Other countries have kings and queens and princes and princesses and royalty and coronations…
Here, we just read about the royalty of other countries, and watch Disney princess movies… Wouldn’t it be cool to have royalty for real in this country?
OK, maybe not in America. But what about ancient Israel? When Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, out of Egypt, and to a new land and a new nation, the people wanted a king.
God didn’t want them to have a king, so for many generations, they were ruled by judges.
But Saul was flawed.
The next king – David – also had flaws, but despite those flaws he was the greatest king ever.
In the history of ancient Israel, no king before or after could match the greatness of King David.
David was followed by Solomon, who ruled with wisdom, but then Solomon started to stray from the righteous path.
At the end of Solomon’s reign, the kingdom of Israel split in two. The northern half kept the name Israel, while the southern half took the name Judah.
Some time later, both Israel and Judah were overtaken by foreign powers. Their kingdoms came to an end. The Israelites and Jews no longer lived in their own nation. They were ruled by others. And they longed for a day when they would once again have their own kingdom.
Eventually they were allowed back to their homeland, but they were still ruled by foreign powers. And the greatest, most powerful of those foreign powers was the Roman Empire.
In Jesus’s time, the people – living under Roman power – still wished that they were in charge of their own nation.
When Jesus began his ministry, some believed he was that messiah. He was wise, he spoke with authority, and it was clear to all that he was aligned with God’s Spirit.
Furthermore, he spoke of a new kingdom, a kingdom which, he said, was at hand.
Those who followed him believed he was the one. The crowds that followed him believed it was only a matter of time before he raised up an army, chased out the Romans, and took his place as their king.
The excitement was contagious.
After so many failed attempts and false hopes, Jesus seemed to be the one who might actually be capable of pulling it off, of taking control, seizing power, and getting rid of foreign control.
But then Jesus started saying and doing things that were unexpected.
He sometimes told people to not say anything about him. “Don’t tell anyone,” he’d say. He knew that some people wanted nothing more than to take him by force and place a crown on his head, whether he wanted that or not.
Jesus told his disciples that, instead of ruling from a throne for years and years, he would die. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days later he will rise again.”
That didn’t make any sense to those who expected him to become their king.
“Jesus, what are you talking about? Just… just stop.”
And sometimes, they argued among themselves who would be the greatest. “Which among us do you think will be the second-in-charge, the royal advisor, the secretary of state?
Peter says, “I’m ‘The Rock.’ That’s what He calls me.”
Someone else says, “Yeah, but he also called you his Adversary! No king calls his ‘Adversary’ to be second-in-command. I think it’ll be me…”
And pretty soon, they are all arguing about who among them is the greatest, who will be chosen by Jesus as his second in command.
In response to this argument, Jesus says something very un-king-like. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant of all.”
Well, that’s just getting things all mixed up. Those who are first in society can’t be last. It just doesn’t make sense. A king isn’t a servant; a king has servants.
“Jesus, what are you talking about?”
Whose child was he? The scripture doesn’t say. The truth is, children are not mentioned often in scripture, and other ancient writings hardly ever speak of them.
In ancient times, children were non-persons. One really didn’t become a person until adulthood.
Children were expected to just stay out of the way.
This child may have been part of the extended family of one of the disciples, perhaps a part of Peter’s extended family, if it was Peter’s house they were at.
There is also a really good chance that this child was a slave, or the child of a slave.
A child would only catch the attention of the group if the child was doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing (like interrupting them), or being somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be (like in the same room as them).
Children were not to be noticed, especially when important conversations were taking place.
What people did notice were those with power and wealth. The Kardashians, for example. Donald Trump. People like that get all the attention. No one notices the little child in the corner. No one pays the nameless child any attention.
But Jesus did notice what no one else noticed. He noticed the child.
He beckoned the child over to join the group of disciples. Then he embraced the child in his arms.
Even if he had said nothing else, his actions spoke volumes. The disciples were all arguing which of them was the greatest, about who would have the seat of honor, the seat next to Jesus, in the new kingdom.
But it’s the little child who no one notices that ends up next to Jesus – not just next to him, but embraced by him, held in his arms!
The disciples had never seen anyone of importance do anything like that.
The kings and leaders of their time did everything they could to make themselves look even more important and more powerful than they were. They surrounded themselves with the most powerful people, the richest people they could find.
They only wanted to be seen with important people.
Important people always associated themselves with important people. Their only contact with an unimportant person like a child or a slave would be to give them an order. And even that, I suspect, was done through one of their advisors. Instead of giving the order himself, a king would tell one of his advisors to give the order. That way the king wouldn’t have to even associate with such a lowly person.
That’s just how kings behave.
But Jesus takes this little child into his arms. Just that, by itself, is remarkable.
And he says: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant of all. Whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
Jesus is a servant.
And we who are followers of Jesus are called to be servants as well.
In Jesus’s time, as well as in our own time, people try to accumulate wealth and power for themselves.
But Jesus calls us to live differently.
Whatever wealth and power we have is to be used for others. They are gifts given to us by a God who calls upon us to serve others.
If you could measure power and authority by the pound, Jesus had tons and tons of it: tons and tons of power and authority.
Yet every pound, every ounce, he used for the benefit of others. Every pound of power, every ounce of authority, he gave away.
And yet, that only increased his own power and authority.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to greatness. But we always gotta remember what greatness really is.
The disciples were arguing about greatness, and Jesus responded by speaking to them about service and servanthood; about embracing the lowly, the humble; and giving of themselves.
Sometimes you see or hear people talk about their faith in Jesus, and the way they do that is by making themselves look more important or better than everyone else.
You can probably think of an example of this. There’s a level of smugness there, of self-importance. As if they are already seated in the seat of honor; as if they are Jesus’s second-in-command, greater than anyone else.
But that’s not what Jesus wants.
What Jesus wants is for us to flip that script. Jesus is not like other kings, and his idea of greatness is service.
How do you become great? By serving others. By giving. By paying attention to those who no one else pays attention to.
That is how you become great in the eyes of God.