"Let Them Come"
1 John 3: 1-3
A few years ago at a conference of Presbyterian youth at Purdue University, a group of youth
delegates were asked to generate a list of the top ten things they would change about their congregation’s worship services. Here are the results in no particular order: sermons fifteen minutes, tops, that talk about real people and deal with real life questions; laptops in the pews to give the preacher instant feedback; sincerity; question and answer session after the sermon; allow youth to help plan, write and participate in the service; intermission with a snack break; coloring books and crayons in the pews for younger kids; more interaction with the congregation, including music that makes them get up and dance, or at least clap; larger portions at communion; and last but not least, rumble pews that move when the pastor makes a powerful point.
Rumble pews, laptops, and snack breaks. We may not all agree with the letter of the list, but
hopefully we can all agree with the spirit. What is most encouraging about these suggestions is
how interactive they are. There seems to be a willingness and eagerness to be a part. Clearly, the
youth participating in this exercise aren’t looking at the church as a place just to take up space.
They’re seeking more input; more involvement.
Whether the children in the well-known verses we read this morning were seeking to have
more input or be more involved, or whether their parents were prodding them with the hopes
that something good would rub off, the children were there. I imagine a range of children from
in arms to children who these days would be considered elementary or middle school age. According to Mark’s placement of this episode, it was late in Jesus’ Galilean ministry. While Jesus was certainly preoccupied with other things, He paused along the way to affirm these youngsters,
allowing Himself to be caught up in all the jostling and jockeying; parents pushing and crying out:
“Bless my child rabbi! Bless my child!”
Then the disciples intervened, “sternly.” “Step back! Step back! Give Him room! Not now! We
are on our way to Judea! Jesus doesn’t have time for this!” Can’t we just picture it? The disciples
at this point look very real; very contemporary. They look like the well-paid corporate servants
shielding the besieged CEO from any contact with real, live customers. Or they look like the super-
serious agents in black suits and sunglasses protecting the President from the adoring throngs. Or
they look like the self-important entourage surrounding the pop star or pro athlete as the paparazzi
shout questions and flash photos. “Mr. James has to be ready for tonight’s game. No autographs
right now, but tee shirts are available for $24.95.” The disciples – well-intentioned as they were –
had overstepped their boundaries where Jesus was concerned. They had rewritten the agenda,
and had made some significant value judgments about who counted and who didn’t. In spite of
having walked at Jesus’ side for nearly three years, they just didn’t get it.
But Jesus gets it. Jesus sees. Jesus intervenes; sternly in Mark’s telling of the story. The way He
says what He says next is as important as what He says. The well-known words of Jesus are: “Let
the little children come to me; do not stop them.” The strength of what He says is emphasized by
positioning the positive command followed immediately by a negative command. Jesus issues an
imperative. He does not pose it as a question, like: “Oh come on fellas, why don’t you just let
them come? They’re not bothering me.” As far as Jesus is concerned, there’s no room for negotiation, rationalization, or protest on this matter. His two commands, “Let the little children come to me,” and “do not stop them,” are linked with neither break nor conjunction. In a nutshell, Jesus ain’t messin.’
In addition to using this double command, Jesus places no qualifiers with and uses no adjectives to describe children. He doesn’t say to let just the children under three or over eight to
come to Him. He doesn’t say to let just the children of Jewish ethnicity come to Him. Or the children of more affluent or prominent parents. Or those who are better educated and have higher
SAT’s. He doesn’t ask to see the top performing students, or the athletes, or those who have
memorized passages from the Torah. He just says, “Let ‘em come!” We might imagine Jesus’
reasons. Let them come because they “get it.” Let them come because their motives are purer
and more righteous than yours. Let them come because they are able to find the sacred in the
simple. Let them come because they look at cardboard boxes and imagine castles. Let them
come because they look at vacant lots and see baseball fields. Let them come because they look
at new snow and see places for angels. Let them come because they hug without reservation. Let
them come because they sing in the middle of Wal Mart and dance with abandon at the Island
Party. Let them come because they keep alive a sense of wonder. Let them come because they
know how to accept gifts.
Jann Cather Weaver, educator and professor at United Theological Seminary of the Twin
Cities, makes this observation: “When I watch children encounter and confront the objects of
their attention, I am struck by their embodiment of the “stuff” of faith; perpetual motion, infinite
curiosity, exacting questions, anguishing disappointments and doubts. Children daringly tackle
the task of understanding their particular place in this rather curious and discordant theme we
call the world. Each day a child encounters immediate fears and joys – and harsh realities; each
day these experiences become markers of their emerging sense of humanity. Children embody
faith. They are our elders. They are my teachers.”
That’s one way to look at this beloved passage. But maybe that’s just a little too easy. I think
we all understand the “let them come” part. But this is Jesus speaking. He won’t leave us there.
“Let the children come to me…” Semicolon. No period. That means Jesus can’t end there. Nor
can we. “Do not [in various translations] hinder/forbid/stop them.” This is one of those “Jesus
must be talking about someone else” verses. He can’t be talking about us. We love children. Certainly, we don’t stop them. We’re off the hook on this one. We would never stop them from
coming…… or would we? Overwhelmed as we are by the scope of the need and convinced of our
own powerlessness, maybe we neglect to take any positive action on children’s behalf. Maybe we
stop them when we act like a jerk in our own home, and our kids say if that’s Christianity, ‘man,
you can keep it.’ Maybe we stop them when we don’t go out of our way to bring kids here whose
parents are probably never going to walk through these doors. Maybe we stop them when we
give up on them. Maybe we stop them when we start believing that we have done our share, and
they are not our responsibility, and there are too many of them, and we’re tired. Maybe without
even knowing it, we stop them; hinder them from coming in a multitude of ways. Perhaps we’re
more like the disciples in that passage than we are like Jesus. Sometimes we circle around Jesus
like the entourage around LeBron James, and make choices for him the He would never make for
Himself, and insulate from Him those we deem unworthy.
“Let the little children come to me;” semicolon. “do not stop them;” another semicolon. Jesus is still not quite finished. He goes one step further when he adds: “for it is to such as these
that the kingdom of God belongs.” The meaning of this passage would be much narrower, and
the implications for disciples much simpler, if Jesus had said “for it is to these – these children –
that the kingdom of God belongs.” But He said, “to such as these.” Suddenly, the passage is
about more than merely welcoming children into Jesus’ inner-circle. Who then are the “such as
Over the course of Jesus’ ministry, it is clear that His disciples never really got it. While Jesus
was constantly opening the way, welcoming lepers, harlots, chief tax collectors, Gentile soldiers,
Syrophoenician and Samaritan women, the disciples were constantly trying to insulate Jesus from
these very persons; to stop these perceived outsiders from getting to Jesus. So when Jesus said
“to such as these,” was He perhaps broadening His open door policy to all who would come; not
just to children, but to all who were powerless; to all who were low on the food chain; to all who
had no voice; to all who were considered of no account; to all who were considered to have no
claim on the Kingdom of God? Could it be that it is of all these – young or old – of whom Jesus
says, “do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
Before taking the little ones up in His arms and blessing them, Jesus does add a qualifier which
is very important: “…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall never
enter it.” This doesn’t mean that only little children shall enter the Kingdom. It does mean, how-
ever, that only those who come to the Kingdom with childlike features such as trust, faith, purity
of motive, humbleness of heart, will receive it. It has nothing to do with age, but has everything to
do with attitude. So this qualifier applies equally to the “little child” as well as to the grown-up le-
per, the harlot, the chief tax collector, the Gentile soldier, the Syrophoenician or Samaritan woman.
It applies equally to you and to me. For all of us share a childlike dependence upon God.
So what are the applications of this well-known passage to our lives as modern-day disciples?
On the surface, it’s about welcoming children, and not hindering them; be it through our words,
our witness, our actions, or our lack thereof. Going a layer deeper, it’s about recognizing in
children the qualities befitting those who receive the Kingdom of God; qualities such as trust, faith,
pure motives, and humble hearts. Yet another layer deeper, it’s about welcoming all persons –
young and old – and not hindering them on the basis of their being unqualified, undeserving,
outsiders, from our limited and often flawed perspective. And at the deepest level, it’s about
understanding that we, each and every one of us, are equally dependent on God’s grace, and must
ourselves come with childlike dependence if we are to receive the Kingdom of God.
As we leave this beloved episode, let us in a spiritually-figurative way, allow Jesus to take us up
in His arms, lay his hands on us, and bless us.
Lord our God, make tender our hearts toward every child, that we welcome them even as Jesus
welcomed them, and to in no way hinder them. May we recognize in children a model for our own lives; that we too would be trusting, believing, pure in our motives, and humble in our hearts. Help us to be open and welcoming to all who would come to Jesus, of every age, of every
circumstances, however needy, however broken, for Your Kingdom’s door is wide open to everyone. All this we pray in the name of He who calls and blesses us, even Jesus Your Christ. Amen.