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.

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