Monday, October 1, 2012

Sermon -- 18th Sunday after Pentecost (September 30, 2012)

MARK 9:30–37

In the name + of Jesus.

     The twelve apostles walked along the road and debated which of them was the greatest.  It may have begun innocently enough – perhaps with one of the apostles telling a story about the time when Jesus had sent them to the area villages to preach and to heal and to drive out demons.  But it is the nature of people to want to tell a better story, to one-up the last person’s story.  However it began, it continued for a while on the road.  The apostles took turns, each one making his claim.  Who is the best preacher?  Who healed the blind more often?  Who drove out the most violent demon?  Who understands Jesus’ parables the best?  Who had the most listeners when he traveled in the villages?  They told their stories.  They flaunted their resumes.  Each one made his claim for why he was the greatest of Jesus’ disciples.
     It is not hard to understand why this conversation happened.  We love our lists.  Sports junkies live for debating these things.  Who was the greatest running back?  You’ll get a different answer in Cleveland and in Chicago than you’ll get in Detroit.  Historians debate who was the greatest president.  Was it Washington or Lincoln?  Why?  Tell someone that Sleeping Bear Dunes is the most beautiful place in America and get ready for a number of people offering their rebuttal.  There is always a debate ready to be had once we start talking about who or what is the greatest.
     Now, debates can be fun.  But do not have them in front of Jesus.  The apostles were debating who was the greatest among Jesus’ disciples.  How could they determine that?  By who did the most works.  By who was the most devout.  By who had the best story.  By who could make the most convincing claim.  It all came to a sudden and painful end when Jesus asked them a simple question: “What were you discussing on the way?” (Mark 9:33)  This question killed all conversation.  Every mouth was silent because they had nothing to say before Jesus. 
     Perhaps you also consider your faith or your deeds or your place in God’s kingdom.  And perhaps, like the apostles, you also consider how great you are and where you rank compared to other Christians.  While you may not engage in debate with fellow Christians about these things, you play the game in your mind.  How much am I doing compared to others?  Do they notice how devoted I am?  Do they see that I have kept myself more chaste than others?  I have served on more committees.  I have been here on more Sundays.  I don’t cheat at work or lie on my taxes.  I may not be the greatest Christian, but surely I am better than others.
     Or perhaps you feel like you don’t count as a real Christian.  You hear others talk about their accomplishments and their service.  Someone served on a mission trip.  Someone volunteers in a soup kitchen.  Someone donates to charities.  Others serve for years as Sunday School teachers or sing in the choir.  You begin to think, “I don’t do anything.  What a lousy Christian I must be.”
     Our Lord does not grade on a curve.  The apostles may have boasted to one another, but when Jesus asked, “What were you discussing on the way?” (Mark 9:33), they had nothing to say.  Likewise, you can play the game in your mind about how you rank versus others in the kingdom of God.  But before the Lord, you have nothing to say.  For this is what the Lord says: We know whatever the Law says it speaks … so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. (Romans 3:19)  Like the apostles, you can only fall silent before the Lord.  What great things shall you boast about before him?  That you did what you were supposed to do?  You can’t even say that, can you?  Sure, you may be able to claim that you behave better than others.  It isn’t hard to find the worst in others and commend yourself for being better than that.  But that is not the standard.  The standard is this: You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48) 
     (Jesus) 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)  Jesus’ reply makes us chafe.  In our world, greatness means that other people serve ME.  In the kingdom of God, serving others is far greater.  We not only fail to do that, we don’t want to.  We fear being taken advantage of.  We avoid people who cannot pay us back.  And yet, we believe that we are great.  If we believe that we are great, we believe we have earned that status.  Then we also believe that we have earned something from God for our service.  Do not believe the lie. You and I are sinners who think we are great, but we are only great at being sinners.  Repent. 
     Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of God?  If you must have an answer to that question, it is Jesus Christ.  Although he is God Almighty, he came into this world and made himself nothing.  He made himself the least of all, assuming the guilt and the curse for our sinful pride and boasting.  He was the least of all – cursed by God on high for the sins of the entire world.  He was despised and rejected by men.  He was banished and damned by God the Father.  He was the least of all, for he died with the greatest guilt – the guilt of all mankind clinging to him.
     He who is the greatest served as least of all.  Jesus Christ was the servant of all.  He did not suffer and die for his own glory – although he is glorified through this.  There is no greater way that God has demonstrated his love for sinners than in taking on flesh and suffering and dying for them, the Righteous One for all the unrighteous ones.  Jesus came as the servant of all.  Jesus did not serve people because they are worthy.  He served as the Savior of scoundrels, villains, criminals, derelicts, and addicts.  Jesus served people who would betray him, deny him, mock him, and fight against him.  Jesus served people who would vow to serve him but then be unfaithful to him … again and again.  Jesus’ service has never hinged on how people would treat him.  Jesus was the servant of all because all people needed his service.  Jesus lived for all, suffered for all, died for all, and rose for all.  And he did this so that all could find forgiveness, salvation, comfort, and peace through him.  He who is the greatest served as the least.
     Dear Christian, he still serves you.  He who took his disciples aside so that he could teach them still speaks to his disciples.  And he tells you the same things: He dies and rises for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  He calls you to be the servants of all, reflecting God’s love and doing great things in your service to others.  He calls you to put aside all petty jealousy, envy, and games in which you compare and elevate yourself above others.  How could you?  Jesus Christ has made you children of the Most High God.  What could you possibly do to make yourself greater than that?
     He who is greatest serves as the least.  Jesus Christ always lives and reigns to serve you.  He comforts, encourages, and consoles.  Before him, you fall silent; for you have nothing to say, nothing to boast about.  But in your silence, you get to hear him speak.  He assures you that through his sufferings and death, your debts have been paid.  Your status has been changed.  You are children of the Most High God.  And there is nothing greater.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.