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Children Learn What They Live And Live What They Learn

Matthew 18:1-6, 10-11

I read the Bible every day of my life.

I read the Bible on my brightest days and I read it on my darkest days. I read it when I am filled with happiness and I read it when I am plunged into despair. I read it when my beliefs and convictions are sound and I read it when doubts gnaw away at the edges of my soul. I read the Bible every day of my life. And I have found that when I read the Bible, I always find something new, something which never occurred to me before.

The new treasure I found this week is in Matthew, Chapter 18, where Jesus took a child and placed that child in the midst of the company of His disciples. What I saw this week, which had escaped my notice before, is that Jesus here offers us two teachings which at first glance seem contradictory. In verse 3, He says: “Unless you turn (unless you are converted) and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Then in verse 6, He says: “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Notice that on the one hand, Jesus is suggesting that we are to learn from children—they can show us what it means to be true disciples of Jesus Christ. But notice that on the other hand, we are to teach the children—and woe be to anyone who ever leads a child astray. As I pondered these twin propositions—that the children lead us and that we lead the children—I suddenly found myself with a sermon to preach…

First, consider with me how we can learn from the children.

This is an especially beautiful moment in the ministry of Jesus. We are told that Jesus “called to Himself a child and He put him in the midst of them.” There is a tradition that the child grew up to be Ignatius of Antioch, one of the great heroes of the early church, because Ignatius was surnamed “Theophorous,” which means “God-carried,” and the tradition grew that he had received that name because Jesus carried him in His arms when he was a child. Perhaps that is true. But frankly, I think it was Peter who asked the question which triggered this whole incident, and that it was Peter’s little boy whom Jesus took and set in their midst. Given the fact that Peter was married and that this event took place in or near Peter’s home in Capernaum, I think that idea is not too far-fetched.

In any case, Jesus placed this child before the disciples and said: “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus’ reference here obviously is not to “childishness,” but to “childlikeness.” He was saying that we need to become more childlike in our approach to life. It is a quality we tend to lose with age. Our society pressures us to become cold and calculating and image-conscious, none of which fosters a joyous relationship to Jesus Christ.

I remember a Pee Wee League football game I attended some years ago. The sponsor of the pep squad for one of the teams had her third-grade girls sitting prim and proper in starched uniforms and white gloves. They performed their cheers in neat and orderly fashion. All went well until their team scored a touchdown. Suddenly, all those little girls came unglued, jumping and squealing and hugging each other. The sponsor was furious. She cried out: “Sit down and straighten up! When I was your age in a pep squad, I never acted like that!” A moment later, I heard one of the little girls mutter: “She was never our age!” Somehow over the years, we lose our childlikeness and it is such a shame.

I like how Elton Trueblood put it. He wrote: “God has sent children into the world, not only to replenish it, but also to refresh it, to serve as sacred reminders of something ineffably precious which we are always in danger of losing.” That’s why Jesus was so forthright in declaring that children, better than anyone or anything else, can teach us the things of God.

They teach us, for example, about trust. A child is instinctively dependent, and just as instinctively that child trusts parents to meet basic needs in life. When we are children, we cannot secure our own food or buy our own clothes or maintain our own home, yet we never doubt that we will be fed and clothed and sheltered at home. It never enters our heads to doubt that our parents will meet our needs and secure our safety. There was a family who had moved to a military base and their youngster was in the first grade. The first day in class in response to the teacher’s question, this little boy said that they had not been able to find an apartment yet. The teacher responded: “I am so sorry that you have not yet found a home.” The little boy immediately declared: “Oh, Teacher, we have a home. We just haven’t found a house to put it in!” That child is sensitive to the love of the home and never doubts it. Martin Luther once held his child in his arms and said: “Dear little one, your enemies include the Pope, the bishops, Duke Fredrick and King Charles, yet you lie here peacefully asleep because you are in your father’s arms.” Children do not question the love of their father, and thus they demonstrate to us what faith ought to be.

Children also teach us about truth. They say things and see things as they really are. We laugh at cartoons like Peanuts and Dennis the Menace, but many times the humor in those cartoons arises out of the blunt openness and honesty of the children. It’s like the four-year-old little girl who embarrassed her mother as they were leaving church one Sunday. She said: “Mommy, why don’t you just leave your Bible here? That way, next Sunday morning you won’t have such a hard time finding it!” Children do deal in truth, don’t they? James Dobson tells about little Adrianne, three-years-old, had a five-month-old brother, Nathan, whom she loved. Their mother worried about the little girl picking up the baby and dropping him, so she forbade Adrianne from carrying Nathan. One day the mother was busy in the kitchen, and suddenly realized that both children were gone. Down the long hall to the bedroom wing she went with concern mounting. She found the two children playing happily in Adrianne’s bedroom. Relieved, but upset, the mother snapped: “Adrianne, I told you never to carry Nathan. He could be hurt if you dropped him.” Adrianne replied: “I didn’t carry him.” The mother understandably suspicious, demanded: “Then how did he get all the way from the kitchen to your room?” Adrianne said: “I rolled him!” Can’t you just see it—rolling him over and over until they got there! Children tell it Like it is. Would to God that we could heave away all our hypocrisy and be finished with our fakery, and speak and act with the plainness, the openness, the honesty, and the purity of children. “They teach us about truth.

Jesus said: “Unless you turn and become like children…” That is, “Unless your life is marked by a childlike trust and truth and faith, then you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” The children lead us. Oh, by the way, someone once said something very interesting about the great theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “He was a giant among men because he was a child before God.” Isn’t that wonderful?

Secondly, consider with me how the children are to learn from us.

Jesus said: “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for him to have a millstone fastened to his neck and be drowned in the deepest sea.” My friends, we are to be for our children and for the children of the church, not millstones but milestones! We are to lead them “in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake”!

You, no doubt, have seen the series of statements by Dorothy Law Nolte entitledChildren Learn What They Live.” Let me remind you of them:

“If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight.
If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy.
If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty.
If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient.
If a child lives with encouragement, he learns confidence.
If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice.
If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith.
If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself.
If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.”

How beautiful and how true! Children do learn what they live. That places upon us as Christians, both in the home and at the church, the responsibility for leading our children aright in a world tempting them toward the wrong. Did you see the newspaper the other day? Front page. An exhaustive new national survey reveals that nearly nine out of ten Americans say they believe in God, but they want to make up their own moral code. Only thirteen percent of the American people still believe in all ten of The Commandments. Nine out of ten lie regularly. A third of all married Americans have had an affair. A fifth of the nation’s children have lost their virginity by age 13. Tell me, do you want the children of this church to be shaped by that kind of world? Remember Jesus’ warning about the millstone and the deep blue sea! You see, children not only learn what they live, they go on to live what they learn. Therefore, we as the church must lead our children in the paths of God’s righteousness.

We must give our children conviction. We must stand for Biblical principles which are fleshed out in personal convictions, and those convictions need to be passed on to the youngsters following after us. Let me share with you a few of my own convictions, for what it’s worth:

  1. I deeply resent the name of God being used in a casual, disrespectful, or blasphemous manner. His name is too wonderful to be taken in vain.
  2. I do not care to hear racial slurs, even in jest. Our national record is too pathetic to indulge in such innuendoes.
  3. I believe you always “lose with booze”. Given the effects of alcohol in our society, I believe Christians should refrain.
  4. I maintain that an uncompromising stand must be taken against pornography. It is the single most dehumanizing force at work in our society.
  5. I hold to the notion that Christians ought never to place personal happiness or desire above the protection and preservation of life. Therefore, I must always stand against those dimensions of our human experience which seek to destroy life.

Now, I am not asking you to agree with my particular convictions, but I am asking us in the church to stand for something lest we fall for anything, to develop some convictions and communicate them to the children of this church so that they can live for Christ in the world.

And we need to give our children affection. We are familiar with the term “self-fulfilling prophecy.” It means that we tend to conform to the image we have of ourselves. If we see ourselves as awkward, then we will stumble about. If we see ourselves as intelligent, we will generally act intelligently. And if we see ourselves as bad, unacceptable, unloveable, or unworthy, that is how we shall behave.

In his book Mistreated, Ron Lee Davis tells about two altar boys. One was born in 1892 in Eastern Europe. The other was born three years later in a small town in Illinois. Though the two boys lived in different parts of the world, they had almost identical experiences. Each boy assisted his local priest in the serving of communion. Ironically, each boy, while holding the communion cup, accidentally spilled wine on the carpet. There the similarities end. The priest in the Eastern European slapped the boy hard across the face and shouted: “Clumsy oaf! Leave the altar!” That little boy grew up to be an atheist, a communist, and the brutal dictator of Yugoslavia from 1943-1980. His name was Josip Broz Tito. The priest in Illinois, upon seeing the stain near the altar, knelt down by the little boy, looked him tenderly in the eyes, and said: “It’s all right, son. You’ll do better next time. You are going to make a fine priest for God someday.” That little boy grew up to become the much-beloved Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Two young boys with two similar experiences but with two radically different endings.

My friends, our children need to feel loved, accepted, and appreciated. Why? Because children learn what they live, and they go on to live what they learn.


Let me leave you with this and let me leave this with you. Kay Whitmore is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Kodak. Recently, he and his company sponsored a survey of fourth graders. They got an opinion from 21,000 fourth graders in 44 different cities. Among the questions they asked was this: “Who is the number one hero of America’s 9 and 10 year-olds? A. Bart Simpson. B. George Bush. C. Paula Abdul. D. Bo Jackson. E. None of the above.”What would you guess those 9 and 10 year-olds chose? Their unanimous answer was “Item E, None of the above.” They named their parents as heroes. Children today are looking for role models, and frankly they are looking close to home: teachers, coaches, Sunday School teachers, mentors, community leaders, relatives, parents. They are looking to us. God help us to take that responsibility seriously.

Think about that this week, will you?

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