Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Best There Ever Was

[Here's the video of today's modern worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Below the video, you can find the text of the morning message.]

Mark 9:30-37
The movie, The Natural, based on a novel by Bernard Malamud, is one of my favorites. In one scene, its main character, Roy Hobbes, a baseball player once thought destined for greatness whose ascendancy to the majors was delayed by sixteen years, says, “Things sure turned out different.” When asked what he meant, Hobbes says, “I could’ve broken every record.” “And then what?” he’s asked. “Then, people would have said, ‘There goes Roy Hobbes, the best there ever was…’” That was what the character Roy Hobbes lived for and because he knew he wasn’t going to break every record or hear people hail him as the best there ever was, he was deeply disappointed.

We human beings, with our sin-tinged and fragile egos, carom between thinking we’re the best there ever was, on the one hand, and wanting to be the best there ever was, all the while suspecting we may be the worst there ever was. At birth, we’re equipped with this desire to be better than others in order to prove our worthiness. It’s what caused Cain to kill Abel. This need to “be like God” or, at least, how we think that God ought to be, is at the bottom of all our heartache, discord, and despondency. We want our ways. We want to prevail. And when we don’t do those things, we can be deeply disappointed, even bitter.

As our Gospel lesson for this morning begins, Jesus is leading the disciples through Galilee to Capernaum, to Peter’s house. Mark says that “​​Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were…” (Mark 9:30) The reason for that is simple. The lesson for today follows the incident recounted in last week’s Gospel lesson in which Jesus had publicly upbraided the disciples for not knowing they needed to pray over the demon-possessed son of a man who had come looking for their help when Jesus and three of the apostles had been on the Mount of Transfiguration. Now, Jesus wants to teach the disciples privately so as not to bring them any further public embarrassment. So, Jesus lovingly takes the disciples aside and then delivers the Gospel, the good news, to them. He says, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:32)

For most of the disciples, this is the second time they’ve heard Jesus say that He was going to Jerusalem to die and rise for the human race. For Peter, James, and John, who also heard Jesus predict His crucifixion and resurrection as they descended from the Mount of Transfiguration, it’s the third time they’ve heard this from Jesus. Obviously, because He repeats this message so frequently, Jesus is signaling how important it is. These are words of promise, of good news, of Gospel: God the Son, Jesus, the disciples hear, is taking the condemnation for sin that we deserve into His own sinless body and after He has died, He will be raised again by God the Father so that all who repent and believe in Jesus will one day be also be raised to live with God eternally.

This should be good news for the disciples. And for you and me. For the whole world. But for people bent on being, like Roy Hobbes, “the best there ever was,” intent on conquering the world with our own goodness, virtue, power, intelligence, cunning, strength, or will power, this may not seem like very good news at all. The Gospel is only good news if you’re willing to admit that sin, death, and darkness--your sin, death, and darkness and mine--are issues we can not conquer. The Gospel is only good news if you believe that, because death is offensive to those born with an intrinsic sense of God’s eternal intentions for us, there must be an eternity beyond a world that lives by the ethic of “those with the most toys when they die win.” And the Gospel is only good news if you understand that you and I and every human being are by nature sinful and unclean, deserving of death and in desperate need of a perfect, sinless Savior to save us from ourselves.

This is not what the disciples signed up for. They had thought they were going to be the right hand men of a King who would set up an earthly kingdom and make God’s people prosperous, secure and safe. Here’s Jesus talking about things like crucifixion, resurrection, and eternity! That may explain their reaction to Jesus’ Gospel words as described by Mark: “...they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” (Mark 9:32) Like the crowds on Palm Sunday, the disciples wanted to be their own saviors, using Jesus as a tool to get the earthly comforts they craved and, as God’s people, to which they felt entitled. They had no interest in dealing with their sin or thinking about eternity. Jesus was holding out a different vision for His Kingdom and the disciples didn’t want to hear the details.

But Jesus knows their secret hearts as surely as He knows yours and mine. When they all get to Capernaum, Jesus asks the disciples what they’d been arguing about among themselves on the way there. Again, Jesus’ words are met with silence. The disciples had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. This is, quite honestly, nuts considering that nine of them had just struck out when the man came for help with his demon-possessed son and three of them had just heard God the Father affirm that Jesus is God the Son. How could any of them argue that they were the greatest? How can anyone? Now, Jesus speaks the Law to show the disciples--and you and me--why we need the Gospel of His cross and empty tomb, why we need to receive the message that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him will never die but have eternal life. Jesus says, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

The Law, of course, is that Word of God that shows us both what we must do to be righteous and that we, as human beings are completely incapable of doing or being to be counted righteous, right with God, deserving of eternity with God. The Law tells us, “These are the standards to which you must measure up to be part of God’s Kingdom” and then, holding up a mirror to us, tells us, “And, in your own power, you never will measure up.” But the Gospel tells us, "Don’t despair!" There is One Who has kept this and every other holy Law from God perfectly for you. On His cross, He paid the penalty you owe God for your sin. With His blood, He has washed you clean. In the waters of Holy Baptism, this Savior has made you a participant in His death and His resurrection. Through the Word about Him, preached and taught by the Holy Spirit, He has given you saving faith in all that He has done for you. Through Holy Communion, He feeds you again and again on His body and blood and gives you the forgiveness and new life He gives as pure, free gift.

Jesus is God Who left the comforts of heaven and became the last of all, the servant of all, on the cross, so that in His rising, not only would the Father give Him the name above all names, but also give those who trust in Him and His Gospel, life with God now and forever. The gospel sets us free from trying to measure up. Whether we come in first or come in last is unimportant to the follower of Jesus, so long as we each run our races with Jesus as our King and Savior. Jesus, “the best there ever was” more than measures up for us. When we trust in Him, our race is already won and we can confidently follow wherever He leads. “But I am baptized!” Martin Luther would shout when accosted by doubts about his salvation. “I belong to Jesus Christ.” Luther knew Jesus was all he needed. Jesus is all we need, too. Amen