Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 9:30–37
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 19, 2021
Five years ago, in June of 2016, the famous heavyweight boxer, Muhammad Ali, passed away and was buried in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, as many residents of that city lined the streets to pay their respects to a native son. At the height of his career, Muhammad Ali was not only a skilled boxer, he was also quite a showman who was very skilled in trash talking his opponents. Way back in 1963, before he changed his name after converting to Islam, the 21-year-old Cassius Clay, released a spoken word album, which he voiced himself, entitled, “I Am the Greatest.” The album was really his way of getting at his opponent, Sonny Liston, whom he would beat in the ring in 1964. Part of that spoken word album included these words:
This brash, young boxer is something to see. And the heavyweight championship is his destiny. This kid fights great. He's got speed and endurance. But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance (Remembering Muhammad Ali Through His Poem, 'I Am The Greatest' : NPR).
That takes a lot of bravado to say that you’re the greatest, especially at age 21. All of this is coincidental timing as tonight PBS airs the first of a 4-part documentary series on Muhammad Ali, directed by Ken Burns (MUHAMMAD ALI to Premiere September 19, 2021 on PBS). Muhammad Ali wasn’t the only one who said he was the greatest. That’s the very thing Jesus’ own disciples were vying with one another for in today’s Gospel lesson as “they [had] argued among themselves about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34). Jesus, in putting a child into the midst of the disciples, redefines what greatness is all about in the upside-down kingdom of God. This becomes the theme for preaching today under the theme, “The Greatest!” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Three times in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus clearly foretells his suffering, death, and resurrection (Mark 8:31ff.; 9:30ff.; 10:32ff.), making this known to his disciples. Each time, this is met with confusion on the part of the disciples, who do not understand at all what Jesus means in telling them this. And so Jesus must clarify what his suffering, death, and resurrection means for them, and what it means for us today. And so there is this recurring 3-part pattern we see of prediction, confusion, and clarification. Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ Passion Prediction #2 (Mark 9:30-31), followed by confusion on the part of the disciples (Mark 9:32-34): “But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.” For us who live this side of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, we may think, “Why didn’t they get it? Why didn’t the disciples understand?” That’s easy for us to say, but had we lived at the time, we would have been just as befuddled and confused as they were. But this goes further as their confusion degenerates into a pointless and senseless argument with one another about who was the greatest. Really? Jesus had just said spoken these sobering words about what was to come, and this is their response? The original word for “argued” (διελογίζεσθε) is where we get our own word “dialogue,” which we would understand differently than “argued.” To be in dialogue means to be in conversation and open discussion. But the original word here is in the imperfect tense, which denotes ongoing action. In other words, the disciples’ “dialogue” went on and on. Whatever they were doing, arguing or dialoguing, at the heart of it was jockeying for position to be top dog in the kingdom of God. Who was the biggest? The brightest? The best? And when Jesus confronted them about all of this nonsense? Nothing but crickets as we are told, “But they kept silent” (Mark 9:34b). We can almost hear Jesus take in that long, deep sigh. Jesus needed to clarify things for his very confused disciples.
So often we look at the kingdom of God and overlay our own expectations and desires on top of this. How do churches typically measure effective ministry? Bodies, budgets, and buildings. How many people are sitting in the pews? How big is your annual operating budget? What kind of building program are you launching to expand your physical plant? But do we measure the kingdom of God in the seating capacity of our church or in its sending capacity to send forth laborers into the Lord’s harvest fields which are ripe for harvest all around us (Luke 10:2; John 4:35)? Those first disciples aren’t the only ones who need clarification and correction. We do, too. Jesus’ upside-down kingdom isn’t about meeting the expectations and desires that we have established. It isn’t about fitting Jesus’ kingdom into our lives; it’s the other way around. It’s all about fitting our lives into Jesus’ upside-down kingdom where greatness is measured very differently than how the world measures it. In Jesus’ upside-down kingdom the last are first, and the first are last (Matthew 19:30); the powerful are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up (Luke 1:52); the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:53). So if we want to understand what greatness looks like in Jesus’ eyes, we need to listen to the words that come from Jesus’ own lips: “And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b). Jesus doesn’t just talk the talk here; he walks the walk. He shows by his own life what servanthood means; what emptying yourself of self looks like: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus became for us the last of all and least of all. He fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 11:18-20) as we heard: “But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” In offering his life on the cross for us and for our salvation, Jesus, who is true God and true man, redefined greatness “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8b).
In putting a child into the midst of the disciples, Jesus made clear that his upside-down kingdom is not about preeminence, power, or prestige. As Jesus has given himself for us, so we are to give ourselves to one another. It should be noted that in the Aramaic language which Jesus and the disciples would have spoken, “the same Aramaic word means ‘child’ and ‘servant’… The disciples are to identify themselves with children and become ‘the little ones’ who have no basis for pretensions to greatness” (The Gospel According to Mark, by William F. Lane. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974; p. 340). And so it is to be with the redeemed people of God in Christ. As today’s Epistle lesson begins: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:13-18). May it be so with us for Jesus’ sake. Amen.