“Who is the Greatest?”

Mark 9:30-37, September 19th, 2021

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard

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“Listen carefully to this lesson taken from the ninth chapter of the gospel according to Mark, verses thirty thru thirty-seven.”

Mark 9:30-37

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 heard the words and the teaching of this lesson, how do you see your role in the church as you follow in the examples set by Christ Jesus?”

“Who is the Greatest?”

Here we are in the end of September and our lesson this morning has Jesus discussing his own death.  “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.” /Mark 9:31/ Can you imagine how upsetting this must have been to hear!?  It must have been hard enough to follow Jesus around, relying completely on others for their physical wellbeing, but to hear him talk of his own death was frightening.  It wasn’t like they were getting paid good wages.  Yet, they must have been at awe with all the things Jesus was accomplishing as he ministered to the gathered crowds that sought him out, to hear him speak; and of course, the miracles which he performed spread like wildfire throughout the region.   The disciples have been traveling around the area with Jesus, and they were enthralled with all that Jesus did and spoke.  Then, their Teacher, their Master starts talking to them about his betrayal and death; then some seemingly foolish talk about being raised from death after three days.  As they traveled that day they were clearly upset, confused and even afraid because of his words.  They did not dare ask Jesus about this.  So, what did they do, they began to quarrel amongst themselves regarding who was the greatest among them?  As the words of Jesus proclamation that he was to be killed, they perhaps were beginning to worry about who would lead them after Jesus died.  How very human of them!  

David Lose, the Senior Pastor of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN) shares his thoughts on this message. “I think this week’s reading is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith.”  It is reasonable to think – most of us would be fearful if our beloved leader announced he was going to be killed; and surely, we would be totally confused by the reference to being raised from the dead after three days!  The fear, the confusion and the disease of the disciples is easy to grasp.  On the other hand, the faith piece of this conversation clearly comes from our overall understanding of who Jesus was.  Our scripture passage is simply giving us a glimpse into the human side of hearing Jesus talk about what was to come.  It is one thing to be here considering the words, the teachings and the life and death of Jesus and their implications; yet it is a whole other thing to ‘actually’ be there like the disciples were.  However, in essence, we are there.  For here is there and there is here!  It is not a riddle.  We look to the scriptures, because life is hard, and our mortality tells us our human lives will come to an end.  It is hard to swallow and can be very disconcerting at times.  This scripture is pushing us to consider how, how we humans, like the disciples, are to embrace Jesus – without being fearful of life, as it can be and as it truly is – at times!

Faith is the answer.  Easy sentences to write and read to you.  Hard to live into, especially when we are feeling very human.  Fear, worry and or doubt can easily creep in.  Faith, now faith is a tricky little word, which has all sorts of implications connected to it!  Faith is believing in something we cannot see, taste, or touch.  We are taught one thing in science class at school, and faith tells us something different!  Faith tells us to, put our trust in something other than the hard cold scientific realities that our society puts large stock in!  There are many, a great many, that have no faith whatsoever in the unknown.  They demand factual proof before they will believe.  And yes, there are those that still won’t believe something that has been affirmed as true, over, and over, again.  Ever since the beginning of time, the notion of putting one’s trust in the unknow, the unseen has been conflicting and it still is.  Yet, this is what faith asks of us.  It is such a priceless and precious thing, even though this faith thing is – utterly mystical.  Without faith in Jesus as, more than a mere mortal man, what are we left with?  He is a trained carpenter from Nazareth.  He became an immigrant in his youth when his life was threatened and his family fled to Egypt; some would say they became exiled there, until it was safe to return to his homeland.  And his hometown ran him out of town, when he was an adult, as he read scripture from the Prophet Izaiah saying, “the prophesy had been fulfilled in his reading”.  (Thus, suggesting he was the ‘Long awaited Messiah’!)  Taking things on faith alone is really very hard for a vast number of people!      

Daniel B. Clendenin, teacher, and writer, asks: “What would our lives look like if we really believed and acted on these words of Jesus?”  Now there is a question which has the potential of changing lives!  What would happen to a nonbeliever if they simply took at face value something recorded in scripture ‘as something said, or was done by Jesus’?  I know, a nonbeliever demands proof first, but stay with this thought for a moment.  I know that this is hard, as most of us here are true believers.  What if, we just asked someone to get down on their knees and ask an unknown Deity, (something which we cannot prove scientifically,) and asked that unknown for help – only because they trusted in you or me.  Maybe we could appeal to their curiosity and urge them not to reject, or have ‘contempt for the idea, out of hand, prior to investigation.’  My goodness where have I heard that said before? (Original author unknow.)  If one was to convince someone to try this, in their doing so, we shall have proven they are not truly an Atheist, for an Atheist does not believe in the unknow, but the one that gives it a try, has believed in the one whom asked them to try.  Already, you are perhaps starting to grasp how powerful even a ‘mustard seed’ of faith can do!  So, let’s take the challenge of Professor Daniel B. Clendenin.  Let’s go to that next step and consider if we, me and you, professed believers were to consider “What would our lives look like ‘if’ we really believed and acted on these words of Jesus?”    

Consider – we were the disciples that day.  Perhaps we wouldn’t have gotten into an argument with the ‘Teacher’ for prophesying that he would be betrayed and killed but would rise again on the third day.  If we have even the tiniest spec of faith in Jesus, which as disciples we would and do have, would we not have turned to Jesus and asked him to help us understand the meaning of his words, rather then pull away in fear?  The past year and a half have been tough and tens of thousands have died due to this pandemic thing!  We know what is hard about ‘real life stuff!”  The life of those that followed Jesus knew “real life stuff” too, and it was hard times for a great many.  They could have pulled away, ran away and deserted Jesus long before he was arrested if they didn’t trust and believe in him, at least a little.  We would have fled this church and all it stands for when we realized we couldn’t be sure that we could make it through this tough time if there had not been a bit of faith lefty in our hearts.  If we had given up, if the disciples had given up on Jesus and chose fear instead of faith, what would have come of the Jesus story, or what would have come of the Riviera United Church of Christ?

Reverend Dr. Cheryl Lindsay offers us several ‘focus’ questions for us to consider regarding greatness as we continue our discussion.  Remember it was the topic the disciples went off to discuss rather than confront and speak with Jesus about what was on their hearts and in their minds.  Her questions are found in the “Weekly Seeds,” a service provided by Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ.  Let’s start with a simple review of what do we, what do you consider greatness?  Is greatness a social status which is propped up with power, prestige, and financial gain?  If this is true only a few achieve such a status.  Names like Alexander the Great come to mind.  He resided in Greece and became a great king in the Fourth Century Before Christ.  Or do we consider greatness like the Man Moses, believed to be the leader of a slave people who were led out of Egypt.  He is said to have put all his trust and faith in the unknown mystical God of the Israelites.  Have you achieved greatness?  What God have you put your trust in to achieve greatness?  Do you know others who have achieved greatness?  I consider my Grandfather Dixon, Rev Dixon one of the greats.  He dies poor in wealth and power, yet he was beloved by those he served over the span of his life.  His memory still lives in my heart and in many of those he helped with his ministry.  No, he is not in the history books used in classrooms.  Just a stone with his name etched on it with the dates of his birth and death. 

What would it take for you to achieve the peak of your life?  Would that be considered greatness?  How shall we measure our own greatness?  Perhaps you are the grandparent that thinks the love that flows from your grandson or granddaughter is the peak, the greatest part of your great life.  How do we achieve greatness in the eyes of society?  Sure, there are a lot of perks to such a life.  The question needing answer is: have you or shall you achieve it while still putting your trust in God – as your ‘first’ priority?  It is possible.  Many have done so.  How does that compare to how God, how the Spiritual world views greatness?  That is a complex question, best left to another sermon.  Rather, for now, let us look to the life of Jesus, how do we see his greatness?  Do we see Jesus’ life as a ‘mere mortal’, or do we attach holiness to the gifts of Jesus’ selflessness which he showed throughout his earthly journey?  Has our tiny faith and trust, mushroomed into a central part of our lives as we begin to feel the power of God’s influence in our lives?  Have you found yourself intuitively knowing the will of God as you spend more and more of your life serving God and the people of God?  We could expound on this as well, yet we may wish to set this aside and consider how we might become “Servant Leaders,” through God’s grace and mercy within our lives.  Let us not forget Jesus’ final words to the Disciples regarding their argument as to who was the greatest among them.  “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/

Amen.

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