First Must Be Last

Published: Monday, 24 September 2018

welcoming childrenThis sermon, ‘First Must Be Last’, was presented to the Ashburton Baptist Church on 23 September 2018 by Geoff Pound. It concludes with some questions for personal reflection and group study.

Scripture Reading: Mark 9: 30-37

If you’re ever going to write a sensational movie script, it’ll help if you can conjure a classic line. Like that memorable line in Jerry Maguire: “Show Me the Money.” Or that line in Braveheart: “They may take our lives but they’ll never take our freedom.”

Remember this line in Sudden Impact? “Go ahead, make my day.”

Or the advice in Godfather II: “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”

A line that’s entered common usage is from Apollo 13: “Houston, we have a problem.”

And how often have you used this line to order food in a café? “I’ll have what she’s having.” (When Harry Met Sally).[1]

But we’ve got to avoid those over-worked lines that make our language limp. Those hackneyed lines like: “I could tell you…but then I’d have to kill you.” Or when the baddies arrive, the hero says: “We’ve got company.” When one character has been badly hurt the person trying to save them says: “Don’t die on me.” Perhaps the mother of all movie clichés is the line: “You just don’t get it, do you?”[2]

Mark has his oft-repeated words and phrases like ‘Gospel’, ‘Straight away’, ‘immediately’[3], ‘on the road’[4] and ‘the Son of Man’[5].

Jesus too has his much-loved phrases like the ones in today’s reading: ‘Don’t tell anyone’ and variations on the statement: “But they did not understand.”[6] He’s been saying this so often it’s as if he, too, is using the line: “You just don’t get it, do you?”

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Mark 9: 30-32

Mark says:

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. They’re back in home-territory. No longer north in Tyre, Sidon and Gentile towns.

He did not want anyone to know it; He’s going to spill the beans. He’s going to tell his disciples a secret:

“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

Mark comments:

 

32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Mark 9: 31-32

As a youngster I struggled with maths. My grandfather was a retired school teacher and one day I asked him to help me with my maths homework.

He sat me down at the long dining room table, got out a pad and with his black fountain pen, he wrote in big letters the maths question. When he talked he was deliberate. He was forthright. After his explanation, I made the mistake of saying: “That’s not how my teacher at school explains it.”

At such impudence my grandfather exploded. He put on his stern headmaster demeanor. I can’t recall the words. I remember how he shouted. I remember his spit all over the blotter pad. When he finally asked: “Do you understand?” I nodded my head, thanked him for his tuition and left hurriedly. But I was none the wiser.

How often have we avoided asking a question because we were afraid? Because we didn’t want to look dumb in the eyes of our teacher? Because we wanted to avoid a scolding. How often have we not asked our question because we might be dropped in the estimation of our peers?

This week has seen the launch of a new book that has smashed records with over a million copies sold in the first week.[7] Bob Woodward’s latest volume is about the occupant in the White House. It’s entitled, ‘Fear’. The title comes from the subject who said, “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.”[8]

The book chronicles the way not only political opponents but his own staff have been put down and demeaned when they got out of line or when they voiced anything that appeared as a criticism.

Any allegations of abuse or misappropriation of money are flatly denied and the people attacked in order to demonstrate power by maintaining a climate of fear.

I wonder what were the questions those disciples wanted to ask Jesus?

Who’s the friend or follower who’s going to betray you?

What’s all this about you being killed?

What’s going to happen to us who have just left our businesses to follow you?

Will that be the end for us?

What do you mean, ‘rise from the dead’?

And if we, with the gift of hindsight, were able to be skyped into this conversation, what would you want to ask Jesus?

We can understand your death by ‘human hands’ but how do you explain being “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?”

Why does God need you to be a sacrifice to take away my sin?

Jesus, did you really die in my place, as my substitute?

And what questions might you want to ask?

Sometimes strident preaching and forthright songs make it awkward or even impossible for us to voice our doubts. Someone might call in the heresy police. We may find other believers full of answers but intimidated by genuine questions.

What faith questions would you like to ask?

How can we foster a fear free climate for the asking of questions?

Remember how Jesus as a young man got disconnected from his parents but when they returned to Jerusalem “they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Luke 2: 46

As he grew, he kept on asking questions and here comes another one:

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

Mark 9: 33-34

It seems they weren’t thinking about questions to do with Jesus and his life and death issues because they were arguing about which of them was the greatest.

They’re like politicians feuding over which person should live in the Prime Minister’s Lodge and which faction should control policy while there’s a country to govern. Farmers to support. Jobs to create.

Peter may have thought he was the greatest because so often he was the first to speak up. Thomas might have argued that his reflective thinking put him ahead of Peter’s impetuous manner by which he put his tongue into gear before thinking which made him so often look like a goose.

Peter, James and John may have said: “It’s obviously one of us who’s the greatest for why did our Lord take us up the Mount of Transfiguration while you were left back at headquarters?”

Amidst this awkward silence, Mark says:

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

Mark 9: 35

He sat down. This is the stance of the rabbi getting ready to teach. He sat down when he delivered the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. This action tells us that he’s got something very special to say now.

He called the twelve. He made sure they were all there. He wanted them each to hear this very important statement.

He said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

It’s fascinating the way we slice and dice the notion of greatness and use different measures.

At school, greatness might be determined by our size and height, by intelligence, by how well we pass exams or how beautiful we look.

People determine greatness by athletic ability and sporting performance.

Competitions such as The Best and Fairest, the Coleman medal and the Grand Final stimulate our quest to discover Who is the Greatest.[9]

In business and politics, greatness can be achieved by our connections, our social pedigree, our wealth and fund-raising ability.

In society generally, permanent residency and citizenship gives a head start over new migrants and those seeking asylum. Our racial background and our gender can be a plus or a minus. Sexual orientation, whether you’re married, single, divorced or otherwise are determinants of greatness or the extent to which we are welcomed and accepted.

When it comes to the church, greatness and power can be determined by all the above and also by ordination and office, by those with upfront roles, by the length of time we have been in membership and perceptions of whether we have been movers and shakers.

Jesus turns all these measurements upside down and says:

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

Then to get this message across, Jesus, has a visual aid:

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms,”

Mark 9: 36

This is a little child he puts before them. Small enough to be taken up into his arms.

He’s not trying to illustrate cuteness but value. In his society, children were at the bottom of the heap. They were the last. They couldn’t work on the farm or in the carpenter’s shop. They were just another mouth to feed. But they did represent the future. The hope was they’d support you when you were old but at the moment they’re at the bottom of the pile.

You can just imagine Jesus standing in the middle of the circle with the child and all his disciples standing around the room looking guilty because they’d been arguing about who was the greatness. As Jesus wheels around the room, eyeballing them, with this child on his hip he says:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9: 37

Jesus is modelling what we’re to do with our hands and arms. His teaching is hands on. It’s such a contrast to his earlier statement about “the Son of Man [who] is to be betrayed into human hands.” He makes us think of hands that kill and hands that welcome.

The child he holds, represents children literally and they make us think of the extent to which children are welcomed at ABC and delighted in and brought right into the midst of the life of our church community.

How do we teach them? How do they teach us?

How well do we know the children at ABC?

Where are the stumbling blocks? How are they sidelined?

Which is a big part of what Beth Barnett will be talking about at our forthcoming Church family Camp.

The child also represents, the weakest, the most vulnerable, the ones who are considered to be less valuable than the others.

Jesus gives this incredibly radical thought:

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me

If you want to encounter Jesus, get involved with children. Meet Jesus in the face of the weak, the despised, the ones who don’t get much of a welcome in our society.

For an extra benefit Jesus says:

and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

This is how we will meet the One who sent Jesus, the living God.

We’ve been thinking about our church and how we can foster the freedom and confidence to ask questions.

Now as we leave we’re challenged by Jesus who’s carrying a child in his arms. His invitation is that, as we receive children, as we value the weak and the most vulnerable, we’ll be welcoming Christ and the One who sent him.

Isn’t that an exciting prospect?

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

Mark 9:30-37 

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Icebreaker

“If you’re ever going to write a sensational movie script, it’ll help if you can conjure a classic line.”

Have you ever had a dream of writing a movie script?

What memorable line in a movie do you enjoy the most?

What movie cliché gets up your nose?

‘They were afraid to ask’

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Mark 9: 30-32

When and why are you afraid to ask questions?

What were the questions you think the disciples were too afraid to ask Jesus?

If you could be skyped into this conversation, what question would you have liked to ask Jesus?

What faith questions generally do you want to ask?

How can we foster a fear free climate for the asking of questions?

The Question Jesus Asks the Disciples

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

Mark 9: 33-34

The disciples had personal greatness on their minds. In what ways is our arguing distracting us from asking the important questions?

What are the most popular measures of greatness in contemporary society?

Where and when is greatness dominating our thinking as followers of Jesus today?

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

Mark 9: 35

What would this mean for those disciples and what does it mean for you?

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9: 36-37

What is Jesus illustrating as he takes up a little child?

What does this mean for us today?

What are the gifts of extending such a welcome and bestowing such value?

Prayer

Pray for each other the freedom from fear to ask the essential questions.

Pray for the love to welcome the little and the last.

Pray that we might truly know this week when we are welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him.

 

[1] THR Staff, ‘Hollywood’s 100 Favorite Movie Quotes’, The Hollywood Reporter, 24 February 2016.

[2] ScreenCraft, 35 Most Overused Lines in Movies, The Blog, Huffington Post, December 6 2017.

[3] ‘Immediately’ is used 11 times in Mark’s Gospel.

[4] Mark 8: 27; Mark 10:32.

[5] ‘Son of Man’ appears 14 times in Mark’s Gospel.

[6] Mark 8: 17, 21.

[7] Michael Schaub, ‘Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ is the fastest-selling book in Simon & Schuster’s history’, L A Times, September 19, 2018.

[8] Jamie Gangel; Dan Merica, ‘Bob Woodward’s new book puts readers face to face with Trump’, CNN.

[9] All competitions and awards for the AFL (Australian Football League).