Whoever wants to be first must become the servant of all.
What a text to be considering at this point in our nation’s history, when it has all been about winning; medals and prizes and encouragement to go all out to be the best. The Olympics, the Paralympics and of course our own Andy Murray’s recent triumph in the United States.
There’s little there about humility or the last being first. Human endeavour celebrated big style by us all.
And why not?
The feel-good factor is the stuff of politician’s prayers. I’m sure they believe it’s just what we need when the unemployment rate is rising and young people are struggling to get a start in work or on the housing ladder.
For every winner, though, there are many losers, others for whom the memories of this summer will be regretful ones.
Our opening Hymn, words by the poet George Herbert set to a tune by Basil Harwood, reflects in words and music the highs and lows of life. There is nothing accidental about its composition. As we sing we’re encouraged to imagine ourselves in a wonderful cathedral, lofty pillars and ornate ceiling above us and below us in the depths, the crypt. Our lives, as we go through them, mirror that kind of experience, high times when everything seems to go well, when the world is a good place to be, where the sun shines on everyone and there’s a skip in our step. And low times when we feel like we are wading through treacle and everything feels impossible.
I have just embarked on my chosen study for this winter. I’m looking at a variety of different types of literature this year. ‘Don’t I have enough to do’, you’re thinking? Well of course I do but,quite apart from the enjoyment of learning new things, of reading things that I would not be naturally drawn to read for leisure purposes, I have promised you all and God in my ordination vows to improve myself and to study.
So should I not be studying the Bible and only the Bible.
No, because we are students of life, of all of creation and not just a part. In learning how the world and its people tick, we are learning about God too. God is not confined to the pages of any book. As Christians you are all here because you are seeking to be Christians in the world, not apart from the world. So I suppose in our search for wisdom and knowledge it’s a both-and rather than an either-or. A hunger for the Word of God, for the wisdom of God, for the guidance of God and his creation is what should mark us out.
I’m not suggesting that we all go and do some formal kind of study but our lives should be characterised by the questions we are asking:
* Why are we here?
* How should we behave towards our fellows?
* What is our task?
* Where might true wisdom be found?
* What is truth?
As human beings we are too often taken up with how we appear. Are we too tall? Too short? Too fat? Too thin? Too old? Too young?
But it’s all pretty transitory because we’re always changing as we grow and as we age. We stop growing in stature in our teenage years and if one of my former GPs is to be believed, it is all downhill from 25 onwards!
I don’t believe that’s the case though for we accumulate as we travel through the years of our lives a wide store of wisdom that can be used for the benefit of others. Even when the big questions in our day boil down to very simple matters like ‘where have I left my keys?’ or ‘what did I come to the top of the stairs for?’ there is still much that we can achieve for other people.
Perhaps indeed that is the most important time of all. Time to pass on as much of our accumulated wealth of experience to those who will come after us. Has our life brought the kingdom just a little bit closer?
My Uncle had a well-known Gaelic saying engraved on a stone he erected for his brothers after their deaths. It reads in translation as ‘Ever man leaves his mark’. So we are part of the great story and journey of mankind, not just from the cradle to the grave but throughout time from the Creation of the Universe until we don’t know when. We are part of something huge! So we are never finished.
Picasso once said that there is no such thing as a finished picture. Just so there is no such thing as a finished or completed human being. No matter how old we get!
Have you ever gone on a long journey with a child who has just learned to ask questions? By the end of a couple of hours’ filled with question after question most people will resort to a few set answers:
‘Because I said so’, ‘because it just is’, ‘I don’t know’, or even ‘ask Mummy, Daddy Papa, when you get home’ and the blessed peace when the tiny student of life has fallen asleep is just bliss!
We are called to be just like that child, constantly hungry for more knowledge about our God. In our text from Mark the Greek for ‘servant’ and ‘little child’ are linked because both of these terms describe someone who has little or no status in the eyes of the world. The disciples, arguing on the road and being overheard by Jesus, were afraid to ask the questions that would have set them on the straight road because they didn’t want to appear not to understand his teachings. They were pretending to understand when in fact they didn’t. Just as our children need to be encouraged to continually ask questions in order to learn how to live in the world we need to be continually asking questions in order to learn what God requires of us as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Our second hymn today is in the form of a prayer asking God to be with us throughout all the challenges of our lives. It tracks through our lives beginning with childhood:
‘Be there at our waking’, praying for joy, our adult and working lives, praying for strength and faith, our wisdom years praying for grace and love and at our ending, our sleeping, calm contentment and peace. In all things God is willing to be our companion, our teacher, our guide and our friend. BUT we have never ‘arrived’. As a Christian, the journey goes on. J. R.R. Tolkien wrote this lovely poem(1) that reflects our journey through life. The last two verses say this:
The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
So where have we got to in our discussion this morning? Where might true wisdom be found? Certainly not in any pride of status that the world can offer, not in riches, not in knowledge, not in fame or stardom. Wisdom can be gathered bit by bit along the way. It is the child of humility and love and produces, as James’s letter tells us, gentleness, mercy and a peaceful heart at the road’s end.
When Jesus uses the child as an example to his disciples he doesn’t point towards the child, he takes the child in his arms. That is our heritage, that is his promise, that is our prize. More precious than gold medals or any riches or power that the world can offer us. The Creator releases us to the world as a baby, we learn and grow and work out his purposes, often not knowing how or why but in faith we are called to spend our lives in honest and loving endeavour, growing ever closer to Him. And when that time has come to an end he opens his arms and receives us, children again.
Praver of Confession
Loving Father God,
Forgive us when we are hard hearted and cold,
Forgive us when we are proud and unforgiving of others,
Forgive us when we feel like giving up,
Grant us the courage we need to run the race to its end,
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,
Have Mercy on us (x2)
Grant us your peace.
(1) [Tolkein’s Song on Wikipedia](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_Goes_Ever_On_(song)