Mark 9:30-37 We know how the world works, don’t we? “You gotta sacrifice to get ahead. You get what you pay for. You have to believe in yourself. It’s not what you know–it’s who you know. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make your own luck. The one who dies with the most toys–wins.” We know how the world works.
And if we were not Christians, this world-view would pose no moral or emotional or spiritual difficulties for us at all. We could take our place with the rest of the rats in the race and claw our way to the top of the corporate ladder–or at least as close to the top as our own efforts could take us.
But the fact of the matter is (and the difficulty for us living in the world as we do) is that we are Christians. And even if we’re not bible scholars, we know that Jesus has said some rather disquieting things about how we ought to live–unsettling because his words stand in direct opposition to how we understand life in this world.
Jesus says that the poor in spirit and those who mourn and those who are persecuted are blessed. He says that the meek will inherit the earth. He tells that rich young man with all the toys to sell what he has and the rich, successful, enterprising farmer-- he calls a fool.
That is certainly NOT how the world around us works, but time and time again Jesus makes the point that true greatness in God’s kingdom is not a matter of titles and authority and the use of power-- but of service and sacrifice and self-less deeds of love. Jesus said:
“The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days, he will rise. But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”
The words that Jesus spoke were simple enough, weren’t they? Betrayal. Death. Resurrection. The words are easy to understand. But what they meant–what they meant for Jesus and for them--that was the difficult part, that’s what was hard for the disciples to understand.
To hear that Jesus would suffer and die and then that his life might have some connection with what they could expect for their own lives as his disciples–that they too would be called to lead a life of sacrificial service--never crossed their minds. You see–they had bigger plans.
As soon as the disciples recognized and confessed Jesus as the Messiah they began forming a mental picture of what life would be like for them in the kingdom. Jesus would be king of course, but surely there would be positions and power and plenty for them too–after all they were the inner circle–and that’s how the world works.
That’s the way the disciples were thinking about how things would be in the kingdom and because all this talk of betrayal and death didn’t fit in with the way they thought things were going to go--they chose to ignore it–and go on planning who got to be the greatest.
It’s easy for us sitting here today who know the rest of the story to say to ourselves, “Oh those silly disciples! How could they have been so dense? How could they be thinking about these worldly matters when Jesus was about to die?”
And yet, can we honestly say, that we, with a much greater knowledge of the Kingdom at this moment than the disciples had at that moment, are really all that different? Don’t we have our own expectations about what life will be like for us since we are a part of the Kingdom of God? Expectations that, if we’re honest with ourselves, are not all that spiritual?
We would never admit to wanting to be first, after all, we’ve got too much “aw-shucks” humility for that, but desiring material blessings–a happy, healthy life–an honorable, dignified place in the community–that will be sufficient for me if it’s all the same for you Lord.
And then when Jesus fails to give us our fair share of the spoils–when we are called upon to suffer some kind of loss–when we undergo just a bit of discomfort for being a Christian (never mind persecution-) we scream bloody murder…despite the fact that Jesus said that his disciples must take up their own cross and the servant is not above the master.
Let’s be honest, we know why the disciples didn’t understand, don’t we? They didn’t want to! As they walked along together, Jesus knew what the disciples were talking about–what was in their hearts–and he knows what is in ours.
When Jesus was in the house, he asked them, “What were you talking about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
I guess they did! Do you see the terrible irony in this scene? Here they were in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth–the Messiah promised of old–true God in human flesh–and they were arguing about who was the greatest.
With Jesus’ simple question, “what were you guys talking about”, they saw the irony--they got the point—they were struck to the heart--and all they could was hang their heads in silent shame.
Dear friends in Christ, can we do any less? The petty power plays we engage in our marriages–our families–our workplaces–our churches. The keen eye we have for making sure we get our fair share. And dare I even mention our disappointment with God because we don’t have all that we desired or expected from being a part of his Kingdom?
Here today, in the presence of Jesus (no less than the disciples of that day) we too are struck to the heart by our sinful, self-seeking desire to be first. Our lips, just like theirs are silenced, offering no excuse for our sin-- so that now our hearts are ready to listen to what Jesus has to teach us about greatness in his kingdom.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
Let me tell you what this saying of Jesus (about the first and the last) is not. It is not a subtle strategy about how to really get ahead in the Kingdom of God. It’s not a business plan to promote yourself so that if you “plan your work and work your plan” you can get to the top of the kingdom. It is not clever way to “win friends and influence people” and gain power and prestige in the church.
Jesus is not a corporate CEO who is giving us the inside scoop on how to “think outside the box” and “work our plan” on a ride to the top of the kingdom hierarchy. That’s not what Jesus is saying at all!
Instead, Jesus is telling us the Good News about who really is first in the Kingdom of heaven-- and that is the One who made himself the very last of all–the One who became the servant of all-- the One who suffered the betrayal of friends–who shed his life’s blood and died on Calvary’s cross to take away our selfishness and self-seeking and sinful delusions of grandeur.
It is in this most humble sacrificial service of holy, obedient living according to his Father’s will-- and terrible, bloody dying on the cross-- that true greatness is to be found and the foundation to our own life with God in his kingdom.
Baptized into Christ’ death and raised in his resurrection–fed by his life-giving Body and Blood–filled by his own Spirit-- we Christians share in his life and are filled with his life and are called to make his life visible to the rest of the world in all that we say and do. But how to do that?
It brings us back to the very beginning, doesn’t it? The challenge we have as Christians to live in the kingdom of the world as children and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. How do we do that? What does that kind Christ-life look like as we live it out day to day?
Jesus took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me”.
If you want to make business connections to get ahead–it you want to network to increase your power and visibility–if you want to make sure that you are a part of the movers and shakers and big dogs in your business and community–spending a lot of time and effort on kids doesn’t make much sense.
They can’t promote you or give you a good recommendation or include you in a business deal or even get you in the door.
That’s the way it was for the disciples too. Dealing with children was for women and not for dignified Jewish men-especially not for these twelve disciples who would be the foundation of the church. They had important kingdom business to take care of and couldn’t be bothered with such “small” details.
And yet Jesus, the greatest in the kingdom, stooped down and took a child in his arms and made him feel at home and loved and valued. That’s what a Christ-like life looks like in this world. Humble, self-less, simple service for the sake of others. That’s the life we live.
Even though we live in the midst of a dark and dying and Darwinian world with room only for the biggest and best and brightest–even though we have to go right back into the same job tomorrow with people who have a very different set of values and perspectives than our own–with the Spirit’s help, we can live lives like Jesus by valuing those around us–not for what they can do for us–but for what, God, working through us–can do for them–by humbly serving them in love the way that Jesus has served us. To this end, may God grant us grace. Amen.