This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Luke 18:9-17
Sermon prepared by Rev. Len Batterink, Duncan, B.C.
Has anyone every told you about the "Upside-Down Kingdom"? That’s how people sometimes talk about following Jesus. They say that when you follow him, ordinary life is turned upside-down. And if you read through the Bible for a bit, that sounds right. Over and over we see things getting turned around, turned backwards, turned upside-down. Jesus said that in his kingdom the first will be last and the last will be first (Matt. 20:16).
He said that whoever wanted to be great would have to be a servant (Matt. 20: 26).
The apostle Paul said that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, that he chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27).
According to Paul, Jesus was equal to God, and then he emptied himself and made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (Phil. 2:6-11).
Jesus was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that through his poverty we would become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).
After a while, you get used to the pattern. Things that make a person important in our world become unimportant in the Upside-Down Kingdom. And the things that seem weak and humble and poor — they make us better people and take us closer to the heart of God.
And yet this Upside-Down Kingdom has surprises. We would think that giving would be more important than receiving. That’s the slogan we hear over and over — "It is better to give than to receive." We would assume that selfish people have a bad time in the Upside-Down Kingdom. They’re full of need and desire, and it eats them up all the time. They’re jealous every time a friend has a new car or a new house. They buy a rack of new clothes and charge it on their cards and before they’ve paid down their debts — at those wicked interest rates — they’re already thinking about the next big buy. Giving? They don’t know what it means. Receiving? They can’t do enough of that. They have a hunger for more, and it’s the kind of hunger that grows with the feeding — the more you get the more you want.
We would assume that givers are the lords and ladies of the Upside-Down Kingdom. They’re unselfish. They sacrifice. They give money and time and talent to make the lives of other people better. They have to be the greatest of the followers of Jesus, right?
And yes, we need givers. We need people who sacrifice, who give money and time and talent to make this world a happier place. Without givers we’d have to retire all the missionaries, call the relief workers home, stop all shipments of food and medicine to the developing world, and hope that somehow everyone will survive in our "me-first" world. But not everyone will survive in a me-first world. We can’t do without givers. Following Jesus has to mean sharing with those who have less.
But here’s a surprise — we first need to be receivers. Before we give, we need to take.
And then another surprise — it’s harder to receive than we think. In some ways, receiving is worse than giving.
As Cornelius Plantinga says, receiving makes me look weak and giving makes me look strong. If I have something that you need, I look stronger than you. When I give, I look generous. That feels good. We offer somebody a willing hand or a word of encouragement, and it’s like we’ve done God’s work. God wants us to be kind and compassionate, generous and giving, like him, and that’s what we’ve been.
Of course, we can mess up our giving. We can give all our attention to people who don’t really need it and ignore people who do. We can give a lot to people who are already full and scrimp with people who are hungry — people who might need only a word of praise. We can give but do it in a totally patronizing way and make the other person wish we hadn’t bothered. Our giving isn’t always done just right. Still, to have something to give is to be a little bit like God.
So then, what if you’ve got nothing to give? What if you have to be on the receiving end all the time? You’d feel passive. You’d feel dependent. You have to hold out your hand to other people. If you think that sounds easy, think again. Many people worry about becoming dependent. What if I get so sick that strangers have to give me a bath? What if I get paralyzed and they have to feed me like a baby? What if I get caught in some disastrous sin and have to depend on the grace of others just to get out of the mess?
Years ago Theodore Minnema, Professor at Calvin Seminary, gave a convocation speech called "Human Dignity and Human Dependence." It began with a newspaper report about the death of June Spencer Churchill, the daughter- in-law of Britain’s prime-minister. It seemed that a coroner’s court had decided that her death was a suicide. She wanted to die, they said, "because she knew she was riddled with cancer." For years she had had cancer, and for years she had been a member of the Euthanasia Society. And finally, when she had cancer in all her bones, when she was looking at the prospect of paralysis, she took an overdose of heroin. The coroner said that she wanted to die before she became totally dependent on others — she couldn’t stand that.
Dependency can feel like a terrible thing. Most kinds have some stigma attached. Who wants to be welfare dependent? How many Christians want to depend on help from the deacons? Most of us wouldn’t. We’re told that it’s more blessed to give than to receive, and we believe it. It’s easier to give too. A giver has power. A giver has options. A giver can choose to be kind, almost like God.
But Jesus tells us that we need to be receivers first. "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it" (Luke 18:17).Think of what he’s saying here. Getting into the kingdom begins with us holding out our hands. That’s hard. We’re grown-ups. We’re supposed to take responsibility for ourselves. We’re not supposed to wait for handouts and freebies. Hard work, discipline — that’s how grownups get ahead, right? According to Jesus, though, we first have to roll back our grownup habits and become like children.
There are a lot of sweet things we can say about children, especially very small children, babies with chubby hands who make soft laughing sounds, who smile at us just because we bounce them on a knee. They’re the perfect picture of innocence. The temptation is to make that the whole point — that we need to go backwards in time and become pure and innocent again. After all, we can lose lots of innocence while we grow up. And eventually it feels like we know too much, like we’ve seen too much and said too much, and then, it’s true, it would be wonderful to go back to being a little boy or girl again.
But Jesus didn’t talk about children because they’re sweet and innocent. He talked about children because they’re bundles of need. In his time, people didn’t have designer children, and families weren’t child-centered. After all, a child was another mouth to feed, and you had to feed that child for years before he was old enough to milk a goat or prune a vine. Children didn’t produce anything. They couldn’t build a barn or dig a well. They would just lie around all day. There’s just one thing they are really good at, one thing they do better than the rest of us, one lesson they can teach all of us. Jesus points to children because they are such wonderful receivers.
That’s what we need to become. We need to become children hungry for grace, hungry for love, hungry for forgiveness, hungry for a new heart, hungry for guidance, hungry for justice, for mercy, for a humble walk with God. When you’re a hungry receiver, God will meet your need. He can’t meet your need if you’re too strong, too independent. He can only give to receivers, like children.
Here we can see the connection between children and the Pharisee and the publican. Jesus told their story just before (Luke 18:9-14). He told about a Pharisee who had righteousness and piety in abundance. The man said himself that he was not like other men, and he was probably right. The usual run of people had messier lives. They were undisciplined. They’d often miss church because they had "other commitments." The Pharisee was above all that. And he was a giver too. He gave a tenth of his income to the Lord, which, if you check the numbers with the Ministry of Revenue, is way above the national average.
There was only one problem for the Pharisee, and it was devastating — he couldn’t receive. He couldn’t receive because he felt no need to receive. What did he need? What could anyone offer to a man who is "not like other men?" And so he asked for nothing and he received nothing. And that nothing included the grace of God, his forgiveness, and a peace that passes all understanding.
From Day One we try to raise our kids to be responsible, to be respectable. We teach them table manners. We teach them the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. We tell them to work hard and be honest. We tell them to get a good education. And on and on. And, obviously, we should. What else can we do? Not bother? Of course not.
There is a risk involved, though. We can create the impression that being responsible and respectable is all you need to do, and when you’ve done that right, you’ll make a great impression not only on your mother-in-law but also on God, and he’ll be absolutely delighted with you because you’re "not like other men." You know something? You are like other men, other women. So am I. And we all need to be receivers.
God has ways of getting the message across. There are commandments we can use to check ourselves. There are Christian brothers and sisters to keep us humble. And sometimes our defeats, our failures, even our pain — they are messengers sent from God. From Paul’s thorn in the flesh to Martin Luther’s depression to Joni Eareckson’s paralysis to the last time you’ve been brought low, God finds a way to send a message. He says, "You need me. You might think you’re invincible. You might think you’re self-sufficient. You’re not."
The Pharisee in Jesus’ story couldn’t be a receiver. And the publican? He was nothing else. "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (v. 13). His head was bowed. His hands were empty. And they were open. Those open hands — they made him like a child. And children like that will enter the Upside-Down Kingdom.
There are a lot of ways you can be successful in the ordinary world. Being the star on a team, getting high marks, looking like one of those beautiful people in the shiny magazines, making lots of money, living in an impressive house — on and on there are ways to quit being a nobody and become a somebody.
When you’re a follower of Jesus, it’s harder, and it’s easier. Just admit that you need him. Be a receiver — a receiver of love and grace and faith and hope.
And remember — what Jesus gives will never leave you hungry.
Proposed Order of Service
Call to Worship: Philippians 2:5-11
Hymns: #420 "Breathe on Me, Breath of God"
#483 "How Great Thou Art"
#480 "Jesus, the Very Thought of You"
#440 "Children of the Heavenly Father"
#461 "Beautiful Saviour"
Scripture reading: Luke 18:9-17 (esp. v. 17)