First there was the transfiguration. Jesus shining brightly on a mountain, the radiance of God’s glory emanating from Him. Peter, James, and John saw it. Then there was the demon the disciples’ couldn’t cast out and a crowd that had its doubts about Jesus. And the disciples too.
And then Jesus began to teach them about the way of the cross: 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 arise. It doesn’t get much plainer and blunter than that, does it? No cryptic sayings, no puzzling parables. Simply a death and on the third day, a resurrection.
Mark tells us that the disciples did not understand what Jesus had said, and they were afraid even to ask Him about it. Who can blame them, really? What would you have thought at this point? You gave up your livelihood and your life to follow Jesus. You put all your chips on Him. He looks like a winner, like the real deal of a Messiah, someone who will get the religious job done. He has the teaching and the miracles to back Him up. The crowds are on His side. His popularity is on the rise. The movement appears to be growing, gaining momentum. The deaf hear. The mute speak. The lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. Demons are cast out. The dead are raised. All the signs were pointing to Jesus.
But then Jesus begins to talk like this about His being “handed over,” of being killed, and of rising from the dead on the third day. Crazy talk. Irrational talk. Not the kind of talk one would expect from a respectable messiah who should be assembling an army and heading to fight holy war in Jerusalem. The disciples are afraid to ask, and they keep it to themselves.
Who would understand such things? Who would have orchestrated things this way? Crucifixion, resurrection. Not our way. No way. We go with winners, not with losers. We go with successes, not failures. We go with number 1, not with also-rans. That’s how the world works. That’s how we work. Winners like to hang with winners. It’s why Christianity doesn’t play well with winners until they discover they’re really losers. Who wants to wake up on Sunday morning to come to church to confess you’re a poor, miserable wretch of a sinner in need of forgiveness? The world would have you believe you’re a winner entitled to your success, entitled to even more. Who wants to line up and declare with St. Paul that he is the “chief of sinners”? No wonder the most popular versions of religions are based on winning not losing, of being a winner not a loser.
That is the old Adam in us, my friends. The sinful self. The loser who won’t admit it, who pretends to be a winner, who tries to go it on his own, being a god, shaking his fist at God, doing it his way, resisting the way of death and resurrection which is ultimately the only way to eternal life.
It must have been a long walk back to Galilee. Like one of those tense car trips where no one is talking but everyone has something to say. I imagine Jesus walking pretty much by Himself, with the others trailing or leading the way. And what do you suppose they were discussing? They were arguing with each other about which one of them was the greatest? Who was the top dog? Was it Peter or John? Maybe James the underdog. It almost boggles our minds to think about it. Jesus had just uncorked the greatest prophesy of His ministry, the incredible prediction that He would die and rise again, and instead of pondering this or asking Jesus about it, the disciples argue over which one among them is the greatest.
And we should be surprised with how things are in the church today? I appreciate the honesty of Mark, who delivers the whole eyewitness truth of Peter to us. Through the words of Mark, Peter admits that at this crucial moment in Jesus’ work, the disciples, including Peter, completely missed the point and were thinking of their own greatness. Again, the old Adam wants to be the winner, not the chief of sinners but just the chief. It’s in all of us, the drive to power, to control, to be the lead dog, to get everyone else to do it our way. It goes beyond ambition. Ambition is simply setting goals and striving to attain them. This is something different. This is climbing to the top on the backs of your brothers. This is being so preoccupied with winning it all that you lose it all in the vortex of death.
James talks about this in his epistle this morning. James’ hearers are apparently quite well off, successful business men, the movers and shaker of his day. He reminds them that friendship with the world puts you at odds with God and that the stance before God is one of repentant humility, “for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And so the posture of faith before God is not one of pride, arrogance, and boastfulness over all that you’ve accomplished and why God should be so tickled that you deign to come into His presence. Rather, the stance of faith is humble, repentant, grateful for God’s mercy. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Humble yourselves; it’s a lot easier than being humbled by God. Far better to humble yourself, with the expectation that God will lift you up. He will exalt you in due time, in His own way, by your dying and rising.
Jesus gathers the Twelve together in a huddle and says, “If you want to be great in my kingdom, you have to be a loser. If you want to come in first, you have to come in last and be the servant of all, because that’s where I am. I, the Lord of all, have become the Servant of all, and am about to become the biggest loser in the religious world by getting myself crucified at the hands of Religion and Politics. But don’t worry about it. Losing is winning in my kingdom, and I will rise on the third day more victorious in death than any of you guys can be in life. You want to live the victorious life? Then drop dead with me.”
Ever the good teacher, he brings in an object lesson. A little child. Now understand this: In Jesus’ day and age children were not the little winners as they are today. They didn’t glamorize and idolize childhood back then as some pure and noble and innocent state of being. Children were considered little losers, a drain on the family assets that couldn’t be raised quickly enough and married off if you were a girl or put to work if you were a boy. There was no luxury of prolonged childhood, adolescence, no time to find yourself, or chase your dreams. It was an expressway to adulthood as quickly as possible.
That’s what Jesus uses as a pattern for kingdom faith – a little child, a child small enough to be picked up and held in Jesus’ arms. He says, “Boys, if you want to understand greatness in the way of the cross, then you must become like this kid I’m holding here. I must carry you, and you must trust me to carry you. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but Him who sent me.”
We say, “Don’t send a boy to do a man’s work.” Jesus says, “That’s precisely what I’m doing. I’m sending little children in my name, and to receive them is to receive Me and the Father who sent Me.”
Now we’re talking childlike not childish. We have plenty of childish Christians around who need to come to the full measure of their maturity in Christ. Jesus is talking childlike – trusting as a child trusts his mother and father. Receiving, as a child receives all things without any merit or worthiness on her part. Graced by God’s undeserved kindness in His beloved Child, Jesus, our Savior.
You understand this passage only as you understand Jesus as the Child of God the Father. He is that Child held in the arms of His Father, and you baptized into Him are that child too. He is the One who came not to be first but last, the Lord of all who came not to be served by the world but to serve and to lay down His life to save the world. And you, baptized into Him and believing in Him have become last with Him, joining the ranks of those who have lost their lives in order to gain them, living this life or yours not to be served by others, but to serve others as Christ Jesus has served you.
Of course, it can only be understood at the cross of Jesus. And I don’t mean a symbolically empty cross, but a cross with dead Jesus on it. There is greatness in the kingdom of God, my friends. There is power perfected in weakness. There is glory such as the world has never seen. There is victory right there in the midst of death. That is you, baptized and believing. That’s you. That’s your life as it appears in this world. Dead, crucified, lost. You’re a loser in this world if you believe this stuff. Ted Turner once said as much. “Christianity is a religion for losers.” At least he gets it, conceptually speaking.
But to lose your life in Jesus, the grand Loser, is to win your life forever. Trust it in the way of a little child, and you will see it.
In the name of Jesus,