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LSB Proper 20B Sermon – Mark 9:30-37

September 20, 2015

September 20, 2015 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“And they came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And He 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.’”

“What were you discussing on the way?” You can imagine the disciples’ surprise at hearing Jesus’ question. Just how many shades of crimson were seen on their faces? How many looks down at the floor or glances away from Jesus’ eyes were there? The question is embarrassing because of the topic of the Twelve’s discussion. It wasn’t something that any of them were proud of, even though it was a discussion about pride: “They kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” Jesus’ inquiry had exposed their guilt. Those who had been called by Jesus as followers were trying to figure out who of them was the best follower.

This type of argument is all about pride. It is rooted in the idea that rank and recognition are to be noted among humanity. When it isn’t, then people get upset. There can be great importance placed on honors and titles, so much so that offense is taken if they aren’t used. Where is my deserved honor? Others feel upbraided when their genius or skill isn’t recognized by all. How do those rubes dare to think themselves of my equal? Or maybe it’s one’s familial background—the clan they belong to—that brings them their expected rank. Don’t they know that we’re the founding family of this organization? Or perhaps it’s achievement that becomes the source of pride. Aren’t they grateful for what I’ve done? Who are they to change it?

The matter which the Twelve discuss among the road is what James writes about to those who would follow Jesus: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” James states what should be shown among Jesus’ disciples. Yes, there are people who are wise and understanding, but they are to demonstrate that not in arrogance or pride. Instead, they should show it in works that are meek. Jealousy and ambition aren’t harmonious with the LORD’s way. When they are present, then there is just discord and dispute.

James’ words are an expansion on what Jesus taught His disciples after their argument about greatness: “He said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’” Jesus’ teaching changes what people might think about what it means to be greatest. He turns the concept on its head. In most people’s thinking, to be first means to be served and honored by everybody. But Jesus declares the opposite: to be first means to be someone who does service for others.

That new standard of greatness is what Jesus Himself lived up to. Jesus is speaking about Himself. Of the group of individuals walking the road to Capernaum, He is the greatest—not Peter, James, John, Andrew, or any of the rest. In fact, Jesus had revealed that greatness in the Transfiguration, when His full divinity was displayed. And yet, how does Jesus demonstrate His greatness? “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.’” Even in His greatness, Jesus was going to perform the most demanding act of service: offering Himself in sacrifice. And through that act, Jesus was providing redemption for the entire cosmos—literally being the servant of all.

That type of service is referred to by James as well: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” Those words rightly describe the life and work of Jesus, particularly the phrase “full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” And the “harvest of righteousness” that Jesus sowed is the atonement that He accomplished which makes you innocent in the sight of God the Father.

So what is to be learned from this incident from Jesus’ life? First, to know what Jesus is like and what He accomplishes for you. You see Jesus’ character of being gracious and merciful. You hear Him testify about what He does to bring benefit to you. The Greatest One makes Himself a Servant. The One who is in full control of life offers Himself into death. The Holy One suffers indignities from those who are full of wickedness, so that they might ultimately share in His righteousness. And this is how Jesus acts when He is first.

Second, this incident should show us the problem with pride and lack of humility. Jesus can ask us the same question as we walk in the path of discipleship: “What were you discussing on the way?” If we are arguing about who is the greatest among us or anything connected with rank or recognition, then we would rightly be embarrassed as our guilt is revealed by His inquiry. Our faces should be crimson and our eyes downcast. We should take to heart the words of James: “Do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But He gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” That should guide our thinking and acting, leading us to repentance when we fail to abide by it.

Third, this incident from Jesus’ life also shapes how His disciples are to act toward one another. It gives direction to the Church. When we look at this, we are to learn about how we are to behave here in our congregation and church body. It won’t be long before we start to nominate individuals for service as congregational officers and Synod officials. Those aren’t unimportant positions. They are roles that help to guide our life together. But the question about what it means to be “first” needs to be answered the way that Jesus gives it. All those who are selected as officers or leaders are selected for positions of service—to give their efforts for the benefit of the Lord’s Church, not for their own gain.

Now the good thing about this incident is that these lessons were learned by those who were part of it. Note that the Twelve who argued about who was the greatest would be set aright by Jesus. And when they were, they became people who took His teaching to heart and had it govern their actions. Most of them would follow Jesus’ example of giving their life. Nearly all of them would be involved in a Council to determine how best to serve the Gentiles who were being brought to faith in the Son of Man who suffered, died, and rose from death. Peter and John would write to fellow believers exhorting them to humility. As they did this, they would be like their Lord.

Why was this so? Because the Twelve would have the LORD’s work done in them. What James writes to the Church is not hypothetical; it is what takes place among Jesus’ followers: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.” That is the divine work performed for those who understand Jesus’ teaching: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

But what was achieved by Jesus among the Twelve isn’t limited to them. It will also be done among all who take Jesus’ teaching to heart. It will be so for us who make up His congregation, if we submit ourselves to Him, draw near to Him, admit our guilt to Him, and receive His redemption. Then we will reap the harvest of righteousness for ourselves. And our Lord Jesus will allow us to plant it again for ourselves and those who are joined to us in this congregation.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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