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Sunday, March 28, 2021

In My Father’s Kingdom

 Matthew 26: 14-30

Charles J. Tomlin, March 28th, 2021,

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Kingdom of God Series, 13 of 14


Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests

 15 and said, "What will you give me if I betray him to you?" They paid him thirty pieces of silver.

 16 And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

 17 On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?"

 18 He said, "Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, 'The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.'"

 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

 20 When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve;

 21 and while they were eating, he said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me."

 22 And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, "Surely not I, Lord?"

 23 He answered, "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.

 24 The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born."

 25 Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Surely not I, Rabbi?" He replied, "You have said so."

 26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body."

 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you;

 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

 29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

 30 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

(Matt. 26:14-30 NRS)


We began this series of messages about the Kingdom with Jesus’ boldly proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15 ESV).   As we come to Matthew 26, we are nearing the end when Jesus’ shares his final Passover Meal with his disciples. 

There’s great drama playing out around the Lord’s table, but the most important is drama is still to come.   That’s what Jesus is focusing on at the close of the meal, as he picks up his cup to announce that his ‘blood of the (new) covenant is about to be poured out for the forgiveness of sins.”  

We are all familiar with these words a part of the communion ceremony.   But it is the last part that is not so familiar to us where Jesus concludes with this promise, “I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 

At first glance, Jesus seems to be postponing the ‘kingdom’ until sometime in the distant future, doesn’t it?   Since Jesus taught us to pray, ‘thy kingdom come’ and he told Pontius Pilate,  My Kingdom is not of this world”,  most people assume that the God’s kingdom is still far, far, away.   The kingdom rule of God may have come close during Jesus’ life and ministry, but now it’s long gone, at least until the day when Jesus returns to rule in the last day.   But when Jesus names the kingdom his ‘father’s kingdom’ it maybe a kingdom that is closer than we think. 



When I was in elementary school at Harmony, we had a sweet lady who came to the school every year, especially at Christmas time, to teach us music.  “Miss Joy”.  What a wonderful name for a music teacher, don’t you think?

One of those wonderful songs we used to sing with her, which everyone always sang the loudest was “Joy To the World”.   We thought is was Mrs. Joy’s song:“Joy, to the world, the Lord, has come, let earth receive her king.  Let Every heart, prepare him room, And heaven and nature sing...”

We love to sing that song at Christmas, but I’ve heard it sung at other times too. It’s much bigger than a Christmas song.  It’s a standing invitation, especially when it says, ‘the Lord has come, let earth receive her king’?   The next verse is even more direct: “Joy to the World, the Savior reigns, Let men their songs employ...’   Then, comes the last verse stating in the strongest terms, what is happening now, not later: “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”  

A pastor went to a Christian school to help a friend’s widow choose where to send her four young children.  While they were touring that large school, the principal showed them the auditorium where the school choir were, in fact, rehearsing this song, ‘Joy to the World’ in preparation for the upcoming Christmas concert.  At the conclusion of the song, the choir director instructed the children that Joy to the World really didn’t apply for today.   She said, this is a “millennial hymn” looking toward to the future because “Jesus doesn’t yet reign today.”  

That’s how I’ve often understood the coming kingdom too, haven’t you?  God’s rule on earth is ‘not yet’.  It’s still coming, but it’s not happening right now.   Of course, there’s a partial truth here, Christ doesn’t yet rule in every heart, but I think Issac Watts saw something else.   I think he was teaching us to also sing about Christ’s kingdom that is close to us, right now.   Isn’t this what was implying when he sent his disciples to get a room for the Passover:  Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, 'The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.' (Matt. 26:18 NRS).   As we know, this ‘time’ isn’t just Jesus death, because Jesus also was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, and now, as Scripture says,  he ‘sits down’ at God’s right hand?’    It was part of this time that Paul meant when he wrote: ‘God has given him the name that is above every name, that at the feet of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9-11).   





What is challenging is to bow and bend before this one God has crowned now, because God has made Jesus the Christ, Messiah, and King, Jesus rules the world very differently than other Kings, Rulers and Presidents still do.   Remember, just a few days before this Passover Meal, Jesus rode into town on a donkey, a very ironic, strange and humble way of declaring Jesus the King.   On the cross too, Pilate put those iconic and ironic words over his head, “This is the King of Jews”.    Strangely enough, Pilate was rightly declaring  a dying, crucified, and suffering Jesus a different kind of King.   Jesus is crowned on the cross and rules the world already, but he doesn’t rule like other have ruled, because Jesus rules the world as God rules the world.  

            This is why it was the father’s will for Jesus to ‘take’ this cup?   This was his Father’s kingdom.  All the other kings and kingdoms came and went, but of this Kingdom and of this king, there is no end.   It is already a kingdom through which God rules in Jesus through the cross.  On the cross Jesus establishes the Father’s Kingdom as because he dies for our sins and for the sins of the whole world.

Maybe this is why people keep missing how the kingdom that is already here, among us right now.    People miss the kingdom because it comes through the cross, when we confess our sins, receive God’s forgiveness, and then we ‘take up our cross’ and follow our king who rules our lives through a cross.   Jesus reminded his disciples very plainly, that they would also have to be ‘baptized’ with the ‘cup’ he was going to be ‘baptized with’.   The cross is how the Father establishes his rule in this sinful world.

 In you recall, in the gospels, when Peter rebuked Jesus about his cross, Jesus turned and called him Satan.  And when we see the kingdom of God as any other way than the way than to share Christ’s cross of suffering love, we are in danger of becoming Satan too.   This is because when we refuse ‘the way of the cross’, God can’t rule in our hearts.  Remember, the word ‘Satan’ means ‘adversary’ ---to stand opposite to the way of the cross—is to refuse to live way God’s loving, suffering love comes into our world.  

For me, the clearest way to see that the how the Father’s kingdom is here, realized in Jesus, is when we too live in cross-like ways like those in the Sermon on the Mount,---not holding on to anger, turning the other cheek, going the second mile, not seeking vengeance or making senseless vows, but by loving others as ourselves, even loving our enemies.   We seek first the and find the kingdom, when we seek righteousness, now.   This is how Jesus rules our lives from heaven.  Even in this sinful world, when we make Jesus our Lord, the Father’s Kingdom comes to us, now, when Christ rules in us on, earth, as Christ rules in heaven.


I WILL DRINK IT NEW (29)          

But now, one more thing about ‘the father’s kingdom.  Think once more about how the choir director at the Christian School felt the need to tell those students that the Christmas Carol, ‘Joy to the World’ is something only about the future.    What she missed is that the Father’s Kingdom rule has started already, on the cross with a crown of thorns and it comes to near to us when we take up our cross daily.  

But she was right about this: there is still something else.   Listen to Jesus closely.  He isn’t just speaking spiritually, when he told his disciples:  I will drink it new with you’.  That points to a renewed, very physical kingdom, doesn’t it?   The New Testament doesn’t simply speak of people simply having immortal souls, but Jesus was raised from the grave with a renewed physical body too.   Everything in this Bible,  points to some kind of coming, eternal kingdom that is previewed both on the cross and in Christ’s resurrection.  Through our lives in Jesus and dying in Jesus, seeds being planted for a harvest of hope that is yet to be revealed.

One day, Jesus tells his disciples, which includes us, we will take the ‘cup’ together and drink of the ‘fruit of the vine’ in God’s new world.   And this cup, will be pure love, without the suffering, without the sin, and without the struggle because the kingdom of this world, will once and for all, become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, forever and ever.   As Scripture says, ‘Eye hasn’t yet seen, nor has ear heard, nor has never even entered into human imaginations., what God has in store.’   So, if you think you can explain it, figure it out, or even read everything about it in the Bible, you’ve not understood just how great and glorious, this new, eternal reality will be.  As John says: ‘it has not yet appeared what we shall be.  But we know, when Christ will appear.  We shall be like him.   We will see him, just as he is.’

So, the choir director was wrong about God’s kingdom not yet being here now. Jesus is already crowned King in the Father’s Kingdom and rules with  truth and grace.  She was right, however about hope for the future.   But what we remember again today, as we share the table with our King, is that this joy comes through the cross before it can be realized beyond the cross.   As the song says, only ‘The way of the cross’ leads home’.  Amen.   



Sunday, March 21, 2021

Inherit the Kingdom

Matthew 25: 31-46

Charles J. Tomlin, March 21th, 2021,

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Kingdom of God Series, 12 of 14


31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,

 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,1 you did it to me.'

 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,

 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'

 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'

 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matt. 25:31-46 NRS)


We have been considering important passages about the Kingdom in the gospel of Matthew.   Up to now, we’ve been looking the possibility, growth, potential, and the nature of God’s kingdom.  But today, the closer we get to the cross, Jesus’ kingdom message becomes stronger, sharper and more somber.   The question now becomes, not only what is God’s kingdom, but what happens if  what happens when God’s rule is rejected in our world just like it was in the world when John the Baptist was beheaded and when Jesus was crucified.   Are we accepting or rejecting God’s rule over our lives?  What difference does this make?



Of course, there are many ways to understand what God’s rule means in this world.  What is finally being revealed here, which perhaps this whole gospel has been preparing to say all along (Tom Long), is how Jesus reveals most fully and completely, that God’s kingdom isn’t a place, a period, a religion, nor even a political movement, but God’s kingdom is a certain attitude that leads caring, compassionate actions like are being revealed in this text.   The doing of these deeds of mercy cause the King of the kingdom to say: 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.' (Matt. 25:40 NRS).   This is how the kingdom comes; this is how God’s will is done, and this is how the world receives God’s rule, by what is done for ‘the least of these’.    

     Now, let’s back up, for a moment and understand why Jesus put’s these amazing kingdom words into the ‘king’s mouth’.   The turn in Jesus’ tone has already come. After Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, he is facing increasing opposition.   Since Jesus ‘condemned the fig tree’ in chapter 21, criticizing Jerusalem’s fruitless society, things have been going downhill fast.  Then in chapter 23, Jesus directly renounced the religious leaders in Jerusalem as a bunch of hypocrites, then envisions the end of their religious and political world (24).  In this current chapter Jesus expounds his apocalyptic message with 4 parables of ‘end of the world’ warnings, of which, this teaching about the sheep and goats gives a climatic conclusion.

The very image that Jesus uses is that of a shepherd, carefully separating his sheep from his goats.  I find it most fitting, that although Matthew omitted the story of Luke’s shepherds learning about Jesus’ birth, he now concludes with a ‘shepherd story’ about the Son of Man coming back to earth in ‘glory’ sorting out his sheep.   What Jesus is doing with this parable is what he refused to allow his disciples to do when he told them to let the weeds and wheat to grow together until the harvesters sort them out.  Jesus now envisions how that final moment of separation has come.

  To make his point more vivid, Jesus has personalized this coming ‘separation’ with living creatures, representing the very real choices humans of all nations have made, making one group like goats and the other like true sheep.   Interestingly, there is no ‘religious’ designation being described in this separation.  The choice that makes one group a goat and the other a sheep has to do with how God’s final judgment is based not one’s religious fever, not upon one’s nationality or social status, but God’s judgment is based upon whether humans act compassionately within their faith and culture.   The judgment that is coming under God’s rule is grounded, not only in goodness and grace, but also in God’s righteousness and justice that must be ‘fleshed out’ in our own lives, which should cause us to consider and examine our own individual actions as well.



         The surprise in this story is that these actions that determine our individual destiny in God’s kingdom aren’t actions chosen only for oneself, but these individual actions and choices have an impact on others, on society, and on the destiny of nations too.  

The ‘twist’ is that the ‘surprise’ of who actually ends up being a ‘goat’ and who ends up being a ‘sheep’.   This is what makes the story a warning, but strangely also a promise of blessing too.   It’s a warning because the ‘goats’ thought they were being sheep, but weren’t.  They did nothing for those who were the ‘least’ in the kingdom.   On the other hand, the unexpected blessing came to the ‘sheep’ because they were helping these people, but didn’t fully realize how they were really helping the Lord himself as they carried out all these compassionate actions.   Thus, the kingdom comes, is realized as humans participate in God’s kingdom rule through their own compassionate response to those who are in need.

What unnerves many people when it comes to a teaching like this is that it appears that Jesus is playing a trick on those who don’t get into the kingdom.  How could a Jesus make something so serious, out to be so surprising?  How could the ‘goats’ be judged based on not knowing that their King was hidden among the least of these?   Is this really a fair judgement, that all of eternity is based upon what you or I failed to do in our very short lives?   Surprise?  Surprise, indeed.  What you do in your very short life, does indeed matter.

The ‘surprise’ Jesus uses here, is much like the old Christmas legend that comes out of medieval times.    According to the legend, on Christmas Eve the Christ Child wanders throughout the world looking for places where he will be welcomed. Those who love him, those who hope he will visit their homes demonstrate this by placing lighted candles in the window to invite him in.   But no one knows what he will look like when he comes.  He might be a beggar. He might be blind. He might come as a poor and lonely child. So devout Christians welcome into their homes everyone who knocks on their door on Christmas Day. To turn anyone away may mean rejecting the Christ Child (

I think all of us get ‘who’ this parable is mostly about.   It reminds us just how carefully we should treat people, especially those who are in need.   In other words, we must make space in our busy, preoccupied lives for people who beyond our own little family circles, church circles, and community circles too.   Our saving experience in Jesus Christ isn’t just about our own personal relationship with Christ, but our relationship with Christ when fully lived, is a life-changing experience which is proven to be genuine in how we relate to everyone, especially those in need.

         As an example, Pastor Kenneth Carter tells about a man in his congregation. This man is involved in a local homeless ministry.  The man’s motivation for helping the homeless came from his relationship with his brother.   You see, this man’s brother, who now lives across the country from him, suffers from a psychological illness which sometimes leads him to paranoid delusions. These delusions have caused him to become one of the homeless.   Because of his illness, his brother travels from one homeless shelter to another.   Because this man understands what his brother is going through, and he can’t help his own brother directly, he has chosen to get involved in serving and assisting homeless men in his own community.  Every time he goes to the shelter he imagines the one he is serving as his own brother (

           So, the point Jesus is trying to get across is exactly what Jesus originally warned  about at the conclusion of the sermon on the mount.    Jesus said, “Many who say to him Lord, Lord, won’t enter the kingdom, but only who those who do the Father’s will’ (Matt. 7: 21).   What determines our ‘doing’ the Father’s will is ‘who’ we care about and how we care about them, not just ‘saying’ that we care.   This is the emphasis Jesus is trying to underscore in the final, last message of his preaching and teaching ministry.   Don’t miss this, he means, or you will miss everything.



           So, as we conclude, let’s understand, as much as we can, what we can, about missing ‘everything’ means.   What makes Jesus’ warning so sharp, so definite, and most serious, is that Jesus underscores how the deeds and attitudes we have now in this life, will have an impact on the kingdom that is still to come.  

To put this conclusion as simply as possible, look again at the contrast Jesus is making.   Those who respond to human need among ‘the least of these’ will enter into the ‘joys’ of God’s coming kingdom.   Those who fail to see the King in the needs of the ‘least of these’ and do not respond, will ‘depart’ from the king into ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’,  This kind of suffering and ‘eternal punishment’ for the ‘accursed’ is the polar opposite of the destiny of the ‘righteous’ who receive ‘eternal life’.   The difference in the destiny assigned them is based upon caring for or caring less about the real needs of the ‘least of these’.

Through the years, many have tried to soften the impact and implications of Jesus’ very negative ending.  It has been said that these images of ‘eternal fire’ and ‘eternal punishment’ here are not to be taken literally, but that they represent the absolute annihilation of the human soul in the same kind of complete destruction that will one day come to all that is evil in this world.   It’s not the fire and suffering of eternity that is eternal, it is said, but the full and final destruction that is eternal.   

Many find this interpretive approach to aid in understanding the horrid image of people suffering in the fire of hell forever.   The problem I have with this ‘softening’ of Jesus’ teaching, is that it misses the point.   In trying to fix the ‘problem’ of hell, they sill don’t address the real problem of what happens to the ‘least of these’ who are still alive in our world, and still need someone to care about them.   If all God wanted to do was  to explain ‘hell’,  Jesus could have given more details than this, don’t you think?  

The point we should stick with here is the one that is most shocking for God’s people, as well as, for the world.   When we minister to other people in need, especially those who are helpless and hopeless, we are serving Jesus, as if Jesus is the very one who is helpless and hopeless.  When we serve, care and have compassion on the ‘least of these’, we practice the kind of religion that the book of James says is ‘’pure and faultless’ is to ‘visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (Jas. 1:27, NIV).  James got Jesus’ point precisely.

Some of you may be familiar with Jim Wallis. Wallis is the head of the evangelical Magazine, Sojourners, and he is often featured on TV news talk shows as a spokesman for the Christian community.  Wallis often tells about the ministry of the Sojourners Neighborhood Center in Washington, D.C., his hometown. This center stands just one‑and‑a‑half miles from the White House.  On a given day, three hundred families stand in line outside the center to receive a bag of groceries which is critical to getting them through the week.

Just before the doors are opened and all the people come in, all those who help prepare the food join hands and say a prayer. The prayer is often offered by Mary Glover, a sixty‑year‑old black woman.  Mary knows what it means to be poor and she knows how to pray and get hold of God, as we say.  She prays like someone who knows to whom she is talking.  She has been carrying on a conversation with her Lord for many, many years.  When Mary prays, she first thanks God for another day, “Another day to serve you, Lord,” she says.   Then, Mary Glover may pray something like this, “Lord, we know that you’ll be coming through this line today so, Lord, help us to treat you well.”   

Isn’t this the most important message of Jesus before us in this text?  We must always be careful of how we treat anyone we meet. For the truth is, because Jesus isn’t the only time God has been here, incognito, that person may end up being Jesus in disguise.   So, making this a teaching only about hell, or trying to explain hell away, either way this isn’t Jesus major point.  Jesus’ point was always about being the kind of people who bring God’s care and compassion back into this broken world.    

One of the most influential people of the last century Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer was one of the most brilliant students in Germany.   He was outstanding in philosophy.  He was one of the greatest of all organists, and in particular, played Bach as no one else could play him.  But at the back of his mind there was a feeling that would not be stilled. He once said that as far back as he could remember, the thought of all the misery in the world had deeply troubled him. He came to believe that he did not have the moral right to take his happy youth, his good health and his ability to work for granted. He believed that we must all take our share of the misery which weighs so heavily upon the world.

So, Albert Schweitzer decided to give everything up and to study night and day to be a doctor.  He went as a missionary to Lambarene in Africa, where he established a hospital.   One day, a poor African man in much pain was brought to his hospital. “Pain is a more terrible than death itself,” Schweitzer said.  Dr. Schweitzer laid his hand upon the man’s head and said: “Don’t be afraid.  In an hour’s time you will be put to sleep and you will feel no more pain when you wake up.”

When the operation was over, the man discovered Schweitzer waiting there beside the bed.  The man looked around, and suddenly said again and again and again: “I have no more pain!  I have no more pain!” Then, the man reached for Dr. Schweitzer‘s hand and would not let go.  That was all the payment Albert Schweitzer ever got for that procedure.  It was all that he ever needed.  Albert Schweitzer had a tender heart for the suffering of the world.  He saw Christ everywhere, in everyone. He gave his life to relieve the suffering of others.  And while we may not be doctors, this is human calling too.   I don’t know why people suffer, but if there somehow the reason is only answered in the rest of us.  

While Jesus may not be calling us to devote our lives in full-time missionary service, or to be a medical doctor, like Albert Schweitzer, Jesus does call us to do something.   Whether it is visiting a nursing home, or helping in a soup kitchen, or simply taking an interest in a needy family you know, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and as a human being too, it’s our human calling to care about those who are less fortunate than ourselves.    This is something we do, not as much for them, but we do it for ourselves.   It is so easy for us to isolate and insulate ourselves from those in need.   We can grow even more callous to human need.   We then begin to imagine that we somehow deserve our good fortune, and our hearts grow colder and harder.   We forget our purpose for being here, and we feel even more empty, so we go after material luxuries, becoming miserably more self-indulgent.   Eventually, we even stop looking for Jesus anywhere, not in church or in others in need.

Many, many years ago a man moved into a small town. His little house was near the railroad tracks. Every morning he noticed an elderly lady walking along the tracks picking up something and putting it into a bag. The man got curious. He went to a small grocery store nearby and asked the owner about this lady. “Oh, that’s the widow Jacobs,” said the grocer. “Every day she comes half-way across town to pick up the coal that is spilled on the tracks when the early morning train runs through town.”

“But there hasn’t been a steam locomotive using coal on these tracks for years,” replied the new resident.

“That’s right,” said the store owner. “When the steam train stopped running, old Mr. Simpson who runs the hardware store was concerned that the Widow Jacobs would no longer have coal to heat and cook with. He knew she was too proud to take charity, so he decided to get up early every morning, to take a bag of coal and drop it along the tracks. The Widow Jacobs still thinks the steam train runs by here every morning.

I think Old Mr. Simpson has been doing that for about 5 years now.”

A few lumps of coal dropped along a railroad track each day. It’s not much to do, but it’s something.  In this story, Jesus is reminding us that God calls each of us to do something to make life better for someone else.   Isn’t that the main thing in this text?  Jesus’ stories were always making one main point.  The point is clear:  “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . .”  This story doesn’t say we can solve all the problems of this world.  Only God can do that.   But God is calling us to do something for somebody we know, and perhaps even doing something for somebody we don’t, and we need to know.  “I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”   That’s it.  It’s doesn’t sound like that much, but Jesus means what you do for someone can make a small difference in someone’s life.  And if I understand it, Jesus also means, this could make an very big, if not eternal difference in your own life, too.   Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Greatest In the Kingdom …

Matthew 18: 1-10

Charles J. Tomlin, March 14th, 2021,

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Kingdom of God Series, 11 of 14


At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "WHO IS THE GREATEST in the kingdom of heaven?"

 2 He called a child, whom he put among them,

 3 and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

 4 Whoever BECOMES HUMBLE LIKE THIS CHILD is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

 6 "IF ANY OF YOU PUT A STUMBLING BLOCK before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!

 8 "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.

 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell1 of fire.

 10 "Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.1 (Matt. 18:1-10 NRS)



So much in this world is about power.  It’s about who get’s to be ‘first’.

Do you remember that famous and funny exchange in Abbott and Costello?  Abbott, I was going to New York to work with the Yankee’s as a coach and manager.  Lou said, well Abbott, if you’re the coach, you must know all the players.  Then, they start talking about all the funny, peculiar names the ball players have, like Dizzy Dean or his brother, Daffy Dean, and their French cousin,  French?  Yes, Goofe Dean?

Bud Abbott:  Yes, Abbott says, and there strange names too, like  “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third…

Lou Costello: That’s what I want to find out.

Bud Abbott: I say again: Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.

Lou Costello: You gonna be the manager and coach too and you don’t know the fellows’ names?

Bud Abbott: Well I should.

Lou Costello: Well then who’s on first?

Bud Abbott: Yes.

Lou Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.

Bud Abbott: Who.

Lou Costello: The guy on first.

Bud Abbott: Who.

Lou Costello: The first baseman.

Bud Abbott: Who.

Lou Costello: The guy playing…

Bud Abbott: Who is on first!

Lou Costello: I’m asking YOU who’s on first.

Bud Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Lou Costello: That’s who’s name?

A: Yes, that him, Who?  And his wife’s last name is who too…

It’s was such a funny routine carried over from Vaudeville to the TV screen.  If you ever saw it, or seen it on YouTube, you never forget it.  

But this ‘who’s on first’ question sounds so much like the human question many still ask: not who’s on first, but ‘who’s first’?   Both nature and human nature too is very much concerned about the survival of the fittest, who’s the strongest, the smartest, the most powerful, and who’s the richest too.  In this was humans become truly, as the crime boss said, ‘filthy animals’.

Power still speaks volumes in life, work, and culture, doesn’t it?   It takes us back, way back even before there were video games, or organized sports for small children, when we used to play those childhood games like ‘king of the hill’?  We wanted to see who’s first, who could hit the ball, who was the strongest, the biggest, and the best.   At a very young age we would look a life and people, valuing everything just like Darwin’s view of nature,  agreeing that only the ‘strongest’ matter.



Interestingly, ‘power’ is an important question about God’s kingdom too.  But before we think about this, we must remind ourselves, that God’s kingdom of heaven is not in heaven, but God’s kingdom is in the life of God’s people on earth, as it is in heaven.  

So, here on earth when disciples of Jesus consider doing God’s will in this world, they can’t help put look at the world around them and wonder, ‘who’s on first,  who will be the greatest’; who will be the leaders, and who will be the persons entitled to power?   It even appeared in the fairy tales as ‘Who is the fairest of them all’?  Who will gain recognition, be remembered, have the biggest and most toys?  As they say, history is written by the winners, not the losers.  So, even the disciples are wondering, who is the winner in God’s kingdom?

This question about ‘power’ goes all the way back to the OT when Israel wanted to be like other nations.   The people thought there was to be an advantage in being like everyone else in the world, rather than remaining a people lead by God.   As we know by reading the rest of Samuel, Kings and David’s Chronicles too, that did not work out so well.  Most  of the powerful kings of Israel became obsessed with their power and misused their power only to enrich themselves, not to care for the kingdom and the least of those in the kingdom.  Out of 38 Kings in the biblical record, only 9 were considered ‘good’.    That means in a history covering 434 years, 34 out of 43    royal powers did evil, with  only 5 of majorly positive; David, Jehoshaphat, Jotham, Hezikiah, and Josiah.     This is why God’s kingdom being established through the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus is supposed to be different; very different.  The kingdoms ruled by  human royalty were overly negative, continually downward, and without lasting consequence.

So, do to the human condition, the disciples still are struggling in this very human understanding of power.  This is why the disciples ask Jesus, “Who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  This question reminds us again, that God’s kingdom is a kingdom that comes near and is to be realized on earth, where people are still tempted to power for wrong reasons, obsessed by power, and can still be destroyed by it too.

Recently in the Christian news, there was a tragic story of the downfall of a popular pastor of a large church in California.   In that church the pastor was made aware that one of his children’s workers was struggling with attraction to small children.  That worker hadn’t actually acted on that inclination, so that he hadn’t actually become a pedophile, so the pastor allowed him to have some counseling, while the worker continued to work with the church and community’s children.  

Finally, word got out that this worker had these feelings, and that the pastor knew about, and allowed the worker to continue their work.  This word got out through the pastor’s son, who was a transsexual who reported it to church leaders.  That son knew the story was true because the children’s worker who was working with the children and having pedophile thoughts was the pastor’s other son.

This is a tragic story for that church and the pastor.  After a leave of absence, church leaders finally had to release their pastor because of his abuse of the ‘power’ entrusted to him. He misused that power to protect his son, but it was at the potential expense of children in the church.  

This reminds us about that the abuse of ‘power’ can be very dangerous, in the world, in the church, in a home, or in any kind of place or position of authority.  That’s why sole power should never be put into the lap of one person, but power should be shared, held accountable, and delegated too.  

     While power at one person’s absolute disposal might get many things done, these ‘things’ are still too often getting done at someone else’s expense. That’s exactly what happened in this pastor in California.  Too much power and too much success had not only led to dysfunction in his own family unit, now this dysfunction was about to spill over into the life of the congregation and possibly do irreparable damage to innocent children.

That’s why it’s so vitally important for churches and Christians too, to learn what kingdom ‘power’ means, and how to use that power in ways that we don’t abuse it, or to take advantage of God’s power in our lives.   Power is a gift, and can be a gracious gift, but power should only be used faithfully and positively, with humility and grace.  In this text, as in his own life, Jesus is trying to show us how power, or here, how ‘greatness’ looks very different in God’s kingdom that can come near on earth.



At the heart of Jesus understanding of power and greatness, is the image of a little child.  

Jesus certainly isn’t alone in this, or maybe I should say, the spirit of Jesus still inspires people to understand the best of life this way.   William Wordsworth, the great American writer, once said in a very poetic way, ‘The child is the Father of the man!   Wordsworth meant that since a child is so full of carefree wonder and trust, this should never be lost in life, but should continue to shape our lives or we will lose our greatest joy about life.  

But Jesus is talking about ‘power’ and ‘greatness’,  not ‘wonder’.   Jesus selected a child as a way to help his disciples think about a healthy understanding of power.  And Jesus isn’t just talking about greatness in the kingdom, but he backs up to point that this childlike trust and humility is how one enters  God’s kingdom.   Truly I tell you,  Jesus says,  unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3 NRS).

 Whatever you do, make sure when you see these words, ‘Truly’, or as the King James say, ‘Verily.  It means pay close attention.   Jesus is talking about the Salvation ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’  Jesus is talking about entering God’s Kingdom now, in how we live our lives.  Jesus is talking about God’s purposes that can and should be realized now, and through us who live in him.

Notice that Jesus isn’t saying that we enter the kingdom by being ‘childish’.  There’s a big difference in being childlike from being childish.

Len Sweet makes an interesting comparison between being childlike and childish.. He asks ‘why is it that one of the most typically “child-like” things we do is to try and to act like an adult?   Little children dress up like Mom and Dad. Kids pretend to drive the car.  Older kids still play with pint-sized pots and pans, play-doctor kits and miniature tool sets.    Some of us are even old enough to remember playing with perhaps the worst child-oriented product ever invented — candy or chewing gum cigarettes.  Does anyone remember those?  Gives you the shivers now, doesn’t it?

The hard truth is children want to imitate and emulate the adults around them whatever those behaviors might be. That is why being an “adult,” and being a “parent,” is such an awesome responsibility.    

If as children we act like an adult, sometimes adults spend a lot of time acting like children, or at least doing things we call “being childish.” This is the secret of the Disney franchise. Disney has designed a playground for even more than for children. Some adults even know celebrate their birthdays by taking everyone in the family on a Disney cruise.  But the hard truth of this side of the equation is that we really aren’t acting like children.  In fact, our “childish” behaviors become the adult “toys” of others — the bigger house, flashier car, the lavish lifestyle of those who live in a higher income bracket.

Poet Sylvia Plath, shows us another form of childish behavior, called the “how come” response to a childish comparison to others: "Occasionally I retch quietly in the wastebasket.”  Or as another says, ‘Every-time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” Bad prayers begin “How come ...” The best prayers begin “Your Kingdom come.”  With childish behaviors like these, some even take out childish frustrations on their families, and direct jealousies toward loved ones.   We kick the dog or the cat, instead of ourselves. This is the big difference between “child-like” of a child wanting to be an adult or an adult acting like a child.

The ‘attitude’ of a child-like behavior Jesus means, is ‘humility’ of being a child.   That may be a difficult image for some to grasp, since children of today are sometimes allowed to ‘rule’ their parents, and aren’t considered to be so humble.   So, perhaps we need to use another word; vulnerable.   Children are those who are most vulnerable because they are the smallest, weakest, and most likely to be hurt or rejected by the world around them.  In fact, in Jesus’ world, 60 percent of children didn’t live past 16 years.   That’s why Jesus finds great value in a kingdom that ‘welcomes a child’.  Besides, those in power often used children, abused children, or they told children to get out of their way.  Welcoming a child wasn’t how the ancient world worked.   When things went wrong or when people abused power, it’s was normally the children who ended up suffering the most. 



It was the child’s tremendous vulnerability, that makes the wrong kind of greatness a ‘stumbling block’ to children, to the weak, and to young Christians too.  Hunger for and misuse of power can hurt and bring harm to the most vulnerable in both society and church.   When adults spend all their time pursuing success, power, position, money or ‘greatness’ on the world’s terms, they can, either purposely or accidentally,  put a terrible ‘stumbling block’ in the path of the young who suffer the full impact of adult problems and irresponsibility.

Now, folks, I’m going to say something here, that may be difficult to hear, but many of the struggles we see in our world today, drug use, sexual confusion, teen suicide and many other social problems we see in the lives of young people today is not directly caused by wayward, rebellious or immoral youth, but much of it is young bearing the weight of the poor choices of adults and society.  And this kind of thing is exactly what Jesus warns about.  Jesus says it is inexcusable when adults cause children to stumble.  The whole society ends up suffering too.    This is the reason for Jesus sharp warning at the close our our text.  Here, we see how Jesus has moved from thinking about a healthy view of greatness which should resemble childlike humility, to Jesus warning his own disciples about being like the world and it’s grab for success and power.

In the story of Richard Jewell, as told by Clint Eastwood,  it was a power seeking, ambitious reporter for the Atlanta Newspaper that jumped the gun and published a story about Jewell being a prime suspect in the 1996 Olympic bombing. 

Without any firm evidence, and with only a mistaken theory, the reporter nearly ruined the lives of Jewell, his mother, and his friend, by exposing an investigation and leaking it so that it became a media circus.  And why did it happen?  It was a misuse of power, seeking greatness. 

Interestingly, that report backfired on the reporter who died of a drug overdose only 5 years later.   Jewell himself, died of a heart attack 11 years later at the young age of 44.    Again, why did so many have to go through that?  What was all that for?  Perhaps this is why Jesus becomes so graphic in the final words of this text.   He says bluntly, if your right hand or foots cause you to stumble, or anyone else for that matter, cut it off.  It’s better to be maimed in life, than to end up going into the fire with both hands or both feet.   You get the picture.  Jesus takes very seriously the human responsibility to ourselves, to others, and especially to the young.   He suggests that it’s better for us to have less, even of our own body and do what is right than to have our whole body and do wrong, either to ourselves or others. 

But perhaps the final thing that needs to be said here, is that it is very important to remember that Jesus is talking about the kingdom.  When he speaks of putting a stumbling block before little ones, he’s probably talking about young ones in faith too.  For like children, new Christians are very vulnerable to having their faith injured or threatened by others, either intentionally or unintentionally.   Think back for to the tragic of the pastor in a prominent California church who abused his position by not removing his son with pedophile thoughts.  Think how some young Christians, or new converts in that church, may have had their trust broken and faith weakened when they learned their pastor had acted so irresponsibly, with such disregard for innocent young lives.

The temptations of power in the world today, are not that different from the temptations to misuse or abuse power in God’s kingdom work too.   This is, perhaps why, when asked about ‘greatness’ by his disciples,  Jesus puts forth the vulnerable child, who must not only be emulated in humility, but protected in that adults do.   Again, this is why Jesus’ ends with such a sharp, pointed warning.  

But, thanks to Jesus’ warning, we can conclude this message in a positively.    We can now understand true greatness not as known best in what we achieve, but true greatness; greatness in God’s way and in God’s kingdom is already there in who we are in God’s love and who we are called to be in Christ.  Like a child, who has ever yet achieved anything, greatness is who we are, because, as Jesus says, ‘ in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven (Matt. 18:10 NRS).   I don’t think there is any more beautiful, poetic, theological understanding of true greatness in the kingdom that this.   Greatness is like a child who, due to the child’s innocence, vulnerability, and humility,  has better ‘angels’ who can see straight into the face of God.    Now, that’s greatness.   Amen.