Summary: A sermon for Pentecost 16B/Proper 20 preached September 20th, 2009 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Audubon, Iowa. It talks about greatness in the Kingdom of God vs. greatness in the eyes of the world.
I’d like for you to imagine the following scene, and tell me what you think about it. You’ve just been told by a doctor that you have an incurable disease. This disease is fatal. You know you have a short time until you die. The doctor describes in detail how the disease will progress and rob you of your life, and how painful of a process that it will be. So you go home, and you tell your family and closest friends what is going to happen to you. You tell them exactly what this disease is going to do to you, and when you will die, and the pain and suffering you will go through.
And what’s their reaction? They start to argue amongst themselves. One of your children says “Mom always wanted me to have her heirloom jewelry, so it’s mine!” Another says “No, I was always their favorite, so I’m going to get the house and you’ll be lucky to get a few bucks!” Yet another says “No no no, you’re all wrong. Since I took care of them in their old age, I’m going to get everything because you two never came and helped out during their illness!” I think we all agree that this would not be an appropriate course of action, listening to the children argue over which one is the greatest or will receive the biggest reward, right after you have told them you are going to die and the details of how you are going to die. We’d condemn such action as absolutely out of line! Rude, insensitive. Just some of the words that come to mind over such behavior.
Yet, in our Gospel reading for this morning, we see this very thing happen. Jesus predicts His upcoming passion, His suffering and death. He tells His disciples how He is going to go about His Messianic office by suffering and dying for the sins of the world. He says “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed after three days he will rise.” (v. 31b) Here, Jesus is pouring out his heart. He is telling them what He is destined to do as the long-promised Messiah. One would expect the disciples to be saddened, or shocked by this announcement by Jesus. Our Teacher is going to be harmed, and suffer? You would think they’d be in agony over this.
Yet, what are the disciples discussing along the way to Capernaum after Jesus tells them this? The text tells us “they were arguing with one another about who was the greatest.” I can think of a few reactions most people have to this. Outrageous! Unbelievable! How rude! What in the world is wrong with these guys? What makes this text remarkable is that this is not the first time that this has happened.
Earlier in this chapter of Mark’s gospel, we have the account of the Transfiguration. Six days before that happened, back toward the end of Chapter 8, Jesus made another prediction of His upcoming suffering and death. And do you remember what happened at that time? Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus. Matthew’s account tells us that Peter says “Far be it from You, Lord. This shall never happen to you!” And do you remember what Jesus’ response was? “Get behind me, Satan. For you are not setting your mind of the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33) In that case, according to Peter’s mindset, a suffering Savior isn’t glorious. It’s depressing. So he tells Jesus “this suffering servant stuff ain’t gonna happen because that’s not what I was looking for.” And Jesus corrects Peter’s attitude.
If we flip ahead another chapter in Mark’s Gospel, we come across Jesus foretelling His suffering and death yet a third time, and what happens there? James and John come up to Jesus, and ask Him to do whatever they want, and they ask for seats at His left and right in His glory. Again, another case of the disciples looking for glory in worldly terms.
If anything, these passion predictions point out to us the great contrast of glory in worldly terms vs. heavenly terms. In our world, we think of greatness as being in positions of power, authority, and might. That’s greatness in our society. Just think about the folks that we put up on a pedestal as “great”. They’re usually people who have excelled at something and have earned a lot of money, power, and worldly prestige because of it.
In our reading for today, Jesus has a great object lesson for the disciples on the issue of greatness in the kingdom of God. Jesus tells the disciples “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Then to show this, he takes a child and puts the child in the midst of the disciples, takes the child into His arms, and says “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me, but him who sent me.” (v. 37)