Immanuel Lutheran Church—Bossier City, LA
“Who’s the greatest”
INI + AMEN.
There’s so much about are text from Matthew 18 that’s so very familiar to us. The disciples are at it again with there constant question, “Who’s the greatest?” There’s Jesus with His hyperbolic teaching about the removal of body parts in order to enter heaven safely—a stark example indeed, just to get a point across. Then there’s the young child. The answer to the disciples’ question. We’ve heard it before. We sort of nod in agreement, and want to move on. But there’s something more today that gives us a new angle to this text. What could that be?Well, today is St. Michael and all angels day. Today we give thanks to God for His gift of angels. We rejoice with them often—every Sunday, in fact—“with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”
So before us today, we have the disciples question, “Who’s the greatest?” We also have before us the discussion of angels. These two things aren’t as abstract from one another as we might think. Let us consider these now, moving forward.
(3. Are angels the greatest?)
What do we think of angels? There’s lots of pop culture stuff out there, and we kind of feed off and into that, don’t we? Angels have wings, they play their harps, the live up in the clouds. Most depictions of angels make them out to have long flowing, golden hair. Most of depict very feminine angels. How many can fit on the head of a pin, again? There’s reports of sightings of angels. There’s so many movies that incorporate angels. Then, there was the old TV show “Touched by an Angel.”
But maybe our first thought when we hear “angels” is to think of our guardian angels. Or there’s the popular belief that people, especially children, become angels when they die. It’s a comforting thought, but almost all the “pop” ideas about angels are just false. But it’s safe to assume that we all think angels are pretty cool. We think that they’re pretty neat beings. Maybe more than just neat: powerful, great, and awesome. It’s why these ideas exist in the first place, and, since we believe they exist, we gravitate toward them in some way.
But the truth of the matter is that angels differ only in kind not in status. What I mean by that is this: angels may be a different creature than we are, but they do not differ from us in status before God. In fact, angels are less than we are. But lets unpack, briefly, what Scripture says about angels.
What are they? Well, they’re like us in that they are individuals with reason and personality, but they aren’t physical beings. They’re spiritual. David says that God “makes His angels spirits, His ministers a flame of fire.” (Ps. 104:4) They saw creation and rejoiced, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said…“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?…When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:1, 4, 7) And most often when you see them in Scripture they’re either terrifying or they look just like regular men.
What’s the purpose of angels? First of all to do God’s will. The angel speaking to John in Revelation calls himself a “fellow slave.” David says, “Bless the LORD, you His angels, Who excel in strength, who do His word, Heeding the voice of His word. Bless the LORD, all you His hosts, You ministers of His, who do His pleasure.” (Ps. 103:20–21) Ultimately God’s will for angels is to be His messengers—they tell of all the wonders God does. Angels announced Jesus’ birth and resurrection! But they also protect: “The angel of the LORD encamps all around those who fear Him, And delivers them” (Ps. 34:7). And, “He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you in all your ways. In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.” (Ps. 91:11–12).
In this way angels are below us. They are less than we are. They are the purest and most mundane servants of God. They protect us. They defend us. God sent them to declare to humanity His salvation. They are not redeemed by God’s coming to die and rise again, but we are. To consider them great is offensive, especially to them: John bows to an angel, and the angel says, “NO!”
All of this is bottled up in what Jesus says, “Their angels always see My Father’s face, who is in heaven.” They are not great. In fact, they are set aside for others. They see the Father’s face continually, yet protecting, yet always doing His will. While we thank God for angels, they certainly aren’t great in the kingdom of heaven.
(2. Are men the greatest?)
So angels are out. But we still have those great heroes of the faith, don’t we. We can list off a whole bunch of different people. We remember what they’ve said and done. Martin Luther is up there for some of us. Well, he is for me. How about David? Or Paul? They’re great, aren’t they? One’s the greatest king—a man after God’s own heart. The other’s the greatest missionary in the history of the church. Or maybe there’s someone more recent. Someone you think of as a great example of Christianity. Something they’ve said or done sticks in your mind. You’ll never forget it.
But these are not the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They differ from us only in time not status. Before God they stand as one amongst an innumerable host of the Lord’s saints. They are like us in that they’ve too been redeemed by the blood of Jesus. They just happened to be before us in time. They now serve as a cloud of witnesses. They are witnesses to the Lord’s forgiveness. They’ve passed on the faith to us.
Yet they are not better than we are. Jesus also says to them, “Unless you turn and become as little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Whoever, then, humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And now we see, once again, where Jesus turns our gaze, when this question is asked.
(3. Are children the greatest?)
Are children the greatest? What do we think about them and their faith? We think kids are noisy, annoying, dirty, messy, fidgety, obnoxious, off in their own little world. We think, “Yeah, they have faith, but they need to mature a little bit, first.” But that’s not the way of things at all. Oh, sure they may seem to be all those things, but they hear the voice of their dear Shepherd nonetheless, and may better than we do!
You see they differ from us in age, and they differ from us in status by virtue of their faith. This is what Jesus is saying. “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is repentance, that is, despair of your sins—really of yourself—and have faith like children do. Trust Jesus like they do. Have confidence in our heavenly Father like they do.
So, what does this faith look like? Consider what happens when a young child learns a new joke. They tell that joke to anyone they can tell. They’ll tell it a million times, and they’ll laugh hysterically every time. Maybe they’re not the one telling, though. They love to hear it over and over and over again. Laughing every time as if it were the first time. Or maybe it’s a song that’s sung to them. No matter how many times they hear that song, they want it again. It’s like they’ve heard it the first time, and they even demand that it’s said or sung to them again.
That’s how kids are. Faith operates the same way. Faith hears, “Jesus died and rose for you.” Say it again! “Jesus baptized you into His death and resurrection!” Say it again, “Jesus feeds you with His body and blood.” “Jesus forgives your sins!” Oh, one more time. Over and over again until Jesus is finally seen face to face, when Jesus says, “You are mine. Well done good and faithful servant.”
This is what Jesus says, “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” Indeed children are precious to Jesus, they have angels of their own. To them He turns and not adults. They are baptized just as we are. Jesus wants to bring us down to childlike size. In terms of faith, “You must be this tall to enter.” And by virtue of your baptism into Him, by your weekly being fed with His body and blood, you are. Indeed,
THE GREATEST IN JESUS’ KINGDOM ARE THOSE WHO ENTER IT, AND THEY ARE THOSE WITH CHILDLIKE FAITH.
And thanks to Jesus. that’s you and me!