In the last two houses that I’ve lived in here in in Quartzsite, both of them have had trees. When I lived off of Highway 95, there were several Palo Verde Trees, and one Iron Wood Tree. Living at the Parsonage now, there’s a couple of Palm Trees, one Palo Verde, and several I don’t know what they are.
Well, when it comes to trees, I’m a minimalist. I don’t like low hanging branches, and I don’t like a lot of density. So living at the house off 95, I made all of the Polo Verde Trees look like Acacia Trees, like you would find on the African Savana. But there was this one tree that would not cooperate. It was a tree that overhung one of the paths to the house. I would try to trim and prune that tree, but it never grew right. So one day, out of frustration, I hacked off all the limbs. One of our neighbors asked Marika, “What on earth did Jeremiah do to that tree?”
It turned out ugly, that’s for sure. But one thing about those Palo Verdes, they grow surprisingly fast. And within a few months, it was back, except this time, it was cooperating.
And that’s where we find ourselves in the Gospel of Mark today. A place where Jesus is trying to get across to his disciples, the need to cut things out of their life, that are holding them back from becoming who God desires them to be. So if you have your Bibles, we’re going to be starting in chapter 9, verse 33. And as we jump back into Mark verse 33 of chapter 9, let’s get back up to speed with where we are in the the Gospel.
In the last couple of weeks we have focused on two aspects of our relationship with God, that go hand-in-hand. Two weeks ago we saw that the disciples were asking questions that were focusing on them and their present thoughts, rather than on asking questions that would draw them closer to God. We talked about how we can do the same thing. We can ask questions of God, which is a good thing, but our questions tend to focus more on us, rather than on him. We talked about how we need to start asking questions that are more focused on how our present circumstance can help us draw closer to God, rather than on trying to get out of it.
Then last week we talked about having desperate prayers. From time to time, we can get into a funk in praying. We can get into a place where our lives, both spiritually and physically, feel like somethings missing and we can’t quite put our finger on the problem. We talked about how that can be because our prayer life has lost the desperate seeking of God that we need. That in our funk of prayer, where we are going through the motions, we are missing out on the work of God, because we have become numb to it, taking it for granted. And we need to recapture the desperation of needing God for everything.
This brings us to today. Now, in order for us to fully grasp what is going on in the passage, we have to cover almost a chapter and a half worth of verses.
Today we’re going to focus on chapter 9 starting in verse 33 and going all the way to chapter 10, verse 31. Now that seems like a lot, and it is, so we’re not going to read every word from the text, but instead focus on specific verses, and talking about others in general.
So first, let’s set the stage of where the Holy Spirit is leading Mark. Let’s read chapter 9, starting in verse 33.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
From last week we know that the disciples had questions about Jesus’ teaching, but were afraid to ask those questions of him. Now, while they’re on their way somewhere else, Jesus overhears an argument between his disciples. So once they arrive at their destination, Jesus asks them about the argument. Again, they were afraid, so they didn’t say anything. But Jesus knew what the argument was about. They were arguing about who was the greatest.
Now here’s a thought, why are they arguing about this? Could it be that three of them had been selected not once, but twice to witness a special miracle? Could it be that the disciples that were told not to say anything about the transfiguration were telling the others how they got to see Jesus in an amazing way? Could it be that they brought this up to show how much better they were to the others?
I don’t know, but it would explain why they were arguing about who was the greatest. But Jesus squashes any idea that they might have about being great in his kingdom, with what Jesus does in verse 35,
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” 36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Now, here’s the thing, the disciples were acting like children, just not in the way that Jesus was talking about. The disciples were acting childish, trying to one up each other, and arguing over things, that were harming their relationships with both each other, and with God.
They wanted to be the greatest, they wanted to be the most important, but Jesus just struck that down, by saying that servanthood and looking out for those with less social standing than you was how you become great.
But this seems to go over the disciple John’s head. And the first time we get something directly spoke from John, he shows how much like Peter the other disciples actually are. This is what John says in verse 38,
38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
In John’s words here, it’s almost like he’s saying, “Okay fine Jesus, but were better than that guy over there, who’s trying to do things in your name. So we shut him down.”
But again, Jesus strikes this line of thinking down, he tells the disciples,
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us.
In the disciple’s minds, it’s their band of merry men that are the ones that get the power. They’re the ones that get to perform the miracles, and unless Jesus has called you to be one of the twelve, well, you’re just not good enough.
But this flies in the face of everything Jesus’ has been trying to get across to them. That he has come for everyone. That he has come for the forgiveness of sins. That he has come to baptist with the Holy Spirit. That he has come to suffer, die, and raise from the dead for all people.
The disciple’s focus is me, me, me, and Jesus is trying to get their eyes off themselves and onto God and others. But Jesus doesn’t leave this line of thinking there, because he understands that this attitude of being the greatest stems from deeper issues.
Starting in verse 42 Jesus says,
42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.  45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.  47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,
Jesus uses some harsh and violent metaphorical language here. A giant rock around the neck to drown someone. Cutting off hand and foot. Plucking out an eye. Jesus is using this violent imagery to get across to his disciples that the things that are causing them to be so self-focus need to be radically ripped out of their lives and thrown away.
Jesus is not literally telling them to kill themselves by drowning, or physically cutting off, or gouging out their eyes. But it puts in their heads the harsh imagery of getting rid of sin in one’s life. But it doesn’t stop there. Mark couples this situation with another where Jesus speaks to some Pharisees, those religious leaders that were very strict in how they approached and taught about God.
In this instance Jesus is asked about divorce. Notice what he says in verse 3 of chapter 10,
3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied.
4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.
God’s standard was altered for humanity, because humanity couldn’t work within God’s frame work. They didn’t want to adhere to God’s standard, so Moses made it easier. They had a self-focused attitude that put themselves more important than the standard of God, wanting themselves greater than others, in this case their spouse and their commitment.
Now there’s a lot to say on the subject of divorce, but that’s not the focus through these verses. Instead, the focus keeps coming back to the attitude of the disciples, and that of humanity that wants to be placed first, with special standards and perks. But this attitude didn’t just start with the disciples, nor is is confined to them. Moses altering the standard of God for the people, shows that this same attitude of special treat from God and loop holes in his word, have been around for centuries, and we can see it today as well.
But it doesn’t stop there. Again in verse 14, Jesus points to children as being the attitude that God desires from his people. Jesus says,
14 “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
The attitude God desires from his people is that of children. Now children are notorious for throwing fits, and crying, and fighting, and being brats. But that’s not a child problem, that is a human problem. I haven’t seen much of a difference between children, teens, and adults in that category.
But what Jesus is trying to show through these children is that, children are seen as less in the community. In fact in some Middle Eastern cultures, children are not even seen as people until they reach a certain age. Children are truly the last in their societies, and so Jesus is comparing their status to where he wants his disciples to be.
Mark then gives us the story of a rich young man who comes to Jesus with the question of, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus takes the young man through five of the ten commandments, to which the young man says I’ve kept all of these. Jesus then tells the young man, that he should go and sell everything and then come and follow him. As a response to being told this by Jesus, we’re told the man left sad, “because he had great wealth.”
And you can feel the sadness in Jesus words that follow, but none as heartbreaking than in verse 31,
31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
When we first came to these verses today, Jesus told his disciples that to be the greatest, they would need to be the last. In these final words to the passage we’re looking at today, Jesus tells his disciples that those who are first will be last.
Jesus was trying to get across to his disciples that they either become less on their own, or one day, God will make them last. If they make themselves last now for God’s kingdom, then he will lift them to first. But if God makes them last, that’s a last that no one wants to be placed in.
The disciples had and attitude of wanting the prestige, without getting ride of the sin in their lives. We can have this same attitude. Wanting to be seen by people, wanting them to notice our accomplishments. I know I do. I want people to see the work I do, to give me credit for all that I accomplish. But why? So that I can be first here. Yet, that isn’t what it’s about, and it stems from a place that needs to be cut out.
John records Jesus putting it this way in his book. In John chapter 15 verse 1 and 2, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
We tend to want the prestige of this life, but God wants us to experience the pruning that he has for us. God would rather see the things that cause us to want the lime light to be cut out, so that we can experience him the way he would have us, rather than holding onto those sins and being far from him in the end.
This why God gives us the Holy Spirit, this is why God gives us the circumstances we are in. So that we will take the opportunity of pruning and seek him to cut out everything that shouldn’t be in us. Asking the questions that focus on him and what he’s doing. Being desperate for him and his work in our lives. To desire to be last, placing others a head of us. So that in the end, we are the people God create us and saved us to be. And we won’t be placed last, but rather be lifted up to the place that God has for us.
My challenge for you this week is to return to these verses. Because we didn’t cover everything in them, there is a lot there to read. On the sermon notes there is a six day reading plan for these verses. My challenge for you, is to read them everyday. But before you begin and after you end, I would also challenge you to say this prayer: God prune what shouldn’t be in me, so I may be last.
Let us be people that seek the pruning of God, over the prestige of this world. And put ourselves last here, so that we might be where God wants us in his kingdom.
Now may God prune for the glory of his kingdom, so that you will be first in it. Amen.