Grace, Mercy and Peace are yours in the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Who’s the greatest? Everyone’s asking. The summer Olympics answered 302 of these questions in July and August. November will reveal much to us about who the greatest in the United States will be, and in just 4.5 months the quest to be the Biggest Loser begins. Who’s the greatest? It’s the wrong question really. One we’ll never be absolutely certain of according to earthly standards. Still we often entertain the question in various ways and in today’s Gospel text it’s the question that takes center stage.
Today, Jesus continues His journey to the cross through the region of Galilee and teaching in Capernaum. He proceeded there with His men and did so not wanting anyone to know where he was because He was teaching His disciples. Jesus was taking another opportunity to intimately teach these men the things that were going to be done for their salvation, and our text says that they didn’t understand and were afraid to ask Him what it meant that; “The Son of Man was 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.”
What was all this negative talk about killing and rising? The disciples had seen Jesus heal, they’d seen Him perform miracles! Surely, they must have thought that all this talk was just a cruel joke or a misunderstanding. What Jesus was saying was a hard teaching… one that not many could bear, and the beloved disciples couldn’t muster the fortitude to ask for clarification. So the disciples and Jesus walked the way to Capernaum; all the while the disciples thought and argued about the work they were going do once Jesus came into prominence and power. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how quickly the teachings of Christ, teachings about our salvation, words that are intended to comfort, and reassure us can be disregarded so quickly in favor of more “uplifting” subject matter. Their thoughts turned away from the teachings of their Lord and focused instead on the earthly kingdom they thought Jesus was bringing forth. They argued about which one of them would be the greatest when that kingdom dawned. Why is this? Couldn’t the disciples see what Jesus was actually saying to them? Well, No. This isn’t the first time they’ve heard about the plan of salvation. In Mark 8, Jesus makes His point for the first time and Peter rebukes the Lord for saying such things, for which Peter was rebuked by our Lord: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” The disciples put aside the teachings of their Lord and began to argue about who was the greatest and so often the same is true of us.
Those disciples entered into the kind of discussions that we still have today. Talk about greatness is sewn into the fabric of our being, it’s what makes us tick, it’s what wakes us up in the morning, it drives us to perform better. Now don’t get me wrong here, Jesus isn’t saying that being great is inherently sinful. What He is saying is that the desire to be the greatest leads us to all sorts of shame and vice. It is the desire for greatness that seeks recognition praise and admiration. It is the desire for greatness that stands in the way of the true greatness that has come with Jesus.
“What were you talking about along the way? Jesus asks. Now if that question doesn’t make you chuckle you might want to see your doctor. “What were you talking about?” Jesus, fully man and fully God, asks; already knowing the answer. And the disciples respond in the same way as a child who has been caught red handed stealing from the cookie jar would; the disciples respond by “keeping silent.” It’s the silence of shame… the silence that says; “I should have known better, but I just couldn’t stop myself.” St. Paul says it best (Romans 7:15) “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” It’s the shame we feel when we realize that we have fallen into sin.
And so Jesus, seeing that His disciples still don’t get it; sees also their dismay, and seizes the opportunity to teach. Jesus wishes for these sinners, who clamor for greatness, to know that He has come to die and rise again for them. And He wants us to know the same. Jesus sits down; gathers His beloved disciples around Him and teaches them. He knew exactly what those men had talked about, he knew exactly how they treated each other. He knew the sharp words that they used against each other, and He knew why they did it; and the same is true for how God knows us too. We sin… because we are sinful. The disciples malice toward each other was SIN manifested in their flesh, it is the same sin which pits us against our neighbor. The very same sin that causes disdain, distrust and self-promotion. The very same sin which damns us, separates us from God and directs us to our own works and desires. Jesus sits down with those disciples, and He sits down with you and me and tells us; “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
And it is this sort of talk that wrenches us, for too often we think that Jesus is giving us some sort of moral lesson for life. It is this sort of talk that we look askance at and say yeah right Jesus; Don’t you know about that guy who cut me off in traffic? What about that lady at work that makes my life a living hell? What about that guy who hurt my child, or talked about me behind my back? We Christians too often expect the things that the disciples expected; sumptuous fare, a life filled with ease and comfort, largely absent of suffering and pain. We too often expect that because we believe in Jesus that people will treat us better and life will be largely free of suffering. But our Lord reminds us in John 15:18 of what the Christian life looks like. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” How then is it possible for us to seek to have others be first and greater than us? How can this be done perfectly as God teaches in our text?
We cannot love perfectly though we wish to, we struggle to put others first, nearly always putting ourselves before them and rarely do we seek to be the servant of all. But dear friends do not dismay, for remember why our Lord says these things. He is not giving the disciples a pep talk about how things are going to work out well in this life, in fact He reminds them that, in the eyes of the world, according to how the world measures greatness, what He is going to do for them and us, is going to appear to be the biggest Failure ever. Jesus reminds us that true greatness comes from the “The Son of Man who 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.”
The first ONE that Jesus speaks of is Himself. He has made himself last and the servant of all. Christ, “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:6-8).
Your Lord knows every way you suffer. He knows the scorn and ridicule you face in this world. He knows the struggles you have for greatness and preeminence. He knows you better than you know yourself. He loves you and has in every way, provided for you and me, that we may face the sins transgressed against us; so that we may repent of the sins we commit.
Today, Jesus breaks news to us that seems stark and morbid. But in reality it’s a paradox. By His death, your sin has been put to death. Because He has carried your sin to the cross, you can now lay your burdens and sins at the foot of that same cross. By His death He has shown us where our true greatness is in the eyes of God. God has died for you! You cannot be more highly favored than that. For when He hung and died for you, it was your names, your faces, your lives that He thought of. There is no need to desire greatness over others, for the greatness we receive from the world shall not hold a candle to that greatness which has been given to you already by the death of Christ. This is greatness that none have to argue over. It is greatness that serves the neighbor as if they were the little child in our text. Dear friends let me ask you this; when you change a toddlers diaper, clothe them, or feed them their mushy food are you surprised when they run off afterward without thanking you? Of course not; and it is this which Jesus says to us today. He is going to death for a world that says it doesn’t need Him, to die for a world that hates Him, and to suffer all in order to bring you and me closer to Him. Christ has died to spite that sin, Christ has died to forgive that sin. And because of Him, because of what He has done for us, You and I have become sons of the King. Ours is an inheritance that shall last forever and is ours even today. Forgiveness of Sins, life and Salvation are yours, through the work and promises of Christ, what else do you need? Because these things have been done for you, you and I are free to serve our neighbor as we would the little child in our Gospel lesson for today; sharing the same forgiveness, life and salvation that has been given to you expecting nothing in return. Doing so because of the joy and certainty that has been freely given to you in Christ. In Christ, you are the greatest already! You are Sons and daughters of the King! Amen.