The First two readings speak of Angelic wars and struggles – the devil being cast out of heaven by the archangel Michael. So the Gospel reading, we would assume, is one of those great battle accounts of Jesus “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Or something about the angel strengthening Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane for his work of redemption. Perhaps we might hear of the angel Gabriel warning Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt, lest mad Herod kill the infant Jesus.
But no. None of these. Despite the mighty and lofty and almost brutal readings for the Old Testament and Epistle, the gospel beings with Jesus taking a small child, and talking about his angels. It’s idyllic, it’s one of those Norman Rockwell moments. Jesus blessing the small child, using him as an example of humility and complete dependence on God.
Of course, then Jesus has a few words of warning – words that seem to fit with battle and struggle – anyone who causes these little ones to sin, it would be better if he had a millstone tied around his neck and were drowned in the depths of the sea – drowning is better than leading one of my precious lambs away, says Jesus. Jesus is no push over – he loves the little children, all the way to his death. And nothing offends him more than the disciples trying to keep the children away from him.
That’s why the true church has always welcomed children, brought them, as quickly as possible to the waters of Holy Baptism – washed them in that God-given bath, and given them a new life. Made sure that their old Adam – that sinful human nature that would take them away from Christ, is drowned in the depths of the sea, and a new man comes forth and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. The true church has always baptized children, because they need to be saved as much as anyone, and Jesus is the only way to be saved – even for the little children.
Luther says in the preface to the small catechism that each section is “what the head of the household should teach in a simple way to his children. Luther wrote the small catechism in response to stunning and overwhelming ignorance on the part of the people and even the pastors. His solution – write a book to teach the children. That’s where the answer lies.
Children inherently understand concepts too confusing for adults – what is the church? Luther says, “Thank God a seven year old child knows what the church is – the sheep who hear the voice of the shepherd.” Yet the collective genius of our synod couldn’t agree on a definition of what the church is if they met in convention for ten years.
Jesus says “allow the little children to come to me” because they believe his word. When he says something like, “This is my body, this is my blood” they don’t start talking about metaphors and symbolism – they say, “Yes, it is what Jesus said it is, his body and blood” and they stand in awe that Jesus is on the altar waiting to be eaten and drunk by the adults – who often come with a casual indifference more befitting a fast food hamburger than the almighty God being poured on their sin parched lips.
The child knows that baptism saves them because Jesus promised that it does. The adult wonders if it is enough, if they have worked hard enough, if they have been good enough, adding all sorts of worldly qualifications to Christ’s simple promise.
And in the world of evangelism, the child once again puts us to shame. The young child invites their friends to church with such ease – it is almost comic to compare it to the sweat that we work up just trying to force out those few words, “Do you want to come to church with me.” “Hey did you know that Jesus died for our sins” Simple words, and in a child’s mouth they flow with ease – an adult stumbles over them, filled with self doubt and worry.
The child knows what the adult forgets – that Jesus dying on the cross to save us from our sins is good news – news we should share with friends, relatives neighbors, anyone we see on the playground of our lives – whether at work, or home, or on vacation or wherever we are. We adults mess it all up.
That’s why it’s so important that we start early with the children – before their old Adam gets too sophisticated for all this. Before the self doubts and the questions pop up and consume what is really a very simple promise – forgiveness for Jesus sake and in his name.
That’s why Jesus loved the children. In scripture it goes even farther – it uses the word infant. Not just a little child, but an infant. You must become one of these if you are to be saved – and of course that’s what Jesus came to do – he came to save you.
You must become one of these because only an infant can be born, and you must be born again if you are to see the kingdom of God. This Gospel reading is baptism talk. And too often we see baptism as that adorable moment when the cute little baby is dressed in the pretty little outfit, and surrounded by loving family and brought forward and sprinkled with a little water, and we eat cake and take pictures and get a cute little certificate with teddy bears and lollipops.
But Baptism is evicting Satan, tying a millstone around the old sinful nature of that baby, and drowning it, and trusting that Jesus will bring that child new life, as he has promised. Baptism is a daily struggle – that’s why the angels of the little ones always see the face of the heavenly father – because the little ones get the best and the biggest and the most powerful of angels to protect them.
That’s why the fussing child in church is the greatest sound you can hear on a Sunday morning. We’d better never despise that sound, because it is the sound of one who is protected by the largest most powerful angels on earth. And that child is hearing the voice of Christ himself. And after the warning that Christ gives, you don’t want to interfere with that.
The wonderful thing about little children fussing in church and complaining that the service is too long, is that it means that in twenty or thirty or fifty years we might still have adults in church fussing and complaining that the service is too long.
And so some are tempted to say that children are the future of the church. Well intentioned but wrong – children are the present – they are the church right now. Little children, those babes in arms; and little children those fussy toddler; and little children those eager elementary kids, and little children our young catechumens; and little children those rebellious high schoolers; and little children young adults on their own for the first time; and little children parents who are learning for the first time how hard it is to keep their own children quiet; and little children those empty nesters who are learning just how quiet a house a can be; and little children retirees who are moving a little bit slower, but still full of vitality; and little children, the aged and infirm who want to be here but can’t make it anymore, and wait like a helpless infant for us to bring church to them. There is no one who is part of the church who isn’t a little child. That’s what Baptism does – it makes us little children. And as we grow each day, we realize how much like little children we are – unable to understand what it is that God really gives, full of wonder on those all too rare occasions when we do grasp a small part of what salvation through Jesus death and resurrection means. Like little children, we are too often obstinate, we want it our way all the time, and when God doesn’t see how very smart we little children are, we pout at him and fuss and fume. But ultimately, even though we may get mad and stomp our feet at him, like little children, we know that he loves us, and we wait for the day when we will rest in his loving arms.
The angels are there for us, helping protecting, guarding, keeping Satan at bay – because Satan wants you. he never gives up. Satan sees you, he knows your weakness and he sees a chance to devour you like some rabid dog that can not be satisfied. The angels protect you little children. They keep you safe. They keep you in Jesus care. They fight day and night for you. Those heavenly messengers, those soldiers of God, who never rest, but are always watching over you – even when you stomp and throw your little child tantrum at God. They are still there, still fighting for you, still working for you.
That’s why Luther includes, in his morning and evening prayers “let your holy angels be with me that the wicked foe may have no power over me”. We live our lives on a battle ground, and God protects us – he sends his angels to guard you, his little children. He gave up to much to just surrender you now that he has won you back. It cost him his own dear son’s life to redeem you. And though you may not know it, you may not feel his heavenly guardians, you may rebel and stomp your feet and throw your little child tantrum, he is still there, he has claimed you as his own through Holy Baptism. You are his little child, now and forever, and he will never let you go.