They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And [Jesus] did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:30-37 ESV)
Ok folks, this is audience participation time – you can chat among yourselves for a few moments – I want you to look at the Gospel for today – 8 verses in the Gospel according to Mark – quite powerful – and yes, I can talk about them for quite a while but for now I want you to think and talk – what is the child doing in verse 36?
And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them …
[Big eyed? Scared? Crying? Looking for Jesus? Of course, we don’t know – but we do know that children’s addresses are interesting because you never know what’s going to happen next.]’
What were the disciples doing in verse 36?
[Stern looking? Confused? Again, we don’t know what they’re doing but we do know what they didn’t do – they didn’t pick him up – and my guess is that he needed picking up.]
It’s interesting to try and work out this scene and many other scenes in the gospel accounts. What is clear is that Jesus was teaching his disciples – note he sat down – a sign of teaching – and note the context – the disciples were silent; they weren’t answering questions; and we can well imagine their embarrassment and discomfort. Jesus is talking again about his suffering and death – the disciples are confused and scared – but they’re clever enough to work out that if Jesus is the Messiah and if Jesus is going to die, then someone else has to take over running the kingdom.
Can you believe it? Jesus is not even dead yet and they’re juggling for cabinet positions in the kingdom! Now I have no doubt that the disciples would have tipped the hat, looked suitably modest, and said that “of course, we will serve in the new kingdom”. If you insist! Service isn’t new – and it has always covered a multitude of deeds. Today we’re flooded with service – service industries of all sorts – in fact people are supposed to do most things with service and a service attitude. And Jesus challenges this view of service with the help of the child.
Because we’re used to children and to childhood, we can easily forget that childhood is a relatively new social phenomenon. In past societies and ages, children were mini adults and the sooner they became economically valuable, they stopped being just a mouth to feed. We are saturated with children and the cuteness that can go with them. The next thing we get in our text is Jesus holding the child – whether he went to Jesus or Jesus got up and got him – we’ll never know – but the image of Jesus holding a toddler is powerful for us.
Such an image speaks volumes about Jesus’ compassion and kindness; his interest in people of all ages. And of course, this is true. However Jesus had a lesson to teach in which he challenged the usual notion of service. The usual notion of service in every organisation is that the lower you are the dirtier
the job as you serve. Then as you climb the ladder of course you still serve but in ‘cleaner’ ways. Make no mistakes – all of it is service of one form or another – it’s just not the type of service that Jesus expects in his kingdom.
Jesus picks up a toddler and we say ‘aaww’ – how nice. We miss the fact that socially this was women’s work – so Jesus is shocking the disciples I think by making the service real, ordinary, and practical – and secondly, he does it for the simple fact that the child needs it. He serves the child not for what he might get out of it but simply because the child is in need. The child can’t give anything to Jesus – good contacts with the Pharisees, the private phone number to Pilate, even a nice reference to defend Jesus when people think he’s a bit crazy.
Jesus compounds his shock lesson by then telling the disciples that welcoming the toddler, is welcoming him; and welcoming him is welcoming God the Father. This seems to fly in the face of what he’s saying because people can easily make the deduction – helping children means being nice to Jesus and being nice to God means he’ll be nice to me. That’s the old service strategy back again. There is no old system pay back with Jesus – all there is – is service. His service on the cross for people and his people serving those in need.
Jesus has served you – given you new life – destroyed death’s hold to separate you from loved ones and from God – forgiven you. He gave you this new life in baptism, confronts and comforts and guides you through his Word, nourishes you at his table, and blesses you as you back out into the world.
To do what?
In your families – or small groups – why don’t you take a minute to think and talk about who is the little child standing before you – maybe at work, at school, at home, the neighbourhood; someone at sport, pub, shopping centre – and what might you do to lift them up and help them.
Remember the wonderful thing when you leave here is that Jesus goes with you! God has served us! God serves us! Our lives are never ordinary again!
- Mark 9:30 - 37