Losing to Win

Mark 9:30-37 / Proper 20B / 23 September 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

There was an apparent change in plans. A new direction for the mission. Jesus was coming down off the mountain where He showed His divine glory to three of HIs disciples – Peter, James, and John. And now for the first time He starts talking about something completely different: His death and resurrection. This was the plan: He was going to be delivered into the hands of men who would kill him. And when He is killed, after three days, He would rise.

What do you think Peter, James, and John? Now that you’ve seen my glory and heard my Father’s voice, what do you think? Death and resurrection is going to be the way I go, and the way you go too. Sound like a plan?

Well, no, it didn’t sound like a plan. It sounded crazy nuts. They didn’t understand and they were afraid to ask. Besides, they had more important things to discuss on the road, things like who was the greatest among them. Jesus is talking about the cross, and His disciples are preoccupied with glory. Jesus is looking to lose His life to save the world, and His disciples are angling for the power positions in the kingdom.

Isn’t that how it always is? Even among us? The apostle Paul resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and we want to hear anything but this death and resurrection talk. The truth is, we don’t want a dead and risen Jesus, we want a power Jesus, a Jesus who will make us great and successful, a Jesus who will make us winners.

We are geared from birth to think in those terms. Great is good and higher is better. The gold medal is the one we want dangling from our necks, not second place silver or third place bronze. When you win the gold, you stand higher up on the platform, a little closer to the gods, a little higher than your fellow man. We admire the winners and look down on the losers, and if God can help us become winners, then that’s the kind of God we will follow. Failure is not an option.

We want our children to be winners too. Give them the best opportunities, the best education, the best of everything and they will turn out great. Or so we suppose, though experience teaches otherwise. It’s a competitive world out there, with everyone scrambling to climb on every else’s back. I can just hear Peter, James and John bickering on the way down the mountain. They were Jesus’ “three musketeers,” the privileged inner circle. So before they joined up again with those other nine losers, they had best work out the pecking order. Who was going to be in charge here? Peter? James? John?

Jesus has an entirely different plan. Not power but weakness. Not glory but a cross. Not the greatness of winning but the greatness of losing, losing one’s life in order to gain it, losing it all in order to gain it all, laying down His life as our ransom from Sin and Death.

To make His point, Jesus takes a little child and puts him in their midst, and says, “You want to be great in my kingdom? Here. Bend over to receive this little child, because when you do, you will be receiving me, and not just me but my Father who sent me.”

The impact of what Jesus is saying may be lost on us a bit. We idolize childhood, glamorize it, coddle it, and prolong it. But those in Jesus’ day didn’t. Children were considered the least of society – dependent, helpless, time and energy consuming. You couldn’t way for them to grow up, to become productive members of society, to marry off your daughters and put your sons to work. They couldn’t grow up fast enough.

Yet that’s precisely where Jesus places Himself in the position of a little child. To bend down to receive this child is to receive God’s Child, the Child of the Virgin and the manger of Bethlehem, the man of sorrows and the cross, the Servant who suffers for the salvation of His enemies. Do you want to be great in God’s eyes? Then you must become small and insignificant. Do you want to be a winner in the kingdom of God? Then you must become a loser in this world of winners “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

I think it’s significant that we end our lives much the way they began. We become as children again – dependent on others, not terribly useful. Some might even say our lives have no value. No matter how great we once were in this life, no matter how much wealth we accumulated, how many books we wrote and read, how many people we supervised, in the end we become as helpless children. Even the first must take their place at the back of the line. And finally, in our death, we become least of all, which brings us to precisely where Jesus was headed – to death and grave and on to resurrection and life.

Media mogul Ted Turner, a wealthy man many times over, who recently admitted that juggling four girlfriends was “easier than being married” (he should know, he’s been married three times), once famously said: “Christianity is for losers.”

The man could not have been more correct. To be baptized is to be a child of God. Child of God. Yes we are priests and kings and all that, but first and foremost, you are a “child of God.” Like that little child in the midst of the disciples – utterly helpless, utterly givable to, utterly dependent on God’s mercy. To be a child of God, baptized and believing, is to lose your life in order to save it, to become nothing so that Christ can be everything, to die in order to rise, to be joined to Jesus in His death and life.

Faith doesn’t ask who is the greatest. Faith looks to Jesus on the cross and says, “There. That’s greatness. That’s what it means to be great.” And through the cross of Jesus, faith looks out into the world and sees Jesus precisely where the world would not look: in the least, the lost, the little, the child.

In the name of Jesus,