"Again and Again and Again"#91-11
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 12, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Matthew 18:1-4
In 2017 the streaming television service Netflix leaked an astonishing fact. One of their subscribers over the course of the year had watched the same movie 357 times, 357 times! That's the same movie almost every day for a year, and people wanted to know who was it and which movie. The movie happened to be a decade-old, animated children's film called The Bee Movie, about a bee named Barry who, through a series of misadventures, almost destroys the planet and through it all, learns how to be grown up. That was the movie, and who was it that watched it 357 times that year? The Netflix account belonged to a young woman from England. It turns out that her young son, Jackson, had become obsessed with the film and at least for that year, never stopped asking to watch it even after the 356th time.
It's an extreme example, but Jackson's behavior isn't entirely out of the ordinary. Parents can testify that this is what small children do. They want to watch the same movie, to hear the same story, to go back to the same bedtime book again and again and again. Why do kids do this? The short answer according to child psychologists is that this is what they need. Maybe not The Bee Movie 357 times, but they need stories. Where these stories come from—Hollywood, Brothers Grimm, grandpa, the Bible—that's a question for parents and guardians, but there is no question about whether children need them. They need them to find out who they are, how they fit, and how they might come to be grown up. Children need stories and not just once. They need to hear the story repeated again and again and again.
If you are or have been a parent of small children, you know this. You get that your child needs to hear the word used in context repeatedly before they can really understand it. Some estimate that a child needs to hear a word repeated in context about 80 times before they can make the word their own. Parents, you have tried to be patient with your younger child because you know they need to hear it again. Because younger children remember slower and forget faster than older children, and studies confirm that younger children benefit less by hearing many stories only one time and benefit more by hearing one story many times. So, mom and dad, you do it. You read that bedtime story for the 357th time because you know that this is what your child needs.
Let's face it. Children are needy. Sometimes we idealize what children are like. You hear people praise children for their creativity, their curiosity, their imagination, their joy, but adults can be creative and curious and imaginative and joyful. So what's the difference between adults and children? The difference is that when an adult is pouting, throwing a tantrum, being annoying, you can just leave them alone because they're an adult. They can take care of themselves, and if they don't, well, that's their fault, not yours. You're not responsible for them, but not true for children.
Children need you with their runny noses, sticky fingers, endless questions. They need you. They can't take care of themselves. They're not strong enough, not experienced enough, not tall enough to reach what they need on the countertop. There is so much they don't know, that they can't comprehend, they can't control, they can't do on their own. They need you. They need your word, your wisdom, your stories. They need you to push play, to read the book, so they can hear the words, and they need to hear them again and again and again.
There's a saying from the ancient Jewish Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, that's often misunderstood. He once said to His students, "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter God's kingdom." Much about Jesus is controversial, who He is, what He did, what He said. It's been that way for 2,000 years. Jesus was and is controversial. That's what got Him killed eventually. But more on that in a moment. In many ways, the controversy about Jesus has become more intense over the centuries. But this statement of His about how adults need to become like children, this one seems less controversial in our time.
Maybe it has something to do with the way modern people idealize childhood. Whether it's in a story like Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, or in catchphrases like "Stay young at heart," "Don't grow up too fast," "Embrace your inner child." "Be childlike," people tell us, "be joyful, simple, curious." "Chase a butterfly," and so on. So Jesus' words, "You must become like children" may just sound like another modern-day meme. But Jesus' saying would've meant something different back then. In His original context, ancient Middle Eastern Jewish context, the metaphor become like children would've been offensive because ancient people didn't see children as positive role models for adults. This was especially the case for Greco-Roman society. In that context, children were less than real people. They were without rights, without honor, without power. In a pagan society if children were unwanted, they could be abandoned, aborted, left for dead, without social or legal reprisal.
Now, ancient Jews were different on several counts. They didn't support abortion or infanticide because they believed that every human, especially the small ones, were created in God's image and valuable to God. But their estimation of children's abilities and qualities was not all that different from their pagan neighbors. Remember when people tried to bring children to Jesus for Him to bless them? You remember what His adult students did? They were like "Hey, scram! The Rabbi's got no time for your snot-nosed kids." In that time, for children to really count for something, they needed to grow up first. But Jesus says that those who think themselves grown up in relation to God, they need to become children: more needy, more dependent, and if left alone, entirely helpless.
Every culture has stories about growing up, about the journey from boyhood to manhood, from being a girl to becoming a woman. Maybe in some way, every story is a growing-up story. For example, the ancient story of the Odyssey which was the Star Wars of the Greco-Roman world is sort of a growing-up story. The hero, Odysseus, he's an adult, but he still needs to grow, to be battle-hardened, tested by trials to come into his kingdom. In a way, all stories are odysseys about growing up. Love stories are about growing to find that person who completes you. Comedies are about growing to not take yourself so seriously. Tragedies are about growing wiser to the harsh realities of life. And maybe even old Peter Pan is trying to teach us about how to be an adult, that simply being tall and cranky and cynical does not make you a grownup. Every culture knows that humans, even the big ones, still need to grow up.
As one author put it, we are all like eggs. Either we hatch or go rotten. So maybe we can agree that no matter how old we are, what we are now is not yet what we were made to be, that we all need to grow up. But it gets controversial when we talk about how to grow up. And this makes sense that there would be controversy about this because if we're all together in this great human coming-of-age odyssey, if even the oldest and wisest and most well-traveled among us still has much to learn, then how could any of us really know how to grow up? We would need someone who is already there from the grownup side, someone to show the way for us, someone who would push play for us, who would read the story aloud even after the 357th time.
What makes Jesus of Nazareth so controversial is that He claims to be that someone, the only human who really knows how to grow up. It's controversial because others claim to know. They want to tell us their stories. Some tell us this story. Once upon a time, human beings were all alone in the world. They went through a phase when they believed in angels and demons and some powerful parental figure in the sky. But then, they grew up. They realized they were all alone, orphans, and it was up to them to make a life, to make this world a better place, so they did. They invented airplanes and air conditioning and Netflix, and lived happily ever after.
That's the bedtime story the modern western world has been repeating to itself almost every day for 300 years. And sometimes we believe it or at least we act like we do. Over the last a hundred years though things have gotten more complicated for that happily ever after, in the form of a couple World Wars, nuclear weapons, and the possibility of destroying the planet. So some people started telling a different version of the story. Once upon a time, human beings thought they were grown up, but turned out to be like those shipwrecked kids in the Lord of the Flies, playing with fire, and they almost burned the whole place down.
You can hear both of these tales today repeated at theaters, over the internet, in paperback, because we all want to be told stories. We need them because there's so much we don't know, so much we can't comprehend, can't control, can't do on our own. Maybe we're more like children than we realized, and we're looking for a true story to live in, to fit in, to grow up in. And with no lack of controversy, that's what this Jewish Rabbi, Jesus, promises. He came not just for Jewish people, but for all people. He is not just Mary's Son, but God's Son who was with God the Father from the beginning.
God sent Him to give us His story, the true story of our lives. He wants you to know that you haven't been orphaned. You aren't alone in this world. God will be your Father. Right now, He will take you—runny nose, sticky fingers, filled with questions. He will take all of you. You don't have to change yourself, fix yourself, or pretend like you're already grown up. He will take you as you are. He will take care of you. How can you know this is true? Because when people eventually did kill Jesus, after they crucified Him for His controversial claims, God raised Him from the dead so that He could go on, offering everyone the story we've been looking for, the story we need. Jesus sent out His followers to be His messengers, after He ascended into heaven to be behind the scenes in the control room of the universe.
His messengers kept sharing His story. They put it all down in books called Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For 70-some generations, they've been retelling it, passing it along to new generations. I've been made one of those messengers, and there are more like me in Christian communities all around the world. We get together in houses, school gyms, rented theaters, elaborate sanctuaries. Every week we retell some of His story, and we ask God for help so that we can grow up into the people He made us to be. That's how you can know this is true. Jesus rose from the dead, and all this is the result.
Yes, it's a big claim, and if it's true and you're not part of it, then you need to rethink your whole life. But maybe you say, "I'm not into organized religion." Well, first off, we're not really all that organized, and yes, Jesus' followers today can be childish, cliquish, and prone to throw tantrums when we don't get what we want. We are still growing up along with the rest of the world. There's much we can't comprehend, can't control, can't do on our own. We still need God's Word, God's wisdom, God's story. We need Him to push play, to read the book, so we can hear the words, and we need to hear them again and again and again.
It's been like this from the beginning with Jesus way back when He first said, "Unless you become like children, you will never enter God's kingdom." He was responding to a question His followers had asked Him. They wanted to know which of them was the greatest in God's kingdom, who had the most power, who was the most important, who was the most grown up. Jesus flips their question on its head. He pauses a moment, then calls to Himself a child, has him stand among them. Picture him there, the child, runny nose, sticky fingers, endless questions, called by Jesus, standing next to Him. And Jesus says, "I'm telling you the truth. Unless you all turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom, the rule and reign of heaven. So whoever humbles himself like this child, that one is the greatest in the rule and reign of heaven, and whoever receives one such child in My Name receives Me."
As children grow physically, they eventually stop asking to hear the same story again for the 357th time. But as we grow spiritually as children of God, we need to hear His story repeated for a lifetime and maybe longer. Even when Jesus returns to raise the dead and fully bring God's kingdom, and we are raised to be like Him, we will never outgrow our need for God because we will be like Jesus, Jesus who always has been and always will be God's Child, God's beloved Son.
Now for us Jesus has also become the human Son of God. So even when the Kingdom has come, I suspect we'll still want to hear the old story again plus the new ones He plans to write with us. Until then, let's aspire to be like Jackson, that little boy who watched the same movie 357 times. But if we literally do this with the story of Jesus in the Bible, won't it get old? Won't we be like Jackson's poor mother who had every line of that ridiculous movie memorized and was over it, sick of it, happy to never hear it again? Won't that happen with the story of Jesus?
Well, consider the experience of a man named David Rhodes. In the late 1970s, David began memorizing one of the biographies of Jesus in the New Testament: the Gospel of Mark. For 15 years, he retold it from memory, Mark's story about Jesus. He retold it for gathered audiences nearly 200 times, and accounting for memory work and practice, David said, "I've probably gone over Mark more than 500 times." So did he get bored with it after that many times? No. He found that the story of Jesus gets richer with repetition, hearing it, telling it, sharing it with others—and that's just one Gospel. There are three more plus 62 other books in the Bible that fill out the story of Jesus, that each get richer, deeper, more humbling every time through. So humble yourself. Be like a child. Ask God to give you ears to hear it, and find another little one with whom to share it. Listen together again and again and again.
And pray with me. Dear Father, open my eyes and ears so that I may behold wondrous things in Your Word and live according to it. In Jesus' Name. Amen.
No Reflections for November 12, 2023
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Wake, Awake" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.