Proper 20 – Series B
Last week, in the reading which immediately precedes the Gospel reading for this week, Jesus is the only one who can rescue a boy possessed by a demon. No one else can help this child. Even the disciples fail. The demon which has possessed him is so stubborn that only Jesus can solve this problem. Hence, before such a problem, the only hope is prayer, the plaintive cry of God’s Christian people of every generation: Lord, have mercy. Or as the father said last week, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!” When we sing the Kyrie Eleison we take our place in line with the lepers, the blind, the lame, the parents of demon possessed children, and the corpses of biblical stories and every age. Only Jesus can solve this problem.
This week, Jesus turns the Roman world upside down. According to Jesus success is not measured in how many servants you have, who bows down when you walk into the room, or what sort of obeisance they pay to you. (The Romans actually prescribed that for certain offices people were supposed to bow down this far, say these words, etc. Of course, for the emperor, one was supposed to bow very low, and say just the right words.) In God’s kingdom success is measured in the number that you serve and the lowliness of those to whom you bend in service. Many of us have an apple or peach or other such fruit tree in the yard. If you have not already picked the fruit, this is the time when it may be laden. The most fruitful tree bends closest to the ground. In the kingdom of God, the back bent in service belongs to the highest of authority. Indeed, Jesus, God’s only Son and the rightful heir of heaven, will serve all of mankind in his suffering and death upon a cross, not the just folks like me, but the homeless, the addict, and the prostitute. He won’t roll his window down and pass loose change to the man who is holding the cardboard sign at the top of the exit ramp. He dies for that man or woman. He will bend lower than any of us so that he might exercise his heavenly Lordship of all.
To illustrate the point, Jesus takes a little child into his arms and tells the disciples who were arguing about greatness that this child is great in God’s eyes. Greatness is measured in service, not in servants. Whoever serves such a weak and helpless one, that person is serving God himself. Luke, in his telling of this story, uses the more precise term, just what you would expect of a doctor. He calls this child a “brephes” or infant. It referred to a child who could not speak. Since children learn to speak sometime around the age of 18-24 months typically, that gives us a little better idea of this child. Jesus was truly talking about little people.
According to ancient tradition, but still only tradition, this child was named Ignatius and would grow up and live to a very ripe old age for the ancient world, over 80. He would be called to the office of bishop in Antioch, the famous Christian center that had sent Paul on his missionary journeys. Accused of being a Christian, he would be convicted and sentenced to die before the emperor in Rome in the arena, devoured by wild beasts. The icon to the right shows him serene while lions attack him. I will include the 2
letter he wrote to the Church in Rome as he was being transported to his death. It appears from the letter that the Roman Christians were filing an appeal on his behalf, trying to get him an amnesty based upon his old age. He urges them to do no such thing. He wants the crowds of Rome to see him die and to realize that their evil policy of persecuting Christians is counterproductive and causing wrongful death. He also longs to be with Christ and to be like Christ in every way, including Christ’s suffering and death. He wants to lay down his life to save others. He lives out these words of Jesus, even if he is not the actual child whom Jesus held in his arms this day.
The preacher today will want to ask some questions about just what is a child, what makes one a child? What does it mean to serve the little ones, the children? What does that look like? What is Jesus saying here and how do we apply that to our lives. Clearly Jesus has in mind his own death and resurrection, but how does that cruciform act take shape now in my life? This is a sermon on the theology of the cross again, but this time it has an interesting twist. The cross as service, especially humble service to the least.
Collect of the Day
O God, whose strength is made perfect in weakness, grant us humility and childlike faith that we may please You in both will and deed; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. God has all the power. If he doesn’t he is not really God. Anselm seemed to answer that question for us a thousand years ago. If there is anything strong, good, or perfect, more so than anything else in all the universe, or even the universe itself, that one has to be God. But God’s strength in the mystery of the incarnation is perfected in an act of weakness. You have to understand the word perfected. We tend to put much too strong of a moral tenor on that word. It is not that God’s strength was lacking, either in moral fiber or some strength, but that its ultimate goal was to be found in the great act of salvation. God’s strength is not strong just to be strong, God is strong in order to save. His strength has a goal, a telos, an end to which it strives, and it reached that goal through setting aside strength for weakness. Reaching that goal it is fulfilled/perfected/accomplished.
Think of all the stories in the Bible other than Jesus in which is plays out. Gideon sends home all but 300 of his men to combat a mighty army, Samson is a fool. David is morally compromised. Even wicked Ahab. Did you know he fought in the battle of Qarqar, one of the greatest events of the first millennium BC. He is mentioned on a famous stele which commemorated the event. The Bible says nothing about that. We get the story Ahab and Jezebel taking Naboth’s vineyard and God’s forgiveness and mercy shown to Ahab. Peter is a bit thick at times. God does not call winners to himself, or work through the strong and mighty most of the time. There were no Roman grandees among his disciples. His great strength is made perfect in weakness. 3
God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. Paul really hammers that in I and II Corinthians. God chooses us, he has all the power, but he sends us, works through us and we are weak. Paul had his thorn in the flesh and God did not take it away. It was through the frailty of his human weakness that God worked. The conversion of sinners, the salvation of the world happens through the weakness of our words, spoken by broken, sinful people. Absolution, forgiveness, the words we speak, seem so weak when you look at them but we confess that they are powerful words conveyed through weakness. Real things happen when we speak such words. They are endowed with the power of God, the Spirit of God works in us. Hollywood does not see this, at least not often. Michael Bay will not make a movie about being Christian because it does not involve massive explosions and computer generated monsters stomping on San Francisco. (Have you ever wondered why that poor city gets so beat up in movies? Godzilla, Monsters vs Aliens, etc.)
This prayer seems to be I Corinthians 1:25, restated, that God’s weakness is stronger than the strength of men and his foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men.
God has demonstrated his weakness through the incarnation of Jesus. He does this because he loves his children, his creation. He robes himself in our humanity so that he can be the real answer to our brokenness. God’s unlimited power without love is meaningless, or worse it is just evil. Except God’s power be subordinated to the love of God, he is indistinguishable from Satan. Likewise with us. Without love all our wisdom, faith, and knowledge are meaningless, (cf. I Corinthians 13.) Without love, all God’s power is meaningless. For God is Love, I John 4.
We live in a culture that is fixated upon power – in part that is simply due to humanity’s fall into sin, but also probably due to our Calvinist roots in North American Protestantism. How many of the songs which are running around in the contemporary music scene are not paeans to God’s power? Is God’s power enough? Or does that power need to be completed in love?
We pray that God will grant us humility like that of Jesus. Humility is a much misunderstood word in our vocabulary. Humility is only possible by great people. If a worthless worm says he is a worthless worm, that is not humility; that is honesty. Humility is when the powerful, the strong, the capable, the wise, and/or the skilled stop to serve the one who is less strong, capable, wise, or skilled. I like to use the illustration of playing basketball. I am a terrible basketball player. I really stink at it. It is no act of humility for me to play ball with a child. There is a good chance that kid will beat me. But if some NBA star walked in the room and offered to shoot a few hoops with the kid, that would be humility. He is bending down to play with a child. For me to call that humility is to acknowledge his greatness as well.
God has already made us great. We are the children of God, we are the heirs of heaven, we are the redeemed of the Lord, we are the sanctified in Christ, possessors of the Holy Spirit, etc. humility is not a denial of those things, but the acknowledgment of those things but then turning around the serve the poor in spirit, the lame in heart, the outcasts from the kingdom, and the weaklings in faith. 4
We then ask God to give us the childlike faith that pleases God in word and deed. What is it about the faith of a child that is so pleasing? Is it really that it does not question? Is it purity? Is it the guileless nature of children? I have children, I know they are not guileless, they do doubt, and they are not pure. What makes faith childlike is that a child is utterly dependent upon its parents. The faith which pleases God is the faith that turns to him for the solution to our most profound problems, the faith that prays with the father of last week’s lesson, “Lord, help me!” We are childlike not when we get it right, are innocent, or pure, but when we have made a total mess of things and we turn to God with tears streaming down our face and cry out to him because he is the only one who can fix this. Just as a child will turn to her parents and bury her tearful face in her father’s strong shoulder. Fathers everywhere know the feeling of having a child expect you to fix the problem and having to say, “I can’t.” When the model airplane is in tiny little pieces, when the glass is broken, when the cut is deep, I really cannot fix it. I may be able to help, but I cannot really fix it.
Our heavenly Father never has to admit that he cannot fix it. He has the power remember. There is no problem we lay at God’s feet that he will not undo. He dries every tear, he has every resource. He can fix the most stubborn of problems, the adult mentally ill child, the heart broken in divorce, the diabetes, the cancer, the MS. He can fix them all.
It is the life freed of the burden of having to be perfect, of having to get it right, of having to please God, that life truly pleases God. He wants our hearts, you see, not simply a life which is busily keeping his rules. He wants our hearts, the earnest and honest and loving creation, like a child handing the crudely drawn picture to his parent. God loves that picture. He has my crude art and school picture on his refrigerator not because I got it right but because he loves me.
14 “Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble. 15 What right has my beloved in my house, when she has done many vile deeds? Can even sacrificial flesh avert your doom? Can you then exult? 16 The LORD once called you ‘a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit.’ But with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed. 17 The LORD of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you, because of the evil that the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done, provoking me to anger by making offerings to Baal.”
18 The LORD made it known to me and I knew; then you showed me their deeds. 19 But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, 5
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” 20 But, O LORD of hosts, who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause.
21 Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the men of Anathoth, who seek your life, and say, “Do not prophesy in the name of the LORD, or you will die by our hand”— 22 therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: “Behold, I will punish them. The young men shall die by the sword, their sons and their daughters shall die by famine, 23 and none of them shall be left. For I will bring disaster upon the men of Anathoth, the year of their punishment.”
Jeremiah’s poem/prayer which comprises our reading is found embedded in a longer prose narrative. I have included the verses immediately before and after. The part before explains why the people are so angry with Jeremiah that some would kill him. He is conveying the bitter message of God’s implacable wrath against the idolatry of the city. They did not want to hear that. We also are prone to grow angry when God’s word points out our modern idolatries.
The passage after this poem gives us an idea of what Jeremiah’s concerns are. Apparently some men of Anathoth, Jeremiah’s home town, are plotting to kill him. God tells him not to worry about them. But you can imagine that poor Jeremiah is terrified by this. Do you think God’s admonition here really calms that terror? Prophets have a relatively short life-expectancy after all.
Jeremiah has a tough job. His message is running against every wind of politics, public opinion, and the desires of his own heart. He has to tell the Jews that their nation is going to fall, the king will fail, the army will be beaten, their city walls will be breached and they will die by the thousands and the survivors will be chained together and marched into a shameful exile in Babylon. Jeremiah is also is a pain the moral shorts. He is constantly pointing out the moral and spiritual failures of the kings.
You can imagine that he ran into some resistance and several passages in Jeremiah suggest that political intrigues, overt violence, and even mobs all acted against the prophet. Here he seems to be dealing with one of those moments of political intrigue. As we note above, the people of his own home town are so distressed by what he is saying that they are conspiring to kill him. They have devised a plan to leave him childless, a terrible thing in ancient Israel. It was effectively cutting him off from the promise of Abraham, that a descendent would be the Messiah.
God has revealed to Jeremiah his peril and Jeremiah recapitulates his situation in this little poem which makes up our reading. He is a lamb led to the slaughter, oblivious to what is going 6
on. He had no idea. Now, Jeremiah was not politically naïve. In his younger days he had been one of the close advisors to good king Josiah, the reformer who finally tore down the high places dedicated to Baal and Asherah. He remodeled the temple and had undertaken a number of religious reforms. Jeremiah knew what it was to have powerful people working against him.
But here he is taken totally unaware. He only has one helper, God. It is to God he must commit his cause, God is the only one who can help him.
For the preacher today, this is exactly what Jesus means when he takes a child in his arm and says that God is on their side. Jeremiah is childlike in his helplessness. This is the posture of faith. The kingdom is upside down. The strength of God is on the side of the little guy. Jeremiah has to count on that. Jeremiah has no choice.
Jeremiah’s faith is child-like in that he can’t solve this problem. That is God’s job, that is God’s to solve, and Jeremiah realizes that and turns to God and says, “fix this for me!” This resonates with the father desperately appealing to Jesus – looking childish in his foolish words “I believe – help me overcome my unbelief.”
1 O God, save me by your name, and vindicate me by your might. 2 O God, hear my prayer; give ear to the words of my mouth.
3 For strangers have risen against me; ruthless men seek my life; they do not set God before themselves. Selah
4 Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life. 5 He will return the evil to my enemies; in your faithfulness put an end to them.
6 With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you; I will give thanks to your name, O LORD, for it is good. 7 For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.
The ascription for this psalm urges the reader to consider it in light of David’s plight in I Samuel 23 when the Ziphites reveal his hiding place to Saul. He was on the run from Saul with a band of men and the people of the village of Ziph, in the desert regions of southern Judah, ratted him out to Saul. The king came looking with an army. They are chasing David around a mountain at one point when he is saved by word that the Philistines have attacked and Saul is needed elsewhere. 7
Again the Ziphites betray David in chapter 26. This time David sneaks into the camp of Saul while God puts them into a deep sleep. David takes some of Saul’s personal effects and dramatically reveals that he could have killed Saul but spared him. Humiliated by David’s graciousness, Saul returns to his capital never to seek David again. But that may have been due to the fact that he died in chapter 31. In any event, never trust a Ziphite.
David confesses his plight before God. Ruthless and violent men seek his life, much like Jeremiah. These are not aliens and strangers, but folks within the family of Israel. It is the King who wants David dead and it was fellow Jews who sought the life of Jeremiah. Often our worst enemies are not the folks who openly state their hostility, but the people who should be closest to us. The LCMS has a bit of a reputation for fighting most stridently with one another.
But David is not discouraged by this. God is his helper and the upholder of his life. He does not need to fear. He faiths in God, trusting his promise that David would be king. And so David looks forward to the day when he will offer sacrifices to God in the presence of his people. God has always stood by David and that is not about to change. He will triumph over his enemies, just as he triumphed over Goliath.
This confident hope and trust could make an excellent sermon. The trick will be not to leave the doubting, wavering man or woman convinced that her faith is a failure. Rather, point them to the many times that God has come through for them and urge them to look forward to the next time.
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you 8
double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
James sounds so marvelously optimistic here. And he should. After all, does not God pledge himself to fight by our side? Does not Jesus himself contend with the Devil and claim the victor’s prize, you and me? Does not the Holy Spirit himself dwell within us?
James points us to the bitter reality that the externals of keeping the law are not really what this is about. This is about my heart. I firmly believe that the most neglected commandments in the great list of ten are not the adultery commandment, nor even the false witness commandment, but it is the coveting commandments. If you work out from the fifth commandment, which starts with the value of my neighbor’s physical life, we progress through his family relationships, on to his possessions, then on to his reputation. The last two commandments really are about my feelings toward my neighbor.
The truth is that I might not steal or sleep with his wife or hurt him in the least, but I can harbor all sorts of crud against him in my heart and it will eventually show up.
James speaks of the wisdom from above which he says is first “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” Those words are great but the preacher needs to put some reality into them, because they sound so much like church words to so many people that they don’t really know what it means.
I like to think that keeping the coveting commandments involves me laughing when my neighbor laughs, rejoicing when he rejoices, weeping with him on the day of his sorrow, and fearing for his safety when he is in danger.
This sounds easy enough, but just try it. A couple of years ago, when times were really good, my neighbor bought a beautiful brand new Volvo for his wife on her birthday. I was driving a mini-van, of a certain vintage. It had more than a few blemishes and was not a terribly sporty vehicle. It would be very easy to be jealous of him. That covetousness would see that car as an affront to my own self finally. I could not abide by his joy, but would seek to ruin it. I would not steal the car; I am too afraid that I would be thrown in jail, so I will steal his joy. I will tell him that I read the consumer report on his car and that it isn’t very good. I will notice that this model of Volvo is prone to needing expensive repairs. I will tell him that my friend on the other side of town got a better deal. I will not rob him of his car, but of his joy. I would not smile and rejoice with him on the day of his great gift giving joy.
Then, a few months after he purchased it, I noticed his teenage son’s car parked in front of their house. It is a modest but nice little Honda Civic. The freshly crushed fender was the result of a non-injury accident. No one suffered but the car, really. But it did suffer a pretty ugly fender. Now my neighbor is sad. The car was not a fancy car, but it was a good car for a young man to drive. Now my covetous heart would rejoice on the day of my neighbor’s grief. I would hide my 9
face, if I am able, smirking behind my hand when I see that crumpled fender. And I would sin against him and against God. My heart would be in the wrong place.
This is just part of this wisdom from above, there are many examples of this, and many ways that it might be lived out. My attitude toward my neighbor, filled with the love of God, is capable of tremendous good in my life and theirs. The devil himself cannot stand before the power of that love, for God is behind that power. James exhorts us to grieve and mourn for our feelings, God will exalt us, and he has.
James makes another important connection for us. Our fighting, in our homes, in our parishes, in our Synod, is because we have subjected ourselves to the world. There are many who contend mightily and imagine they do so in the name of God and for the sake of purity and the truth of the Gospel, but I question whether much of the wrangling I see is really so good. It seems too often to me that it is just another form of worldly power-grabbing and self-promotion. There are days in which I have come to loathe conventions as the spectacle of petty people squabbling over the meager remains of a once beautiful Synod. Those are not my only days or even my better days. But I wonder what James would say if he read the blogs and chat rooms frequented by LCMS officials, pastors, and others in the lead up to a national convention. What would he say about the apocalyptic fervor with which we build to conventions and the words/behavior of many on both sides of the issues at those conventions? Is it of God or of this world? Like Jeremiah’s audience, I am not sure I want to hear the answer to that question. I don’t buy the argument that if the other side is doing it, we must meet such behavior with similar behavior.
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
How much of this pericope is a chastisement of those who seek power and how much of it is an encouragement of those who genuinely serve. How do we slay that sinful urge we all have for power in order that a true and Godly service may flourish? How do we redirect the imagination of our hearers to see another good? How do we ask the hearer to see another telos or goal to 10
their own lives? Dave Ramsey in his Christian financial advice points people toward becoming a Christian who gives, who lives as if the stuff is not theirs. Right now he sees people who complain because they don’t have, but are in debt because they keep wanting to acquire more stuff. He asks them to envision/reimagine becoming a person who will give. This takes small steps, and he outlines them, and there is a danger of serious spiritual pride in all this, but he is really asking people to reimagine a new sort of person that they will become. He has redirected their telos.
Jesus is looking to tell this to the disciples alone. He has been trying to do this for some time. Even the journey up to Tyre was an attempt to get alone. Finally, it appears, he found it. He got them alone, and he discovers that much of what he has said did not take; they did not get it. We are incredibly success oriented and stubbornly insistent that success, as we measure it, is the measure of our life. But success as the world measures, the measure of the disciples in this text, is not Jesus’ measure. Jesus is emptying himself on a cross. To the disciples he looks like a loser. But the cross is the victory. In weakness God’s strength is found to be complete/perfect. In dying is life and in what looks like a failure is the real success.
Jesus speaks of his death and the disciples are depicted as children. He tells them exactly what is going to happen but they just don’t get it. They argue about who will be the prime minister in Jesus’ new kingdom and who is going to have to be the secretary of agriculture or something like that. Jesus confronts them, and will you just look at these guys!? They look just like my children when I confront them about who left the back porch a muddy mess. They all look at the floor and hope that Jesus won’t notice them. They have nothing to say.
Jesus sits down, assumes the posture of a teacher, and calls the twelve to himself. The first must be last and servant of all. He turns the whole world upside down. Greatness in the kingdom is not measured by the office you hold or the power you wield but in the service you render. He takes a little child puts him in their midst. He puts his arms around the child, and here we ought to remember the fact that recently we have heard of Jesus touching the seemingly dead demoniac child in the previous story and holding the deaf and mute man so that he was face to face. He puts his arms around this child, since he is seated, you can imagine him looking over the little one’s shoulder and into the eyes of his disciples. If you so much as receive a little one like this, a child, helpless and weak, in my name, you are receiving me. If you receive me then you also are receiving the one who sent me, that is God Father.
I love the picture of Jesus looking intensely over the shoulder of that child. Situated behind those large, childish brown eyes, and he meets their chagrined gazes. They cannot look at him and not see the child. They cannot look at the child and not see him. The following words of Jesus are rather frightening and will show up next week. After John and James note someone who is casting out demons in Jesus name, Jesus picks up the children motif again, but this time speaks of them as “little ones.” 11
42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
Jesus really thinks quite a lot of children, you see. They are extremely important to him. In fact, greatness in the kingdom of heaven is measured by your service to the little ones and your judgment will be rendered based on how you treat them. God will not look favorably upon the one who leads them to sin. Our fellow Christians in Catholicism are dealing with this right now. Better that one be simply cast into the sea with a great weight around your neck. The sharks and fish of the sea will devour you and no one will visit your grave and put flowers on it. (That was a big deal for people of the first century – that your grave be honored was important to them. It was a great curse to be drown or buried at sea.) But that is better than what God will do to you.
Perhaps it is best to recap what we have been doing thus far in the chapter.
In the first story of the chapter Jesus takes Peter, James, and John go up the mountain and see Jesus for what he really is, revealed in glory. He is God’s Son, Moses and Elijah, the paragons of Old Testament Law and Prophets speak with him.
In the next story Jesus helps the demoniac child when the disciples cannot.
Here we see Jesus predict his death (not for the first time) and disciples totally miss the point
Then he grabs a child and says – little people are really important to God, in fact, when you serve them, you serve God.
It seems to me that the juxtaposition of Jesus glory, his unmatched power, his passion/death/resurrection and this child are just too close not to be significant. Mark wants to highlight the tension of the passion of Christ and the mission of the church. Jesus has all the power but humbly serves the child, gently taking him in his arms and declaring that he and the Father are united to this child. To receive the child is to receive God himself. Our access point to the very power of God is through humble service. The power is there. Jesus has it. But his invitation is to take up a cross and follow him.
Mark won’t let you forget that this is the same guy who has all the glory (transfiguration) and wields singular power (the demoniac child). This powerful and glorious Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die for all. He practices what he preaches, he, the greatest of all, is the servant of all.
But this is not a description of only Jesus, it is also a description of those who follow Jesus. When the disciples don’t translate this into their own lives, Jesus sits them down and shows them. This has to be about them too. This servant character of Jesus is also then the servant character of the people of God. Jesus will serve by surrendering his life on that cross. That sacrificial love which puts even lowly weak and small people before self is the mark of the Christian. We look like Jesus when we are serving, especially when we serve the little and the 12
least, the unimportant, the disposable people. Christianity became an explosive movement in the first centuries when it said that a slave and free man were the same before God, when Jew and Scythian were the same, when it said men and women were equally loved by the same gracious Father, so Paul could call them all “brothers.”
We want to look like Jesus, the kingdom of heaven looks like Jesus. He is the king after all. That means we are servant people. The child focuses us on that point today, but in the process also focuses us on something else. The people we serve, the little ones, the children, the little old ladies, the man whose body is ravaged by heart disease or cancer, the leper, the poor man, they are all terribly important to God.
This text takes two separate messages and combines them into one incredibly potent message. To the weak and the helpless person, we say that God is for you. You are so important to God that he has become one with you. But we also say that this means I am for you. And through my hands God will act, through my words, God will speak, through my life, God will give life. I can hardly wait to get started helping you.
God can feed the entire planet of hungry people if he wanted to do it with power. He has that much power. But what he is really interested in is whether you want to do it, whether it is your joy to feed that hungry man or woman whom you meet, not that the person gets fed. The begrudgingly given gift is not really a gift, you see. God does not need the gift, but he wants the gift giver, the joyfully given, the delightedly done deed.
Of course for the faithful, this is all predicated upon the fact that this is the way God has been acting in my life all along. God has always been helping me, he has always been working through the people around me. I don’t need to work very hard to imagine that, I can simply remember my mother, my father, my friends, my spouse, and a countless host of others who have been instruments of God’s grace to me. Now I have the exciting opportunity to be the instrument of God’s grace to another.
I think this is why the disciples themselves look so childlike in this passage. The people who need God’s help, like Jeremiah in the Old Testament lesson, are not just the children in terms of chronology, but anyone who is weak and helpless before the ravages of sin, death, and devil. That’s me too.
Our goal is not that we be loved by God. We already have that Our goal, our target, our perfection, is to be found in giving that love away, donning the towel of a servant, serving the lowest and the least and the last. Loved people simply love people. It is not a matter of having to convince the beloved that they should love, as if it was some moral imperative placed upon us, it is simply the description of who we are.
This story seems to be addressing an issue of pride in the disciples. How do we express that today? How do we refuse to serve the child? After all, LCMS Lutherans are noted for our schools. We serve a lot of children. 13
1. We often get very competitive, even the statement above seems to be comparing us to other churches and wants to find some sort of a favorable thing to say about ourselves. But Jesus tells us here – He loves them all – even the folks we think are not worthy of that love. He loves especially them.
2. We have doctrine right – but we can at times be terribly right, almost pharisaical, unable to associate with any other Christians. This has frequently isolated us from fellow Christians. But Jesus says this child who might not even be able to say the ten commandments, recite the Lord’s Prayer, or even the basic elements of this correct doctrine, this child is really important to God.
3. The self-sufficiency issue. We won’t accept God’s help; we are going to do it ourselves. We too often struggle to buy what God has already given us. We too often try to dictate the course of events to God instead of simply following him. But Jesus holds up a child, helpless and powerless, unable to feed or care for himself, and says that this is important to God and precious to him. Our self-sufficiency is a delusion and a hindrance.
4. We often use our good doctrine, which should make us the sweetest and most gospel oriented folk on earth, we use that good doctrine as a club to beat on others, both within and without the LCMS, often leaving little room for that Gospel. But Jesus never loses sight of that Gospel nature of his kingdom. He puts his arm around the one who cannot get it right, who cannot fix his own problems, and loves that child with an embrace. He likewise loves his erring disciples with this illustration. He loves them all. That is the first and best thing to say about Jesus. He loved first and taught second.
5. We look for power solutions to problems. We imagine that if we just had the right man elected synodical president or district president, then we would be OK. But will power really solve our problems? The early Church got this so right. They understood that dying as a martyr was the best way for the Christians to change the cruelty of the Romans and their Empire. Jesus saves the world by being betrayed into the hands of sinful men, crucified, died, and buried in a borrowed tomb. Yes, he rose again to new life, but it was through being subjected to torturous death. He does not look strong on that cross.
1. I am small and weak before my enemies. Death awaits me and there is nothing I can do. I am spiritually infantile and helpless.
2. Perhaps nowhere does this become more evident than in my own self-centered pride. I really would like God to notice my good works and come up with some sort of a reward, a just retribution for my efforts. I can just imagine him smiling at me and telling me what a good job I have done. I cannot help myself. Why do I keep thinking this way?
3. And so I start to do this whole ranking thing. I am a little closer than you; I have a collar after all, a preacher’s vocation. I am a servant of God. Before long I am noting and making all the distinctions that God has erased in Christ.
4. And I become the center of my universe, but what a pathetically small place it really is. My own dog probably doesn’t obey me very well, the body doesn’t seem to be on the same page with my delusions about eternal youth. I would enforce my will on others, but that doesn’t go so well either. My empire is really pretty laughable.
5. But laughter is not what I think about this. I am pretty upset about it all. I will lash out at the next voter’s meeting, I decide, or perhaps take it out on the dog next time he transgresses. My world is not going according to plan and someone will pay.
6. My service is grudgingly done, my gifts are all given with a grumble. I am there to serve on the altar guild but it is really eating into my personal time or I will be there for the elders meeting but make it fast.
1. God is large and strong before my enemies. Clothed in beautiful righteousness and speaking with authority to all the enemies which beset me, God is all that I am not.
2. My pride would close my eyes to this, but God will pry them open. Today he stoops down and takes a child in his arms and twinkles his eyes over the youngsters shoulders at me. he really does want me to get this, and he will crush my pride if he has to, and he will open my eyes to see his glorious face in that child.
3. And so I will learn that if I am to serve God it will be on my knees as I wash the feet of a child, pray with my hands on a sick man’s shoulder, feed a homeless person, or teach a Sunday School lesson. My status does not lie in my office, but in my service. Christ has given me the loving heart that loves to serve his little ones.
4. The universe he opens up to me in this is huge. God loves all the little blighters, even me. And now, my service is part of his great scheme to retake the universe and transform this world. The walls and the lid of my little empire are blown apart. The problem which is before me right now, the hungry man, the lonely child, the hurting woman, they are really, really, really important to God. This is why Jesus died, this is why Christ came, this is what it is all about.
5. And so, when it becomes his kingdom and not mine, when being the guy who clips the toenails for the homeless folks in heaven’s park becomes a higher office than prime minister or secretary of state, my bile goes away. The irritant becomes another opportunity for God do something beautiful in my life today.
6. And as a result my life of service is totally transformed into a love of service. I want to be there, because when I help the child my beloved smiles at that, in the humblest deed done in his name, I do it for him, and in doing it for Jesus, I am also doing it for the Father, for almighty and infinite God.
1. Jesus and the little guys – (That the hearer would rejoice that God has intervened on his/her behalf and now invites the hearer to joyfully serve Christ by attending to His little ones)
Our world often seems to be upside down today. The things we think are wrong, are held up as something worthy of praise in this world. The things which we value and esteem are ridiculed and mocked. Recent decisions of legalize drug use, sanction homosexual marriage, and the current political mess confirms what we already knew. The world is upside-down. When was the last time we saw a healthy depiction of a loving and faithful marriage in film or television? How many jokes are not made at the expense of marriage and spouses? When do you see a healthy and normal depiction of a priest or pastor, or even just a real man for that matter? But wait a moment, aren’t we doing now exactly what we ought not do? Aren’t we assuming that we are “grown-up” or better than that and looking down our nose at the media and culture? Isn’t this just what Jesus is talking about? Don’t we look like the disciples here? Does the preacher want to use this sort of discourse to set a bit of a “trap” for his hearers? He talks this way, gets their dander up and then shines the light of this word right on what they are doing as they listen to the sermon. That is a rhetorical trap or hook. It can be effective, but needs some care.
Jesus takes a child today, wraps his arms around the little one and looks his disciples in the eye. He and the child are one, you cannot see one without the other. Taking that child into his arms, Jesus forces us to see Him in the wide eyes of that child. Christ has made himself one with the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human race. That is the strange and, to the world’s perspective, upside down nature of God’s kingdom. Where we would look at the morally pure, or the powerful and wealthy and capable people and put them on top, God sees things just the opposite. His is a servant kingdom. The king sets aside his glorious crown to take up a crown of thorns he wears as he hangs from a cross, the perfect sacrifice for the broken world, dying for the prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners.
The little people are on top, the big people, the greatest of all, are on the bottom. Jesus is the king of this universe, not because he has more power and more servants and wealth than anyone else, but because he gave them up in service to the world. That is the strange 16
- a. First of all, the person who cares with God’s care can count on God’s help. I don’t know exactly what that will look like, but he will get around to it in his own way. He loves the little guy, you are on his team when you help them. God delights in that good work and he will bless it.
- b. Secondly, you can count on God receiving that service as a service rendered to him, no matter who you are serving. He cares for the whole of humanity you see, and when a hungry child is fed or a frightened person is comforted, or a lonely
and upside down way that his kingdom works. We are not called to be moral police, but to love them all, even the really broken ones.
He turns the disciples’ world upside down. They thought it was about who was greatest, but Jesus says it is about who is least, and the servant to the least, the little ones, that is the great one.
This is a serious challenge to our way of thinking. We love power, we love to be on top. We love to compare ourselves to others and notice how we are better. Our human nature understands such comparison and power and so often those things have wormed their way into our lives, our homes, our churches. Jesus words continue to be a challenge to Christians and their churches today. This is what James is talking about too. Are we a country club sort of congregation? Why is it that the most segregated part of American society is Sunday morning worship? Why is it that churches often are found fighting within their own ranks? Why do people have a picture of Christianity today which is of a judgmental and hypocritical bunch of moralists? Do we really get this right?
But Jesus came to love us humbly and in service, you and me. Jesus doesn’t just say it, it does it. Not because we were so worthy of that love, far from it. We had nothing to offer God of ourselves, only our sin, and he really did not want that. But he served us, he died for us. But now he is not done loving the weak and lost in the world. Immediately upon his resurrection, Jesus sent out the disciples to tell the good news to a broken world. Today, you and I have experienced the love of God in the kindness of family, friends, and fellow Christians wherever we have met them. They have taught us, they have fed us, they have cared for us, visited us when sick, and supported us in our need. Because God established a servant kingdom when he wore that thorny crown, his kingdom is a kingdom of servants. This would have resonated with Mark’s audience particularly. Many of them were slaves. And now, when we see the little one among us, be it a child, a person in need, a tearful face, a lonely face, a stranger, a poor man, we are moved by the compassion of Christ to say that God cares about that person, and because God cares so do I. And because God cares he has put me here today, so that through me he might love them the more.
There are a couple of really good things to say about that: 17
- widow hears the knock of a friend on her door, God is right there, he is being served and he loves what you are doing. When you help the child, you help the Lord. Who receives even a little child in Jesus name, receives Jesus himself.
Jesus chides his disciples today. They have gotten it wrong. His words to us also suggest that we have not gotten this right. But Jesus does not send his disciples packing for their dense failure to grasp what he is saying. Rather he teaches them and gives them his own spirit. Eventually all these men will become great servants of God, save the one who betrayed Jesus. They almost all will die a martyr’s death, to bring the good news to little people. That same Jesus is in this room today, teaching this generation of disciples, because he would that they become the same sorts of servants to all the little people of this world. How will we serve them? This does not need to be some enormous or difficult thing. The next time you have an opportunity; take the time to spend a little time with someone. Don’t rush off to your next thing, but honor the person in front of you right now. Listen carefully, no matter who they are, weep with their sorrows, rejoice in their joys.
Jesus has made us all children today. When we look in the mirror, we can see his face too staring back at us. When we turn to one another, we can see his eyes staring back at us. How will we love each other as the people of Jesus loving the people of Jesus and together loving this entire world or simply the guy whom we meet at the grocery store or across the fence today?
2. Make me a real servant! (That the hearer would experience the loving and transformative action of God in these words, confirming and creating them a servant in the Christ-defined Kingdom of God.)
Our old and sinful nature loves to think that wielding power would be so much fun. I could tell them just what flavor of ice cream I want tonight, that infantile old man considers. No more problems, only people jumping to my every whim. But that is not the route to a true happiness, my friends. The old sinner who has made a mess of my life would surely make an even grander mess of that situation.
Christ has a different route to a true and lasting happiness. He wants to blow the lid of your old sinner’s tiny little self-centered world. He wants to plug you into the very power of the universe and fit your life into a work that has cosmic significance. This is our privilege. He wants to save this world, to give it real and lasting life, to give is peace, and hope and joy and health. And he offers you a spot on that team. He gave you that invitation in the waters of your baptism and he renews it every day. It is yours. Own it! Jesus has redeemed your life, taken away your sin and recreated you a living and beautiful citizen of his kingdom, a servant of Christ. 18
Now, be aware, that this cosmic kingdom of God whereby he is saving and healing and helping this world started when Jesus died on that cross those many years ago, the very event that Jesus speaks of in this reading. Jesus clearly charts the disciples role in that, they will not be great in the offices they hold or the power they wield. In God’s eyes, they are great in the service they render. The kingdom of God is funny that way. God puts a lot of our rhetoric into reality. He really is a public servant who really serves, selflessly and totally. He has called you to that same holy life of service that he lived in Jesus. He has created in you a new heart, and a right spirit, to serve with Jesus. You are a citizen of His servant kingdom.
This is a very good thing. It is an honor, a privilege to be one of God’s servants. When we help the child, when we serve the old man or the sick woman or whoever is in need before us, Jesus promises that he sees that, in fact, he is in the very person we serve. We look into their eyes and in faith we look into the very infinite expanse of God. He is there, right there. When we take those hands into ours, when we feed them, we are serving Him. The benefit of this service is right now, not some delayed future benefit, some heavenly reward we are socking away like a celestial IRA. To know/believe that Christ smiles, that we are in the kingdom, that the kingdom is in us, turns the cloudiest and gloomiest day into something different.
We have all had the experience of visiting some old saint in the nursing home or giving respite to some caregiver and leaving that room refreshed and uplifted, even though the world would look at what we have done and thought it a waste of valuable time. The believers in Acts rejoiced that they had the chance to suffer for Christ. Being a servant, giving up, sacrificing time and treasure and talent for the kingdom of God, loving with his love is no burden, but the most joyful thing we do, for we serve with Jesus, we serve Jesus.
3. Wisdom from Above (Epistle: That the Lord would impart heavenly wisdom to the hearer, moving him/her to humble and loving relationship with the neighbor.)
This is not really a self-help sermon, despite the title. It is a proclamation of Christ’s great work in our lives. But if we only speak of that great work forensically, as if it were a judgment rendered and then nothing more, we miss something. Jesus’ great work does bear a wonderful fruit in the lives of God’s people. James speaks of that work of Jesus today.
James chastises the people of his generation for what is going on in their hearts. They have a heart problem, but he also speaks of another reality, a reality which flows from a wisdom from above, a new life which God gives to the believer. This sermon will want to describe that life and in describing it empower it. 19
The Christian loses the competitive nature when it comes to the way we approach our neighbor. The world sees us in some sort of perverse competition to the top of some heap. God doesn’t see us that way and that empowers us to see this world differently. We get to see problems now as occasions for which Jesus died. We get to see success, our own and our neighbor’s as an occasion to praise God for a blessing.
Jesus empowers us to rejoice at our neighbor’s successes and joys and weep with him at his failures, sorrows, and tragedies. That is harder than you might think and it is completely counter to the world’s ideas here.
But for all its difficulty, it is also a really good way to live. I am not trying to help us cope here, but to point the hearer to a really good thing, a life which is truly adorned with a heavenly beauty. That is a very good place to be.
4. Who makes my life matter? (That the hearer would find significance in the love and gift of God shown to sinners in the cross)
This sermon will need to use this title and the words with some care. The “Black Lives Matter” movement speaks loudly in some quarters and that is not something we want to walk on or get crossways with. But we are asking a question of significance and the movement is really asking what is the significance of the black life.
We are asking here what makes for significance in life? Who defines that? Who gets to say that this life is worthy? God has said that all life matters. We often let the world define significance. It tells me that I need to have this much power, this much fame, this much wealth. Successful congregations have this program or that many people. Pastors are successful when their flock is growing and their sermons are praised.
But it is God who gets to say what really matters here. He gets to be the one who speaks the words of true significance. If you give a cup of cold water to a child, God saw that and you gave it to him. That is significant! If you serve this little one whom Jesus sits behind and holds in his arms, you are a servant of the most-high God. What could be more significant than that? And yet we grasp and strive for those accolades which the world heaps upon the “successful” and do not honor the ones whom God sees as meaningful.
But God puts his money where his mouth is on this one. Jesus, who is the most significant of all, has served all by emptying himself and dying upon a cross. He doesn’t take up sin as a garment to shed, but Paul says he becomes sin itself. He does not dally with death, but takes it to himself. The disciples recoil and do not understand and we also find it hard to fathom, but it makes it no less true.
This is the new way of God’s kingdom that he is imparting to us. The old ways of the world must pass away before God’s kingdom. Our lives, touched in baptism and fed on a 20
body and blood which were broken and shed on that cross simply will reflect that cross and that significance which Christ has and which Christ sees.