Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 20, 2015
Mark 9:30-37 Commentary
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
It’s quite a picture: Jesus is walking up ahead of his disciples. Outwardly Jesus is watching the path ahead, minding the curves in the road and stepping over potholes. Inwardly the eyes of his heart are on the cross and on all that was now just ahead of him. In fact, if you look closely, you may detect that Jesus’ eyes are a bit red-rimmed, a leftover from the conversation he’d recently had with his disciples in which he told them all that was coming his way in terms of suffering and death.
But the disciples . . . well, they took that in without a word apparently, with the proverbial shrug of their shoulders. They didn’t get it. Worse, what Jesus had said sounded like “crazy talk” to the disciples—it was just crazy enough, in fact, that Mark lets us in on a secret: they were too scared even to ask Jesus just what he was talking about. (Have you ever been in a situation in which a friend or colleague says something so off-the-wall, you just let it slide on by for fear of what a subsequent conversation on that topic might turn out to be like? That’s where the disciples are at in Mark 9.)
Just behind Jesus a few yards are the disciples, the friends of the Lord, those to whom Jesus had the closest relationship. It was not unusual for the dozen or so of them to talk as they walked, but the conversation this day was a bit more animated than usual. Although they tried to keep their voices down a bit—Jesus was pretty sure he heard an occasional “Shhh, not so loud” coming from them—it was still obvious to even the most casual observer that whatever they were talking about was pretty serious. Or at least it was arousing some serious passions.
When they arrived at their destination in Capernaum, Jesus casually asked, “So, what was the rumpus about on the road back there?” And for the second time in as many conversations with the disciples, Jesus faced a lot of blank stares in response to what he said. There seemed also to be some nervous shifting of weight, a few averted glances, a few cheeks puffed up with air before finally one of them mimicked the average 5-year-old who gets caught doing something wrong and whose answer to the standard parental question of “What were you just doing?” comes with the equally standard child-like answer, “Oh, nuthin’.”
Nothing indeed. The response is more accurate than they could know. Because they had been talking about precisely nothing.
What they had in fact been talking about was a complete non-starter, a complete non-entity in the kingdom of God. They had been talking about how to put yourself forward, how to be a winner, how to use gifts and status and abilities to be #1. They had been with Jesus long enough now to have accrued some track records. They each had various notches in their spiritual belts for exorcisms performed, for healings done, for correct answers given to questions Jesus had asked, for having come the closest to interpreting a parable correctly. Each disciple has been building his portfolio and it was getting high time they started to figure out who was who—and who was going to do what—in that great new political empire Jesus was going to start to build any minute now.
It was, of course, the wrong focus but to their credit, the disciples sensed this just enough so as to know enough to be embarrassed when it was clear Jesus knew right well what they had been discussing. So Jesus once again did for them what he had so often done, which was to turn the world upside-down, inverting the values of this age—and the ways in which this world reckons success—in favor of a kingdom perspective that really was going to be the precise opposite of all that. The path Jesus was walking just then—and the end-point of that path that Jesus had just told them about in verses 30-32—was quite literally living proof of what kingdom living must look like and what is really the most important of all.
Who knows where the little child mentioned in verse 36 came from—perhaps he was the child of the owner of whosever house they were staying at. In any event, as this child walked by, Jesus snagged the tyke as the perfect object lesson. But sometimes we may miss the precise teaching of Mark 9. On other occasions Jesus will say that you must BE like this child in order to get into the kingdom. But here in Mark 9 that is not quite what he says. Instead Jesus says that whoever WELCOMES a child such as this welcomes also Jesus and, by extension, the One who sent Jesus.
Why did he say that? Wouldn’t this be a good time to tell these uppity disciples that they themselves needed to become like little children? Instead, Jesus talks about welcoming a little child.
What’s the difference? Well, maybe it’s one thing to tell someone to chill out, to not take himself so seriously, to get a little humility. But it may be another thing to tell someone to revel in the company of people whose station in life could scarcely be lower, as was the status of children in Jesus’ day.
Even today, movers and shakers like to be seen in the company of the rich and powerful. Go into most any office you can find in a place like Washington, D.C., and you will see walls and credenzas lined with photographs of the occupant of the office standing next to presidents, senators, movie stars. “Look at the company I keep,” such photos declare to all visitors to the office. Even if you yourself cannot be the person next to whom others want to be photographed, you can at least let the glitter of others rub off on you by sidling up next to the powerful of the world.
The more recent phenomenon of taking “selfies” shows the same thing—people don’t put up selfies of themselves on Facebook standing next to homeless people. No, it’s when someone bumps into Jimmy Fallon on the subway or Taylor Swift on the sidewalk that people snap the selfie next to this famous person and they then post THAT on Facebook for all to see.
But Jesus is saying to the disciples that they need to keep company with the lowly of life, with the losers, with the ones no one wants to be seen with (much less be photographed next to). If you can take joy in their presence, if you can see worth and value and loveliness in those very people whom so many others in society overlook due to their own misguided focus on the glitzy and the sexy, then you show you have a kingdom perspective, that you are looking through a kingdom lens.
It’s one thing to tell someone to shape up his own life and get a little humility cranked up. It’s quite another to tell someone to adopt a viewpoint on all of life that is so pervasively different from what most people have as to turn everything in the world on its head.
In Mark 9:37 Jesus tells the disciples to “welcome” a child and in so doing they would “welcome” both him and his Father / the one who had sent him. The Greek word used there—dexomai—carries with it the sense not only of some generic welcome but of a literal receiving of someone into one’s arms. The picture we should have in our heads is not of someone in an airport quietly holding up a little “Welcome Home” sign on a piece of paper but of the parent or grandparent down on her knees, arms splayed wide open and just waiting for the loved one to come running down the ramp into those waiting arms. THAT is the kind of welcome Jesus wants us to give to the lowly of the world. Because when they come running into our waiting embrace, so does Jesus and so does his Father. And that is an image that boggles the mind with joy!
Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards was a 25-year-old plasterer with thick glasses and a goofy grin but he entered the 1988 Winter Olympic Games as England’s only (and first-ever) ski jumper. Eddie was not very skilled. He fit the description of a born loser: someone who gets a paper-cut opening a Get Well card. Eddie looked decidedly non-athletic. In his yellow ski-jumping suit he looked more like Winnie the Pooh than the sculpted athletes we usually associate with the Olympics.
Eddie’s training had been sub-standard and his equipment was second-rate. The airline lost Eddie’s luggage when he traveled to Calgary. On the day of his competition, the Olympic security agents almost did not let Eddie in at all because, they later said, the chunky man’s coke-bottle glasses had such thick lenses they were certain he was an imposter. But he did get let in eventually. He didn’t do very well. Outside magazine said that in the air, Eddie looked like an “errant slushball.” When it was all over, Eddie came in 56th place out of a field of 57 jumpers (but then, the 57th man had been disqualified).
But all the world loved Eddie. Johnny Carson had Eddie flown down to Burbank to appear as a guest on The Tonight Show. TV crews and newspapers from around the world clamored to interview Eddie. Once he got back to England, he was treated like a full-blown celebrity who parlayed his fame into a tidy sum.
To state the merely obvious, Eddie was the exception, not the rule. And even with all the attention paid to him, few people would have held Eddie up as a role model. When someone is as skilled as Michael Jordan, it doesn’t take long before you hear slogans such as “Be Like Mike!” But no one would say, “Be Like Eddie.”
Eddie the Eagle is a lousy ski jumper, but he really loves it. In fact, he had hoped to compete again in a future Olympics. But it turned out that Olympic officials did not like Eddie and felt he reflected badly on the Games. So they instituted what some call the “Eddie Rule” which requires all athletes to have finished in the top half of an international sports event as a prerequisite for getting into the Olympics. Doubtless that will keep Eddie, and many like him, out. You see, the Olympic folks don’t mind having people lose but only because without losers there could be no winners. But if a loser gets attention, the winners seem diminished.
In this world losers are supposed to fade away quietly so that winners can occupy center stage. The Jesus we meet in Mark 9 would have us adopt a rather different point of view.
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