Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Pleasant Dale, Nebraska
33 Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, "What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?" 34 But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. 35 And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all."
IN NOMINE JESU
I am convinced that one of my favorite baseball teams, the Kansas City Royals, must have some of the nicest people ever on it. The players must be some of the nicest people one could ever hope to meet. You could not find a nicer group of guys anywhere. I base this on a quote from baseball's most colorful managers, Leo Durocher, who said, "Nice guys finish last." The Royals are in last place in their division and have the third-worst record in major-league baseball. No baseball team—or any team—has in place a goal to finish dead last…officially, anyway. Every team wants to get into the playoffs. Every team wants to win the division, the conference, or the league. Every team wants to win it all and be able to boast that they are the greatest. Only one team can be the greatest, but at one point all the teams are the same, having zero wins…and zero losses…at the beginning of the season. In order to be the best, they have to be among the least, starting from scratch. In the world, teams, as well as businesses, compete to see who is the greatest, who makes the most money, who is the most successful, and who has the most awards. This is how winners are determined in the world; that is to say, in the world that exists outside these hallowed walls.
In the life lived within the walls of the Lord's house and, by extension, our homes as we leave this place following the Divine Service, things are not as the world would have them be. In the Christian life, things are to be the opposite of what the world would expect. This is where the Church is to be involved: to transform the culture, not to have the culture transform the Church. The Church is not to measure success as the world does; such measurements are best left to God to make, if He chooses to do so at all. The blessed apostle St. Paul writes: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase" (1 Cor. 3:6-7). It is God who gives increase—who gives success—to His Word, the God who says through the prophet Isaiah: "For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (Is. 55:10-11). God alone determines what is successful and what is great.
The disciples did not seem to understand this, for they had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. They probably each staked their own claims on the mythical title of super-apostle. They had had this argument a number of times. James and John at one point even asked the Lord to grant one of them to sit at His right hand and the other at His left. Who knows? Perhaps they wanted to find out who would have the most congregations named after them. Whatever the reason, such attitudes were not in keeping with what the Lord expects of those who wish to follow Him. As James writes in our Epistle, "For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there" (Jas. 3:16). And again, James says: Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (Jas. 4:1-4)
The Lord desires that those who follow Him be and remain humble, which the author of James, believed to be the Lord's brother, echoes. The Lord takes the world's expectations and turns them upside-down and inside-out. He says that if you and to be great, you must first be humble. If you want to be first, you must be the last of all and the servant of all. You need to set aside your ego. You see, it is not all about you. It is all about Christ and what He has done—and continues to do—for you. But, like the disciples, we don't get it. We don't want to get it. We don't want to hear it. We don't want to live it. We don't want to live, speak, and act humbly before others; our sinful pride can't stand humility, unless it's shown in others. We are selfish, self-centered, and self-serving. We replace the Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—with the unholy triad of "me, myself, and I," which is little else than giving glory to the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature, which would neither hallow God's Name nor let His kingdom come. According to our sinful pride, we can do no wrong. If it feels good, do it, we like to say to ourselves. So we seek to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. In reality, we need to seek God's forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation, for without them we will die eternally, forever separated from the Lord and spending eternity in hell, forever condemned, forever tormented, forever tortured by the old evil foe, the devil.
Our sinful pride, our ego, is so full of itself that the last thing it would have us do is admit that we are sinners. This is the way of the world. Yet when we come in here, what is the first thing we do? We confess our sins. We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean, conceived and born into sin. What is the first contact most of us have had with the Christian faith? We became baptized as infants, either at this font or one elsewhere, baptized into His Name most holy: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Do you want to be in a position of power? Then get down on your knees, down on your knees before God in prayer, down on your knees before the Lord's Table and receive the body and blood of the Lord and His gifts with this holy Supper. The Church, the Divine Service, and the Christian life, do not operate as the world operates. Within these sacred walls there is sacred space, where the Lord comes to you in His Word and Sacraments. Within these sacred walls is sacred time, during this hour of the Divine Service on this, the Lord's Day, as we celebrate the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Nine, during this time as He brings heaven down to earth in His Supper to give you a foretaste of the Feast to come. During this holy hour, in Word and meal, He gives you a glimpse of this end-time reality, a reality that is now, but not yet, moving you out into your God-given vocation to live in Christ-like humility and in faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another.
You see, it is the Lord who empowers you. It is the Lord who builds you up, who strengthens you. As James says in our Epistle, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up" (Jas. 4:10). He lifts us up, for He Himself was lifted up on our behalf, when He was lifted up on the cross, where He bled and died. There was your Savior, in all humility and humiliation, scorned and ridiculed by an unbelieving world. In the world's eyes, Christ was excluded. In His Father's eyes, He was exalted, even though He set His exaltation aside to go the way of the cross, so that He would trade His crown of thorns for His royal diadem, that He would be crowned Lord of all. The way of the cross, the way He has given us to take, is the way of humility, as St. Paul writes: Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5-11)
In a few moments our tongues will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. In a few moments we will confess the Nicene Creed. In a few moments we will respond to His invitation and be given the body and blood of the Lord, the very body He gave and the very blood He shed in being obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. The body and blood of our crucified Lord give us life, for He is risen from the dead, on the third day, according to the Scriptures. Through His body and blood, the Lord exalts you; He lifts you up. He delivers you from the valley of the shadow of death into His marvelous light. No, our problems don't all just vanish into thin air. We still have bills to pay. We still have aches and pains. We still miss those loved ones who died. But we are not alone, for our Lord is with us. He has come to you this day, in this place, to give you His gifts. He gives you eternal life with Him in heaven. He gives you salvation for your soul. He gives you the forgiveness of sins. He gives you the gifts of grace, gifts He won for you—in your place—on the cross, gifts He gives to you—in His house—in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Scripture, and Holy Communion. O humbled and repentant brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow redeemed come to the Feast, for, once again, as James says, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up," and as the Psalmist says in the Gradual: "Fear the LORD, you His saints, for those who fear Him lack nothing! Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers Him out of them all" (Ps. 34:9, 19). God grant this in Jesus' Name and for His sake. Amen!
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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