A common way of interpreting Matthew 18 – our Gospel reading today – is that, if we want to enter the kingdom of God, we need to follow the example of little children. Such an interpretation then spends a great deal of time talking about what little children are like. In many cases, the descriptions have very little to do with actual children. “Innocence. Filled with wonder. Humble.” It’s an idealized description – not a realistic one.
Sometimes, you will hear that we must trust like a child trusts. Children just trust that mom or dad will provide for them. They have no choice. We need to be like that – we need to trust that God will save us. And this is, strictly speaking true. But that is not what Jesus is saying.
First, Jesus isn’t talking about a precocious 10 year old, or even a tender 3 or 4 year old. Jesus is talking about an infant. Unless you become like an infant, you can not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus says a similar thing in John 3: Unless you are born again (of water and the spirit) you can not enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh. That which is born of spirit is spirit.”
In John 3, it is a clear reference to Baptism. Jesus isn’t telling Nicodemus to be physically born again, He is saying that Baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is necessary for salvation. In that washing of water and the word we are given a new birth in the Holy Spirit. We are crucified with Jesus and raised up again to a new life in him. And if we would be saved, we must be like a little infant at the font – we must be born of God.
It is true that the infant also trusts. The baby knows the parents, trusts them to provide for him. To feed at the proper time, to change the diaper when it is full. Of course, the signal for this is not really a signal of trust. Full blown wailing if the child does not get his way. The things is, it is sort of a sign of trust. The baby trusts that the parents will not abandon him if he is overly obnoxious. The baby sitter is new – who knows if this person will stay. Behavior improves. But when parents return, the full fury of the infant is felt again.
Which is to say, the infant knows and trusts in the basic goodness of the parents. But does not trust that he will be fed, changed in a timely fashion. That requires much fussing.
There are many who say an infant can not have faith. Faith, they say, requires three things – knowledge, assent, and trust. And without knowing scripture we can not trust, we can not give assent to those words. But the infant does trust the parents. Even without being able to say their names, or describe the relationship fully. Without a conscious decision, the baby trusts that the parents are there when the wailing happens. Wail, and the parents come. The baby knows and trusts. It is selfish behavior on the part of the baby. Every need requires absolute unquestioned attention right NOW. And yet, even in their sin, babies have faith.
So also with faith in God. In Baptism faith is given by the Holy Spirit. The baby believes the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ death, and so is received into the family of God by Baptism. Assent is not a hallmark of faith. You don’t have to examine and ponder the nature of chairs and firmly assent to the chair before you sit on it. You just walk into the church and sit down. It is no credit to you. And the chair exists ready to serve whether you believe in the chair or not. The baby trusts the parents. The newly baptized baby trusts in God.
Of course, in this world we are still sinful. Baptism brings faith, and so offers forgiveness of sins. It doesn’t take us immediately out of this world of sin and death. Just as the baby trusts the parents not to abandon him, but still fusses and fumes if dinner is not ready at the exact moment he is ready to eat, so also in this world we struggle. Thanks to your Baptism, and the work of the Spirit in your heart to bring you to faith, you fear love and trust in God. But the struggle to fear love and trust in him above all other things – that struggle continues in this world. You never get to the point where you don’t stumble and fall in this world. Because the sinful flesh can not be reformed or rehabilitated. It must be killed. And a new man must come forth and arise. And that is what Baptism does.
That is why we Baptize infants. Jesus tells us to bless the children. He tells us that we must become like them if we are to enter the kingdom of God. And he gives no method outside of the faith given through baptism where anyone can be saved. Without that, there is no hope of salvation. That’s why we bring the infants to the font so soon after they are born. So that they can be reborn in the water and spirit. So that the Word of God can be spoken over them, so that the Spirit can work faith in the heart through the word spoken and the water poured. So that Jesus is given to the little baby.
Jesus so highly prizes the children that he gives a horrible curse to those who would mislead them: It would be better to be tied to a millstone and drowned. That’s what happens for those who deny the children their rightful place in his kingdom. That’s for those who, overzealous for the kingdom, forget the clear command and promise of God. Like the apostles, who tried to stop the parents from bringing children to Jesus, there are many today who deny the clear and certain word of Christ regarding Baptism.
Of course, there are all sorts of other ways to try and mislead the little ones. Teaching falsely, leading children away from Jesus with Satan’s lies – that is also condemned here by Jesus. And he says, the most powerful, the most advanced angels – those are the ones who watch the little ones. Jesus does not want any of his children to be lost. And so he makes clear that the children are to be treasured – brought to the font, and then brought up in the fear and knowledge of the Lord. That is the exalted task of parents. It’s not an easy one. The world mocks this important work of parents and families. Satan has a lot of ways to try and lead them away from the Word of God and prayer. To lead them away from faith in Jesus Christ. There is pressure to keep the word of God out of our everyday life and conversation, pressure to acknowledge the spirit of the age instead of the sure and certain word of God. Constant pressure to stop being a prude and to do all the things that God’s word says not to, just give it a try. Pressure to deny the creative word and will of God in the beginning, looking instead to secular answers for the origin of the world.
These sorts of things can easily lead children astray from the word into false teachings, worldly philosophies, and even carnal pleasures. Jesus says we are to teach children his word, to fear the Lord, to love and trust in him. To pray each day that we would be forgiven our sins where we have done wrong, and to live before him in righteousness.
That is the task we have been given. And it is a task that we have not only for our children, but also for ourselves. Because that new birth of water and the spirit, becoming God’s child through the water, becoming as one of the little ones – that is the only way for you to be saved as well.
May God grant salvation to each one of us. May he send his holy angels to be with us, that the wicked foe may have no power over us.