A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
1O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
This is one of those passages that you’ve heard a million times if you grew up in the church. But even though it’s familiar, I’m not sure we know what it means, and by that I mean I’m not sure I know what it means.
The first part of the passage is pretty clear. Some of Jesus’ disciples thought children were not important enough to be taking up Jesus’ time. We know that Jesus was busy. Even when he wanted to spend time alone with the disciples, crowds of people kept finding them. Wherever Jesus and his disciples went, there were people crying out to be healed or trying to argue with Jesus about God’s calling. He was important and he clearly didn’t have time for all the people who wanted him.
I’m sure the disciples felt that pressure often enough, maybe mixed with some jealously that they never got their teacher to themselves. When parents start bringing their kids to Jesus just to be blessed, the disciples seemed to think this was the last straw. They thought they were doing the right thing and taking Jesus’ time seriously by sending the parents away, but Jesus got angry with the disciples instead of the parents.
So the obvious take away point from this story is that Jesus thinks kids are pretty important. Even in the rush of everything he had to teach, even when his path towards Jerusalem and the cross was starting to become clear, even when his closest friends didn’t get it, blessing children was worth taking time for.
That’s a point that’s both obvious and challenging. We know kids are important. We say and hear time and time again that children are our future. No one really argues with that statement, but it’s hard to figure out where it points us when it comes to immediate action. The second part of the passage, where Jesus says that only those who receive the kingdom of God like a child can enter it, is more confusing. I think it fits with Isaiah’s claim about the leadership of children, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
Isaiah paints a vision of God’s redemption of Israel and the world. In this new world peace and community replace violence and domination. The reason this passage is on our menu today as we celebrate a Sabbath dedicated to children is that there are two images of children in it. Both have something to teach us.
We’ll talk about the second image first: babies playing on top of poisonous snakes. I’m not a parent, but that doesn’t sound like a great idea to me. I’m sure our insurance company would have some questions if we decided to put snakes in the crib and toddler room. In God’s redeemed world, though, it works, because peace rules the world instead of greed. Asps and adders are as safe as teddy bears, and cows can play with wolves because in God’s peaceful kingdom we’ve given up our desire to kill and taken up the calling to love.
There are children in this image because kids are the most vulnerable members of our society. They stir up our protective instincts, so pictures of kids in danger upset us while pictures of kids at peace suggest that everything is all right. When the world is so safe that little kids can play next to poisonous snakes, every other danger must have been overcome too. Everything in this passage shows a world at peace with itself and its creator; kids playing next to serpents is the exclamation point. We want to protect our kids, so the perfect world is so safe there is nothing we need to protect them from.
Needless to say, that’s not the world we live in now. Our world includes so many dangers we can’t stop to name them all. We want to protect our kids, but the threats seem to come from every direction. When we think of all the dangers our kids need protection from we get wound up in a frenzy of anxiety, ready to do just about anything to keep our kids from harm. We’ll come back to this image of safety, danger and protection in a minute.
Kids have better imaginations than we do; they’re less committed to the way things are now, because they are still learning how the world works. The constant question, “Why…” is a real question. Kids want to know why things are like they are, while adults have usually come to accept the way things work. We’ve made our peace with the unjust structures of the world, so we have a hard time imagining the peaceful, equal, righteous kingdom God imagines. We need a child’s eyes to see how things could be and a child’s leadership to get us there.
There’s also another sense in which kid’s can lead us to places we have a hard time imagining. We naturally care about our children more than just about anything else. We work harder to provide for our kids than we would if we were just providing for ourselves. We go without things we would like to make sure our kids have enough. When we choose houses, jobs, activities, cars or political candidates one of the first things we think about is how it meets the needs of our kids. Children teach us to be unselfish, by putting another person before ourselves.
The million dollar question is: who are our kids? Frankly, this is where the train goes off the tracks in terms of imagining and building God’s kingdom. Some part of us that knows the truth: all children are our children. We have a responsibility to work for a world where all children have access to safe air and water, a world where all children are safe in their homes and neighborhoods, where all children have a quality education and opportunities to succeed.
But another part of us thinks differently about “our” children. We think first about our biological children or the children in our church, or the children in our neighborhood or town or ethnic group. Once we start doing that, it’s easy to pit the needs of “our children” against the needs of “other” children. Then seeking the best for “our kids” becomes a desperate competition for resources. Our fear leads us to a slightly broader kind of selfishness in the name of our children instead of a transformative ability to put someone else first.
The desire for “our” kids to have what they need becomes twisted by fear of not having enough. Then our role as parents can prevent keep us from seeking God’s peaceful kingdom instead of leading us to that kingdom. Instead of the true, but hard to imagine, vision of Isaiah we accept a lie that puts some kids above others.
We accept inferior schools for some kids because the world tells us that’s the price for great schools for our kids. We accept that some kids will live in neighborhoods with high rates of violence, illness and pollution so those harmful forces will be further away from our kids. We want the best for our kids and the world tells us that means accepting less than the best for other kids.
We know the truth, that all children are God’s children, that all children are equally precious in God’s eyes. When we baptize a child we sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…”, but we also hear the voice of the world, the voice of fear telling us that really, some children, our children, are more important than others.
What that means in the world we know is that we say all children deserve the best, but everyone takes care of their own children first. So the children with richer, better educated and more powerful families have so many opportunities that they are stressed out while many children, who don’t have anyone with power in their corner, end up with few opportunities and a dim future.
My goal this morning isn’t to make us feel guilty, but I do want to call us to repentance. The good news is that God loves the world too much to leave us alone. He was born as a poor child in a poor town with few options. He taught that blood family was second to God’s family, that there was a place for everyone at God’s table, that one day the first would be last and the last first. When early Christians were baptized they proclaimed words Paul shares with us in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
That good news reminds us today that there is no longer city or suburb, there is no more us or them, there are no children who are not God’s children, no children who are not our children. If we believe that, our faith calls us to act to make our world more like the kingdom Isaiah shows us where kids are safe, peace is transformative and the world is whole. We can tutor, we can pray, we can advocate for equality. We can do better than half of our kids graduating from high school. We can do better than a fifth of our kids in poverty. We can do better than weekly shootings, lead poisoning and malaria. Our children deserve better, and God calls us to a new way. The time is now.
Thanks be to God.