I think that at times we’ve probably all experienced the feeling that perhaps people aren’t really listening to us, or understanding us, when we’re trying to tell them something important. You can tell that their mind is wandering.
Jesus has a similar experience in Mark 9:30-37 where his disciples aren’t quite grasping what he is trying to tell them. In fact, as you read more and more of the Gospels you come to the realization that Jesus probably had this experience quite a bit. In the reading for today, as Jesus and his disciples are traveling in the region of Galilee, heading to Capernaum, Jesus tells them that, “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.”
This is a pretty powerful statement, but the disciples don’t understand what Jesus means and are afraid to ask. Maybe they figure that they’re supposed to know and are embarrassed to admit that they don’t know, so they don’t talk about it.
However, the disciples do talk about other stuff on the way to Capernaum. So, when they arrive at their destination, Jesus asks them what they had been talking. But, they keep silent, and are ashamed and embarrassed, because while Jesus had talked about dying and rising, they had responded by arguing about which one of them is the greatest.
They certainly all could lay claim to greatness. Maybe it was the first to be called? Maybe it was the three in the inner circle? Maybe it was the ones who had given up the most to follow Jesus? Maybe it was the ones who knew the most? Maybe it was those who trusted Jesus most? These are things they could wrap their minds around and understand.
But, what they didn’t understand was what Jesus had said when he told them that the “son of man” would die and rise after three days. And this was the most important thing; this was the one thing that mattered to their salvation. This is the core foundation of our Christian faith, that Jesus died and rose for us.
Notice that Jesus uses the title “son of man” to refer to himself, both here and throughout the Gospels.
This title “son of man” comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel, where the prophet Daniel saw:
“… one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
The “son of man” who Daniel saw is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, presented before the Father. Thus, the one to whom was given an everlasting kingdom is God, and yet he appears like a “son of man;” he is both true God and true man. And now in the Gospel of Mark we too see Jesus Christ, Son of God, one like a son of man, come to accomplish the purpose for which he was sent.
So, what Jesus had told his disciples was something they could not comprehend. How could the son of man die and rise? What does this mean? The disciples did not understand the work of God and the means through which He was establishing a kingdom and a people for Himself.
Because what Jesus came to do is a foreign concept, both to his disciples and to us. Jesus came to die and rise for us; he came as a lamb led to the slaughter, as the prophet Jeremiah also saw; Jesus came to redeem us from the power of sin, death, and the devil through his own death and resurrection. God came not to give us a task for us to accomplish, but rather to accomplish the task for us. He came not to have us argue about who was great, but rather to become as nothing on our behalf, the least of men, while he died on the cross for us.
This Gospel, this Good News, of Jesus Christ goes against what we would expect, because the Gospel discounts humanity’s claims to greatness and instead points to the one who died and rose. It’s not something that we by nature understand. By nature we are like the disciples on the road to Capernaum, arguing over who is the greatest. Maybe this person is the greatest, because he was baptized as an infant and has always been in the Church? Maybe this other person is the greatest, because he was a heathen and then was baptized as an adult? Maybe some have sacrificed more than others in the name of the Church? Maybe some have given more? Maybe some have done more?
But, all these questions and arguments are missing the main point. They are missing what Jesus said, that he would die and rise in fulfillment of God’s promises in order to make a people and a kingdom for himself. This is the Gospel, the Good News, of Jesus Christ – that God through His Son has made you His own people and brought you into His kingdom where He dwells with you through Word and Sacrament. He has set you free to live as His own and to respond in praise and thanksgiving.
So, the Gospel is the wisdom that comes down from above that opposes the so-called wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. The Gospel is at odds with the argument about “who is the greatest,” because Jesus Christ is the greatest and yet he died and rose for you. All the good that you do flows out of what the Lord has first done for you.
Notice also what Jesus tells the disciples in this regard. He tells them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” That is to say that all that arguing about who is the greatest misses the point. The greatest is the one who put himself last and is servant of all. The greatest is Jesus Christ, even as he made himself our servant.
As the prophet Jeremiah saw (Jeremiah 11:18-20), Jesus is the gentle lamb of God led to the slaughter to die for our sins and rise for our justification. And yet as Daniel saw, Jesus is the Almighty Lord God in the flesh, one like a son of man, the one with a real claim to greatness, the one who could remove all sinners from his presence. He could have rightly cast us all away into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, because we are sinners.
And yet, he didn’t. Instead, he died for our sins. He atoned for them and took the due punishment for us, because he loves us, his creations. He is the sacrificial lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world through his death. And yet he did not remain in death, but rose on the third day so that we too will rise just like him.
He served us by lifting us up from the bondage of eternal death through his own death and resurrection. And he continues to serves us in Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and in the Word he gives his Church. This is the Good News of the Gospel, that the Father has done it all for us through His Son and that there is nothing for us to do to gain our salvation, because it’s already been done for us as a gift.
And so Jesus takes a child and puts it in the midst of the disciples. In the center of all these men who had argued about who was the greatest, Jesus puts a child. A child who has no claims to greatness, a child who has not lived long enough to do deeds considered great according to the wisdom of the world. Jesus takes the child and says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
Children generally know how to receive gifts. They rely on the grace of their parents to provide for all their needs. They don’t try to earn these things, because they are gifts. It’s actually quite refreshing to see how children just instinctively know how to receive gifts as gifts and be thankful for them. And so the Lord intends for us to be as children before him, not trying to earn His grace through our own works or efforts, but simply receiving his grace through Jesus Christ as the gift that it is and responding in thanksgiving and praise.
So, God’s grace runs from the Father through the Son to the children of God. And then the children shine the grace of God onto others. You are children of God, incorporated into God’s family, His people, and called to share the grace of God with those around you. For those who receive you receive Christ and the love of the Father through him.
And just as children do the things they see their parents doing, so too do you now do the things of your heavenly Father. All the good that you do flows out of what God has first done for you through Christ. God transforms you through the Gospel, this wisdom from above that “… 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 3:17-18).
You are that child that Jesus brings into the midst of the Church through Baptism to dwell with him and all the saints forever. When Christ returns for you he will take you in his arms and place you in his midst forever, along with all the other children of God whom he has called. You are eternally united with Christ and with each other in this promise, so rejoice in what one like a son of man has done for you by making himself a servant for you by dying and rising. Amen.
(Image: Christ and Child, by Carl Bloch – Foto: Jürgen Howaldt, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23714057 )