A Difficult Lesson to Learn

I want to begin this morning by giving you a pop quiz.  I’m going to give you an advertising slogan and I want you tell me what the product is.  “Snap! Crackle!  Pop!” (Rice Krispies).  “The Quicker Picker-Upper” (Bounty).  “Just Do It” (Nike).  “Melts in Your Mouth, Not in your Hand” (M&M’s).  “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, O What a Relief It Is” (Alka Seltzer)

There’s a reason that we know those slogans.  It’s repetition.  Advertisers recognize the power of repetition to fix an idea or a product in our minds.  They know that if we see something or hear something often enough, it will stick with us the rest of our lives.  So, we know the slogans.  We can sing the jingles by heart.  We’ve heard them so many times that we’re sick of them.  But we remember.

Repetition is one of the most powerful tools available to help us learn.  When you meet someone for the first time, if you will say their name over and over to yourself, it will help you to remember.  If you want to memorize a Bible verse, read it repeatedly, say it out loud time and again and you’ll be able to remember it for months or years.  When you were in school, you probably used flash cards to help you memorize, going through that stack over and over.

Here in this middle section of the gospel of Mark, where Jesus is dealing with his death and what it means to really be his disciple, Jesus uses repetition.  Three times, in chapters 8, 9 and 10, Jesus predicts his death.  And three times, Jesus teaches his followers what discipleship is all about. 

And so, the idea that Jesus must suffer, that he will be executed, that he will be raised to life again, it’s repeated over and over.  And the principle of serving others, the need for humility, the last being first and the first being last – these are themes that are repeated over and over throughout these middle chapters of Mark.

And maybe you think that all of this is a bit redundant.  We’re almost offended that Jesus felt that he needed to say it so many times.  There’s a part of us that wants to say, “Enough already!  I get the point!  I understand!”

But we don’t.  Jesus would not have needed to repeat this topic so many times if it had been an easy lesson to learn.  The truth is, it was a lesson that was so difficult to grasp that the disciples never did seem to master it during the lifetime of Jesus – it’s only when the book of Acts begins that we see some glimmer of understanding on their part. 

And, like the apostles, we also have a hard time understanding the lesson of the cross – what it meant for Jesus, and, even more, what it means for us to be servant-hearted and kingdom-minded.  So, Jesus needs to repeat it over and over, time and again, hoping to get his message across.

But first, let’s go back just a bit.  When I look at the calling of the apostles, it boggles my mind to think that these men were invited by basically a stranger — Jesus came looking for these twelve guys, he pulled them out of their ordinary daily lives.  Four of them were fisherman; one was a tax collector; one was a rebel. The others we don’t really know much about.  

But Jesus came and sought them out and invited them to go on a journey with him—and they went!  They didn’t even ask him where they were going. They didn’t really know anything about him. They didn’t know what he was inviting them to be a part of.

But what unfolded in the months and years to come had to be exciting because, within a few weeks, everywhere Jesus went, there were these huge crowds of people that followed him around.  This guy was very, very popular.  People hung on every word he said — they’d never heard such profound teaching!  Everybody wanted to be near him.

And then, his ability to heal disease and to make the lame walk and the blind to see, to be able to cast out demonic powers, that just made people marvel at his ability — and his power over nature and his power over death, even to raise people from the dead!  And everywhere Jesus went, those twelve men were right there.  They saw everything that Jesus was doing.  And then his message was that the kingdom of God was coming — and he was going to be the king!

And these disciples must have been thinking, “Wow, we are on an amazing journey.”  And their minds had to be spinning as they were thinking, “When is this kingdom going to come?  How’s it going to get started?  Where is it going to happen?  And what’s our role going to be?  I mean, if Jesus is going to be the King, he’s the Messianic King who is going to restore the nation of Israel.  That means that we’re the guys who are going to be right there with him when this new government is set up.”

And that’s what’s on their mind…until we get to Mark chapter 8, which we looked at last week.  The apostles had probably been with Jesus for about three years at this point and they’ve got some big dreams.  But all of that is about to change, and they’re going to struggle big time with where Jesus is going and what he’s calling them to do.

We saw last week that after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31). 

But that wasn’t what the apostles wanted to hear and so, Peter pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.  They didn’t want to hear any talk about dying.  They had visions of glory; visions of power. They were dreaming of a political kingdom that they were a part of, ruling and reigning over people, when Jesus says, “I’m on a mission to suffer and die.”

And so, Peter takes Jesus aside, as only Peter could, and he starts to chew him out. “Jesus, I don’t want to hear any more of this talk about suffering and dying!  We’ve got a good thing going here.  Look at the crowds.  Look at the power you have!  Why are you talking about suffering and dying?  That’s nonsense!”

But Jesus sent the rebuke right back at Peter and said, “You have no interest in doing things God’s way. You’re thinking from a purely human perspective. You’re thinking politically. You’re thinking about a human kingdom. You’re not understanding the kingdom of God. You don’t understand my mission, and you’re getting in my way.  So, get behind me and start following me instead of trying to tell me what you think I ought to do.”

And then Jesus told the crowd, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). 

Jesus knew that when we try to run our own lives, we end up making a mess of everything.  And so, we have to deny our selfishness and our sinfulness and our stubborn pride and turn to the one who was willing to die on a cross for us, and follow him.  That’s the only way that we can be a part of God’s kingdom.  And that kingdom is not going to be a political kingdom.  It’s a spiritual kingdom.  It’s a kingdom where God reigns and it starts in the heart.”

And after Jesus said that, we think to ourselves, “Those apostles surely must have understood that.  Jesus spoke very plainly to them.  In fact, he could not have been any clearer:  He’s going to suffer; he’s going to die; that’s what he came to do.   And we have to give up our lives if we want to follow him.  Seems simple enough.

But then, we get to the next chapter, chapter 9.  This is just a few days later — maybe a week or so.  Jesus and his apostles are on the road, traveling through Galilee.  In verse 31, “he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’” (Mark 9:30-31) 

Sound familiar?  It’s the same message he gave them back in chapter 8.  Once again, Jesus explains to his disciples that he came to suffer and die, he’s going to be betrayed by someone and handed over to the authorities, and he’s going to be killed — but then he’ll rise from the dead three days later!  Jesus is very straight forward about it, very clear.  There’s no beating around the bush.  This is what’s going to happen.

But notice the response of the apostles in verse 32: “But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

And you’ve got to wonder, “How could they not understand?  There wasn’t anything difficult about what Jesus said.”  But the answer is this — They didn’t understand because it didn’t match up with what they thought they already knew.

If I tell you that this triangle is red, that doesn’t make any sense to you.  It’s obvious to you that the triangle is blue and when I tell you it’s red, that doesn’t change your mind.  And if I tell you a second time that it’s red, that doesn’t change your mind.  It just confuses you because you can’t understand why I would tell you something that obviously isn’t true.  

So, when Jesus said he was going to be killed, that didn’t make any sense to the apostles.  It was obvious to them that the Messiah was going to sit on a throne, not die.  So, when Jesus told them a second time, it didn’t change their minds.  It just confused them.

They could have asked Jesus to explain, but nobody wanted to look stupid.  Nobody wanted to be that kid in class who raises his hand and says, “I don’t get it.”  So, once again, Jesus talks about the fact that he must suffer and die, once again the apostles don’t understand and, once again, Jesus talks to them about what discipleship means.

In verse 33, “And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’  But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” (Mark 9:33-34)

You’ve got to be kidding me!  Twice, Jesus has explained to them — I’m going to suffer; I’m going to die. I’m going to the cross so that I can lay down my life.”  And while he’s explaining that, they’re arguing amongst themselves about who’s the greatest — “I think it’s obvious that we’re all pretty important.  But which one of us do you think is the most important?  Who’s going to have the most important positions in this upcoming kingdom?”  

These apostles are so stuck in their worldly thinking.  They’re so stuck in their pride; they’re so stuck in their selfishness that, even though Jesus is \clearly explaining to them what’s going to happen and what he came to do, they simply don’t get it.

So, in verse 35, “[Jesus] sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’” (Mark 9:35)

What being the Messiah meant for Jesus was a cross.  But what discipleship meant for the apostles was service to others.  They had to stop thinking about greatness in terms of status and come to see it in terms of service.  Greatness in the kingdom of God is determined by our willingness to serve others. 

So, twice now, Jesus has explained what his mission was and what it meant to be a part of his kingdom and what he expected from his followers — surely, the apostles understood now.   But they didn’t.  And the reason I say that is because in next chapter, chapter 10, Jesus has to give the exact same lesson one more time.  They still don’t understand about the cross, and they still don’t understand about what discipleship is all about.  So, Jesus teaches them a third time.

We come to verse 32 of chapter 10, and it all sounds very familiar.  Déjà vu.  “And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them.… And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles.  And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.’” (Mark 10:32-34)

Notice where they are.  Back in chapter 8, they started out in the far north, and then in chapter 9, they traveled through Galilee, and now they’re in Judea, approaching Jerusalem.  Jesus is on a journey to the cross.  And whether the disciples know it or not, they’re on this journey with him.  They’re following along, and Jesus explains to them one more time, “This is where I’m going.  This is my destiny; this is why I came to this earth. I was sent to be a sacrifice for sin; I was sent to lay my life down, That’s my mission, and that’s where I’m going.”

Surely, they will understand him this time. But, in the very next verse, “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” (Mark 10:35-37)

Even after everything Jesus has said, the apostles still think that everything is going to end up with Jesus sitting on a throne in Jerusalem as the victorious and all-powerful Messiah.  They still believe that they, as his apostles, will have the inside track on the upcoming positions of power. 

Jesus, when you establish your kingdom (and they’ve got this picture in their minds of an earthly king), we want to sit on your right hand (the most important position in the land) and your left hand (the second most important position).  James and John felt they deserved those positions of honor.  They had followed Jesus and they had earned the right and they wanted to receive what was rightfully theirs.

You’ve got to be kidding me!  Three times, Jesus said, “I’m going to suffer; I’m going to die. My kingdom is all about laying down your life for others.” And they are still so stuck in their worldly way of thinking they can’t let go of their vision, even though it’s completely opposed to what God has in mind.

And then in verse 41, “And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.” (Mark 10:41).  The rest of the apostles aren’t happy to find out that James and John are asking for the seats of power — because those were the positions that they wanted to have!  “How dare you go to Jesus and ask for those seats of power?  We wanted that!”  It’s unbelievable that they were so stuck in their way of thinking. They just didn’t get it. 

So once again, for the third time, Jesus has to explain what it means to be his disciple.  Verse 42.  “And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus said the Gentiles, the people in this world, they all compete for positions of power and prominence.  They “lord it over” one another.  They exercise authority and order other people around.  And after 2000 years, nothing has changed.  We see it all the time.  We see it in politics.  We see it at work.  It’s all about power, and telling other people what to do.

That’s the world’s way of looking at things — to be great, you have authority over other people.  Greatness is seen in terms of getting to be the boss so that you can order other people around.   

 Jesus said, “That’s the world’s idea of greatness – it’s all about self.”  But to be a follower of Christ means that we look at greatness differently than the world does.  In the kingdom of God, it’s not the person who’s being served that’s great, but the one who’s doing the serving.  Greatness in the eyes of God comes when you roll up your sleeves and do what you can to help others.  And Jesus used himself as the ultimate example here.  The great God of the universe did not come to this earth to be served, but rather to serve others. 

Jesus lets us know that discipleship — true discipleship — is all about service.  It’s about doing good to others.  It’s about washing feet.  It’s about getting your hands dirty in the lives of other people.  When we begin to understand discipleship like that, it will show in the way we live out our Christianity.

It means that we will place a high value on people.  We can get so busy in the pursuits of our day-to-day lives that we don’t even notice the people that need us.  Making a visit, making a phone call and writing a card, it helps us to refocus our priorities. 

In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Jesus said that the way we treat other people will be the basis of our own judgment.  In other words, those who serve others will be the ones who are saved.  Why is that?  Because they understand what Jesus is telling the apostles here in this passage – that discipleship demands service.  As important as doctrine is, and as important as worship is, neither of those can replace the need for us to serve others.

John F. Kennedy’s most famous quote was, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”   There are a lot of Christians who want to know what the church can do for them.  But true disciples ask what they can do for the church, what they can do for others, what they can do for God.  They’re servants who aren’t concerned about status.  They don’t need the leadership role in order to serve.  But if they become leaders, they continue to serve just as hard.

And, again, Jesus set the supreme example for us.  If anybody has the right to “lord it over” us and “exercise authority,” it’s Jesus, but he didn’t claim that right.  He didn’t come to be served, he came to serve, even to the point of giving his life as a ransom for many. 

            When Paul was trying to get the Philippian Christians out of their selfish way of thinking, it was Jesus that he pointed to.  In Philippians 2:5-8, he writes, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

What we observe on this very special Christmas Day, recognizing that Jesus came to this earth to take on human flesh, is a reminder of just how much Jesus was willing to give up for us.

I wish I could tell you this morning that after three lessons, the apostles finally understood, but they didn’t.  One of them became so disillusioned with this “suffering Messiah,” he agreed to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  John tells us that, at the last meal they ate with Jesus, not a single one of the apostles would humble himself to wash the feet of the others and so Jesus himself got up, wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the disciples’ feet.  Luke tells us that just a few hours before Jesus was crucified, the disciples were still arguing over which of them was the greatest.  Some lessons take such a long time to learn.

And all of this breaks my heart.  Not just because Jesus is so alone during these last few days.  And it’s not just because the disciples still didn’t understand.  But because I realize that, if I had been one of the apostles, I would have been just as dense, just as blind, just as consumed with selfishness.

            I’ve told this story before, but I love it because it makes such a strong point.  There was once a mother who was preparing pancakes for her two sons, Kevin, age 5, and Ryan, age 3.  The two boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake.  Their mother thought it was a great opportunity for a moral lesson.  She said, “Now if Jesus was sitting here, he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’   So Kevin turned to his younger brother and he said, “Ryan, you be Jesus!”

            I love that story because it’s so much like all of us.  I can preach loud and hard for 30 minutes about how we need to be like Jesus and we need to be concerned about one another’s needs, and how Paul said in Philippians 2:4, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”  And I guarantee as soon as we leave, there will be somebody who will say, “That was a great lesson.  I wonder when everybody else is going to put it into practice and start showing concern for me?”

            Because we want everyone else to act like Jesus.  We want everyone else to be kind and caring.  We want everyone else to take the time and effort to check on us.  We want everybody else to meet our needs.  And my concern is that we have more disciples of Jesus who are asking the question, “What are you doing to meet my needs?” than we have asking the question, “What can I do to meet your needs?” 

When will we ever get it?  When will we ever learn that greatness in the eyes of God doesn’t come from position of power but from denying ourselves for Jesus?  When will we ever learn that what Jesus wants from us is not so much worship about the cross and singing about the cross and observing a weekly ceremony about the cross, but to be disciples who take up the cross and live that cross daily?

Until those of us who call ourselves “disciples” stop talking about Christ’s sacrifice long enough to start making some sacrifices of our own, the message of the cross loses its power.


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