Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
He sat down, and called the twelve; and he said to them, ĎIf any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all.í
Martin Luther and other reformers understood that there are two kingdoms: the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. They believed that God ruled both kingdoms, but He did so in the kingdom of the world through temporal authority. The left hand of God is found in the hands of kings and presidents, church leaders, bosses, parents and others who hold positions of authority. These temporal authorities have the power to rule through law, including the use of military power as necessary. The right hand of God rules the spiritual, and this authority is not given to man, but to the Holy Spirit whose power is the Gospel. A Christian can (and should) serve in the kingdom of the world, but should never allow the kingdom of the world to usurp the authority of the kingdom of God. Notice that church leaders are appointed to rule in the kingdom of the world,
Martin Luther writes, ďGod has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly... The laws of worldly government extend no farther than to life and property and what is external upon earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God's government and only misleads and destroys souls. We desire to make this so clear that every one shall grasp it, and that the princes and bishops may see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing one thing or another.Ē
Luther also said, ďWe are to be subject to governmental power and do what it bids, as long as it does not bind our conscience but legislates only concerning outward matters... But if it invades the spiritual domain and constrains the conscience, over which God only must preside and rule, we should not obey it at all but rather lose our necks. Temporal authority and government extend no further than to matters which are external and corporeal.Ē
It is hard to hear that we should willingly lose our necks, particularly in a world where many Christians are literally being beheaded by those who would rule over their spiritual lives. Christians are being persecuted all over the world and nearly 90,000 died in 2017. That is one Christian every six minutes. Many of my readers are from Nigeria, and we have heard the frightening stories of what happens to Christian girls at the hands of extremists there. None of us would choose that kind of life.
Yet, our Sunday school class has been pondering this question for weeks: What would you do if you faced someone who would kill you for your faith, but would let you go if you denounced Jesus? I donít think any one of us can really answer that question, but we all hope we can stay true to our God. Someone suggested that they would have to think twice; she was concerned that her work was not done yet. ďIf I left, then I could continue to work for God.Ē This is true, but in leaving we show a complete lack of trust in God. ďI still have work to doĒ gives us more power than God. If He has work for you to do, wouldnít He ensure you lived another day to accomplish it? Perhaps the work Heís calling you to do is to suffer the persecution and martyrdom.
Jeremiah was facing persecution. His words fell on unwilling ears and his expectations were unwelcome. He was opposed on every side; even his family was against him. His words brought the wrath of the leaders on his head. The family did not want to suffer because of what Jeremiah was saying, so they schemed to destroy him, to stop his words to protect their lives. The Lord made this conspiracy known to Jeremiah.
This brief passage from Jeremiah is a personal lament by the prophet over the suffering he faces. It is difficult enough to face persecution when it comes from the world and from the powerful. However, it is even more difficult when it comes from your own family. Jeremiah was honest with God. He was hurt and angry, so he asked God for vengeance. In this passage we see a deep trust in God. God is big enough to listen to our ranting and our anger. Jeremiah trusted God enough to be honest with Him, to speak the words that he felt and to admit his desires. This display of anger and lament did not bring Godís wrath on Jeremiah, but rather His mercy and grace.
The early Christians were faced with the kind of persecution that we see in Jeremiahís life; they held on to these words as they tried to understand their suffering. They too had faith enough in God to speak of their fears and their anger, knowing that God is bigger than their human failings. He gives strength to those who call Him, even when the cry is one of anger and lament. He lifts us up and brings us through our troubles, forgiving our frailty and giving us the grace to go on.
David faced persecution, too. Saul knew that David was Godís intended king, but he thought that if David were dead he might be able to hold on to his reign. David was hiding among the Ziphites and they betrayed him to Saul who was intent on killing David. David trusted that the Ziphites would protect him, but his greatest threat came from those who were close.
David sings, ďSave me, God, by your name.Ē The name of the Lord is the manifestation of His character and accessibility to His people. We cry out to Him by His name and He hears our prayers. In the psalm we once again hear a cry for vindication. David asked God to judge him according to His own strength - the strength of God - not according to the strength of Davidís life or importance. Vindication will come not because David has done anything particularly important but because David is the chosen one of God. Vindication will come not to the glory of David, but to the glory of God.
David trusted that God was his helper. In this psalm David began with a cry for help, then a confession of trust, and then finished with a vow to offer thanksgiving and praise. David was confident that God would save him from his enemies. David had several opportunities to kill Saul, but he never did. He waited for Godís timing. He comforted himself in the knowledge that God is faithful to His promises. We can do the same. When we face persecution, we can cry out to God with our worries and fears. Like David, we can trust that God hears and that He will accomplish His good and perfect will.
Jesus faced death, too, at the hands of those who should have believed in Him the most. The leaders of Israel knew the scriptures; they saw how Jesus was fulfilling so many of the promises. Yet, Jesus was not what they expected and they feared that Jesus would destroy their world. They liked being in power. They liked having control. Jesus threatened them. In those final days, when Jesus was walking toward the cross, He told the disciples what must take place. They didnít understand and were afraid to ask what He meant when He said that He would be delivered to the hands of men, killed and after three days rise again. They didnít want to know. It is so much better to be ignorant, to be blind to the troubles that surround us.
Have you ever noticed that a fairly small percentage of church members are actively involved in ministry? Some suggest it is about ten percent. Some churches may have better discipleship, but there are always some members who refuse to become involved. They donít want to be leaders, to serve on the council, to attend meetings. For many, the problem is that the simply donít want to know. I know how they feel. I worked in a church office and I was so disappointed by what I saw going on behind the scenes and behind closed doors. Some have experienced this, too, or theyíve been hurt at other churches. Whatever the reason they do not want to know, and so they remain inactive.
The disciples did not want Jesus to know what they were discussing. Were they embarrassed by their immaturity? Were they beginning to understand what Jesus was trying to share: that being part of the kingdom of God meant sacrifice and self-giving? They did not want Jesus to know that they were arguing over which one of them is most important. This happens in other stories about the disciples; they want Jesus to tell them who will lead at His side. Who will be the CEO? Who will be the General? Who will be the boss? They want to know and understand the hierarchy of the ministry. But they donít want Jesus to know that they are asking this question.
The Gospel lesson for this Sunday has a wonderful message about what it means to be ďgreatĒ in the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ did not seek a worldly throne; He would not rule as many demanded. He was a humble servant to His disciples, doing the most mundane tasks for them such as washing their feet. He explained that greatness in the kingdom of heaven was not as it is in the world where the rulers seek fame, power and possessions. In the kingdom of heaven, the least are the greatest. Welcoming a little child is like welcoming God Himself, and if they want to be first they must be the last and servant of all.
The disciples did not yet understand, but then have any of us really come to fully understand what God intends for us? They would face persecution. Most would be martyred. It is not a life any of us choose to live. Who wants to be persecuted when going along with the crowd can be so much fun? Who wants to be a servant when thereís a chance for a position of power and authority? Perhaps we donít really want to be ignorant, but weíd rather follow our own wisdom. We seek pleasure and in doing so we turn from God. We are motivated by our flesh rather than our spirit.
What does it mean to be humble? This is something that I ponder on a regular basis. As an artist and writer, I have to find a way to promote my work. How will people know that they can read my words or buy my paintings if I donít tell them? And yet, I have a hard time promoting myself. I recently made cards to leave out during a craft festival that included the addresses of my Facebook pages, but I was not comfortable doing it. Would people think I was being too conceited? Shouldnít I be more humble? But is that humility? Is it humble to wait for people to discover your gifts so that you donít appear to be selling yourself? This is what I ponder.
There is something to be said about trusting that God will use you in ways that take advantage of the gifts you have been given, but does He really want us to sit around and wait until someone else invites us to share those gifts. When we were moving from England to Arkansas, I was asked to give a sermon at our church, testifying to Godís grace in my life. It was the first time I was ever asked to preach. The sermon had a great impact on the congregation and too many people asked, ďWhy didnít we know you could do that?Ē We all lost the chance to benefit from my gifts because of my so-called humility. How many other times have I failed to do what God is calling me to do because I have been unwilling to tell people I can do it?
I think there is a fine line. Too many people approach promotion of themselves in a way that diminishes others. Unfortunately, we see that in political campaigns all the time. Instead of advancing their own gifts and agendas, politicians at every level of government and from every ideological perspective do whatever they can to put down their opponents. Even in this there is a fine line: where do you draw it. How do you run for political office and sell yourself while remaining humble?
The disciples were thinking like politicians on that road through Galilee. They were arguing with one another about who was the greatest. In other versions of this story, some of the disciples insisted on being Jesusí right hand and left hand men. They wanted to be part of the ruling party and felt they deserved it. They saw themselves as better than the others and thought Jesus should appoint them to the positions of power and authority. Jesus had another way.
Children are never shy about telling people what they can do. A three year old who has recently learned the alphabet song has no problem walking up to complete strangers and singing. A five year old who managed her first cartwheel at gymnastics class will perform at every opportunity. A seven year old who has received an A+ on his spelling test will gladly hang it on the refrigerator. Children donít worry about what others will think; they simply share their talents and they are overjoyed if it makes someone happy.
Children have faith. They approach life from the point of view that if they can do something they should because it might just make life better for someone else. Surely that lady at the grocery store needs to hear the alphabet song! She might not know what letter comes after ďpĒ! And motherís friends will benefit greatly from seeing a cartwheel on the front lawn at church. How they will benefit doesnít matter to the child, but surely the world will be a better place because of it!
Jesus was talking about suffering and persecution while they were looking forward to being rulers. Though they heard what He said, they didnít understand and they were not willing to admit their ignorance. They didnít trust in Jesus; and then they proved that they put their trust in themselves. The disciples were thinking about other things: worldly things. They were concerned about power and position. They were seeking greatness. The things Jesus said along the road didnít make sense to them because it didnít fit into their plans. They were going to sit at the right and left hands of the king. They didnít want to know that their ambitions were flawed. Their desires became a source for conflict. They all wanted to be on top. They all wanted to be the guy to whom Jesus turned, the one to rule alongside Him in this worldly kingdom.
Jeremiah probably didnít want to hear what was happening with his family. He may not have even wanted to hear the Word of the Lord. Yet, he humbly accepted the task God put before Him. He spoke to the people despite the danger. He trusted that God would do what was right. For him, wisdom meant going against what he wanted and doing what God intended. It meant being a servant, speaking a word to a people who needed the truth. The disciples were seeking what they thought was right, ignoring Godís plan.
David trusted that God was his helper. David cried for help, confessing faith in God and vowed to praise Him. He was confident that God would ensure that he lived another day to accomplish whatever work He had for him to do. Thatís what it means to have faith like a child. This kind of wisdom is not ignorant of the truth but trusts in God in the midst of it. When we face persecution, we too can cry out with our worries and fears. Like David, we can do so with the assurance that our helper God hears our cries. The disciples were not ready to face the reality of their life of discipleship.
Jesus showed them the way. He lifted a little child onto His lap and told them they should believe in His words the way a child does, without fear or worry or anxiety. They should just act in faith, doing what it is theyíve been gifted to do while trusting that God will make it work to His glory. Children arenít afraid to hold someoneís hand when they are crying. Children donít worry about whether or not they have the right words, they speak from their hearts. Children talk about Jesus and God and love and peace and hope in a way that we no longer understand because we have lost our innocence. Children trust and believe because they donít have to be the best or the first or the greatest.
Jesus reminded the twelve that they do not need to be the best or the first or the greatest, they simply need to believe. Thatís the kind of humility Jesus is looking for in our lives. The humble Christian is a servant that does not seek gold, power or fame, but who walks and works in faith that God will accomplish His good work in our lives. The world will think we are ridiculous, they will persecute us because we do not live as they expect, but we can trust that God will get us through to tomorrow.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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