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THE PROMISE OF HUMBLE GREATNESS
Matthew 18:1-7

5th May 2002

I have been accused of many things, but I have never been accused of having excessive humility. Yet Jesus told us to have the humility of a child. I wonder why Jesus made the promise that the greatest among us would be those who become as little children? Humble greatness is required in adults. We are to repent, turn, to become as little children.

Then I remember the child I was! I was three and a half the first time I ran away from kindergarten to go to work and earn my living. I recall vividly on another occasion, running away from the kindergarten, climbing a tree, swinging as Tarzan, and landing on the girls' toilet roof. I defied all attempts to get me down, until the poor headmistress called the Fire Brigade to rescue me with their ladders! In the first grade at Primary School our teachers gave us small cardboard Union Jack flags to wear on our school jumpers to honour Empire Day, May 1st.. I showed my entrepreneurial skill by collecting all the little flags from the others in my class and then went from door to door among the shops of Box Hill, selling them for a shilling each to the proprietors. One woman, who had no sense of loyalty to the British Empire, phoned the Principal and I was hauled off! There was a large hardware shop in my town and once I wandered into that shop, found the rattraps and carefully set 25 of them along the edge of the counter for the benefit of anybody who came in, and went on my way! Who wants to become a child like that! Dennis the Menace is not my ideal of a Christian character.

Jesus must have had other qualities in mind!

To become as a child is to suggest adventure, daring, and mischief. Nevertheless, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me." Matthew 18:3-5

There are some qualities in children that all adults ought to have. The disciples of Jesus were ambitious and argued as to which of them would be the greatest in the Kingdom. Jesus responded, "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven." He never said that we are to become childish. Some adults get very childish. They argue and dispute with one another and become childish in attitude and temper. We are not to become childish, but we need to possess the qualities children have if we are to enter the Kingdom. There are two beautiful qualities that children have that adults also should have.

1. CHILDREN WONDER.
One is the sense of wonder. A child can sit and play with a flower and notice how each petal is joined and how it becomes unjoined. A child investigates things, pokes into machinery, looks under logs, and marvels at a spider web with dew on it. A child has the capacity to wonder. All of the greatest discoveries on earth have been made by adult minds that had childlike wonder. Wonder is not full of self-concern or pride. It enables clear insight that others miss because their mind is so full of themselves.

Stephenson's "rocket", for example. He wondered at the steam coming from a boiling kettle. He gazed at it as every other child has looked at steam, but then he wondered what it could turn, what it could push, what it could move, until he harnessed that power in the steam engine. In the orchard, under an apple tree, Isaac Newton watched the apples fall and wondered, "Why do apples drop?" His wondering led to the law of gravity becoming a part of our scientific understanding. Children keep asking all kinds of questions: "Is God married?" "Where does your lap go when you stand up?" "What does blood do all day?" "Why do apples fall?" Sometimes the questions lead to wonderful answers.

Have we not sat in a bath, making waves and causing the water to go over the edge? Adults have done that for years, but children ask, "Why?" It took Archimedes to get in and out of the water, watching it go up as he went down, and watching it go down as he got up, until he said "Eureka" as he discovered the law of displacement. The capacity to wonder becomes one of the greatest of God's gifts.

The biography of that great Afro-American scientist, George Washington Carver, makes fascinating reading. That man did much for his own depressed, black people in the U.S.A. There were bad seasons after the land crash of the 1880's, and the boll weevil ruined the cotton crops. Many black Americans had neither food nor clothing, housing nor regular income. Carver wanted to help. He dedicated himself before God to understanding the laws of the universe and perhaps to help his poor brothers and sisters.

"One moonlit night, I walked into a clearing in a cotton patch. I kicked at the weeds growing in the dry dirt. I looked up to God in heaven and said, 'Mr Creator, I want to help my brothers and sisters. Give me the secret of the Universe.' And God said to me, 'Little man, you ask too much. Too much for your little mind. Ask something more your size." 'Well, Mr Creator, tell me the secret of the stars and the nature of men.' God said, "Little man, you still ask too much. Ask something your size.'" Carver pondered, "What does the good God want me to talk about?" He kicked at the dirt and picked up a plant with seemingly useless little nodules on the end of it… a peanut. And Carver prayed, "Mr Creator, show me the secret of the peanut." And God replied, "Now you are asking something. Go away and I will show you the secret of the peanut.'"

George Washington Carver, the son of a slave, went into his research laboratory with handfuls of useless peanuts. He wondered and worked until he had developed and invented 85 different products from a peanut, including axle grease, linoleum, chilli sauce, peanut butter, a milk substitute… and within a few years the peanut was transformed from a worthless plant to become the sixth most important agricultural product of the United States. It became the means of survival of hundreds of thousands of Negro people who became peanut farmers. It began when a man started to wonder. When we argue among ourselves as to which of us is the greatest, we lose the art of wondering. Jesus said, "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven." For little children wonder.

2. CHILDREN BELIEVE.
There is another quality that children have, and adults need for the sake of the Kingdom: the ability to believe. They believe in their parents, in themselves, in their friends, in God. Adults become cynical and doubt but children believe. The Bible says that without faith it is impossible to please God. Hebrews 11:6 Jesus calls us to believe as children do. He says, simply and sincerely, "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven." That belief is humble and sincere. The greatest in the Kingdom are they who humble themselves and become like children.

Great thinkers laud humility, yet humility is rarely the subject of public addresses. Humility was never a characteristic of the proud Australian. Humility is not on the national agenda. Humility is not mentioned at University graduations. Yet humility is a secret of wisdom. Australian hymnbooks ignore the virtue of humility. Humility grows within a Christian, conscious of his own sinfulness and God's wonderful grace. This virtue was found in the Apostle Paul. This is surprising. Paul's brilliance, his debating skills, his leadership capacity and his incredible stamina and persistence drove him over continents to expand the knowledge of Christianity. We assume he had a clear knowledge of his own significance. He did. Yet Paul was a humble man who advocated others should be too. Self-esteem, Yes! Pride, No! More than any, Paul advocated humility in the lives of those who followed him. Humility to Paul was the secret of his strength: "for Christ's sake I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Cor. 12:10

This virtue was found above all in the Lord Jesus. He was described as meek and humble. Jesus never sought personal status nor position, only that He might serve others. Jesus said "whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." The proud person tries to make himself great. Jesus was totally submissive before God. Jesus was a man of dignity, yet able to wash the feet of His disciples. He was a man of passion, yet able to silently stare at the governor who mocked Him, the soldiers who derided him, and the crowd who jeered Him. He was a man of power, but also of self-control and discipline. He possessed the humility of a child. He emptied Himself of all pretension and pride, "emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam's helpless race." Charles Wesley

Christ's teaching on humility was revolutionary. People generally are proud and arrogant, for they think this is the only way to get on. The higher up they go the more they look down on others. But when Christ comes within a person this is changed. For pride in self, and love for Christ cannot dwell in one person. No matter how good, how pure, how perfect a man is; no matter his intellect, his standing, his income; no matter his learning, his position, his ability; when he comes face to face with Jesus Christ he is completely overshadowed and his pride completely shattered! Pride is based on our own achievements. Humility is based on our own deficiencies. If we possess His mind, our actions will be different because our actions will be like His: unselfish, humble, caring, loving, concerned for others. When Paul wrote that we should be like Jesus in humility he had to coin a word, because the Greek language did not have one to describe Jesus!

The Greeks believed, like many in Sydney today, that if you want to make a mark on the world you must be aggressive, assertive, pushing yourself forward. They had no concept of placing others first! So Paul made up a new word that described the character of Jesus and those who are His disciples: lowly-hearted or humble! He even explained it: Philippians 2:3 "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves." Thirty-four times humility is advocated in the New Testament. Humility is not self-depreciation, but affirmation of yourself as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The self-centred person cannot fulfil his role as a Christian who must witness with his whole being. A Christian witnesses to the good life and that cannot be accomplished by the self-centred. A humble person is neither boastful nor domineering, thinking more of his witness and work than of himself and his benefits. Pride is arrogant self-worship. It is the sin of exalting oneself and placing one's own interests above the interests of others.

Pride craves admiration. It will not share the limelight. The proud are in love with themselves and seek to call attention to their admirable qualities. Pride is not self-esteem nor a sense of self worth. Pride is an arrogant over-estimate of your own significance. Jesus demands from us the character of being childlike. That is essential: "Unless you change and become like children..." That is the great pivot point. He expects us to change. He expects us to respond. If we change and respond he promises us a great future in His kingdom. Otherwise we cannot enter His kingdom: "Unless you change and become…"

Wesley Mission, Sydney.