“Grandpa, who do you think has been the greatest president of our country during your lifetime?” That was our eleven-year-old granddaughter’s question as we sat around the dinner table.
“Sarah,” I replied, “in my opinion, it was Franklin Roosevelt.” My answer caused some discussion from those who are staunch members of the Republican Party. I went on to explain that my answer was not meant to be partisan, but only to point out what Roosevelt faced during those years of his presidency. He was fighting World War II and watching thousands of people die or be seriously injured. He was the commander-in-chief and had to make the big decisions. He also came to the White House while our country was in a financial depression. People were losing their homes, going hungry, had no jobs, no retirement plans, and he had to find ways out of this difficult period in our nation’s history. The social security plan, which comes under great criticism today, has been a blessing to millions of people, and this became a reality during his administration.
Well, some mentioned other presidents whom they felt were the “greatest,” and we ended as friends with differing opinions.
The reason for this introduction to the sermon is to focus on the word, “greatest.” Ministers meeting at an ecumenical meeting would not agree on which clergyman has made the greatest contribution to God’s kingdom in the last 50 years. Those who were of the evangelical group, where I am, would vote for Billy Graham. If you were a social activist, Martin Luther King could well be your choice. If you were looking for a theologian, many would support Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and if you were a Roman Catholic with an ecumenical outlook, Pope John XIII would be your choice.
The question, “Who is the greatest?” was around in Jesus’ day, and it appears in our text today when the disciples asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They expected Him to mention a person like John the Baptist, but instead Jesus pulled another of His surprises. The Bible says, “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ÔI 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 little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'”
The dictionary defines humility as, “Not proud or haughty, not arrogant or assertive, reflecting a spirit of submission.” These characteristics are found in a little child, but often lost as we grow in years. I taught at a family Bible camp a few weeks ago. Forty-eight families were in attendance, about 200 people. One hundred of the campers were children ranging in age from infancy to 15 years old. My assignment was to teach adults, but I did have the opportunity to observe these 48 families in action and see how the children related to their parents. It was interesting. Much could be learned about family life by sitting back and quietly watching the relationships that revealed themselves. Some children were very disciplined. Others could have stood a visit to the woodshed.
With this text in the back of my mind, I watched these babes in arms, who were completely dependent on someone else to care for their needs; to toddlers in the terrible twos, trying to be independent, but not yet ready to move out on their own; to the older children, trying desperately to escape the attention of their parents. How interesting and amusing to see the frustrations, but love and patience, of the parents.
In most of life we strive for independent living. Parents teach their children to become independent. “You can do that. You can put your toys away. You can make your bed. You’re a big boy (or girl) now. You shouldn’t expect mother to do that for you.” A teenager is reprimanded by his or her folks for acting in an irresponsible way. “When are you going to learn to think for yourself?” a sixteen-year-old boy is asked by his irate father after getting a speeding ticket.
Working with this idea of becoming independent is what makes the teenage years so frustrating for both youth and parents. Parents know they have to let their children go, realizing there will be rough times, but the children have to learn. Yet, there are so many dangers and temptations that dads and moms hold on, to the place that some sons and daughters resent having their behavior scrutinized by well-meaning parents.
The years go by. We leave home, but it is not long before other people or groups begin to make us dependent on them. One criticism of government is that it often takes away from the initiative of people. The politicians say, “Vote for me. I have the solution for your problems.” Some buy this line, but on the other hand, I believe most people want to be independent of government and charitable groups. They want to take care of themselves. As we grow older, many of us prefer to live independently in our homes; but when we are forced to move to some kind of a care facility, we look for that section labeled assisted living. There we will have some freedom, even if it is only making our own breakfast, which consists of orange juice and Wheaties.
This is also true in our relationship with God. It is difficult for us to humbly bow and confess our need for God’s help. There is a common attitude that says verbally or in behavior, “I don’t need Christ. I can control my own behavior. I can live a good enough life that, at the end, God will say, ÔWell done, good and faithful servant. Enter your heavenly home.’ I have a good mind and an adequate education to work out my own salvation. I don’t need a Savior. I am my own savior. I am a strong person and will face difficulties as they come, without any crutches offered by religion.”
Replying to this attitude, Jesus speaks, “Unless you change (be converted) and become as a child, you can’t enter the kingdom of Heaven.” The Psalmist learned what it was to ask for help when he prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Isaiah saw his need for God’s grace and confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Paul really emptied himself of all self-righteousness when he wrote, “I know that in me dwells no good thing.”
Jesus says these are the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven, and when we ourselves possess this spirit, we are on the way to being among the greatest in God’s Kingdom, for it is then that our Lord can begin to work with us. Then we will seek God’s help for forgiveness, strength, and guidance in life. Then we will spend time daily with His Word and in prayer.
The history books are filled with the names of great people of God. These are names like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Moody, and thousands of others. Read their biographies and writings, and there you will see that, great and courageous as they were, it was their humility before God that made them spiritual giants.
Who’s the greatest in God’s kingdom? Those who walk faithfully with God, acknowledging they are completely dependent on Him for all things.