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The Greatest of All

September 23, 2018
By Rev. David French


At this point in the Gospel of Mark, there’s a dramatic change in focus.  In fact, all the Gospels have this change of focus.  The beginning of the Gospels all focus on the teachings and signs that point to Jesus as the promised Messiah.  These signs and teachings fulfill all the promises that were spoken through the prophets in the Old Testament.  They are witnesses to the multitudes that Jesus is, in fact and truth, the promised Messiah sent from God.

There comes a point, however, when there is a change in the focus as Jesus begins to prepare His disciples for Good Friday. Over the past few Sundays, we’ve heard that Jesus began to seek solitude so that He could teach His disciples in more private settings.  He spent more time in Gentile territory in order to get away from the crowds.  He still performed the signs and He still proclaimed the Gospel, but His main focus was on preparing the disciples for His upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. 

That’s why Jesus went to the areas of Tyre and Sidon, Caesarea Philippi, and the Decapolis.  That’s why today’s reading from Mark begins with the words, “They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples” (Mark 9:30–31).

All four Gospel accounts make it very clear that Jesus prepared His disciples for Good Friday by regularly teaching them about His upcoming passion, the very heart of the Gospel promise.  As we read, He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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” (Mark 9:31).

But while Jesus was being very clear, the disciples were just not catching on.  As we read, … they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him (Mark 9:32).  But before we’re too hard on the disciples, remember that no one had ever done this before.  There are accounts in the Old Testament of prophets raising people from the dead.  They had seen Jesus raise people from the dead, but no one had ever come back from the dead by his own power.

This was totally outside the disciples’ experience and they had experienced a lot.  But we can’t say they didn’t want to understand Jesus, they simply did not have the mental, emotional, or spiritual tools that are needed to understand what Jesus said.  And we, before being made alive in Christ, are no different.

How much they misunderstood is highlighted by the argument they had among themselves about who was the greatest in the kingdom.  Maybe it was because Jesus only took three of them for the transfiguration, but bottom line it was their own selfishness and pride that was exposed.

Just think about that.  Jesus was teaching them about the single greatest event in the entire history of the world: salvation for all people secured by His death on the cross.  And they’re arguing about who will take over when He’s gone.  How filled with shame they must have been when Jesus asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” (Mark 9:33).  Jesus used this moment of shame as an opportunity not to punish, but to teach them and us what it means to be a leader in His church.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35) .

You see, in God’s family, the leader serves.  The one who is the highest makes himself the lowest.  The leader in God’s family sacrifices not to get power, but to serve others.

Then to emphasize His point, He took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:36–37).

So, Jesus lovingly connected the child to Himself and then connected both Himself and the child to our Father in Heaven. That is, to receive or to willingly and lovingly provide for all a child needs is to receive God the Father Almighty.

The Greek word translated as child implies a child whose age would be somewhere between pre-school and second grade.  At that age children can feed themselves, get dressed, understand simple sentences, and so on, but we are still talking about an age when children need a lot of help just to survive.  This child can do a few things for himself, but for the most part, this child on his own is pretty much helpless. 

From the time that Adam and Eve sinned until now, people have wanted power and control, at a minimum, over their own lives.  If we look at our other readings for today, we see that each speaks about the problems we have because we always want people to serve us.  In the Old Testament lesson, people want to kill Jeremiah.  In our epistle, James considers the reasons people fight. 

We’re no different. Our culture praises people who are determined by whatever standard to be the best ... the most beautiful, the strongest, the richest.  Google “List of most powerful people” and you get over 500 million options.  Sooner or later, we all fall to this temptation because the temptation never, on this side of heaven, goes away.  It’s the reason Cain killed Abel, and it’s the reason gunman terrorize our schools.  That means that the things Jesus teaches His disciples are certainly relevant for us today.

Jesus continued to show service to His disciples and us beginning that very evening.  He served you and me by allowing a band of soldiers to arrest Him so that He could endure a day of torture and shame as He took your sin and mine upon Himself and carried it to a cross and His death.  He served you and me by enduring God’s holy wrath against our sin while He hung on that cross.  He served you and me after His friends laid Him in a tomb by rising from the dead and proclaiming His victory over sin, death, and the power of the Devil.

Jesus said that the greatest is the servant of all.  And so, He is the greatest because He served the entire world by offering Himself as the payment for all of our sins.  And Jesus still serves us as the Holy Spirit offers us forgiveness through the Gospel … the Gospel we hear in the Absolution and in the preaching of His Word … the Gospel combined with the water of Holy Baptism … the Gospel combined with bread and wine as Jesus Himself enters us one at a time with His forgiveness.

Jesus, who is the greatest, now serves us who are helpless … helplessly trapped in sin and facing eternal death.  We, who are great in greed, receive the mercy of a Savior who willingly and joyfully serves.  Now that Jesus has served us with the ultimate service, He is able to work through us to serve others.  He gives us the power to share His service with the people in our lives.

Finally, it is the will of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to serve us with new, holy bodies that will rise from the dead just as He rose.  On that day of resurrection, we will, in His presence, serve one another in perfect holiness and with such pure joy that the question, “Who is the greatest?” will never need to be asked.

In His Name, Amen.

Tags: Mark 9:30-37