I spent most of Thanksgiving week with my wife’s side of the family. And I had forgotten what it’s like to be a 9 year old boy until I was around my nephew. Because for him, everything is an adventure or is a story. He’d shout, ‘Come on, Uncle Jonny, let’s fight, we’ll be pirates!’ Or we’d all be walking through the woods and my nephew would say, ‘Oh, I bet a fox did that. Only a fox could do that.’ When he found seashells, he shouted, ‘There could be a pearl in here! Imagine all the things we could do with a pearl!’ “Uncle Jonny, let’s play Hide-N-Seek!”
Meanwhile, all I wanted to do was go back to the cabin and watch football and eat myself into a food coma. I’m about to turn 45, my beard is turning grey, and I require a lot more downtime than I used to.
But, here’s the question. Who do you think had a better Thanksgiving week? My nephew did. Of course.
One of my favorite songwriters, Rich Mullins, wrote a song about growing up and growing old called Growing Young. These words hit home with me:
“I’ve gone so far from my home,
I’ve seen the world & I have known,
So many secrets I wish now I did not know‘
Cause they have crept into my heart,
they have left it cold and dark , And bleeding, bleeding and falling apart.”
My parents live in one of the largest retirement communities in the world called The Villages. The first time I came to The Villages I was amazed. It’s clearly a place whose sole goal is to keep people young. There are over 50 golf courses, 77 recreation centers, and over 2,700 clubs. It’s the most active place, outside of a college campus, I’ve ever seen. And it’s keeping my parents and my grandmother in shape and occupied with more to do than they ever have time for.
But, what if growing old is more about the state of our hearts than it is the diminishing velocity of our tennis serve or our golf swing? Jesus tells us that there is a way to grow young. In fact, He tells us that we have to become young again to be able to get in to heaven. Say what?
We read in Matthew 18, “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’”
To get to heaven, you have to become like a child. But, the problem is that we’ve sinned and grown old. And we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be as trusting and as humble as a child.
Sin Ages Us, and Not In a Good Way
Sin ages us in a way that moves us away from God.
Now, there’s a difference between aging and maturing. There are great things about maturing. We gain perspective, we (hopefully) gain wisdom; we realize how silly some of our young fears were, we stop trying to please people at all costs.
Jesus isn’t saying we shouldn’t mature. In fact, he’s responding to the disciples fighting over one of the most immature questions you could ever ask Jesus, “Who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” You can just imagine Jesus rolling His eyes. They’re already acting like children, but not in the way He wants them to. He wants them, and us, us to mature as believers. The New Testament talks a lot about moving on from drinking milk to eating meat spiritually and growing in our faith.
Maturing is a good thing. What Jesus is concerned about it is the negative side of aging. One negative effect of aging is that we become hardened.
Oscar Wilde wrote a book called The Picture of Dorian Grey about a young man who has his portrait painted and while he is sitting for his portrait he meets Lord Henry, a libertine. Dorian is fascinated by the man and lured into a hedonistic lifestyle. Dorian finds a great bonus for himself (that only happens in movies and novels): his portrait takes on the physical consequences of his life. Dorian stays the same age for decades and retains the same handsome, innocent demeanor he had before he met Lord Henry. When he goes to the locked room in his house to look at his portrait, he sees it has aged greatly and become hideous and cruel in its appearance.
Dorian Grey is able to fool people with his appearance. But for most of us, our sin and suffering eventually shows up on our faces, so that the anger and bitterness reduce our smile and the weariness hangs on us. Even if it doesn’t show on our faces, it changes our hearts. Sin makes us hard and calloused so that we stop caring and become cynical.
And we need to take sin seriously- it’s not just a slip up or a character defect. It’s a curse that’s trying to destroy you. Look again at how Jesus talks about sin in verses 6-8 of chapter 18, “[W]hoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.”
Another negative effect of sin is that it makes us lose our sense of wonder. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia book, The Last Battle, we meet some dwarves who are part of the great last battle. These dwarves used to fight for the king of Narnia, the good guys. But, strange things have happened in Narnia and the dwarves have lost faith in everyone else but themselves. They’ve even taken up a saying, “The dwarves are for the dwarves!”
In the midst of the nighttime battle, the dwarves find themselves, along with King Tirian, locked in a barn. But, the barn turns out to be a doorway to another world- the New Narnia, essentially heaven. And King Tirian walks out into the sunshine and beauty of New Narnia and he sees his friends and even Aslan the great lion. But, the dwarves can’t see any of the New Narnia. Even though they’re sitting right at the gateway to paradise, all they see is darkness and all they smell is a stinky barn. In fact, when Aslan gives them some of the magnificent food of heaven, they spit it out.
They dwarves are locked in a prison of their own making.Their anger and mistrust has caused them to lose their sense of joy and wonder.
Sin does that to us. It keeps us from receiving the beautiful things of this world as a gift, and turns them into a drudgery. When we misuse sex, we destroy the sacred joy it was intended to be, and we make it just another habit to feed.When we’re consumed with ourselves, we’re kept from seeing the image of God in other people, and we don’t learn what God might want to teach us through them.
The disciples were with Jesus, but they weren’t really experiencing Jesus- because they were too focused on themselves. When Jesus healed people, instead of being moved to worship and to a beautiful vision of healing the world, they instead thought, “Huh, I wonder what I can get out of this.”
But, instead of giving up on them, and on us, Jesus has a better plan in store for us.
Jesus Restores Our Sense of Wonder
In Ezekiel 36, God prophesies through Ezekiel the work He will do through the Messiah, Jesus: “I will give you a new heart… I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” That’s what sin does to us, it turns our hearts into stone. But, God wants to change us and give us real hearts that love and hope and trust.
This is another way of talking about being ‘born again.’When Jesus tells Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3 that he must be born again, He was saying, ‘you need a new heart, you need a new way of life, a new goal and object of worship.’Both the Pharisees and the disciples needed to stop trusting in themselves to make their lives work. They were headed for the grave in their self-trust and autonomy. They needed to be born again as children.
That’s the hardest thing in the world and it’s the easiest thing in the world– to give up control and trust God. To give up your pride and worship Him.
When my daughter was 3 years old, I’d throw her up in the air and catch her on the way down. This terrified my wife, but my daughter always said the same thing: “AGAIN!” She loved it, couldn’t get enough of it.
The great English writer GK Chesterton muses on the idea that maybe that’s how God is. Listen to this: “Because children have abounding vitality… they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Jesus is an endless source of delight. But you’ll never find that delight unless you lay down all your defenses and give yourself fully to Him.
What could be more delightful than a God who works all things for our good and takes every opportunity to remind us He loves us?
What could be more wondrous than the all-powerful Creator laying aside His royal robes to become a helpless, powerless baby? You see, Jesus doesn’t just call us to become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. He became a child in order to lead us into heaven. As Isaiah prophesied, “And a little child shall lead them.”
Are you trusting Jesus the way my daughter trusted me to throw her up in the air and catch her? Can you climb on Jesus’ lap and let Him love you?
Or do you think that you’re just too bad- that you don’t deserve to be that close to Him? Do you think, “How could Jesus really want an old broken-down sinner like me?
Well, if you read ahead a few verses here in Matthew 18, Jesus tells a funny story. He says, suppose a man has a 100 sheep and one wanders off, does the man not leave the 99 in the mountains and go after the one lost sheep? And the answer is, NO, of course he wouldn’t! Those 99 sheep are liable to get eaten by wolves or wander off the side of a mountain! No self-respecting shepherd could take that risk!
But Jesus says, I would. And I did. I gave up everything, even my own life for you.
You see, you’re not too far from home. You’re never too far gone to be rescued.
You’re never too old to become a child again.