Becoming a Baby Again

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Mon, 07/10/2017 - 12:00am

Matthew 18:1-4, 19:13-15; John 3:3-8, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, July 9, 2017 

            Did you ever want to be great? I ask it in the past tense, because I assume you’ve given up on that by now. But maybe not. I keep looking for examples of great poets who never published a book until they were in their 80’s—or until they were dead—and yet achieved greatness. As a teenager, I wanted to be great as a political leader, for a while. In the 9th grade, my mother found a secret notebook in my dresser drawer—she was probably looking for drugs—in which I had written out a strategic plan for how I would get elected as a class officer and then student body president, including which kids I needed to make friends with and build alliances with, what kind of college I needed to go to so I could get elected to Congress soon after I turned 30. I must have been a conniving little monster, if utterly deluded.

            But in this section of Matthew where Jesus talks about becoming like a child, the starting point is the desire for greatness. Matthew has the disciples asking in 18:1 “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” as if it were a theoretical question. Mark and Luke make clear that in fact they were arguing about which of them was the greatest in the kingdom. There is a desire for greatness that is kind of abstract—even a desire to be a great Christian, a great follower of Jesus. But most of the time it is more like sibling rivalry: “Who is the greatest in this room?” “What do I have to do to become the most powerful person in my town?”

            Is it wrong to want to do your best or to be all that you can be? No. That is what God wants for you. But it often devolves into the question of who is the greatest. I remember a specific day when I was 12 years old when my life changed. I looked at the glass-encased bulletin board outside the school office and saw for the first time something called Grade Point Averages for the first marking period. There were the rankings for the 7th grade. I’d never heard of such a thing. I was stunned by what I saw: there was my name, tied for first with my Canadian buddy Kenny Carey. First place! Then and there it dawned on me: This is a contest, and I can win. They hadn’t told us yet that our Grade Point Average would get us into a good college or that our Permanent Record would follow us all the way to heaven. They would get to that soon enough. But for now, it was enough that someone had fired the starting gun and I was off and running.

            In the midst of a discussion about greatness, Jesus calls over a little child. And I mean little. The Greek word here is a diminutive form of the regular word for child, something like “childette.” The word could mean an infant or a toddler or maybe a preschooler, as we would call them. It could well have been a one-year-old, like Lexi will be in a week. Then Jesus says something startling. “Unless you repent”—I like the Common English translation “if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples want to know where they will stand in the pecking order when Jesus’ kingdom is established. He tells them that if they don’t change radically, they won’t even get into the kingdom of heaven.

            What does he mean when he talks about becoming like a little child? In modern times, we tend to idealize children, so you’ve probably heard sermons saying that we need to be innocent like children, or trusting, or receptive. But in the ancient Near East, and even in first century Judaism, they didn’t treat children as particularly valuable or admirable. Children were powerless and often overlooked. They were regarded as inferior, without status or rights, treated more as property than as persons. Parents could kill their babies by exposure or sell them as slaves. It seems likely that no one ever held up a child as a model for anything. Your model was supposed to be someone heroic or powerful or wise, not a child.

            They didn’t have child-centered families back then. To give you a flavor of Jewish thinking in Jesus’ time, listen to this snippet of the Apocryphal book called Sirach (30:9-10):

Pamper a child, and he will terrorize you.
Play with him, and he will grieve you.
Do not laugh with him, or you will sorrow with him.

I’m not recommending such a view. I’m just saying that children were not widely admired.

            Jesus is drawing a contrast between the kingdom of this world—the competitive kingdom, the empire of Caesar—and his own kingdom, God’s kingdom. They have completely different values. If you want to be a part of God’s kingdom (which in Matthew he calls the kingdom of heaven, out of a Jewish respect for God’s name), then you have to become as powerless and needy and vulnerable as this little child. If you want to follow me, you have to give up your old ideas of power and status. You have to repent, to turn around, and head in a different direction—downward mobility instead of upward.

            In Mark and Luke’s versions of this saying, you might wonder exactly what Jesus meant by becoming like a little child, but Matthew clarifies what he meant in verse 4: “Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” It’s not about simple childlike faith. It’s about being humble, giving up status, not viewing life as a contest, seeking greatness in being a servant or a slave to others.

            Being a disciple of mine, Jesus says, means renouncing the value of greatness as the world understands it and living with as little respect as a child gets. Little children are precious. Lexi is beautiful. But what grownup really wants to become like Lexi? We don’t want to be looked down on and told what to do and have our diaper changed and be force-fed. That’s exactly what we fear in getting old!

The value of greatness was associated in Jesus’ world with the imperial elite, the people who had all the power. Jesus wants us to take up the values of his empire, not Rome’s. He forces us to ask the question: “Do we want to be great or do we want to be humble?” Have you ever seen anyone wearing a baseball cap that says “Make America Humble Again”? Maybe I should print some up.

            In the next chapter of Matthew (19), we come to the familiar story of parents and grandparents bringing little children to Jesus so that he would touch them and pray for them. The disciples scolded those people, as if they were groupies trying to get too close to a star. “Jesus is a busy man, a serious man. He doesn’t have time for people like you. You are not nearly important enough for him to waste his time on.” Of course, Jesus in turn scolded the disciples. “Let those children come to me. I told you already! The kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.” The kingdom belongs to people of little status, those the powerful think of as low priority people. The kingdom belongs to the citizens of Flint and the refugees from Mosul, and those who voluntarily share their lowly status and vulnerability by identifying with Jesus, the meek and lowly one who invites us to take on his yoke.

            As if to underline this, Matthew follows this saying with Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man who says that he has followed the Ten Commandments all his life and wants to know what else he has to do to share in eternal life—that is, the life of the kingdom of heaven which Jesus is proclaiming. “What am I missing?” he asks. You know how Jesus answers him. Essentially: “become like a little child.” Get rid of all your possessions, which are dominating your life. Give up the status and security you have because you are wealthy. Let go of your power and take up my weakness. I love you, but you cannot hold on to all that status and security and power and experience the life I am offering you. I want you to leave it all and come with me. But the young man could not do it. He had too much to lose.

            “Becoming like a little child” sounds easy until you think about it practically. Jesus, what do I actually have to do to become like a child and move from the kingdom of materialism and power into your reign?

            I think that’s what is going on in the famous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in John chapter 3. Nicodemus is a religious leader of the Pharisees. He is spiritual. He is a scholar. He tells Jesus that he knows Jesus came from God because of his miracles. But he wants something from Jesus. Perhaps Nicodemus doesn’t even know what he wants. He comes to see Jesus at night, which may well mean that he came in secret.

            Jesus starts right in on Nicodemus: “I have to tell you: unless you are born anew, you can’t see God’s kingdom.” Here’s the deal, Nicodemus. I can’t tell you one more thing to do or one new thing to believe. You can’t just add the kingdom onto all your other values. You have to start all over again. You have to give up the authority and certainty and comfort that you have in your religious life and become like a little baby—dependent, vulnerable, powerless, humble in the most radical way.

            This is what it means to be “born again”—to repent by giving up on your old life and beginning a new life like a baby. I read about a Bible translator who was working with a tribe in New Guinea. When he tried to translate John 3, he was stumped by the idea of being “born again.” His native helper explained to him a local custom: “Sometimes a person goes wrong and will not listen to anybody. We all get together in the village and place the person in the midst of us. The elders talk to him for a long time. ‘You have gone wrong!’ they say. ‘All your thoughts, intentions, and values are wrong. Now you have to become a baby again and start to relearn everything right’” [Christian Reader, Vol. 33, No. 6].

            Nicodemus hears Jesus saying the same thing to him, and he asks, “How can I do that?” Often people put down Nicodemus. He’s so literal-minded he thinks Jesus means he has to get back into his mother’s womb! Give me a break. This is a scholar and a teacher. He understands Jesus’ metaphor perfectly well. But he is asking: How can I change at this point in my life?

            I am set in my ways. I have opinions about everything. I am accustomed to people listening to me. I have networks of relationships. I have my job. How can I possibly give up all of that to be part of what God is doing in you? You’re asking me to do something I can’t do.

            Jesus just tells him again, “There are no exceptions. You have to be born once in the flesh and born a second time spiritually. You have to become a baby all over again and start over with God.”

It was a night in Jerusalem like many we have on Block Island, with a strong breeze. You can see trees and grasses moving, you might see the wind turbines turning, you see the white of the waves, but you cannot see the wind. You cannot tell for sure where it came from and where it is going. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “God’s Spirit is like that. You don’t control what it does. You can’t even tell when it’s going to blow on you. But when it does blow—when the breath of God touches your own spirit—you will be able to let go of everything else. You will become a baby, starting a new life.”

I have baptized people as new believers who were 79 and 89. With a whole life behind them, they became little children. I have baptized a man who was powerful as the IT head of a huge Wall Street firm, a beauty queen who grew up Buddhist in Malaysia, a middle-aged medical examiner for a large city, an architect who grew up half Jewish and half Greek Orthodox, a physicist who was studying Native American religion, a lawyer who decided now that her kids were grown it was time to think about her spiritual life. They all made a decision to repent—that is, to change the direction of their lives—and become like a baby or a little child, starting all over from a position of weakness and humility. It could happen to anyone in this room who is willing to let go of the striving for greatness and power and take hold of Jesus. May it be so.