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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9: 30–37

James T. Batchelor

Pentecost 17, Proper 20, series B
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  
Hoopeston, IL

view DOC file

Sun, Sep 20, 2015 

As we now make our way through the Gospel according to Mark, there is a change in focus.  In fact, all four Gospel accounts have this change of focus.  The beginning of the Gospel accounts focus on the teachings and signs that point to Jesus as the promised Messiah.  These signs and teachings all fulfill the promises that He made through His prophets in the Old Testament.  They certify that Jesus really is the Messiah sent from God.  They make Him known to the multitudes.

There comes a point, however, when there is a change in focus as Jesus began to prepare His disciples for Good Friday.  Over the past few Sundays, we have heard that Jesus began to seek solitude so that He could teach His disciples in a more private setting.  He spent more time in Gentile territory in order to get away from the crowds.  He still performed the signs, and He still proclaimed the Gospel, but His main focus was on preparing the disciples for His upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection.  That is the reason He went to the areas of Tyre and Sidon, Caesarea Philippi, and the Decapolis.  That is the reason todays reading from Marks account of the Gospel begins with the words: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31for he was teaching his disciples. (Mark 9:3031)

All four Gospel accounts make it very clear that Jesus prepared His disciples for Good Friday by regularly teaching them about His upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection.  Todays reading makes that very clear.  He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise. (Mark 9:31) This is the focus of His teaching during those times when He had them off by themselves.

Now, although Jesus was being very clear, the disciples were not catching on.  Todays reading informs us that they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. (Mark 9:32) This must have been very frustrating for Jesus, but before we get too hard on the disciples, remember that no one had ever done this before.  There are accounts in the Old Testament of prophets raising OTHER people from the dead.  Jesus Himself had raised people from the dead, but no one had come back from the dead under his own power.  This was totally outside the disciples experience.  It wasnt that they didnt want to understand Jesus, but they simply did not have the mental, emotional, or spiritual tools they needed to understand what Jesus said.  So, lets not be so arrogant that we think that we would have been any different if we had been there.

After the Holy Spirit inspired Mark to record Jesus teaching, He then inspired Mark to give an example of how clueless the disciples really were.  We not only hear that the disciples did not understand, but we also have a record of an incident that demonstrated how much they did not understand.  The disciples were debating among themselves about who was the greatest in the kingdom.

Think about it.  When Jesus prayed to the Father in Gethsemane, He sweat drops of blood.  Never the less, when He shared this intense fate with His disciples, their response was to discuss who was the greatest.  Jesus was telling them about the single greatest event in the entire history of the world salvation earned on the cross for all people.  And they were debating who would be the leader of their little band when Jesus was gone.  How embarrassing it must have been when Jesus asked them, What were you discussing on the way? (Mark 9:33)

Jesus used this moment of embarrassment as an opportunity to teach them and us what it means to be a leader in His church.  He sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all. (Mark 9:35) In Gods family, the leader serves.  The one who is the highest makes himself the lowest.  The leader in Gods family sacrifices not to get power, but to serve others.

Then to emphasize His point, He took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me. (Mark 9:3637) Jesus connected the child to Himself and then connected both Himself and the child to our Father in Heaven.  To receive a child is to receive God the Father Almighty.

The Greek word that is translated as child indicates a child whose age would be somewhere between pre-school and second grade.  At that age most children can feed themselves, get dressed, understand simple sentences, and so forth, but we are still talking about an age when children still need a lot of help just to survive.  This child can do a few things for himself, but for the most part, this child is pretty much helpless.  The greatest serves the most helpless.

This is pretty much the opposite of the way the world thinks.  From the time that Adam and Eve sinned until now, people have wanted power and control.  People have thought that the greatest people controlled other people and forced them to serve.  If we look at the other readings for today, we see that each of them talks about the problems we have because we always want people to serve us.  In the Old Testament Lesson, people want to kill Jeremiah.  In our epistle, James considers the reasons people fight.  Through the entire Bible, people have had trouble with greed, power, and control.

We arent different today.  Our culture praises people who are the best.  Who is beautiful?  Who is strong?  Who is wealthy?  Who has the most power?  Sooner or later, we all fall to this temptation.  We all want people to serve us and think that we are important.

The desire to be important doesnt change with time.  It is the reason Cain killed Abel and it is the reason a gunman was terrorizing a college campus last week.  It is a deep part of our sinful nature.  It attacks us from the day we enter the world until the day we die.  So the things Jesus teaches His disciples are good for us also.

Sadly, todays gospel is not the only time the disciples argued about who was the greatest in Gods kingdom.  There was a time that Jesus told the disciples to go to a friends house and prepare for the Passover.  When everyone arrived, the disciples began discussing who should wash the feet.  You see they had been walking in the hot sun all day.  Their feet were hot, sweaty, and dirty.  It was the tradition for the host to have a servant wash the feet of His guests.  None of the disciples wanted to do a servants work so no one was washing any feet.  Then Jesus arrived and He washed their feet.  It was one more way that He showed service to them.

Jesus continued to show service to the disciples and us beginning that very evening.  He served you and me by allowing a band of soldiers to arrest Him so that He could endure a day of torture and shame as He took your sin to Himself and carried it to a cross and to death.  He served you and me by enduring Gods holy wrath against our sin while He hung on that cross.  He served you and me after His friends laid Him in a tomb by rising from the dead and proclaiming His victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil.

Jesus said that the greatest is the servant of all.  Jesus is the greatest because He served the entire world by offering Himself up as the atonement for all our sins.  Jesus still serves us as the Holy Spirit gives us forgiveness by the Gospel the Gospel we hear in the Absolution and in preaching the Gospel combined with the water of Holy Baptism the Gospel combined with bread and wine as Jesus Himself enters us with His forgiveness, one mouth at a time.

Jesus, the greatest, serves us who are the most helpless helpless in sin and facing death.  We who would be great in our greed receive the generosity of a savior who serves.  Now that Jesus has served us with the ultimate service, He is able to work through us to serve others.  He gives us the power to share His service with the people in our lives.

Ultimately, it is the desire of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ to serve us with new, holy bodies that will rise from the dead just as He rose.  On that day of resurrection, we will serve one another in perfect harmony and joy.  Our service will be so perfect that it wont even cross our minds to ask who is the greatest.  Amen

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