The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 19-20, 2009
Text: Mark 9:30-37
Dear Friends in Christ,
Sometimes a person doesn’t have a frame of reference that allows one to understand. This was one of the themes of the movie “The God’s Must Be Crazy.” In the movie, a pilot of a bush plane in Africa dropped a Coke bottle out the window. It landed, in tact and was picked up by an African bushman. At first they viewed this bottle as a gift from the gods. They were soon arguing over possession of it. So they resolved to get rid of it. One of their warriors was dispatched to travel to the land of the gods and return the bottle. The bushman soon found himself in a bewildering world of automobiles, poachers, and all other sorts of other people. Everything he encountered puzzled him. He could not understand any of the things he saw.
In the matters of religion we see the same things. There are many assumptions that people have that make it impossible for them to understand what God is saying. For the Jews in the first century, one of the assumptions was that they were right with God because they were part of the covenant nation and they were keeping the covenant. They didn’t have idols and such. They made their regular sacrifices and so forth. They read the Old Testament, but they didn’t understand it because they had made some false assumptions. Furthering this also was the idea that God’s salvation was an earthly thing. The Sadducees even went so far as to deny the whole concept of eternal life. They argued that God’s relationship with man was about blessings in this life. With this framework of understanding many longed for the coming of the Messiah - and many feared it. The priests were all for the Messiah so long as they could control him and he could guarantee them victory and rulership in Israel. But they feared a Messiah that they wouldn’t control. The Pharisees were more mixed on this. This was in part because they were less of a cohesive group. They exercised rulership in the synagogue, but this was a diffuse power base. So the Messiah would have to first elevate them to power before they could truly rule. The Zealots or revolutionaries were certain that the Messiah would be one of them. But again they were divided into factions themselves, so from which faction would the Messiah arise? Each group was certain it would be their faction. The Essenes had the most strictly religious view of the Messiah. But they were off in the desert just hanging out reading their texts. They weren’t really active among the people.
It is in the context of this mishmash that Jesus tells His disciples that He is going to Jerusalem to die and rise from the dead. They didn’t have a sense of needing a redeemer from their sins. They already thought that were right with God because they were Jews. It is the questions of Nicodemus from John 3. Nicodemus really reveals what everyone was thinking. Yet, Christ tells Nicodemus that we are dead until life is poured into us by the Holy Spirit. Christ in John 3 connects this to Baptism which He would institute at the end of His ministry. Since, like Nicodemus, the disciples don’t see themselves as dead in their trespasses and sins, they don’t think that they need a Savior from sin and death. And thus when Jesus says, hey guys, I’m gonna go up to Jerusalem and get schmucked, they don’t get it. They don’t even have a frame of reference that would allow them to understand.
This lack of understanding is revealed in what happens next. The disciples started to argue amongst themselves which of them was the greatest of Jesus’ disciples. Which of them was the most important. Peter, James, and John probably pointed to fact that they had seen the Transfiguration. John probably added that he was Jesus’ closest personal friend. Judas pointed out that had the treasury and thus was greatly trusted by Christ. Andrew likely chimed in that he was a disciple before many of the rest. And so it went. Jesus asks them about this, but they are suddenly embarrassed. There is probably some fear that Jesus will point out that one of the others is the greatest.
Jesus knows what they were talking about. We need not puzzle over this. In human terms he might have heard enough of the conversation to know what it was about. But then He is God after all. And God does know all things. So even if He didn’t over hear them, He still knew. His response again really attacks the idea that their whole frame of reference was wrong. Greatness before God is not found in pride and power, but in service. Those who serve are the greatest. And of course none serves more than Jesus Christ. Christ becomes a sinner in our place and bears our punishment. That’s pretty much as last as you can get. But in taking this place, Christ is also offering the mankind the greatest service ever rendered. He is making us right with God the Father by taking our sins upon Himself. Then when we are presented by Christ before the Father, we are wearing Christ’s clothes - that is His righteousness. This is the service Christ performs for us.
Christ then sets a small child in their midst. Some legends say that this child grew up to be the church father, Ignatius of Antioch, but that is no importance. What is important is what this tells us about greatness in the eyes of our Heavenly Father. What do we mean by receives - as in receives a little child? Welcomes? Yes. Provides for? Yes. That would include providing for their earthly and heavenly needs. And when one provides for a child they become a servant of that child. Their life is no longer their own. They are not free to come and go as they wish. They must see to the needs of the child - that they eat, that they go to bed and get good sleep, that they say their prayers. So what Christ is saying, is that being a faithful and godly parent is one form of greatness in the kingdom of God. Greatness is not found in super churchmen. One is not great because they preach to ten thousand people each week or are on television. Greatness is not being the smartest theologian. Greatness is found in homes, in fields, in workshops, in schools and the like whenever people, who cling to their Savior for forgiveness and life, faithfully serve their fellow man in their daily lives. As Lutherans we call this the doctrine of vocation. It is the idea that all honest and legal work is God pleasing. It is God pleasing because by it we serve our fellow man.
In the early Middle ages everyone had a great fear of Viking raiders coming in their long boats. What happened to these great and feared warriors? No, they didn’t all just move to Minnesota. They became Christians. Now, they understood that greatness was not found in skill of their swords, but in working their farms, grazing their animals, and raising their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. You see the Vikings came to understand what the disciples did not. To be great before God, one must be a servant, just Christ was a servant. He became our greatest servant of all by bearing our sins to the cross and giving us life and salvation.