Sept 30, 2018 – Who Is Greatest?

Have you ever noticed in the headings for the different sections of the Bible? I’m going to ask you to

pick up your Bible, and open it to a random place. You’ll notice in the Pew Bibles section heading is

italics. This doesn’t happen so often in the Psalms or Proverbs, but everywhere else are these headings.

What do you see? If you turn to page 1566, you will see some headings in the part of Mark that we have

been looking at lately. “The Healing of a Blind Man at Bethsaida,” “Peter’s Confession of Christ.” And

on the next page, “Jesus Predicts His Death,” and the “Transfiguration.” They serve as little summaries,

but they are different in various Bible translations because they are not an original part of the Bible. 


The problem is that these so called summaries can influence how we read a passage. The beginning of

our passage today has the title of “Jesus Again Predicts His Death.” What if we looked at it with a

different title, such as “Jesus Describes His Messianic Servant Mission Again?” If we really think about it,

is Jesus making a “prediction,” or is he explaining his plans or telling the disciples what is on his calendar

in the next week or so. At this point in the narrative, Jesus and the disciples are fairly close to their arrival

into Jerusalem. Prediction versus telling people your schedule? “I predict that I’m going to a conference at

Alton Collins Retreat Center in October” versus “The Bishop has called all the pastors in the conference to

go to this event in October.” Is it really a prediction? Well …. 


Actually, I don’t look at the titles at all when I’m studying Scripture. I don’t want it to influence me either

way. However, in today’s passage, Jesus and the disciples are getting close to Jerusalem, and he is going

to explain his schedule to them for the third time. Three is a very significant number in the Bible. If you see

something three times, you should pay very close attention. It is something very important. It also implies

a perfection of some sort. 


Mark 10:3245  (NIV) 

     32 They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples

were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and

told them what was going to happen to him. 33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and

the Son of Manwill be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law.They will

condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles,34 who will mock him and spit

on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” 

     35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want

you to do for us whatever we ask.” 

     36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 

     37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” 

     38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or

be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 

      39 “We can,” they answered. 

     Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am

baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to

those for whom they have been prepared.” 

     41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus

called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles

lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you.

Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,44 and whoever

wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served,

but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 


There is a set of three times Jesus describes the climax his mission, what he came to earth to do.

We looked at the first one the week before last. Before and after this group Jesus heals two blind

men. In the first healing, Jesus has a two-step process. The second healing happens immediately.

Look at how the disciples respond to the information that Jesus will be betrayed, condemned by

the Jewish authorities and turned over to the Gentiles, tortured, killed, and be raised on the third

day. It is like they are blind! They don’t seem to be listening at all.  


In the first instance, Peter, who had just identified him as Messiah, scolds Jesus for all his negative

talk. Jesus responds that anyone who follows him must deny themselves, in other words, disown the

person that they were before Jesus, and take up their cross and follow him. (cf. Mark 8:31-36) After

his second description he finds that the disciples had been bickering about which of them is the greatest.

He responds to this by saying, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

(Mark 9:35b) Now, the third time, James and John sidle up to him and ask him to promise that they

will have the most important and prominent positions in his new kingdom, at his right and left hand.

(Mark 10:35-37) Are they blind? Are they not paying attention? Or, like with the blind man, is this a

multiple step process to bring them to understanding? How many times have we had to learn a life

lesson before it finally stuck, and we could move on to new lessons? I have a couple that I am in the

midst of right now. How about you? Maybe that’s just me.  


Perhaps, they thought he was using figurative language when he was being literal.  We come across

this problem in Christianity all the time. Was the world made in seven, twenty-four hour days exactly

as described in Genesis, or is it a poem that illustrates the orderly and thoughtful nature of God’s

creation of the universe? Have the things described in Revelation already happened with symbolism

illustrating the political powers of the day? Are we in the midst of what it describes now, or is it something

that will happen in the future? People also debate the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Was he physically

raised from the dead, or do the writers of the gospels only intend for us to remember the Jesus they

knew or heard others describe? For the last one, I’m going to take that literally, or really, why are we here?

The rest, I know what I think, but none of us are really going to know for sure until our life here is over.

That part of the Bible where it says, “Do not murder,” I’m going to take literally. When Jesus says to cut off

your right hand if it causes you to sin, I’m going to take figuratively.  


So maybe, when James and John heard Jesus talk about how he was going to suffer and die but rise again,

they just thought that Jesus was using symbolic language, and the fight was going to be really tough. They,

and especially Jesus, would have to suffer, but they would ultimately prevail in their political ambitions to

remove the Romans. They would be the minsters of the court where Jesus was king. They had recently

witnessed the Transfiguration on the mountaintop where they saw Jesus talking with Elijah and Moses.

They saw the power. They heard God say, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:2-8) How

could someone with access to the power of God really die? He can’t mean that he will literally die. Like the

readers of Mark’s Gospel, we have the advantage of knowing the rest of the story. Jesus does die, but in the

most amazing reversal, he does return, just like he said he would. 


The good news for the disciples is after this they never make any of these outrageous presumptuous

comments or suggestions. Jesus is very blunt here. You know how I said that I was going to be tortured

and die. You want to join me in glory? That’s going to happen to you too. Perhaps, after they thought

about it, they sobered up a bit.  


The rest of the disciples did not see it yet. They were mad at James and John for asking for the place with

Jesus that they all wanted. Then he told them what they needed to do to be first in the Kingdom of God,

and it wasn’t being at his right and left hand. You know he had a sign over his head at his crucifixion,

“The King of the Jews.” You know who was at his right and left hand? Two rebels. (Mark 15:26-27)  


So, Jesus gathers them all together once again to explain what it means to be great in the Kingdom of

God. It does not mean the conventional use of power that we see in the world. It is does not mean to

overpower others or seek to tyrannize them. One of my favorite paintings of all time is one by Gerrit van

Honthorst a Dutch painter done in about 1617. It is called Christ Before the High Priest. The High

Priest is accusing him. There are people all around that are ready to physically attack him and soon will

turn him over to the Romans to be executed. Yet, Jesus stands there so serene actually the most powerful

person in the room, but refusing to exercise his power. 



No, if the disciples, if we, want to be great in the Kingdom of God, we must be a servant. The word

“minister” originally came from the Latin word for “servant.” Ministry in the church is service. To be

first in the Kingdom of God, one must regard one as a slave to all. It reminds me of the parable of the

dinner guest in Luke 14. Jesus says that one should not take the place of greatest honor at a banquet.

The host may have to move you to a less desirable place, and you may be humiliated. Instead choose

the lowest place, so that the host can bring you to the front. (Luke 14: 7-11) 


You know, when you think about it, this is not a very attractive proposition. Who really wants this

“good news” that the way to be great is by serving? Surrendering to the idea that power is an exercise

in vulnerability? No one, we are used to the perspective that if you work hard, are loyal, and put in

your time that you will be awarded with power and prestige. Once again, Jesus says one of those

preposterous things. No, if you do all of that, your reward in this life may be the same as James and

John. This means suffering and dying. 


David Lose tells a story about Martin Luther, the great German reformer. He preached his last sermon

at the church in the town where he was born, Eisleben, about ten days before he died. You might think.

Oh, how nice. He came full circle. He started here. He ends here. Only one snag, only about five people

showed up the service, five people. To say that he was mad is an understatement. In one of his last letters,

he wrote about how disappointed he was that after a lifetime of showing people the gospel that so few

people were interested. As the disciples say in John’s Gospel, “This is a hard teaching.” (6:60) 


It’s not attractive at all until we reach a realization of our own brokenness. We get to the point where

we realize that nothing else works. It’s all a façade, an illusion. Lording power over others doesn’t

produce goodness, fulfillment, and life. It fosters resentments, anger, jealousy, and paranoia. If you

do have some wealth and power, you can’t trust the people around you. They are only there because

of fear, or what they think that you can do for them. To release all of that, to deny that life and give it

to God, is hard, but once you do it, it is so much more satisfying. The other controls you. The servant

model provides peace. 


However, it is important to beware because serving can become a contest too. You can hear Peter doing

that when he says earlier in chapter 10, “We have left everything to follow you.” (Mark 10:28) It’s not

a contest. One person does what they can do. Another person might be able to do much more or less.

God knows what is right for each of us, and we are all different. Don’t let that be either a source of

guilt or pride, as long as we remember the basic point. We are to be servants to one another.  


And Jesus shows us the example. He shows us why he is first. The greatest came to service and give

his life as a ransom for us. Ransom in that culture was the money paid to buy a slave’s freedom. In

our passage today, it means that Jesus’ death is more than a martyr’s death. His death does something.

It secures release. It rescues us from slavery to the social and political powers that humans make to

control each other. In other words, it rescues us from slavery to that system a system that leads to sin

and death, a death to spirit, a death to abundant life that God wants for us. 


This ransom is not one of money but rather of deliverance through divine strength. This is like the

rescue plan that God devised for the Israelites in Egypt. No one paid money for the Israelites release,

as a matter of fact, the Egyptians paid the Israelites to leave. (Ex 12:36) God liberated them through

his power.  


And Jesus came to liberate us. Just as we heard earlier in Isaiah 61. Jesus quoted this passage in

Luke 4 when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good

news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the

blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) We are the

prisoners. We are the blind. We are the oppressed. Of course, we can see people groups that appear

far more oppressed than we think we are.  Yet, we are still oppressed by the systems around us that

are so familiar to us that it is hard for us to see them if we can at all. 


It is when we start to see that, to see how wrapped up we are in it that we realize our brokenness.

Through the Holy Spirit we see it, and it is then that we can begin to be the kind of servants that

Jesus is talking about. Not condescending in our service while knowing in our minds that we are

superior, but really understanding that we are dust. No better than anyone else, and possibly a bit

worse. From dust we came, and to dust we shall return from Genesis 3:19. One sure place in the Bible

that scientists assure us that we can take literally. 


That is what it means to be a disciple, a true student of Jesus. It starts by our realization that we

are dust. We are nothing. We are trapped, held hostage, by world. That is an existence that does not

lead to life, but to death, no matter what the beer commercials tell us. We are held hostage until we

realize that Jesus has paid our ransom, and we are freed. Our sight is restored. We are given new life,

to do what? To serve others. To recognize the brokenness of others and love them anyway. We have

Jesus as our example, not to die for the many. That was his mission and his alone. What we are to

follow is his spirit of service and putting the needs of others before our own. When that is our mindset,

there is no need to bicker over who is the greatest. In that there is only one, and his name is … Jesus! 

Categorized as Sermon