first pandemic, global pandemic, any of us have ever lived through. I think all of us would kind of like to move on, so any talk about overturning the world or overturning your world might not be the thing that you're hoping for. It actually might be the exact thing that you're hoping to avoid.
What I hope we'll see over the next three weeks is that, in fact, this is the kind of disorientation that we actually need. The world that Jesus is bringing in, the kingdom he's talking about, is actually the world that we are longing for—whether we realize it or not. I would even go as far as to say, this is the world that your neighbors, your friends, your co workers, your colleagues—this is the world that they are longing for as well. Even if we can't articulate it. Even if we don't fully know it or understand it. Jesus, as he does all throughout his ministry, he does it here, he's turning the world upside down so that we will leave our small, tiny, claustrophobic little kingdoms which we work so hard to build, and then to defend. He's bringing his kingdom so that we will leave those kingdoms and find our life, our hope in his far more beautiful, expansive, glorious kingdom—what he calls the kingdom of God. This is the premise for the next three weeks.
This morning, we're gonna look at “This Upside-Down Kingdom” Where the Children are Blessed. Next week, we're gonna look at Where the Least are the Greatest and then finally, we're gonna look at Where the Blind Can See. Let's give ourselves to God's word. Mark 10 starting in verse 13:
"And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them."
This is the word of the Lord. It's absolutely true, and it's given to us in love.
Would you pray with me?
Oh God, now as we turn to your word, we do pray that you would send your spirit, that you would open our ears, that we would hear what is true and good and beautiful, that you would open our eyes so that we would be able to see even glimpses of this kingdom that you talk about, that you call us to embody. Most of all, Lord, I pray you would open our hearts. That being stirred by your word, we would be those faithful followers seeking to follow after you and be transformed more and more into the image of your son and our Savior, Jesus. It's in his name that we pray for all these things. Amen.
Let me give you a little bit of background on what's going on in Mark 10, because it'll help us understand these verses in 13-16. Mark 10 is the account of this transitional period between the Transfiguration of Jesus and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In Mark 9, Jesus brings James, Peter and John up a high mountain and he's transfigured before them. Now, this is an amazing account. By transfiguration, we learn that Jesus' clothes are changed to this radiant light, and Elijah and Moses appear before the three disciples. It's an amazing and bewildering kind of account to our modern ears, because it's something that we don't see or experience. But not to worry, it was an amazing and bewildering account to James, Peter and John, who were eyewitnesses. It's on this mountain that Peter for the first time confesses that Jesus is the Christ—that he is the son of the living God. Peter, who is so overwhelmed by this experience, suggests that they stay up there, that Peter should build some tents, and they just stay on this mountain. Jesus has other plans in store for himself and for these three disciples. They descend off the mountain, and immediately they start heading towards Jerusalem—which is the path that Jesus now takes towards his death. Jesus knows this, but the disciples don't. This account of this journey off the mountain towards Jerusalem, is charged with an urgency from Jesus, to teach, show, embody and reveal what it means to follow him.
What It Means To Follow Jesus
I want to look at two things from this passage that we can learn about what it means to follow Jesus. First, as followers of Jesus will, we will receive children into our midst. We will receive children into our lives. The second thing is that we will imitate them. We receive children, and we imitate children. So first, we receive children. At the beginning of Mark 10, the Pharisees, who were the religious leaders of the day, are trying to trap Jesus. They are hoping that they can get him to say something about divorce that would be considered treason against the Roman Empire. Jesus spots this trap right away, and what ensues is a public debate about the meaning of different Old Testament texts, and then a private discussion with his disciples about the nature and purpose of marriage, and whether Moses was actually condoning divorce or not. One of the main points that Jesus makes is that it's about the heart heartedness, it's the heart heartedness of the people that makes divorce even a possibility. This is why Moses speaks about divorce, and this is why Israel was so eager to take this precious gift of marriage, and exploit it. So Jesus is exposing in his disciples—and really all of humanity—the heart heartedness we have toward God, and his intentions for us in the world. So that's the context when people start bringing children to Jesus so that he can bless them. When you get to the section, after reading chapter nine and the first part of chapter 10, you get to this section, and it can feel like a little bit of a break. Something a little bit more palatable, maybe a breather after something as hard to read and figure out as chapter nine and the beginning of chapter 10. Here, Jesus is welcoming children. It sounds like he's opening a nursery school—like the best nursery school ever because he's Jesus. This text can be really palatable. Listen again to verse 14, “Let the children come to me for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Jesus actually is responding to the fact that the disciples don't want the kids coming near him. The language is rather harsh. It says the disciples rebuked the people who were bringing children to Jesus. The disciples had bought into the Roman, and really most of the ancient world's understanding of children, which was in essence, they are not important. In the first century Roman Empire, children had no status. They had no rights. Their presence was generally considered a nuisance. They can be discarded at a moment's notice. They were simply not valued.
In one stroke, as Jesus does this, as he blesses these children, he's taking the Roman establishment, and he's turning it on its head. Jesus is saying with words, and he's showing with his actions, that this kingdom—his kingdom—is entirely different. We begin to see that by how he responds to the disciples. Remember, these are the disciples he's talking to, not the Pharisees, not anyone else. These are his people, and they're his friends and Mark says that Jesus was indignant. In other words, he was irate. He burned with anger at his disciples for refusing these children to come into his midst. He was indignant at how his disciples were treating these children because Jesus knew that his disciples aren't just making an error in judgment, they're missing the whole point of Jesus' ministry. To turn away kids, to not have them come into Jesus and to see Jesus and be near him is to miss the entire point of the kingdom of God that Jesus is ushering in. As Jesus welcomes these children, he is saying that the kingdom of God belongs to these children. Therefore, if it belongs to the children, then it belongs to the powerless. It belongs to the vulnerable. It belongs to the needy, to the weak, and those who oftentimes we see as a nuisance. That's who this kingdom is for. That's what Jesus is saying.
This on the surface can seem really sweet and satisfying. We're all grateful that Jesus welcomes children, but we have to consider that what he's saying is actually incredibly disruptive. The reason that the disciples don't want children around Jesus is because they know that Jesus has a job to do. He's got a mission. What are kids going to do? They're going to get in the way. They're going to slow him down. They're going to keep him from doing the very things that he needs to do. That's what the disciples are thinking because children are nothing if they are not needy. Children slow you down. Children require deep sacrifice. They require constant attention. Children readjust your agenda and your dreams, and they can set the trajectory of your life in a completely different direction than you had planned for yourself. So when Jesus welcomes the children, it is not sweet sentimentality. It is a call for all of us, whether we have children or not, to let our lives and our vision for the good life be disrupted by those who need us, by those who rely on us.
Our culture prizes children. We've gladly improved since the first century Roman Empire with children, but we like children, and we prize children, as long as they're convenient. When they're beautiful. When they're healthy. When they're well behaved. Then we rise and we call them blessings. They are blessed when they get in line with our dreams and our hopes, and sometimes can be part of those dreams and hopes. But Jesus does not say here, blessed are the beautiful children. He does not say blessed are the well behaved children. He says, blessed are the children. What this means is that a community that cares for and welcomes children, as Jesus calls us to is a community that is welcoming Jesus's upside down kingdom. We have to ask ourselves, how might we live this out together? What does this look like, to welcome children? In many ways, this is what we as a community, and a congregation do, and attempt to do, in lots of different ways. This is why we baptize babies because the kingdom of God is exactly the place where children belong. They’re an essential part of the life and ministry of this church. That's why we have children in our worship service. This is why we spend so much time and energy on Children's Church. This is why you should consider, as you're planning out your fall, volunteering for the Children's Ministry. It is a great way literally to live out Jesus' call for you to welcome children into his kingdom. At least we should be praying that God would raise up Children’s Ministry volunteers to do just that. This is why children eat from the Lord's table and why we do our best to mix our lives together with kids—kids and adults, in the life of this church. It’s the incorporation of their life into our lives together and into this kingdom that we take up this call, but not just for our children. Not just for the care for our own children, but for the care for children who are weak and vulnerable in our community and in our city. This is why we partner with ministries, like Safe Families, who by the way, after years and years of faithful service and trying to get this ministry launch in New York City is now so close to having the fullness of this ministry being able to be conducted where families can now host children who are in crisis and they're so close. I would actually encourage you to pray for that. Even in the newsletter that went out via email, at the end of the week, there's actually a blurb and a way that you can email the state and say that you want to see this happen. This is how we do this. This is how we welcome children into the life of this church and into the life of the kingdom.
When Jesus rebuked his disciples and welcomed these children into his arms, and blessed them, do you know what he was doing? You know what he's saying? He's saying this is going to cost you. To live like this is going to cost you. My kingdom, the life I'm offering, it's going to come at cost to you. Your ambition, your far smaller kingdom, you're gonna have to leave it. You're gonna have to walk away from it. But the cost is so worth it because this kingdom, the kingdom where children are blessed, where the weak are strong, is the far more beautiful kingdom. As we welcome children into our life, into our midst, we become a sign of that kingdom. The only way you can embrace children in this manner in a way that costs us is by saying that this is how our Heavenly Father actually loves us. This is what he is doing with us. Jesus taught his followers to pray. Our Father, who art in heaven. With these words, we take upon ourselves the reality that we too are children, and that we are weak, and that we are vulnerable. If we're honest, we're rebellious and powerless, but we have a father who loves us, who watches over us and who sent his son to die for us so that we might live. Therefore, we ought to be a people who are welcoming children into our lives.
What It Means To Imitate Children
We welcome children, but also the other thing this passage shows us is that we are to imitate children. We’re to imitate them. Look at verse 15: Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God, like a child shall not enter it. For many years, if you had come over to one of our apartments and ventured into the kid's room, you would find the usual kid stuff. You'd find stuffed animals and toys, and dolls and basketballs, and Legos, and Legos, and Legos all over the place. You would also find an electronic graveyard. You would find busted up laptops, old cell phones from 10-12 years ago, Bluetooth earpieces just lying around. This is because my kids love to act like grown ups. They would set up an office. They just do stuff: set up ground rules, set up work offices, make deadlines, post office policies, answer emails, send email, have meetings—lots and lots of meetings. I'm sure they're not alone. I bet if you have kids, they do that too. I remember doing that as a kid, and it's really cute. It's really natural for kids to imitate adults in their life. What's not natural is when it works the other way—when adults imitate and act like kids. But this is exactly what Jesus is telling his disciples and telling us to do. Not just to receive the children into the kingdom, but then to imitate these children. This call to imitate is difficult because what we oftentimes want to avoid is exactly that—imitating children. As a pastor, I have lots of conversations with folks where the idea of religion and worship for some actually seems rather childish. I have conversations where the tenor of it goes like this. They find out and say, Oh, that's great. That's cute. You know, I used to be into that. Oh, you do that thing on Sunday where you gather together and worship. You know what I do? I sit and I read the New York Times because that's what adults do. I have brunch. Adults live in reality. But this is exactly what Jesus is asking us to do—to become like children.
So we have to ask how. How do we become like children? Certainly not everything that is childish is good. Certainly in the New Testament, Paul spends a lot of time calling the church to go from their childish ways, and move towards maturity in their faith. Let me suggest to you the primary way that we imitate children, and it's in their fearlessness. The primary way we imitate children is in their fearlessness. Children are fearless about their future, and they're fearless about their safety. Kids don't worry about their future. That's what drives us crazy about them. You can give them a few dollars, and they want to spend it immediately. They want to spend it that day or they just want to give it away or do something with it and you want them to save it for college, Invest it—turn that into $10. New York City parents, we are so good at orchestrating our children's future—for the next 20-30 years. Every test, every exam, every music lesson is so carefully thought out and orchestrated, but kids, oftentimes, they couldn’t care less. You can't understand why they don't want to pick up that third language because it would be so helpful for them, and it would look great on their transcripts. But they're living in the moment because they know how to live in the present.
This quote, in the beginning of your bulletin, in the reflection from G.K. Chesterton on kids, makes this connection between children and our Heavenly Father, and I think it's appropriate for us. He says this:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Chesterton’s point is that in imitating and watching children delight in the monotony of life, we actually get a glimpse of our God who is holding all things together. Chesterton says that in this way, children with their fearlessness about the future are able to enjoy every moment, delighting in monotony of the morning and the evening, not worried about how every decision and direction is going to lead and shape their future. They do this, they ought to do it because they have a father in heaven, who is watching over them and guiding them. They're fearless about their future. They're also fearless about their safety. Kids do not worry about their safety, and they gladly take risks.
One of my favorite moments as a pastor in my previous congregation in Brooklyn was a few Columbus Day weekends ago, we did a day trip up Bear Mountain. Somehow it was a wet and rainy day on this day hike, and somehow, a bunch of the little kids got in front of all the adults. For whatever reason, I ended up being the chaperone and chasing them up this rock scramble. I was begging and pleading with them to slow down, telling them it's wet. Your parents are back there, I'm not even sure about the insurance for the church, the whole thing is going to fall apart. They just kind of unleashed, just climbing this mountain without a care and a fear in the world. I was scared to death, but they weren't. Jesus is talking about being childlike in our confidence because we live in our Father's world. This is what Jesus has modeled for his followers and for us from the very beginning. A child when they’re secure in their parents' love and strength carries such confidence about the world. They know that they will be protected. They know they have nothing to fear so they can enjoy the world around them. This fearlessness allows the children to enjoy any given moment in a way that oftentimes we adults can't even imagine. They can delight in the world around them in a way that is so foreign to us. Jesus wants his disciples to see the world as their father's playground—a place not of terrible threat, but of ultimate beauty and safety. This then is how we are to imitate children, to live with childlike confidence, and fearlessness that this is our Father's world. As we grow in our childlike confidence, what happens is our veiled competencies which we cling to so carefully, and so strongly—those veiled competencies which we navigate the world—they begin to fall away. We will trust the Word of God and repent of our skepticism and our lack of trust, or lack of trust in the one who holds all things together. There's a place in the New Testament in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, where Jesus says, Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Well, I think the same thing could be said of children. He could have easily said, look at the children because the same reality holds. The call to become like children is a call to live with deep courage and hope, and fearlessness because there is a kingdom that Jesus is ushering in, that is overturning the powers of this world and so we need not fear because we have a Heavenly Father, who loves us and watches over us, and is governing all things. If Jesus calls us to imitate children, he's not calling us to do something that he isn't doing himself. All throughout Jesus's life and ministry, you see his radical dependence and trust on his Heavenly Father. He's constantly praying to God, crying out to him as his father. So much was his trust in his father that even in his darkest hour, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, was crying out to his father—Abba, father. When Jesus asked us to imitate children, to live with fearless faith, and hope in our Heavenly Father, what he's actually asking us to do is to follow him to imitate him because Jesus lives with radical dependence on his father. The promise is that as we do this, and when we do, we will find that we have a Heavenly Father and we will be living in a kingdom that promises this hope and security, which will transcend all other safety and hope that we long for. When we actually gather at this table we come as children, confessing our dependence, our joy and our hope and our Heavenly Father who promises to feed us and nourish us and sustain us. We can do so because it's here at this table that our Lord Jesus offers us his very self, for the sake of his brothers and sisters, for those who cling to Jesus, and rely on their Heavenly Father, as desperate and needy children. This is how we imitate children. This is how we show to the world the kingdom that Jesus is bringing.
Let's pray together.
Our great God and Heavenly Father, we pray and ask that you would be with us that we would be a people who welcome children into our lives and into our midst and into this church, and who also imitate children that we would live with a faith that is radically dependent upon you, and in the ways that we so cling to our own strength, in our own ways, and the ways that we navigate this world, we pray you would reveal those to us. We pray we return from them and find you, our gracious Heavenly Father, protecting us and watching over us. We pray this all in Jesus' mighty name. Amen.