“Then they came to Capernaum. When He was in the house, He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way? ” But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest. Sitting down, He called the Twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Then He took a child, had him stand among them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever welcomes one little child such as this in My name welcomes Me. And whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me, but Him who sent Me.” (Mark 9:33-37 HCSB)
There’s a very popular show on Netflix called Stranger Things. It is a drama about a group of kids set in the early 80’s in a small town in Indiana. In it, the kids and their parents are confronted by and fighting supernatural forces and secret government projects as they try and rescue one of the kids who has gone missing. As a part of the supernatural forces they encounter, they refer to the world in which these supernatural forces work as “the upside down” because it is parallel universe in which everything is “upside down” from this one.
In many ways, the idea of an “upside down” universe is exactly what we encounter when we begin to talk about the kingdom of God and its values and principles. They are the opposite or the “upside down” of what our universe generally believes and accepts. It is important to realize that these aren’t just a cultural preferences or personal choices but values and principles that we, as followers of Jesus, are called to embrace and integrate into our lives.
As you may have noticed, Jesus has introduced this idea to the disciples as He confronts their misunderstandings related to the prophecies surrounding the Son of Man and the Messiah in the Old Testament. Things in the kingdom of God are radically different than what you are expecting and have come to embrace in your religious practices and life choices. To be very direct, this is not something entirely new. These ideas pervade much of the Old Testament and are found throughout the teachings of Moses, the writings of David and the prophets.
While we’ve certainly seen this in the teachings of Jesus before, it comes to the forefront when He begins to teach the disciples about His rejection by the elders, His betrayal into their hands, His death and His resurrection. Everything about the future of the kingdom of God and the success of the Gospel depends upon the ability of the disciples to grasp how radically different Jesus’ teachings are from those of the Chief Priests, elders and scribes. To follow Jesus you MUST abandon your old way of living, your old way of thinking, your old way of succeeding and thriving in life. Walking with Jesus is living every day in the upside down.
In this week’s focal passage, this truth is drawn into very, very sharp focus for the us. Jesus and the disciples are making their way home to Capernaum. As they walked they talked amongst themselves… and they argued. It appears that they tried to keep their argument quiet, suppressed when they were near Jesus. Once they were in the house though, Jesus asked them a very pointed question; “What were you arguing about on the way?”
It is apparent they knew this was a touchy subject because they didn’t answer Him but grew silent. Nobody wanted to tell Him what they had been arguing about. Nobody wanted to admit it. Can’t you imagine the thoughts running through their minds? First, they probably began to silently blame each other. How did He find out? Oh, Simon must have let it slip or James must have said something. Did He overhear us? I wonder what He heard. Maybe then they started trying to justify themselves and strengthen their arguments. Well, the others might not want to admit it but they know I’m the best at these things, so I must be the greatest of His disciples.
What the disciples did isn’t really surprising, is it? We do the same thing even though we don’t like to admit it. We all have a tendency to compare ourselves with our peers and our competition. We do this to boost our ego and justify our choices. In fact, I think this may be one of the biggest driving factors behind social media use. We use social media to boost our egos, justify our life choices and prove our personal worth. In other words, we use social media to argue who is the greatest among us.
Let me ask you a tough question. What aspects of your profile, postings and presence would you change if Jesus sent you a friend request or followed you on whatever social media platform you use?
Now here’s the really interesting and difficult part of this story. Jesus asked what they were arguing about and the disciples grew silent. But He sits them down and begins to address the very heart of the matter, their values are upside down. He knew what they were arguing about even without them telling Him. Of course He does. Hint. Hint. He knows what’s going on in your life, too. He knows how you justify your own thoughts of superiority or counter thoughts of inferiority.
Ah, maybe you weren’t expecting that in this lesson. After all, it is a lesson about who is the greatest. But in a list of who’s the greatest someone has to end up at the bottom of that list. What happens to feelings of superiority when you end up on the bottom of that list? Do they morph into feelings of inferiority? If I’m honest, mine do. I suspect yours do, too. But we are supposed to be walking with Jesus in the kingdom of God. When you live life in the upside down of God’s kingdom, things are totally different. It is hard to throw stones when you’re busy washing feet.
So, Jesus sits down and calls the Twelve to join Him and He tells them: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” There it is. The very principle of greatness in the kingdom of God and it is upside down from everything we would expect. To be first, you must be last. To be great you must be servant of all. To ascend to greatness in God’s kingdom you must descend into the role of servant and be willing to put others ahead of yourself. This goes back to His command, “If you want to follow Me you must deny self, take up your cross and follow Me.”
“Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8 HCSB)
Then to illustrate what He had just taught them, He takes a child and has him stand among them. He then takes the child in His arms and tells them: “Whoever welcomes (or receives) one little child such as this in My name welcomes Me. And whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me, but Him who sent Me.”
A child is the perfect example of being helpless and dependent. They have no influence, no power, no wealth, and very little social status value. I’m not implying they are worthless as individuals, just that they are dependent upon others for social and economic value. James makes a similar comparison when he considers the value of a poor man and a wealthy man in the early church. He says we tend to value a man’s worth in the kingdom of God by the wrong things. If he has money, power and status then give him a place of honor and authority in the church. But if he’s a poor man then you let him sit here on the floor by your feet, a place of dishonor. In the upside down kingdom of God we are judging people’s value and worth by the wrong standards, human standards.
So, Jesus corrects their misplaced values and says we should be willing to welcome someone who has little or no social value into our midst, just like this child. When we do, we welcome Him into our midst and when we welcome Him then we welcome the Father. Yeah, let that sink in a bit. Perhaps the reason we don’t experience the powerful presence of God in our midst is because we’ve excluded Him. We’ve excluded God from our churches when we tend to welcome those with power, influence, money and prestige into our midst and excluded those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are gentle and meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, who seek peace and are persecuted for their righteousness.
What values in our lives are misplaced or upside down in relation to God’s kingdom? Do we value social status over spiritual status? Do we value wealth and power over humility and meekness? Do we value political clout and authority over a servant attitude and obedience to God? In my opinion, the church has put far, far too much hope in the political systems of modern America. We somehow believe that the future success of the church is dependent upon who we can get elected to the Oval Office or appointed to the Supreme Court. Let me state this plainly, the church is called to worship, serve and obey our Lord and to leave the placement of kings and rulers to God “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. (Rom. 13:1b)” Should you vote? Absolutely! And do so responsibly and in submission to His will. But don’t mistake His will for your own.
Finally, we need to hear and heed the lesson Jesus was giving the disciples. If we desire to be first then we must seek to be last and the servant of all. Greatness in the kingdom of God is only achieved in the upside down world of obedience to Him and His principles and values. These don’t make sense to our culture, nor should they. They’re the principles of God’s kingdom, not man’s. We must stop placing value in the things man values and begin to desire and seek those values that Jesus has called us to embrace: deny self, be a servant to all men and have a childlike dependence upon God and His Spirit.
Our value before God and in HIs kingdom is not based on what we bring to the relationship. Our value before God is based in Him, who He is and the fact that He made us in His image and not in who we are, what we’ve made of ourselves or how man values or doesn’t value us. IMAGO DEI – the image of God. You are valued by God because you were created in His image.
So, let me close by challenging you to recognize and value the image of God in everyone. Baptists have long touted this principle as we’ve stood in opposition to abortion. But let me encourage you to recognize that this principle far exceeds just the value we place upon the life of unborn babies. The image of God must be seen and valued in the life of that child even after its birth and throughout its natural life. In other words, the sanctity of life is about more than just abortion and the defeat of Roe by the Supreme Court.
The image of God in the life of every human means that we value and care about the life of that pregnant mother who might be seeking an abortion. It means that we must be willing to love her, help her through the birth process and beyond. It means we care enough to help her when she grieves because she gave the baby up for adoption or we care enough to help her care for herself and for the baby she chose to keep and raise as a single mom.
It means we value the life of those who make poor choices and end up on the wrong side of the legal system. It means we recognize their value in God’s eyes and seek to redeem and not discard them simply because they have little or no value to our society. It also means we grieve when they value life and the image of God so little that they choose to throw it away. Remember, God blesses those who mourn – who mourn not only their sin but the sin of others and of our world.
And we must value those who are losing their grip on reality and their grip upon those things that tie them to us – their memories. I know the pain of this one personally. Just because someone forgets your name, who you are and your relationship to them doesn’t mean you forget their value and their worth to God. You hold them close and you seek to be a servant – a servant of all.
Living life in the kingdom of God is like living life upside down. We value what our culture discards and we discount what our culture values. We recognize that to be great in the kingdom means we must be willing to be last and to serve everyone. Why? Because we are just visitors in this world as we journey to the next and our values and worth are based upon the upside down economy of God’s kingdom, not man’s. I think life looks better upside down, don’t you?