“Who is First?”
Mark 9: 30-37, September 23rd, 2018
Sermon by pastor Tim Woodard
“Hear now these words of scripture from the gospel according to Mark, chapter nine, verses thirty thru thirty-seven.”
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
“Having listened to these ancient words from the gospel of Mark, let us now open our hearts to what these words say to us now in this time and place.”
“Who is First?”
Often, as I choose our scripture lessons each week, I do so out of what is called the common lectionary; a listing of scriptures that lead us and pastor’s like myself week by week through the Biblical text in a systematic rhythm. This is done so that over the course of three years we can reflect on all the primary lessons and stories of the Bible. This is a good discipline for pastors who desire to teach and encourage others to explore the mysteries of the Bible. The drawback is that many scripture lessons are difficult, and it takes a great deal of effort and or creativity to see how they pertain to our lives here in the Twenty-First Century. I want to assure you, that given a challenge or a reason, I would preach on most any text of the Bible, if I thought it could more directly assist you in your faith journey in a more plain-spoken way. Consequently, I am inviting you: “To write down a question about (the) your faith, God, or the Bible (any verse of the Bible,) of which you wonder about.” /David Lose/ If there is something. A topic you want me to discuss in a sermon, go ahead and write it down. Pass it to me in writing so that I can be sure to grasp all that you are asking. I promise to grapple with any question you raise; then pray about it and do the very best I can to cast some light upon it for you.
Let us now bow our heads and join our hearts in prayer. Heavenly God of Mystery and Grace, open the eyes of our hearts and our very souls as we ponder and consider our scripture lesson this morning. We ask that you might please shine a light ‘upon the message’ that has been hidden within these ancient words. Words which were transcribed from the accounts of an oral tradition for several decades before being put into writing. Words, upon which many have put their faith in the hands of ancient transcriptions and subsequent translations into English… seeking to fully grasp the Spirit’s stirring within their hearts. As they, like we, seek nourishment for our journeys of faith this day. In your mystical and ancient name, we pray. Amen.
This morning’s lesson is one of four choices I had from the lectionary, as it is called, for me to choose from. Consequently, as we now turn to the message for this morning, our challenge is to see how we can turn this dialogue into a modern-day issue or problem that you need help resolving. Of course, we must consider its core meaning first, taking into consideration the context of a time which has long since passed, into the archives of ancient history. We begin by hearing that Jesus has started explaining that he shall sacrifice himself through his death, yet he shall rise from the grave. Surprisingly, we do not hear a conversation about their shock and or dismay surrounding what Jesus has said. (Perhaps they simply didn’t comprehend what he was saying.) Rather we are taken directly into a conversation about the disciples arguing about who is the greatest among them. In response Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” /Mark 9:35/ The irony here is so blatant that most of us perhaps do not see the connection. Let us see if we can see the contrast of this ancient conversation as it reflects into our own lives today.
Ultimately, Jesus is rebuking the disciples for their argument about who shall be the greatest. Let us pause here for a moment and consider a modern parallel. Have you ever witnessed a couple of children, who have chosen to spend time together? After a short time, they start to compete as they play. Surely you have witnessed this! Many games are set up to be competitive in nature, so this is actually… quite normal. Even as adults we still enjoy games that are competitive in nature, as we test our skills to see who has mastered the skills necessary to win in the competition. Competition or a healthy rivalry in of itself is good. We live in a democracy and free enterprise is the norm. In such a society as ours, competition, competitiveness is what helps us as consumers get cheaper and better products. Sports like football, baseball, basketball and of course golf, are very competitive in nature as well. If they were not what would be the point? So, being challenged to win or ‘be better than’ and excel, thus outdoing others… is something most of us, at least in our culture thrive on. Yet, based on the reprimand from Jesus, upon the disciples, we can assume that ‘at least in the heart and teachings of Jesus’ competition is not always appropriate. We can easily see that this is true in our society, even today. Although there are a great many whom do not see this as true.
Competition in games is quite alright. Competition in commerce, business, is good in a free enterprise system. On this, I believe we all agree. Yet, even in sports there are limitations. In a recent tennis match we learned that biases from umpires or disrespect of the rules of play by a competitor are improper and usually not tolerated. Well, let us say, that in our journeys of faith it is God whom sets the rules. And to complete our little allegory here let us make Jesus the umpire in the scene. The disciples were pushing the boundaries of faithful students following the lead of their teacher, Jesus. Perhaps they had heard Jesus say that one day he would die! Then they possibly were debating whom would take the lead as they endeavored to carry on the ministry and teachings of Jesus. Yet, Jesus saw this as another learning opportunity. In this narrative Jesus is the Umpire, but also, he is the Captain of the team and the Narrator of what followers of Jesus were to be like; if they truly wanted to follow him! Therefore, Jesus told them that the discuss about who was the greatest: was wrong and out of sync with what his message.
In our time-period we put the prime responsibility upon parents to teach their children the rules of the narrative of life. Some do this quite well and others seem to have skipped a class in learning to be parents. Take a moment and consider what is important to you or what has been important to how you have interacted with those under your care. As parents, many believe teaching love, kindness and respect, are some attributes that are high on the priority list for parents to pass on to the next generation, under their care and guidance. Others would add or put high priority on teaching the importance of caring for oneself, stressing health care and proper exercise routines. Still others would emphasize education, consisting of study habits – highlighting reading and writing skills. Others may focus on “the Golden Rule;” “doing unto others as you would want others to do unto you.” Perhaps as Christian leaders and teachers we might want to stress the teachings where compassion and justice are lifted-up; placing God in the number one spot in our lives. And this list can go on and on never-ending and vast. Clearly, every culture, race and creed have a bit of bias into which has first-priority. I am certain, as I look upon those of us here gathered, that we have an array of opinions, upon which we could share with one another – gleaning many and various lists of priorities.
Continuing the point which Jesus is making to his disciples, if we, like the early disciples, want to follow in the example and teachings of the man Jesus, the ‘adopted’ son of a carpenter and the ‘Chosen One’ of God: to be the Messiah; to be the Liberator and Savior; of all the children of God, we might need to adjust our thinking accordingly. As Christians, whom follow in Christ’s shadow, led by the Holy Spirit, we may need to set aside the norms of competition and realize that in winning the game of life we may lose in the eyes of God and thus be shut out of the Kingdom of Heaven! Clearly, Jesus was saying unto his early disciples, if you want entrance into my Kingdom, if you want to be considered winners, you will need to go to the back of the line, the back of the room; and you may need to do this more than once, and at inconvenient moments as well. Winners in heaven are the ones who give up their positions of power and influence… to stay behind, and make sure that even the weakest and smallest of God’s children are cared for. “Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” /Mark 9: 35/ The rules of competition are set aside when we do the work of God in the name of Jesus the Christ!
“The two conditions of true greatness are humility and service; not to be the servant of friends, or kindred, or of a class, or even of church members, but of all, like Christ.” /B.W. Johnson/ Some quotes are timeless, as is the one I just said aloud. B.W. Johnson was a theologian in the Eighteenth-Century. His words and interpretations of the teachings of Jesus’ ring true today as surely as the words of Jesus still have impact on our choices and decisions here in the Twenty-First Century. Humility and service, not power and dominance are the catch words that capture how a disciple of Christ is meant to interact with others. If we are willing to become humble, allowing our personal pride and ego to take a backseat, when traveling upon the journey of faith, if we do this with a sincere desire to be kind and loving to those we meet along the way, then surely, we will be following in the teachings of Jesus the Christ. If we put service to others first on our action lists, if we do so willingly and in Christian love we will be utterly amazed at the results. As we examine who is first in the eyes of God, let us remember this teaching of Jesus as he interacted and instructed his early disciples: This is not a competition, this is to be a journey of faith which puts the needs of others ahead of our own.