20th Sunday after Trinity October 13, 2002
7, 392, 416, 46
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. For He taught His disciples and said to them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him. Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me.”
Dear Fellow members of Christ’s body, redeemed from the service of sin to the joyful service of His Kingdom:
Jesus never failed to keep His disciples guessing. Things seemed to grow more confusing as time progressed. In recent weeks, as they journeyed through Galilee, they journeyed toward what the disciples thought would be a rich and glorious climax for the kingdom of the Messiah. But the dominant message they heard from Him was: “the Son of Man will be betrayed, rejected, killed.” (That Jesus also said He would rise again hardly sank-in on astonished disciples.)
If Jesus was the Messiah, He had a strange way of seeking the greatness due Him. When He healed He would forbid people to advertise it. Instead of seeking the popularity of a charismatic leader He seemed to expect rejection. Even now, with so much to do to bring His kingdom about, here He was distracted by a little child picking him up and cuddling him.
Did the disciples realize the greatness Jesus took up in His arms, that day? Even as He spoke, the forces of jealousy and disappointment were at work, watching the kingdom apparently fail. Those who didn’t understand true greatness never gained it. What glory does He have for us? Are we aiming for His goals, or pursuing our own? Taking Greatness Up In Your Arms I. Those who aim for greatness never fail to fall short. II. Those who aim to serve find glory they never sought. III. The glorified find greatness in the littlest things.
When we hear how Jesus spoke of His suffering and death, we wonder how the disciples could have failed to understand what He said. He spoke so plainly. We know now that the course Jesus described for the Messiah was exactly the path that secured the success of the Kingdom. Jesus Christ was sent into this world to suffer, die, atone for our sins, and make peace between men and God. Jesus would rise from the dead, live, and dwell in glory as King. But this key to success was something that the disciples failed to appreciate.
There’s a reason why the disciples couldn’t grasp a word of it. Those who aim for greatness never fail to fall short. Even as Jesus spoke to the disciples of heavenly things, they were arguing behind His back about which of them was the greatest. There was envy and ambition. If the kingdom was near at hand then it was now time to start jockeying for positions of leadership and honor! Jesus had tried to sober them up by warning that if anyone wanted to follow Him he must take up his own cross; but grandiose notions about their roles in the “new Israel” blinded the disciples to the divine character of it all. No doubt they thought of themselves as God’s servants—each one a hero—who would accomplish the most amazing things. Every one of them probably imagined himself doing indispensable things that would make this new order come about.
What the disciples would face as they worked in Christ’s kingdom would not match their dreams of grandeur. God’s great chores are often humbling, and we can easily find ourselves chafing under them. He may ask us to simply put up with others who have been less than kind to us. After years and years in the same household or church family it’s easy to become jaded about someone else’s ways of thinking and doing. The “great works” God sets before us are so often more tedious than triumphant. Most people would see more importance in polishing the church candlesticks than in cleaning the church toilets.
On a more serious level, there is often much less applause for remaining faithful to Scripture and maintaining the right spirit in church, than there is for making compromises with the Devil in order to look good in your community or advance the cause of a visible church. As it was for the disciples, so the temptation is here for us to want to take charge, make things happen, and have the appearance of grandiose success.
But this thinking doesn’t come from devotion to God. It smells of human ambition. And it is that ambition that makes it impossible to appreciate the true power and foundation of the Kingdom, namely, the servant-work of Jesus. While others saw glory for themselves as the key to success for the kingdom, Jesus concerned Himself with humble, tireless obedience. It was a dedication to God that led to apparent disaster. What honor is there in a King betrayed by one of His own, in a Lamb led off to slaughter, in a prophet silenced by Jew and Gentile alike?
Here is the marvel of the kingdom: Those who aim to serve in this kingdom find a glory they never sought. That takes us back to the child that Jesus brought amongst His disciples. Jesus made His point by presenting a study in contrasts. The timid child stood in the middle of these proud disciples, a tender youth among the burly workingmen, a bewildered draftee made to stand next to ambitious mercenaries.
Then Jesus reached out and gathered the youngster in His arms. We’ve seen it a hundred times before—the children blessed by Jesus, little lambs safe in the Shepherd’s arms. What does it prove but that little ones are precious to the Lord? There the child was, basking in the Savior’s warmth. He had nothing to give the Savior in return and nothing was expected. He had simply to rest there with Jesus and soak in His love.
In the face of humbling chores our sinful flesh rebels at what seems like a lack of greatness for itself. But this is chafing and bitterness and our hearts condemn us. We come to realize how proud and vain we are, how in its own way our attitude has been a “ball and chain” to the Kingdom of Grace. But that is when the Gospel touches us with all its sweetness. The Word of God comes in its amazing grace convincing us of forgiveness and healing our sorrows. The Lord Himself takes from us the spotted garment of self-righteousness and offers us untarnished glory as His children: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also…we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1f).
Only when we see how our courage and glory and contributions to the kingdom of God have fallen miserably short do we come to appreciate how the Savior’s obedience has prevailed over all our enemies; and how His innocence avails for us in the presence of God. The betrayed King actually defeated His enemies on the cross in the face of their deadliest firepower. They have nothing left.
The High Priest of the New Testament was led as a sheep to the slaughter, but His blood alone satisfies the need for justice in God’s court. There is no charge that can be brought against us. The voice of the Prophet rang out once again after the Resurrection sending His disciples to preach the Gospel to every creature. He promised His disciples that they went forth on the highest authority: “He that hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16). The victory of the kingdom lies in the power of the Gospel message, which makes young and old wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. The arms that took up a little child were not long afterward stretched out on the cross in the battle where the kingdom was established.
Those arms reach out now to the world. We can ask for no greater joy and glory than this, that Jesus took us up in His arms too when He took up His work of redemption. Being thus glorified, it is much easier for us to see the glory that comes in doing the small things that God sets before us in our lives. When we consider how God has loved us and when we marvel at the price of our redemption, we are renewed in faith to love God, rather than compete with Him. It becomes a privilege to serve Him and obey Him and to do it freely, not looking for some sort of reward in return.
When we examine our Savior’s humility and obedience, we are given the example to see what great work really is. He who wishes to be greatest in the kingdom of God will seek to be last of all so that he can be sure that God is in the lead. Whoever wishes to be great will seek to be servant of all so as to seize every opportunity to be of service to his Master.
There are many opportunities for work and glory in this world. Your work may be to swim against the tide of society’s values. Your glory may very well be to suffer shame for Christ’s sake. You have your glory already in His baptism. You have your treasure in heaven. Nothing can deny you what Christ has already given you.
Where and how would the Lord have you serve Him today? The tasks may be simple, anonymous, tedious: keeping up your household and looking to your family, going the extra mile with a tiresome friend or overbearing employer, dedicating your children to the blessings of God’s kingdom over and above all human goals, seizing the opportunity to witness your Savior’s love and thus to bring His kingdom to others.
But before we take in hand any task for the Lord, may He keep us mindful of the patience, the sacrifice, and the obedience of Him who first gathered us up in His own arms. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.