The downward path to Greatness
A sermon on Mark 9:30-37 by Jill Friebel, 24 September 2006


Jesus describes true greatness. It comes through repentance which is not changing ones' behaviour or ethics but an upside down alteration of one's own person and trusting God for the outcome.

This is the second of three passion predictions in Mark. There is one in each chapter of 8, 9 and 10. Jesus is predicting his future to the disciples and it is uncomfortable and unbelievable for them. The first time he tells them that he must suffer, be rejected and killed. Nathan spoke about that one last week. This week he tells them "he will be betrayed and handed over to a hostile mob. They will kill him, but three days after his murder, he will rise up alive again." They didn't understand it the first time and they don't this time either. They don't want to hear it and they don't want to know it. It is contrary to their hopes and expectations. It seems to defy the power and glory that Jesus has demonstrated over demons and sickness and hunger and the elements. That's what really attracted them in the first place and filled them with a sort of euphoric excitement that God was finally acting and they were in on it. They were going to be part of this glorious liberation for the Jews, meaning personal glory for them. This was history being fulfilled and they were right there in the middle of it, disciples of the miracle worker the Christ. It couldn't get better than this.

So what was this talk about suffering, betrayal, murder and resurrection? When you've got the crowds eating out of your hand why would you change tack? Why would God deliberately hand Jesus over to become a martyr? If God is in control and has the power to do what he wants why would he voluntarily subject his only Son to such suffering at the hands of evil people. What is the point? Why suffer unnecessarily and even wastefully?

What is the point of all this suffering? It is the same question that all of us ask and keep on asking. The question of suffering is what turns people into atheists and agnostics. It turns people away from God. Why doesn't God do something about the evil around us and why does he remain unmoved and seem so unconcerned? Paradoxically suffering is the only way to God, he didn't remain unmoved, he has become our servant.

It's not hard to empathise with the disciple's rejection of such an unnecessary and wasteful use of a life. It didn't bear contemplating or thinking about because if Jesus their leader ended up dead what would that mean for them? So they didn't. They ignored and denied what they heard for the second time and went on to argue about which of them would be the greatest in this movement with "Jesus the Christ." They went on as though Jesus hadn't said a thing. It would only have taken one of them on the road to speak up. But not one could bring themselves to even raise the question and ask what Jesus might have meant. Their minds were blocked because of fear in their hearts.

Fear does terrible things to us. It silences us. It paralyses us. It sends us into denial or detachment. It spins us into remote control and we act in ways that compensate for our fear. The disciples felt a whole lot better when they turned to something much more positive and addictive – power and glory. They distracted themselves from reality –a reality that was too confronting and too uncomfortable.

The heat is really on when Jesus gets them behind closed doors and asks them what they were arguing about. No-one answers, just a stony silence of embarrassment and awkwardness. All the confidence and kudos drains out of their feet and they are left weak and pathetic and not knowing where to look. Just shame!

Jesus has been talking about suffering servant hood and they get caught up in glory and greatness. It was bad enough to realize the contrast and the gulf between them and him and now they are humiliated to have it exposed in front of him. To have such a heart is bad enough. But to "fear" exposing it to Jesus is to mis-read him even further not only in his own calling to the way of the cross, but to them being beneficiaries of it when it does take place. Not to expose such a heart when one has it, is non-repentance - the opposite of faith.

Jesus says to them, "Whoever wants to be number one must take a place at the bottom as the servant of everyone else." And then he scoops up a child from the household more than likely the child of a slave. It is difficult for us to comprehend the shock factor at this action. We have exalted childhood as a privileged time of innocence, and this romantic view is read into the story. Children were non-persons, and it was inconceivable that receiving a child would have any value for male disciples. Children were the bottom rung of the ladder. And Jesus was saying that by receiving a child they were receiving him and that they were receiving God. By receiving someone who was invisible and a non-person was to receive Christ!

At this point I am going to risk a radical interpretation as to what this might mean for many of us tonight. My calling as a pastor is to preach the good news to the burdened and battered, to set the prisoners free, to open the eyes of the blind. But firstly, if you are honest it will not be too difficult to recognize the resistance in yourself to avoid the call to true servant hood. To put yourself in a position of accepting someone who you despise, who irritates you, who is a constant source of frustration or who has even betrayed you and abused you or others you know and love? I have no problems naming some for myself. I well up with anger and resentment against injustices done by the powerful seeking status, glory and pleasure. I also am very sensitive to the small minded religious who judge others by what they say and do without getting to know them. But I get my nose put out of joint with more minor irritations as well. Tonight again I hear the call of Christ to admit my resistance, to expose my heart to him and repent, knowing I am a beneficiary of his generosity and grace. I am called to be a servant and trust God for the outcome. It goes against my sensibilities, and I can't do it without the power and presence of Christ. I can only do it because Jesus is my servant and accepts me when I irritate him, when I frustrate him deny and betray him. When in my own powerful way I also seek glory and status.

I am not advocating that we do not name and speak to expose injustice and evils that are committed against the abused and oppressed. Jesus was a servant to the poor and oppressed and suffered in his fearless exposing of injustice. When silence conceals the truth the victim goes on being a victim. I will encourage and support those who have suffered behind the wall of abuse or guilt and shame and who find it excruciatingly painful to speak out of their experience. To speak out means taking the risk of rejection and misunderstanding, but is the only way to finding freedom within themselves. It also becomes the offering of a gift to others who suffer in silence. This is what it is to take up our cross and deny ourselves and follow Christ.

Now secondly and more radically there is another way of understanding Jesus' words to the disciples that apply to us all. He took a child who was socially invisible and a non-person and held this little one in his arms and welcomed it. He said anyone who welcomes any such child will be welcoming Him and the One who sent Him.

This child is within everyone of us. Some of us have begun the journey of accepting and welcoming ourselves and others haven't even begun. We have spent years building our false or our exterior selves to survive in a world that is both good and bad. And consequently the child within us or our true selves have suffered humiliations and disappointments that have served to frustrate and inhibit spiritual growth and development. This child is told by the false self she is never good enough, or he is disappointing, she isn't clever enough, or he isn't significant in any way. She hasn't achieved anything and he just isn't worthy to be loved. She is a failure and he can never get it right. It can even be proved because others have treated this child with distain and it only goes to prove that there is nothing loveable about him or her anyway.

This child has been silenced and is invisible. The more he or she cries out to be heard and accepted and loved just because she or he exists, the more the false self will be tempted to distraction and deny the small voice. It will come out in a host of ways. Superficiality is one. Difficulty in being able to truly speak from the heart and connect with others in deep and meaningful ways is a symptom. Selfishness and self-centeredness is another. Or it can mean a life of denial and giving of oneself to others in unhealthy ways, constantly feeling guilty and responsible for others. Prayer will be practically impossible, for God connects spontaneously with the childlike innocence, the true self, but struggles to be heard by the self-depreciating false self. This false self doesn't really exist, it is only a persona without a soul. It is existing and not really living. It is being alive but dead.

If your childhood was not safe and you did not receive love you will need help in accepting and loving yourself now.

It means humbling yourself and becoming a servant to your inner child. To truly embrace yourself and love yourself just as you are with all your shortcomings and deficiencies to forgive yourself for getting so much wrong. You can speak about your insecurities without fear for it will bring relief both for yourself and others. It is what it means to repent and turn around to deny yourself and follow Christ.

You will find such freedom in exposing yourself to one who says "I know" and 'that is why I suffered and became your servant. Don't keep beating yourself, just learn to be yourself in the Servant-Christ and become a servant of others.'

Jesus has no hesitation in scooping you up and wrapping his arms around you. He has become your servant and suffered for you in ways that we can never possible understand. At best we can only relax in such grace and not fight the arms that surround us. When you welcome yourself you are welcoming Christ and when you welcome Christ you are welcoming the One who sent Him. This is resurrection beginning now and the journey to true greatness as a servant.