Week of Sunday September 23 - Pentecost 17
Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for 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.’ 32But 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?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then 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.’
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We went out one night looking for meat for some old folk who were alone in the camp. In Pitjantjatjara country the hill kangaroos, the kanyila, come down off the ridges to the plains for the green pick at night. So we travelled to the north side of a big ridge and slowly picked our way along, heading west.
When we had killed meat and it was time to head home, I turned right to the north, and then I took a bearing through the windscreen on a low star. I said to people that it would be quicker if we headed due north to the Amata - Enrabella road, instead of slowly working back along the ridge.
It began to take longer than it should. The country became harder. We headed into an old dead mulga forest that stakes your tires, and turns you around in the dark. I remember commenting “I had no idea there was such a rough patch of country through here!” I kept watching the star.
We staked one tire. Then another. The next time would mean pulling everything off a rim, and patching up a casing. It was very late. We were tired. And the moon came up, huge and low, in the western sky...
which, of course, can’t happen...
The only way the moon can come up in your western sky... is if you’re not really heading north at all. It can only come up in the west if you think you are heading north, but are really heading dead-wrong-south.
Somewhere along that ridge we’d come to the end and followed it around so that we were then heading back east. In the dark, we hadn’t noticed. I had been going the wrong way, turned right around, and hadn’t known it.
I’d chosen a star to aim at, a goal to get me home safe, and I’d been focussed on the wrong thing. I’d been going the wrong way... all the time.
I’m telling this story because it’s a lot like life. We can end up going the wrong way, and being focussed on the wrong thing. We can hitch our wagon to a star, (Emerson) but then discover it is the wrong one, leading us in the wrong direction.
Jesus said (John 10:10) he had come to give us life and to give it to us in all its fullness... so that our joy might be made full, says one translation. It means, says the one of the writers of the church, that nothing makes God happier than for us to enjoy the world, to be happy, to love what God has given us. (Traherne)
It’s good news in a world which sometimes seems joyless.
Hear the Good News: God wants life to be good. God wants you to enjoy life. It is a gift.
And there is more. We are not talking here about that perversion of the Gospel that essentially says, “You have to keep your nose clean until you die, and then you will have joy in heaven.” No—Life is meant to be enjoyed now. What The Gospel of John calls life eternal, life which is meant to be full... is for now!
What if I am missing out? What if I am going the wrong way? What if I think I am following Jesus, but have hitched my wagon to the wrong star, and I’m heading south, away from everything Jesus has made for me, not north?
What if the rough country I’m getting into is barren old dead forest and not life giving at all? What if I am heading away... from Joy?
How can I tell which way is right?
It’s all very well to say, “Follow Jesus!” How? Jesus’ followers seem to be going in all sorts of directions. Is there a right way?
In the gospel reading today, the disciples are following the wrong star. They are arguing about who is the greatest among them, who is the best. They are going in the wrong direction. Like us, sometimes, they think that happiness and fulfilment comes from being the greatest, from being first; look after Number One!
So Jesus says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all.”
36Then 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.’
The child is the symbol of all those who are not great. Children are the least powerful of all in society.
Jesus is showing us a great truth. To welcome a child, he says; to look after the least, is to look upon the face of God.... is to be looking in the right direction.
Greatness, salvation and joy come from knowing God.
But God, and what God gives, is not found through seeking worldly power,
or by being first,
or by being the greatest.
To look upon God, go last. Look after the children: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes ... the one who sent me, it says.
Don’t live for yourself. Look after the least. That will make you great.
And that will show you Joy. It will point you in the direction of Joy.
People thought the Messiah was to be mighty a conquering hero who would drive out the Romans and restore Israel’s greatness. In the three central chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus turns all that upside down.
Three times he tells us that the Messiah will be betrayed. The Messiah will be killed. No one wants to hear that lesson. No one wants to hear that the person who really is the greatest, gets there by suffering and dying for his God.
The disciples want to be the greatest; like we all do. They want to be happy. They want to be secure. They want to be on top. They want Joy.
And Jesus says, “If you want that, follow me. Carry a cross like me. Lose your life, and then you will find it. Greatness comes from being the last. Joy comes from serving, from following the Messiah, from drinking the same cup he drinks, and undergoing his baptism.”
It means that if we truly follow Jesus in life, we risk his dying.
This doesn’t sound like Joy. This sounds like we are heading off into the roughest of rough country. It sounds like an invitation to head off into the darkest wilderness. It’s easy to say that Jesus rose from the dead after three days, but he had to die. That’s not easy.
After the moon came up, we turned the truck around. We had to go back through all that rough country. And we staked one more tyre, which meant sitting in the wilderness around a small fire in the dark, while I repaired it.
Except now that we knew where we were, and where we were going, the whole night was changed.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, 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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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