I remember having a conversation with a clergy friend many years ago. My friend had graduated from seminary and had taken a call at a small, rural congregation. I asked her how it was going, and she confessed that she was struggling. In many small congregations, the pastor is expected to do darn near everything, and this congregation was no exception. This was actually causing a bit of difficulty for my friend as she said, “They even expect me to take out the trash!” That statement caught be aback because I considered taking out the trash to be no big deal. My friend thought otherwise obviously believing such a task was beneath her.
Now, this isn’t a bash a fellow clergy illustration, because in reality I was no better. You see, for I had my own motivations for taking out the trash even in this congregation. Now, I’m not saying anyone around here expects me to have janitorial duties, but I’ve regularly taken out the trash as well as washed dishes from time to time at WELCA or at some other gathering. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty at all, but when I was asked why I would do such a thing, I commented smartly, “I will not ask anyone to do anything around this church that I am not willing to do myself.” Meaning, I think, look at how I am willing to be a servant, you should be a servant too. This too is the wrong motivation for action. It’s a self serving motivation rooted and grounded in the idea that if I am doing something, you should be willing to do it as well.
Contrast my friend’s reaction, my reaction, to a truly humble response to taking out the garbage. What would such a humble response be? How about simply seeing that the garbage needs to be taken out, taking it out without a second thought, and simply doing it because it needs to be done. There is no expectation for anyone else to look at you. There is no expectation of anyone saying, “Thank you.” There is no expectation of reward or punishment or the like. There is simply a job that needs to be done, and it gets done. Period. Doesn’t matter who does it. Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if things happened in such a fashion? Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we all simply did what needed to be done without any thought to reward or punishment or the like? I think it would, but we run smack dab into our human nature when it comes to such matters.
And what is that human nature? Just this: we seek self-preservation. We seek our own self-interest. We work to ensure our safety and our security–sometimes without even realizing it. Sometimes, we are blind to our own motives and motivations as we seek to get ahead and maintain our positions in life. For the most part, everything we do is all about us.
Some of you might want to call me on the carpet on this one. You might say, “But pastor, I do an awful lot of volunteer work. I give to a lot of different charities. I’m involved with helping others all the time.” Great! Fantastic! Why are you doing these things? What is your motivation? More often than not, do you know what response I get? “It makes me feel good.” Think about that. You are doing all of those things because it makes you feel good. If it didn’t make you feel good, would you still do it? That’s the question you need to ask yourself. It’s the question we all need to ask ourselves. Would we do anything if we got absolutely no benefit from it? If we are honest with ourselves, most of us, I think, would have to say no. The motive of self-preservation and self-interest is that strong, and even our humility tends to be self-driven and therefore isn’t real humility at all.
This has led, I think, to the plague that faces the American society–the plague of self-righteousness. Everywhere I look, I see that plague manifesting itself. If everyone would just do what I tell them to do, then the world would be great. If the Republicans just did what the Democrats told them to do, we’d solve this country’s problems. If the Democrats just gave up on their platform and voted for Republican measures, this country would be saved. Conservatives are the ones who know what it takes to make life work. Liberals are the ones who have it all together. Of course, all of them are wrong. Everyone knows that if you just did what Texas does, then all would work out well. Texas is, after all, the center of the known universe. I could go on and on and on. At some level, we all believe that we know better. We all believe we have the answers to life’s greatest challenges and problems. At some level we think we should be listened to and should have the place of honor and prestige. At some level.
But at another level, we also know our inadequacies. At another level, we find ourselves being crushed over and over and over again. I mean, I’ll illustrate it this way. Last Sunday, I noticed that very few people in our congregation were singing the songs for the day. It wasn’t because the songs were strange. They were familiar songs! I could chalk this up to the fact that people were having an off day, but I think there is something greater going on in our society. People don’t sing anymore. At one time, everyone gathered around their pianos in the house and sang songs. People developed their voices and sang with some measure of confidence. Not so anymore. Not so at all. Instead, we plug into our phones and listen to music. We may sing in the car at the top of our lungs when no one else can listen, but for the most part, we leave the singing up to the “professionals.” Many truly believe, “I am not good enough to sing.” And it’s not just with singing. There are many other areas that we feel completely and totally inadequate in. There are many other areas we know we fall short in. And we try to hide those areas. We try to keep them as secret as possible because we don’t want to be made fun of. We don’t want to be exploited. We don’t want to show any kind of weakness. It’s self-preservation once again. On the one hand, we desire to be accepted and acknowledged and thought highly of, but on the other hand, we know our inadequacies, and we are afraid of them. It’s almost as if we are at war with ourselves. Can anything bring peace?
Let me turn at this point to our Gospel lesson from the book of Mark chapter 9. It’s a very intriguing text, and I confess to you, I almost missed it’s central point. Almost. Let’s see what that point is and how it addresses this problem of our war within ourselves.
After Jesus and His disciples leave the house where Jesus taught them about prayer, they begin traveling toward Jerusalem. Jesus doesn’t want a lot of attention at this point because He has some serious things to teach His disciples. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Jesus is predicting His passion once again, and there is a very important nuance in this teaching that we miss in translation. The Greek word for betrayed can also be translated “to be delivered up”, and it is mostly used in a judicial manner. William L. Lane says this in his commentary on the book of Mark:
To deliver up” or “hand over” is an important concept in the context of lawsuits and in the Jewish theology of martyrdom. More than simply the coming of an individual into another’s power, the term connotes the actual fulfillment of God’s will as expressed in Scripture. Particularly in martyrdom, God is the one who permits (or hinders) the handing over in fulfillment of deeper purposes...The background of the term in Scripture, however, indicates that the thought is more profound: Jesus will be delivered into the hands of men by God, and what takes place on the level of historical occurrence has ultimate significance because it centers in the eschatological action of God.
I think that comment is pretty self explanatory except that last sentence where that big word eschatological is used. Lane means, this delivering over is in accordance with God’s will and fits into God’s plan.
Once again, Mark tells us the disciples don’t get it. They are still having difficulty seeing. The story of the blind man healed in stages still haunts this discourse, and the disciples are too afraid to ask any questions. They are too afraid to delve into this matter more deeply. It does not fit their narrative of the Messiah. And so they turn their attention to other matters–matters that do fit with their preconceived notions.
When they arrive at “the house” in Capernaum, Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about along the way?”
Once again, when Jesus asks the disciples a question, He is met with silence. It’s the same kind of silence Jesus was met with when He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them” (the Scribes) in the previous story about the demon who could only be cast out in prayer. The disciples were embarrassed then. They are embarrassed now because they were arguing about who was the greatest.
Jesus is much kinder than I would have been. I would have been like, “Greatest? Didn’t you all just fail miserably in casting out a demon? You want to argue about who is greatest when you were all a bunch of failures?” As I said, Jesus was nicer than I would have been.
But the disciples’ argument isn’t without some sort of merit. I mean, Jesus had made a distinction among them when He took Peter, James, and John upon the mountain alone. This would have given the disciples some food for thought and smacked of favoritism. Not only that, the surrounding culture was obsessed with status and privilege. Questions of rank were argued about ALL the time.
But Jesus isn’t going to play that game. He sits down, which means, He assumes the position of rabbinical teacher–a position of authority. He calls His disciples together and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Craig Evans in his commentary explains this well, “In the Jewish culture of this period “protos” “first” meant rulers, aristocrats, ruling priests, and other persons of authority and influence. Thus to be esxastos “last” and diakonos “servant” was to be someone with no rank, no authority, no privilege–a status that humans ordinarily do not covet.”
Now, here is what I almost missed because most of the time, we pastors jump right into telling you, “Go out and seek to be a servant. If you want to be first, make sure you are last.” Think about that for just a moment. If you want to be first, be last of all and servant of all. If you try to apply that–seeking to be last so that you will be first, who are you thinking about? Who are you trying to exalt? What is your motivation? To be first. You are still striving for a place of prestige and exaltation. Does this strike you as humble? It doesn’t strike me that way either. So, let me ask you this question: who is first in the Kingdom of God? Who is the one who is front and center and above all in God’s reign? Jesus. Yes, Jesus is first in the Kingdom of God. I want to point out to you right here and right now, the Kingdom of God isn’t about you. Being first in the Kingdom of God isn’t about you. Being last of all and servant of all isn’t about you.
It is about Jesus who, to quote an ancient hymn recorded by St. Paul in the book of Philippians, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Yes, it is Jesus who became last of all and servant of all. It is Jesus who washed the disciples’ feet and then became scorned by the world as He hung on the cross. This is all about Jesus who is the first in the Kingdom of God.
And to ram home this point, Jesus brings a child into the midst of the room. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Whoever in my name welcomes the least; the lost; the marginalized; who does not think one’s self above such a one, welcomes me and further welcomes the One who sent me. This isn’t about you. This is about welcoming God; welcoming Jesus into the depths of your very heart.
And how does this make all the difference in that war between ourselves? How does this bring peace to that conflict of self-preservation wanting to be accepted and thought of highly but also knowing our inadequacies and feeling like a failure? How does knowing that Jesus is the First in the Kingdom of God do such a thing?
You have to remember what Jesus accomplished on that cross. For you see, Jesus knew your inadequacies. Jesus knew your failings. Jesus knew your selfish desires and me first attitude. Jesus knew how you trust yourself instead of God and would like to lord your own thoughts over this world. Jesus knew that you wanted to be God yourself instead of allowing Him to have His rightful place. But instead of destroying you; instead of humiliating you and punishing you; He died for you. He took upon Himself your sin, and He begged His heavenly Father, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus poured out Himself for you because He loves you.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it.
God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn you for your failings and frailties, but to save you. Jesus does not exploit your failings and frailties. He loves you in spite of them. He loves you with a love that goes beyond even your wildest imaginations. And when you see that kind of love in action; you are deeply humbled because you know you can never love with that kind of love. You know you can never serve as deeply as Jesus did. You can never give as much as Jesus gave. You can only marvel at His work and say, “Yes, Jesus, you are first in the kingdom of God. I don’t even deserve to belong there. I am completely and totally inadequate.” And right here, you accept your inadequacies. And right here, you also know you are deeply loved. The tension is gone, and you are at peace. And it is a peace you long to share with others, so you welcome them in Jesus’ name because you know what Jesus has done: becoming last of all and servant of all to die on the cross to save you. Amen.