Humility – A Holy Undoing (Sermon)

“Humility – A Holy Undoing”

Mark 9:30-37

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


30 They went on from there 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.” (NRSV)

Jesus is leading his disciples on a kind of lonely journey through Galilee. He knows that in lonely places, people can either come to fresh new understandings and energies, or they can come undone. The irony is that those fresh, understandings and energies usually require a certain degree of undoing. Tribal elders, therapists, the Holy Spirit, and other teachers often guide individuals or groups into lonely places for coming-undone experiences that lead to transformation or healing.

Jesus seems to know that when his disciples face their rabbi’s death, they will, in some way, come undone. So, as the embodiment of Wisdom, Jesus keeps their lonely-place journey through Galilee a secret. He knows that coming-undone experiences are more effectively and healthfully accomplished beside still waters, and when attended by a patient, compassionate shepherd.

Jesus learns this for himself at his temptation. He enters the wilderness alone and faces all the selfish possibilities lying right at his fingertips. With the Spirit’s help, he pushes through the allure of greed and pride, and his experience becomes a gracious undoing that benefits all of us. And it benefits us because the totality of Jesus’ human experience belongs to more than himself. Jesus is God’s Son because his life represents the archetype of all human experience. So, when the disciples begin to imagine that Jesus may actually die, and when they try to imagine their life after his death, they face temptations similar to those that Jesus overcomes.

“What were you arguing about on the way,” Jesus asks. Their embarrassed silence says it all. Out in that lonely place, confronting the reality of life without Jesus and his shepherding grace, the disciples fall into temptation. They try to intimidate their way into dominance over each other. As Jesus leads his followers through the shadows of a lonely, death-ridden valley, they turn their terrifyingly gracious experience into a childish political primary.

One can almost see Jesus shaking his head as he says, Listen. True greatness requires a willingness to come undone. It’s called humility. And if you really want to lead well, learn to serve well.

Then Jesus, shrewd teacher that he is, picks up a child and says, in effect, Here I am. How you welcome a child reflects how you welcome me—and, thus, how you welcome God.

Because children represent women’s work, this is a scandal. No self-respecting, first-century male gets significantly involved in the lives of children. Jesus is leading his followers into yet another lonely place where accepted arrangements begin to break down. He gives them the chance to realize that the difference between being humiliated and being humbled is the difference between living as hostile competitors who seek power over others and living intentionally and gratefully as cooperating equals—with all people.

“For by the grace given to me,” Paul says to the Romans, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think…” (Romans 12:3) Paul goes on to say that we are all members of one body. Only in humility can we truly appreciate and love one another as necessary members of the same body. To live humbly requires an often-painful transformation. Biblical literature uses the stark metaphor of death to describe that transformation. And spiritual deaths always involve some kind of lonely-place experience. Primitive cultures often created that experience.

One day, during my grandfather’s struggle with cancer, he told his daughter, my mother, “Now I understand why the Indians used to take their old people out into the wilderness and leave them.”

Those heart-wrenching words reveal the weight of one man’s physical suffering. They also reveal how burdensome good intentions can be on the one who suffers.

When someone we care about is suffering, it’s who we are not only to bring food, small talk, flowers, and Hallmark cards, but also expectations of a valiant fight against disease or despair. And while we intend such things as expressions of love and offerings of grace, just as often they become attempts to control a situation. They become ways to argue with mortality about who is the greatest. Sometimes the most comforting presence in the face of suffering is that friend who sits silently and patiently with us, that friend who resists the temptation to cloak suffering with platitudes and trinkets, that gifted friend who, like the angels and wild beasts of Jesus’ temptation, simply sits with us while we, as the old spiritual declares, walk that lonesome valley.

Any argument with mortality, like any argument about relative greatness, is the stomachache that follows a feast on the poisonous fruit of pride. Pride may well be the seminal offense from which all other sins arise. Think about it: Is there anytransgression that doesn’t germinate in one person’s assumption of superiority over other human beings, over the earth, and thus over God? The opposing virtue to pride is humility. So, doesn’t it make sense for Jesus to take a child and tell a bunch of prideful men that to be truly great, one must learn true humility first?

In ravenously competitive cultures like ours, humility is often considered a weakness. So, it requires a spiritual death, and nothing can make pride come undone like loneliness—like the experience of desperate need for others. This is exactly what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In foretelling his death, Jesus prepares his disciples for experiences of acute spiritual poverty. They will need each other. And they will not be able to carry on Jesus’ work without humbly depending on fellow servants.

It comes as no surprise, then, that in the very next story in Mark’s gospel, we hear the disciples boast to Jesus that they saw a stranger casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and they silenced him.

He wasn’t one of us, they say.

And Jesus stuns them with a rebuke: Why in God’s name did you do that? Why are you still trying to argue about greatness? Whoever is not against us is for us! Welcome their help!

When confronting our limits as human beings, when realizing that we’re not so great as we’d like to think, the Spirit leads us into a lonely place—into spiritual poverty. And there we die one healing death after another. For as often as we find ourselves striving for superiority and victorious “rightness” over one another, we need to die those deaths.

Our lonely journeys through these transforming spiritual deaths and into humility lead us ever-deeper into experiences of Resurrection. And Resurrection empowers us for living lives of self-emptying service, lives in which we participate in God’s here-and-now kingdom of grace, justice, and peace.

And isn’t that the deeply undoing yet liberating truth of what it means to be saved?

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