Do you remember what your biggest fear was as a child? Maybe the monster in the closet or under the bed. I was talking with a friend the other day and somehow we got on this subject, and we both agreed that the thing we hated the most as a kid was getting picked last in sports. Think about this: when I was a kid, Americans were fighting and dying in Vietnam, blacks were getting lynched and being beaten in my home state of Alabama, and bomb shelters were being built in case of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, and my biggest fear was being picked last in kickball. Man, those were the days.
There comes a time when you realize that when you became an adult you traded some things away and it was not a good trade. Some things you gave up as childish weren’t so bad after all, and some things you took on as an adult weren’t so good after all.
You grow up watching your dad shave every morning and thinking how cool it will be when you get to do that. Then you get to that age and after a week, maybe two, you realize: this stinks.
You grow up just dying to have your own car, then you got one and realized that there’s a vacuum hose that goes from your bank account straight to your car.
There are a lot of things we gave up as childish that were really pretty cool after all, and some things we took on that seem real adult, but are really pretty childish.
Jesus had to deal with this adult childishness all the time from his own disciples. Listen to this verse from Luke 9: An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. This is the kind of stuff that adults worry about. As adults, we want to be important. We want to live great lives, accomplish great things. We are status seeking. I want my 15 minutes of fame, my name to be newspapers, my face on the cover of magazines. I want to be important. And I think if you look at our history, you have a lot of people living that out too. Even if we don’t think it’s possible, we still want it.
As kids, we had a certain set of games that we played. And when we became adults, we traded those games for a new set of games. You can call it climbing the ladder. You can call it whatever it is. But we change and play a new game in order to be important and to be known. That’s the game the disciples were playing, and to Jesus it was backwards. As children we played tag, the object of which was to avoid being “it.” But as adults we all want to be “it.” The Man. The Big Kahuna.
And it’s childish, really. And Jesus calls us from childishness to childlikeness.
But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, "Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest."
Every amusement park, no matter how crummy, has at least one really cool ride where there’s always a long line. So you wait in line for a long time, and you get up close, and there’s this thing that every kid hates to see: the cartoon cutout. You know what I’m talking about? Just before entering the pavilion with the rails that force the line to go back and forth, there’s the cartoon cutout, and you have to be at least as tall as Barney Rubble in order to ride the ride. If you are shorter than Barney Rubble, you don’t get to ride, and the college kid the park has hired to be the Barney Rubble Enforcer is there to send you away. And every one of us has seen the kid who stands up next to Barney Rubble and stretches himself as tall as he can but he’s not quite tall enough. And while big brother or sister gets to go on the ride with Dad, this kid has to hang back with Mom, or Grandmom. And it’s like Jesus has his own cartoon cutout right in front of the kingdom. And he says, “Let him in anyway.” In Matthew’s version of this event, Jesus is even more blunt. He says, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. “Unless you’re shorter than the Barney Rubble cutout, you don’t get in.” Jesus always turns everything upside down. And you’ve got to sit there and think about this for a second.
Either Jesus has an incredible sense of humor, and he’s playing a great joke and just totally teasing these guys about their ambition. Or he’s saying something pretty profound: that as adults, we have missed something, and that when we start arguing for ambition or for power or importance, we’re missing out on what really is key. I think what he’s saying is that if you really look at what is important to God, kids are closer to it than we are. That’s what I think he is saying. I think children, in what they value in life and in people, are closer to what God wants and how we should live than adults. In the way they live life, in the way they love people, in the way they worship God, I think they get it right.