Sermon for September 20, 2015

Mark 9:30-37 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 20—Series B)

“The Greatest”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

September 20, 2015


In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Our text is the Gospel lesson from Mark 9:

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.”

           Several years ago we unofficially adopted “We Serve Because Jesus Loves You” as our congregation’s motto.  It began as part of the Food Shelf Ministry, printed on our banner, as a way to let folks know why we were there at the Food Shelf handing out personal care items, as well as God’s Word.  The reason we serve those in need is because Jesus loves them.  Because Jesus loves them, we love them.  Because we love them, we serve them.  “We Serve Because Jesus Loves You” does a pretty good job summarizing why you and I do here what we do as a congregation.  It focuses us on the fact that we are serving others simply because Jesus loves them and, as disciples of Jesus, we love others and show that love by serving. 

          “To serve” means “to perform duties or services for another person.”  Service, by definition, involves doing something for someone other than yourself.  It involves putting another person ahead of yourself so that you meet their needs.  And that is really, really hard for us to do.  Oh sure, it sounds easy enough, “We Serve Because Jesus Loves You,” but is it? 

          We all have a problem with selfishness.  It’s a condition that we are born with.  You know it as original sin.  Martin Luther in his Lectures on Romans wrote, “The reason is that our nature has been so deeply curved in upon itself because of the viciousness of original sin that it not only turns the finest gifts of God in upon itself and enjoys them . . . , indeed, it even uses God Himself to achieve these aims. . . . And the Scripture calls this viciousness by a name most proper to it . . . , that is, iniquity, depravity, or crookedness.”[1]  Luther cites Ecclesiastes 1:15, “The perverse are hard to be corrected.”  He then writes, “This is said not only because of the stubbornness of perverse people but particularly because of the extremely deep infection of this inherited weakness and original poison, by which a man seeks his own advantage even in God Himself because of his love of [desiring to sin].”[2]

          There’s a few words that we need to pay close attention to about our sinful selves.  “deeply curved in upon ourselves” and “seek our own advantage.”  It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to understand that we are talking about selfishness—thinking only about ourselves, living only for ourselves, concerned only with ourselves.  That is, after all, the very nature of sin.  It’s all about self.  Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden because they wanted to be like God.  Selfish.  Cain killed Abel because the Lord had regard for Abel’s offering and not his own.  Selfish.  They built the tower of Babel to try to reach God and be gods.  Selfish.  David took Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, to be his lover and wife.  Selfish.  Herod slaughtered the innocents of Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the one born King of the Jews, thus protecting his crown.  Selfish. 

          I know the same can be said of me, of you.  I’m selfish.  I want things my way, for my pleasure, for my benefit.  Why do I want to worry about “the other person” when I’ve got enough to worry about for myself?  Let’s not pretend here this morning.  We’d be right there with the disciples dialoging with one another about which of us is the greatest.  Our very nature is one of “one-upping” the other guy.  Clearly, my faults are not as bad as your faults.  Surely, my qualities are far better than your qualities.  Here’s an example of what that looks like, from Luke 18, “Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else.  ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers–or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’  The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’’”  “The selfish person has a heart that, like a man’s coffin, is just his own measure—long enough and broad enough comfortably to hold him with no room for anyone else.” (T. Guthrie, Scottish preacher)

          What’s a selfish Pharisee like me, seeking to be the greatest, to do?  What’s a self-centered disciple like you, clamoring to be the greatest, to do?   Our sin is clearly before us.  We are condemned by our own words and actions that our turned inward, that seek our own advantage, and not that of others.  How hard it is to serve others.  We see our sins, the times we would be first and not servant.  We see our failures to receive one such child in Jesus’ name, our failure to receive Jesus and the Father who sent Him.  Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 also echoes our guiltiness: “Then [the King] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’  Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’” (Matt. 25:41-46 ESV)

          “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  This is all that we can do or say.  Our sins are ever before us.  The guilt weighs us down for the things we have done and the things we have failed to do.  We have not always loved our neighbors.  We have not always served the least of these.  We have often put ourselves first and foremost, as if we are indeed the greatest.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  That is our prayer, our confession.  Then we wait.  Perhaps God will have mercy, said the Old Testament prophets.  And thanks be to God—He did!

          God has had mercy upon us and sent God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, to serve us.  God took on flesh in the person of Jesus the Christ.  He who, as true God and Lord is indeed the greatest, humbled Himself and entered into our humanity as a man.  He came among us as one who serves. (Luke 22:27)  He modeled for us service as He washed the feet of His disciples at the Last Supper, giving to us an example, that as Jesus had done, so we should do also by serving others in love.  It was after that Supper that Jesus’ service to sinners was truly shown.  The Holy Spirit, of course, says it best in Philippians 2:4-8, familiar words, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  Jesus chose as God-Made-Flesh to take the lowest place.  He became for us the least of these, He became sin for us, so that we might be served by His death, saved by His blood-bought forgiveness of all our sins, including our selfishness and lack of care for others.  Jesus suffered the ultimate, physical punishment for our sins, offering His life in place of ours.  He put you and me, and all sinners the world over, before Himself, as more important than Himself, so that He might save us from sin and death and hell. 

          What a joy it is that Jesus served us with His death and with His resurrection so that He might save us and rescue us from our sinful selfishness and self-centeredness!  Through the forgiveness and salvation Christ has won for us when He served us as our Savior, you and I have been set free from our selfishness to serve in His name.  We Serve Because Jesus Loves . . . us!  Our pride, our selfishness, and our self-centeredness all stand forgiven through the crucified and risen Christ.  We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism who daily drowns our sinful nature and raises us up to live a new life of service before our God and Savior. 

The Holy Spirit enables and empowers you and me through the Gospel Word and Sacraments to be servants of all, to count others more important than ourselves, to demonstrate the attitude and actions of Jesus to others.  We now see our jobs as more than a means to a paycheck.  Whatever we do is a way to serve others.  A farmer serves others by growing food for all us non-farmers.  A stay-at-home mom or dad serves by managing the home and caring for the children.  Business owners serve by providing products and services for people, giving employees an opportunity to earn a living.  This service to others is done through our daily vocation as Christians. 

We also serve others when we volunteer our time to help those in need.  We do this when we do projects in our community like the Food Shelf Ministry.  Every donation of shampoo or toothpaste is saying to someone there, “Jesus loves you and so do I!”  Every smile you give to the clients as they pick up what they need says to them “I care about your needs.”  When you give a gift card for a restaurant or grocery store to a homeless person, you are saying, “You are loved by the Lord and I care for you in Jesus’ name.”  Every time the Spirit empowers us to put the needs of another before our own, we are serving the least of these.  We are modeling Christ.  We are being Christ to our spouse, our children, our coworkers and friends, and perfect strangers. 

          In the forgiving grace of Christ Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I can truly say to others, “We Serve Because Jesus Loves You.”  You are the love of Christ in your serving.  You are that hope of Christ in the giving of yourselves.  And that makes you the greatest, because you are last and servant of all in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 25: Lectures on Romans, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 291–292.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 25: Lectures on Romans, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 313.

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