Michaelmas 2020: Sermon by the Rev. R. R. Tarsitano

Sermon Audio

Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew 18:4). 

At the end of today’s epistle, a loud voice in heaven encourages the heavenly church triumphant to rejoice, for salvation and strength and the kingdom of God has come to humanity. It is those faithful men and women, racked and mauled by the horrors of earthly persecution and trial, who are now called to praise and glorify the Lamb whose sacrificial love empowered them to overcome Satan, the Great Accuser. We hear in their songs of praise the glory of the God whose Word fills their breasts and enlivens their tongues as they prepare to return with Him to a broken world which needs Him so desperately. 

It is our broken world which is warned by the same loud voice, “...Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and of the sea! For the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time” (Revelation 12:12). We are in this short time, and we daily feel his wrath. The victory of Christ has purged the great fallen angel from heaven, and so the accuser knows he has lost. The human race which bears his enemy’s image and likeness must now bear the mad, flailing attacks of one who knows he is defeated; one who in his defeat seeks only to drag other creatures into the flaming abyss which he knows awaits him. 

As King Theoden says in the second book of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, “What can men do against such reckless hate?” Of course, in The Lord of the Rings, the kings of men ride out with sharpened steel to pitilessly destroy the evil which plagues their land. And to be sure, Revelation makes it abundantly clear that there will come a time when we will be called to take our place in the heavenly army, Christ and St. Michael at its head, to sweep through this world’s valleys of death, avenging the blood and terror which even now screams to heaven for justice. But for now, we in the church militant find ourselves with a very different task ahead of us: a quest by which we are made the holy saints of God, worthy to stand alongside the Lord of all men and all angels. 

This true, divine purpose for our lives should drive us to the very question Christ’s disciples ask in today’s Gospel, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Satan has already given us his answer when he convinced our first parents to try and be gods. The cruel, demonic logic actually checks out: if God is greatest in heaven, then I must replace Him with myself to be the greatest. We see this entirely rational conclusion on full display when Satan convinced men to nail God to a dead tree. This ultimate example of the struggle to rebel against the rightful reign of our Creator trickles down into every sin humanity commits in the name of itself. Worse even than that, we see Satan’s logic on full display when we treat our neighbors as competitors to be crushed as we strive for earthly greatness, enemies to be vanquished so our flag can fly a little bit higher. Infusing this quest for earthly greatness into all that we do is a great and abiding accomplishment of the Devil, who after all, doesn’t need us to worship him to secure our eternal damnation; no, he merely needs us to keep worshipping ourselves.

What then does Jesus say to the disciple’s question? Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? To answer this question, our Lord doesn’t pull out a coin with the emperor’s face on it, nor does He tell a story about some great Olympian or famous actor; no, He asks for an infant to be brought to Him, saying, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be turned, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (St. Matthew 18:2-4). We should note that Our Lord does not have some kind of sentimental idea of childhood innocence He wants us to emulate; Christ knows the hearts of men are wicked, whether they are 2 or 200; rather, it is the utter dependance of children upon their parents to which the Son of God would have us turn to see true greatness in an evil world. If Satan would have us try and be gods, Christ would have us know we are children. 

Here lies the heart of Christ’s life and death command.  Our Lord is not calling upon us to wear a cloak of false humility or self-serving piety; no, He is simply commanding us to recognize reality. In terms of our power, are you and I more like God, or are we more like a two year old? Are we closer in power to the God who forms everything from nothing or to the child who needs his poopy diapers changed? The answer is obvious, but Satan would have us believe otherwise. Here we catch a glimpse of his cruel genius: by making us pursue power and money at the expense of our neighbors, he has enlisted our God given talents and strengths to be used for our own destruction. Remember, the Devil craves our souls and bodies, and so he has created evil ways of living so embeded in our world’s concept of the “good life” that we can be convinced to murder ourselves and save him the trouble. It is certain we will always be confused by our Lord’s hard teachings as long we falsely think true greatness comes from being listed on the Forbes billionaire’s list or receiving an Academy Award or having our lifeless body displayed in the capitol rotunda rather than through the humble recognition of our utter dependance upon God worked out with “fear and trembling” each and every day. 

Of course, Jesus is not telling us to do something He didn’t do Himself.  Does the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity  (equal in might, majesty, and dominion with the Father) does He come to dwell among men so that He can take the emperor’s throne or gather vast amounts of wealth or become famous? No, despite having every opportunity to pursue greatness in the ways defined by His enemy, Christ says, “No.” Satan himself confronts Jesus at the beginning of His ministry and offers Our Lord just this deal, saying in essence, “Accept my view of earthly greatness, and I will give you power and adoration and all the kingdoms of this world.” But, what does Christ choose instead: He chooses the Cross. Jesus weighed all the possibilities of temporary earthly greatness, and instead, chose sacrifice and the loving dependance of a Son to His Father, trusting His Heavenly Father even while facing torture and death. “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done” (St. Matthew 26:42).  “Thy will be done,” is the ultimate refutation of Satan’s cry, “I will not serve,” and so it is the very heart of Christian holiness, for it is in the focused pursuit of our Heavenly Father’s will that we find the humble childlike obedience necessary to enter the Kingdom of God. There is no substitute; we can either be sons and daughters of grace in the new heaven and new earth, or we can be little, broken gods cast into what Jesus calls today “the trash pit of fire.”

It is then the little ones, the children of Christ’s church, both physical and spiritual who in their seeming weakness are the perfect vessels for the manifestation of God’s glory. Hence Jesus’ words, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (St. Matthew 18:10). The children of God may not have tanks or missiles, and we may not run a hedge fund or pull upon the levers of state power, but we do have the angelic army of the Living God standing at the ready to avenge all who wrong us. For just as Christ chose the sacrifice and heroic weakness of the Cross to confound the world and its demonic prince, we can be just as assured that He will return with incorruptible strength and perfect power to set right what humanity has set wrong. Even now, thundering in the walls of His heavenly realm, Our Father, hears the cries of His oppressed children--wracked and mauled by the suffering of this fallen world; He hears, His angels hear, and there will come a glorious day when the whole world will hear the final battle chorus of the angelic host. 

Let us then long to hear that angelic song; let us long to serve God as perfectly as they; let us be the faithful children who trust no strength but God’s.


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