Sunday, September 24, 2006

Silence and Service. Mark 9:30-37. A sermon preached in Magheralin on 24th September 2006.

Have you ever had those times where you are speechless? Someone says something to you, and you just can’t respond – maybe because you’re so confused that you don’t want to let on? That can happen sometimes in our class in college – as the lecturer talks we all nod and seem to understand, but once we’re out of the class, we’re all confused, and no amount of talking to the rest of the class can get us out of it. So then the next time we see the lecturer, we have to ask them again to explain it.

Maybe other times, people can be speechless because of shame. Think about your kids – you tell them something, and you hear them say something back, but you can’t quite make it out. But they won’t say what it was… they’re slightly ashamed of it. Of course, you wouldn’t know about that, because the kids here obviously don’t talk back to their parents.

Those times of silence, where the people are confused or ashamed. In our reading this morning, we can see two times of silence, when the disciples fit into our two categories – first, the silence of confusion, and the second the silence of embarrassment.

As we come to Mark chapter 9, we find that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. In Mark 8, Peter recognised Jesus as the Messiah, but his hopes were suddenly dashed, because his ideas of a Messiah didn’t match up with what Jesus came to do. In 8:31, we read ‘He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.’ Yet straight away, Peter rebukes him for talking that way.

And here in chapter 9, we find that Jesus is again teaching the disciples about his purpose. This time, he tells them ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’

For us, reading that now, it’s obvious what Jesus meant – because we live in the aftermath of the cross and resurrection. But put yourself in the place of the disciples – so far you have been travelling around with Jesus, seeing him heal people, and do miracles, and teaching the crowds. All seems to be going well, and more people are following him.

And then he starts talking about being betrayed? And then getting killed? And what was that about rising again? What was Jesus talking about?

Notice the disciples’ response – ‘But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.’ The disciples, who had been with Jesus for over two years were still afraid to ask him about what he was saying – they were afraid to look stupid, or to be seen to be confused.

How often is that our experience? Are there times that you don’t understand what’s going on? Maybe something that Gareth says, or I say? Don’t be afraid to ask about it, so that we can come to understand more about Jesus.

Yet the disciples’ confusion wasn’t the end of the affair. Look at what it led them to. The passage continues to describe what happens when they arrived at Capernaum. Jesus asks them ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’

And there’s the second silence from the disciples. ‘But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.’ Silence from the disciples, because they were ashamed of what they had been discussing.

Can you see what was happening? Jesus was telling them in advance of his death, and all the disciples could do was engage in a ‘disciple of the year’ contest. Comparing stories, and arguing about who was the greatest.

Once again, the disciples have misunderstood Jesus. So Jesus seeks to correct them, and teaches them about the secret of being a great disciple. And in doing so, Jesus turns things on their head, and teaches the opposite of what is natural, or seems right.

‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’

Notice that it’s all right to aspire to greatness – if you want to be first; but you don’t go about it the way the world would think. Rather, to be great, you put yourself at the very last, becoming the servant of all. True greatness is the greatness of putting everyone before oneself, and in being outstanding in the role of servant.

As the world thinks about it, being a servant means you’re at the bottom of the pile, as you work for others, and obey their orders. But in order to be a great disciple, you have to be a servant. And isn’t that right, after all, because in the next chapter Jesus will tell the disciples that ‘even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45)

Jesus, who ‘being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the 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.’ (Philippians 2:6-8) – this is the Jesus we follow, who calls us to also be humble, and to become a servant.

Imagine if Jesus had insisted on his rights? Imagine if he had refused to obey the Father, and refused to become a servant for our sake? We would still be dead in our sins. But Jesus did become a servant, and died for us.

And then, to give them a practical lesson, Jesus ‘took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”’

In those days, children had no rights, and were at best ‘seen and not heard.’ Probably in many ways like the servants in the household. Yet Jesus turns it around again, and encourages his disciples to welcome the children, to notice them, and to reach out to them in his name.

Why’s that? Well, because as they welcomed the child, who was one of the least, then they welcomed Jesus himself. But even more than that, as they welcomed Jesus in the child, so they welcomed the one who sent Jesus – they welcomed God. In this way, the one who was seen as not very important in the household or family life, was recognised as one who was an ambassador of God.

[One way of seeing these elements of service and reaching out to children is through the Paraguay team – as they went on our behalf and with our support to do the kids work there. But that isn’t the only way we can apply the teaching today – otherwise it could only apply to those who were able to travel. What does it mean for us, today, in Dollingstown?]

As we live in the light of the cross, and can see what Jesus meant so much clearer than the disciples, we can see the fullness of Jesus’ servanthood. We stand in the blessings of Jesus becoming a servant, and dying for us, as we trust in him. But does it make it any easier to put his teaching into practice? What does it mean for us to be last, and the servant of all?

[Ephesians – ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Ephesians 5:21)]

As you follow Jesus the Master, who are the people you need to put before yourself? How can you look out for the interests of others? How can you show your welcome for God and Jesus in the way you treat those around you, especially those who have a low place in society’s estimations?

Jesus, the Master, was also Jesus the servant, the slave, who gave his life as an offering for us. Today he shows us the path to greatness as his disciple. Will you accept the challenge to be great? ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’

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