Proper 20B: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a12; Mark 9:30-37
God can have some pretty dramatic ways of revealing Himself to us – some awesome ways of capturing our attention in order to reveal some Godly truth – or to reveal something about the way God is. It’s kind of like a little piece of heaven breaking into our time and place.
Have you ever had a sensation of being extra close to God when you’ve seen an incredibly beautiful sunset – or maybe a rainbow – or the vibrant, intense color of autumn leaves in the sun – or the perfect beauty of a flower . . . Watching the play of the water as waves break on the beach – or witnessing the power of a waterfall – – or just sitting on the bank of a slow moving river – any of these experiences can unexpectedly draw us into a sense of Jesus’ Presence.
God can reveal himself in lightening in the night sky – a bird in flight – the soft, tender touch of a loved one – all of these can be a gift of God’s self expression. Think back . . . remember for a moment . . . can you recall a special, personal time when God revealed himself in an awesome way to you?
When we witness one of these revelations, we’re somehow changed – an image may be etched permanently on the palette of our memories – or an emotion or sensation may be planted deep in our hearts so that it arises again from time to time to remind us of that Godly encounter . . . These kinds of encounters are one of the ways we get to know God, God as the Father, or God as Jesus Christ, God as we are touched by the Holy Spirit . . . and these encounters leave us feeling special – we feel blessed.
Turning now to the Gospel – today’s reading comes from the ninth chapter of the gospel according to Mark. Earlier in that chapter, three of the disciples, Peter, James and John, were blessed with a spectacular God encounter – the awesome vision of the Transfiguration – Jesus in dazzling light up on a mountain top talking with Moses and Elijah. Then a voice comes from out of a cloud. “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” With this God experience there could have been little doubt in their minds that Jesus was the Messiah, son of God . . . and they certainly could have come away feeling special because they had been chosen to experience this revelation.
But in today’s reading Jesus and his band of followers have returned from the stratosphere of the mountaintop. With feet on the ground – walking toward Capernaum, Jesus once again tells them about his destiny: he says that “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.”
If you remember last week’s gospel, when Jesus relayed this same message, there was a showdown between Peter and Jesus – Peter wasn’t able to accept the message. He challenged Jesus — and Jesus came back, calling Peter an agent of Satan. None of the disciples got it that first time around.
Now again, this second time they still don’t understand this death and resurrection teaching, and they’re afraid to ask any questions. Perhaps they’re still in denial . . . unable to even hear the message. Perhaps they’re embarrassed about their confusion. Or perhaps they’re avoiding the hard question – hoping it will go away . . .
Have you ever found yourself remaining silent because you didn’t want to appear to be confused – or remaining silent, turning away when the hard question came along, especially if that hard question had to do with death?
In their silence the disciples distance themselves from Jesus . . . in the awkward silence, we can imagine that Jesus might just walk on ahead a few paces with the others lagging behind a bit. So as they continue on their way, the disciples may think that Jesus is out of earshot. Then their conversation turns to personal ambition – talk about who among them is the greatest . . . As Jesus claims his identity and authority as the Messiah, who among his friends and followers will be called to sit near him . . . who will be the most important figures in the kingdom soon to come? Talk of personal ambition is the distraction that fills the void of the silence in the earlier conversation . . .
When they arrive at their destination, it becomes apparent that Jesus knows exactly what they were discussing – and when he asks them what they were arguing about,again they are silent. Again, perhaps, they are embarrassed. Now their silence opens space for another teaching moment – this time about ambition and what it means to be the greatest – to be first, the most respectable – what it means to be most powerful in the kingdom of God.
Notice here that Jesus does not condemn ambition as such – it’s all a matter of the intention driving the ambition. Where ambition becomes dangerous is when it is driven by envy, selfish ambition. Listen once again to these verses from the epistle reading – this in a translation that differs slightly from the one we heard earlier. In his letter, James writes:
Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,
there is disorder and every foul practice.
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure,
then peaceable, gentle, compliant,
full of mercy and good fruits
without inconstancy or insincerity . . .
So where does the power of self-centered ambition lie, and where is the power of righteous ambition found? Here we encounter a spiritual paradox – namely: the power of powerlessness. The power of righteous ambition lies in letting go of the need to control, the need to overwhelm. The power lies in humility – humility that expresses itself in servant-hood. Jesus says “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
In order to drive this point home with his disciples, Jesus embraces a child and draws the child to himself in the middle of the disciples who are gathered around him. Jesus says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” In the corresponding story in the gospel according to Luke Jesus says the same thing in these words: “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
In this seemingly powerless and unassuming child, we have the visual image, a revelation of what the kingdom of God is like. Have you ever had the sensation of being extra close to God when you’ve been in the presence of a child – held a baby in your arms – looked with wonder into the eyes that child? Could it have been Jesus speaking to you through the mystery of those eyes?