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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor Eric Deibler
- Jeremiah 11:18-20
- Psalm 54
- James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a
- Mark 9:30-37
The ninth chapter of Mark began with a glorious vision–Jesus shining in dazzling light on the mountain top. It’s amazing! Peter, James and John have shad their eyes. They see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. Then a cloud descends upon the mountain, just like in the days of Moses. A voice comes from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved: listen to him.” Peter, James, and John probably couldn’t wait to tell the others about that vision and that voice–but Jesus had strictly ordered them to say nothing to anyone. Then, for the second time, Jesus had just told them about betrayal and death.
When they get home to Capernaum, what began on the mountain top comes crashing down to earth. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asked them. Then Jesus sat down and tried again to get through to his disciples: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” They had argued about who was greatest of all and Jesus called them to be last of all. No wonder they were silent. Then he took a little child in his arms and put the child in the midst of them. And that child was as important to Jesus as the vision on the mountain. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Peter, James and John must have remembered the voice from the cloud. They knew who sent Jesus. While they were thinking about heavenly visions, they saw Jesus holding a child on his lap.
“Who is the greatest?” is a question that will never get old, run its course, or become immaterial. The measure of greatness always seems up for grabs. The gauge of greatness is as subjective as anything else in life. We don’t have a very good track record when it comes to assessing greatness with any kind of consistency, or reliable or uniform characteristics. Whether as individual Christians, or churches, or synods, or institutions of the church, we certainly have fallen short when it comes to determining greatness according to Jesus’ criteria. We usually capitulate to the world’s standards of greatness: The measure of our power over others, wealth, control, status, influence, etc. The problem is that those criteria set by those who do not have the Gospel in mind. They either choose to be blissfully unaware of Jesus’ principles, or they simply relegate the ministry of Jesus to the margins of moral imagination. The principles of Jesus become a philosophical exercise, far removed from the realities of the world.
Let’s be completely honest for a moment: None of us imagines the success of our careers or callings as being the least: the one with the least power, the one with the least influence. Not one of us imagines having only the capacities of a child when it comes to us. Not one of us imagines being looked down upon in order to be seen as great. And yet, here we are. How do we negotiate that, as followers of Jesus? Because Jesus’ understanding of greatness and the world’s understanding of greatness do not mesh. They are, in fact, diametrically opposed to one another. Because the measures by which the world acknowledges greatness ignore Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ understanding of greatness is decidedly less than convenient because it doesn’t align with what the world says is greatness: What’s best for me? What gets me the most?What casts me in the best light?
The definition of greatness is a question of faith, it’s a question of Jesus, it’s a theological question. Our faith demands that we consider it. If this weren’t the case, Mark would have left it out. Mark’s inclusion of it means that this is a critical point for followers of Jesus. Mark is pointing to something important, something essential, about believing in Jesus. God becoming human, the incarnation, upended every assumption of greatness that the world thought to be definitive. God becoming human decided that greatness is not about separating and ranking ourselves. It’s about solidarity. God becoming human isn’t about being better than someone else. It’s about relationships. God becoming human isn’t about self-adulation. It’s about empowering and encouraging one another. Greatness is determined by weakness and vulnerability. Greatness is determined by service and sacrifice. Greatness is determined by humility and honor. Greatness is determined by truthfulness and faithfulness. We are called to embody this kind of greatness, so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness born out of love.
We assume that greatness, implies power, accomplishment, fame, wealth, and all the other things that allow you to do things, to influence people, to make things go your way. But that’s not what Jesus says. And to drive his point home, he scoops up a young child into his arms and tells them that whoever welcomes a child like this welcomes him. And suddenly it seems like Jesus has gone from saying something a little odd – to be first you have to be last – to saying something that sounds, well, kinda crazy.
In the first-century world, children counted for nothing. They had no rights, influence, or standing. They were utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. So how could caring for a child count as greatness? It’s crazy. But what if Jesus is right? What if we imagined that greatness wasn’t a measure of power, or wealth, or fame, or whatever. What if we measured greatness by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, and how much we serve others. What kind of world would we live in? Can you imagine if people were regularly trying to out-do each other in their deeds of kindness and service? What if there were nationally broadcast competitions to see who was willing to be last so that others could go first? What if there were reality TV shows that followed people around as they tried to help as many people as possible? What kind of world would that be?? I actually think it would be a pretty cool world.
The definition of greatness Jesus offers seems crazy initially because it is so completely, utterly counter-cultural. He calls us to imagine that true greatness lies in service by taking care of those who are most vulnerable – those with little influence or power, those the culture is most likely to ignore. Jesus is presenting us with his vision for our congregational life. But it’s also his calling to us personally. How are we doing? How are we doing when it comes to measuring our success, our greatness, by what we take in but by what we give away rather than by what we accumulate? How are we doing when it comes to measuring our greatness, by the service we offer rather than the influence we wield? How are we doing when it comes to measuring our greatness not by being first, but by being eager to work hard in order to see others move ahead?
This is hard stuff. Jesus proclaims that the reign of God has come near, calling for repentance, healing diseases and disabilities, and forgiving sins. Throughout his ministry, he associates with the last and the least in society: Gentile women, bleeding women, Lepers, Raging demon-possessed people, Tax collectors and other notorious “sinners”. He even welcomes and makes time for little children, much to the disciples’ consternation.
And for all of this, Jesus is condemned. They decide that he’s simply too dangerous and must be eliminated. Jesus doesn’t die in order for God to be gracious and to forgive sins. Jesus dies because he declares the forgiveness of sins. Jesus dies because he associates with the impure and the worst of sinners. Jesus dies because the religious establishment cannot tolerate the radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives out.
The radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives completely obliterates the world’s notions of greatness based on status, wealth, achievement, etc. One reason we resist grace so much is because it’s much more appealing to be great on the world’s terms than on Jesus’ terms. Greatness on Jesus’ terms means being humble, lowly, and vulnerable as a child. Greatness on Jesus’ terms is risky. It can even get a person killed. But Jesus’ way of greatness is also the path of life.
This was hard for the disciples and it’s hard for us. They didn’t understand what Jesus meant, and fell into the trap of putting themselves ahead of everyone else. We do the same. We look out for ourselves rather than others. We trust less in God for our security than we do our wealth. We shut others out rather than inviting them in. We seek our own welfare rather than that of those around us. And yet, lest we forget, the road the disciples are traveling with Jesus when they fall into their petty arguments about who is the greatest…is the road to Jerusalem.
Even while his disciples misunderstand, don’t believe, or just plain ignore what he is saying, Jesus is walking the road to Jerusalem and to the cross willingly in order to sacrifice everything for them…and for us.
Rev. Dr. David Lose writes that there are three short prayers that sum up the Christian life, especially in light of Jesus’ teaching.
The first is in response to his counter-cultural command that the first must be last and that true greatness lies in service. It’s as short as it is simple: “Lord, help us.”
The second comes when we fall short of our ideals, giving in to insecurity and fear and looking out for ourselves first: “Lord, have mercy.”
And the third is when we realize that even as we fall short, Jesus still died for us, still lives for us, and still loves us more than anything: “Thanks be to God.”
Jesus doesn’t give up on his disciples: neither then, nor now. And Jesus still offers us a different vision of greatness that can lead us to imagine and work toward a whole different world. Mark writes, “And so Jesus sat down, called his disciples and said, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last and be a servant to all.’” And all we can say in response is Lord help us. Lord have mercy. Thanks be to God. AMEN