September 20, 2015 - Mark 9.30-37

“A Different Kind of Greatness”

Mark 9:30-37

September 20, 2015


30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”


As a teenager, I always wanted to belong to an “in” crowd. But I didn’t live in the right neighborhood or I didn’t wear the right clothes. I always seemed to stand on the outside looking in. I wanted to be a leader, to be in charge and have people respect me and ask me for advice. In the role of leader I saw a certain amount of power and prestige.  In our country, every kid has the right to daydream about one day growing up to be President.  It’s our dream.  Everybody wants to climb the ladder of success and power it seems.


That’s how the disciples must have felt. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the privileged class. They got the best seats at banquets. Others paid attention to them. The disciples stood on the outside looking in and longed for what these people had. No wonder they were discussing who among them was the greatest. Maybe, at first, they were innocently discussing how the kingdom would come about and what role they would play. But the innocent talk got out of hand. The power of their newfound positions went to their heads. Whatever the case, Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about. The look in his eyes told them he already knew. So he taught them about servanthood.  I imagine Jesus coming around the corner in the middle of their conversation saying “Hey fellas, what are you talking about?”  Only to have them respond with guilty silence.


Jesus didn’t berate or belittle them. Instead, he took a child in his arms. A child is the classic example of the powerless. A child can’t reward or repay. Jesus held that child in his lap and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (v. 37).  It is not the child’s naïveté or innocence that is highlighted, but his powerlessness.  His message made their arguments about greatness as meaningful as arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (v. 35).


Jesus has a lesson for them. It is an object lesson. He set a child among them. It is easy for us to misperceive Jesus' message. In our world, where children are the apples of their parents' eyes, the virtual princes and princesses of the family, we are apt to miss Jesus' point. In the Greco-Roman world, including the Jews, children were thought of as unbridled little bits of chaos. They were not considered naive, innocent, sweet, and trusting; ancients regarded children as terrible nuisances who were to be disciplined and tolerated until they became useful, reasonable adults. In Greco-Roman culture children were without status, and they possessed no power to give them position. There was no profit in taking in such (temporarily) useless people.  But Jesus reverses that.  He says that these useless people are the measure of how we treat God.  The last are the ones who are most important.


That’s an odd way of thinking. Our whole economy and social structure is based on being number one. We constantly push and shove to see who will be in charge and who will have the most influence. We honor those folks who come in first. Did you watch any college football yesterday?  You did not see a single person leaning over the rail, yelling at the camera, “We’re number 84!”   No, they were ALL yelling “we’re number 1!” (Actually, it’s Ohio State and it’s not even close.) Everyone wants to be #1.  Who finished last in the race last week?  No one knows.  Contrast that to the portrait of Jesus painted by his own words: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”


An obsession with position and power rendered them incapable of comprehending, much less accepting, Jesus’ word about himself.  But we must be careful not to berate the disciples.  They were just being normal.  However, as Jesus points out, normal is wrong.  The status quo is incredibly flawed.  A church that offers 3 glorious services on Easter but none on Good Friday may be in the same camp, claiming the promises of the resurrection but avoiding the demands of the cross.  Are they in it for themselves?  Is that what this is about, what the disciples can get out of their relationship to Jesus?  Is all of this really supposed to be about us?


Before I get carried away with denouncing the disciples, it may be well to ponder our own reasons for following Christ. In a world in love with itself where we are told that it's okay, indeed that it's great, to promote ourselves, the disciples look pretty normal. Lack of ambition is suspect, perhaps an indication that one is not psychologically healthy; so what's wrong with the disciples? A poll of tithers in a mainstream denomination revealed that around 90 percent of those who gave expected to get something in return. They mentioned snappy sermons, rousing choral anthems, smooth pastoral calling, and a full range of programs for the family. Very few spoke of service, and no one mentioned suffering.


But, here is a word for the wise. It is God's word. "Whoever would be first must be last of all and servant of all." It is contrary to all common insight. It is clearly a pathway to self-destruction. One could never get ahead following such a plan. And yet, in it is some deeper wisdom that the world cannot fathom. God does not judge human worth by human standards. God places such value on human lives that they can only be purchased at the greatest cost. Human value is truly priceless. It must be purchased, as Luther said, "not with silver and gold, but with [Jesus'] own precious blood." The Messiah is frying bigger fish than staffing a puny mutiny against Rome. He is after the source of all suffering and deceit. He is out to topple the powers of death. Only the wisdom of God can prevail against them. Human wisdom is simply another brick to be destroyed in the dismantling of the structures of injustice, greed, ambition, selfishness, and hate. The only way to fight on that scale is for the Messiah to offer himself as a sacrifice for the world. The only way for his followers to join the revolution is to set aside their ambition and to serve God's people. In so doing, they give up greatness and authority. Oddly, in so doing, they acquire greatness and become the entrepreneurs of a world-class movement.   How odd that is in our world.


Beyond the East Germans, no people seemed happier for the dismantling of the Berlin Wall than those of the United States. We even remember with some patriotic pride President Reagan's speech in which he stood before the wall and demanded, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." But, the wall was not taken apart by governmental authority or military power. The cracks that first caused its final undermining were caused by a group of Christians who met in a church in Leipzig to pray for peace and reconciliation between the two German nations. They began a movement that did not rest until it resulted in the fall of the Wall. The church was St. Nicholas Church, known historically as the place where J. S. Bach served as cantor. Like incense, the prayers of these faithful people ascended through the same physical space where Bach's music originally rose. The walls of Jericho fell in the same way. The people followed God's foolish plan and the walls were undone.  God does not work by the world’s rules.[1]

In that same city, the Christians there are now welcoming Syrian refugees and the Muslim refugees are coming to Christ by the hundreds.[2]


Jesus says, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." What does this mean? God in Jesus Christ demonstrates gracious acceptance of humans who have nothing about them to lay a claim on God's generosity; but it is the character of God to be gracious. Thus, God gives service to all, despite their absolute inability to do anything for God's benefit. Jesus says people who treat others as God treats them are great. Why? Because they live like God, and God is great.  But we miss that.  It is right in front of us in scripture, but we miss it because we see with the world’s eyes and not God’s.


Hardy Clemons tells the story of the time he went on a tour bus to Plains, GA, home of former President Jimmy Carter.  They got to tour Maranatha Baptist Church, the little Southern Baptist Church where Jimmy Carter still teaches a Sunday School class.  It was not a Sunday, so the church was virtually empty.  There were lots of people taking pictures, and one lady in particular was having a grand time taking pictures and getting her husband to pose in front of things.  You know how that goes, “go stand over there; smile; can you take this for us please?”  Well as the crowd moved back to the tour bus, this lady wanted to get one really good picture of the church from the outside.  The only problem was that someone was mowing the lawn of the church, and the man in the little red ball cap on the riding mower kept getting in the picture.  So the lady with the camera just kind of hollered out to him “Yoo Hoo!  Can you go out of the way just for a moment?  Thank you!”  The yard man obliged her and pulled off to the side.  So she took her picture and got back on the bus.

Hardy was dumbfounded, and he just started laughing.  Of all the pictures she took that day, she missed the best one.  The little man in the red cap mowing the lawn was President Carter, and she shooed him away and never even recognized him.  She missed the real picture.  She missed a real sign of greatness. 


Jesus tells them that if they want to be first, they must be last. Specifically, they must be servants of all. His directions surely seemed odd, for they completely reverse this world's standards. Greatness, says Jesus, is measured by what you do for others, not by a superior position in life that will ensure getting service from others. In this world Jesus sounds like a madman. Why believe what he says? The fact is in this world those who hold the reins of power and the purse strings of economic well-being look pretty great and seem to have it pretty good. So, why believe Jesus? It is a reasonable, natural, even necessary question. 


Jesus, the only Son of God, had everything and yet claimed nothing. Out of his unselfish service and obedience came our salvation.  He calls us to live and pursue a different kind of greatness, the greatness that comes from giving yourself to Jesus and being a servant.  Greatness and Servanthood—both attitudes are natural in us. The first illustrates that to which most people aspire. The second illustrates that for which we were created. One indicates our quest in life, the other exhibits our best in life.


Human pride, authority, and wisdom are toppled by God. The revolution began with the death and resurrection of the Messiah. It continues as God's people follow the stupefying plan of servant-hood.  By Christ's sacrifice, we are saved. Through our sacrifices, the world can participate in God's wisdom and find reconciliation. As God's people, we are agents of this contrary grace which continues to undo the powers that surround us.


So how do we do this?  How do we do as Jesus says?  The best way for us to be of service to God and to live out the whole “last of all” mentality is for us to simply give ourselves to God’s service.  I say simply, but it’s not easy.  When we give ourselves we actually have to give UP ourselves.  God gave us his gift.  He gave up Jesus.  We need to return the favor.


A mother celebrating her birthday was treated to a party by her family. Mom was told to sit in her favorite chair. One by one, the father and the two older children solemnly presented Mom her gifts on a tray, as if she were royalty. The youngest girl, who was really too young to have had much of a role in picking out the gifts, had been left out of the plans. But she rose to the occasion. She suddenly appeared with the empty tray. Approaching her mother she placed the tray on the floor, stepped on it, and with a childish wiggle of joy said, “Mommy, I give you ME!”  The greatest gift of all is the gift of yourself.  What will you give to God?




  December 2017  
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