Who Is Called Greatest 9-23-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 9:30-37, I explore Jesus’ second passion prediction, and the way that it leads to expectations of personal greatness and prestige. Jesus is up to something different.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/who-is-called-greatest-9-23-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Over the course of the past couple of years, I have gotten into the habit of watching tv shows that focus in on life in the political spectrum. I’ve made our way through several different series, the most notable being The West Wing.

It was a great show that zeroed in on the lives of several of the prominent senior staff that surrounded the President of the United States in the hectic day to day activity of the White House. The show ran for 7 seasons, and a pretty major feature of the final season was the presidential race that would culminate in the final episode with the inauguration of the new president and the subsequent change over in staff from the old faces to the new ones.

In one of the final scenes, the new senior staff walks into the West Wing and they all pause for just a moment, before pealing off in different directions to find their new offices…and in one instance, we see the overlap as the outgoing character picks up his belongings…shakes the hand of the new guy…and then stands there for a brief moment watching as the new guy sets down his stuff…and excitedly begins arranging his new office.

It makes me think of the expectations that this character must be feeling…the ideas of what things will be like in this new role…of the work that he’ll be doing…whether he’s accurate in his assumptions or not. (pause)

Now the theme of expectations is one that we keep bumping into here over the course of several chapters of Mark’s gospel, including today’s lesson.  There’s a stretch of Mark that features several different teachings from Jesus that appear difficult…unexpected…maybe even a little harsh…teachings that maybe, just maybe make it difficult to even want to be a follower of Christ…some of these teachings or themes are unique…and others pop up more than once.

We’ve mentioned before that when something repeats itself within the scriptures…its usually worth paying attention to…and if you happened to be here last week, you might have noticed something that sounds familiar.  For the second time…Jesus predicts his upcoming betrayal and arrest…he predicts his suffering and death…and he predicts that three days later he’ll rise again…its nearly identical to what we heard back in chapter 8…and funny enough…it would seem that 2 times isn’t sufficient…because a chapter later…in a passage that we’ll encounter a couple more week’s from now…Jesus is going to do it a third time.

3 times he shares this prediction with the disciples…this honest and open revelation of his eventual fate…of how things are going to culminate at the end of his ministry. (pause) Now, the disciples’ reaction today is interesting…we hear that they lack understanding of just what Jesus is talking about…and even though they want to ask him questions…they remain silent.

Maybe, just maybe they are remembering the last time Jesus brought this whole deal up…and Peter getting a little testy with Jesus before getting a verbal smack-down. Maybe that’s why they dummy up and don’t ask the questions that are clearly on their minds…not even Peter in this instance.

But instead…as they continue walking along towards Capernaum…their conversation takes a turn…and they start bickering. Now maybe their debate has something to do with Jesus’ prediction…but maybe it has something to do with this location as well. It seems a little specific to name that they are in Capernaum…unless we know a little something about this community on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee.

Capernaum was an important city in those days. It was located right along a major trade route…it was also a boundary between two different territories and as such it was a taxation point.  The Roman government and military both had a presence there…and the residents, Jews and Romans alike, benefitted from all this with wealth and affluence.  It was a place of prestige…of authority and influence…in short…this was a place a power…and I’m guessing, as this merry band of Christ followers approached the city with words about this Messiah walking in their midst, the topic of authority and power seemed pretty important. (pause)

Now once they get into town and settle into one of the homes there, Jesus starts asking some questions…namely what they’d been bickering about…because it seems that their conversation escalated into an argument over which one of them would be called the greatest…who would hold the most authority…who’s the most important among them. (pause)
I can’t help but think that this starts to reveal a little bit of similarity in the expectations the disciples hold with what we heard out of Peter a week ago.  Jesus, you are the Messiah…and Jesus says yes, now let me tell you what that means…and Peter says No lord…the Messiah cannot be killed…you’ve got important political work to accomplish…take back the throne…free us from oppression, bring about this kingdom of heaven that you keep talking about…obviously you can’t do that if you’re dead. (pause)

It’ll be the same sort of thing when we encounter the last Passion prediction too…Jesus shares what will happen…and two of the disciples hit him up with a request to sit at his right hand and his left when he comes into power.

And today…same deal…Hey guys…Jesus is talking all that Messiah stuff again…I don’t know why he’s so set on the idea that he’s gonna die…I don’t know what that’s all about…who knows…maybe he’s being metaphorical…but you know what…when he takes control…its gonna be awesome…and we’ve been following him around…I wonder what spot we’ll each get.

That’s the debate…Jesus is here to bring about something UTTERLY new…a new way to live…a new way to be in this world…claimed and loved by God…and freed from the power of the brokenness that is still so prevalent…and in the midst of all this…the disciples are bickering over what cabinet position they are going to hold “in the kingdom.” Of who’s gonna be second in command…of who will hold more authority or prestige or status.

3 times Jesus tells them plainly. (slowly) I am going to die and rise again. It will be brutal, it will be painful, and you will all abandon me…and in three different ways, they reveal the same thing. What can we get out it? (pause)

I wonder…do we fall in the same trap? Do we get caught up in human expectations over what Jesus is going to do for us…of how we’re going to benefit from this identity as a follower of Christ? (pause) Is that how we look at our association with the congregation…or our identity and position within the greater community because of our membership here in the local faith institution? Do we wonder…or even seek out…the self-image of being called great? (pause)

That’s the rub in the disciples debate…they are arguing over who will be the one to be called…or named great.  Funny enough, they know better…because when Jesus calls them on it…they don’t say a word…its almost like they’ve already figured out that this isn’t what Jesus is all about…and yet it’s the issue most important to them.

Maybe its because the world works that way…their society was not that different from ours in that regard.  Power and influence and prestige and authority and fame and glory and riches were the currency of the day…just as they are now.

But Jesus proposes something different doesn’t he? It is not these things that will make your name great…you will not be called great because of these things…you want to be called great…welcome the least of these.  And he places a child in their midst.

Now in Jesus’ day, children were the lowest of the low on the status ladder…lower even than slaves…but Jesus could have also grabbed a begger…or a lepper…or a foreigner or a tax collector.  Anyone who their society dictates was unacceptable…Jesus says put them before yourself…serve them…and then you’ll be called great. (pause)

I’m drawn to that idea of being called great…maybe its subjective, because depending on the moment we might call a lot of things or people great…but Mark’s gospel really doesn’t. In fact…there are only two times when this exact phrase is used…to be called great…this is one…and the other is when Jesus answers the question of what commandment can be called the greatest.

Anyone remember how he answers?  Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself.  Place others ahead of you…that’s what Jesus calls great. (pause) But maybe, just maybe that doesn’t compute. Because this is an idea that is so utterly foreign in a dog eat dog world…a world where we have to look out for number 1…a world where we bite and claw our way to the top…but I always wonder…where does that get us?

There’s an old saying “the one who dies with the most toys wins” (pause) but there’s another saying that refutes it “the one who dies with the most toys still dies.” It’s a sober reminder that this life has an expiration date. (pause)

But…Jesus is doing something different…utterly different. This kingdom of heaven…whatever the heck that means…its different…it doesn’t focus in on power or authority or prestige or status.  None of those things that the world tells us you have to have in order to be complete will actually get you there.  But a promise that there is something more…that you have been claimed by the one who created you…that you are loved and accepted and treasured as you are right now…and that no matter what happens that everlasting love will not be taken away from you and not even death can get in the way of it.  That promise gives us hope to cling to in the midst of all the mess of this world that we are constantly surrounded with and bombarded by.

Trust me…there is plenty of stuff in this world that can drown us in despair…and there are plenty of times when that hope of the promise might just be really hard to see…and this is why we need one another…to reflect that light of life that Christ has brought into this world…to shine that light so those stuck in darkness have something to look to…to be the hands and feet of Christ, even in some tiny way…just to show this world that no matter how hard it rants and raves…and no matter how loudly it screams that might makes right…or that gaining just a little more and a little more at the expense of another will make you satisfied…no matter how hard the powers of darkness in this world rave that light WILL shine brighter…because when light shines darkness loses…that’s the simple fact of the matter…even when it doesn’t feel like it. (pause)

The future is unknown to us…we might have our plans or expectations…we might have our hopes and our dreams…but the reality might turn into something completely different.  May we find hope in the one thing that will remain constant…God’s promises for you have already been made real in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s something that we can call great.  Amen

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