“A Little Child Shall Lead Them”

Rev. Katherine Todd
James 4:1-8a
Mark 9:33-37

James 4:1-8a

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,

“God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.”

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

Mark 9:33-37

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”


This teaching of Jesus told by Mark is unique.  It doesn’t seem to hold together fully.  First the disciples are talking about who’s the greatest – to which Jesus says that “whoever wants to be first much be last of all and servant of all.”  And then Jesus adds on this seemingly unrelated object lesson.  Jesus takes a little child among them and cradling the child in his arms says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

And here I am left in a whirl.  Did Jesus really say all this back to back, in a seemingly related way?  Why did Mark present these familiar words of Jesus in such close context, when they don’t appear to be related?  Did these two seemingly unrelated teachings indeed hinge on one another, and did Mark see them as informative of one another?

You see Jesus’ object lesson feels totally out of the blue.  I would have expected Jesus to instead point to the last person standing in line or the servant in their midst for his object lesson.  Those would illustrate his point – showing folks WHO among them are truly greatest – and helping them see that all the rationale they had for ranking themselves and one another was utterly useless in God’s eyes.

But Mark says Jesus brings a little child among them.  The child is the object lesson.  And this is not simply in Mark’s account; Matthew and Luke also tell this story, and while each presents it slightly differently with slightly different take-aways, each time Jesus answers the disciples’ arguments about who is greater with a little child.

Matthew spells out that no one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless he is humble like a little child.  Childlike humility is lifted up as key to both entering God’s kingdom and being great in the kingdom.

Luke quotes Jesus as saying the very same words as Mark’s account:  “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  And that is it.  No talk about being the last or the servant of all.

So these three parallel Gospel accounts tell of Jesus leaping from this story of the disciples’ one-up-man-ship followed by the object lesson of a little child.  In Matthew it’s the humility of a little child.  In Luke it’s simply the receiving of the Kingdom of God as would a little child, and in Mark it’s being the last and a servant that seems related to children receiving the Kingdom of God.


Now, all this talk about the Kingdom of God is an important frame of reference.  For Jesus is very specifically holding God’s ways in juxtaposition to the world’s ways.

We learn quickly in life that we need to hurry up and grow up.  While parents and grandparents tell us to savor our youth and its shelter from the worries and troubles of the world, we know that immaturity and naivete are marks against us.  We are encouraged to “be realistic.”  We are told to set down our dreams in exchange for sucking up “the real world.”  Saying what we think, without filtering it, is frowned upon.  Showing too much emotion is frowned upon.  Loosing yourself in the joy of a moment is frowned upon.  Children are keenly aware that their position is one of lesser.

We give them toy phones, but they want the real deal.  We give them toy pots and pans, but they want to play with the real ones.  Children yearn for the autonomy, self-determination, freedoms, respect, and powers afforded to adults.  And so we all rush to reach this pinnacle of power and respect.

Children have a lot more today than in Jesus’ day.  They are no longer seen as the property of their fathers.  They have rights.  Some parents and families have placed their children at the centermost part of their lives, so that all activities revolve around the children.  Many parents now allow their children voice and choice in the details of their lives.  Things have dramatically changed so children are not so fully at the bottom of the pyramid of power as they were in former days, but they are still under the authority of the grown-ups in their lives.  They still are keenly aware that they “should” be more mature, more realistic, less emotional, more reliable…  And the list goes on.

Children are ever aware of their own inadequacies, their dependence, their incompleteness.

Children who have experienced the loving provision of their guardians TRUST.  They trust that all will be well, that their needs can and will be met.

And Jesus is holding these small humans up, as pictures of what WE need to be. 

WE need to be keenly aware of our inadequacies.  We need to be humble.  We need to stop and recognize our dependence on God and one another.  We need to realize we are incomplete without God and one another.

WE need to trust, that God is true to God’s Word.  We need to dream God’s dreams and see the Lord’s visions.  We need to trust in things never before seen.

We need to let go of the preconceptions we hold about one another – the ranking, the judging, the partiality…  We need to come like little children – open to the world and everyone in it.


And how shall we do this?!?

It seems like the older I get, the more reason I have for skepticism and disappointment.

But GOD is calling us to live in a new reality.

Right now.

God’s Kingdom is not this idyllic world in the clouds, far away, and only accessible after we die.  Christ himself taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The Kingdom is not for later.  The Kingdom is for now.

The Kingdom is for now. 

The world’s ways are ever with us.  The world’s wisdom is always speaking.  Evil and injustice color our ways of seeing the world and our neighbors.

But Christ is saying that God has another way altogether, and if we want to be part of it, WE CANNOT ACCESS IT by doing what we have always done.  WE CANNOT ACCESS IT using the same mindset that we’ve mastered in the school of the world.

RATHER, we need to grow down.  To grow down.  We need to re-write the scripts in our minds with God’s truth.  We need to re-write the lessons of the world with God’s lessons.  We need new eyes to see our neighbors and ourselves, as God sees each one.

And we will do well, if we take some cues from those little humans among us who are our children and our children’s children.

Those little humans who are so naïve and incomplete.  Those little humans who are so honest in their displays of joy and anger alike…


SO, what do we do with this?

This is more than a nod of reverence to our kids.

This is more than doting over our children’s successes and smiling through their honest attempts and mis-steps.

No, we are called to BRING IN the KINGDOM OF GOD by being as little children. 

Trusting God and God’s Word.

Believing God’s wisdom over our own.

Being open to the new people and opportunities God brings into our lives.

Expecting to be surprised.

Looking for God to do something new, that we’ve never seen before…


In response to the school shootings happening with too much frequency in our nation, a student decided to form a No Kid Eats Alone Club.  Recognizing that hurting people hurt other people, this student made it his mission to reach out to those who didn’t have a group to eat with.  And the group has grown.  Every lunch period, they invite anyone who is sitting alone to join them for lunch.  As the group grows, more and more students are mobilizing to speak with the folks at their schools are who are isolated and alone.  And it is making all the difference.  It is creating belonging where there was rejection.  It is creating community where there was isolation.  It is fostering understanding where there was misunderstanding.

And it is growing.  New students are taking it to their schools and forming their own No One Eats Alone clubs.

These kids are bringing in the Kingdom of God.  Despite humankind’s years of experience living into the pecking order, accepting bullying, accepting cliques, these students are creating a new reality in their school lunchrooms.  They are turning one of the most divisive hours of the school day into a refuge, a haven, a sanctuary.

They are doing the work of church. 


Friends, we will not enter the Kingdom of God, unless we do so as little children. 

If you are longing for QUALITY of life

If you’ve been searching your whole life for rest and goodness, justice and joy

If you once dreamed of a whole and equitable world

GOOD!  God has been calling out to you.

And as much as it may feel like a pipe dream – with all you’ve seen and heard –

YOU are called to help make that world a reality.


You won’t do it by doing things the way they’ve always been done.

Take a cue from our children; they are always inventing new ways!

We will get there by creating a new world together, one dream, one act of trust, one vision, one step of faith, one heart of openness, one act of repentance and humility, one honest word, one act of justice…at a time. 


God is counting on you and on me.  And we don’t have to be complete & perfect & all wise.

We just need to know that the Lord of Heaven and earth has us in the palm of Christ’s hands, and has plans to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us a future of hope.


May we grow down and learn how to live and move in God’s ways.  For we cannot be both a friend of the world and a friend of God.

We must choose.

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