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Greatness, Little Ones, and Angels

September 29th 2013 by Joel Schultz

Since the Middle Ages the church has set aside September 29th as a day to commemorate St. Michael and all Angels. In our Gospel text, Jesus settles an arguement among His disciples as to who is the greatest and points to the ministering work of angels. Read or listen to find out more...

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St. Michael and All Angels – “Greatness, Little Ones, and Angels – Matthew 18:1-11 – September 29, 2013

Growing up in a Christian home, I was often encouraged through dark and fearful nights by the image of angels. The first image is from Martin Luther’s evening prayer which we often prayed as a family during our bedtime prayers. That prayer ends with these words: “And let your holy angels be with me the evil foe may have no power over me, Amen.” The other image was this picture that hung in my oldest brother’s room. The picture shows 2 children are kneeling on a bridge. One is leaning over a little water fall to pick some flowers, but all the while, one of God’s angels is watching over the children. I always loved and was comforted by the image of guardian angels watching over me not only at night but throughout the day. And honestly, growing up out in the country, I needed a lot of watching over.

Since the Middle Ages, September 29th has been set aside by the Christian church as a day to commemorate the work of God’s angels. As I read this passage from Matthew 18 I thought about this picture for the first time in a long time. Listen again to Jesus’ words in v 10: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” The phrase “their angels” makes the ministry of angels personal. More than once along the way of raising children, I’ve thanked God for the very personal work of angels.

There’s more at work here, though, than a favorite proof-text for angels’ ministry with children. Getting to v 10 involves some in-your-face teaching by Jesus concerning our desire for personal greatness. The question that stimulates the conversation comes from Jesus’ disciples, who ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (v 1).

We know from the accounts of Mark and Luke that the question had caused quite an argument among the disciples. It was, of course, a bad question, running counter to everything the Kingdom of God is about. But when you get caught up in a bad question and argue about it long enough, even a bad question seems worthy of an answer from the Master. So they bring the question to Jesus.

The question of greatness in Mt 18:1 is today’s question of success, power, and glory. Who is successful? Who has more power? Who gets the spotlight? Who gets the credit? Who comes in first? Some of us have been pushed since childhood to get up front and succeed. Many of us right now may be in a power struggle at work or perhaps at home with a brother or sister or spouse.

In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller has an entire chapter on the idols of power and glory. There he reaches all the way back to the original temptation in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were led to resent the limits God had put on their power and sought to be “like God” by taking control of their own destiny. Keller writes: “We gave in to this temptation and now it is part of our nature. Rather than accept our finitude and dependence on God, we desperately seek ways to assure ourselves that we still have power over our own lives. But this is an illusion” (Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods [New York: Riverhead Books, 2009], 101).

Eventually, the longing for power and success will disappoint, as will every idol we allow to shape our lives. I saw a YouTube clip of an interview NFL quarterback Tom Brady gave 60 Minutes in 2005. Even with all his greatness as an athlete, he wasn’t fully satisfied. At one point in the interview, Brady said, “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? There’s gotta be more than this.” The interviewer then asked, “What’s the answer?” To which Brady replied, “I wish I knew. I wish I knew” ( and 60 Minutes [CBS, 2007]). There is something more than the worldly idol of greatness. It begins with becoming like a child.

When Jesus is confronted by His disciples’ quest for greatness, He answers first with an object lesson. He puts a child in front of them as an example of true greatness in His Kingdom. A child is dependent. A little one’s life is in the control and protective care of her parents. A child must trust his parents for the care he receives. Whoever would be great in the Kingdom, Jesus is saying, must humble himself and become like a child.

It’s one of those great reversals: those looking up the ladder to see how great they can become are challenged to look down and see how little they must become. The power and the glory belong to God, not to us. The Lord must increase; we must decrease. The look down to a child is meant to shrink our egos and put us in right alignment with the Lord.

Jesus Himself would become like a “little one.” He came as a Son to be sacrificed by His Father. He humbled Himself unto death, even death on a cross. In His humility, He leaned on His Father in prayer. Like a little one, He was never far from His Father’s presence, words, heart. As He died for the sins of the whole world, He whispered a traditional bedtime prayer from Ps 31:5, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”

Faith calls us to trust God for our eternal life—that in grace He has provided everything for our salvation. In that childlike trust we experience the greatness of our heavenly Father and our Savior, Jesus.

Jesus goes on to warn against those who would threaten or woo His little ones away from Him. Using vivid hyperbole, He makes it clear that temptations from the world and from within jeopardize our eternal life and call for a rugged discipline for God’s little ones. Jesus is talking not just about children here, but about all of God’s sons and daughters, who in their Baptism remain His “little ones” for eternal life.

If Jesus has His disciples look down to a child for the greatness of the Kingdom, He also has them look up to “their angels.” He says in v 10, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” Jesus’ argument here seems to be that we shouldn’t be deceived by the littleness of little ones. These little ones have attending them mighty angels, who come from the very presence of their heavenly Father.

On this St. Michael and All Angels Day, we remember the victory of archangel Michael and the good angels over Satan and his evil forces recorded in Rev 12:7–9. The result was Satan and his demons being hurled out of heaven to earth, eager to lead the whole world astray. We remember the angel Gabriel in Luke 1 carrying the news to Mary that she would give birth to the Savior of the world. We also celebrate the work of angels, God’s messengers, often sent to guard and protect God’s people (Ps 91:11–12) and to serve them (Heb 1:14). Jesus Himself knew the ministry of angels in times of temptation in the desert and Gethsemane (Mt 4:11; Lk 22:43).

Considering their angels, Jesus is saying, God’s little ones have a greatness beyond what the eye can see. Yet even the angels’ greatness is dwarfed by the splendor of the Father’s face, which they are blessed to see. See how Jesus, the Servant of God, trumps our desire for power and glory by pointing us to a Child and to the angels.


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