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The Greatest in the Kingdom

1At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

      5“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

      7“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 

      10“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

      15“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”  Matthew 18:1-20

 

The greatest in the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ…It is not who you think it is.  It is not who you expect it to be.  Like the disciples who had at other times debated who the greatest was (i.e. Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48), we too have certain ideas of who the greatest is—the most popular, the most generous, the most powerful, the most appreciated, the most recognized, the one who most meets the requirements that we believe makes one to be the greatest.

In truth, all of our ideas, all of our expectations, all of our ‘requirements’, all of our qualifications, and all of our conditions of who the greatest is run quite contrary and opposed to the revelation of our Lord.  Jesus clearly displays this in today’s text.

Here, the disciples asked Jesus who the greatest was.  You might think that they were not at all listening to what our Lord had been saying.  Just a bit before (Matthew 17:22), Jesus had again told the disciples what was soon to be coming—His betrayal, His death, and His resurrection.  You would think that instead of asking, “Jesus, whose the greatest?” they might have been wondering what Jesus was talking about with regard to the weightier matters of death and resurrection.

Before jumping the gun and attacking the disciples for their lack of attention, we too must confess that we often have our minds on other things than what the Lord is saying.  His Word, throughout the week, and even on Sunday in the Divine Service, is not always our top priority.  And when we do hear it, we don’t always take it as it is.

Yet Jesus does not jump on His distracted disciple.  Instead, He amazingly gives answer to their self-centered question.  He answers them in a way that also causes us to stop and consider.

The greatest in the kingdom is not the ‘king of the hill’ or the ‘A student.’  The greatest in the kingdom is not the highest paid or the one who is most well known and praised for their personality, for their compassion, or for their ability to give everyone a sense of fulfillment.  It is not the one who gets everyone motivated and going that is considered great in God’s eyes.  No—the one who is the greatest in God’s Kingdom is the one who, as Jesus says, “turns and becomes like a child.

Truly, I say to you, Jesus says, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Becoming like children, however, does not mean in the sense of blindly trusting in anything, becoming gullible, or becoming immature.  Nor does Jesus here mean becoming like children in the sense of serving one another.

When Jesus talks about turning, He is talking about turning from one’s independence from God to complete and total dependence on God.  He’s talking about becoming what you by nature are not—fully loving, trusting, and fearing God above everything else.  First Commandment stuff.

When Jesus talks about becoming like children, He is talking about becoming entirely dependent and fully trusting of God and His goodness.  He means denying oneself the honor of self-reliance to holding on to God’s help in Christ alone.

When Jesus talks about becoming like children, He means abandoning the belief that we only need God a little bit or maybe even a little more, and instead, treasuring Christ and His Word and His promises.

It is they who do these things, who acknowledge that they have no goodness or merit in themselves, who look to God alone for help, who wait only on Him whom God considers great in His kingdom.  And it His determination and Word that counts, not our own—neither yours nor mine, but God’s.

This might strike us as unsympathetic to our American upbringing and do-it-yourself I-can-do attitude.  It is supposed to.  Just as the disciples had argued about who the greatest was, thinking that it was a position to strive for and a title to possess, so we too want to achieve and become great in the sight of others.  We want to be recognized for what we do.  We want others to notice what we do, to complement us, and to make us feel good about ourselves.

The way of the Lord is different.  He puts us in our place: not as independent, but as dependent upon Him; not as self-sufficient, but as reliant upon Him; not as looking down upon others, but as caring for others and showing compassion to those that the world neglects, judges, and casts aside.

The greatest in the kingdom are those who trust alone in the Lord Jesus for salvation.  These are looked down upon and despised by the world, but loved by God.  The greatest in God’s kingdom are they who humble themselves before God and receive His mercy and compassion, the very thing that they do not receive from the world.

These are the greatest in God’s kingdom, however, because they take God at His Word and repent of their sin.  They do not despise preaching and His Word, but gladly hear and learn it.  They look to Christ and find in Him means of salvation.

Through Isaiah the prophet, God says it this way, On this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word  (Isaiah 66:2).

The one who is the greatest in the Kingdom, Jesus says, is the one who confesses his sin, who recognizes his own ability to save himself, and who takes God at His Word.

In the eyes of the world, such a one would not be considered great.  In the eyes of the world, greatness has to do with ability, fame, prominence, popularity, and reputation.  It has to do with how we in the world look at you and how we look at ourselves through the world’s glasses.

In the eyes of God, things are different.  In the eyes of God, greatness does not have to do with how others see you, how others define you, or how others characterize you.  In the eyes of God, greatness has everything to do with how God sees you, and believing the way that God sees you, according to His Word.  In this is true greatness, not because you have anything to contribute or add to your status before God, but because of what God, of His kindness, freely gives and declares to you, in Christ.

Just as the child is dependent on his or her parent for food, clothing, shelter, nurture, so are you dependent on God for your everything.  And just as the child receives what is given, so you also receive what God gives to you.  Of course, this does not meant that you will always be satisfied or content with what the Lord gives, just like the child who complains about not having this food or that toy.  You still struggle with your selfishness and greediness.  And on this side of heaven, with these you will continue to struggle.

As long as you are in the flesh, you will continue to fight against the tendency to want things your own way rather than God’s way.  You will continue to wrestle with the will of God that is not your own.  You will continue to wage war against your members that seek to usurp God’s Word and ways.

As God’s child, however, you will also recognize that these your tendencies to want things your own way and not God’s are not the way of the Lord.  From these you will turn, and in turning, you will again become as children, waiting upon the Lord, depending on Him for life, trusting in Him for strength, and believing His Word.  Then you will rejoice in having God’s favor in Christ.  You will not continue to despise the promises of God.  You will not continue to neglect His Word.  You will not continue to look down and despise others.  Instead, you will give thanks for the Word that the Lord speaks to you.  You will praise Him for His forgiveness.  And  you will seek to please Him according to His own Word, in the way that He desires you to do, not comparing yourself to others, but seeing others the way that God sees them.

First, you will see yourself as God sees you, a poor miserable sinner, forgiven in Christ.  And then, you will see others the way that God sees them.  You will begin to see that it is not what I or the world say about another that really matters, but what God says.  And what God says is the truth.

Therefore, if the one who turns from his self-centeredness and idolatry and humbles himself as a child is who God considers greatest in His kingdom, so will I also consider that one to be greatest.   And if one of those little ones who believe in Him are so precious in God’s sight, so will they be precious in my sight.

This means that I will seek not to cause other Christians to doubt, despair, become concerned, or question the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ because of what I say or do.  Instead, I will seek to build them up in the true doctrine with my words and by my actions.  I will watch my own life closely and not try to hurt another that they lose sight of Christ and His forgiveness because of me.

Where I have hurt, I will seek forgiveness, first from God, and then from the one I have hurt.  Where I am unsure, I will look to the Lord for certainty.  Where I have fallen, I will seek the Lord’s strength.

All the while, because of God’s forgiveness of my sin and His love for me and for others, I will also seek to show that forgiveness and love that God has for me to others for whom Christ has died.

The greatest in the kingdom is not oneself.  The Christian does not boastfully and unashamedly say, “I am the greatest in the kingdom.”  Rather, in humility, they see themselves as not deserving anything from God, only what He deems to give them.

Yet instead of death, He gives life.  Instead of everlasting fire in hell, He promises heaven. Instead of condemnation for your sins, He forgives you your sins.

Such is God’s compassion for sinners.  Such is God’s compassion for you.

Because of God’s great love and compassion and mercy for you, you, as God’s child, you begin and continue to have the same love, compassion and mercy for others.  The ‘little ones’ that the Lord does not neglect, you too do not neglect.  Your concern will be God’s concern.  Thus will you watch what you say, watch what you do, and seek to help others remain in God’s gracious care.

Should your brother sin, you will seek to warn him of his sin, not once, but continually.  You will talk with him personally and not talk behind his back or damage his reputation.  Because you have his best interest at heart and desire his repentance, you will keep from spreading the news and keep it to yourself.

Far from it being only the pastor’s job to go and speak with the one who is in the wrong, you will go, out of love for the one who is erring, for such things brothers and sisters in Christ do for one another.  God’s family cares for one another.  The one who is erring, the one who is sinning, even the one who doesn’t know that he is doing wrong, is to know that what he’s doing is wrong.  God would have the sinner saved from his sin.  But if that sinner doesn’t recognize his sin, how will he know that he needs saving?

If you don’t tell him, who will?  How can there be repentance, a turning to the Lord, and humbling oneself like a child, unless the word gets out?  And how can you have the same love for the erring brother or sister that God has if you don’t go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone?  Indeed, if you don’t go, you can’t show that same love, because you do not have it.

God’s love goes out, bursting forth from one’s own heart to others.  It does not seek it’s own, but the other’s well being.  It is not self-serving, but sacrificial and self-giving.  God’s people have such love, for they are God’s family, and have love towards one another.  If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Being the greatest in the kingdom is not about independence, boastfulness, or making comparison.  It is not about how we want to define greatness, but how God defines it.  And it is not about becoming great, but recognizing yourself for what you are before God—in need Jesus.

All are in need of this Savior.  No one is excluded from the necessity of God’s forgiveness and salvation.  And yet, it is the neediest who need Him the most.  And the greatest are those who so see themselves, and so see others.  Amen.

 

Mt18.1-20, Pentecost 12, 2011A, SermonNotes

 

What shall we say to these things?

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?  Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Romans 8:31-34

 

What confidence is here in these words of St. Paul, “If God is for us, who can be against us”!  How much comfort and consolation is right here for the sinner trapped in his sin, the doubter who worries about God’s help, the sufferer bearing the weight of his heavy cross!

These words are the very Word of God, reminding us of WHO it is that is for us, WHO it is that delivered His own Son, WHO it is who will give us all things, WHO it is who justifies (declares us to be not guilty before God because of our sin).

Because God does not condemn you, you are not condemned.  Because God justifies you on account of His Son, you are justified.  Because God delivered Jesus to death on the cross for you, He will indeed give you all things.  You thus have no need to worry about any lack.  Only continue to trust in the Lord, for His Word will indeed come to pass.

Because God is for you (see Romans 5:1ff), no one and no thing can be against you (Romans 8:35ff).  Not even Satan is able to accuse you before your Heavenly Father.

So then, why is it that we doubt these tremendous blessings of God, lay blame upon others, grumble, complain, point the finger, and say, “woe are we”?  Are God’s Word and His promises not ‘good enough’?  Do they not apply to our situation?  Of course they do!

The Psalmist confidently writes, “God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, Even though the earth be removed, And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though its waters roar and be troubled, Though the mountains shake with its swelling (Psalm 46:1-3).

Such words may sound inapplicable.  What of local, national, and international catastrophes and turmoil?  Do you, as a baptized child of God, have any reason to fear any of these things or anything else, whether it be with regard to yourself, others, or God’s church?  Not at all, for in Christ, you have peace with God.  In Christ, you have everlasting life and salvation.  In Christ, you have nothing but certainty and confidence of God’s will toward you.

So “Sing praise to the LORD, You saints of His, And give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name” (Psalm 30:4).

Listen to the mercies of the Lord and trust in Him.  Cast away all doubt and fear and turn to the Lord Christ.  Believe in Him, for He alone is your hope and you stay, tomorrow and today.

Luther

“When the devil accuses us and says: “You are a sinner; therefore you are damned,” then we can answer him and say: “Because you say that I am a sinner, therefore I shall be righteous and be saved.” “No,” says the devil, “you will be damned.” “No,” I say, “for I take refuge in Christ, who has given Himself for my sins. Therefore, Satan, you will not prevail against me as you try to frighten me by showing me the magnitude of my sins and to plunge me into anguish, loss of faith, despair, hatred, contempt of God, and blasphemy. In fact, when you say that I am a sinner, you provide me with armor and weapons against yourself, so that I may slit your throat with your own sword and trample you underfoot. You yourself are preaching the glory of God to me; for you are reminding me, a miserable and condemned sinner, of the fatherly love of God, who ‘so loved the world that He gave His only Son, etc.’ (John 3:16). You are reminding me of the blessing of Christ my Redeemer. On His shoulders, not on mine, lie all my sins. For ‘the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all,’ and ‘for the transgressions of His people He was stricken’ (Is. 53:6, 8). Therefore when you say that I am a sinner, you do not frighten me; but you bring me immense consolation.”  (Luther’s Lectures on Galatians, LW 26, p36-37).

Prayer: Heavenly Father, keep me from doubting Your mighty Word. Help me to trust, not what I see, but what you say.  Give me confidence, not in my doings, but in Yours alone, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

The Beam in Your Own Eye

 

And He spoke a parable to them: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into the ditch?  “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.  “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye?  “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye. Luke 6:39 -42

 

Knowing Christ does not have to do with knowing the weaknesses, failures, and shortcomings of others.  Knowing Christ aright has first to do with knowing one’s own weaknesses, failures, shortcomings—yes, sins, before God.

It is natural for us to point the finger at other’s faults, to the degree that we ignore and downplay our own.  But like the Pharisee in the temple who boasted about himself before the Almighty, comparing himself to the lowly tax collector, all who look down and despise others, thinking that they are better, will themselves be despised and rejected by God.  It was the humble and lowly tax collector that went home justified before God, and not the hypocritical Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14).

The Pharisee thought himself to be better, to be more ‘complete’ and more greatly pleasing to God because of the things he did and had done.  But such is not the way of the penitent.  The way of the penitent is not to see oneself as better, more righteous, more giving, more anything.  The way of the penitent, the way of the righteous before God, is not to first see other people’s sins, but to see and acknowledge one’s own, and say with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

In this way, Christians, not having a righteousness of their own but Christ’s, and trusting in the Lord’s mercy alone for His acceptance, learn to criticize, judge, mock, and murmur against others less and approach God’s throne of grace with greater frequency and humility(Hebrews 4:11-16).

Will Christians still criticize, judge, mock, and murmur against others?  Yes, they will.  Their flesh and blood sinful nature still remain.  Yet they will also acknowledge that this, too, is contrary to God’s will, and that following the way of the flesh is not the way of God’s people (Romans 8:5-11).  Thus will they all the more seek God’s forgiveness where He gives it—in Christ.  They will also seek forgiveness from others that they have spoken evil against, and genuinely desire to bear their burdens (Galatians 6:2).  They will also seek all the more to edify and encourage, put the best construction on everything, and be merciful, even as the Heavenly Father is abundantly merciful to them (Luke 6:27-36).  Amen.

Luther

“Take note how deeply those who you now hold as great Christians and yet who will not endure or have mercy towards Christian weakness are yet stuck in the law and hypocrisy when they do not see complete holiness and special wonderworks in those who now know and have Christ and the gospel.  To them no one [else] is truly established so heaven will fall and the earth go under.  They can do nothing more than criticize, judge and mock…But by this they show in an excellent way how blind they are and still know nothing of Christ, always bearing the beam in their own eyes.” (Geo. Link, Luther’s Family Devotions, 626)

 

Prayer: Gracious Father, you are merciful to me, a poor miserable sinner.  I in no way deserve any of your kindnesses, for I am unworthy of your favor.  Yet, on account of Christ, you neither ignore my needs nor condemn me to an eternity of hell.  Help me to show the same mercy towards others that you in your compassion have shown to me, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Following Christ

21From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? 27For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:21–28)

 

Following Christ means abandoning one’s own ways, desires, inclinations, and directions and following only Christ.  More distinct than the color gray and more square than the circle, following Christ means abiding in Christ and in His Word.  Go outside of these and you will no longer be going after Christ, who is the Light (John 8:12)  Go outside of Christ and His Word and you will be following the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil, which are ways of darkness.

It sounds easy enough to follow Christ.  Indeed, isn’t this what all Christians contend they do.  We go to church.  We confess our sins.  We confess the truth of God’s Word.  We pray.  We present ourselves as ‘nice’ and ‘friendly’ people.  We at least try to be civil toward each other, at least when others are around.

And yet, even with all of these ‘externals,’ as much as we would like to think that we unashamedly and diligently follow the Savior, we don’t always fair so well when it comes to believing, or even giving thanks, for the way that God does things.  We grumble and complain, believing that our circumstances should be better, that God should do something, that somehow, we know better than God does!  “I shouldn’t be suffering.”  This shouldn’t happen to someone like me.”  “How come things haven’t improved yet?”  “God, we’re waiting.  Anytime now!”

Rather than rejoice in the tremendous blessings that God freely gives us for Christ’s sake, we become impatient and begin to doubt His promises.  We look for what we don’t have instead of that which we do.  We, in essence, fail to trust His Word as we ought.  We look elsewhere than to our Lord for contentment, for satisfaction, and for peace.  We place ourselves in the frontline of our lives, while God gets placed in the backseat to our own plans and goals.

Rather than determine that the Word of Christ is God’s Word because it is of Christ, we deny them their power because of how they are delivered to us.   Though we might piously deny this, in reality, we do not always hear them as such.  Instead, we feud over delivery and style, all the while forsaking the substance.  The words aren’t right.  The sentences are out of place.  It all seems so poorly delivered.  There’s little passion.  It can’t be God’s Word because it doesn’t meet my expectation of what that Word should be.

But look again at the text above.  Peter had just rightly confessed the identity of Jesus (Matthew 16:16-17).  Now, taking His eyes (ears) off the Word and Jesus, he gets it all wrong.  Peter was going according to how he thought things should be and not according to what Jesus was saying.

We might want things to be different.  We might want the Word to be presented in such a way that it clearly appears to be the Word of Living God.  We might want the power and the glory and the honor for the church and for the Lord.  Such, however, is not the way of God, but the way of man.

Jesus is laid in an animal’s feeding trough at his birth (Luke 2:7).  He comes humbly and lowly, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21:5).  He gets mocked, beaten, bloodied, and killed.  He doesn’t appear to be the Savior at all.  We certainly don’t recognize Him to be.  Nor do we recognize His bride, the church, in all of her glory this side of heaven. Her bumps, bruises, discord, unrest, and blemishes hide her true beauty.  The same goes for God’s people, too (1 John 3:2).

Looks certainly are deceiving!  That’s why God’s people do not continue having in mind the things of man, but turn to the things of God.  Only with the things of God does absolute trust remain sure and certain.   Setting one’s mind on the things of man is by far the more natural and gratifying.  Yet such is the way that leads to death, not life.

Thus does Jesus rebuke Peter, and say, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.   For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?”

Only in denying self (including one’s own expectations and desire for glory and success), taking up one’s cross, and following Christ can one begin to do so and come after Him, and continue to come after Christ.  Peter went wrong where he followed what came from within himself (Matthew 15:19).  So do we!  Our only recourse is to turn to the Lord and to hear and believe what He Himself says (minus what we think He ought to say or the way that we think He should say it).  And in doing so, we will know what a gracious God we truly have, in Christ.  We will also know that just as it was for Christ, so it will be for those who seek to follow Him.  Then, in Him, we will find our help and our strength.  Amen.

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