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For The Love of The Game

A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.

June 9, 2013                                                                                                

Psalm 26:8-12; Mark 10:13-16

Before I began my preparation for this sermon I was already familiar with the story we read a few moments ago from Mark’s gospel, the one about the children and the disciples. My guess is you were too. If you have much experience with church, or are familiar with the Bible at all, I would think you know it. Many of us learned this story when we were young, didn’t we?

But you know how it is with scripture. You can take the most familiar of passages – the 23rd Psalm or John 3:16, readily and easily come to mind – and every time you read it again you discover a nugget that had never before crossed your mind. Or maybe a question about it comes to your consciousness, one you had never considered before. Has that ever happened to you? I’d be surprised if it hasn’t. Well, in thinking about this scripture passage, as I was preparing for today’s service of worship, a fresh, new thought came to mind.

This new understanding came in the form of a question; a question for which I’m not sure I have a definite answer. But as you well know, that’s never kept me from having a theory about scripture, and that’s certainly true for today. It’s the story of Jesus blessing the children, remember? Why were the children there in the first place? That’s the question. Why were the children even there?

In its context, we have to think that this was not the time or the place for the presence of children. Jesus was busy; his disciples were busy. They had kingdom work to do… preach the gospel, heal the sick, cure the lepers, feed the hungry, even bring the dead back to life. Deal with those pesky Pharisees… don’t forget about that. Jesus and his disciples don’t have time for the children.

Even if the disciples didn’t know it, Jesus was quite aware that his time was short. As I’ve told you before, while he never seemed to get in a hurry – just ask Mary and Martha, not to mention Lazarus – there was still an urgency about everything he did. He didn’t have much time, and he had so much to do. How in the world could he possibly have time for the children? The answer is simple: he didn’t.

Vacation Bible School begins tonight, as you well know – as we have well documented – and prayed for, and prepared for. But to be perfectly honest, we really don’t have time for it. I mean, we’ve got sick folk in the church who need pastoral visits and the continued attention of their friends. And even though we now have finally entered the summer season, with school being out and all, we’ve got the Centennial to think about. We’ve committed to making some physical changes around here that are going to be time-and-energy consuming, and we’ve got to get them done by the last weekend in August.

            We don’t have time for Vacation Bible School. We really don’t. Talk about energy-consuming. If you’re not involved in VBS, and you wonder about that, just come Thursday night when we have our school-ending party. You’ll see a lot of haggard but relieved faces in this place. We really don’t have time for this.

And that’s exactly what Jesus’ disciples are thinking too. So are the Pharisees. Jesus is in Judea, just beyond the Jordan River. Mark is quite specific in letting us know where he is, maybe because this is the territory where the Pharisees have a large and healthy population. It doesn’t take much effort on their part to find Jesus, and once they find him to grill him with more questions. The Pharisees are constantly asking Jesus questions, not because they have a healthy respect for him and want to learn from him. No, their motive is not quite as clean and pure as all that.

It’s fairly understandable when you think about it. So, before we go and get hot and bothered about this – it’s really easy to pick on the Pharisees, isn’t it? – we need to understand that this was their job. This is what they did. Any time a new prophet came along, or a rabbi who has not gotten his credentials from one of their accredited seminaries, it is their responsibility to sniff him out, see what it is that makes him tick, and then determine whether he’s going to get their seal of approval.  They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do. So, they have yet another question for him.

This time the question has to do with divorce. It was then, and still is, a tricky issue for those who take faith seriously. After their conversation, which I’m sure brought no satisfaction whatsoever to the Pharisees, if for no other reason than Jesus didn’t give them the answer they were looking for – but then again, did Jesus ever give them the answer they were looking for? – Jesus and his disciples make their way to the house where they are staying. While in the house, away from the prying ears of the Pharisees, Jesus’ disciples ask him again about the matter of divorce. Evidently, they are also confused by his answer, just as surely as the Pharisees had been. But since they’re his disciples, they get to question him further in private. After all, one of the major aspects of their work – not to mention a wonderful perk – is to learn from him. Their intent, unlike that of the Pharisees, is obviously not to trick him but to learn from him. So, Jesus basically reiterates what he has said before.

The last word in the conversation has to do with what constitutes adultery. That’s a heavy discussion in anybody’s book, don’t you think? And it is right then – right then – that people starting bringing their children to Jesus. Talk about inappropriate, if not bad, timing.

“Wait a minute… just wait a minute. We don’t have time for the children! We’re right smack dab in the middle of a heavy biblical/theological discussion that verges on an R-rating. This is difficult, sensitive stuff we’re dealing with here. Divorce, adultery… this is not the time or the place for children. Take them home where they belong. We don’t have time for the children! We’ve got more important fish to fry.”

The word that is used for Jesus’ response to the disciples is translated indignant. I would tell you what the Greek word is, but it’s quite long and I’d probably stumble over it, so let’s stay with the words we know. Besides, where I come from, the word simply means that Jesus was mad enough to spit! Have you ever wondered why Jesus was so bothered by the disciples’ attitude?

He might have seen the presence of the children as a nice break from the heavy action of having to deal with the questioning, not only by the Pharisees but also by his very own disciples. After all, time management experts will tell you that when you are working intensely, the best thing you can do is take at least five minutes out of the hour for a break, to do something entirely different from what you are doing at the moment. Stretch your muscles, check your e-mails, drink some tea… anything that serves as a break from the work you are doing. Maybe Jesus enjoyed being with the children because he was such a good manager of his time and he needed a break from the action, and their presence provided him a much-needed recess.

“Let the little children come to me,” he said; “do not stop them.”

“I need a little me-time, and the children will give me that. It doesn’t hurt anything to become like a child every once in awhile.” That seems to be what Jesus is saying.

But something tells me there has to be more to it than that. Don’t you agree? After all, he then turns it into a theological lesson every bit as important and eternal in nature as the conversation about marriage and divorce and adultery. Jesus seems to turn everything into a lesson on the kingdom of heaven. It was one of his greatest abilities and gifts. The clue to this lesson is found in what Jesus says next. “For it is to such as these (the children) that the kingdom of God belongs. Amen, I tell you,” Jesus says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And then he takes the children into his arms, lays his hands on them, and blesses them. And all the while, his red-faced disciples just stand there in amazement at such a thing.

As important as discussions on marriage and divorce and adultery may be, Jesus is saying that having the attitude of a child is just as much so, if not more, important and eternal. Jesus has this gift of taking the moment – whether it’s in the often unwelcomed presence of the Pharisees or the very welcomed presence of the children – and turning it into a lesson on the kingdom of God.

And I can’t help but believe that that’s why the children are there.

In light of that, let me tell you about my very first experience at a major league baseball game. In fact, it is my very first recollection or memory… ever. I was just a toddler when I remember my dad carrying me into the largest room I had ever seen. People were everywhere, talking excitedly and enjoying being together. And it was bright! There were huge lights all around the room, and down below, on the floor of this big room, were men running around. It was, I would realize years later, the old Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.

Of course, I was so young I had no clue what was going on, or where I was – that I can recall, anyway – except that my dad told me later I would shout, “Go, Eno! Go, Eno!” #9, Enos Slaughter, the Cardinals’ left fielder, had put himself in the annals of Cardinal history and lore by stealing home for the winning run in the seventh and final game of the 1946 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Evidently, my dad had talked about it so much  – he and his co-workers were listening to the game on the radio in the warehouse of the Hurt Grocer Company in Paragould when it happened – that Enos (Eno, as I called him) Slaughter had become my favorite player… until Stan Musial came along, that is.

Why did my dad take me to Sportsman’s Park when I wasn’t really old enough to understand what was going on?  Maybe they couldn’t get a babysitter. No, it wasn’t that. It was because he wanted to instill in me the love of the game in general and devotion to the St. Louis Cardinals in particular.

It worked.

 Why were the children brought to Jesus that day when he and his disciples were busy dealing with the weightier issues of life? Because their parents had come under the spell of the Nazarene who healed people and touched people and knew so much of what was and is eternally important, and they wanted their children to be blessed by him. They wanted to instill in their little ones the love of God, manifested so fully in his Son, a love that seemed to be so lacking in those who were responsible for the caretaking of the faith.

One day, they could say to their children, “You were blessed by the Master. He took you in his arms and touched you and said that you were just as important to the kingdom of heaven as anyone else, even the religious leaders who questioned him.”

It doesn’t take a particularly sharp eye to see that our friend Gene Blagg has a way with the children. He can have them laughing and eating out of his hand in just a moment. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that he takes the time to visit with them. It could be said that Gene has plenty of that… time, that is. After all, he’s retired. But he did this long before he ever stopped being a school teacher and administrator. Another possibility is that in their presence he becomes truly child-like. And notice I did not say childish. There is a big, big difference, you know.

I can’t help but think that the kingdom of heaven has a special place for people like this. Didn’t Jesus say it? Admittedly, he frames it in negative terms, but his disciples are acting a bit negatively themselves… toward the children. “…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” He prefaces that statement with, “Amen, I tell you…” That means you can go to the bank on it. Jesus said many things authoritatively, as if he heard it straight from God’s mouth. Nothing, nothing he ever said was more so than this:  “…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

So why do we take a few moments each Sunday to ask the little ones in our church to come up front and hear a sermon that is just for them? Why do we go to the trouble and expense of having an intense week of study and learning that we call Vacation Bible School, even for those children who may never darken the doors of our church otherwise? Why do we do this when we really don’t have time for it? Well, if you haven’t figured that out by now, I’m not sure there is anything else I can tell you.

Lord, help us to be children all as we approach you and your kingdom. Find in us the desire to be with you and to be blessed by you… is our prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.