Sermon: Strive to Be Last in Line!, Mark 9:30-37

A sermon delivered by the Rev. Patrick H. Wrisley on Sunday, September 19, 2021

Today’s text is about expectations versus reality. Have you ever experienced a gap between what you expected and the reality you experienced? Say you have planned a fancy vacation and booked a room at a swanky resort. The resort is right on the water and opens up to this incredible vista of aqua blue water. Gorgeous Royal Palms are along the beach front and you are already imagining what those swaying palms against that backdrop of blue is going to look like as the sun slowly dips below the western horizon. You have seen the pictures and brochures; you have read all of the online reviews. People describe sitting on their balcony watching the sunsets as they sip their refreshments with little umbrellas in them and eat fancy cheeses. You’re absolutely pumped to go!

Vacation time finally arrives, and you travel several hours to get to this exotic location. You pull in and they open your car door for you and whisk you inside to this beautiful lobby area with island music playing and birds flying around.  You check in and are escorted to your room. The person carrying your bags opens the door and the room is everything you thought it would be! It’s gorgeous! You walk over to open the blinds, and as you fling them wide open, you’re hit with this incredible eastern view of the parking lot, the HVAC towers, and the trash compactor. There is a collision of your expectations and the sheer reality you experience.  This, my friends, is what is going on in the scripture today.

Last week, we met Jesus and his closest disciples walking the roads of Galilee and he was using this time to really focus on teaching them the intimate things he wants them to know. He has told them he would undergo suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders, be killed and after three days, he would rise. Peter scolds Jesus for saying this and Jesus quickly put Peter in his place. This is the journey the Messiah must take. He is trying to tell them this is the journey they, indeed we, must make as well.

This morning, we find Jesus and the disciples, the twelve apostles, on the road again. Once again, he is focusing his time and attention on them so they will understand what is about to take place. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Mark 9:30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”[1]

Today’s scripture is shaped like a sandwich with two pieces of bread called reality stuffed with a filling of expectations.

Reality slice number one: for the second time Jesus says he is going to be betrayed, that he will be killed and in three days rise again. Sadly, no one was listening or paying attention. No one thought to simply stop and say, “Jesus, this is the second time you’ve brought this up; what are you trying to tell us?”

Expectation: The disciples, the Apostles mind you, simply do not hear what Jesus is saying.  Now for the second time, Jesus has given a Stygian description of what is about to happen. You would think the Apostles would use their time on the road to press Jesus on what this all meant. They didn’t. Instead, we see this group walking on the dusty roads of Palestine and the disciples are pulling back on their pace as Jesus walks ahead with purpose. Instead of talking about what all this means with Jesus, they are already using this opportunity to size up who will be the group leader after Jesus is gone. The disciples were expecting great things for themselves. They saw themselves as rising in power and influence.

And then comes the second slice of reality: Jesus calls them out on it and they are ashamed of what they were talking about. It’s at this point Jesus schools them in what a life of faith looks like: Those who want to be the greatest must be last and servant of all. To drive the point home, he takes a child, perhaps and infant or toddler, and picks him or her up in his arms. And then, telling this group who was secretly planning who would be in charge once Jesus is gone, that, “Whoever welcomes any such child in my name welcomes me and welcomes the one who sent me.”

I imagine one could hear a proverbial pin drop. You see, a child had no social standing in the first century. They were used for work, they were hired out, they were sold to pay a parent’s debt. They were the most vulnerable in the society. It’s not like today where children are loved and doted on by their parents; children back then ranked up there with peasants, the impoverished, and the cultural bottom of the barrel.

The way our Story is structured highlights the gap between reality and expectation. It’s not about greatness or prestige any more than it is about power and influence. It’s about humility, sacrificing, suffering, and serving to others on God’s behalf. 

One of the ways I process scripture is to study the text and then write a prayer about what it says to me. I did this for today’s text, and I want to share it with you. Perhaps you can hear how to relate the text to your life as I did to mine. As I reflected upon today’s scripture, I wrote:

Lord Jesus, I receive great comfort from knowing the Apostles are as totally clueless about your ways as I am.  What a motley group you have to work with to share the Winsome News to the world. On one hand, it’s amazing how much good and grace has been generated by your disciples over the years. On the other hand, frankly, it is amazing anything substantive has been done in your Name because of our penchant to get “it” wrong and screw it up. This is the second time in Mark’s Story where you have tried to put it out there frankly, openly, and obviously about what is going to happen to you. You are to be betrayed, given up and over to oppressive powers, both politically and religiously, mocked and then killed. Meanwhile, the ones to whom you are leaving the proverbial keys to the car with after you are gone are arguing with each other about which one of them is greatest. When all of you finally get home, you have them pegged dead to rights; you know full well about what they were bantering about on the road. After all the personal time you have spent with them, they have failed to listen or learn from the stories you have shared, the miracles you have done, or the instruction you have given them. Sadly, or better, unfortunately, they will have to learn the hard way about what it means to live, be Iike, and serve like you. They, actually, we, will also be betrayed and given up to those who will judge us because of you, who will abuse and mock us like you, and will have to die in some way in our life for you; like you, we do this in order that the circle of grace can be enlarged bigger, wider, more capacious to include as many broken, cast away ones as we can. If we do not go out of our way to love the most vulnerable people we see in our world, and should we fail to understand that true greatness is found in humility whereby we run to the end of the line to the neglected and forgotten ones, then we too will find ourselves drawn outside the circle of grace. None of this will ever make sense to the people and to the ways of the world; we pray you will reveal the beauty of this great reversal as we strive to gather as many into the kindom of Jesus as we can. Help us to empty us of us that we can be totally available to be filled by you. Amen.

Beloved, for Christ’s sake, let’ strive to be the last in line!

© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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