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Greatness in the Kingdom of God

Mark 9:30-37

Rev. Alan Taylor

Pentecost 17, Proper 20, series B
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Sep 20, 2015 

+ In the Name of Jesus +

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I assume you all know the story about the young boy who grew up wanting to be last in everything he did in life?  As I look around Iím seeing some quizzical looks on quite a few faces.  Are you not familiar with that story?  Well, OF COURSE YOURíE NOT because it never happened.  I mean, who does that?  Who aspires to come in last in EVERYTHING they do in life?  For that matter, who aspires to come in last in ANYTHING they do in life?  When there is an exam to be taken, who takes it with the hope of making the lowest grade in the class?  Who wants to cross the finish line when the tape is already laying on the ground, having been trampled by every other runner in the race, when all the spectators are packing up their belongings and children are running around on the race course? 

To compete and to try to win is part of our DNA.  There is nothing particularly wrong with a spirit of competition, or, with a desire to finish first either.  In fact, the drive to finish first inspires us to work harder and to excel at whatever we do.  In many ways, our problem today isnít dealing with the competitive spirit.  Rather, itís dealing with our shameful disdain for the spirit of competition that has left us with an uninspiring contentment with mediocrity. 

NFL player James Harrison took his sonís football participation trophies away from them because, in his view, they didnít mean anything since they hadnít earned them.  They did participate in the program, but basically the trophies were given out for just showing up.  Some people thought Harrison was a bit harsh with his sons.  By and large though people supported his tactic, perhaps recognizing that we have indeed begun to produce a generation of people who are content with mediocrity.

As we turn to the Gospel reading for this morning, which has something to say about competition and the desire to finish first, it is important to note that there is a completely different standard for greatness in the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God.  Both, mind you, are Godís kingdoms, which is to say, God rules over both of them.  He is, after all, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. 

But these two kingdoms donít operate in the same way.  The kingdom of the world, what is called the kingdom of the left in Lutheran circles, is rightly driven by power and, in the context of this morningís message, by superlative effort and accomplishment.  Even for a Christian, who knows that God is the source of every blessing in his life, work and effort are necessary because the blessings of the kingdom of the left are not handed out on a silver spoon.  In fact, St. Paul, in writing to the Christians in Thessolonica, warned them about the human tendency to set back and let others do for them.  He wrote, ďLet he who will not work, let him not eat.Ē

So, here we have two kingdoms.  The one knows and responds only to power and to achievement.  The other knows and responds to grace, the unmerited favor of God.

Jesus was most definitely talking to His disciples about the Kingdom of the right, the kingdom of grace, when He said, ďThe 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.Ē Jesus was talking to the disciples about atonement, about His dying to win for them a gift that they could never achieve on their own.  It was His death and resurrection that would open the door to the Kingdom of God to all who would believe.

Having received that news from Jesus, whether because shock, or, some other factor, the disciples began to discuss among them who was the greatest in Jesusí kingdom.  Of course, it doesnít say in the text what sort of criteria they were using to settle the argument, but you imagine.  No doubt, it was the same sort of criteria any one of us would have used. 

Iím the greatest because I give the most money.  Iím the greatest because Iíve been at this Christian business the longest.  Iím the greatest because Iím a leader.  Iím the greatest because Iíve brought the most people into the kingdom.  Iím the greatest because I have so much to offer.  Iím the greatest because, well, because who in their right mind would choose anyone over me! 

Repent, Jesus says, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Greatness in the Kingdom of God is not found in self-proclaimed superiority, nor is it found in personal achievement.  Rather, it is found in serving others and in putting oneself last for the sake of others. ďI didnít come to be served (Jesus said), but to serve and give My life as a ransom for many.Ē Though Jesus was and is the greatest in the Kingdom, He made Himself last in order to make you first. ďThough He was rich, yet, for your sakes He was made poor that you, through His poverty, might be made rich.Ē

As He talked with His disciples about the discussion they were having on the road, Jesus demonstrated the Kingdom virtue of humility and servant-hood.  He took a little child in His arms and said, ďwhoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.Ē

Children are held up in the scriptures as models of faith.  ďWhoever doesnít receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, will never enter into it.Ē Itís not that children are sinless.  Rather, their faith, their trust in Christ, is simple and unassuming.  It hasnít yet been threatened by the burdens of life and by the, so-called, reasonable arguments against it.

But, children are also held up in the scriptures as those most in need of protection. And the one who nurtures them must have a servantís heart.  Iím not quite sure how to say this without being misunderstood, but though they give us a great deal of love and happiness, children mostly receive and, in order for them to survive and thrive, they must be served. 

With that in mind, we come to the essence of the Gospel reading for this morning.  In the Kingdom of God, we become great when we are the least, serving those who have little to no ability to repay our kindness. 

Is that not the essence of our Lordís sacrifice for us?  Like the dry bones in Ezekielís vision, we walked the earth as dead men.  What we needed was life and salvation.  What we had to give was the putrid aroma and the rotting decay of sin and death.  Bound by the wretchedness of our sin and trapped in the devilís clutch, we were rescued by the greatest, the servant of the all.

ďGod had seen my wretched state

Before the worldís foundation,

And mindful of His mercies great,

He planned for my salvation.

He turned to me a fatherís heart;

He did not choose the easy part

But gave His dearest treasure.

The Son obeyed His Fatherís will,

Was born of virgin mother;

And Godís good pleasure to fulfill,

He came to be my brother.

His royal power disguised He bore;

A servantís form, like mine, He wore

To lead the devil captive.Ē

ďIf anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.Ē Itís greatness in the Kingdom of God.  In Jesusí name.  Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ To God Alone the Glory +

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