Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20B)
September 19, 2021
Text: Mark 9:9:30-37
Jesus’ method of winning and running a Kingdom seems to us entirely backward. All this talk of being delivered into the hands of men to be killed, and then this bit about rising again after three days, sounds like nonsense. We can’t understand it. Well, maybe because we know the rest of the story and can look upon it all in hindsight, it makes some sense to us. But put yourself in the shoes of the disciples when Jesus makes this prediction. It sounds fatalistic to them. It’s like He’s giving up without even trying. And they know His potential. Jesus can draw a crowd like no other. He can hold them by the thousands with His teaching. And the miracles! The people have already tried to make Him King because of the loaves. One Word from Him, just the slightest indication that the time for revolution has come, and He’d have an army at His command. And God would be on their side. The Romans wouldn’t stand a chance. So, delivered over? Killed? After three days rise? They just don’t understand. And they are afraid to ask. Not because Jesus will answer them harshly. But because they are afraid of the answer itself. They are afraid He may actually mean what He said.
So instead, they turn to one of their favorite subjects; namely, which of them is the greatest. This is the second of three times Jesus predicts His Passion in Mark, and after each of the three times, the disciples make a major bungle of things. The first time Jesus tells them plainly of His suffering and death (Mark 8:31 ff.), is the time when Peter decides he is, after all, the Pope, and if anyone can talk some sense into Jesus, it’s him! He rebukes Jesus for this kind of talk, and in return, he is soundly admonished to “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (v. 33; ESV). If Peter thought he was the greatest in the Kingdom, he had another thing coming.
In the third Passion prediction (10:32 ff.), no one tries to dissuade Jesus, but James and John think they can make an end run around everybody else by going directly to Jesus with their request. Let us sit, one on Your right, and the other on Your left, when You come into Your Kingdom. It was an audacious move, but if you’re going to get anywhere in this world, you have to put it all on the line. Make one of us Prime Minister, and the other General Secretary. They don’t know what they are asking. And they’ve only made enemies in the ranks. The others are indignant, and… undoubtedly wish they had thought of it first.
Falling in between, this second Passion prediction, our text, the disciples have it out among themselves. Maybe each was vying for his own position within the Twelve. I suspect everyone knows it’s between Peter, James, and John, or a close outlier like Andrew. Maybe they’re picking teams and forming political parties. But the common theme between the disciples’ reactions after each one of the Passion predictions is rejection of the cross and suffering, and the expectation of a golden age marked by power, exaltation, and glory.
And that is your way, too. It is the way of things common to fallen man. Look around you. What controversy, what scandal, in the Church or in society, does not finally come down to the question of who is the greatest? To give just two examples that loom large over our life together these days, politics and COVID. “I know all the right answers, and you don’t. I am wise, and you are not wise. That is to say, I am the greatest, and you are not. So if you don’t do what I think you should do, it is because you are evil, but I am good. If you don’t believe what I think you should believe, it is because you are evil, whereas I am good. If you’d just realize that, we could save a lot of time and grief.” James makes this point in our Epistle (James 3:13-4:10). Jealousy, selfish ambition, boasting, the passions of our sinful nature, these are the cause of every quarrel among us. It leads to murder. Sometimes murder in the heart, when we despise our neighbor. All too often to actual bloodshed. It leads to friendship with the world and enmity with God. It is pride within us that insists, “I am the greatest.” It is self-idolatry. It seeks all power, fame, glory for the self. It wants to be admired, liked, honored, praised… above everybody else. So it tears down others. Gossip. Slander. Grumbling. Comparing yourself favorably over against an unfavorable view of your neighbor. That is the way of the flesh. Look where it gets you. Beloved, repent.
How different is Jesus’ way. He comes not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He wins His Kingdom precisely by all the things He predicted… in giving Himself over, being betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffering, bearing His cross, shedding His precious blood, dying. For many. For all. For you.
Because in Jesus’ way, greatness is measured not in commanding a Kingdom, but in humble service to the least and the last. Even to an insignificant little child. By becoming Himself Least and Last, in order to raise up the least and last to greatness. That is what Jesus does for us poor sinners in His death on the cross. He takes our place under death and condemnation, to raise us up to life and salvation.
And as He does this, He follows the bidding of the beautiful Psalm (37:4-7) we sang in our Introit: He commits His way to the LORD and trusts in Him. He waits on His Father to act (v. 5), which the Father does decisively on the Third Day when He raises Jesus from the dead, just as He said.
Whereas our way results in jealousy, selfish ambition, and quarreling, Jesus’ way results in trust toward God and mutual trust in one another, the building up and advancement of others, forgiveness and peace that flow to us from God and out toward others. Whereas our way results in murder and violence, hatred, and bitterness, Jesus’ way results in holding all life sacred and binding up wounds, love that gives itself sacrificially for the other, and the sweetness of life lived always under the grace and mercy of God who loved us and gave Himself for us.
James tells us to die to ourselves and our own way. That is what he means when he tells us to submit to God and resist the devil, to cleanse our hands and purify our hearts. He is bidding us examine ourselves and repent. And then to draw near to God in humility, and in full faith that He draws near to us, to forgive us, and enliven us with His own life. That is what He does in Christ. James is bidding us leave our own way behind, and go the way of Christ. Which is the way of the cross.
It does mean suffering. That is why we don’t like it. That is why the disciples were afraid to ask. For one thing, it hurts to admit we are not the greatest, and instead to willingly take the place of the least and the last. It’s not easy to humble yourself all the way to serving an insignificant little child, which is, incidentally, why our society has so much trouble doing that very thing, why our birth rates are so low and we unapologetically slaughter precious little babies by the millions. It’s not easy to humble yourself all way to serving the poor, the suffering and ill, the marginalized, the exploited, the outcast, and the sinner. But that is what Jesus does for us, and He promises that whenever we do that, whenever we receive one such child in His Name, we receive Jesus Himself, and with Jesus, the Father who sent Him.
But it also hurts to consider others more significant than yourself, as St. Paul bids us do in his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 2:3). To put the needs of others ahead of our own. To build others up, even at our own expense. To advance them, even when that means sacrificing ourselves. But that is love. And that is precisely what Jesus has done for us. That is His way.
It hurts to repent. It hurts to deny our sinful passions, to turn against them, and act in opposition to them. And above all it hurts to confess the saving faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, His cross, His suffering and death for our sins, His resurrection, only to be rejected, mocked… to lose friends, to lose loved ones… with the very real possibility of persecution, the loss of a job, the loss of home and possessions, arrest, torture, and even your life, as so many of our brothers and sisters have suffered throughout history, and still suffer today throughout the world. We’ve had it pretty good, Americans. Thank God for that. But we are not promised that such will always be the case. Quite to the contrary. We don’t want that. But that is Jesus’ way. Suffering at the hands of our way.
Yet we know the result of Jesus’ way: “after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). And so He did. Having atoned for the sins of the world. Having paid the price of our redemption. Having freed us from our bondage to sin, death, and the devil. That all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. He is risen and lives. He ascended. He reigns. And what does He still do, Almighty God, the King of Creation? He stoops down here, now, today to speak His death and His life into your ears, and hand feed it to you in His Body and Blood. He still does it His way. And you can’t understand it. But you need not understand it, and you need not be afraid to ask. Simply believe it. Because He who arose on the Third Day will raise you on the Last Day. You can count on it. So as you go Jesus’ way, and suffer for it, as He suffered, do what He did, and what we sang: “Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (Ps. 37:5-7). Fret not. Your deliverance is only a matter of time. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.