Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mark 9.30–37 — True Greatness

Some of you know that we have been advertising for a Children and Families worker. I’ve never had so many discussions about job descriptions and person specifications as I’ve had in the last few months. To be honest, putting these documents together isn’t the most riveting work imaginable, but after your third or fourth hour of discussing a single paragraph of text, you begin to realise that there is an acceptable recruitment jargon… and you also realise what the jargon really means: ‘We have a casual working environment – We don't pay enough to expect you to wear a suit and tie’; ‘Duties will vary – Anyone in the office can boss you around’; ‘We are looking for a resourceful, independent self-starter – Since we have absolutely no time or resources to train you, we expect you to work everything out for yourself… quickly.’ Clearly some job descriptions are nonsense. Now I’d like you to think for a moment about what your job description for the Messiah would be? A king? A prophet? A healer? Whatever we think about the Messiah, I think that in our minds eye, we tend to have images much like those depicted on our West wall: the Messiah in glory, glowing, golden, wearing a long, flowing robe, with a halo and making strange hand gestures.

Now if these images of Christ in majesty chime with you, you’re in good company, because Jesus contemporaries, including the disciples, had very similar views. The Messiah would be a glorious, victorious king. And if you were to read Mark’s gospel as it’s meant to be read, in sequence, not mixed up, interspersed with chunks of John, you would forgive the disciples, at least Peter James and John, for being a bit confused. Earlier in Mark 9 these three disciples follow Jesus up a mountain where he was transfigured. That’s what they had been waiting for. Everything they expected the Messiah to be, and more! There he was, Israel’s true king, talking with Moses and Elijah, shining, dazzling white. A voice from heaven ‘this is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!’ If only the gainsayers could see and hear this! 

Now, as they make their way down the mountain, a Jesus says something very strange: ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again’ (v. 31). Hang on, that’s not how the story goes. The Messiah doesn’t die, a passive victim. The disciples just don’t know what to make of it. And they are silenced for the first time in our reading. Sometimes I feel sorry for the disciples in Mark’s gospel. They are always portrayed as stupid. Jesus is constantly lecturing them for not understanding even though he spoke in deliberately cryptic parables. Or criticising them for not having enough faith. Has Jesus hauled them over the coals one too many times? The disciples were afraid to ask him what he meant. Well that’s one way you could read their fearful silence. 

But as sorry as I feel for the disciples, I think there is more to this fearful silence. I think it’s a silence which comes from being all too aware of what Jesus means. They know that Jesus is the glorious king of Israel, and they are becoming increasingly aware that his kingdom isn’t going to be as they expected. The disciples didn’t ask because they knew that they weren’t going to get the answer that they wanted, that Jesus was going to be king, and that they would be his courtiers. Maybe an ambassador, or a chancellor, or even Prime Minister. 

And so they keep on arguing about who will be the greatest as they travel with Jesus to Capernaum (v. 33). When Jesus asks them what they were arguing about, the disciples are silenced for the second time, now from embarrassment. And now with knowing tenderness, Jesus teaches his friends what his reign looks like, and the path they need to follow if they are to be great as their Messiah is great. He brings in a little child and says ‘this is your example’. This isn’t a cute scene of   tender lovely Jesus, embracing children and saying ‘if only we were as innocent and lovely as children, things would be great!’ A child in the first century was about the lowest of the low. In Roman society children were the property of their fathers. They could be ordered about, sold or even put to death with impunity. Life was better in Jewish culture, but Children were still generally very insignificant. In fact, the word for slave in both Greek and Aramaic, is derived from the word for child. Jesus takes a child and says, here is my Ambassador, my Chancellor, my Prime Minister. Receive this person, who society regards as nothing, and you will receive Jesus and the Father who sent him.

We generally value and care for children in twenty-first century Britain. Perhaps we need to ask who are the people who are on the margins of our society today? Who are the people who we regard as expendable? Who are those who Jesus would stand in our church, right in the middle of us, and say ‘whoever welcomes one such person in my name welcomes me and the one who sent me.’  Perhaps a noisy baptismal family? or a person whose clothing seems inappropriate for church? Perhaps a prostitute or a drug addict? Who are the people in whose faces we would rather not see Jesus? Are we really a welcoming church? What might Jesus be telling us that we are unwilling to hear?

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