Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 20)

Text: Mark 9:35
Jesus sat down, called the twelve disciples, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.”

 

Greatness Jesus' way

Maybe you’ve listened into chatter between kids and heard something like this (I can remember being involved in something like this when I was a kid).    
“My dad is stronger than your dad.” 
“Is that so, my dad is richer than your dad”.
“Well, my dad is even more richer because he is smarter than your dad, so there!”
“I don’t care about that.  My dad’s got more hair than your dad, beat that!”
And so the argument goes on.  There is no end to it.

From an early age we learn how to be competitive; we learn how to be one-up on the next person, how to be better, more important, more whatever, even if we aren’t – but we like to let people think we are.

We’ve just returned from South Australia where AFL is at fever pitch even though no South Australian teams are in the finals.  The media plays a never-ending line-up of banter about the teams, the players, the coaches, the supporters and of course predictions who will be the best of the best for 2018. 

One of the characteristics that God has built into our humanity is to be competitive, driven, spirited, ambitious, motivated, determined.  There is nothing wrong with any of this but sometimes this competitive drivenness affects the way we treat other people.  We become so determined that we forget about other people and their feelings and their needs because selfishness and striving to get what we want distracts us.

You can find any number of stories in the Bible that describe how jealous rivalry turned relationships between people upside down – Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, Jacob and Esau, Saul and David.  Today we hear of the disciples squabbling among themselves who were the more important disciples; who was the greatest among them.  We don’t know exactly how the conversation went or what started what we might think an almost childish squabble about a pecking order among the disciples that determined who was more important than the others. You can bet this kind of discussion was bound to lead to ill-feelings.

In Jesus’ time, the followers of a Jewish rabbi did have a pecking order with the more important person sitting closest to the rabbi at meals and worship, having greater authority in the community and at meetings.  In truth, the disciples were following the ways of rest of Judaism and the community in which they lived.  They are importing into their relationship with Jesus, pride, self-importance, selfishness, and superiority over one another.

The disciples thought they had been talking out of Jesus’ earshot and when he asks them what they had been discussing, they wouldn’t tell him.  They didn’t quite know exactly how but they knew that their thinking was very different to that of Jesus.    

This is why.  In the first part of the gospel reading today we hear Jesus telling the disciples, “The Son of Man will be handed over to those who will kill him.  Three days later, however, he will rise to life” (Mark 9:31). We are told that the disciples didn’t have a clue what Jesus was talking about.  The idea of a humble suffering servant messiah was incomprehensible to them.  They were heading toward Jerusalem and they thought that soon Jesus’ power will be revealed with his disciples sharing his radiancy.  But how did Jesus’ teaching about a suffering servant fit in?  what is great about that? This was too much.

Jesus realises it’s time for a heart to heart with his disciples.  He sits down taking the posture of a teacher with his disciples around him and redefined greatness.  He said, “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.” I’ll rephrase that – a person is truly great when he puts himself last of all and is servant of all.

This is so upside down and back to front. This is nothing like the way the rest of the world defines greatness – putting oneself last behind everyone else and being a servant of everyone. 

Jesus isn’t saying that greatness is a bad thing.  We need great people – political, community and church leaders, great musicians and artists and people with great generosity.  Jesus is saying that greatness is to be flavoured not with self-importance and selfishness but with service and humility not just sometimes but all the time.  “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.”

Jesus goes on to give a little object lesson.  We read, Jesus took a child (the word used here indicates a very small child) and had him stand in front of them. He put his arms around him and said to them, "Whoever welcomes in my name one of these children, welcomes me” (Mark 9:36-37a).

Why does Jesus use the example of caring for a very small child an example of greatness in the Kingdom of God? 

Why does Jesus associate the act of receiving a little child in his name with being first in God's eyes?  With being the greatest?  Wouldn’t it have been more powerful if Jesus had put his arm around a bombed-out drug addict, a drunk, a scantily clad prostitute, badly disfigured leper or a smelly beggar in rags?

After all – children are wonderful and precious, are they not?  We love them and care for them.  Children are protected in the laws of our country.  They have status and rights. 

However, we would be wrong in assuming that children in Jesus’ time enjoyed the same position in society as they do today.  Where there was a high infant mortality, shortage of food, enemies always nearby, there was no room to be sentimental about a toddler.  Children were considered “the least” in society, especially “little children” who could be here today and gone tomorrow because of sickness, hunger, accident or the whim of an occupying soldier.

Get this picture in your mind of Jesus putting his arm around this small insignificant child, a little person who doesn’t count for much in the world as a toddler, and says whoever welcomes, cares for, meets the needs, embraces someone unimportant and inconsequential as this little child is also embracing me.  Jesus is encouraging his disciples and us to follow his example and be “the servant of all to the least and the last”. 

What Jesus is teaching us here is not just kindness, but kindness that is directed to those who need kindness in their lives at that moment, not just tenderness but tenderness toward those who really need to experience genuine love, not just hospitality, but a wide-open armed welcome toward those for whom all other doors are shut. 

This reminds us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 when he mentions the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison and says, “When you cared for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me” (Matthew 25:40).  And whatever is done to Jesus is done to God himself!

This kind of servanthood isn’t an optional extra that we add to our Christianity if we have the time and energy.  The Bible is telling us today that service to others is tied up ever so closely with our belief and trust in Jesus.  To believe in Jesus also means we will serve those who need and crave for love, those who need help and care, those who long for comfort and shelter.

This is radical stuff.  It’s hard.  This is a tough call – to be like Christ and to serve as he served us and to be humble as he was, thinking nothing of giving himself totally in serving our needs.  This goes against our human nature.  And as much as we might wish that Jesus had never said, “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all” that radical call to discipleship stands as a daily challenge for each of us and for this congregation and for our synod with General Synod on the horizon.

Constantly we need to check and see just how well we, as Jesus’ representatives, are putting our arms around the least and the insignificant and welcoming them.
Or has it been easier to follow the world’s idea of greatness and pursue our own needs and ignored Jesus’ way – namely, placing ourselves last and being the servant of all.

As I said that is the tough road of discipleship – walking the road with Jesus.  There are no extra clauses in the text somewhere that soften the impact. 

But let’s always remember, Jesus knew who he was talking to when he made these radical statements about discipleship in the new kingdom.  He was talking to his 12 disciples who could be as thick as bricks so often, and he was talking to us who can be just as slow to catch on. 

He wasn’t talking to perfect people but to people who are on a journey discovering what it means to be servants in the Kingdom of God.  It’s a life-long journey and every day we have victories and every day we have defeats, but it is because of Christ and his cross that those defeats are turned into victories. He came a true servant, humble and loving and gave his life for you and me to make us his children and enable us to walk in his ways.

While we walk this planet, we will get caught up in thinking and talking and acting out greatness in the same way the disciples did as they walked along the road to Capernaum, and when they were caught out by Jesus, they were embarrassed by their behaviour. 

It’s for those times when we are overcome with embarrassment and guilt that we are reminded that Jesus is our Saviour who died for us and gives his body and blood to us in Holy Communion.  When we are confronted with tough texts like this one, we need his forgiveness.  The Spirit reassures us that we are still loved by God even though we fail miserably.  Continually the Spirit guides us back to Jesus’ words, “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.” 

God grant us the ears to hear Jesus’ words and to live them out everyday.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

23rd September, 2018

More Sermons

Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.
All material written by Vince Gerhardy is copyright, but permission is freely given for limited use.
Please e-mail for permission, or with questions or comments about this web site.