Labor Day, my girlfriend Kari and I were driving back from picking up Emmalee, Kari’s daughter, at her grandmother’s house. We were taking my car and had put Emmalee in her car seat in the back. I took a rather sharp turn into Kari’s driveway and heard a little thud in the back. I turned around to see that Emmalee and her car seat had tipped over and she was lying sideways in her car seat with her little cute face in a look of shock. I gasped in horror. Of course Kari, being an experienced mom, took it in stride. Apparently, if you make a big deal when kids fall, that only makes things worse. Either I or Kari didn’t strap the seat in on the top, but of course I was the one to get blamed by the three year old. We went to a baseball game that afternoon in Fort Wayne. The entire drive to Fort Wayne, Emmalee pleaded with her mom not to let me turn and have her fall over again. I assured her that it would not happen again. But then she told her grandma. And now I make sure that car seat is fastened in all the way because I don’t want to be in the hot seat with grandma!
To be frank, I am not sure how any of us survive childhood and become functioning adults. I’ve always wanted to have children. But since I began dating Kari and have gotten to know Emmalee, I have often been dumbfounded by how Kari raises Emmalee by herself. I have only a small sense of the great responsibility it is to bring a life into the world and to shape that life into a functioning adult.
So I am increasingly aware and grateful of the sacrifices many of you make for children in this congregation. From Sunday School, to preschool, to Vacation Bible School you all give your time and your energy to teach our children the discipline and joy of the Lord. Children and youth are important to this congregation. I see it in your Spirit, in the DNA of this congregation. And for such a small congregation, we do a lot. Yet, we spend so much time teaching children that we almost forget what children can teach us about the Kingdom of God. What can children teach us about worship?
Like today, children in the ancient world could be viewed as a distraction, and not fully part of the religious life of a Jewish congregation. In this particular passage, the disciples simply think that Jesus has better things to do than to pray for children. He has to prepare for his next sermon. Some expected him to build an army to overthrow Rome. But Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” What is it about children that Jesus admires? Is it that they throw tantrums or don’t know how to change their own diapers? Probably not. Jesus tells us what he admires in Matthew 18. Key to unlocking the Kingdom, Jesus tells us, is humility. In Matthew 18, we find the disciples in their own political campaign over who is the greatest. Jesus responds by calling a child to him saying, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” I know some pastors think it is beneath them to give children’s sermons. My perspective is, if you can’t explain the Gospel to a child, what makes you think you can explain it to an adult? Because children they get excited when they hear about Jesus. They dance and they jump and they praise. They are undignified before the Lord because they trust that He will not let them go. They are willing to follow him even when where he is going doesn’t make sense to them. As the old hymn goes, Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. Grace is a simple gift for simple hearts. And yet we want to complicate it with our adult struggles over power, respect, and influence.
How do we shape worship where it is all children’s worship? Where we are all worshiping as children of our Father in heaven dependent upon his Grace? I don’t know if I have an answer to these questions. I don’t know if I am very good at having faith like a child. I don’t think I am very good at worshiping like a child. I know I have made some changes to worship over the past few months. I know some of you have enjoyed those changes and some of you have not. And the worship committee will be surveying you to gain your opinions on the direction you feel God is leading this church. But I confess I have been too concerned with change and the future rather than honoring what we have here and now. As Lee Eclov argues in his book Pastoral Graces, a pastor is a spiritual painter, and he or she should paint with the colors the Lord provides him or her. To quote Eclov, “Instead of trying to be contemporary, blended, or traditional in worship, we try to be us, full of grace. Many churches choose their worship style and music in order to appeal to the kinds of people they want to draw. Many use only their best musicians. I get that. But we have decided not to do it that way. We decided that, whenever we can, we will use the people God gives us, as many of them as possible, regardless of whether they play a bass or a bassoon. I know this approach isn’t for everyone, but you might be surprised at how wide the appeal is, especially to unchurched people who come. Contrary to our assumptions, outsiders don’t actually come to church for the music. Whether they know it or not, God brought them to see Jesus” (Eclov, 93).
You see, the point of worship is to encounter Jesus. The point of worship is to lift up our hearts. And this can be done with protestant hymns, Bill Gather revival music, Folk Music, Bethel Music, or Hillsong. But we can also play any of these forms of music and fail to worship with our hearts. We can fail to come to Jesus like children ready to receive whatever he may give us, ready to be shaped, ready to grow, ready to be transformed.
Why are we here, my friends? Why do we worship? Are we coming to Jesus like children willing to receive whatever blessing he has for us? Or are we putting our preferences above God’s Will for us? To quote N Graham Standish in his book In God’s Presence, “The act of making a commitment to worship and making it a regular discipline increases our awareness of God and lessens our focus on ourselves. Engaging in worship practices such as sitting in sacred spaces, praising God in song, confessing, praying, listening, focusing our attention upon God, and reflecting on God’s word all nurture spiritual growth. Unfortunately, so many people resist the holy power of worship because it threatens them at deeper levels. Worship is threatening because it is potentially transforming. The truth is that many people don’t want to be transformed. They want to remain the same, to find that place in life where no changes are required and they can feel safe. So they resist the transforming power of worship. Of course, no one ever actually admits that they fear being transformed. Instead, they complain that music is boring, that they don’t like to sing, that they have to sit too long, that the service is too long or uninspiring, that the prayers are too long winded, that the sanctuary is too formal, that the others there are too goody two shoes, or that they aren’t goody two shoes enough and are hypocrites. There is a lot to complain about, but I think most of these complaints miss the real issue. The real issue is that too few people-whether they attend worship or avoid it-truly want to be transformed. In addition, a bigger problem looms: too few churches take seriously their call to be transforming, holy spaces where God can be discovered and met. Thus, the combination of people who fear transformation and churches that avoid transformation creates a void. What fills that void?”
We feel it, don’t we? That void in our lives? That God sized hole in our hearts that cries out for something more? We are all looking for that secret sauce. Those twelve steps to becoming wealthier, more successful, better looking. Those twelve steps to a better marriage, a better job, a better church. We are a lot like Nicodemus in John Chapter 3. We come to Jesus because we know that our current spiritual experience isn’t cutting it. But we don’t want to admit that something is lacking, so we come in the cover of night to avoid those accusing and questioning glares. We say to Jesus, “Hey, Jesus, you really have it going on. How can I get a piece of that?” (That’s the new Will translation by the way.) And Jesus replies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And Nicodemus replies, “That’s crazy, Jesus. How can a man who is old become young again? How can an old dog learn new tricks? How can I see the world differently? I have already learned all that I am going to learn. You know people don’t change.” And Jesus replies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
So often we talk about this passage in reference to salvation, which we interpret as life after death. Well I believe that eternal life begins before we die. That the Kingdom is here in our midst though it has yet to be fully revealed to us. Jesus says that unless we are born again we cannot see the Kingdom of God. He is talking about life after death, but I think he is also talking about the present. He is also talking about what God is doing in the here and now. A child sees what God is doing. A child sees the eternal present. A child approaches the world with hope with a yes to life because they have yet to be jaded. Jesus says, “Let the children come!” and we reply, amen, we want that young church, full of new life, full of young kids and an abundant youth group. But I believe he is saying to us today, if you want the children to come, you have to learn to be children of the Kingdom yourselves.