Ruth and I were visiting in California some years ago when our eldest granddaughter was three. She climbed up on the bed at 6:00 A.M. in the morning, woke us up, and said, "Let's talk." I said, "Okay. What do you want to talk about?" She said, "I'm going to have a baby sister." I said, "Great." Her mom was expecting. They didn't know the sex of the child. I said, "It could be a brother." She said, "Yeah, but I want a sister." I said, "Okay. Why don't we think of some names?" She said, "Okay." I said, "Why don't we call the baby Boogaloonie?" She looked at me. I said, "How about Zongabongawonga?" And she started to chuckle. I said, "Why don't we call the baby Yabbaslabavitz?" And she just howled. She said, "Oh, Grandpa. Those are boy names." What do I know? And if you think Allison's perspectives are different, you ought to read Jesus.
In Washington D.C., the Library of Congress has 114 million volumes. There are more books about Jesus of Nazareth than any other human being that ever walked the planet. Abraham Lincoln is a distant second. I have a favorite mystery writer now gone, a British mystery writer by the name of Dorothy Sayers who says this about him: "To do them justice, those who crucified the Christ did not do so because he was a bore. Quite the contrary, he was too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium."
Jesus is on his way to the cross in this passage in Mark. He's about eight or ten days away. He goes through Jericho. I call it the Jericho Junction. All kinds of things happen. He comes into town, there's this little short guy up a tree and out on a limb, Zaccheus. He's a rip-off guy, and Jesus changes his life. And then he goes out of town and there's blind Bartimaeus, and he heals him. And James and John's mother comes and says, "Now could my boys have special place? You know they're good boys." And Jesus helps her understand that that's not what it's about. But then it says some people came bringing little kids. This is how it reads:
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. [If you want to make God mad, just try to keep kids away from him.] He said to them, "Let the little children come to me. Do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth. Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16).
When Luke records this it says babies, at the very least they are toddlers. They're babes in arms. This text says, unless you become a little child, you can't be in the kingdom. These are the stockholders, the fabric of the kingdom. And I think, I don't know if I understand, because I know some mean kids.
Child-likeness is necessary for entry into the kingdom
I think of our four children. Erika, our eldest, is now 38. But when she was 10 we were driving through Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, near the University of Illinois. It's a university town. I said, "Erika, what do you want to be when you grow up?" She looked at me and said, "I don't know, Dad. What do you want to be?" Maybe it's the directness that Jesus is talking about. Maybe that's what gets us into the kingdom, when we're just straight out like that.
Or maybe it's that we're always learners. Kids learn when they don't know they're learning. We send them to school, but they learn a lot of stuff outside of school. They learn before they get to school. They just learn. Our son Christopher when he was four or five walked into the front room and said, "Dad, I want you to help me with my numbers." I said, "Okay. What do you want me to do?" He said, "I want you to help me add to 10." I said, "Okay. What's two plus three?" And he looked at his digits, because those were his limits, and said, "Five." "What's five plus two?" He looked at his hands again and said, "Seven." I said, "What's seven plus two?" He looked at his hands and said, "Nine." I said, "What's ten plus two?" He looked at his hands and said, "I can't tell you that." I said, "Why not?" He said, "Because I'd have to have 12 fingers to tell you that." My son the rocket scientist, he just came through.
Then there was Suzanna. When she was six, I found her lying on the linoleum next to the washing machine in the laundry room. I said, "Sue, what are you doing down there?" She said, "Nothing." That was a dead give away. I said, "Stand up." And when she stood up this little kitty head poked itself out from under her shirt. I said, "Suzanna, you know the rule. No cats." That's not Ruth's rule; that was my rule. All of you cat lovers forgive me, but you don't know what a cat's thinking. People say, "We own a cat." Baloney. Nobody owns a cat. They may own you, but you don't own a cat. They'd been at the store, and somebody had been giving away cats. I said, "Suzanna, you know the rule. How could you do this?" And she looked at me with her big brown eyes and said, "He was a stranger and I took him in." Don't you hate it when they quote Scripture to you like that? Maybe it's their winsomeness. Maybe that's what Jesus means.
But I would suggest to you today it may be those things, but I'm absolutely sure it's this thing. That if this is a babe in arms who cannot do anything for himself or herself—cannot feed himself, cannot tie his shoes, cannot get himself dressed, cannot get herself in order and drive a car, can't do the basic things of life—this child is absolutely dependent. God is saying: What you need to do is be absolutely dependent. As a matter of fact, you can't do anything that really counts that lasts forever, unless I'm in it.
I don't like to be absolutely dependent. The whole thing about raising children is to make them independent and then, after a while, they learn to be interdependent. But that's what we try to do as parents, raise them for independence.
When I was ten and did something wrong, they'd say, "Oh, Dick, grow up." So I've worked like mad to grow up. Now I'm 62-years-old. I've got four kids, eight grandkids, and we own our home with the bank. And Jesus comes along and says, Oh Dick, be a child. What is that? How do you be mature and be a child at the same time? And I thought about it a lot, even prayed about it.
If I am a child with God, absolutely dependent on him, I can be mature with you. When I am absolutely trusting of God I can be more responsible with you.
We are hardwired for relationship. And there are two things you have to have in any relationship to make it work—trust and respect. If those things die, the relationship crumbles. So when Jesus comes along and the Pharisees say to him in Matthew 22, "What's the greatest commandment?" he distills the Ten Commandments down and he says this: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your strength, with all your heart, soul, and mind. And the second is like unto it. Love your neighbor as yourself."
Trust in God is the work of the kingdom
I was two miles north of the Pentagon when flight 77 went in at 350 miles an hour, and everybody on the plane died along with scores of people in the Pentagon. And in those twin towers when the planes hit and when the towers went down, people were making two kinds of calls. They were saying God, help me, and they were picking up their cell phones and saying, Honey, I don't think I'm going to make it. My neighbor is the closest one to me. We are hardwired for relationship, and trust is the essence of it. Trust in God is the core of it. I learned more about trust by watching Jesus with the Father in Scripture than in any other single way. But he says what I want you to do is absolutely depend on me.
I was in a situation this past week, with a congressman and his wife whose sixteen-year-old son, the youngest of three, took his life eight weeks ago. And you sit in those situations and say, God, if you don't help us here, it just isn't going to happen. When Jesus fed five thousand people and then ended up on the other side of the lake in John 6:28, people came to him and said, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" His response is in the singular. "The work God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." When I say, God, I want to work for you, I want to do some stuff, he says, what I'd like you to do is trust me. I say, I got that part. Now what would you like me to do? He says, Foth, what I'd like you to do is to trust me. I say, Right. But let me build something. Let me go do something. Let me lead a senator to Jesus. He says, what I'd like you to do, Foth, is to trust me. Trust and believing is the work of the kingdom. That's the hard part.
Our daughter Jenny was the social butterfly. She had lots of dates and guys were always around. But she had these standards—needed to be six-one, needed to love the Lord, needed to have a heart for the third world, needed to be able to make her laugh. Those first two—six-one, and love the Lord—that wasn't too bad. But the heart for the third world and being able to make her laugh, that was a tough combination. She went to graduate school, and after graduate school went to Washington and worked for a congressman for four years and then for four years after that went to World Vision in Mauritania and worked with kids in one of the most desperate parts on the globe.
When Jenny left the congressman's office, her chief of staff was a fellow named Charlie. Charlie was a former Navy submarine captain, and he worked closely with the congressman. If you don't get past the chief of staff on Capital Hill, you do not see the congressman. Chiefs of staff run the hill. Charlie loved the congressman. For 16 years they worked together, went all over the world. The congressman was involved in human rights and religious freedom, and they went to places like Sudan and Somalia and Kosovo and Bosnia and Croatia and places where bullets were flying and bombs were dropping and Sierra Leon where atrocities were being committed. And they were brothers. The congressman was a believer. He really believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Charlie really liked the congressman and loved his courage and loved his faith, but he was having none of it. He didn't go for the Jesus part. Charlie had just come back from Sierra Leon with the congressman, had a pain in his hip, went to John Hopkins and they found out that he had a cancer in his hip, and they were going to have to do a hip replacement. And it was virulent and fast moving cancer. Jenny said, "I want to go see Charlie before I go to Africa."
So the day before she flew out on Air France, we drove out to his home. It was in a snowstorm on a Sunday afternoon, and he knew we were coming. We thought we'd stay 20 minutes, and we stayed two-and-a-half hours because Charlie wanted to talk about God. At the end of the time we had a prayer, and Jenny hugged him and said, "I love you, Charlie." And he hugged her back. I said, "Charlie, can I come see you in a few days?" And he said, "Sure." We went on our way.
On Friday I went back, and the first words out of Charlie's mouth were "Dick, I don't think I can do this without God." I said, "I'm with you." He said, "What do I do?" I said, "Why don't you just give your whole life to him." He said, "Okay, I just have one question." I said, "What's that?" He said, "I haven't paid any attention to God for 64 years. If I come to him now where there's a chance I could be checking out, isn't he going to be mad?" I said, "Charlie, if you had an estranged adult child who had gone off and blown your fortune and fouled up his or her life, what if he called you up and said, 'Dad, I know I've screwed my life up royally and I've just blown everything, but I'd just like to come home and be with you. I'd like to live at your house and get to know you because I've wasted all those years.' What would you say?" He said, "I would love that." I said, "Well, if you're an earthly father and you feel that way, how much more would a perfect, heavenly Father feel that way?" He said, "Okay. What do I do?" I said, "Let's pray." He said, "How do you do that?" I said, "It's just like talking to me except you can't see him." I noticed his hesitancy. I said, "Charlie, would you like me to help you?" He said, "Yeah, I would."
I said, "I'm going to say some phrases I think you feel, and why don't you follow me out loud." I said, "Dear God, this is Charlie." And he said, "Dear God, this is Charlie." And I was just getting ready to say the next phrase and all of a sudden Charlie took off, and he started pouring out his heart for two minutes. Then he stopped and sat back in his chair. He didn't even say amen. And he looked at me and said, "Now what?" All of a sudden he was the Navy submarine captain ready for his mission. I said, "You know your wife Mary has prayed for you all these years. Why don't you just tell her?" He said, "Mary, come in here." She came in and sat down. She's a lovely lady. He said, "Mary, I have just given my whole life to God through Jesus Christ. I've embraced him fully and willingly under no stress or duress from Dick." Mary liked that. Then we had a prayer and I left.
He had his hip replaced, but this thing was virulent. It was taking off, and they couldn't stop it. He had radiation, and they couldn't stop it. I would come see him every few days. And one day I walked in, and he said, "Dick, you said if I follow Jesus, if I gave him my whole life, I'd start seeing people in a different way, he'd give me a different way of seeing, like a baptism of clear seeing?" He said, "I think it's starting to happen. I woke up this morning and I looked over at Mary, and she's a lovely lady, but I looked at her this morning lying there and it was like I was looking at the Mona Lisa for the first time." I said, "You didn't happen to mention that, did you, Charlie?" He said no. I said, "Mary, come in here." She loved that Mona Lisa thing.
One day I walked in and Charlie said, "Dick, I think we need to talk about faith." I said, "Okay. What about it." He said, "I don't think I have enough." I said, "How much do you need?" He said, "I don't know how much I need. I just don't think I have enough." I said, "What does Jesus say you need?" He said, "Dick, I don't know what Jesus says I need." I said, "Jesus says you need faith the size of a mustard seed, and Middle Eastern mustard is like fine pepper." Charlie was sitting there with his leg up on an ottoman. I said, "Charlie, you're trusting that chair. All your weight is on that chair, right? That's how you trust Jesus. You put all your weight on him. That's it." He said, "Oh, okay. That's all the questions I have about faith." Shortest conversation I've ever had in my life about faith, and I walked out the door and I'm talking to God. God, what's going on here? And he said, Foth, Charlie is a child. He believes whatever you tell him. So you'd better get it right. And I saw this trust like a baby grow in this man whose body was wasting away. He used to be tall and erect and ramrod straight like a Navy captain would be, and now he was fading away.
God gives us authority to be called his children
One day I was asked by a friend, Admiral Clarke—who is now head of the whole Navy—to come to his change of commission. Charlie said, "You're going to love that, Dick." And so I went down, and I was on the Enterprise sitting in Norfolk Harbor. I don't know how they do it in the other services but in the Navy they line up these two lines of guys. They blew the boson's whistle. And the band started playing. And they announced, not the person's name, but the entity they represented. So they said Atlantic Second Fleet arriving. And this admiral walked up, and the guys snapped to attention. The band played and he walked down between the sailors. And they said Atlantic Fleet arriving. And Vern Clarke walked up and walked down. They snapped to attention. Then they said United States Navy, and the secretary of the Navy walked down. I understand that when the President comes onboard a ship they say United States of America arriving. And I had this flash sitting on the Enterprise in Norfolk Harbor those four years ago. I had this flash that when Jesus showed up in Bethlehem in baby shape that it was Kingdom of God arriving.
I asked Vern, "One of your sailors is really sick. Could you write him a note, and he wrote him a note. I took it to Charlie. It said, "Dear Charlie, I understand you're in some rough waters, sailor. Just want you to know that there are a number of us in the fleet who stand with you in prayer. Your friend and brother, Admiral Vernon Clarke." Charlie kept that right by his bed.
He was getting weaker and weaker. One Saturday morning in June four years ago I said, "Congressman Wolf, we need to go see Charlie." When we walked in the door Charlie said, "Dick, tell me that thing one more time about to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. How does that work?" I said, "I don't know, Charlie. I haven't done that part yet. I don't know how that works. But if it works like the other parts that I have done, then it's going to be cool. It's going to be good because the other parts I've tried have all worked." He said, "That's great." And the congressman said, "Where's that passage that says Jesus is going to go add a room on and come and get us and take us?" I said, "That's John 14." He said, "Find the passage, read it, and tell us what it means." I said, "Yes, sir." I got the passage. I read it. I said, "It's like an extended family where the young man goes off to find a bride and brings a bride home, and they add a room onto the house. And they're an extended family together with the father. That's a picture of heaven." Charlie grinned and said, "I like that." I said, "Charlie, I think maybe in just a few days Jesus is going to come and get you and take you there." He said, "I think so." I said, "Hopefully you'll turn around a couple of times and Frank and I will show up." He said, "I'd really like that." I said, "Why don't we have a prayer?" We joined hands around him and his wife came in. And I said, "Congressman, why don't you pray." These two guys had been brothers 16 years in some of the hardest places in the world, and he got about three sentences out and just couldn't go on. He just sobbed. I finished the prayer. We walked over; we hugged him very gently. And he said, "Love you guys." We said, "We love you, Charlie." And those were the last words we heard him say. Four days later he went to be with the Lord.
When I stood by his grave in Arlington Cemetery—the caisson with the horses and the flag-draped casket—they lowered the casket and I heard the bugler start playing Taps down in the woods. I had this flash that if in heaven we had a loud speaker system, maybe it sounded something like this when Charlie arrived: Attention all hands, Charles Evans Hughes White, United States Navy Captain retired, child of God arriving.
He is the God who says if you choose to follow me, if you choose to trust me I will give you authority to become a child. I will give you the right, the authority to become children of God. Because when you're a child of God and you're a child with him and in him, you get it all. He leads you where he wants you to go and you follow after and he takes you places you never dreamed you would go, gives you gifts you never dreamed you'd have, gives you relationships you never dream you could have again. He is that God when you trust him like a child.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Dick Foth is a member of the teaching team at Timberline Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.