The First Will Be Last

A list of love songs, poems, and books would probably stretch around the globe. Jesus clears the air and gets to the bottom line about love in Mark 9:30-37. If you really want to be loved and show love, look and listen to Jesus, and learn that "The First Will Be Last." September 30, 2012.

            Love makes the world go ’round, or so they say.  Some people live for love.  Some have died for love.  If I would have handed you a quick survey before worship and asked you to describe or define love, my guess is that the majority would refer to love as an emotion.  It is.  But love is also a verb, an action.  That ties into what God has to say about love in Holy Scripture.  Knowing what love is and what it does is vital for us to have a connection with him so we can be happy now and on and on into endless time.

            What a treat for us as Jesus clears the air and gets to the bottom line about love in today’s Gospel from Mark chapter nine.  We can tell he is utterly serious because the clock is ticking faster and faster as he headed downhill from the Mount of Transfiguration in order to go up another hill outside of Jerusalem.  That’s what makes his words so pointed as he taught his disciples and teaches us that in order to understand what love is and what love does we have to grasp the fact that, The First Will Be Last.”

That’s what love is

            Nobody likes to be a loser.  Being last somehow seems un-American.  But we know the reality that staying on top and remaining in first place are not the way life works.  The teams we cheer for don’t always finish in first place.  There’s only one valedictorian in a graduating class, and we’re not always the one.  We’re not always the first choice when we send our resume in for a job interview.  We don’t always get the raise we thought we deserved.  Even if money is no object, we can’t always buy what we want.  We’d like to be first, at least for a little while, at least once.  But we end up in the middle of the pack and sometimes last.  Who loves a loser?  It seems those who do are showing not so much love but pity.  We prefer to be number one.  We would rather come out on top.  We would love to be first.

            They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?”  Good question, Jesus.  But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.  Just a few weeks earlier Jesus had asked his disciples “Who do you say I am compared to what others are saying?”  Peter uttered the beautiful confession on which the entire Christian church is built, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).  Not long after that Jesus took Peter and two others up on a hill where his blazing holiness came shining through, giving them a glimpse of divine glory.  Then they left that place and passed through Galilee.  That’s when he repeated a prediction he had made just a few weeks earlier, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.  They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”

            So, what were the disciples whispering to each other as they walked along?  “He’s dead serious about this dying business.  That’s horrible!  What are we going to do when he’s gone?  Who will be our leader?”  “Who was the first to be called to follow him?” asked Andrew, “I was, and then I brought my brother, Peter, into the loop.”  “Well!  He called me next,” said Philip, “and I introduced him to Nathanael.”  “OK!  But who was the first one called to shift from part-time and fishing to full-time following?” injected Peter, “I was.  And who was with him in the house where he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead?  James, John, and I were.  And whom did he take up on that Mount of Transfiguration?  The three of us.  Obviously, he wants us to be the leaders and in charge of the rest of you.”  “Right, Peter!  But who was the one who shot his mouth off after Jesus’ first prediction of dying and got his rebuke that you were in league with the devil.  You were!”

            Jesus’ prediction about his suffering and dying was clear.  He was going to do exactly what he said he would do.  He who is in the ultimate first place, he who was and is higher than the heavens, he who holds the universe in the palm of his hand, he who could stretch out his arms and enfold the world, he is the one who would stretch his arms out to receive the pounding of spikes onto a cross.  He who is in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be flaunted, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8).  That’s what love is.

            But why?  That’s a question the disciples asked and we all need to ask.  The disciples did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.  They couldn’t wrap their brains around this suffering and dying business when he was supposed to be King Messiah.  Why would the one who deserves to be first in every way and on every occasion make himself last?  The answer can be found in the bickering and bantering, in the elbowing and arguing of his disciples.  What were they arguing about?  Sure, leadership.  Sure, first place.  But at the heart of their petty patter was their inborn desire to protect and preserve, push and promote good old “me.”  “Me first” is not just the whimsical cry of an immature grade-schooler.  It’s the self-centered theme of every human being since Eve gave birth to Cain.  It’s your default position and mine whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, and it’s at the root of our wanting to tell God, “Your timing to bring help when I want it, your will for me to control my desires and mold them to yours, your insistence that I be purer than pure even in my inner thoughts are all wrong, unworkable, and unfair.”  Why do you think God said, “Love others as you love yourself”?  It’s because, even among those who struggle with depression, the basic attitude built into us at birth is that we love ourselves more than anyone or anything.   That is idolatry, the ultimate sin, for which we ought to pay the unthinkable and the unimaginable.  But Jesus loved us so much that he rescued us from that fate.  Though he is rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).  God made him who had no sin to be reckoned as sinful in our place so that connected to him we might be considered right when we stand before God (2 Corinthians 5:21).  The first became last so that he could elevate us from the well-deserved bottom and last place to the top and first in God’s eyes.  That’s what love is.

That’s what love does

            So, how do elevated people act?  “I finally made it to the top.  Now I can get things to go my way.  In fact, I’m in charge here, and you really ought to bow to down to me.”  Do you recognize whom that sounds like?  Satan, when he took Jesus to a high mountain during the forty days of his tempting Jesus, “All this I will give you if you bow down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9).  Bossy, top-down, leaving footprints on people’s backs – that’s the opposite of how loving people operate.  If the disciples went down that path, they’d be going down all right, down to where they started and where they deserved to end up, in the devil’s camp.

            How was Jesus going to teach them the right way, the loving way?  He got their undivided attention and stated the principle.  Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first, must be the very last, and the servant of all.”   Then, the patient and loving teacher illustrated the principle.  He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them,“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”   How do elevated people act?  Jesus pointed to a child, a little child.  Kids that age are cute.  But they aren’t in charge.  They are not big shots.  They are lower when it comes to greatness and power and ruling.  Yet even if in the grand scheme of things, when compared to mighty politicians or famous TV stars or acclaimed athletes, they are considered to be on the bottom, even if only grandparents can put up with their twenty questions and their incessant, “Why?  Why?  Why?” we still welcome them.  We grant access to them.  We embrace them.  We move heaven and earth to help them if they are hurt or search for them if they are lost.  That’s what love does.

            Jesus is not calling on us to treat roommates or co-workers or relatives like children.  If we do, we’re elevating ourselves and back in the disciples’ dilemma.  But when we thrill to the fact that he lowered himself to elevate us from last to first, then we who are now first in God’s eyes get to put ourselves last and elevate others.  Since we are “up” in his kingdom, we get to go low to help other up.  When we put ourselves last and others first and do that not just for those who are over us whom we are supposed to look up to but also for the lowest of society, for the hurting, and for those in need, we are elevating Jesus in their eyes.   Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”  I’m not just talking about common courtesies.  It’s the inside attitude that flows to the outside when we view the relationships we have with others not with, “Hmmm!  What can I get from you?  How can I use you?” but rather, “How can I build you up so you can be the best God wants you to be?”  That’s what lies behind your love for family and friends.  That’s what lies behind our congregation’s offer to engage volunteers in a variety of serving opportunities.  That’s what lies behind your witnessing about Jesus to friends and neighbors and what lies behind our congregation’s outreach efforts in the community so more people can learn about and be elevated by Jesus’ love.  The First Will Be Last because that’s what love does.

            A list of love songs, poems, and books would probably stretch around the globe.  But if you really want to be loved and show love, look to Jesus, listen to Jesus, and learn from Jesus that The First Will Be Last.  Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (www.gracedowntown.org) on September 30, 2012

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