Jesus Humbles Himself
When we first hear this text, we are tempted to focus on Jesus saying, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all," and so make this text about humbling ourselves. But have you ever meant anyone who took this as the main point in the text? He will never go first. She will not be served. What would happen if we all took it that way? Nobody would come into church because after all Jesus says if you want to be first you should be last. Nobody would ever eat at our monthly dinners since everyone would insist on serving rather than being served. Furthermore, would you really be humble if you made yourself last and servant of all just so you could be first? No, this text isn't about our humbling ourselves; it's about Jesus humbling Himself.
He humbles Himself to teach those who won't be taught. For the second time now Jesus lays out before the disciples His suffering, death, and resurrection. These aren't minor details. These are the things of our forgiveness, life and salvation. Even though Jesus is passing through territory where He is well known, He doesn't want anyone to know He is there just so He can focus on teaching His disciples. However, the thickheaded disciples don't understand. Moreover, they don't ask Him any questions because they are afraid.
Have you ever taught people who do not want to be taught? Didn't you want to say, "Well, fine! Then stay in your ignorance!" How about when they wouldn't ask questions that would help them to understand? Did you tolerate that well? And how have you reacted when someone, say one of your own children, was afraid of you even though you only wanted want to teach them something? I don't know how you react to the unteachable, but I know how I have reacted, and let me tell you, it wasn't like Jesus. Although the disciples learned no better than the first time Jesus covered this material, He humbled Himself and didn't stop teaching them.
The real lesson to learn from this, however, is not to be humble like Jesus when you teach the unteachable, but that Jesus humbles Himself to teach us though we are every bit as unteachable as the disciples. Jesus speaks to us in plain language, but we don't understand. He tells us the wages of sin is death, yet we are surprised that we die. He tells us no one has known the mind of God, but we think we can or do. He tells us there is no crown without the cross, no Easter without Lent, but we think there should be for us. Yet Jesus keeps teaching us Sunday after Sunday, Bible class after Bible class.
We continually stumble over how the waters of Baptism can do such great things, but He continues to teach us that it's not the water only but the Word of God attached to the water. We continually don't understand how the words of man can forgive our sin, but Jesus continually teaches us that the pastors words are as valid and certain in heaven as if He himself said them. We continually are afraid that we aren't holy and righteous enough to eat and drink Jesus in Holy Communion and He continually teaches us to look not at ourselves but at Him and His promises.
But that's not all the humbling Jesus is suffering here. He's heading home to Capernaum through Galilee. All the way home the disciples are arguing. It was a specific rule then that the students of a rabbi couldn't walk with their teacher but must walk behind him. So all the way home Jesus hears petty arguing going on. This is not me. When my kids engage in petty fighting like this on a trip, it's , "You want me to stop this car?" I can listen to it for about 10 minutes, and then I've had it. Jesus listens for hours, maybe days. Here is Jesus humbling Himself again, and once more, the point isn't that I should humble myself and put up with the petty fighting of my kids, but that Jesus humbles Himself to put up with out petty fighting.
Don't kid yourself; we have a lot of petty fighting going on among us; all churches do. This one doesn't like that one who doesn't like this one for liking that one. He wants to do this; she wants to do that. They want it this way and these want it another way. Yet, Jesus doesn't whirl around on us and say, "Do you want me to stop this car?" He doesn't throw His hands up in despair like I do with my kids. He hears all this bickering, but doesn't think He is too good of a Lord or Savior for us. No, He is the Good Physician who doesn't expect that He will be around healthy people. The Good Shepherd who doesn't expect sheep not to smell. The Savior of sinners who don't expect to find sinners not sinning.
I know what you're going to say, "But He does confront them with their bickering when they reach the house." Does He? What's really going on here? Jesus is again humbling Himself by repeating a simple lesson that the disciples ought to have known from childhood. God's order is not man's order. Cain is the oldest, yet Able is chosen. Abraham serves Lot by giving him first choice in the Land of Canaan, but Abraham is first in God's eyes. Esau is the oldest, yet Jacob is chosen. Judah is fourth born, yet he has the Promised Seed. Moses repeatedly falls down before the congregation of Israel begging them to repent, yet God speaks to Him face to face as a man speaks to his friend. David is 8th born. Judging by appearances his brothers before him would be more suitable to be king, but God doesn't judge as man does.
You can't go far in the Old Testament without running into the principle that God exalts the humble and casts down the proud, and that the order in the world is not God's order. This is a simple Biblical principal that Jesus stoops to teach those who should know it. But this isn't all that is going on in this confrontation. By humbly reteaching them this basic point, Jesus shows these disciples that He knows what they were arguing about on the road although they declined to tell Him. The One whom they didn't bother to try and understand when He taught them, shows that He is God in flesh and blood. He knows the thoughts and intents of their hearts. The One whom they even dared to try and teach, shows them He is no ordinary teacher at all.
Furthermore, who among them really is the very last? Isn't it the One who will be the Foot washer of them all? Isn't it the One who has poorer living conditions on earth than foxes and birds? Who but the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve is really in the running for the title Greatest. Yet, Jesus, the Greatest, puts up with their scorning His teaching, their petty fighting, and their invincible ignorance. And He puts up with ours too, and stays among us even as He stayed among them.
Jesus who is the greatest, who is God in flesh and blood whom the very angels are not holy enough to look at, humbles Himself to come to us in Austin tap water. He places Himself not in jewels and gold but in bread and wine. He comes not to palaces of royalty, but to churches of sinners. And though we are always mistaking what is low for what is high, and what is high for what is really low so that we continually miss the glory of God in the cross, He doesn't cast us away anymore than He did His first disciples.
But Jesus isn't done humbling Himself yet. Teaching by lecturing is a sophisticated way of instructing people. High schools and colleges use this. In the lower grades the teachers use object lessons because they are a simple and effective way to teach people who have a hard time grasping things. So what does Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth, do when His lectures cannot be understood? He humbles Himself to use object lessons.
Jesus takes a little child, probably one of the disciples own children, and stands him in the center of them all. Then Jesus takes the little boy right up into His arms, a simple everyday action, plain, ordinary, so plain, so ordinary, so everyday that no one even thinks about doing it. But Jesus puts incredibly important significance in the act. He says, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me." These disciples thought doing great things for Jesus meant keeping Him from the brutal cross, calling down fire from heaven to smoke the people who would not receive Him, or casting out demons in His name, but they were wrong. Picking up a child for His sake did the great thing of welcoming Jesus. Ordinary actions done in Jesus' name are incredibly significant to Jesus.
Jesus shows us that if you go by what is apparent, you miss God. Jesus calls us to repent of thinking that only what we do here in Church matters to Him. We think only the great things in life like going to be a missionary, giving lots of money, or sacrificing our time, talents, and treasurers are important to Jesus. But, taking care of kids, washing their clothes, feeding them, cleaning up after them are highly significant things when done in Jesus' name. Even just hugging them is!
You see, Jesus isn't far away from us locked up in heaven where only our thoughts can reach Him. He is down here in children, in the sick and needy, in the least people of the world where our arms can reach Him. Baptismal water is not just plain water, the forgiving words of a pastor are not just plain words, bread and wine in Communion are not just plain bread and wine, and children are not just plain kids. Nothing at all is plain when we approach them in Jesus name. All the world is different. The world thinks only the rich, the powerful, the important have a chance of being significant in this life. Jesus tells us everything in His name is significant even the most humble things.
But there's more here. Jesus goes on to say with the child still in His arms, that whoever welcomes Me by welcoming a child in My name, does not welcome Me, but the One who sent Me. Now the humiliation of Jesus is complete. Now He is the worm and no man as He says He is Psalm 22. This texts starts with the disciples ignoring what the Son of Man is teaching them about His suffering, dying and rising. They go on to argue about which of them is greatest while the true greatest One is right there in front of them. They see what everyone else did. Jesus, the Son of Man had no place to lay His head. The Son of Man had to get His temple tax from the mouth of a fish. The Son of Man must hide from His enemies. And they are tempted to be offended even as we are. But Jesus says that in welcoming the lowly, despised Son of Man they are really welcoming the God of all creation.
Again the call to the disciples and us is to repent. Repent of regarding Jesus according to His outward humble form. Repent of thinking that Baptism is just water, Communion is just bread and wine, forgiving words are just words, and kids are just kids. Jesus humbly meets us in all of these ways. He makes Himself so lowly just so He can bring us to God and God to us where we are. We miss this when we focus on what the world considers great. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XVIII (10-15-00) Mark 9:30-37