This week, as I was studying the Gospel text that we have before us this morning, I was led to contemplate the God we worship–I was led by the Spirit to think about who He is and what He has done and is doing. And my thoughts turned to the fact that God needs nothing from us. He needs absolutely nothing from us. The ancient Jews understood that God was complete and whole in and of Himself. He has all power; all authority; all might; all wisdom; and all knowledge. He created this world, and it and everything that is in it belongs to Him. In the relationship of the Holy Trinity, God has in Himself all the love, joy, care, and compassion that He would ever need. Because of this, He needs nothing from us. He does not need our prayers. He does not need our money. He does not need our worship. He does not need our actions or our goodness. He needs nothing from us.
But the opposite is not true. We cannot say that at all about God, for we are completely and totally dependent upon Him. God provides all that we need. God gives us this earth and its resources for our food, clothing and shelter. God sustains this world and upholds it–He need only to remove His hand from it for catastrophe to befall us. God gives us knowledge and understanding and minds that can comprehend such things so that we can build and work and prepare. As Luther says in his explanation to the petition of the Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread,”: God gives daily bread, even without our prayer, to all wicked men; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to know it, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving. Oh how blessed we are by God!! For most of us who gather here this morning have roofs over our heads; we have clothes on our backs; we have food in our homes and refrigerators; we have cars to drive to worship and other places; we have a bit of money in the bank; we are not wondering where our next meal is coming from or whether or not our home will be taken from us. We have so much!
But I am struck by how often we seem to want so much more. I have been reading through the Old Testament, and I am in the midst of the book of Deuteronomy. This means I have just finished reading about the Israelites being freed from slavery in Egypt and their meanderings until they are about to head into the Promised Land. All along this journey, God has provided for His people. He first of all freed them from deplorable conditions in Egypt; He freed them from rulers who demanded that all of their first born sons be killed. He utterly demoralized the Egyptians to the point that when the people left, the Egyptians were giving the Israelites gold and jewelry as they left–filling the Israelites with wealth and riches. God gave the Israelites commands and rules to live by promising that should they follow them, then all would go well with them. God provided them direction by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. God protected them from armies that were raised against them. God gave them enough food for every day of the week. And yet, the people were not satisfied. The people oftentimes cried out and complained against God. The people actually longed for a life of slavery back in Egypt. They were not content with all that God had done and was doing for them. Their example is our example. For we too seem to never be satisfied. We too seem to long for more. We cry out to God for more financial security; for a better job; for more prestige; for more power.
We are not unlike those Israelites being led through the wilderness. We are not unlike Jesus’ very own disciples as they walked with Him on a daily basis. This leads us straight to our Gospel lesson today from the ninth chapter of the book of Mark. Jesus and His disciples are traveling through Galilee. They are staying away from the crowds because Jesus is giving them some very important instructions. “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.” This is the second time in the book of Mark that Jesus makes His assertions about what it means to be the Messiah. We heard the first one last week. That session didn’t turn out too well for His disciples. This one won’t either. We get a hint of this right off the bat as Mark then tells us that the disciples didn’t understand the teaching, and they were too afraid to ask.
This is really not surprising. Remember, the disciples were all good Jews. They had been taught from the time that they were little that the Messiah would rise up and do three things: He would cleanse the temple. He would defeat those who were oppressing the Jews, and He would usher in the Kingdom of God. It was expected that these things would be done by a mighty hand raising a mighty army. The end result would be a world governed by Israel. All of this was common knowledge. It was deeply ingrained into Jewish thought, and what Jesus taught was completely and totally different from this. What Jesus taught was insane. No one believed that the Messiah would be betrayed, suffer, be killed, and rise again. No one. The disciples couldn’t understand this. It was too mind boggling. It was too out there. If they were to accept it, they would have to literally rethink everything they had once been taught about their faith. Folks, most of us are totally and completely unwilling to do such a thing. So when we, like those disciples, hear something that challenges our faith, we won’t seek to understand it either. We tend to be afraid of it. That’s probably why the disciples wouldn’t ask Jesus about it. They didn’t want to be challenged by it. They didn’t want to have to wrestle with it. It was much easier to hold onto the comfortable teachings of their youth.
And so they did. I am quite sure that at this point in the gospel of Mark, the disciples really believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they rejected that he would suffer, die, and rise. I am quite sure they thought that Jesus was just pulling their leg and that He would ascend to become God’s chosen king of Israel. And that left them with a burning question. If Jesus was the Messiah and He was going to be King of Israel, where would the rest of us end up? Which one of us would be second in command? Which one of us would be Jesus’ personal adviser? What part will each of us have in the Kingdom of God? And so they began to argue about which one of them was the greatest. Oh, I can hear the argument now. “Well, don’t you think it’s Peter. Isn’t he sort of our spokesperson?” “Yeah, but don’t you remember that Jesus called him Satan? There’s no way Jesus will pick him.” “But what about James and John, they went up on the mountain with Jesus.” “Yeah, but have you seen the temper on those two. There’s a reason they are called the sons of thunder. Surely that is a major strike against them.” “Matthew?” “Tax collector. You know they all cheat. Can’t be him.” And on and on and on the conversation went. On and on and on they argued–not satisfied listening to Jesus’ teaching and content to be walking with the Son of God, but instead focusing on their desires for more power and prestige.
Jesus knows what’s going on. Like any good teacher, He knows when He’s lost His class, so when they arrive at their destination, Jesus confronts them. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Dead silence. Like a kid whose mom caught him with his hand in the cookie jar, the disciples know they’ve been busted. They know they should have been listening to Jesus. They know they’ve been focusing on their own agendas and endeavors. They know they’ve been seeking their own personal satisfaction and well being. Guilty is written all over their foreheads.
Jesus’ reaction is rather stunning. Unlike when He confronted Peter, there is no anger. There is no chiding. Jesus sits down. Now, this is actually a pretty important point that the scriptures are making here. In the rabbinic tradition, when the rabbi sat down, that meant he was saying something really, really important. In those days, the teacher sat and the students stood when an such a point was being made. Just a hint: this means, the teaching Jesus is giving us now is really, really important.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
This was not expected. No one wanted to be a servant. Everyone wanted to climb the ladder of power and prestige. Everyone wanted to be at the top of the totem pole. The entire society was governed by status and privilege. No one wanted to be at the bottom. No one wanted to live down at the dregs. Servants were lowly. They were held in contempt. They could give you nothing. Couldn’t help you in any possible way. What in the world was Jesus saying? This couldn’t be possible.
Jesus doesn’t back down. Jesus then illustrates His point. He takes a child, puts that child into their midst, then wraps His arms around that child. He embraces that child. Oh, we need to picture this. We need to get this image in our heads. Don’t picture some kid who looks all neat and washed and clean. That was not what kids looked like back then. Imagine a kid whose hair is all disheveled; who is wearing stained and dirty clothes. The kid has dust and dirt all over her body; grime underneath her fingernails; smudges on her cheeks. This is who Jesus embraces, and then He says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus’ comment goes far beyond just welcoming children. There is a much deeper meaning to this. Because children in Jesus’ day were not like children today. Today, we’ll do anything for kids. We’ll spend tons of money on them. We’ll give them preferential treatment. Oftentimes, we’ll cater to their wishes and desires before our own. Kids have a special place in our society, but they had no such place in Jesus’ day. Kids were looked at as “not having arrived.” This meant that they were resource drains on society. They couldn’t contribute anything. They were unable to work and produce. In a society where most folks were living day to day wondering where their next meal would come from, children meant extra work for parents who had to provide. There was an extremely high infant mortality rate, so a child could easily die from sickness or exposure. There was no use getting attached. Children represented the lowest of the low–those who received but who couldn’t give.
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes someone who is at the bottom rung–whoever welcomes someone who cannot give you anything; who cannot provide you anything; who drains your resources without giving you anything in return–when you welcome someone like that, then you are welcoming God Himself.
Let’s rephrase that for just a moment–whenever you welcome someone who needs you but you don’t need them, you welcome God Himself.
This, my brothers and sisters, cuts to the heart of the Gospel. You may wonder just how, but remember how I began this sermon? Remember how I talked about how God doesn’t need us? And yet, what did God do for us?
When we sought only ourselves and what we wanted, God sought us. Whenever we rebelled against God, God loved us. Whenever we wanted to go our own way and shook our fist at God for not giving us everything we wanted, God welcomed us. When we stood in front of God, guilty of breaking His commandments; guilty of chasing after false gods, guilty of hating our neighbor, God forgave us.
And when we deserved just punishment for our sins; when we deserved the fires of hell and torment; when we deserved death and eternal separation from God for all that we have done, God paid the price to redeem us. God paid the price to ransom us. God gave His only begotten Son to die for us so that when we trust in Him and His action we have abundant life now and eternal life with Him. This is sheer grace given to us by our Father in heaven. It is grace that costs us nothing, but it cost God everything. He gets nothing from us, but He gave everything for us.
When we are grasped by this grace. When we are grasped by this kind of love, we long to be like the Father; we long to be like Jesus; we long to give to those who cannot give us anything in return. And so we must ask: who are those around us who can give us nothing? Who are those around us who need us? Who need our time? Who need our money? Who need our energy? Who are unable to repay or give anything in return? Are we seeking them out? Are we longing to care for them and welcome them? For when we do such things we are not simply following a command; we are not simply doing the right thing; we are imitating God and we are welcoming God. We are doing what God has already done for us. We are receiving and we are giving sheer grace. Amen.