Text: Mark 9:30-37
Our Condescending God and Lord
Dear friends in Christ,
When someone is condescending, we usually understand that to mean that he says things in a patronizing kind of way, making those to whom he speaks feel small and inferior. Such a person typically thinks highly of himself. As the disciples in our text, he might see himself as the greatest, at least in his own right.
The disciples disputed among themselves concerning who among them was the greatest. How often do we hear about the arrogance, foolishness and pride of the disciples? Peter always seems to be the object of criticism, doesn’t he? He speaks too hastily. He says he will be loyal, but he fails. And don’t forget James and John who had the audacity to ask Jesus to sit at either side of Him when He enters His Kingdom! They really messed up, didn’t they? So it is after hearing our text for this morning, we can look to the ground, put our hands on our shaking heads, and ask ourselves, “What is wrong with these prideful disciples? Have they not been listening to Jesus?”
When we consider the root cause of all the disciples’ boasting and bickering, we soon realize that we are not so far above them. The pride, arrogance, and foolishness that existed in them and caused each of them to look down his nose at the other all flow from the hearts of all people.
The source of all the disciples’ failures is an infection of the heart with which we are all too familiar. Even their inability to understand Jesus when He predicted His death and resurrection was not merely a lack of intelligence. You may have heard the saying, “Ignorance is bliss.” Well, that isn’t true. St. Mark explains in chapter six that the disciples’ lack of understanding was due to the hardness of their hearts. It was sin. It is as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians:
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.
Sin is not just a disadvantage. It’s a corruption of all of our natural desires. It does not only drive us away from God, but it drives us against God and against our neighbor. Our pride does not want any of this teaching of God and His Word. The sinful and corrupt mind already assumes to understand Jesus, so we don’t think we need Jesus all that much. Sure, it’s nice to have His spiritual companionship and a personal relationship, but what does this mean if we don’t desire to learn from Him? And to what does our friendship amount if we don’t have a constant need for His mercy?
And when we are shown mercy from our Lord, it is so easy for us to turn His gifts into our own qualities. Yet we learn in the Catechism that all the good things we have are provided by God purely out of Fatherly divine goodness and mercy, and without any merit or worthiness in us. And when we still want to take the credit for all our blessings, Jesus keeps teaching us just like He taught His disciples. He teaches us to love Him and our neighbor. He teaches us to trust Him, giving us the strength through His Spirit and Word. And just as with his disciples, Jesus has something to teach all of us about greatness and also what it means to be condescending.
Jesus did not need to prove His greatness to His disciples anymore. He calmed the storm and healed the sick. He fed thousands of people with only seven loaves of bread. He was transfigured right in front of Peter, James, and John, revealing to them His divine greatness. By this time, it was crystal clear that Jesus was great. But what did Jesus want to talk about? What did He want to teach His disciples? He wanted to teach them about His death and resurrection that was drawing closer and closer. He was going to die by the hands of men and rise again on the third day. But His disciples did not understand this. “The Christ should be victorious,” they thought. He can’t die! The cross was truly a stumbling block for them.
But this is how Jesus would reveal His greatness. He who was great would become despised and rejected for the sake of those who are not great. He who has the only right to be called great became a servant. Jesus was very serious about this. He told Peter that if he did not let Jesus wash his feet then he could have nothing to do with Him.
Jesus also sets for us an example about greatness. If anyone receives a little baby in Jesus’ name, he receives Jesus. Why? Is it because babies are cute, and Jesus wants us to agree that babies are cute? No, it’s because babies are helpless. They don’t contribute anything to society. In fact they are often looked at as a burden. They cost money. Even today, popular opinion holds that there are many more important works we can do than receive children and make sure that they are brought up to know their heavenly Father and their Savior. The disciples were looking forward to defeating the oppressive Roman Empire and establishing their kingdom on earth. They were going to rule with Jesus. They were really going to make a difference. They were going to have a successful status in the world. But Jesus takes a helpless baby in His hand, a little one of whom most people wouldn’t give a second thought, and He says that if we receive one of these little babies in His Name, we receive Him and not just Him, but the Father Himself.
This is the lesson given to us by the only one who has truly been condescending.
You see, condescending, properly speaking, is not the way someone speaks to others out of arrogance. This is usually how we understand it, but for someone to be truly condescending, he must actually be great in the first place. So the only one who can truly be condescending is God. And He is condescending for our benefit.
He swoops to the very low level of a baby. He takes on our human flesh, being born of the virgin Mary. He puts Himself under the law by taking on the form of a servant. He obeys a corrupt temporal government. He blesses those who spit on Him and mock Him. He descends to their level from His almighty throne, and He goes even lower. And as He hung on that cross, Jesus was doing exactly what He wanted. It was not only what His Father sent Him to do, but it was what He asked for from His Father. It was what He taught His disciples time and time again. Jesus’ suffering and death was the center of all that He taught, and He was pleased to bring it to fulfillment.
Since it is seminary Sunday, it is appropriate to point out that Jesus’ atoning death for all sinners is still at the center of all that the seminaries teach. It remains the heart of all our learning so that it might be at the heart of your learning as well. The Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the creator of heaven and earth, the very Son of God Himself became the least of all and servant of all in order to save all from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Why does Paul call the office of pastor a good work? It is because the pastor’s main function is not to talk about all of our good works, but to announce the good work done by Jesus in suffering obediently in your place. It was the greatest work He ever did. It was because of this work that God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted Him to His right hand.
And this work not only redeemed you from your sin, but it is this work that God credits to you through faith in His Son. So when you see the effects of the sin and pride of your own heart – the same sin and pride that seems so pleasurable to your natural desires – when you see that your sin has only led you to despair and weakness, and that your pride has only brought you humiliation and shame, then this is a good thing to realize. But don’t dwell on it. Look away from yourself, your sin, and your merits, and cling instead to Christ, His blood, and His merit. He is your obedience by which you stand before God. Through baptism, you share in Christ’s death, and every day and week when you pray the Lord’s Prayer, have devotion, read the Bible, listen to God’s Word, and receive Jesus’ body and blood, you continue to enjoy the forgiveness, life, and salvation that flow from His death.
When you are weak, sick, facing death or mourning, you should know that the cause of all this pain dwells within our own sinful hearts. But don’t despair! Pray! In the midst of all your distress, God seeks only to strengthen you. Life’s troubles can’t defeat you, because it is God who sends them, and He who knows all your woes knows how best to end them. Moved by His love alone, He doesn’t stop crediting you with the perfect obedience of His Son, and He doesn’t stop drawing you closer and closer to Himself.
So we thank God for being condescending. We thank Him for considering our helplessness and our distress. He will not stop doing it. His love for you remains constant, and His faithfulness remains steadfast as He sends His Holy Spirit to shower you with the free forgiveness won by His Son.
Jesus says that if you receive a little baby in His Name, you receive not only Him, but the Father who sent Him. Most of you were received in Jesus’ Name by His church as infants through baptism. And even for those who are baptized later in life, their baptism, like every true baptism, remains an infant baptism. This is because we are always fully dependent upon God’s mercy just as any little baby is dependent upon his mother’s care. This is how you know the Father. You don’t have Him figured out, but you know Him. You know Him because He was so kind, merciful, and condescending to know you, to call you by name, and to receive you. You know Him in the suffering of His Son; and when you received His Son, you received Him. So before we eat and drink the body and blood of our Brother we pray to our Father. While your sin makes you weak, poor, and miserable, your merciful and loving God and Father continues to send His Holy Spirit to strengthen you, exalt you, and comfort you with the condescending forgiveness of His Son.
Let us pray:
O Holy Trinity!
To Whom I all things owe,
Thine image graciously
Within my heart bestow.
Choose me, though weak and lowly,
To be Thy temple holy
Where praise shall rise unending
For grace so condescending.
O heav’nly bliss, Thine own to be,
O Holy Trinity! Amen