The following message was delivered to the local Church of Christ in the spring of 2019…
I’m beginning this sermon with one of my customary disclaimers…
Ninety percent of what I’m about to say has no inarguable Biblical backing. I am not giving an expository sermon designed to tell you what you’re supposed to believe. Rather, I am simply sharing some thoughts today because I want to PROVOKE thought. I don’t think Biblical study was ever meant to be a hard-and-fast science. I think that understanding the mind of God requires creative thought, because God is the original Creative Being. And as Moses wrote in Genesis 1:26, we are similar to God in the way we think. Flawed, yes… but still created in His image.
That having been said, turn with me to Luke Chapter 18, starting in Verse 15. Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and 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.”
This little vignette about Jesus and the children is chronicled in a couple of different places throughout the Gospels. What interests me, though, is how sketchy the narrative really is. What on earth did Jesus mean when he said that ‘to children belong the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Some teach that this means that one must be baptized as an infant. Unfortunately, that’s a mistake. Peter, in Acts 2, made it quite clear that baptism is reserved for those who have sinned; an infant can’t sin, because sin requires an awareness of right and wrong.
So what was Jesus talking about when he said that ‘we must receive the kingdom of God like a child?’ That always seemed to me to be a somewhat mysterious statement.
Here’s something interesting about Scripture. When it is absolutely necessary for you to understand something in a very specific manner, the teaching will be given in a very specific manner. I mentioned Acts 2 a minute ago; read that again sometime. A very specific question is asked of an apostle, and the apostle gives a specific and inarguable answer. But that’s not always the case. If every single jot and tittle of scripture was written like pages out of an instruction manual, then Christianity would simply be a behavioral system, rather than what it is: A relationship with God. Relationships are complicated sometimes. I’m married. I know.
Similarly, I think that parts of Scripture are a little mysterious because we grow as Christians by trying to figure them out. And I think that Jesus’ teaching on children is one of those mysterious passages.
I come back to this scripture a lot when I think about God himself. How does a child view God? Actually, let’s step away from religion for just a minute. How does a child view – or mimic – anyone that he or she admires?
When I was little, maybe four or so, I had a stack of comic books that I kept in shoebox under my bed. My mother bought them for me, mostly at yard sales. They were torn and raggedy, but I found them absolutely mesmerizing … and that’s quite a trick when you can’t read yet. I used to look at them for hours, and I’d try to make up stories to go with the pictures.
My absolute favorite character in those comic books… was Superman! To me, Superman was about the coolest person ever. He ran around all day in red underwear, and still managed to look manly. Now, I lived in a very small apartment when I was little, about a hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean in Eastern Virginia. And in addition to my comic book collection, we also kept in our apartment a red bath towel. And my mother could never find that bath towel. You know why? Because it was usually tied around my neck. It wasn’t a just bath a towel to me; it was a cape, and I stole it every chance I got so I could run around the yard being just like Superman. I’d spend hours saving imaginary people from imaginary monsters, until my mother dragged me back inside and took her towel back.
I know now that Superman was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I am familiar with the eight decades of mythology that followed, and I posses several hundred Superman comics now … but I was just a newbie then. I only had a few comic books, and I didn’t even know how to read those. I just took what I did know and ran with it. Superman was cool, and I wanted to be just like him.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my future wife lived in the next city over… running around in a princess dress waiting to rescued. I was pretending to be a superhero; she was pretending to be the fair maiden waiting to fall for the superhero. That’s just what kids do.
I didn’t just look at comics. My upbringing was fairly religious, so my mother read me Bible stories a lot. David and Goliath was a favorite of mine. Samson was, too, although my mother edited out a few parts when she read me that one. (I didn’t get to read the R-rated version until I was old enough to read it on my own.) I remember Noah’s Ark, and Jonah and the Whale. Those stories were inspiring to me as a little boy, and they made me want to imitate the great men of the Bible.
And that was the big epiphany for me. That’s how I understand Jesus’ statement that we should receive the kingdom of heaven as children. Children love stories. Can’t get enough of ‘em. They eat, breathe, and sleep their favorite characters, and then they imitate them. In the end, I came to the conclusion that the story of scripture is more important than its theology could ever be, because paradoxically…when you come to love the story the theology comes naturally. It’s the story that matters to a child. My comic books didn’t have to say ‘thou shalt wear a red cape when thou playest Superman’. I knew to take the red towel instead of the blue one because that’s the one Superman would have taken. Easy.
And scripture is a story, unarguably so. Just because it’s a true story doesn’t mean it’s not still a story. Just because we’re meant to live by it doesn’t invalidate it as literature. Scripture begins with ‘in the beginning…’ If they wanted to translate that phrase ‘a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’… it’d still fit. It follows with ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’ Suddenly, our story has a setting and a timeline. It’s not too long before read ‘and the serpent was more cunning than any other beast the Lord God had made’ … and then your villain appears. You can’t have a tense, exciting story without a villain.
But then God tells the serpent that someday a great hero is going to come along and crush his head. That all the evil the serpent inflicts on mankind is going to be undone. And after a great many plot twists and turns, that hero does come in the person of Jesus Christ. And in one epic showdown, in a place called Golgotha… Christ does defeat the serpent, and saves his people from slavery. That’s how every heroic tales goes: it begins with the villain, who imposes some form of slavery… and then the prophesied hero comes along to save them. It’s an oft-repeated outline that was artfully dissected in Joseph Campbell’s book ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’. Our Bible resonates so deeply in the human consciousness, that it sets the pattern for thousands of great stories.
The story ends in Revelation, where John writes that ‘night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.’ That’s just a really fancy way of saying ‘and they lived happily ever after’.
Great stories provide inspiration, and inspiration inspires imitation. John writes, in 1 John 2:6 that ‘whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did’. Paul wrote that he ‘bore the marks of Christ’ on his body. The Apostles saw scripture for the drama that it is; I don’t think it was just some moldy old theology book to them … nor should it be to us. We should always approach Scripture with the same sense of awe, wonder, and simplicity that a child brings to his favorite story.
I think the biggest problem we have when we forget the story of scripture and over-focus on its doctrines is that we lose context. One of my favorite books when I was little was Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. It usually took my mother about a week to read to it me. If she’d started in Chapter Three on Tuesday, and then skipped to the last chapter on Wednesday, I’d have been one mad little fella. I wouldn’t have been able to follow the narrative. Characters’ actions would have made no sense, and I would have misunderstood most of the dialogue. Now, let me ask you this … if bouncing all over the place doesn’t work for ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, then why on earth would it work for the Bible? My method of scriptural study, my ‘hermeneutic’, if you will, was best described by Lewis Carrol, the iconic author of ‘Alice in Wonderland’: You start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, you stop!
When you start reading the Bible in Genesis and end in Revelation, it will make sense all by itself. You don’t have to stop along the way to tear apart the Hebrew of a passage. The interesting thing about scripture is that it is preserved for us by scholars, but it wasn’t written for scholars. Kind of like cars are maintained for us by mechanics, but they aren’t made for mechanics. They’re made for ordinary people to roll around in, whether they understand how the car works or not. The simplest possible approach is nearly always the best one, I think … the ‘Superman approach’ if you will.
You can tell that God meant for us to have a child-like love for Him by how he describes us. What does the Bible call us, particularly in the New Testament? Sheep. Anyone here know anything about sheep? Sheep … are about the dumbest quadruped wandering God’s green earth. They’re complete idiots.
Where there are sheep there is always a sheep dog, and if that sheep dog gets an ornery streak and runs the sheep over a cliff, they’ll go right over without too much trouble. Sheep just aren’t very bright. And God calls us sheep. A lot. Do we really think that God would call us ‘sheep’, and then turn around and write a book that takes a rocket scientist to figure out? Of course he wouldn’t, because that’d be cruel, and God is kind.
Sheep are simple critters. So apparently are we, since God calls us sheep, and therefore so must scripture be, since it was written for us. When we read scripture and we have questions about it, I’m betting the simple answer is usually the right one. Jesus himself kind of spoke derisively about complicating scripture. Remember what he told the Pharisees in Matthew 23? “You blind guides! You strained out a gnat and you swallowed a camel!’ In other words, the Pharisees were so obsessed with the details of God’s law that they missed the big picture. A child would never have done such a thing. A child wouldn’t have noticed a gnat, but he’d have been excited about the camel. ‘Look, Mommy, a camel!’ A sheep would have noticed the camel, too.
Another problem that arises when we fail to approach scripture with a child-like attitude is that we start to add rules that complicate it. We the Churches of Christ are famous for that! When Alexander Campbell called us back to Biblical Christianity in the 1820’s and 30’s, God was using him to do an incredible thing. After nearly sixteen hundred years of misunderstandings – and I do believe the mistakes of medieval religion were just that, misunderstandings – Biblical salvation was being restored on a massive scale. But in their zeal, the Churches of Christ snuck in a few extra-biblical creeds that have haunted us ever since. They damaged our movement; in some cases, they have very nearly destroyed it.
One creed that snuck into our movement was the ‘commandment/example/inference ‘ idea. Anyone familiar with that one? Campbell and his contemporaries taught that when we study scripture, we should look first for a commandment, then for an example, and then if we still can’t figure out ‘proper doctrine’, we should rely lastly upon inference. Now that’s not a bad method of study, and it often works… but the cold hard truth is that there’s no commandment saying we HAVE to study scripture that way. I think a bit differently on the topic. Because when you look at Scripture as a child does – as a story – it’s example that you should first be looking for, not commandment. The commandments are there just in case you’re too stubborn to follow the obvious example. Israel was given the Law of Moses because they were a ‘stubborn and stiff-necked people’. If they’d have been obedient enough to follow the examples of righteousness get by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they might not have needed those laws. Example came first, not commandment.
God is all about setting the example. Remember Romans 5:8? God demonstrates his own love for us in this; while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. As we looked at earlier, John says we were to walk as Jesus walked. We dwell on Peter’s commandment to repent and be immersed, but that commandment really didn’t do anything except cement Jesus’ example. Before Peter ever commanded us to be immersed into Christ’s body, Jesus showed us that we need to be. To reiterate His command that we should serve others, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to show us how. Commandments exist only to quantify and explain an example. And example is alive, and memorable. A commandment is hollow, and boring. An example inspires you to follow it. A commandment tempts you to look for a loophole in it. A child understands this; a theologian might not.
An author named Clive Barker wrote something years ago that always stuck with me. I read it in passing years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. He wrote that ‘so often we cut up something that’s alive and beautiful to find out why it’s alive and beautiful, and before we know it it’s neither of those things’. I think of that whenever I read 2 Timothy 3:16: ‘All scripture is God-breathed, and useful for teaching, rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness.’ Anything that has breath is something that’s alive. It’s the breath of God that gives scripture its supernatural power to teach, to correct, to rebuke, and ultimately to train us to be more like Jesus. Scripture’s ability to change us is directly linked to the life that God breathed into it.
But here’s the scary thing. Something that is alive is something that can also be killed. Any doctor knows that there is a difference between an examination and an autopsy. You can examine someone to find out how their system works, but if you’re not careful, you can cut too deeply with your scalpel and bleed the life out of them. I think scripture works the same way. If you don’t approach it with the same reverence and innocence that a child would, it ceases to be a great story and instead it just becomes an intellectual curiosity. When that happens, it’s dead. You’re not studying God’s word anymore, you’re giving it an autopsy. It can’t change you because you’re not interacting with it; you’re just bagging and toe-tagging its body parts.
A good example of this is Dr. Virginia Mollenkott. Does that name ring a bell to anyone? It should. She was the Linguistic Styling Editor of the New International Version of the Bible. Dr. Mollenkott knows scripture perhaps better than any other living person today. Every single word of the NIV Bible went through her hands at least once, to ensure consistency in the English wording. Know what? Dr. Mollenkott is a militant homosexual activist. I can’t say for sure because I don’t know her, but I’m wondering if scripture didn’t lose its luster for her because she had more of an interest in dissecting it than she did in simply reading it.
Clive Barker wrote something else, too. He wrote that ‘every single person is a book of blood; wherever we are opened, we’re red’. (And yes, the play on words was deliberate.) Scripture is a book of blood. You can honor it, and you can follow it … or you can – in a cold-blooded, deliberate manner – cut the life out of it. Scripture cuts us, as the author of Hebrews wrote in chapter 4, verse 12. But I think we overlook the fact that we can cut it back. By making scripture boring, by making it just another intellectual pursuit, we destroy it.
You know something?
Children don’t destroy scripture. They don’t mangle it. I remember bringing my mom my books and children’s bible and pestering her to read to me. Tell me about Samson. Tell me about David. Tell me about Noah. Tell me about Jesus. It was only when I was much older that I learned how to butcher the things I read in the Bible. It was only as an adult that that the word of Almighty God became insufferably boring to me. It was only as an adult that I forgot how to receive the Kingdom of God as a child would. God forbid we ever do such a thing.
Let me add a couple of caveats here. I’m not saying we don’t need scholars, and I’m not saying we don’t need theologians, because we do. In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul writes that ‘God has appointed teachers for the churches’. I’m just saying that teachers must be very, very careful, lest they – with their superior knowledge of scripture – over-complicate it, butcher it, and kill it. Anyone been to the movies lately? It’s amazing what Hollywood can do with special effects, isn’t it? But I’m betting it’s not so amazing to the director, and that’s what it’s like to be a teacher. We need teachers, but teachers have to be careful not to lose their simple appreciation for God’s word.
And while I am saying we need to be child-like, understand that that’s not the same thing as being child-ish. Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3 that ‘we are to grow in wisdom by studying the scriptures’. But maturing is not the same as becoming jaded. We’re meant to outgrow childish foolishness, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11. But we are not meant to outgrow child-like enthusiasm, and child-like simplicity in regards to the things of God. We see that in the words of Jesus Himself, in John 8:29: He who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him. How simple is that? That’s not a very complicated idea at all.
Just think about it for a second… what do you love best? A bunch of dusty old books, spouting a bunch of hard to understand philosophies… or a good story? Stories are alive. They inspire us, and capture our imaginations; they have a way of settling into our collective consciousness, and influencing entire cultures. What do we remember most about ancient Greece? The wars they fought, the kingdoms they conquered… or their myths? The Odyssey and the Iliad, Jason and the Argonauts, Achilles and his cursed heel, the Trojan horse and the golden fleece… Stories survive even the cultures that created them.
I think we’d win a lot more converts if we remembered what Jesus said about children. So many people look at Christianity, and they see an insane amount of negative drama. They see creeds and doctrines and denominations and clerical hierarchies and hypocrisy, and in the end most of ‘em don’t want anything to do with it. Maybe we’d do better to teach people simply to climb onto Jesus’ lap and listen to the wonderfully exciting stories that he has to tell, and then live like He did, not because someone told you to, but because you admire Him… and you love Him.