Sunday 19th September 2021
Becoming Great - 20th sun ordinary time
Mark 9: 30-37
When I read the prescribed Gospel text for today -
…..and having reflected for a while Jesus’ words -
I was reminded of a TV interview I watched a few years back,
… in the run up to the referendum on whether we stay in Europe or not.
The rather high profile politician championing Brexit,
…. Famously argued that coming out of Europe would help put the GREAT back into GREAT BRITAIN.
The interviewer asked him to define what he meant by GREAT -
And so the politician spoke about increased economic benefits -
…he also spoke about the opportunity it would undoubtedly give to put the the UK at the forefront of global progress -
to be a worldwide LEADER in areas such as the sciences, innovation, technology, geopolitical influence etc -
No longer one among the pack (of European nations) -
…………but a nation than can once again ‘move ahead of the herd’
His definition of greatness pretty much accords with a definition I found in the WIKIPEDIA dictionary:
“Greatness is a concept of a state of superiority affecting a person or object in a particular place or area. Greatness can also be attributed to individuals who possess a natural ability to be better than all others”
Our text reminds us that about 2000 years before that TV interview,
…another prominent world leader spoke on the theme and importance of achieving greatness
(OK - he didn’t quite have the same world profile at that early point)
His initial statement was only to a few faithful followers rather than a TV audience,
….but his words would be recorded and repeated to many millions upon millions in the millennia to come
WHAT'S SO FASCINATING -
Is that the 2 definitions Couldn’t be more diametrically opposed if they had tried!
The people he was speaking to -
………..…his small band of followers,
………………would probably have related more easily (at least initially) to the definition give by our contemporary Brexiteer proponent
IT SOUNDS RIGHT
Whereas the one they received was counter-intuitive to say the least:
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”
Q- let me ask an honest question -
……..Which definition has shaped your life most to date?
I know that I like Jesus’ one best -
…I hear it in Church on Sunday - agree with it,
……..and then MONDAY comes:
Am I happy to always step back as it were?
not have the last word in a debate
Not have my opinion as respected at least as everybody else?
Watch somebody else have their back patted while my contribution goes unnoticed or uncommented on?
If I’m in a park run, regardless of my ability, do I not at least desire to come first
If I’m watching my team Northampton’s Saints play the Scarletts play in the European cup don’t I want them to completely stuff them and thus earn the bragging rights with Mat my nursing colleague?!
That’s all natural -
And while much of the above isn’t harmful or even intrinsically wrong-
…that desire towards GREATNESS/one upmanship can and does,
………and historically HAS,
= led us down some pretty dark and ungodly paths.
I’m not knocking the politician I mentioned at the start for using the language of GREATNESS -
…No politician could surely ever hope to get elected without at least a sprinkle of such talk,
BUT JESUS WASN’T LOOKING TO WIN AN ELECTION OR IMPRESS PEOPLE -
….he was just saying it as it is from God’s perspective.
Accept it or reject it -
But effectively he’s saying that you can’t call yourself a follower of his …..unless you accept GOD’s definition of GREATNESS.
One of the great ironies about Christian history -
….is the number of people who want to be powerful and number 1 -
………in the CHURCH.
Even today’s Churches -
…whether large denominations or small groups,
……..there are lots of politics,
lots of people stropping off in a huff when they don’t get their way,
….or posturing and competing and comparing
…………… and feeling envious or superior
We’re human -
The Church is full of loud human voices:
Which is why we need to hear the voice of God
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
Jesus asks them/us
I like the next line -
because it’s exactly how I responded,
when I’d been found out by my mum or Dad
about something as a child:
“But they were silent for they had argued with one another who was the greatest”
Just Like my mum who,
… when she asked her guilty child a question that she already really knew the answer to,
= Jesus didn’t get an answer
They knew that HE knew.
Jesus isn’t being grumpy or argumentative -
…he asking them this really important question for THEIR and OUR sakes
It’s really important teaching
The author Michael Marsh doesn’t see this passage as a telling off moment,
…but rather a chance to REFLECT,
…….and to GROW
“Their argument happened on a public road, out in the open. His question, however, is asked in the privacy and interior space of a house. This is about more than a change in physical location. Jesus is moving the conversation inward. He’s not gathering information for himself but inviting the disciples to self-reflect on what it means to be great”
I think overall in his writings Michael Marsh is saying,
…… that Jesus is presenting his disciples (and by extension US),
………with an image and the reality of our better selves.
AND I THINK SOMETHING REALLY IMPORTANT FOR US TO UNDERSTAND IN THIS TEXT-
= is that Jesus ISN’T saying that we should not or cannot be great,
……..he is inviting us to reframe our understanding of greatness.
Maybe a paraphrase of Jesus’ question to us today is:
“What does it mean and look like for you and me (as Christians) to be great in today's world?”
WHAT IS CHRISTIAN GREATNESS?
But he doesn’t just leave the question dangling -
…He answers it with an object illustration…
He takes a little child in his arms -
…looks us in the eyes,
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me”
HE’S NOT SAYING
-greatness is in being a child or being child-like
-greatness is WELCOMING the child
And of course Jesus isn’t being ageist here -
….the CHILD is a symbol:
A symbol of VULNERABILITY,
Children now are generally treated as precious -
…but FAR LESS SO BY SOCIETY in Jesus’ day.
They had no RIGHTS, STATUS or ECONOMIC VALUE
They took - but didn’t produce much,
….and as death rates were high many people were loathe to invest much in them until it appeared clear they were well on the way to adulthood and usefulness!
Jesus was saying,
…is welcoming and valuing one like this -
= Regardless of their value and usefulness to you.
IN OUR CULTURE greatness is generally attributed,
… to those who have clearly ACCOMPLISHED or GAINED something -
our latest female tennis sensation has been tagged great because she won the US open
The GREATEST business leaders are GREAT because they have built the biggest businesses and fortunes
IN JESUS VIEW,
…GREATNESS is attributed by God to people who
……………. accomplish or gain something -
NOT FOR THEMSELVES but -
‘For the least of these’
In Matthew 25;40,
…Jesus gets specific by describing them as the ‘hunger, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned’ -
= these are the SYMBOLIC CHILDREN of our lives -
…those who can only take but often have nothing to give back or benefit us.
I like sports stars -
…I followed a number and I’m impressed by their attainments -
…..I also admire really intelligent, funny, beautifully voiced singers and other high profile people,
They’re brilliant -
….but they're not GREAT
According to Jesus’ standards, caring for the sick, the elderly, the dying, the homeless, the refugee
= that’s GREAT
….not to mention the difficult, the ungrateful, the downright obnoxious.
Which I think we’re doing every time we forgive someone who clearly doesn't deserve it!
Greatness never feels superior -
Greatness doesn’t seek power -
Greatness doesn’t seek recognition -
GREATNESS IS NOT ABOUT -
My bank account,
GREATNESS is doing something for somebody,
REGARDLESS of their ability to pay/repay or return the favour.
JESUS described GREATNESS in LUKE 6:32 when he talked about loving those who don’t love you
JESUS described GREATNESS in Luke 6:33 when he said do good to those who do not do good to you
JESUS described GREATNESS in Luke 6:34 when he spoke about lending without expectation of getting back
And JESUS described GREATNESS in Luke 14:12 as inviting to supper those who can’t invite you back.
**And the caveat to all the above,
…is those who do it without blowing their own trumpet.
I’m throwing myself into running at the moment -
…I’m almost 50 and I want to see how fast I can run the 5K before my body says ‘enough’
I’m never going to be super fast -
….I doubt I’ll ever come fast in a 5K run,
…….but I’d like to discover my middle-aged potential
I’ll only achieve that if I earn it though EFFORT and TRAINING
And that’s the problem with this whole TOPIC of GREATNESS
….Because we approach it like I’m approaching my running
We humans naturally want to be GREAT
(even if that’s in a very quiet and humble way - like a great Gardner, baker of cakes or whatever)
So we approach it like I’m trying to approach my running -
..as something to BE ACHIEVED OR EARNED
BUT JESUS say’s that true greatness arises in us,
…when our lives are in balance with him
…..allowing him to help us to step in to our better GREATER selves.
JESUS says that GREATNESS happens,
……. in the apparently simple, ordinary and mundane
OUR GREATNESS is hugely celebrated by God,
I’m sure he’s even prouder than Emma the tennis players parent are of her
….but it often goes unnoticed and unnamed in our world.
I said at the start that the greatness definition of one powerful worldly leader is diametrically opposed to that of Jesus. -
= that’s always been the way.
We need to see that,
…to recognised that we have a choice -
…we HAVE to choose:
The greatest of the last and the servant of all.
I wonder who the child is that Jesus will put in our path this coming week?
Sunday 12th September 2021
Psalm 139: 1-12
Just b4 I went on leave,
…. I videoed a short ‘thought for the day’ 5 minute reflection,
For the CHURCH ACROSS PEMBROKESHIRE facebook page -
Based on ps 139.
Going on leave for a couple of weeks I ‘SHUT DOWN’ mentally,
As it were -
But as I sat down again last Monday,
….. to prepare for a funeral and today's service -
This MUCH LOVED OLD PSALM,
…. instantly came into my thoughts again (must have stayed in my subconscious)
(I suppose there was a sense of ‘unfinished business’ as I wanted to spend more than 5 minutes scratching the service)
I’m going to look at ps 139 this morning,
...NOT the whole of it (i’d never do it justice)
…….but the 1st part (or 1st 2 parts to be exact)
And make 2 points -
God KNOWS you 1-6
God PURSUES you 7-12
(read verses 1-6)
First thing that hits me,
….whenever I read this AFFIRMING/INTIMATE Psalm,
…..= is how very PERSONAL it is
We know that God has a number of names -
….see them at dif points throughout scripture,
= but the MOST PERSONAL of all is YAHWEH
………….And this psalm addresses him by his ‘personal name’
The psalmist isn’t some WRITER OF RELIGIOUS WORKS,
….SCRIBBLING AWAY IN HIS IVORY TOWER
But - I mentally view him as a man who - METAPHORICALLY SPEAKING,
.....is looking into the eyes of his Lord and addressing him directly
He make a number of statements that include the word >YOU
A powerful word - PERSONAL word,
….that again reminds us that that he’s not TALKING ABOUT A GOD CONCEPT
………………………………………………...BUT TALKING TO A PERSONAL GOD
After all - you don’t refer to a concept as you
YOU have searched me
YOU discern my thoughts
YOU know when I sit down and rise up
YOU search out my path
YOU know my words
YOU hem me in
YOU lay your hand upon me
This isn't the 1st time i've preached on this psalm -
And I DISCOVERED THEN,
….that as you background read commentaries/books around psalm 139,
……...you bump repeatedly into the thoughts and musings,
………………………………….. of a chap called MARTIN BUBER
a JEWISH PHILOSOPHER from the early 20th century,
……………...who was particularly STRUCK by this psalm
The most IMPORTANT ASPECT of this psalm,
….is how it POWERFULLY EXPLORES the relationship between God and Humankind
Not an INTELLECTUAL, ACADEMIC or IMPERSONAL exploration,
…. = but a RELATIONAL one
In one of his musings on psalm 139,
….he wrote this piece:
Where I wander - You!
Where I ponder - You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
When I am gladdened - You!
When I am saddened - You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Sky is You, Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Like MARTIN BUBER,
...I was struck by all of the psalms powerful YOU statements -
….and I rank this as one of my favourite psalms
Without meaning to sound TOO sentimental,
...I always feel a bit SPECIAL when I read it
Not in a BIG-HEADED kind of a way,
….but in a COMFORTING,
……”Dad loves me despite how small and silly I often am” kind of way.
I sometimes struggle with my SELF-ESTEEM,
...but this Psalm is like a LOVING ARM AROUND MY SHOULDERS,
…………..when I need it most
I DELIBERATELY missed out one of the psalmists ‘YOU STATEMENTS’,
…..when I listed them a few minutes ago.
*the most important one of all
…… = “YOU know me”
Not the IQ type of knowing -
Like KNOWING you times tables, KNOWING your mathematical formulae,
…..KNOWING enough to pass exams
The root word in hebrew, translated into ENGLISH as KNOW -
As with so many HEBREW words,
...the word has a far greater scale of potential meaning -
At its least it refers to simple understanding -
….BUT IN ITS FULLEST,
……..it refers to the most intimately powerful connection,
……………………………. a human can have with another being
You first come across this word YADA (know) in GENESIS
...this is where we are told that ADAM knew EVE
Oooh - getting a bit embarrassing, sorry!
But marriage (and all that CONSUMMATION business that is part of it)
….is the most powerful example we humans have,
………………. of a REALLY CLOSE RELATIONSHIP
A complete and holistic BONDING -
...physically, spiritually, emotionally…...
And GOD deliberately uses this MOST POWERFUL OF EXAMPLES,
….to describe the DEPTH of closeness he wants with us
The Psalmist breathes - you KNOW me -
“You have searched and known me……..”
I get the sense that he says this with AWE
Perhaps I’m reading too much into it -
...but as I read it,
…..I get the sense that he’s SURRENDERING to his God - his YAHWEH
= as he makes this statement
Making himself VULNERABLE,
….and yet DRAWING CLOSER to God as a result
**Here’s a challenge:
….. = Try reading the beginning of this psalm in private sometime
Try reading it in the 1st person ( make them YOUR words)
= see how it makes you FEEL
Try reading those YOU statements not as a mere DECLARATION,
… but as an INVITATION
(please KNOW me
...I lay bare my heart and soul right now - to YOU ALONE Yahweh)
Pretty heavy stuff
All this making yourself vulnerable to the God who wants to completely KNOW you…
If it makes you uncomfortable,
….try not to get too hung up on the old MARRIAGE and CONSUMMATION metaphor
A metaphor is an attempt to find something from our experience,
….to explain something beyond our normal human experience
Which is =
A loving God who wants to relate to you more intimately,
...than you could ever imagine or experience with another human being
It’s pretty mind blowing stuff -
….the PSALMIST certainly thinks so -
He concludes with an awed gasp -
“It is too wonderful for me - it is high - I cannot attain it”
It seems impossible -
...but he has learnt that the impossible is possible for God
SO - God knows you - ------- AGAIN I ASK,
….HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?
If KNOWING is symbolic of a loving relationship -
….something that we have accepted and promised to requite as best we can,
= then how are we doing? - REQUITING?
Q have we been faithful?
Q has he consistently been our 1st love?
Q have we ever turned our back on him or hurt him in some way?
As PAUL SAID many years after this psalm was written -
..we have all sinned,
….all turned away
I remember saying years ago,
…… = that I would never stay with a girlfriend/wife who was unfaithful to me,
I really couldn’t conceive,
...of living with the daily reminder a that humiliation and pain
PAUSE (look up)
= but GOD DOES
….every day he chooses to live and bear with me
……….to REMAIN CLOSE
(read Psalm 139: 7-12)
The PSALMIST ASKS-
“Where can I flee from your presence?”
...ANSWER = nowhere.
Even If I go down into SHEOL (the abode of the dead)
My/our - equivalent to SHEOL,
...are the kinds of choices and attitudes that have led us into spiritual darkness,
…...and emotional pain
= and behold - HE IS THERE WITH US TOO
I have wandered into darkness on a number of occasions in my life -
...which of us haven’t?
Be it the darkness of a situation,
….or the darkness of a negative feeling or attitude such as hate
But on those occasions GOD hasn’t just left us to lie in the bed we made -
….storming off like a jilted lover
The PSALMIST writes -
“Even though the night shall be about me,
...indeed, the darkness shall not hide from you,
…….but the night shines as the day”.
In the NT letters of JOHN,
….we are urged to WALK IN THE LIGHT
But my experience - as with so many other grace-blessed people,
….is the sight of GOD climbing down into some shadowy ditch that I have fallen into,
…….BRIGHT TORCH in hand,
……….and leading me back to the place of light
SO - God KNOWS you
………...and God PURSUES you
For the last time I ask:
How does that make you feel?
How will you respond?