Mark 9:30-37

Sept. 20, 2015


In Psalm 90:12, we are counseled to “number our days.” If you were to do that, number your days, you would come up with a number somewhere around 27,375. That’s assuming you reach 75 years of age–which census statistics tell us is about the average lifespan now for both men and women–then you will live for 27,375 days. That sounds like a lot, but how quickly they pass.

Our basic interest this day is not counting our days, but in making our days count. And the way we make our days count is to determine our central purpose in life and to give ourselves to that purpose. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Know your purpose and you can make your life count.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman said, “Human beings want to have meaning. They do not want to wake up in the morning with a gnawing realization that they are fidgeting until they die.”

Our central purpose is the thing that keeps us from fidgeting our lives away. Maybe our central purpose is pleasure and self-gratification. May be our central purpose is status-seeking and power. Maybe our central purpose is keeping up with your neighbors, or raising a great family, or making our dad proud, or retiring early, or doing good works in our community. What that central purpose is–whether we consciously choose it or just drift along with our desires–it is the benchmark we look to when we measure the success or failure of each one of our 27,375 days.

Jesus only lived about 12,045 days on this earth, and yet historians and theologians agree that he was the most influential person who ever lived. From age 12, he demonstrated that he knew his life’s purpose: to do the will of God. Even when God’s will for him was painful, even when Jesus’ friends didn’t support him, he still lived only to fulfill God’s purposes for his life.

In our Bible passage for today, we read that Jesus and his disciples “left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’ But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”

The reason Jesus understood his purpose so clearly is because he was thinking with the mind of God. Throughout the Gospels, we read of Jesus spending time in prayer. Through prayer, he filled his mind with the thoughts of God, he filled his heart with the will of God, he filled his mouth with the words of God, and he pointed his feet in the pathways God had laid out for him.

But it’s painfully obvious in this passage that Jesus’ friends did not understand him. What’s worse, they didn’t want to understand him. They were afraid to know the truth.

Have you ever been afraid of surrendering your life to God? I suspect that many of us don’t pray because we’re afraid of what will happen if we let God into our lives. We don’t ask God to reveal God’s will to us because we just don’t want to know! We want a comfortable life, not an abundant one. And if we were to view our lives through God’s eyes, we just might have to change your life purpose from self-gratification to God-glorification.

That’s the challenge Jesus faced in our Bible passage today. He has used up about 12,037 of his 12,045 days. If he’s ever going to teach his disciples about the purpose of their lives, now is the time. How would they be living if their plans and purposes were perfectly aligned with God’s will? The answer was surprising then, and it’s still a challenge for us today.

Verse 33 reads, “When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.”

Let’s stop here and imagine what he was thinking. He knew what his disciples were arguing about. And he knew how shallow and pointless their ambitions appeared when compared to the life-changing mission God had in store for them. But because they weren’t thinking with the mind of God, they weren’t seeking the purposes of God.

Washington Irving once wrote, “Great minds have purposes, little minds have wishes.” All these men had was a wish–a wish for greater status, a wish to stand in Jesus’ spotlight and soak up some applause. Jesus wanted them to look beyond their own selfish wishes to embrace the purposes of God. So he sat down. This wasn’t because he was tired. Rabbis traditionally sat down to teach. Jesus was grabbing hold of a “teachable moment.” This was no casual conversation he was entering into. He was making it clear that now was the time for him to teach and for them to listen.

“Sitting down, Jesus called the 12 and said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’”

Here is the central purpose of the Christian’s life: to serve. It doesn’t matter if you are a janitor of a large company or its CEO, your central purpose as a follower of Christ is to serve. Successful people understand that.

One man who had an enormous impact on his company was the founder and former CEO of Wendy’s fast food restaurants, Dave Thomas. Dave Thomas was a remarkable success story. He was adopted as a child. He never finished high school. In his book, Well Done: the Common Guy’s Guide to Everyday Success, Dave said he got his MBA long before his G. E. D. He says he has a photograph of himself and his MBA graduation outfit–a snazzy knee-length work apron. He claimed to be the only founder among America’s big companies whose picture in the corporate annual report shows him wielding a mop and a plastic bucket. That wasn’t a gag. He calls it leading by example. At Wendy’s, he says, MBA doesn’t mean Master of Business Administration. It means Mop Bucket Attitude. It means a commitment to service. Dave Thomas, who died in 2002 had a commitment to service.

That’s what Jesus wants from his disciples–a Mop Bucket Attitude. We exist to serve, not to be served. That is the secret of happiness in any job–to see it as a calling, a vocation, an opportunity. This is why some people are so unhappy in life. They want to be served rather than to serve. And the ironic thing is that people who are waited on hand and foot are the unhappiest people of all.

Marion Hill was born in a fairytale royal palace in Hungary. We say that some people are born with a silver spoon, Marion’s first spoon was, literally, solid gold. She was sent to school in Vienna where she became an actress, and there she fell in love with a young medical student named Otto. Otto and Mary and married and went to live in Hollywood, California.

There, as they “set up house,” he began to dabble in movies. He became so interested in movies that he gave up his medical practice and went on to become the internationally famed movie director, Otto Preminger. Marion’s beauty, wit, and irresistible charm brought her everything she desired. In Europe, New York and Hollywood she became a famous international hostess.

But she couldn’t handle the fast life. She slipped into alcohol, drugs and numerous affairs. She divorced Otto and attempted suicide three times before finally moving back to Vienna. There she met another doctor, Dr. Albert Schweitzer. She knew her life was a mess, and for almost 6 months, every week she met for counseling with Schweitzer. When the time came for him to return to his simple hospital in the jungle of Africa, she went with him. She spent the rest of her life as a hospital servant. When she wrote her autobiography, she chose as a title: All I Want Is Everything.

     Where did she get the title? When she died Time magazine quoted from her autobiography. She wrote: “Albert Schweitzer says there are two kinds of people. There are the helpers, and the non-helpers. I thank God He allowed me to become a helper, and in helping, I found everything.”

Do you see what she is saying? The happiest people are those who understand life is about serving. The unhappiest people are those who think it is about being served.

When will we learn the truth?

James Citrin and Richard A. Smith head up an international executive search firm. Their job puts them in contact with some of the most successful CEOs in the business world. Citrin and Smith have studied the patterns of the great leaders, and out of their research comes one surprising finding: the best leaders are the ones who promote the success of others. Only 4% of top leaders were judged to be self-centered in their career goals. 4%. At least 90% of the top leaders Citrin and Smith studied made it a priority to help their subordinates succeed in their jobs.

This is the key to success. It is also the key to happiness–as strange as it may sound. “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

A commitment to serving people is the key to serving God.

Jesus took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, Jesus said to them, “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.” A little child. I am so glad that there are people in this church who regard serving children as part of their life’s purpose.

I was reading about Olympic track star, Kip Keino. Keino could have become a national celebrity after his numerous wins in the Olympics. Instead, he used his status and money to create an orphanage in his native Kenya. He and his wife care for more than 250 children. As he says, “I came into this world with nothing. I will leave with nothing. While I am here, I should be mindful of those people who need help.”

A little child. A group of European theologians once visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta. She said to them, “You try to do what I am doing, then you will be able to enjoy what I am doing.” She took them to one of her child care centers and picked up a child who was playing in the mud and gave the child a kiss. She wanted for her guests to do the same. None of them did.

A little child. Scholars tell us that Jesus selected a child as a way of saying to the disciples that they were to serve those who were helpless, those who could not help themselves, regardless of their age. This is how we best serve God–by serving the least and the lowest.

For me, it summed up in a beautiful fable that appeared on the Internet. Once upon a time there was a knight in shining armor. The knight wanted to serve his king and be the most honorable and noble knight who ever lived. At his knighting he was so overcome by dedication that he made a special oath. He vowed to bow his knees and lift his arms in homage to his king and him alone. This knight was given the task of guarding a city on the frontier of the kingdom. Every day he stood at attention by the gate of the city in full armor.

Years passed. One day as he was standing at attention, guarding his post, a peasant woman passed by with goods for the market. Her cart turned over spilling potatoes and carrots and onions everywhere. The woman hurried to get them all back in her cart. But the knight would not help the poor woman. He just stood at attention lest he break his vow by bending his knees to help pick up the woman’s goods. Time passed and one day a man with one leg was passing by and his crutch broke. “Good Knight, Sir, reach down and help me up.” But the knight would not stoop or lift a hand to help lest he break his vow. Years and decades passed, the knight was getting old. One day his grandson came by and said, “Grandpa pick me up and take me to the fair.” But he would not stoop lest he break his vow to the King.

Finally after years the king came to visit and inspect the knight. As the king approached, the knight just stood there at attention. The king inspected him as he stood there, but then he noticed that the knight was crying. “You are one of the noblest knights I have ever seen–why do you cry?” asked the king.

“Your Majesty, I took the vow that I would bow and lift my arms in homage to you but I am unable to keep my vow. These years have done their work and the joints of my armor are rusted. I cannot lift my arms or bend my knees.”

With the loving voice of a parent the King replied, “Perhaps if you had knelt to help all those who passed by, you would have been able to keep your vow to pay me homage today.”

This is it. Here is how to make your life count. Find a place where you can serve. It may be in your work. It may be here in our church. But you will never be happy or truly successful until you see that we are here to serve, not to be served. To serve others, particularly the least and the lowest, is the best way to serve God.