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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 23, 2018

 A Lovely Ambition

Psalm 1; Mark 9:30-37

            You can learn a lot about Christian faith by paying attention to its critics.  Maybe there was no more telling critic of Christian faith than Friedrich Nietzsche.  In 1889 Nietzsche wrote a book called, The Will to Power.  In the book, among many other things, he writes, “The world is about the will to power, and nothing besides.”  Nietzsche thought, in the end of the day, what really shaped the world was this human desire to prevail, to have power and control.  Obviously, this put him in a place of opposition with Jesus of Nazareth, and with Jesus’ followers as well.  I want us to think today about this word “power.”  It is used in all kinds of ways, and you cannot read about current events in our world, without reckoning with the fact that people care about power.  In whatever setting they are, people are mindful of the impact of power, and people are often eager to grab power, and not to lose whatever power they believe they already have. 

            There is a part of me, more cynical, that says that people are willing to do almost anything in order to get the power they want.  You know this, but power, and the thirst for it, manifests itself in almost every realm of life.  There is political power.  Look at what people are willing to commit by way of money to political candidates in the State of Tennessee, and you can easily conclude that people care a great deal about political power.  They care about who wields it and how it might be changed.  There is also, though, such a thing as financial power.  Names like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, and a number of others that you can pull right off the top of your head, wield incredible power over our lives in this culture.  There is also such a thing as spiritual power.  I spent some time many years ago with Billy Graham, when he was rather advanced in years, and you could simply feel something different, something unique, about the man.  He exuded an aura, and I have often reflected since that it was spiritual power.

            Then there is star power.  We are reminded once again this weekend: Tiger Woods simply has it, whether he wins today or not!  People are drawn to the power that this charismatic, gifted athlete exudes.  A few years ago on a Saturday, Connie and I were walking in Percy Warner Park, and a young adult from our church was running, and he stopped in his tracks on the trail, breathless.  He said, “Todd!  Right behind us, coming towards you now is Taylor Swift!”  At this point Taylor Swift was probably the biggest pop star, having been a country star, in the country.  And sure enough, as Connie and I were walking, first we encountered a rather sturdy looking guy whom we identified to be her bodyguard, so we were not about to stare at her.  But we did note, walking with sunglasses and a ball cap pulled down, sure enough, was Taylor Swift!

            People are drawn to power.  Have you ever noticed it?  I mean, people want to be close to those whom they perceive wield power in whatever setting they are in.  For the last twenty-one years, I have been a trustee at Princeton Theological Seminary, not exactly the center of power in America today by a long shot!  But I have watched with amusement as adults have often behaved like children, trying to “suck-up” or get close to where they sense the power is to be found on that Board and in that institution.  I still remember when I was a student in seminary, eating dinner one night with Jeb Stuart Magruder, who was a first-year student at Princeton Seminary, when I was in my final year.  Jeb Magruder had headed the Committee to Reelect the President in 1972, and because of getting involved in the scandal that became known as Watergate, Jeb Magruder had just finished an eighteen-month term in a federal prison.  When he came out of prison, he wanted to pursue what he felt was God’s call upon his life to enter the ministry.  He ultimately became the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky.  Jeb’s first day of seminary brought reporters from virtually every major news outlet out of New York City to Miller Chapel at Princeton Seminary.  The President got up with the place packed, and said, “Happy Easter!”  I remember sitting one night at a relaxed dinner table with Jeb and Gail.  He said, “You have no idea how intoxicating it is to work in the White House right alongside the President.  The power is seductive.”

            This fascination with power, wherever it is exercised, has been going on for as long as the human race has existed.  It is in many ways, from some vantage point, certainly Nietzche’s, the way the world works.  Those who have it, I think, sometimes wonder “How did I get this?”  And those who hold it always worry about “Will I lose it?”  Because if power is anything, it is slippery, and those who have it always have others who would like to take it from them and make it their own.  After all, there are only so many spots at the top of the pyramid.  We always hope, don’t we, when someone we regard as ineffective or evil, wields power that someone better, someone kinder, someone more decent, will replace them.  I think that is why we campaign for people, it is why we pour untold millions of dollars into the political process.  We believe that who wields power and how they wield it, makes a difference. 

            I mention this because I think this is what was on the disciples’ minds in our text, when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about.  Jesus knew that from the very start, that the disciples were drawn to Him for all kinds of reasons.  He had a certain gravity about Him, doubtless.  Jesus had an electricity, a magnetism about Him.  And then He had this power, power to heal the sick, power to forgive sins, power even to walk on water and to raise the dead.  Jesus had this power that people sensed in Him, and surely those who followed Him, followed Him for a complex host of reasons, because none of them understood Him completely at this point.  You read the Gospel of Mark, and you realize most of them were absolutely baffled by what Jesus said, and wondering, “Who is He, and where is all this leading?”  But this one day, Jesus sensed that they were arguing among themselves, likely about who among them would be the greatest.  Jesus clearly seems to think that they are off-base in being concerned about this at all.  They want to make sure that when Jesus comes into His kingdom, that they find their reward for having left everything behind in order to follow Him.  Jesus has just told them, “The Son of Man is going to suffer many things, and be killed.”  They do not understand this saying, Mark tells us.  My best bet is they did not want to understand what Jesus was saying!  No, instead they are arguing about who among them will be the greatest.  Jesus offers in response to this most human of all desires, to have prestige and power and significance, two holy laws, and two wonderful images, about what power looks like, not in this world, but in God’s world and God’s kingdom.

            By the way, whether you acknowledge it or not, this is God’s world, and this is God’s kingdom, and in the end of the day, there is one Judge who’s judgment finally and fully matters.  We sing about it in the hymn, I believe it with all my heart: “This is my Father’s world, and though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”  And power looks very different to God than it looks to us.  Jesus’ power was not loud or focused upon Him, or flashy or ever ruthless.  The number ones in Jesus’ kingdom you could miss completely, because they were the ones slipping in and out of groups of people, behaving like servants.  That is the first holy image I want to hold up to you today, about what it means to have the kind of power that Jesus offers.  Here is what Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last, and the servant of all.”  Elsewhere, Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.”  Again Jesus said, “Whoever exalts themselves shall be humbled, but whoever humbles themselves shall be exalted.”

            My favorite Jim Carrey movie (That by the way, is a very small subset of forgettable movies!) was made in 2003.  It was called, Bruce Almighty.  In the movie, Bruce is this absolutely insufferable, egotistical anchorman in Buffalo, who loses his job.  He cries out in frustration and anger to God, and God decides He wants to meet with Bruce.  So Bruce comes to an address that is an empty office building, with nothing except God, only he misses God completely.  God is played by Morgan Freeman, and is dressed liked the janitor.  He has a mop in his hand, and he is cleaning the floors, and he says to Bruce, “Take a mop and join me, there’s a lot of work to do here.”  I love that image – God as servant or God as a humble, lowly worker!  Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must become the servant of all.”  That is what it means to wield God’s power, to use it to serve and to bless others.  That is why the night that Jesus was betrayed, He gathered with His disciples at the Last Supper – only John remembered this detail – and girded Himself with a towel, and took a basin, and stooped to wash the disciples’ feet.  One of the greatest human beings ever to walk the planet was Albert Schweitzer, who left behind a life of immense achievement in his thirties, to study medicine, to serve the poorest of the poor of this world.  He said, “The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who learn to serve.”  That is the first image that Jesus offers, the image of the servant.

            The second image is found in this saying (Stuart talked about it beautifully in his children’s talk today): “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes Him who sent me.”  I am thinking about that this morning, what it takes to welcome a child.  I have grandchildren now, so I am rethinking how miraculous and wonderful children are.  Our good friend Nancy Baron calls her grandchildren, “the wild short people.”  I love that expression!  Connie and I use it all the time when our grandchildren are coming to visit with us: “The wild short people are coming!”  But what does it take to welcome a child?  You saw Stuart model it for you right in our midst.  He said, “Let’s stand in a circle,” and then he said, “I’m going to kneel.”  You need to stoop and get down, and leave behind everything that has to do with you, and enter into this wonderful world that is the world of children, if ever you are going to welcome a child. 

            It occurs to me that all the most exquisite moments of life are like this, moments in which we are able to forget all about ourselves completely, and get lost in something larger and deeper, more mysterious and more wonderful than our own small, suffocating lives.  Jesus, of course, was not just commending these principles, He embodied these principles.  Jesus welcomed children; He stooped to wash the disciples’ feet, and when He did it He said, “I am giving you an example.”  “The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those of you who learn to serve.”  This, dear friends, is the word of Jesus to us today, for all time.  It is Jesus’ way of life, and it leads to life abundant.


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