A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 23, 2012.
Psalm 1:1-6; Mark 9:30-37
Sometimes I tend to look at scripture from a three-dimensional perspective. What I mean is that I can’t help but place myself inside whatever is going on, imagining myself as a part of the story. That way, I can view what is happening from all sides.
My nephew has this gift in spades. A few years ago, when he and his dad visited with us, we took them to see Central High School. Dylan stood across the street for the longest time simply taking in the site. What his dad told me was that he was imagining himself, in panorama-style, involved in the scene of the events that took place in 1957 when Central High was integrated. He was feeling internally what it must have been like, and how it all played out. He does the same with Civil War battle sites near where he lives in Maryland.
I’m certainly not as gifted at this as is my nephew Dylan, but occasionally I can interject myself in the scriptural story. That’s true especially with some of the gospel narratives. Do you ever do that? Put yourself in the place of those who are depicted in scripture?
Take our reading from Mark for example. But as we do, let’s set the context and maybe that will help you see more clearly what I’m trying to say.
First of all, Jesus and his disciples are traveling through Galilee. That’s their home country. They know every nook and cranny, every crack in the road. I often tell folks that after living on the other side of the big river for twenty-two years, we had to come home to Arkansas to get happy. Well, Jesus and his crew have been in Gentile territory, and now they’ve come home. Somehow, though, I don’t think they did it to get happy. Still, being home had to bring a real sense of comfort, if not simply familiarity.
So why does Jesus not want anyone to know they are there? You’d think they would have sent out press releases, or at least messengers in advance to announce their arrival. After all, Jesus had had his greatest success in Capernaum of Galilee. Sure, he had run into a buzz saw in his very own hometown where that little episode didn’t turn out so well, but the people of Capernaum and the outlying area had embraced him in a way that surely made his heart glad. He had performed every kind of miracle. He had healed the sick, cast out demons, cleansed the lepers, even brought the dead back to life. Galilee, Jesus’ backyard, especially his adopted hometown of Capernaum, had been good to him.
Maybe that’s why he wanted to keep his presence a secret. Perhaps he was tired and wanted some rest, knowing that if the people found out he was back they’d have every sick person for miles around at his doorstep. Right now, Jesus doesn’t need popularity, he needs recuperation.
But I’m not sure that’s it; at least, not entirely. Galilee, at this point in Jesus’ ministry, is simply a place on the road from Caesarea Philippi, where he’s been, to Jerusalem, the place he is going. If he is ever going to get his disciples to understand his mission, something they’ve obviously not been able to do so far, it is while they are traveling that he must pound it in them. At this particular point in his ministry, Jesus doesn’t have time for those who need his healing power. He is too busy trying to get his followers to see what is going to happen to him when he butts heads with the religious authorities in the Holy City.
“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands,” he tells them, speaking of himself in the third person, “and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” That’s the lesson he’s trying to get them to understand. But they just don’t get it.
They don’t get it because they’ve got other ideas in mind, and this is the point at which I can’t help but inject myself into the story. I see myself as one of his disciples, traveling with him, listening to him, and not learning a blessed thing from him. Why? Because I’m too busy with my own agenda, that’s why.
It’s funny that he doesn’t say anything to them on the road. He waits until they get home in Capernaum. It’s probably Simon’s house, the very place where Jesus had healed Simon’s mother-in-law (are you familiar with that story?), the house where the four friends tore a hole in the roof to lower their crippled friend down to Jesus because there were so many people in their way that they couldn’t reach him, the house where Jesus was teaching when his mother and brothers and sisters came to retrieve him because they had been hearing some reports about his really strange behavior, the house where Jesus is reported to have said, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Those who do the will of my Father in heaven are my mother and brother and sister.” That house. Jesus has used it as his Capernaum headquarters.
They washed the road dust off their feet, maybe had a meal together, and now have settled down for an evening discussion with their Master. This was their favorite time of the day, when Jesus tells them stories about the kingdom, weaves his insight and understanding of God’s purpose into the teachings that are reserved only for them and not given to the masses. This is their personal time with the One to whom they have committed their lives, their futures.
And the first thing out of his mouth is, “What were you arguing about on the way?” Uh oh. He heard what we were saying, huh? You know, you just can’t get anything by Jesus. He hears everything. It’s been said he has such sensitivity that he can see the grass grow. Well, it’s not just what he sees. He can hear the flutter of a fly’s wing, he’s that good! It shouldn’t be surprising that he heard what we were saying on the way in to Capernaum. You just can’t get anything by Jesus.
And for once Simon Peter, who so often opened his mouth only to insert his foot, doesn’t say a blessed thing. None of us do. Why should we? Why should we incriminate ourselves? Jesus already knows what we’ve been talking about. He only asks the question so we’ll know he is aware of our little debate on the road. You want to know what we’ve been discussing? We’ve been arguing among ourselves as to who is the greatest; that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been playing “King of the Hill.”
The greatest of what? The twelve disciples? Doesn’t that designation belong to Simon Peter? Or what about James and John? It seems that every time something significant happens, these three are in the middle of it.
This story falls on the heels of the Transfiguration, with a healing story in between. The healing story has to do with the disciples’ inability to help a boy who displays the obvious signs of epilepsy. Jesus tells them they are unable to do so because they are not familiar with the power of prayer. Then, they immediately enter into an argument over who is the greatest. Doesn’t compute, does it?
Earlier, when Jesus was transfigured, all dressed in brilliant white while talking with Moses and Elijah, it was Simon Peter who suggested they put up three tents or tabernacles for them. James and John were there to see it too, to take it all in. Were all twelve disciples arguing about who would be the greatest among them, or who was the greatest of just these three?
We’re all aware that Mrs. Zebedee, the mother of James and John, had put her boys up to asking Jesus to elevate them to the two top positions of authority and honor when he was to come into his kingdom. Surely that was out of a sense of jealousy toward Simon Peter. They’re all from the same hometown, are in the same business, and know each other quite well. She is aware that Simon is a climber. Well, she can play that game too. So yeah, we can see why Simon Peter and the Zebedee brothers could possibly duke it out for the top spot in Jesus’ coming administration, with Mrs. Zebedee on the sidelines telling her boys what to do.
What were you arguing about on the way?
Real men may not eat quiche, but they own up to their shortcomings, their failures. When Jesus asks this question, we wait for Simon or James or John to step up and admit to what they’ve done. But they don’t. Every one of them, every last one of them, keeps his mouth shut. Why have they become so afraid to admit to Jesus what they’ve been thinking and talking about?
Maybe it is because, while many if not most of us have at least at some time in our lives had dreams of ambition and greatness, it is not something you want to admit to anyone. People don’t generally take well to those who are pushy and want to make prominent places for themselves.
Perhaps that is why we have this innate distrust of politicians. Those who seek political office, especially those who want to be president, toss their ambitions out there in the public arena for everyone to see. It takes ego to aspire to high office, and we have a latent distrust of ego. Oh sure, most politicians frame their desires as wanting to serve the people, but the very people they say they want to serve have the tendency to look right through their motives and see them for what they think they really and truly are… those who say they would serve us want their measure of fame, they want to be great in the eyes of the public. It all has to do with personal desire and ego. And while that may not be true in every case, my guess is that most people think it is true. All you have to do is read the letters to the editor to see the basic distrust people have of those who seek public office.
But truth be told, while some of us may not have the willingness to cast our ambition into the public arena as do those who seek office, we all want to be great, to be seen and heard and trusted and followed, to be admired by others. And when the disciples of Jesus get caught red-handed at this, they don’t want to admit to their ambitions. I have a feeling there’s not a person in this room who doesn’t understand that.
Did you notice that Jesus does not berate them for their behavior? He simply provides his disciples an object lesson, in response to their arguing over greatness, by taking a child into his arms.
Whose child was it? Does that matter? Well, it might. If indeed they were in Simon’s home, it might have been the Big Fisherman’s own child that Jesus calls to him. That would be especially significant if Simon had won the argument they had been having with one another. Jesus places the child in the middle of the room, then takes him into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.” Trust me, this is not just another cute story about Jesus and the little children.1 Jesus is saying that, if they are to follow him, they must embrace him and his message. There is no other way.
Have you picked up a child lately, taken one into your arms? What is required for you to do so? You have to let go of whatever it is you are holding. You have to turn your back on whatever it was that prior to this held your attention. You have to give yourself fully to the little one that is now in your arms. This is Jesus’ way of telling his followers, and that would include you and me, that true greatness is letting go, not holding on to, one’s ambitions.
A corporate personnel manager, in speaking one time to a civic club, told them that whenever a junior executive joined his organization the first thing he looked for was whether this person wanted to be something or do something. This is where he was coming from: whenever a decision had to be made, the person who wanted to be something was asking, “How can I use this situation to advance my own personal cause? How can I make the decision so that my career will be helped?” On the other hand, the person who wanted to do something simply asked, “What needs to be done here?” Then, that person is able to make the required decisions to accomplish the task, even if it calls for personal sacrifice or loss.
This manager stated that, over the course of a career, the person who wanted to do something, rather than be something, was worth at least a million dollars more to his or her corporation.2
Apply that to the story we read earlier from Mark’s gospel which occurs rather late in Jesus’ public ministry. Remember that in his Sermon on the Mount, which took place early in his ministry, Jesus referred to his followers as the light of the world, the salt of the earth. He didn’t say they had to become either of those realities; he said they already were. It was Jesus’ way of saying that his disciples had value and worth, not because of what they were able to accomplish, but because they already possessed the worth that is neither earned or achieved. It is God’s free gift just as much as the air we breathe.
In other words, significance is not a question of our being empty and needing to fill ourselves by achieving; it is more a matter of accepting the fullness God has placed within us and learning to empty this in love to others.3 It means there is only one “King of the Hill,” and we know who that King is. What we need to realize now is that the hill is called Calvary, and what Jesus did in giving of himself, we need to do likewise.
Help us, O Lord, not to ask for greatness but for the heart of a servant. Find us humbled in your presence, ready and willing to be your presence in our world. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Nathan G. Jennings, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 93.
2John Claypool, AThe Secret of Greatness,@ (unpublished sermon, November 14, 1971).