Pentecost 18b

Preached: September 6, 2015

Be First
Mark 9:30-37

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit spurs us on in Jesus name is Mark 9.

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”

But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:30-37 NIV84)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

By pursuing excellence in your Christian life

The high school football player worked hard on the weights in the off season. He wanted to be his best when fall came. The basketball player shot extra free throws after practice. She wanted to keep on improving her game. How many famous athletes don't have stories from before they were famous of pursuing excellence as they trained for their sport. They wanted to be first, to be the best.

We encourage students to pursue excellence in the class room preparing for the future. Some pursue excellence in music, drama, speech, or the arts. Employers want employees to pursue excellence. We all see the importance of that work ethic, that pursuit to be the best we can be.

But do we apply that same energy and effort to our life as a Christian? Or does a lukewarm complacency fill our hearts? Are we satisfied with giving the Lord our left over energy and effort?

There's a joke. Ole is digging around in the deep freeze and runs across a frozen turkey. He can't remember the last time they bought a turkey. For fifteen years they had been going to their sons for Thanksgiving. So he calls up to Lena, “Did you know we have a turkey in the freeze?” Lena calls back, “It must be fifteen years old. Do you think it's any good.” “I wouldn't eat it,” Ole says. “Let's donate it to the church auction instead.”

How often doesn't what we give to the Lord in our time, effort, or gifts, come as an afterthought once we see what's lying around unwanted by us? That's not pursuing excellence. That's not putting our first for the Lord.

“But,” someone might say, “as good Lutheran we know we're already saved by grace. And we know that grace is undeserved and unearned by us. So why pursue excellence in our Christian life? We don't want to start thinking that are efforts are saving us.”

We could say a lot how that logic abuses grace and completely ignores how powerful and active faith in God's grace is. But for today let's focus on what Jesus says in the text in front us from Mark 9.

The disciples had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. Who was the most excellent, the best of them? We could just rush by and shake our heads, thinking, “There they go again. They should know better.” And as we hear Jesus say, “If anyone wants to be first …” (Mark 9:35 NIV84), we're ready to jump in and finish the sentence: “If anyone wants to be first, their sinning. They need to repent.” But that's not what Jesus says, is it?

“If anyone wants to be first …” Jesus says, and he doesn't outright condemn that desire. That wanting to do our best in his kingdom, that desire to pursue excellence in our lives as Christians, that determination to put forth our first and best effort, just as an athlete gives his or her all to constantly improve---that impulse of the will is not wrong in and of itself. Now in our fallen hearts, that impulse is corrupted by sinful pride and arrogance, by a desire for praise, by a selfishness that wishes for others to do not quite so well so that we shine out. But that impulse to pursue excellence putting forth our first and best effort is the opposite of sinful complacency and lukewarmness.

You see, Jesus does not say, “Don't want to be first because then you'll try too hard in your Christian life and, if you accomplish anything, you might fall into pride.” Rather Jesus says, “So you want to be first excelling in my kingdom work. That's well and good. But here is how my followers do that: Not be pushing others back behind you, but by making yourself last. Not by climbing over others to get praise and recognition, but by serving all, even the least.” “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35 NIV84).

By serving others in Jesus’ name

How that changes everything! In competitive sports, if someone is first, that means everyone else is second or third or somewhere further done the line. There's only one champion, one gold medal, one first place. But that's not so with the kind of firstness Jesus describes. Firstness in God's kingdom isn't about being greater than others. It's about serving others, putting them before ourselves, so that we become last.

Jesus brings home the point by calling over a little child. A child can't repay the service done to them. A child is not influential. Often a child won't even fully appreciate or show thanks for what's done for them. But Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9:37 NIV84).

Note well those three words: “in my name.” That's what makes Christian service different from any other service. To do something in Jesus' name means to do it knowing who Jesus is, knowing what he has done for us. And not simply knowing it as a fact, but knowing him in our hearts, trusting him with our confidence built on him, basing all we do on what he has done for us. What a foundation!

A part of us, our old self, may at times condescend to serve others. But it has ulterior motives. It does not do it in Jesus' name. Sometimes we might think that being last and serving will lead others to think we're good people so that they treat us better. And if it doesn't work that way, resentment and frustration build up inside us. Sometimes we might put up with being last and serving because we think eventually we will be promoted if we put in our time. But all this motivation flows from our old self.

Our new self though says, “Look at how much Jesus loves me! He let himself be betrayed by one so close to him. Although he is God over all, he let man kill him. He died on the cross for me. How great his love! Why would I not want to serve him? But what can I give to him who has everything? He is God over all. Ah, he says whatever I do in his name to serve even the least, even I child, I do for him. ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me’ (Mark 9:37 NIV84), he says. So I serve not to gain anything for myself put out of joy for what Jesus has done for me. I put others before myself because Jesus put me before himself. Even still now he serves me his Supper, bringing me his body to eat and his blood to drink. What wonders of his love! Why wouldn't I serve others?” With that mindset, dear Christian, resentment and frustration don't build up, even though we put others before ourselves even when they don't appreciate it.

What's more, our new self says, “Look at how powerful Jesus is! He rose from the dead. He has conquered my enemies. Even death itself must submit to Jesus. So I don't have to be afraid or worried that I will lose out if I put others before myself. He will watch over me. He will protect me. I can boldly go forward to last place, because Jesus will take care of me.” Let the Lord's Supper today strengthen you in that boldness.

Yes, dear Christian, be first, but not in the way the the world imagines firstness. Follow that desire to be your best by pursuing excellence in your Christian life. But see that true excellence in the kingdom of God comes not from pushing others back but from serving others in Jesus name, moved by all that Jesus has done for us and still continues to do for us. He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for you. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313