Monday, September 21, 2015

Sermon on Mark 9:30-37, 17th Sunday after Pentecost, "From childish to childlike"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today in our Gospel reading from Mark chapter 9, there is a strong contrast set up between Jesus teaching His disciples about His coming death on the cross, and His resurrection—and a petty argument the disciples fall into on their journey along the road. The contrast is between the way of humility that Jesus Himself lived, and the way of selfish ambition or self-promotion and rivalry, that the disciples were acting out in their little argument.
Like children “caught in the act” of doing something they know is wrong, Jesus called out the disciples, who were arguing with each other about who was the greatest. We don’t know quite how it went down. But we do know from other arguments, that they wanted to gain the highest authority and respect in Jesus’ kingdom. We know how it goes—we’re familiar with how people compete for position, for advantage, for recognition, or for power. In a way, it’s very childish and petty—but maybe we should really say it is “adult-ish” because, more often than not, we as adults are the ones who behave this way. People act out this kind of rivalry and self-promotion by pushing other people down or out of the way, by hurting other people’s reputations through gossip or lies, or by manipulating to gain power or advantage. It was that old, familiar tendency toward rivalry that drew the disciples of Jesus into this argument with each other.
Our 2nd reading for today, from James, paints the ugly picture of selfish living. Jealousy, fights, disorder, and worse come from it. But to live by God’s wisdom from above, is to be pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. This was just the thing at stake, when Jesus had this wonderful little “teachable moment” with His disciples. They were on track for the path of jealousy and quarrelling, and the ugly things it leads to. Jesus steers them toward His better way—the way He Himself walked.
If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Not a way of “getting ahead”. Not the path for worldly fame or achievement. But the way of greatness in God’s kingdom, by God’s measure. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Being “last” usually means “failure” in our everyday language. But here, being “last of all and servant of all” means to put others before you. To think of the needs of others, instead of putting yourself first. Serving others, happens when you helping and caring for each other; not when you push your way ahead of them, or ignore them. God’s way of being “first” and of finding greatness in His kingdom, is by being a servant to all.  
Jesus continues His point by taking a child, holding him in His arms, and saying, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” What does a child teach us about the call to be “last of all and servant of all?” Children are dependent on their parents. Infants and toddlers need you for almost everything. Feeding, clothing, diapering, washing, reading, and all around caring. Their very life depends on us receiving them, welcoming them, and serving them. Gradually they grow and gain greater and greater degrees of independence.
But rather than being overcome with selfishness that our children need so much from us, we should give thanks that God has given them, and that our children turn to us for help, for love, for their needs to be provided. What more beautiful thing than to nurture and raise a wonderfully made child? You can shape their life for good; see that they become faithful followers of Jesus, and generous and kind servants to their neighbors. If God has called you to be a parent, He has called you to serve your children in this wonderful way. Their needs draw on your love, compassion, and support.
Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” To receive a child in Jesus’ name is to welcome that child for Jesus. Jesus disciples, on another occasion, got upset when people were bringing their infants to Jesus to hold and bless them. They felt Jesus was too busy and had more important things to do. They were not welcoming these eager parents and their children to Jesus. They tried to turn them away. But Jesus scolded His disciples. He welcomed the children, and said the kingdom of God belongs to children like these. So welcome the children for Jesus’ sake. Give thanks to God for the blessing of children—whether they are yours or somebody else’s. A welcome reception of children for Jesus’ sake, shows you are right at the heart of Jesus and of God the Father. Jesus came to us in just such a humble way, as a child. God sent Jesus to rescue us who were lost, and to give us a place in His family. He came through lowliness and humble service. Rejecting this is rejecting God’s own way.
So bring your children to Jesus, so He can bless them. Bringing your children to Emmanuel Lutheran School is an excellent way that they get to hear about God’s love and what He has done for us in Jesus Christ. Bringing your children to church every Sunday, wherever your church home is—or here, if you need one—gives them an opportunity to grow in their faith and knowledge of God our heavenly Father. Not to mention you as well!
When Jesus addressed His disciples on that occasion, He also said that in order for them to enter the kingdom of heaven, they must receive it as little children. People always joke about never growing up, or about keeping their “inner child” alive. Mostly they mean don’t lose your sense of fun, playfulness, or curiosity. But here, in a very real and significant way, God wants us to remain “child-like.” Not “childish”—fighting about petty things with selfishness or rivalry—but “childlike”. Having the simplicity of trust in Him, and placing our worries and troubles in His capable hands. Having a humility that doesn’t need to seek a place above everyone else, but is content to simply receive. Being totally dependent on God. While our children largely grow out of their dependence on us when they are old—we never outgrow our dependence on God. In fact, we always remain as dependent children, looking to God for His free grace, love and favor.
Unfortunately, even when we want the best for our children, so often we struggle with setting a good example in the lives of our children. They learn by imitation to follow our example—even when we regret it. They imitate our speech, our emotions, and our actions—especially when they are bad—much to our dismay. Saying “Do as I say, not as I do” is a poor cover for our bad behavior. Our actions usually speak louder than words. But what do we do if this is true of us? You certainly aren’t looking for more pressure, as if that would help. We aren’t proud of our failures, and don’t want to hear about them. But like a student who is struggling to understand, we need to see and understand our failures if we are to learn and overcome them. So where is the learning? Where is the overcoming?
Jesus was such a patient teacher with His disciples. He didn’t let them escape the hard lessons, but He stuck with them and loved them through each lesson. Jesus does the same for us. He’s not going to leave us stuck with our failures, but is patient to love and teach us, if we’ll listen. This lesson for His disciples wasn’t really going to sink in completely for several months. Not until Jesus’ actions spoke so loud and clear, and His words were just a few dying gasps. The lesson I’m talking about, the lesson Jesus gave His disciples, when they were so caught up in measuring their own greatness, was about His coming death on the cross. There were blank stares in the disciples’ eyes when He said: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” Delivered into the hands of men? Killed? After three days, he will rise?
They didn’t understand. They must have thought Jesus was talking in riddles. Who’s trying kill you? You are going to rise? Three days? They hid the fact that they didn’t understand Jesus. But then came that incredible weekend when all His teaching crystallized and made sense. When the light came on. The weekend when Jesus’ actions spoke louder—or at least as loud—as His Words. I say that because Jesus’ few words were tremendous on the day that He died. In the midst of suffering and dying on the cross, He spoke awesome words, just as His emotions and actions were incredibly powerful as well. He was nailed to a cross, an awful instrument of torture. And His words spoke forgiveness: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His words spoke of completion: “It is finished!” His words spoke of life to a dying man who dared to trust in Jesus: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” So Jesus’ words and actions did not compete or conflict with each other, but were in perfect sync. And actions were the living shape of those words.
He had completed what He came for. He died on the cross, forsaken and alone, to pay the price for our sin. For all our selfishness, rivalry, fighting, self-promotion and pride, for our unkind thoughts, words, and actions. For all the good things that we didn’t do when we could have. Jesus died for those sins too. He humbly took the last place, and became the servant of all, by suffering in our place on the cross. All of our need fell completely upon His love, forgiveness, and compassion. And now it was finished. His Rescue was a success. But it wasn’t over! Three days later, on Sunday, Jesus rose, just as He told the disciples. Lights of understanding slowly started to come on. Words and actions were meshing together and making sense. Jesus was living out His servant way of life to the fullest extent possible, becoming our ransom, our Savior. And now He was alive again. Jesus conquered death and the grave, walking out of the stone cold tomb alive and in the flesh.
In other words, the servant way of humility and self-sacrifice, that Jesus lived and died, and now lives again—that servant way of Jesus—is God’s victory over our sin. So where does this leave us? We have a gracious and loving Lord Jesus, who sacrificed Himself in our place, for much more than just errors in judgment, our failures, or little mistakes. He is the Savior who has forgiven our every sin. Who has taken our every act of rebellion and disobedience toward God, and paid for it at His cross. The Savior who took all of our hurts and the wrongs that we have done to others into Himself, and endured the just penalty for us on the cross. But sin and death did not defeat Him. It did not end Him. So the story is not over and His forgiveness comes to you. He rose to a new life, and promises to raise you also.
Learning from your sins and failures and finding His forgiveness, is what Jesus does best. He has overcome our sin, and He promises us that we can live in Him by faith. It doesn’t matter if you are a parent or not a parent, a child or adult. Jesus did what He did, so that He could set you free from whatever sins are present in your life. Jesus creates a living relationship with us. So God would be your Father, and that you would turn to Him as naturally for love as children do to their parents. The openness and trust of that relationship to God, is to be mirrored in our reception and welcome of children. This is how Jesus redeems us from our sins, and teaches us to walk child-like, in full dependency, in His servant way. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      In Mark 9:30-37, Jesus found a “teachable moment” with His disciples. What is the contrast between the way that the world seeks after greatness, and the way in which Jesus says that greatness comes in the kingdom of God?
2.      What is the result of “rivalry and selfish ambition” in our pursuit to get ahead of others? See James 3:14-16; 4:1-4. Why does this bring out the worst in our human nature?
3.      By way of illustrating His way of humility, Jesus takes a child into His lap. What does the example of a child teach us about the way the kingdom of God should be received? What does it teach about the way we should be? Mark 10:13-16
4.      How do we “receive a child” in Jesus’ name? Mark 9:37; 10:14; Acts 2:38-39. Why do children make the ideal example for Jesus, as followers of Jesus? What does it mean to be “childlike” in the way that Jesus praises? On whom are children dependent?
5.      Jesus’ lesson on humility would be illustrated with His own actions in the coming months. What did Jesus predict would happen to Him? Mark 9:31. What would it take for the disciples to finally understand what He meant? Mark 16:6-8; John 20:19-23.
6.      How was Jesus’ death on the cross the ultimate example of humility and service? Mark 10:42-45; Philippians 2:5-11.
7.      How does His cross bring us forgiveness for our selfishness, rivalries, and failures?

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