The 21th Sunday After Pentecost October 25, 2009
385(1-4), 34, 347, 457
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Dear Fellow Christians:
What comes to mind when you hear the word arms? It depends, doesn’t it. The word can mean anything from “weapons” to “power” to “branches” to “parts of a ship” to “appendages.” Context alone will tell you.
What comes to mind when the context is the Savior’s arms? For the Christian, the phrase elicits almost universally positive impressions. What, after all, could ever be bad or negative about the Savior’s arms?
Satan could probably tell us more clearly than anyone else. Our Savior-God is the greatest ally any human being could ever hope to have. To rest securely in his arms when He is your friend and ally is the ultimate picture of comfort and peace. Yet for those who oppose him, the Savior’s arms represent a much different picture and the phrase describes a much different relationship. Having God as your enemy is not a place any human being wants to visit. His might, His power, His divine will is simply irresistible.
Our text for today will guide us to a better understanding of both the negative and positive aspects of the Savior’s arms — both the place where we want to be and the place where we most certainly do not want to be. That text, given by God himself for our instruction and comfort, is found in the Gospel account of Mark, the ninth chapter:
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.”
These are the words God has given us for our instruction, growth, and comfort. May we always approach them with the awe and reverence that comes in realizing that these are truly God’s words. To this end we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth! Amen.”
As you may have noted, we are taking a little different approach to this text (examining a different aspect of these inspired words) than you might ordinarily have expected. The more obvious message of this text has to do with a correct understanding of ambition together with the fact that there is both a right and a wrong form of Christian ambition.
The disciples clearly demonstrated the wrong kind of ambition when they engaged in their petty argument over who was or would be the greatest in God’s kingdom. Jesus obviously and decisively dismissed and condemned their sinful ambition and pointed them in a very different direction. You will note, by the way, that He didn’t offer a blanket condemnation of ambition, but of their sinful and misguided ambition. From this you and I now know that the sort of ambition that our God sees as good and wholesome is that humble ambition that seeks the advancement of others, rather than self. Jesus himself promoted the right kind of ambition in Matthew 6:33 when He told his followers to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Note that we are to seek His kingdom and His righteousness. That is positive spiritual ambition. Again in 1 Corinthians 12:31 we are told to, “…eagerly desire the best gifts…”
It ought then to be the ambition of every single one of us to be the greatest Christian he or she can possibly be. God has made it perfectly clear that, in connection with spiritual matters, He wants a thoroughly ambitious Church. God wants Christians who are never satisfied with their level of spiritual growth, never content with their ability to witness, never satisfied with their depth of knowledge and insight. He never wants a Church that considers itself big enough or active enough or sanctified enough or pious enough. God wants every single Christian to struggle relentlessly for spiritual greatness. So also in our text Jesus pointed to a different kind of ambition (a concept foreign to the world around us) when He said, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and the servant of all.” [v.35]
Today, however, we are examining a different aspect of our text—a rather poignant moment that you may have missed: “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.’” [vv.36-37]
Talk about a blessed child! Imagine having the very Son of God—Jesus Christ Himself—gather you up in his arms and offer you His omnipotent love and protection. In a very real way, everyone who is baptized experiences the same thing. Through the Word of God connected to simple water, God Himself promises to enfold the baptized soul in His embrace and declares that soul to be His own child fully entitled to a lifetime of divine protection and care and afterward an eternity in his presence. What an incredible blessing! and absolutely without comparison here on earth.
Those of you who have suffered—and I assume that includes all of you—you should have some sense of just how blessed that little boy was in our text when the very Son of God and Savior of the world gathered him up in His arms. Not only has your God done the same in and for you in Baptism, He offers much the same every day of our lives. Who wouldn’t want such a thing? Who hasn’t yearned for such a thing—especially when the hard times knock us down and beat us up? Who wouldn’t…who doesn’t long for the Savior’s protecting arms?
That’s probably a big part of the problem. My sense is that very few (if any) of us even think along such lines, let alone “yearn” for the embrace of our Savior God, even when times get tough. Human beings that are all wrapped up in what the world has to offer don’t tend to think in terms of being with Jesus. To be sure, there are times when every Christian would like to be gone from this ugly place and with our Lord, but for the most part we tend to ask our God to fix the present so that we can enjoy ourselves without interruption and hardship. It’s kind of the old “I want to go to Heaven, I just don’t want to go tonight.” What we most often seem to demand from our God is sort of like asking the fireman to turn up the volume on the television because the fire roaring through my house is making it too hard to hear. What we need is rescue. What we tend to seek is comfort in situations where we should never feel comfortable.
Do you recall from the reading of the text exactly what the disciples did when Jesus asked them about the conversation they were having with each other while they walked along the road? They did nothing, answering Jesus not a word. Why? Because they were ashamed of their conduct. They were rightly embarrassed by their selfish worldliness and their sinful ambition.
This is the sort of position in which no Christian wants to find himself—ever. What a terrible situation in which to be, one in which we are too embarrassed to answer our Lord honestly concerning what we had just been doing, thinking, or saying. And yet we find ourselves in that very spot more often than we care to admit. How often, in your day-to-day life, do you have to admit that you would just as soon not have Jesus right there beside you? How often would you just as soon be hidden from your Savior’s sight so that you could “get away with” whatever you happened to be doing at that particular moment? Think about that for just a bit, and the true horror of sin begins to dawn on us. Something is very wrong in our Christian walk and attitude if the presence of our Savior God would put a crimp in our style.
At such times a different image of the arms of the Savior should present itself and that is the image of the Lord God of Sabaoth—the God of Armies, the God of War. No one who has come to know the truth about his God ever wants to be separated from his God, not even for an instant. No sane human being wants God for an enemy. The words of the Apostle Paul come to mind in Galatians 6:7-8: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption…”
We tend to not want to hear about the sort of God at least not when we are on the receiving end of his wrath and displeasure. When we are indulging the sinful flesh, we don’t want to think about the God who sees all, who hates sin, and who is never mocked or deceived. We don’t want to be the recipient of divine justice when we are the law-breakers, when we are the self-serving, pleasure-seeking malcontents. Then we don’t want the Savior’s arms. We want to be left alone.
How tragic, because in reality, the very last thing we want from our God is to be without Him even for an instant. You and I know full well that we will be devoured in an instant by Satan if we push our only source of hope and protection from our lives. Without the loving embrace of our Savior, we are absolutely and hopelessly doomed for all of eternity. Yet that is exactly what sin threatens to do in our lives. It causes us to hide from our Lord to wish ourselves out of His sight and to be gone from His mind.
So, like the little child that wanders from his parents only to call out in panic when danger threatens, we too come running back, time after time and again our Savior wraps His arms around us and assures us that He will, with perfect consistency, deliver us from evil. His very life’s work was to rescue us from ourselves and our own tragic foolishness.
Christian artists often portray little children reaching out to Jesus and He to them. No matter how old, no matter how busy, no matter how important you are (in the eyes of the world) or how unimportant you are, reaching out to a reaching Savior is the position you and I want to find ourselves in every single moment of our lives. We don’t just want Jesus to be a part of our lives, we want Him to be the very center, the focus, the heart and soul of all that we do and all that we are. Know too that if that is not the case with you right now, it can be. Jesus Himself wills it to be so. He never stops reaching out to us with the forgiveness he earned for us on Calvary’s cross.
Be wise enough then to understand the circumstances in which you find yourself. If you find it a bit difficult to picture yourself not only in such a Christ-centered situation, but altogether content and blissfully happy in such a situation, know that Satan has caused you to wander and lose focus. Stop for a bit. Rest. Listen carefully and you will hear the voice of your Lord, gently calling you back to his side. His holy Word is where you will hear Him, where He promised to visit with you and comfort you. There you will find Him.
Seriously, where else could we, would we, ever really want to be? Jesus once asked his disciples if they too wanted to leave Him as many others had when they became disillusioned with a Savior who did not offer them a life of ease and pleasure on earth. Peter responded for the disciples, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68-69). So also we say with Peter: “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). When, therefore, we have Jesus Christ, we absolutely can lack no good thing.
Thank you, Lord, for your gift of life and salvation. Keep us ever by your side, and grant also to each of us a desire for the sort of relationship with you that you long to have with each of us. 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.