Embracing silence, making time for contemplation, listening for that still small voice of God, speechless in awe and wonder, moments of God coming near can be marked by the beautiful Sound of Silence when Silence is Golden; but, silence is not always beautiful or golden or an indication of God’s whispering.
A teacher steps out of a classroom just for a second and he returns to find utter chaos has exploded into mayhem. He asks, “Who did this?” Silence is the only reply. A parent hears rambunctious children in their bedroom followed by a booming crash; she enters the room pointing to the broken window and asks, “Who did this?” Silence is the only reply.
Did you hear the silence in the scripture today? It wasn’t the still small voice of God or the moment of awe and wonder kind of silence either. Jesus has just told the disciples again, that those who oppose his message will kill him. This is the second time in Mark’s gospel that he has done so. Mark says the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask for an explanation.
As they walk along, their response to what Jesus said is to fight about who is going to be in charge since Jesus seems determined about dying. They were fighting about who would take over as leader of the Movement if Jesus were killed. Which of them is primed to step into command? Which is the greatest among them? Mark says the disciples just didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to teach them. I suppose they don’t understand his impending death, but I do think they had heard his leadership lecture before. They understood at least part of it, because when he asks, “Hey, what were you guys talking about on the road?” the only reply was silence. I think their silence was because they did know; they knew what they were saying was wrong. Their silence wasn’t golden; it was guilt.
Their preoccupation with status and power must have been a disappointment to Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t fly off the handle. He doesn’t ridicule, shame, or blame. Jesus sat down (the posture for teaching in that day) gathered his students around him and taught the same lesson again saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Now, anyone from Sesame Street or older can tell us, that “first” and “last” are opposites. You can’t be first if you are last. It’s one or the other. We are taught that we get a blue ribbon for first, not last place. So, “Whoever wants to be first must be last” clearly needs more explanation.
Jesus is a great teacher. A master teacher brings the lesson to his learner’s level. This lesson calls for a visual aid. Jesus places a little child in their midst. He takes the child in his arms to teach.
Wait a minute. Red flag! Cultural context moment screaming here. Today we give no thought to a man holding a child. Uncles, fathers, grandfathers, babysitters, nephews—men hold children and care for them in our world. Dads are expected to care for children today. But Jesus lived in a different culture, 2,000 years ago. The image of Jesus, a first century man, holding a child in his arms is subversive. Jesus holding up a child as a person to be welcomed is outrageous.
Jesus tries to explain greatness with an image of servants and children: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In the Greco-Roman world of Palestinian Jesus, there were masters and servants, husbands and wives, and parents and children. The master, husbands, and fathers had power. Servants, wives, and children had none. Servants were at the bottom of the household hierarchy, only ahead of children.
Jesus redefines greatness in terms of service to others.
The male disciples argue about who will be greatest and have the most power; Jesus gathers into his arms a child. Show me greatness by welcoming this child, by serving this child. Show me how great you really are by showing me how and who you serve.
People today might understand this outrage a little better if we modernize it a bit. Jesus took a Syrian refugee into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such as this, welcomes me and the one who sent me.”
Jesus took a gay pastor into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes this one, welcomes me.”
Jesus took a homeless veteran into his arms ….
Jesus took a black youth into his arms …
Jesus took a troublesome middle schooler into his arms …
Jesus took a sex trafficker, or an alcoholic, or a drug abuser … or welfare recipient, into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes me and the one who sent me.”
Jesus talks to the leaders—THE disciples who would be charged to carry forth his message, and he teaches them about leadership and servant leadership. We might be willing to serve, but we are most willing to do so comfortably from a position of power. As long as we are in charge and serving in our comfort zone, and serving those we want to engage, we might agree.
Jesus invites his followers and his leadership team to journey into a new place and new understanding of power and service. Jesus invites us to do the same.
Whom will you serve? Where will you serve? Where will you carry forth Jesus’ message that welcomes all? Where will you be part of the life and ministries of this congregation? For wherever you serve, there you welcome Christ.