Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, September 23, 2018, Proper 20 – “The First Shall Be Last” (Mark 9:30-37)

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Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The disciples probably thought that he wasn’t making a lot of sense, but then again, a lot of what he told them didn’t seem to, at least to their unschooled fishermen’s minds.  What on earth (or heaven!) did Jesus mean by “the Son of Man is being turned over to the hands of men, and they would kill him, and, he, having been killed, would rise after three days?”  And why did he not want anyone to know what he was up to? Peter, James, and John had all seen him transfigured, standing between Moses and Elijah, and God had spoken to them–they heard the voice of the Father!–and told them to listen to Jesus’ words, that Jesus was his Son.  And before that, Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. But what did he mean when he said that he would have to die? He’d said it before, and he chewed Peter out for denying that it would ever happen. He even called Peter Satan for saying this! But still, all this talk of his death was unsettling before.  It’s not like Jesus hadn’t said things that were unsettling. He had already told a crowd of people to eat his flesh and drink his blood, though the disciples understood what he meant there. The implications of this, though, were far stranger than that. He was going to be seized by people, killed, and then come back from the dead?  Nothing like this had ever happened before, and how could he know this? Better not to ask him but go on as if nothing will change. He couldn’t have been serious, could he? The disciples didn’t want to entertain such thoughts even though they were not new.

And then he hits them with a new thought.  They’d been arguing while hiking through Galilee to Capernaum about which one of them was the greatest.  A pretty silly conversation for grown men to be having, all things considered. But they had been bickering like schoolboys about it, and Jesus now knew how childish the whole thing had been.  So he told them: “if somebody wishes to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”  What did that mean?  And what did he mean when he told them to receive a child in his name?  Everyone knew that, while a blessing, children weren’t that important; they were kind of a drain on resources since most of them died young, and you didn’t pay them much heed until they were old enough to help the family.  Did the disciples have to serve even little urchins like this kid now? What was Jesus talking about?

***

One of the things you learn at seminary when reading the Gospel of Mark is that St. Mark constantly emphasizes the sheer inability of the disciples to understand what Jesus tells them about himself.  They never seem to get it, even after they acknowledge that they believe and trust what they have seen Christ do before their very eyes. They come across as immature, stupid, foolish, argumentative, silly, and even cowardly.  Remember, it’s in Mark where one of the disciples runs away naked from Gethsemane because he loses his tunic during the arrest. In our Gospel reading this morning, we see that the disciples are unable to grasp what Jesus has told them, even though Jesus has said it before.  Or if they understand it, they have trouble accepting it as true and don’t trust Jesus, even though they have seen proofs of his work and who he is. But the cause of their inability to trust Jesus is made plain when they argue about who is greater. The cause of this is the sin of Adam, the first sin, which afflicts all of mankind; that sin which asks “Did God really say that?” and which drives one to seek glory for the self rather than to give glory to God.  Just as Adam made himself a little god when he trusted his own judgment over God’s, so do the disciples seek glory and prestige for themselves over each other when they desire to be “first.” In fighting about who is greatest, they feed their egos. They think they’re special, that they’re “somebody.” In feeding their egos, they fail to keep any of the Law of God. In putting themselves before their compatriots, they violate that commandment which Jesus elevates to a position second only to loving the Lord–they fail to love their neighbors as themselves, and thus they fail to love God.  And on account of their sin, they aren’t “somebody.” In fact, they’re nobody, and Jesus tells them as much. “If somebody wishes to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” The greatest on earth, the one who desires fame and fortune, will not be the greatest in heaven–far from it, and that one will not be “least of all” as Jesus describes it.

***

Like the disciples, you and I often find ourselves wanting to be first and greatest.  We want renown, we want power, we want to be “somebody.” We want to be liked.  According to a demographic study of American economic brackets developed by Experian Information Solutions, the defining consumer group here in Fairfax County and Northern Virginia as a whole is what is called, “American Royalty.”  Maybe some of us fall into this group–affluent, savvy with savings and stocks and taxes, well traveled, expensive import cars, and partakers in conspicuous consumption–not out of a desire to be social climbers, but because we like nice things.  We buy name brands, high quality merchandise, because these things give us status. People tell us how great our hair looks, how neat our cars are, how much they like those shoes or wish they could afford this tool. And we like to hear it.

We’re like Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof, singing about what life could be like, if we were a wealthy man. Most tellingly he sings, “The most important men in town will come to call on me. / They’ll ask me to advise them / Like Solomon the wise. / ‘If you please, Reb’ Tevye, / Pardon me, Reb’ Tevye,’ / Posing questions that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!”  We want to be the first and greatest, the one with status, the one people look up to and see as an authority, even if we don’t know what we’re talking about. The accolades and compliments feel good, and who doesn’t love being the center of attention sometimes, or all the time?

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But when we focus on being first, we forget God.  When it’s all about “me”–when my feelings, my happiness, and my status become the focus, God no longer is.  I forget that I am accountable to him. I forget his law–I might even think that it doesn’t apply to me, that I’m somehow, on my own, special.  But in reality, I am a sinner. I am accountable to him. His law does speak to me. “The Law of God is good and wise / And sets His will before our eyes, / Shows us the way of righteousness, / And dooms to death when we transgress,” goes the opening stanza of number 579 in our hymnal.  And on my own, left to my own devices, I am nothing; I am less than nothing. A worm, and not a man, because the sin in me that feeds my ego and makes me want to be first and to have special privileges strips me of any standing I have. We are all afflicted in this way.

***

So if we go back to the disciples, those bewildered disciples, what are they to do?  Jesus caught them having an ego-battle, indulging their desire to be someone. I think Jesus had been preparing them with the answer all the way from Galilee.  “If somebody wishes to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all,” he tells them in Capernaum. They don’t realize it, but he has been telling them how one does this.  “The Son of Man is being turned over to the hands of men, and they would kill him, and, he, having been killed, would rise after three days.” The One who is first before all is going to give up his life for the many and rise again after three days in the tomb.  He will suffer, willingly, unto death, for the sake of all people so that they might be saved from that sin that lives within them. He will take that sin–all of it–and truly become last; as the Apostle Paul says, “he will be made sin who knew no sin.”

While it isn’t recorded in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ remarks to the disciples about dying and rising and his discussion with them in Capernaum about becoming the least of all and servant of all is equivalent to his telling the disciples about the sign of Jonah in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.  Here we see that Jesus is the the opposite of Jonah, the prophet who thought he knew better than God and ran when he was asked to serve his neighbor, and whose commemoration day was yesterday, September 22.

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Jonah resting under his weed, waiting for God to smite Nineveh.

We know Jonah’s story–in his flight across the Mediterranean, his ship encountered a storm that God had stirred up to call him back.  So to save the ship, the sailors threw him into the sea and the storm was calmed. God then sent a giant fish (dag gadol) which swallowed Jonah, and he spent three days and nights living inside of it, praying to God for deliverance until it spat him up on dry land.  Even after being saved, Jonah grudgingly did as God directed him, preaching repentance to Nineveh–that’s modern day Mosul for those of you who served in Iraq–but still hoping to see them destroyed, not trusting in God’s compassion.  But Jesus is not like Jonah. Though Jonah was metaphorically dead in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, and though Jonah didn’t want to be in there and desired instead to flee to Tarshish, Jesus willingly subjected himself to death for three days, and willingly became the servant of all when he took on mankind’s punishment.  He had no desire to see mankind destroyed like Jonah did. He became least of all and servant of all, and, so doing, saved all.

The disciples may not have realized it, but this is what Jesus was telling them.  He is the greatest who will become the least.  He is the perfect servant of all.  And he entreats them to follow him.  They cannot perfectly follow him in this way, but they can trust him.  And when they make themselves least–when they submit their egos and drown their Old Adams in repentance because they trust that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of Man, will do what he says–then they can be servants of all, even the servants of a small child, who in the eyes of many of them was truly the least.  And when they do that, when they trust their Lord, they receive the promises of God. Then they are covered in the blood of his sacrifice.  Then they are truly “somebody.”

***

And we, too, become “somebody” when we trust in the work of Christ, the Son of Man who is given into the hands of men, killed, and then rises from the dead on the third day.  His death on the cross is the greatest act of service any of us could ever receive. He did it entirely for us.  We have received the promise of salvation and eternal life from him, and now, washed in his blood in baptism, we are no longer nobodies.  We are somebody because when God looks upon us, he doesn’t see the sinners that we are. He sees his Son in our place, who took our sins from us and crucified and buried them with him.  Washed in his blood and receiving the benefit of his sacrifice, we can now be servants of all. Faith in his work makes this possible. As Luther says in his treatise On the Freedom of the Christian, “[A]s our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians….”  You and I can serve our neighbors in love because Christ loved us so much that he gave up everything to save us. Living humbly with Christ’s promises, repenting daily, and being servants of all, we become least of all in Christ, but clothed in his righteousness, before the Father, we are first.

Brothers and sisters, that is a beautiful truth that we all, professor, pastor, fisherman, and everyone in between, can grasp and cling to.  Amen.

And now, may the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

“The First Shall be Last” By Vicar Nils Niemeier Mark 9:30-37 09_23_2108 from LSLC2012 on Vimeo.

Great Stuff from Luther

From a letter to Margaret, Princess of Anhalt, in 1538:

“We who believe on Him should by all means be confident, for we know that we do not belong to ourselves but to Him who died for us.  Therefore if we are sick, we are not sick unto ourselves; if we are well, we are not well unto ourselves; if we are in troubles, we are not in troubles unto ourselves; if we are glad, we are not glad unto ourselves.  In a word, whatever happens to us does not happen to us but to Him who died for us and has made us His own.  In like manner, when a pious child is sick or suffers from some trouble, it is sicker to the parents than to itself; its trouble strikes the parents harder than the child, because the child is not its own but belongs to the parents….He on whom we believe is almighty.”  (W-Br 8, 190—E 56 xli—SL 21 b, 2221)

cited in Plass, E. What Luther Says (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2006): 1228.

Sermon for September 2, 2018 – Proper 17, “With Weapons of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:10-20)

Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.


An ancient phalanx, bearing the panoplia (Wikimedia Commons)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

When I was an eighth grader, I took part in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Student Shakespeare Festival.   Our little acting troupe from Langston Hughes Middle School went downtown to spend a whole school day performing scenes from plays and learning from actors affiliated with the Folger Theatre and Library.  It was a lot of fun, and for a young literature, language, and history nerd like me, it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you always remember.  After all, it’s not often that a 13-year-old gets to tread the boards in a reproduction Elizabethan theater.

One of the things I remember very vividly was the afternoon lecture cum demonstration given for us in historical stage combat.  Two burly swordsmen demonstrated rapier and dagger fighting, longsword fencing, rapier and cloak (where you would have used your cloak as a makeshift shield or as something to distract your opponent), axes, and other techniques.  13-year-old me thought that this was really cool.  Who wouldn’t?  And then they got to discussing the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, where King Henry V of England with a relatively small force beat the French under Constable Charles d’Albret in one of Western history’s great military underdog stories, immortalized by the Bard in Henry V.

The reason why their discussion sticks out to me in my mind is due to one illustration.  At Agincourt, as those of you who are history buffs know, the English made deadly use of their longbows to stop the charge of the French knights, loosing arrow upon arrow into a their cavalry and dropping them in Agincourt’s muddy field where many of them, unable to get up in their heavy armor, drowned in the mud.  But instead of focusing on the archers, our instructors talked about what the French would have experienced.  Having a charging horse shot out from under you while wearing 40 pounds of plate armor would have been roughly equivalent, one of our instructors said (and this is what has stuck with me) to jumping out of a moving van on I-495 while wearing a galvanized steel trash can.  It would have hurt—a lot!  But on the softer ground of Agincourt, had it not been so muddy, that armor could have saved the lives of many of those French knights.  They could have survived to fight another day.

And as we know, armor is designed to protect a person against physical injury in a fight.  It always has, whether it’s the banded iron and steel or chainmail cuirasses worn by Roman legionaries, or modern plate carriers used by our troops in the Army and Marine Corps.  Armor prevents its wearer from being cut, having bones smashed, organs pierced, limbs severed.  It absorbs the shock of blows and the impact of missiles.  It saves a life that could otherwise come to a violent, grisly end.

Without armor, a person is vulnerable to attack.  Going into battle without armor is like going out in a rainstorm without an umbrella.  It’s highly likely that you’re going to get wet, or in the case of battle, bloodied, and it will probably be your own blood, too.  It means that when your horse gets shot out from under you at 40 miles an hour, you are going to feel the full impact of the ground in a very personal way when you fall, and the result is not going to be pretty.

But this kind of armor only protects people from physical harm.   What about the assaults of the devil, the assaults of the cosmic forces of darkness and wicked spirits?  This is what concerns Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning, and it’s important.  Paul’s hearers were living in the world post-resurrection, and though living in the knowledge that Christ had won the war with Satan, there were still battles to be fought.  The devil was going down, and he wanted to take the young church down with him.  Perhaps Paul, writing in the year 60, could see the way the winds were blowing in the Empire.  Nero was the emperor, and though he had not yet begun his persecution of the Christians, Paul could surely see that the whole world was against Christ’s church and the Gospel it preached.  Persecutions would come.  Paul had already been imprisoned for his faith, and was under house-arrest in Rome as he wrote his letter to the Ephesians.

Add to the threat of persecution the fact that rival religions were about that could draw away Christians—Gnostic sects were already beginning to pop up in Ephesus that taught that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his body was an illusion.  This is called Docetism.  These sects questioned the reality of the resurrection, that Christ had indeed died on the cross for the sins of the world and rose, bodily, on the third day.  And what’s more, you had various philosophers who spoke of other deities or “divine forces” (as Socrates called them), alternative and nameless “one gods” who existed behind the names of other more popular deities like Apollo and Jupiter, and some who rejected the idea of the divine altogether.  Magicians and devotees of strange Eastern religions also vied for the souls of Christians.  And if rival ideologies and theologies didn’t present enough of a threat to Paul’s missionary flock, the enticements of the flesh and temptations to sin hunted them, too.  Debauchery, sexual immorality, filthiness, covetousness, avarice, bitterness, and wrath all threatened to steer this young congregation away from Christ, especially in a large city like Ephesus.

And faced by these enticements to sin and these threats from rulers and alternative gods, the congregation at Ephesus could do nothing on its own to protect itself.  The Ephesians could not defend themselves against the attacks of the devil and the world using their own resources.  Such forces could overpower them easily; their sinful flesh weak against the onslaught of sin.  Paul knew that they could not hold out against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Fleshly people cannot defend themselves against assaults on the spirit.  Armor made of steel and leather cannot stop Satan’s darts, which pierce and slay the soul.

And the same remains true for us.  You and I are powerless on our own to withstand such assaults of the devil and the world.  We might be able to hold out for a little while against this or that temptation, but our flanks are still exposed and eventually another sin breaks through our defenses and dooms us. You can perhaps keep yourself from taking the Lord’s name in vain, but you might say something cruel to your neighbor.  You might be able to keep your speech clean, but might look upon another person in lust and thereby defile yourself (think of what we heard Jesus say in Mark 7 this morning). The enemies Paul told the Ephesians to watch out for still plague us, too.  False gods are still out there—they may not be in the guise of Ba’al and Serapis and Jupiter anymore, but other religions vie for our adherence.  The Gnostics are still portraying Jesus as a mere man worth listening to or as some kind of guru awakening us to understand our “spiritual selves,” but not as the God of Israel incarnate who died for the sins of the world.

Politics, too, becomes a rival god.  A recent article in the Washington Post Magazine noted that in the DC area, asking someone about their politics is seen as the quickest way to know everything about them (even though assumptions yield little truth).  Politics is the new religion, and rather than building up, it tears down, and tempts us to sin against our neighbors.  How many times have we heard people say that members of the opposing party are evil?  That people who have different ideas should be marginalized, that they should be killed?  (Just go into any internet comment section, you’ll see what I mean.)  But I digress.  “The old satanic foe / Has come to work us woe. / With craft and dreadful might / He arms himself to fight” says Luther.  He knows that, on our own, we cannot fight him—on earth is not his equal—and so he seeks to destroy us knowing that we have no armor with which to defend ourselves.  We can’t make that armor, either, for the sinner within us, the Old Adam lurking in our marrow, will sabotage our efforts at every turn.  The Old Adam wants us to fail.  He wants us to be devoured by the “hordes of devils” that plague us in these final, evil days because he likes it.  Like Saul’s armor which David received before his battle with Goliath, the armor we try to make for ourselves is imperfect and it does not fit us or protect us very well, nor do we really know how to use it.  It cannot protect us.

But there is something that can protect us—there is armor against the devil’s onslaughts.  God himself provides it.  When Paul speaks of putting on the whole armor of God, he is speaking to Christians who know that Christ has fought the final battle against sin, death, and the devil, and he has won, handily.  The congregation at Ephesus had received the full benefit of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in faith, and now, made righteous before God in this— justified before him—they are able to put on the armor of God.  Or more precisely, we should say the arms and armor of God, because this is what the word panoplia, which Paul uses here, means.  It’s an old military term, probably going all the way back to Homer, referring to all the parts of a soldier’s kit, from his breastplate and sandals to his sword and his spear.  And what is this armor, this “panoply,” as it is rendered in English, of God?  It is his very own set!  His personal armaments.  Hear what the prophet Isaiah says about the Lord’s armor in Isaiah 59:

The Lord saw it, and it displeased him

that there was no justice.

16 He saw that there was no man,

and wondered that there was no one to intercede;

then his own arm brought him salvation,

and his righteousness upheld him.

17  rHe put on righteousness as a breastplate,

and a helmet of salvation on his head;

he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,

and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.

18 According to their deeds, so will he repay,

wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies;

to the coastlands he will render repayment.

19 So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west,

and his glory from the rising of the sun;

for he will come like a rushing stream,

which the wind of the Lord drives.

20 “And a Redeemer will come to Zion,

to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord.

(Isaiah 59:15b-20, ESV)

God himself bears such arms and armor, and he gives them to those who trust in him!  With the battle Isaiah foresaw completed, Christ, who bore the panoply to do battle with and defeat Satan, now gives it to those who have faith in him through the Holy Spirit.  Trust in the Lord’s work—trust in his defeating sin, death, and the devil on the cross—makes a person worthy and able to wear the armor of God.  One cannot gird his loins with truth or wear the breastplate of righteousness or shoe his feet with the Gospel of peace or bear the shield of faith, wear the helmet of salvation, or wield the sword of the Spirit or pray without ceasing if he does not first have faith in the One who gives such tools against the cosmic rulers of this darkness and the spiritual forces of wickedness that stalk us in this age.  Paul’s call to take up these arms is only possible if the Holy Spirit has not already made them available to those who have put their hope in Christ.  And so they have, and he has put it on them.

Something I learned many years ago when I had to wear a set of Roman armor for a play is that armor is heavy and hard to move in.  All the weight sits right on your shoulders, and it cannot easily be put on if you are by yourself—you need someone to buckle it on you and help you to arm yourself.  So it is with the Holy Spirit.  He makes bearing God’s arms and armor possible; it is he who buckles on the breastplate and shoes the feet.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, you have access to God’s whole panoply in this latter age.  Redeemed and brought to faith in the waters of baptism and strengthened by God’s holy food of his body and blood in the Lord’s supper, you are made righteous to wear his armor and bear the sword of his Word to beat back the devils and demons that would cause you to despair, and to fight the sins that tempt you.  Take heart!  The strife is over and the battle is done.  Christ has defeated the evils of this world, and he protects you with his panoply.  But though the war is over, the enemy still wants to destroy us while Christ mops up the field.  The devil still goes about, roaring like a lion, seeking someone to devour.  Have faith in Christ, and stand strong together as his army, for he gives the whole church his arms and armor to stave off the devil in his death throes.  The devil cannot harm you so long as you have faith in the One who defeated him.  His claws and weapons cannot scratch or dent the armor the Lord gives those who trust in him.  Unlike Saul’s armor, which did not fit David, the armor that God gives you fits you perfectly—he has tailored it for you—and the evil forces of this world cannot pierce it.

And if you struggle in your faith, if you wrestle with specific sins that seek to defeat you, remember this: Though Satan, like one of those English archers at Agincourt, might shoot your horse out from under you, causing you to stumble and fall to earth with a mighty thud, do not despair!  Christ, your victorious captain, will lift you up again in his forgiveness and set you back on your feet.  He will not abandon you in the fray.  God himself fights by your side with weapons of the Spirit, and he has given them to you, too.  With him, you can withstand the evil day, and having done all stand firm!  Amen.

And now may the peace which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.