Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sermon on Mark 9:30-37, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost. "Kingdom of Paradoxes"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s sermon from the Gospel reading will look at a few paradoxes in the kingdom of God. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

First we need to define what a paradox is: it’s when a truth or an event is contrary to what we would believe or expect. A famous paradoxical statement is “at the beginning of Dickens Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’” Truth is remarkably often found in paradox. A paradox is not the same as a contradiction. It’s when things appear to contradict, but in fact do not. The Christian faith has many paradoxes: Jesus being true God and true man at the same time. That God is Three Persons, yet only One God. That we’re at the same time saints and sinners. Paradox is also reflected in science and nature. Light is described both as an electromagnetic wave, but also as a particle or photon. Paradoxes are when two things seem to exclude each other. It seems that light could not be both wave and particle. It seems that Jesus could not be both God and man at the same time. But each of these paradoxes are true. They give an accurate explanation of the way things are.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus begins to teach His disciples of the paradox of His coming death and resurrection. Seemingly contradictory truths. He was going to be betrayed and killed. But in three days He would rise. They were afraid to question this paradox. But while Jesus was trying to teach them about the importance of His coming sacrificial death, and about the way of humility and service, they were arguing among themselves about superiority and greatness! Isn’t it like that with us? God wants us to learn about the centrality of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, and understand how it impacts all our lives—and we’re focused instead on how to get ahead of everyone else, and getting the glory and power.

We struggle and push for influence, recognition, power, greatness—you name it. We have to be first in everything. Something as simple as cutting in line is a reflection of that attitude. People don’t tend to fight their way to the back of long lines at the airport, bank, or supermarket. At first I thought that there wasn’t even an English word for the opposite of cutting in line to get ahead...but I realized there is: courtesy. Courtesy goes against our inborn nature.

There’s another way this thirst to get ahead expresses itself. It’s called narcissism. Narcissism is an excessive focus on yourself. It’s being self-centered or egocentric. It’s the sin of love that revolves around itself. True love is directed outward to someone else. But our sinful nature is curved in on itself, and we love ourselves more than anything else. A recent book by psychologists Dr. Jean Twenge & Dr. Keith Campbell called “The Narcissism Epidemic,” warns how this is becoming a major problem in America, and the serious consequences at hand. When she spoke to college audiences, she was amazed to hear how readily the college students admitted they were narcissistic. She was even more surprised they defended it—almost always giving the reason that “they had to be” because everything is so competitive. So they reasoned that if a little self-esteem is good, then a lot of self-esteem (read: overconfidence) would be great!

But the students were equally shocked to learn from her studies that successful people are rarely overconfident of themselves, and sometimes even doubted their own abilities. They were surprised to learn that being modest, humble, and realistic about your abilities can actually make you more successful, because you often work harder at things. Another paradox. But it has a similar lesson to what Jesus was teaching the disciples. It’s not all about me. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus directed His disciples away from their narcissism and self-centeredness to think of others, and be of service to others. To place yourself last, and be a servant of all. I imagine next week I will hear someone say, “Pastor! I got stuck in the grocery line for 2 hours one day, because I kept moving to the back of the line to allow others ahead of me!” But seriously, the attitude of putting yourself first in everything, and seeking power and control, is quite the opposite of how the kingdom of God works.

The paradox that Jesus teaches His disciples here is that the first will be the last and the servant of all. In a similar passage from Matthew, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3-4). Here we’re pushing, competing, driving to get ahead, just like the disciples wanted to be considered the greatest—and Jesus wants us to understand His servant-like death on the cross for our sins. He wants us to understand how true greatness is not found in the things we’re chasing after, but in lowliness and humble service.

So Jesus takes a child in His arms to teach the disciples an object lesson. Here Jesus finds greatness in the kingdom of God. Here is how one is to enter the kingdom. Receive a child in Jesus name, and He says we also receive Christ and the Father who sent Him. Today we receive Elijah Apuna into Christ’s name in Holy Baptism. With water and God’s Word, the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is placed on him. Why does Jesus place such great importance on a child? When the disciples are arguing about greatness, why does Jesus point to a child? A child is comparatively weak and defenseless to an adult, they’re only beginning to learn. They don’t have authority or power. They’re dependent on their parents. Sounds a lot like our position in relation to God. In relation to God we’re weak and defenseless, only beginning to learn or understand the faith, and we don’t have power or authority over God. The posture and position of a child is to be our own posture before God. We’re His children.

As His children, we learn to appreciate and receive His gifts. Not to demand them, earn them, or compete for them. But pure receptiveness. When a child receives baptism, it’s a pure gift. They contributed nothing to their baptism, to God’s gift. We’re to understand our baptism the same way, if we were baptized as an adult. We’re to see our baptism as Jesus showed us the greatest in the kingdom of heaven…a child. We contributed nothing to it, whether as a child or an adult. God is the sole purchaser and giver of this gift, and it comes undeserved to His sinful children. God blesses this child with the gift of salvation, forgiveness, and life through Jesus Christ. The baptism of a child shows how we receive good gifts from God’s hand. Not something we grab or take for ourselves, but a totally free gift.

It’s a paradox that God would work in this way. Our intellect demands that we somehow have a part in earning it or working for it. All of our life is based on this kind of thinking. It’s the knowledge of the law that is common to every person. We work for what we get. But the Gospel is a totally different word from God—a word that reveals God’s gracious working for us. It doesn’t fit our way of thinking. The Gospel is contrary to what we believe or expect. That I, a poor, miserable sinner, can be completely forgiven of all my sins and stand as innocent in God’s eyes, because of what Jesus did? Seems impossible!

But this is just the reason why Jesus became last of all and a servant for us. This is why God Himself took the last and lowest place—for us. Jesus did not seek honor in the way of the world. He had a rightful claim to all power, glory, and dominion—unlike us. He could have lorded His power and authority over everyone. Rather He gave Himself over to suffer and die on the cross, giving His life up to the hands of sinful men. He considered the needs of others more important than His own. He counted our lives worth more than His own, and so redeemed them with His precious blood. Consider what a mess we’d be in if Jesus had been a narcissist. He never would’ve died for us, or suffered on our behalf. He would’ve only been concerned for Himself, and had little concern for the sick, for those who pleaded for His help and healing.

But Jesus was just the opposite. He thought of everyone before Himself. He knew what was in mankind to make us as we are…the selfishness, greed, rivalry and ambition. But He put Himself in the way of all that, to absorb it into Himself. Like sucking snake poison from a wound, He drew all the venom of sin into Himself so that in His death, He thrust our sins into the grave with tremendous force and finality! The crashing weight of sin bruised His heel, but He crushed the old serpent’s head, so that in His death, sin could rise no more. For those who enter His kingdom by His gift of faith, for those who by baptism are joined to His name, sin cannot accuse us any longer. We’ve repented and turned from the sin that turned us in on ourselves. Jesus straightened out the bent circle of self-love that revolved around ourselves and our own success. He points that love upward and outward. Upward to our God who sent His beloved Son, and outward to the neighbor who’s in need of our love. Love conquered on Easter morning, and Jesus, the one who became last and servant of all, became the first: the First-Born from the dead (Acts 26:23). He who is the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega, will one day gladly receive all believers into His arms, as His beloved children. Come, children of God, come to His kingdom. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. What is a paradox? Name some common examples. Why do we have difficulty believing or grasping paradoxes? What are some paradoxes in the Christian faith?

2. What is wrong with the disciples’ (and our) pursuit of greatness? Cf. Mark 10:35-45. Matt. 18:1-7

3. How is narcissism present in our lives? What are examples of self-centered thoughts and behavior in our own lives? Listen to an interview with Dr. Jean Twenge at: http://www.issuesetc.org/podcast/278072209H2S2.mp3
Or the August 2, 2009 episode on www.whitehorseinn.org

4. What paradox did Jesus teach about greatness? Cf. Phil. 2:5-11

5. Why is a child such a good picture of how God desires us to receive the kingdom of God? Of what kind of posture we have before God?

6. How did Jesus’ life show that He was anything but a narcissist? What are the implications for how and what He did for us?

7. How does Christ change or redirect our love?

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