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The Kingdom of God Belongs to Children

January 16, 2022 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 18:15-17 (NRSV)

People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Focus

Jesus made it clear that the kingdom of God isn’t just for the privileged and the powerful. In fact, he said, in reference to children, that “it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Luke 18:16). Our churches will reflect and embody God’s kingdom when we are truly inclusive of children and others who are so easily and often excluded.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

In last Thursday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we began to reflect on a short story in Luke 18. As you may recall, people were bringing their young children to Jesus so that he might bless them. His disciples, however, ordered them to stop, presumably trying to help Jesus with their prohibition. But Jesus corrected his disciples, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:16-17). In tomorrow’s devotion we’ll consider what it means to enter the kingdom of God “as a little child.” Today, I’d like to focus on Jesus’s statement that “it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (18:16).

First, we should be clear that by saying “to such as these” Jesus wasn’t claiming that the kingdom of God belongs only to children. As he makes clear in the following verse, the kingdom belongs to those who are in some way like children, including those of us who are grown up. We’ll get to this tomorrow.

Second, by saying that the kingdom belongs “to such as these” children, Jesus indicates that God’s kingdom is not only for those who are cultural “somebodies.” Children in the time of the Roman Empire were basically cultural “nobodies,” people without influence, power, or honor. If the kingdom of God were to reflect the values of the kingdom of Rome, then it would privilege the cultural elites. But, as Jesus explains, the reign of God turns things upside down. It includes those who would usually have been excluded: children, widows, immigrants, slaves, and the poor.

Third, by saying that God’s kingdom belongs “to such as these” children, Jesus is also showing that actual children belong to the kingdom. You don’t have to be an adult in order to live under God’s reign. In fact, as we’ll see tomorrow, too much “adultness” can be a liability when it comes to the kingdom of God.

Though the church is not identical to the kingdom of God, it is certainly meant to reflect and embody the values and the reality of God’s reign. Thus, in light of what Jesus said about children and the kingdom, including children in significant ways should be a high priority for our churches. There are many different ways of putting this priority into practice, of course. But all of us should ask ourselves if we are truly and intentionally including children, making sure our corporate life communicates the inclusiveness of the kingdom of God.

Once again, I want to conclude with an example from my experience as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. When I began as pastor, we did many wonderful things with and for children. Our Sunday morning program for kids was excellent. We had a strong parent education ministry. But when it came to including children in worship, we were rather lukewarm at best.

For example, on Palm Sunday children were included in worship, but in an odd way. All the children from the Sunday School were given palm fronds. The, while the adults in the worship service sang “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” several times, the children would march through our worship center, waving their palms. It was an appropriate illustration of the lyrics, “All glory, laud, and honor
to you, Redeemer, King, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring. . . . The people of the Hebrews with palms before you went; our praise and prayer and anthems before you we present.” The children, it seemed, loved to do this. And their parents loved to see their children in worship.

Though I appreciated this effort to include children, it seemed inadequate to me. It felt like the children were on display rather than having them joining us for worship. So my leaders and I got creative, building upon this tradition. Rather than having children march through our sanctuary, we had them come in and sit down up front. There would be a short sermon for the children as well as opportunities for some of the older children to lead in worship (praying, reading Scripture, singing in the children’s choir). Doing this meant that we had to adjust our expectations for Palm Sunday worship. There would be less time for “adult” activities, perhaps one less hymn or (gasp!) a shorter sermon. Yet these seemed like worthwhile sacrifices for the sake of including children in our worship service. (The photo is from one of our Palm Sunday services.)

Now, as I’ve said before, this is just one example of one church trying to be faithful to Jesus’s teaching on children and the kingdom of God. Today, many churches are doing far more when it comes to consistent intergenerational worship and mission. They are doing things, not just for children, but with children as partners in ministry. What’s essential is not that we imitate what one church has done with children, though we can certainly learn from the examples of others. Rather, we need to take ask the Lord together for wisdom about how we can include children more consistently in our distinctive congregational contexts.

Even if you’re not in leadership at your church, there may be ways you can help your community become more inclusive of children (and others with limited cultural power). Moreover, you can always ask the Lord if there’s something you need to do in response to the teaching of Jesus. It may be as simple as making an effort to greet and encourage the children who live next door to you.

Reflect

How do you respond to Jesus’s statement that the kingdom of God belongs to “such as these,” referring to children?

How does your church include children in its corporate life and mission?

Are there ways you can respond to Jesus’s teaching on children in your own life?

Act

Do something in the next few days to affirm and encourage a child.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for helping us to understand that children and others “such as these” are included in the kingdom of God. Without your guidance, we might easily be like the disciples, who saw children as annoying distractions rather than as beloved citizens of the kingdom.

Help my church, Lord, to be creative in our effort to include children. May we discover in new ways the power and joy of intergenerational worship and mission.

Show me, Lord, how I might extend your love and grace to the children in my life. Use me to let children know how much they matter to you. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Work of Play: How Childlike Fun Brings Life to Work


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