Getting Put in your Place
A sermon based on Mark 9:30-37 & James 3:13-4:8 by Nathan Nettleton, 24th September 2000

The challenge of relinquishing selfish desire is a crucial key to a deeper journey into the life of Christ.


One of the most confronting parts of our liturgy for many people is the prayer known as the Covenant Prayer which we pray together shortly after we have been fed from the Table. It is a prayer that was first written by John Wesley, and like much of what Wesley did and wrote, it exhibits his passion for a radical no-holds-barred whole-of-life discipleship. For Wesley, as for so many of our forebears in the faith, there could be no compromise with anything that would compete with Christ for our allegiance. And in this prayer, he is seeking to bring under control the most insidious enemy of all - the enemy within.

“I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will;
Rank me with whom you will;
Put me to doing, put me to suffering;
Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you...”

and so on. You know how it goes. At a pinch most of you could probably now recite it by heart. And hopefully one of the values of knowing it so well is that it will well up in you at times when you find yourselves rebelling against the passion it expresses and you need to once again turn to Christ and let him be Lord.

The earliest and simplest Christian confession of faith simply said “Jesus is Lord!” Perhaps the reason that very little else needs to be spelt out beyond that is that “Jesus is Lord” remains the most challenging confession to live up to. In the church’s first couple of centuries, the most radical implication of that confession - Jesus is Lord - was that Caesar was not Lord. Living under an authoritarian regime that demanded absolute allegiance to the emperor, to say “Jesus is Lord” amounted to treason. It was a denial of the claims of the emperor. For us, the emphasis falls differently. Let’s face it - as we watch John Howard running around in his Akubra trying to get his face into photos with gold medalists, anyone who jumped up and down and said “John Howard is Lord” would not be seen as a loyal citizen so much as a raving lunatic!

For us, the most radical implication of confessing “Jesus is Lord” is that we are saying that we are not Lord of our own lives. To confess Jesus as Lord is to relinquish your claims of autonomy. You are no longer the one who determines how your life will be lived - Jesus is. You are no longer the one who sets the standards your life will be measured by - Jesus is. We live in a society where individualism and personal choice are the idols which claim the passionate allegiance of the vast majority of people. And if we confess Jesus as Lord, we will be naming them as idols and refusing to give them our allegiance.

In the reading we heard from the gospel of Mark, the disciples of Jesus showed themselves, once again, to be as susceptible as we are to letting their own desires and ambitions start getting the better of them. Jesus has just spoken with them about how he is going to have to accept being put through the wringer to be true to his calling and identity. He is clearly not thinking that his is a path of acclamation and triumph. He is clearly not thinking about ensuring that he is recognised as the greatest, as the number one Lord of the Universe. He is facing betrayal and rejection and a dishonourable death, and he’s coming to terms with accepting that.

The disciples, we are told, can’t get their heads round what on earth he’s on about, and as if to prove just how far they have missed the point, as soon as he’s almost out of earshot, they begin trying to one-up each other. They all want to stake their claim as the premier disciple. They all have their CV’s out, ready to prove that they have stood out from the pack as exemplary disciples. Proving you’re the greatest in discipleship terms is not as straight forward as running the fastest time or lifting the heaviest weight, but pretty much everyone aspires to greatness in something. You can imagine Jesus shaking his head in dismay when he realises what they are on about. No doubt he knows that if what they really want is to be the greatest, they are not going to be standing alongside him when he is being thrown out of the games in disgrace.

Jesus takes them to task. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all. Whoever wants to be the greatest needs to forget about breaking 15 minutes for the 1500 and find satisfaction in cleaning up the stadium after everyone’s gone home.”

He hugs a small child in front of them and says, “If you’d fawn over a gold-medalist and ignore this child, you haven’t even approached greatness. If you welcome a little tacker like this as though they were the greatest and as though you’d count it an honour to be pictured in the paper hugging this unknown kid, then you’re on the right track. When that comes naturally to you, then you’ll really be welcoming me and the One who sent me.”

“Rank me with whom you will;
Let me be exalted for you or brought low for you...”

The apostle James, in the extract we heard read from his letter, is even more forthright about this, as James so often is. He doesn’t stop at saying that an ambition to be number one is a hindrance to true greatness. He says it is the cause of all the fights and wars that tear people apart and destroy their lives. He says that as long as we are trying to get one up on others, to get to the front of the pack, we prove that our motives do not come from God but from the devil himself. “Wherever there is envy and selfish ambition,” he says, “you will find mayhem and abuse.”

Ambition in itself is not inherently evil. Paul invoke the image of the Olympics when he exhorts us to strive towards the goal. But ambition easily becomes selfish and says “I will achieve my goals no matter who I have to scramble over in the process.” Ambition easily becomes something that doesn’t just aspire to worthy goals, it wants to define those goals and it refuses to submit to the wisdom of God or anyone else in choosing what to aspire to. I don’t begrudge the gold-medal Olympians anything. They’ve exercised extreme discipline and achieved extraordinary things. Good on them. But if they typify the sort of greatness most of us aspire to, then I think we are in trouble. Standing on the podium, arms upraised, basking in the adulation of the crowd is not the measure of greatness for most of us. There may be some of you who are always putting yourselves down to who Christ would say, “To truly embrace the image of God that you were made to be you need to know yourself honoured.” That’s why our prayer picks up those themes too: “Let me be exalted for you..., let me have all things...”

But for many of us, and I include myself, a better model of greatness to aspire to would be the late night taxi driver who after being abused and spat on by six drunken customers in a row is still able to treat the next one with respect and a welcoming smile. No one will hang a medal on him and you won’t see his picture in the paper next to the prime minister, but such a person has far more to teach us about greatness than all the celebrities and record holders put together.

As we listen to these scriptures and gather around this table, we remember our greatest hero - one who was betrayed and despised and rejected and dishonoured in death. We remember that it is in him we have encountered the love that sets us free. And embraced in his brokenness, we re-member ourselves as his body in the world, still being broken, still offering ourselves for the life of the world. And we acknowledge again that our pretensions to greatness and our willingness to walk over others and wrest back control of our lives will reassert themselves the minute we stray to far from the side of God and will be the greatest obstacle to journeying more deeply into the life of Christ. As the apostle James exhorts us, we submit ourselves to God, we let God’s desires have their way with us. We draw near to God and offer ourselves again completely to Christ who has offered himself completely to us.

“I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will;
Rank me with whom you will;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.”