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December 17th, 2018

One key reason Jesus becomes man is to put the Father on display for us.

Isaiah 9:6-7; Mark 10:13-16

 

It helps to know why

Our house has been a flurry of activity this fall, intensifying since Thanksgiving. You’ve probably heard me make allusions to installing new flooring and painting. The last couple of weeks the pace quickened. Every time one items was checked off the list it seemed like two others replaced it. There were the usual December activities – buying the tree, placing candles in the windows, bringing Christmas decorations down from the attic and returning the bins when the decorating’s done, buying and ordering the Christmas gifts – but it all had to be done ten days early this year. 

There was also a whole new list of tasks not seen at our house for thirty years – setting up a train around the Christmas tree, buying or borrowing or finding a crib, rocking chair, high chair, and toys. We even found toys our children played with in the 80s and cleaned them up. Gates were placed at the top and bottom of the stairs. Latches were added to the cabinets and drawers. A blanket now drapes the coffee table with its sharp edges. None of these tasks seemed laborious.

Why this flurry of joyful preparation? Advent, of course. Advent means “coming,” and this coming was the coming of Arlo. Our only grandchild, who lives in Hawaii, arrived yesterday just in time to celebrate his first birthday today. For the next two weeks Arlo will be the center of attention for two parents, two grandparents, two aunts, and two dogs. It helps when you know why you’re doing something.

Kevin Watkins, the newest addition to our staff team, asked me a week or so ago if we could sit down and talk about some things on his mind. He sent me the list before we met, and if I could summarize his list in one word it would be “Why?” “Why Corinth?” “Why staff meetings?” “Why worship services?”

He wasn’t asking because he was questioning the value of any of those things. He wasn’t even asking because he doesn’t know. He was asking because in his previous job as a campus minister, he had to constantly remind his student leaders why they do what they do. Students moved in and out of leadership almost every year. By contrast, in a local church – especially this one – staff and other leaders remain in place for years or even decades. Kevin was pointing out that he hadn’t heard me articulate why with clarity or frequency. Without grasping why we do what we do, some very significant aspects of church life become mundane and even wearisome.

Just like cleaning floors or hanging pictures is more joyful because Arlo is coming, doing church is filled with significance if it’s because we’re helping people become disciples of Jesus Christ! And that’s significant because of who Jesus is.

A child is born

Isaiah 9 reminds us why we do Christmas. On this middle Sunday of December, that’s a big help, isn’t it? Whether your Christmas prep is almost finished or almost started, the frantic pace of shopping and wrapping and parties and traveling and cleaning and decorating takes on a different level of meaning when we pause regularly to remind ourselves we’re doing all this because “a child is born for us… a son is given for us… the weight of ruling the world is on his shoulders… the increase of his government and peace will have no end… the zeal (passion) of Almighty will do this.”

You did know, right, that virtually all of our Christmas-related traditions are related to the birth of this child? Just in case you forgot….

  • Santa Claus points to a historical figure, St. Nicholas, orphaned as a child by wealthy parents, who loved giving anonymous gifts to the poor.
  • Christmas carols were originally folk songs to teach illiterate people the stories of Christmas.
  • Many seemingly “secular” Christmas songs have Christian origins. “Jingle Bells” can be traced to church bells rung for special services.
  • The Christmas tree is an evergreen that points to eternal life. Martin Luther gets credit for bringing a tree into the home after he looked up through the branches of an evergreen and saw the stars. He wanted his children to have an inside reminder of Jesus, who left heaven for earth.

Our studies this Advent season focus on the four names or titles in Isaiah 9:7 for the child who is to be born. We understand these to be pointers to Jesus. The Hebrew form of each pair of words emphasizes the first word. This child will be “Wonder of a Counselor,” “God of Might,” “Father of Eternity,” and “Prince of Peace.” This week we focus on “Father of Eternity.”

It may seem odd at first that we call Jesus “Father of Eternity.” Isn’t he the Son of God, not the heavenly Father? I’ll come back to that question, but for now I want to turn to the passage that Pastor Paul Cummings suggested as a Gospel parallel to “Father of Eternity.” I’ll tell you in a moment what part of this text especially connected to Paul, but the overall theme is how Jesus – who never married or fathered any earthly children – acted in a fatherly way.

The fatherly Jesus

First, Jesus was a disciplinarian. There are several occasions where the Gospel writers tell us that Jesus became angry. The word here is “indignant.” It’s a strong English word, for good reason. The Greek is a compound word that means “much grief.” When you’re so sad that you’re mad, you’re “indignant.”

That’s rarely part of the scenery when artists depict the story of Jesus and the children, and maybe for good reason. It’s ironic that in a story where we remember the tenderness of Jesus we forget that he could also be tough.

We don’t know much about the setting of this story. Many commentators place it in Perea, east of the Jordan River. At the time of Jesus, it was an area of mixed Gentiles and Jews. The fact that Jesus even went there indicates that he broke many of the conventions of his day.

Mark doesn’t tell us who brought children to Jesus. He just says, “And they were bringing children to him so he would touch them.” We can maybe assume parents, as some translations do, or even mothers. In Luke’s version they’re “nursing babies.” William Barclay says it was tradition for parents to bring their babies to a rabbi on their first birthday for a blessing. I like that because today is my grandson’s first birthday.

The disciples rebuked those bringing the children. Why? It seems odd to us, especially in a culture where children are the center of attention. We don’t buy into “children should be seen and not heard,” even less so at Christmas. At your house this Christmas maybe there will be one or two adults with several children, or maybe closer to a 1:1 ratio of adults to children. At ours this weekend there are six adults and one child who’s very much the center. And we’re OK with it.

It has not been so at other times and places. Graeco-Roman culture especially didn’t value children. Jewish culture placed a much higher value on children, but they were not normally in the presence of a rabbi until they were old enough to learn the Torah. A rabbi’s job is to teach, and Jesus was a popular, busy rabbi with much more important things to do than hug a few kids. So the disciples thought as they rebuked the bringers of the babies.

Jesus disciplined the disciples with his actions and his words. It must have taken them aback. They thought they were looking out for his interests, protecting his time and priorities. Instead, he gives them a stinging scolding. Jesus isn’t OK with every attitude. He reprimands sin and wrongdoing. Here the wrong is the exclusion of those who have no status, no claim, who can’t speak or stand up for themselves. Jesus regularly included Gentiles, women, children, the sick, the demon-possessed, the prostitutes and tax collectors – those whom others thought had no value – in the kingdom. His fatherly nature included discipline, correction, and judgment, especially on the self-serving proud and condescending.

Second, Jesus modeled grace. When a father disciplines, it’s about correction not rejection. Jesus isn’t through with the disciples; his indignation is another lesson in discipleship. He’s exhibiting grace toward his followers.

He’s also modeling grace when he welcomes the children. The NIV puts Jesus’ response in these words:  “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The King James Version with which I grew up said it this way:  “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”

The word is actually the same word as “forgive.” At the root of forgiveness is the idea of “release” or “loose” or “set free.” When you forgive someone, you let go of the offense committed against you. You destroy the barrier between you and that person.

The disciples had a protective ring around Jesus, like they were his body guards, his Secret Service agents. When our daughters came home last night, Jeni said of our Christmas tree, “It’s in jail!” We have a fence around the tree and the train to protect them from a one-year-old and from the dogs.

The disciples thought of themselves as that kind of fence for Jesus. They were holding back the children from Jesus. “Release them,” Jesus said, “to come to me.” Stop holding them back. Let them through. Don’t stop them. When you think of my kingdom (the kingdom of God is wherever he’s in charge), I want you thinking of them. The kingdom of God is made up of “such” as these.

That includes those particular children. We Reformed pastors use this passage as one of the biblical bases for infant baptism. I don’t want to belabor the point too much, because that’s not its primary meaning. But if the kingdom includes such as these, it also includes these. We include children in the covenant, the agreement that holds us together. Other Christian traditions may disagree about baptism, but virtually every Christian branch assumes that children are “in,” at least until they’re old enough to make their own decision. If they die before that age, whatever it is, we all affirm that they’re in heaven. It’s a great comfort, rooted in this idea of Jesus saying, “Release (forgive) the children. Give them the benefit of the doubt, even if they can’t understand.” That’s a fatherly response.

Third, Jesus taught, just like a father does. As he often does, Jesus uses this situation to teach an important lesson about the kingdom. “Truly I tell you,” he continues. This is a formula often used in the Gospels to increase attention. “Eyes on me,” a teacher might say. “This is important,” a mom might tell her kids. “I swear,” a teen might say. “Cross my heart and hope to die” was what we said as children.

Everything Jesus said is big. This is even bigger. “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

What exactly does that mean? There are two streams of thought. On the one hand, we think of subjective traits of a child – their character traits. Children are innocent, they’re submissive, they’re trusting, they’re obedient.

There are two problems with that approach. First, it’s not really true. If you think children are good until they’re shown how to be bad, you just need to raise one. My little grandson, as much as I adore him already, has learned in only one year how to assert that strong will and independence he inherited from both his parents. The second problem is that this can’t be what Jesus is teaching – that we all need to be the kind of nice people that God will love more because we’re so sweet.

No, what Jesus is talking about is the objective traits of a child.  A child is essentially dependent, helpless, needy.  He’s not saying the kingdom of God belongs to those who are humble behaviorally.  He’s saying that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are humble positionally, who can’t do for themselves.  What’s needed on our part is the recognition that we need God’s grace, we need his forgiveness, we need his provision. “I can do it myself” is the opposite of how disciples need to come to Jesus.

Fourth, Jesus touched and blessed. This is the part of the passage that captured Pastor Paul the most. If you know him, you know his love language is touch. Mine isn’t. I like my bubble. Paul puts his hand on your shoulder, gives you a hug. When Paul sees a child, he instinctively drops to a knee to hold them. I have to think about it.

That’s why Paul loves this image of Jesus. Mark emphasizes it three ways:  “He took them in his arms, placed his hands on them, and blessed them.” This is the familiar scene we have on a stained glass window outside the children’s wing at Corinth. This is the tender Jesus, hands-on, eye contact, unhurried, loving the children with words and touch and time. It’s not all there is to Jesus, but it’s an important part of who he is.

The fatherly Jesus blesses the children. Blessings in the Hebrew Bible are powerful. They’re connections between souls – often fathers and sons, but not necessarily. The Aaronic blessing is a blessing from priest to the people.

What’s important here is not whatever words Jesus used, but whom he was blessing – the children, the very ones the disciples had pushed away from him.

Jesus our father

Why are we talking about Jesus as a father when we believe he is the Son of God? It’s important to remember that these words are metaphors, they’re symbols representing something of God. God is not a biological male who sired Jesus. That’s almost the definition of blasphemy. God reveals himself to us in language familiar to us.

Jesus is our Father, but he’s the “Father of Eternity.” We tend to dissect and compartmentalize God. Remember that the Bible doesn’t use the word “Trinity.” It’s a word coined by Tertullian in the second century to help us express the inexpressible. Jesus said, “The Father and I are one.” One key reason for Jesus becoming man is to show us what God is like, to put the Father on display.

Every analogy is imperfect. God-as-father can cause us to create God in our own image – to overhumanize him and even assign some of our sinful behaviors to God. It’s also a struggle for those with abusive or absent fathers.

What do we do with this image of Jesus as Father of eternity?

First, remember why. This busy season, don’t neglect your devotional life. You may have to adjust the when and how, but the way to keep focus on why we celebrate Christmas is to take time with the Lord. Use the songs, the worship services, the walks, even the cultural expressions of Christmas like decorations and movies to be with Jesus one-on-one.

Second, pray for spiritual conversations. Don’t be overly passive or overly active. You don’t have to force this; it’s the Holy Spirit’s job. If you pray for these conversations, you’re more likely to notice the opportunities. Jesus didn’t put on his calendar, “Go find children today,” but he was so attuned to his Father that he was ready when the children came.

Third, welcome the excluded. Look for those who are needy – physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually. Who’s undervalued? Who has no status? Give to the Salvation Army kettle, but stop to talk to the person beside it. Go Christmas caroling tomorrow night, or choose a different day and time to visit those with less opportunity for time with family and friends.

What matters most is that you recall who Jesus is – the Father of eternity who has entered our world – and that you let this scene of Jesus with the children model for you how a needy world will best find him. Amen.

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