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Children Are the Greatest

Biography of Jesus #44

"Children are the greatest"

Luke 9:46-50



1. I’ve never bought a first class airplane ticket, but I have flown first class a number of times. It is very nice with early boarding, wide seats, first class bathroom, flight attendants who hang up your jacket and special meals served on white table clothes, with cloth napkins and metal knives and forks.


2. But flying first class is more than the additional space and other perks. There is a certain sense of privilege and even superiority. All the coach people have to walk past you as they wish they were first class. A curtain is drawn so those in first class don’t have to look at the economy people and so they can’t stare at you while you are served superior food.


3. The opposite feeling comes when you have to fly in the back. I remember one time when I flew outbound on first class with an upgrade certificate but couldn’t get a first class seat coming back. The first class cabin was already booked full. I had an upgrade certificate that was ready to expire but I couldn’t use it. As I walked past those first class seats I thought to myself "I belong up here. I used to sit right there in 3C. They all act like they’re so much better." Then I went to the back of the plane where the seats are three across on both sides, the leg room is minimal, the overhead racks are full, you have to either wear your jacket for the whole flight or roll it up into a ball and jam it in between overhead suitcases, there is a line at the bathroom and the meal is served in saran wrap and eaten with plastic utensils.


4. It wouldn’t be hard to get into an argument about who sits where, about who should be first class and who should not. That was what happened with Jesus’ followers in the story from Luke 9:46-50.

An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all--he is the greatest."

"Master," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us."

"Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you."


I. The question of greatness Luke 9:46

1. Greatness was on their minds. They got into an argument trying to establish which disciple was the greatest of them all.


2. We don’t know where the debate began although some have guessed that it was from the story earlier in this same chapter. Jesus took three out of the twelve disciples with him up the Mount of Transfiguration. There Peter, James and John saw a heavenly sight of Jesus, Moses and Elijah in brilliant celestial splendor. When they came down from this astonishing mountain top experience they must have bubbling over with enthusiasm.

Perhaps one of them said, "You should have been there." Those who weren’t there wished they could have been the, but they weren’t invited. Those left behind felt neglected, unappreciated, left out and unimportant. And, those three probably felt special, honored, elevated and very important. There was a class system in the small circle of Jesus’ followers - - - first class and coach, up the mountain and down, great and not so great.


3. It is a debate we all share. Position is important.

What is the difference between driving a Mercedes, Lexus, Hyundai or Honda? They are all foreign made cars. They all transport from point "A" to point "B". They all are heated in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer. But, we think they say something about who is the greatest and who is not.

What is the difference between President, vice-president, executive vice-president, senior vice-president, junior vice-president, assistant vice-president and retired vice-president? To many the difference is huge. It not only determines a person’s salary, office, parking place and expense account but prestige inside the company and out. It says something about who is the greatest and who is not.

What is the difference between Valedictorian, Salutatorian, Honor Society, honorable mention and member of the graduating class? What is the difference between a varsity letter, a junior varsity letter and an academic letter? They can be all about who is great and who is not.

Why do people pay so much more money for court-side tickets at the Target Center or box seats at the Metrodome? Is it really to see better? Because you can see better at home watching the game on television? Or is there a status to where we sit?

4. This is an argument that enters almost every arena of life.

Churches have Bishops, deacons, district superintendents, elders, pastors and all kinds of other titles.

Armies classify privates, corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, majors, colonels and general officers.

Faculties have tenured, tenure track, untenured and adjunct faculty members. There are full professors, associate professors, assistant professors and instructors.

From street gangs to the United States Senate, we are constantly positioning in the proverbial pecking order to decide who is great and who is not so great.


II. The place of honor Luke 9:47-48

1. Jesus not only heard what they were saying but he read their thoughts. "Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him."

2. That is quite a statement, that Jesus knows our thoughts. It scares me and satisfies me.

It scares me to realize that there is no place I can hide from Jesus Christ. He can read my mind, examine my soul and figure me out. No matter how much I posture and pretend to those who only know me from the outside, Jesus knows me from the inside. He knows my heart.

It satisfies me to know that Jesus knows my motives. When I say and do stupid things that are misunderstood, Jesus knows I meant well. When I try to do good and it turns out bad, Jesus knows where I was coming from.

3. Having read his followers’ thoughts, Jesus "took a child and had him stand beside him." There is something somewhat cultural here that we might miss. In ancient societies, the place of honor was on the right side of the king or emperor. That was the place everyone wanted to stand or sit. That was the place of high recognition and honor. Other than being the monarch himself, this was the greatest a person could become.


4. Maybe it’s not so different today. Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura visited the White House for the first time, as a part of the National Governor’s Conference. There was a White House dance at which our governor observed that there was always a large space surrounding President and Mrs. Clinton when they danced. Jesse and Terry Ventura decided to take the space. Dance as close as possible to the President and First Lady. The Governor observed that this might be his only chance so he decided to take it. Location matters.


5. Jesus was responding to the "Greatness Debate" between his followers by filling the place of greatest greatness with a child. Why a child? Well, frankly, children are different from adults. Young children usually aren’t as concerned about greatness, about pecking order, about how much money people have, about jobs or beauty or power or position.

The child probably focused fully on Jesus and didn’t care about the "Greatness Debate."


6. I wonder if Jesus’ followers were offended? I wonder if they resented the child. I wonder if they thought Jesus was out of place. It could be interpreted as an insult to give such great honor to a child who hadn’t done anything to deserve it and couldn’t appreciate the honor that was given.


III. The Jesus principle Luke 9:48

1. Jesus added a verbal explanation to his visual object lesson. He was working toward the Jesus principle that "whoever is least among you all - he is the greatest."

2. Jesus led up to the principle with an explanation that "whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."

Jesus was claiming the humble place for himself. He was identifying with the child. The way people treat children is the way they are treating Jesus. The way people treat Jesus is the way they treat God the Father.

The broader principle was that Jesus identifies with those who are less important and unimportant. He has an "upside-down approach." Jesus is not impressed with title, positions, fame, fortune or all the things which tend to impress most of us.


3. Examples:

When I was a seminary student I worked on the staff of a Colorado church. Each Sunday morning I taught the lesson in two Children’s Church programs. The first was for 2-3 year olds and the second was for 4-5 year olds. I tried to teach them what I had studied in theology classes the previous week. Whether it was the doctrine of salvation or the inspiration of the Scriptures or the eschatology of prophecy, I sought to find ways and words to teach the children the truth.
They didn’t care that I was a graduate student. They couldn’t understand the big words I had to memorize - - - I had to find words in their vocabulary range. They were wonderful young children who sat with me in a circle on the floor and listened to what I had to say.
I don’t pretend that those children grew up to remember what I taught. I’m not sure they understood what I was talking about at the time. Yet, it is one of my very best memories of those years - - - not the times I was privileged to preach in the "big church" or the seminary students and professors - - - it was the children.

"Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."

Several years ago a man at Wooddale Church was approached to serve as an elder.
I think that to be an elder is a wonderful and high privilege. He said "no." He was approached a year later. He refused a second time. When pressed to explain his refusal he explained that he was a teacher of a boys class and didn’t want to give up that to serve on the Elder Board.

"Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."

Just over a year ago I sat in an office with the CEO of one of the better known large businesses here in the Twin Cities. We were discussing ways in which he could minister in the context of Wooddale Church. I asked him what he would like to do and rattled off a long list of possibilities. I asked, "Would you want to teach adults, lead a task force, be an elder, work in the nursery, sing in the choir, be an usher or what?" His answer caught me a little off guard. He said, "I’d be glad to work in the nursery." He heads a business with thousands of employees but he would be glad to work in the nursery.

"Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."


4. Jesus was teaching the hierarchy of heaven. He presented a principle so profound and shocking that we are still trying to figure it out 2000 years later.

True greatness is in humility, service, caring about those who are not famous, not powerful, not impressive or not important. As far as Jesus is concerned, the best way to the top is to scramble for the bottom.


5. A couple of weeks ago I watched a TV interview of Mohammed Ali. During the interview NBC played clips of his early career as a prize fighter . . . all the way back to when his name was Cassius Clay. He was proud, audacious, and came across as arrogant. He repeatedly said "I am the greatest." While he was a champion boxer, he turned a lot of people off. Although he became the heavy weight champion of the world three times, many didn’t think he was the greatest.

Now he is older. He can no longer fight. Parkinson’s disease and medications have impacted his body and significantly slowed his speech. He no longer claims to be so great. And the honors are pouring in - - - streets named after him, parks in his honor, he is recognized as an "ambassador of good will" around the world. It seems he is far greater in weakness than he ever was in strength.

It is the Jesus principle: "he who is least among you all - he is the greatest."

IV. The personal test Luke 9:49-50

1. When Jesus’ followers heard him they balked at his teaching. It was John who spoke for the group, but my guess is that they were all on the defensive. Maybe John spoke because he was one of the three who went with Jesus up the mountain that dazzling day. Maybe he had claimed to be better than the others. Maybe he didn’t like the implications of Jesus’ teaching.


2. Whatever the reason, John did what most of us do when we react to a principle we dislike. John cited a specific example . . . a specific person.

"Master, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us."

3. John wanted to make it clear that this other guy wasn’t a good guy because he didn’t belong to their little group. He was protecting his turf.

Even Christians and churches still do this same thing today. It is very easy to be critical of another church in town or the success of a congregation in a different denomination. The tendency is to say, "they’re really not Christians . . or at least they’re not as Christian as we are. We’re better. We’re ‘righter.’ We’re greater."

4. ‘No, no, no,’ Jesus said "do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you." Jesus wasn’t endorsing heresy or approving something sinful. He was simply saying that those who minister in his name are not to be stopped. Bless them. Pray for them. Be great by celebrating their success!


5. For John, it was a specific person to whom he compared himself. Often it’s that way for us. We compare to a brother or to a sister. We compare to a competing athlete or a professional colleague, or a business associate who seems to be getting ahead of us.

Honestly, the personal test of our living the Jesus principle usually comes down to our comparison of ourselves to specific other individuals.

The Jesus principle is lived out in real life situations. "He who is least among you all - he is the greatest."


1. When the Special Olympics were held in the Twin Cities there was a moment on the running track that grabbed the hearts of America. All of the competitors had physical and/or mental disabilities. They were lined up at the starting line waiting for the gun to start the race while thousands of parents and others cheered them on. The race began, but one of the runner stumbled and fell. Realizing what had happened, the other runners stopped, went back, helped him up and then resumed the race.


2. How very Christian!

"Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all - he is the greatest."


February 28, 1999 Wooddale Church, ęCopyright, Leith Anderson, 1999.


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