Sunday’s sermon: The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Children Are Blessed

Jesus and children 2

Texts used – Mark 10:13-16; James 2:14-26

  • For the next few weeks, we’re going to spend some time hunkering down into the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel together.
    • Critical ch. in Mk
      • Last bit of Jesus’ ministry before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday
      • full of Jesus’ teachings on true discipleship
      • “Upside-Down Kingdom” ch. because all those teachings show us that the perspective and priorities that the world expects are usually not the perspectives and priorities that God expects
        • God’s Kingdom = upside-down from the rest of the world’s way of thinking
        • God’s Kingdom seeks to turn the world upside-down → to invert the culture at large and bring about a different kind of community altogether
  • Start with a little background information on Mark = odd gospel
    • Lots of stories/encounters with Jesus that, while they can also be found in Lk and Mt, are told differently
      • In the timeline of when the gospels themselves were written, Mark was the first gospel written – probably somewhere around 60 or 70 CE [explain CE vs. AD]. Because of that, scholars are fairly certain that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of the main sources when they were writing their own gospel accounts.
        • Gave Mt and Lk time/opportunity to flesh out their versions of a lot of these stories
        • Results in Mk’s telling being much more short-and-to-the-point → Basically, Mark’s version is the “Reader’s Digest” version of many of the gospel stories we’re familiar with.
    • Audience = unknown
      • In comparison with other gospels
        • Mt = gospel for the Jews
        • Lk = gospel for the Gentiles
        • Jn = gospel for believers (full of flowery theology that presumes understanding and belief in Jesus as Son of God)
      • Mk = gospel for ???[1]
        • Emphasis on Jesus suffering = gospel for those Christians being persecute under Emperor Nero?
        • Emphasis on Jewish-Christian conflict = gospel for Christians living in Palestine or Syria?
      • One certainty = gospel that emphasizes the cost of following Jesus
      • Short plug → Coffee and Conversation!
      • Okay, so that’s the quick rundown of Mark as a whole. And in the context of that, we have basically four short teachings from Jesus in Mark 10 about how to live as a true disciple – how to live right side up in an upside-down world.
  • Begins with today’s passage about children
    • Very familiar passage, I’m sure → conjures up all sorts of placid images of Jesus surrounded by a gaggle of cherubic, smiling, perfectly clean, perfectly groomed children
      • Soundtrack of this passage = always 2 competing songs for me
      • But all of this – the pictures, the songs, the warm-and-fuzzy feeling that we tend to get from imagining Jesus opening his arms wide to the children in this passage actually miss the point of what Jesus is trying to say and do here.
        • Yes, Jesus = expressing love for the children BUT that love was not a given at the time → In our society today, we place inherent value on children and childhood for what they are. Children have value because they are children. They are treasured. They are precious. We know that they’re going to be silly and vulnerable and tender. We encourage them to play and learn and grow in a wide variety of ways. But this was not the case during Jesus’ time.
          • Scholar: In the ancient Roman world, there was an understood hierarchy of power and authority. At the very top, of course, was Caesar, followed by members of the upper class, including senators. Below was the lower class, made up on commoners and most families. Families were led by the father, with women and slaves below them. The children had no rights in society and were often treated as commodities or worse. … Children’s value was primarily economic, as workers and heirs, not sentimental.[3] → It’s hard to wrap our minds around this mentality today. While parents certainly loved their children even then, they weren’t cherished simply for being children in the way that kids are today. Childhood wasn’t seen as the crucial phase of life that we view it as today. Children were simply seen as people who hadn’t grown into the usefulness of adulthood yet. They were a non-entity in the eyes of all those in power – those in power in the household up to those in power in the government.
    • But what does Jesus say? – text: “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Then he hugged the children and blessed them.[4]
      • Scholar: Here [is] Jesus, telling his listeners to let the children come to him, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. In one bold stroke, Jesus took the entire Roman establishment and flipped it upside down. Those who are at the bottom are at the top; those who are disregarded by society are favored by God. Those are on the outside are welcomed into the kingdom.[5] → Jesus is using the children to upend the system. They are, quite simply, the lowest on the totem pole, and by paying attention to them … lifting them up as an example … and blessing them, Jesus flipped that totem pole right upside down.
        • Did society value the children? No → Does God treasure children? Absolutely.
        • Did society value those who had been pushed aside? No → Does God treasure those who have been pushed aside? Absolutely.
        • Did society value those who had been abandoned and forgotten? No → Does God treasure those who have been abandoned and forgotten? Absolutely.
        • Jesus is making it clear to all who were listening and all who were following him that God’s expectations are not our expectations and that, if we want to truly be followers of this soon-to-be martyred Savior, we have to work on realigning our expectations with God’s, not society’s.
  • This is where our 2nd Scripture reading comes in this morning: realigning those expectations and also our actions → word and deed hand-in-hand
    • Writer of James pulls no punches here – text: My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.[6] → It’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Having faith is important. It is a building block … but it is not the only building block. Without actions – without stepping out in that faith and embodying the love and grace and compassion and generosity and extravagant welcome and forgiveness of God in the world around us – then our claims of faith ring hollow. And those actions need to align, not with the places that society tells us are the most important, but those upside-down places where God truly resides.
      • With those most in need
        • Those who are broken
        • Those who are hurting
        • Those who are desperate
        • Those who are lonely
        • Those who are in need of healing
        • Those who are in need of forgiveness
        • Those who are in need of a helping hand
        • Because when we’re honest with ourselves and each other, we all fall into at least one of those categories sometimes, don’t we?
      • Difference between the true good news of the gospel – that the love of God embodied in Jesus Christ came to earth, died on the cross, and was resurrected in eternally triumphant glory to bring us salvation … Aligning our acts of faith with the upside-down places that God deems important instead of the places that society deems important is the difference between sharing the good news of the true gospel and sharing the twisted and damaging idea of the Prosperity Gospel – that false belief that because you have done good, God will bless you with money and possessions and power and prestige. That is not faith for those in lowest places. That is faith for me, myself, and I.
        • Text calls this out: Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. 19 It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. 20 Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all? … As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.[7]
      • Mother Teresa: Faith in action is love, and love in action is service. By transforming that faith into living acts of love, we put ourselves in contact with God Himself, with Jesus our Lord. → As we continue to explore this idea of God’s upside down Kingdom this month, let us remember that – that, even as upside-down and countercultural as these Kingdom ideas might be, they are God’s call for our love, our service, and our embodiment of the good news of the gospel in this world. Amen.

[1] Suzanne Watts Henderson. “Mark: Introduction” in The Common English Bible Study Edition. (Nashville, TN: E.T. Lowe Publishing, 2013), 66 NT.

[2] Disney for Our Children: To Benefit the Pediatric AIDS Foundation album, released by Walt Disney Records, May 1991.

[3] Magrey R. DeVega. “Fall Series 2: The Upside-Down Kingdom – Proper 22: Where the Children Are Blessed” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 151.

[4] Mk 10:14-16.

[5] DeVega, 151-152.

[6] Jas 2:14-17.

[7] Jas 2:18-20, 26.