Introduction: Hello and welcome to this message from Pastor Skip Heitzig of Calvary Albuquerque. Skip's messages are shared globally, and we're grateful when we hear how God uses them to advance his kingdom. If this teaching shines his love into your life, we'd like to know. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you'd like to support this ministry financially, you can give online securely at calvaryabq.org/giving. Jesus Loves People---that's the profound truth at the heart of our series, and it's the truth at the very heart of the gospel. Children are the most vulnerable in society and often fall through the cracks. In the message "Jesus Loves Children," we look at how Jesus loved children and consider our mandate to care for them. Let's open our Bibles as Pastor Skip begins.
Skip Heitzig: Would you turn in your Bibles, please, to two passages of Scripture: the gospel of Matthew, chapter 19, it's the first book in your New Testament; and then toward the end of your New Testament the book of James, chapter 1; Matthew 19 and James, chapter 1. My childhood was filled with so many great memories. And if you ever went to Sunday school, you remember being taught a song, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world." And another song that was familiar, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." So those are songs that help children know that they are loved. The sad thing is we live in a world where not everyone loves children. There was a man in the eighteen hundreds who was a diplomat, a politician in this country.
Most aren't familiar with his name. His name was Charles Francis Adams. It's not a familiar name; though, his father's name is more familiar. He was one of our presidents, John Quincy Adams. Charles Francis Adams was also in politics and he had a son. He went out fishing one day with his son, came back, and he wrote this in his diary: "Went fishing with my son today---a day wasted." His son also kept a diary, which is still in existence to this day. And on the very same day in the son's diary these words appear: "Went fishing with my father today---the most wonderful day of my life!" What a difference, ay? What polar opposites in entries in a journal: one that would see the day as wasted; the other that would see the day as invested.
So what is it that makes the difference between time wasted and time invested? Purpose, I would answer, purpose. What is the purpose of life? What is the purpose of that boy's life? Every human being has purpose. And one of the greatest and most fun, exciting discoveries is to find out what our purpose is. It's been said, "The two greatest days of your life is the day you were born and then the day that you discovered what you were born for." Sadly, however, there's lots of people that don't get the chance to make that discovery, because of what's happening in their world. In a few days I'm going to be traveling to the Middle East to Jordan, to Lebanon, and to Iraq.
If you have at all kept up with any of the news, you know that there's a group in that part of the world known as the Islamic State. They have displaced millions, millions of people, not hundreds or thousands. Millions of people have been displaced, four million in Syria alone, by this group. And they have targeted Christians. Many of your brothers and sisters that you've never met in that part of the world are being tortured and brutalized by this group. And, sadly, in their crosshairs are children and women. Can you imagine what it would be like? It's really difficult to do so, but imagine being a child watching your parents killed. Imagine being a child and having everything you've known taken away in an instant, and the sense of despair and being forlorn, having to fend for yourself in a refugee camp.
And then imagine what it would be like for a Christian child to see that happen, and the sense of doubt and despair and wonder if there really is a God would settle in. But then imagine what it would be like to be one of those kids and have somebody come and help rescue you and bring you to a safe place, and provide for clothing and shelter and warmth, and give you the hope that is found in Jesus Christ alone. Last year I was in Lebanon, and I was with a friend who's a pastor named Sammy Dagger---he has been to this church---a fiery, Lebanese preacher. And I noticed when I was at Sammy's house in his backyard was this shelter. And I noticed people inside of it. I said, "Sammy, what's going on in your backyard?"
He said, "I have a family living in my backyard. I built a little shelter for them. These are one of millions of refugees that have come from Syria and have found their home in these countries around." What I noticed is there was an older woman and several young children. I knew they couldn't be her children, and they weren't, they were her grandchildren. And the story was, is that her son, the elder woman's son, was coming home on his bicycle in Syria with a bag of rice, was stopped by this Islamic State, killed, beheaded, the rice taken, and now a family was without a father, a woman was without a husband. The mother wasn't there when I looked out back. And I met the family.
The mother wasn't there, and Sammy said, "She has gone back into Syria with her newborn in hopes of finding her husband's body, just to give him a decent burial." And that is just one small story of millions of stories like that that could be told. I know that's a sad way to start a message, but I want to bring you some hope in Matthew, chapter 19, and then James, chapter 1. Matthew 19 is all about the demonstration of love. James 1 is all about the admonition to do so. In the first setting of Matthew's gospel, it's an encounter that Jesus has with children. There's only three verses, but it's very, very significant. And then James, chapter 1, is a summary statement written by James about the nature of true Christian faith.
We're going to begin in Matthew 19 and then move over to James, chapter 1. But we're going to begin with parents, those that brought their children to Jesus, parents' spiritual concern for their kids. Matthew 19 verse 13, "Then little children were brought"---we can only presume they were brought by parents. And that's confirmed by the other two times this story appears in the gospel of Mark and Luke. "Then little children were brought to him that he might put his hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, 'Let the little children come me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.' And he laid his hands on them and departed from there."
Now, first of all, I want to say that this text that we just read has absolutely nothing to do with bringing children into the main sanctuary for main service. Could we just get that out of the way? [laughter] Because I have to say that, because over the years you would be amazed how many people have tried to pull out that passage as if Jesus had that in his mind when he spoke that. This has everything to do with how Jesus views children and how he cares for them. Now the other two gospels that I mention, Mark and Luke, in telling the story, it doesn't say children were brought to him, it says "they were bringing" their children to him. It's in the imperfect tense, which means a continuing action. So the idea is over a period of time these parents were bringing their children to him.
They knew that Jesus was in their area. They knew that Jesus loved children, because in the previous chapter he has picked up a child in his arms and cradled that child, and said to his disciples, "You guys need to become like one of these kids." So these parents, knowing Jesus was in the area, they brought their children over to him over an extended period of time, which was common practice. Jewish people would often want to find a rabbi that was esteemed and notable and get that rabbi to lay hands on that child and pray for the child's future and blessing. The Talmud even instructs parents to do so. And so typically on the first birthday of the child they would bring their children to the synagogues, and that child would be brought before the rabbi and the rabbi would pronounce a blessing or say a prayer.
And it's something that we have followed here in our baby dedications. We don't see baby dedications as equivalent to baptizing an infant; we just have the opportunity to pray for the child's future in front of the whole congregation. And so they brought these children to Jesus. Notice what it says, though, "that he might put his hands on them." What a beautiful thought---"Jesus Christ touching my child with his hand." Why was that important to them? Because they had seen what those hands could do. They saw what those hands were capable of doing: touching eyes, blind, letting them see again; ears, deaf, they could hear again; people who were dead, they could live again. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if Jesus could touch my child?"
So they're bringing their kids to Jesus. They want a blessing said over those children. They would love it if Jesus would touch and cuddle their children, because they're concerned about their children. Let me just suggest this for any parent---get your kid to Jesus as early as possible. The younger, the better. Charles Spurgeon used to say, and I love to quote: "Before a child reaches seven, teach him all the way to heaven; and better still the work will thrive, if he learns before he's five." The earlier, the better. Get your kids to Jesus that he might bless them that he might get in touch with those young hearts and minds. You see, a parent is a partner with God in making disciples of children. So, they brought their children to Jesus that he might put his hands on them and pray.
But then notice it says in verse 13, "but the disciples"---oh, great, here they come. "But the disciples rebuked them." Now this is a little mystifying, is it not? For the disciples had been with Jesus by this time two whole years. For two years they had watched him, they had heard his sermons, they have hung out with him, they shared meals with him, experiences with him. But they obviously didn't share his heart. And so we wonder, "How is it possible that these disciples, after being with Jesus this long, would dare rebuke parents for bringing children to him, knowing the heart of the Master, the heart of this Savior that they serve?" Well, it does show something interesting: you can be close to our Lord in proximity and yet far from him in priority. And they were.
But the question remains: Why? Why is it? Well, some have suggested that the disciples were a little bit tainted by the Greco-Roman culture, the world around them. You may or may not know that in the ancient society, the Greco-Roman world, childhood was considered an insignificant phase of life. Which I've always wondered at, because you have to go through that phase to get to any other phase, which would make all phases of humanity important and significant. But to them it was-it was minified. It was marginalized. It was an insignificant phase of life. Children were not valued. Routinely, young children who were not wanted were simply placed outside on the roadsides or on garbage dumps. And in antiquity in Roman cities, each city had a meeting place, a forum, downtown.
Children were brought to the forum and left there. Many of them died. Those that survived were sold into slavery to become gladiators or to become prostitutes. And those that fared the worst were always girls, always girls. And that, again, was because of the ancient way of thinking that was wrong thinking; and that is, a girl poses a financial burden to the family, whereas that boy can eventually at least bring in an income. And believe it or not, that is how they thought. A letter has been found from 1 BC by a Roman soldier named Hilarion to his wife Alis. Knowing that she's about to give birth to a child, he writes: "If it is a male child, let it live; if it is a female, cast it out." That was their thinking. But I can't believe that these disciples would be tainted by that kind of thinking.
They were Jewish and they were followers of Jesus, so I doubt that the reason they rebuked the parents was because of Greco-Roman culture. No. I think the reason the disciples rebuked the parents in trying to bring their children to Jesus is because the disciples were influenced by religious thinking. I wanted to pause, because I wanted that to sink in. They were influenced by ultrareligious thinking. Did you know that the Pharisees---that-that sect of Judaism two thousand years ago that was really ultra hard core---they scorned children? And here's why: They taught that you earn one's salvation, and if you earn your salvation, somebody who's a toddler really can't earn anything; therefore, salvation does not belong to children. Can you imagine that thinking?
But that was the thinking and it would seem that these disciples are tainted by that. These would be the dads who would see fishing with their son as "a day wasted," but not Jesus. Which brings up an interesting point, sad but true: adults can become the biggest roadblocks of children coming to Jesus for a number of reasons. Now, I would love to report to you that in the year 2015 we have, as a world, as advanced cultures and societies, we've gotten really good at caring for human beings and that this really isn't a problem anymore. That's just in antiquity. That's ancient thinking. Greco-Roman culture, that is so far gone. That ultrareligious thinking, that is so far gone. But we live in a world that is seeing an increase, not a decrease, in the exploitation of children.
And those who are most vulnerable are cruelly being butchered, and those are the children. According to Congressman Frank Wolf who wrote a recent report called the "Edge of Extinction," all about ISIS the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said, "Women and children are banished from their homes, and they huddle with hundreds of thousands of them in abject misery." The article told of one Christian woman whose family could not flee the city of Qaraqosh when the Islamic State invaded on August 6th, because her husband is blind. She said, "We could hear them crying in the streets, 'Allah akbar!' 'Christians, go away or we will kill you!' After that they came to our house. 'Convert or we will kill you,' they said." The next thing she knew, the jihadists had snatched her three-year-old daughter from her lap and took the baby away.
One report of seven hundred girls captured and taken to Mosul says the girls were separated according to eye color. And members of the Islamic State were allowed to choose the young women according to their personal preference. The leftover girls were then separated into two camps, the "pretty" camp and the "ugly" camp, with those deemed most beautiful transported elsewhere. The rest were killed, they committed suicide, or they were sold as sex slaves. Reuters news agency reports, "We have reports of children, especially children that are mentally challenged, who have been used as suicide bombers and probably without them even understanding what they were doing." Report after report after report after report confirms children who are being crucified, beheaded, and buried alive.
So I admire these parents in our text. "Let's bring our children to Jesus that he might bless them, that he might lay his hand on them." Now notice Jesus' care, his special care of these children. He says in verse 14, "Let the little children come to me." He's saying this to his disciples who are trying to prevent it all. "Let the children come to me, do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven." One translation puts it this way: "Leave them alone; let them come." "Quit bothering them. Quit keeping them away." Now, keep in mind, this verse, verse 14, is so important that it is included in your Bible three times: Matthew, Mark, and Luke---all three Synoptic Gospels have this statement of Jesus which simply highlights God's view of children.
I think we can all agree, God has a tender spot in his heart for children, so much so that Jesus held up that child in his arms and said to his disciples, "You adults need to become like this." "Unless you become like little children, you will be no means enter into the kingdom of heaven." So Jesus loved them. He was concerned for them. He knew that these little children, the world that they would face and the hardships that would be in front of them. One Scottish author and poet named George MacDonald used to say, "I doubt a man's Christianity unless I can find kids playing at his doorstep." You see, children have an enormous capacity for spiritual things. And it's so easy for a child to be introduced to Jesus and to believe in him, so easy.
It seems that you have to deliberately put a lie into a child's heart to get him not to believe in God. I've always loved the story told by Adrian Rogers, the onetime pastor in Atlanta, Georgia. He said there was a lie detector test in that city, and one of the questions at that time on the lie detector test was: "Do you believe in God?" And every now and then somebody would come in and be an atheist, and the question was asked: "Do you believe in God?" And he or she would say, "No." And the lie detector reading would say "liar," you know, it would register those kind of waves. So God has wired it into the heart of children to be close to him.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon writes, "I have more confidence in the life---spiritual life of children than I have in the spiritual condition of adults . . . I have usually found a clearer knowledge of the gospel and the warmer love for Christ in child converts than in adult converts. I have sometimes met with a deeper spiritual experience in children of ten to twelve than in adults between fifty and sixty." Dwight L. Moody even said, "If I could relive my whole life over again, I would spend it doing evangelism for children." So, the parents' concern for their children brought their children to Jesus, knowing Jesus was concerned for them, and he did, he showed special care. Now, would you turn with me to James 1 where we're going to close this morning.
James 1 highlights our calling, our sacred calling as believers. It's an admonition and just really two---really one verse. It's a summary statement made by the brother-in-law, or I should say the half-brother of Jesus, James who writes about faith and love. James chapter 1 verse 26, "If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." Now we have a---we have a little trouble, some of us reading this, with the word "religion," because immediately we go, "Wait a minute. You keep saying that it's all about, not religion, but relationship."
Well, here's what you need to know about the text: when James uses the word "religion," he uses a Greek word thréskeia, which describes the outward ritual ceremonies of worship, the outward expressions of rituals and ceremonies and liturgies. It was a word Josephus the historian used to describe worship in the temple at Jerusalem that you could see with your eye. Paul used that word to describe his own religious life as a Pharisee before he came to Christ. It is not the typical New Testament word. The typical New Testament word is eusebeia, which describes a sincere, God-fearing, authentic adoration and worship.
So, "If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, that one's religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and keep oneself unspotted from the world." In other words, all of your religious liturgy is worthless unless you show it by your lips and by your life. That's the essence of what he is saying. Or, if you prefer, a religion that is limited to the sanctuary, but doesn't go out to the streets, isn't worth anything. It's not real. Isaiah, chapter 1, says basically the same thing. God says through the prophet, " 'To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me?' says the Lord?" That's the outward religion.
"Stop bringing meaningless offerings to me. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my face from you." And then he goes on to say, "Defend the cause of the fatherless," the children that have no parents, the orphans, and "plead the case of the widows." So back to verse 27, "Pure and undefiled religion before God is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." Lip service without life service is empty religion; but lip service combined with life service is true devotion. But why does he isolate these two groups? Why does he say widows and orphans, widows and orphans? It's easy to answer that question, because those two groups represented the most vulnerable of ancient culture.
Not only that, but because of that, because it was the groups that were the castaways and never thought about and never cared for as much. Throughout the Bible God does highlight them and does care for them. If you know anything at all about the Scripture as a whole, it places a special emphasis on loving and caring for these two groups. For example, in Psalm 68 God is called the "father of the fatherless. A defender of the widows, is God in his holy habitation." In the ancient law of Moses in Exodus 22:22, the Lord says, "Do not take advantage or exploit a widow or an orphan." And then every three years the children of Israel had to bring one-tenth, a tithe of all their produce and bring it to the center of their town.
The Lord said this: "So that the widow and the orphan who are in your town shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you." In other words, "The blessing that I will give you is part and parcel of how you treat the orphan and the widow." And just to make that point stronger, God pronounces a curse on those who don't. In Deuteronomy 27, "'Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien,' "not from outer space, but a foreigner, "'an orphan, and a widow.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.' "So since it's in the Bible, can I get an "amen"? I like it when you do that. [laughter] Now, please note something that to me is fundamental: in going over these Scriptures we immediately see the difference between radical Islam and genuine Christianity.
Because the very ones that these religious zealots target for death are the very ones that God targets for care and love. It is the polar opposite. It is the polar opposite. [applause] Look at the word "visit." "Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows." Now you read that, I don't think it's the best translation, because you think, "Okay, go over and have a cup of coffee with them." The word "visit" means to look in on and look after or to care for, to care for. The word is interesting. The word "visit" is a word---I'm going to tell it to you, and some of you, I don't expect all of you, might recognize it: episkeptomai. Now you go, "What? Is that a disease?" Episkeptomai, it is the same root as the word episkopos, which means a bishop.
You've heard of the Episcopal Church. That comes from the Greek word episkopos, a bishop, an overseer. Episkeptomai means visit. So the word, just like you have a shepherd caring for the souls of a congregation, the word "visit" means to shepherd the souls of and care for the widows and the orphans. Now, something that I think is also important: when James wrote this letter, his audience was already poor, already persecuted, had troubles of their own. But James is telling them, "I know you're suffering, but at the same time don't stop having compassion for people who are worse off than you are. Don't become so insulated and isolated that all you think about is just your weak, but have compassion on the least of these."
And, by the way, one of the best things you can ever do for yourself when you're in trouble is to help somebody who's in more trouble. It will do wonders for you, guaranteed. Here in the West whenever we hear of suffering, it's a sound bite for the most part. And, unfortunately, a lot of us get our news from comedians, not even the news, so we don't even know what the news is. But we're so used to sound bites, and in our comfortable Western environment when we hear of these atrocities, immediately we just sort of want to wrestle with it academically. And we kind of go here, "Well, how can there be a God of love who would allow that to happen?" Right? That's where we go with it. But let me throw that back at you.
Let me put you into the issue and me into the issue: Now that I know about what is happening, why would I allow it to happen? I'm the body of Christ. I'm a part of his body on earth. Now that I am aware, what am I going to do to help? I told you about the millions of people, in Syria alone two million children have lost homes, schools, friends, families. They're saying now the children in the streets in that part of the world, instead of playing the children are always fighting each other. Why do you think that is? That's all they've seen. They've seen fighting and that's what they're doing. And one report was a twelve-year-old girl, she was being interviewed, she said, "I miss my school, my teacher. I want to grow up in my own home."
And she was just then, during the interview, interrupted by her younger brother running up and down outside on the mud street with a gun made out of a piece of wood shouting over and over again this word: "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!" Who knows the way to freedom better than one who knows the Lord Jesus Christ? Whoever has the Son, he will set him free indeed. We have such an opportunity in our own town, in our own state, in our own country, as well as in the rest of the world to show the least of these love and compassion. What a privilege it is to do so. Let's pray. Lord, we have the greatest---I shun to say it---product that guarantees freedom; and that is, when a person encounters the Lord Jesus Christ.
The gospel itself---undiminished, told, explained, lived out---can transform a child, a woman, a man, and even a terrorist, as I have met many of those who from the past were involved in these organizations who are now fighting against them and standing up for your kingdom. Lord, we do wonder, we struggle with evil and the presence of evil in this world, and we wonder about why you don't do anything. And maybe you're wondering the same thing about us, especially those who represent you. Thank you for the privilege that we have to nurture one another and to worship together in freedom like this, and then to help those who are unable to do so, in Jesus' name, amen.
Closing: Children are extremely precious to God and he considers them his very own. That means we must love them abundantly too. How will you be an agent of God's love to the children in your life? Let us know. Email email@example.com. And just a reminder: you can give financially to this work at calvaryabq.org/giving. Thank you for joining us for this teaching from Skip Heitzig of Calvary Albuquerque.