The Grace of God, the Love of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Mark 9:30 “From there they went out and began to go through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know about it. 31 For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, ‘The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.’ 32 But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him. 33 They came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. 35 Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.’ 36 Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, 37 ‘Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.’” (NASB)
The Gospel of St. Mark is beginning to change focus. In fact, the other three Gospel make the same shift. The first part of the Gospels focus our attention on Jesus’s teaching, signs, and miracles, all of which show that Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. Jesus’s doctrine and works verify that Jesus is the Messiah sent from God the Father and the first part of Jesus’s earthly ministry was dedicated to setting in place the foundation of Law and the Gospel. In so doing He destroyed any notion of human goodness and works righteousness.
Then there came a point in Jesus’s earthly ministry and in the Gospels where Jesus changed the focus from showing the multitudes that He was the promised Messiah to preparing His disciples for Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter morning. Over the past few Sundays the various Gospel lessons contained a statement that showed Jesus began to seek solitude. He was trying to get away from the crowds and all the business they brought. He did this we are told by the Gospels so that He could teach His disciples in more private settings.
He spent more time in Gentile territories in an effort to get away from the crowds. He also made it a point to tell His disciples to keep quiet about what He was teaching and doing until His work was done.
As Jesus shifted focus to Holy Week, He still performed signs and proclaimed the Gospel to the people, 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.
Thus today’s Gospel lesson began; “From there they went out and began to go through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know about it.” (Mark 9:30) Again He was trying to thin out the crowds so He could devote more time to teaching the disciples what they’d need to know.
And what did they need to know? “He was teaching His disciples and telling them, ‘The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.’” (Mark 9:31)
Clear enough for us. We live on this side of the crucifixion and Easter. It’s just the rest of theology that confuses and intimidates us. This is a common problem for all Christians. As sinners with corrupted minds and a people who get easily confused by the world around us. We are a people who all too often are conformed to the thinking of this world, than we are transformed by the renewing of our minds by Christ’s Word. (Rom. 12:2)
But Jesus doesn’t need teachers and students, preachers and hearers, pastors and sheep that think and speak like the world. He needs teachers and students who listen to His Word. The disciples were men who we cut from the mold of the world around them and they needed to be taught, and re-taught, and taught again to understand the Law and the Gospel and rightly apply both.
Jesus needed to create disciples that would go on to become the teachers of the first generation of Christians in the New Testament Church and writers of the New Testament. It is essential that the doctrine regarding Christ Jesus be right. That is one of the lessons from the Epistle reading this morning. “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 2:1)
Jesus was clear about what was going to happen during His final trip to Jerusalem and why, but the disciples were not catching on. They seemed to understand enough to be worried about what Jesus said, but that was as far as it went. Jesus told them; “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.’” While “they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him.”
What they did understand is that whatever Jesus was saying, it wasn’t comfortable. It did not fit with their understanding of what the Messiah would do. Again the disciples shared in the dominate religious thinking of the day. The Messiah would be a political figure who would bring utopia to the Jews. The people knew that Jesus was the Messiah, but they did not know what that meant.
Jesus was trying to get His disciples clear of the distractions and business of the crowds. He wanted the disciples to look past the miracles at the moment and to focus squarely on the center piece of His mission, His atoning sacrifice. But they did not understand and were afraid to ask for clarification. (Mark 9:32)
We ought not to judge the disciples too harshly. After all, no one had ever done what Jesus was about to do. There are accounts in the Old Testament of prophets raising other people from the dead. There were great miracles in the Old Testament. And Jesus Himself had raised people from the dead. But no one had ever come back from the dead under their own power. There was no example of such a thing in all of human history.
Combine this with the fact that the disciples were distracting themselves with a childish and backward arguments about who among them was the greatest student in the kingdom. So Jesus has to do what any good teacher has to do when the students have wandered so far off the path. He shows them just how wrong they are. He has to humble. They disciples were debating who would be second in command in Jesus’s new kingdom. It must have been embarrassing when Jesus asked, “What were you discussing on the way?” (Mark 9:33) Indeed it was embarrassing because the response to His question was the sound of silence. 35 “Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.’ 36 Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, 37 ‘Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.’”
Jesus constructs a sentence wherein He connected the child to Himself, 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 here indicates a child whose age would be somewhere between 4 and 8 years old. At that age most children can do some basic things, like feed themselves, get dressed, understand basic sentences, and the like. But we are still talking about an age when children still need a lot of help just to survive. A 4 to 8 year old is still pretty much helpless in the world.
So here Jesus is teaching that the greatest person is to serve the most helpless as among us. By the way, in matters of salvation we are all the helpless and Jesus is the greatest of all who serves us.
Pay attention here. Jesus is teaching us about the nature of true Christian faith. True Christian faith is humble and kind. It has nothing to do with the modern “gospel” of self-esteem. True faith is loving and patient. True faith is humble.
There are other places in the Gospel when Jesus praises children as models of faith. But here Jesus is teaching His apostles not to be like the child, but rather to receive the child just as they would receive Him. Jesus is calling His apostles to become lower than the smallest child; to be the lowest of the low, last of all, and servant to everyone.
This is a lesson about faithfully serving God by lowering oneself and submitting to His Word and will, no matter how crazy or unassuming or lowly or unsuccessful it may seem. This way of living goes against the grain of everything we learn in a self serving materialistic west of entitlement and success.
Every pastor who has served for a decade or two or three can tell you that there are climbers in the church. There are men and women who want to make it to the top and become president of the congregation or of the guild (no matter the size) so they can have real power, run the things the way they think it ought to be run and get the things they want done, done and changed, changed. Once in office, they do more harm than good to the people they are suppose to serve.
Then there are the ministers, preachers, and “spiritual life coaches” who think that they can show the people by word and example how to become great in the kingdom of God. Instead, of preaching and teaching what God’s Word says about human nature, about sin, about our inability to do or accomplish anything, including and especially faithfulness to the Commandments and will of God, they peddle formulas for success and use methods to create the illusion of faith and emotional well-being.
Take a good serious look at the person, the life, and the work of Jesus in the four Gospels. When it come to doctrine and the problem of self and works- righteousness, Jesus didn’t show partiality to anyone. From the High Priest and Pilate to the rich young man and the misguided crowds that want to make Him a bread king, He spoke the truth, the Law, and condemned them all in their sin.
He didn’t play the diplomat with doctrine. He crushed the wisdom and illusions of men and the traditions of the elders. He was unashamed of the Old Testament doctrine and stories. He was the greatest teacher in all of human history and a miracle worker as God Himself could only be. Yet, when it came to His deal with the lowly and contrite, He was the greatest servant of all. Jesus was and is the greatest of the least of all men.
On the night in which He was betrayed, He washed the filthy feet of the disciples, even the disciple that would deny Him and the disciple who would betray Him.
Jesus continued to serve us when He allowed a band of soldiers to arrest Him, then shame, torture, and crucify Him as He took our sin to Himself to be forsaken by God the Father and to die as the Lamb of God. 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.
He continues to serve us through the Word and ministry of the Church. In the waters of Holy Baptism, He serves and saves the helpless the smallest of all children, the infant and adult alike. He serves us in confession and absolution in proper church services. He comes to us and gives us remission of our sins in the Lord’s Supper and sends us out into the world to love and serve.
This, what we are engaged in right now is called a “worship service.” Unfortunately, the common definitions of worship service focus the attention on the work of the people. In a worship service the people “ honor or reverence a divine being or supernatural power.” That’s why some Christian traditions, ours among them, will often use the phrase “Divine Service.” While the phrase worship service has its focus on what we do here before God, the phrase “Divine Service” focuses our attention on what God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are doing in this place for us. He is hearing our confession of sins and He forgiving, absolving us of our sins. He is washing us with Holy Baptism. He is giving Himself to us in Holy Communion.
Jesus, the greatest, serves us who are the most helpless … helpless in sin and facing death. The highest form of God-pleasing service is to simply receive and give thanks for His undeserved grace, mercy, and peace. These are all given to us in His spoken Word, in the Water and the Word, and body and blood. It is here where God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit focus on you and where the Almighty is at His lowest and very best.
May the peace that surpasses all understanding keep our minds and hearts in Christ Jesus. Amen.