Sept. 19, 2021 Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Mark 9: 30-37.
30 [Jesus and the disciples went on] and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning’s lesson recounts the second of three times in Mark’s gospel that Jesus tries to get the disciples to understand that he is to be crucified and rise again for the salvation of God’s people. You will recall that in the first instance Peter went so far as to scold Jesus for stating this truth. Peter didn’t understand, nor could he accept this devastating news; the One who is to be the Messiah, the warrior to lead Israel to victory over Rome couldn’t perish before Jewish freedom was secured. And, in this second time when Jesus tells the disciples of the future that awaits him, they don’t understand either.
But here’s the difference; where Peter spoke up in disagreement, the rest of the disciples, we’re told, were too afraid to even ask Jesus for an explanation. Instead, when they were on the road to Capernaum, they spent the time arguing with one another, trying to figure out who was the best among them. Again, they didn’t speak up when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, out of fear that they would appear petty; especially since their discussion came right after he told them of his impending death. Nonetheless, Jesus responds with the teaching that those among them, and us who wish to be recognized for great deeds must first be willing to serve others. Next, he explains this lesson using a small child as his example. Little children in ancient Israel occupied the lowest rung on the ladder of society; they were basically possessions and had no real rights. And the Greek word employed by Mark for “child” may also be used to denote “servant”. Their argument of who shall be first was rather effectively quashed by Jesus’ lesson concerning the worth of little children in God’s kingdom to come.
Which begs the question, how might things have been different for the disciples if they weren’t afraid to ask Jesus to further explain his mission and ministry? Why must the Messiah suffer and die? Why was his death necessary if he were only going to rise again from the grave? Why did the Son of Man not simply act as the promised Messiah was prophesied to do; be the warrior king to overthrow Israel’s oppressors? Why? Why? Why? Mark tells us, “they did not understand what [Jesus] was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Was this really a case of simple fear; if so, fear of what? Of facing the reality of Jesus’ death, and the acceptance that his role of Messiah was not what they had hoped for? Of appearing confused and not able to grasp the depth of what they were being told? Fear that they simply didn’t want to come across as being clueless as to Jesus’ true nature? After all, these were Jesus twelve chosen disciples. Perhaps they were afraid to let on that they weren’t as sharp as Jesus assumed them to be. No matter the reason, wouldn’t it have been so much better for them if they just set their fear aside and asked Jesus the questions they so desperately wanted the answers to?
You may have noticed the large chalkboard in the narthex this morning as you were entering the Sanctuary. On it is written, “What questions are you afraid to ask God?” 2,000 years have gone by since the disciples’ fear kept them from asking Jesus the important questions. Today we know quite a bit more about God’s desire for the people, Jesus’ mission and ministry as Savior, and not necessarily as warrior king to only the Israelites, and we are the beneficiaries of his resurrection. We have the benefit of being witnesses to the rising of Christ from the grave, and we might even make the case that this brings us even closer to Jesus. We are resurrection people. We have confessed our belief in Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior of God’s people; we are his modern-day disciples. So it follows that we ought to know more about God, and prayer, about the Bible, about complex religious doctrine, right? But is this true, and if so, is it enough? Are we compelled to ask, “why, why, why”? Do we seek answers to those questions we might have? And, like the disciples are we afraid to ask them?
And like them, we don’t want to appear unwilling to accept reality, or look to be confused, or clueless. Do we suppress our most difficult questions, maybe within the faith, the church, and with one another? Do we pretend we don’t have challenging questions? Do we dare admit that the deepest mysteries of life and faith do indeed baffle us? Have you had a moment to think about what is written on the blackboard? Maybe you have some of these questions for God: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are human beings so inhumane to one another? Why does evil so often appear to win? Why wasn’t my prayer answered? Do you really hear me when I cry out to you? And, perhaps the same question plagues you, just as it did Peter and the disciples; why did Jesus have to die in order for the world to be saved?
The operative term here is, afraid. We are blessed with God’s grace, and we know for certain that nothing we can ever do will cause God to withhold God’s love and mercy from us. So, there is nothing to be afraid of; our questions are welcomed by God. God wants to hear from his children, whether in the form of praise and thanksgiving, or whether we come with hard questions, desperate pleas, or doubt.
Even if our questions are not answered in ways that we can fully grasp, just by the action of asking them we are made better disciples. If we were to spend more time in conversation with Jesus, we might be less inclined to worry about who is the greatest, as the disciples did Capernaum. We are likely to come to a better understanding of our place in God’s plan, in Jesus’ mission, in our role in his church, and with our neighbors.
But first we ought to modify the way we raise our questions to God. Knowing that we are ever in God’s grace, there should be no fear when we approach him. Maybe we should modify the way we ask for answers. Let’s change this chalkboard to, “What questions are we NOT afraid to ask God?” We may not yet have the answers, but we do know how our questions will be received; in the same manner that Jesus welcomes little children, with love and mercy.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, there are many things we do not understand as we struggle to make our way in your world. We hesitate to ask you “why” when the events of this life trouble us; we are afraid to humble ourselves before you and admit our fears. Reassure us that you welcome the difficult questions, and that you long to hear us. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who calls us to fearlessly question what we don’t understand. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.