The Upside Down
Preached by Jason Abbott
In the hit Netflix show Stranger Things, there is a dark, parallel dimension which has intersected our world. It’s dubbed “the upside down” by the protagonists because—in opposition to our world—it’s a cold and lifeless and evil dimension. It’s like our world gone horribly wrong.
Yet, what if our world is the one that’s gone horribly wrong? What if it’s we who are in “the upside down” but don’t know it? If so, we would need to begin rethinking everything—how we assess good and evil, how we calculate success and failure, even how we view the achievements of our coworkers—everything! This is truly a Twilight Zone type idea; isn’t it? It seems crazy!
But, friends, in fact, we are living in “the upside down.” This is precisely what Jesus teaches the disciples and us in today’s passage—to flip our fallen world and its ethics on its head. This, Christ says, is the way to live in the right side up. This is the way to truly worship God.
Let’s see how.
43 But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, 44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side 48 and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”
49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”
As we move forward, we’re going to see that the disciples are upside down on three things. Their fallen world views cloud their understanding when it comes to (1st) the plan of God, (2nd) the power of God, and (3rd) the people of God.
1. The plan of God (vv. 43-45)
When I was in seminary, I remember being told I would have a grace period whenever I began a new ministry—a period where people would marvel at all I did and quickly overlook areas where they disagreed. I recall it was supposed to last about 5 years, which is disconcerting since I celebrated my 5-year-anniversary here around 3 months ago. So, you should know I’ve got my eye on all of you!
Yet, in all seriousness, it was a good warning. In ministry, people who cheer for you one minute can turn on you the next. Those marveling, at all you’re doing, can suddenly and without warning start to criticize everything you do. This is true. I heard one pastor, who’d shepherded in the local church for around three decades, describe it in two words: Sheep bite. When you pursue God’s will in a fallen world, you can depend on it. People will quickly turn on you when you don’t go the way they think you should go.
And, Jesus knew this better than anyone. So, in the middle of the marveling, he reminds his disciples what’s ahead. He explains:
“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying (vv. 44-45).
Isn’t this fascinating? Jesus is at peak popularity; people are flocking to him. Yet, while we would be tempted to bask in the fame and glory for a few moments, even as the disciples likely were, Jesus calls them and us to attention and warns all of us about the coming betrayal. At the very moment when we’re tempted to think this fallen world isn’t so bad—attention is pretty nice, notoriety is really great, vacations at the beach are sweet, new cars smell good—Jesus warns us to beware because this world is upside down. It is not our home!
Who are the marveling crowds in whom you’re tempted to place your faith? What, in this upside down world, are you worshiping? Beware of betrayal!
The disciples, however, don’t get Christ’s warning. They miss the lesson—in one ear and right out the other. And, yet, Luke tells us it isn’t really their fault while simultaneously telling us it is really their fault. (The meaning isn’t revealed to them, but they don’t ask for it.) What’s up with this? Here’s my take.
Great spiritual insight is not the domain of human effort and understanding. We don’t know Christ because we’ve put in hours of study and have learned him—learned the gospel, learned theology, learned godliness. The Pharisees picture this. They knew a lot about God without knowing God. Rather, as Jesus informed Peter following his confession of him as Christ—“flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). So, apart from the Spirit of the Father working in us to reveal his plans to us, we can’t get it. In other words, the disciples don’t understand because God doesn’t reveal it to them at this point—“it was concealed from them…that they might not perceive it” (v. 45).
Nevertheless, they weren’t to fall into fatalistic living, like—There’s nothing for me to do unless God reveals it to me. I guess I should just wait here for a sign from God, or for him to tell me what he’s doing. No. This isn’t how we should live, and it’s not how the disciples should have operated either. We know this to be true because Luke highlights it when he writes—“they were afraid to ask him” (v. 45). Do you see? They didn’t pursue the answer.
When I was teaching, I’d always tell my students—sophomores and juniors in high school—to ask questions because learning cannot begin until we will admit that we don’t know. Friends, good students (and good disciples) will ask questions whenever they’re confused. And, this takes a little courageous humility; doesn’t it? A courageous humility, which the disciples haven’t apparently embraced just yet, because they’re still living out their upside down, sinful world ethic! They think—It’ll be embarrassing to confess my ignorance. The others will all make fun of me. And, therefore, they remain in the dark.
There will be many times (when you’re listening to a sermon on a Sunday or reading the Bible in the morning or having a discussion with a Christian friend over coffee) where you feel confused and wonder what God’s plans are for you— you wonder what he’s doing with you. Friends, when you find yourself wrestling with such questions, prayerfully ask them. Good discipleship is not silent!
Well, these disciples remain in the dark, here, concerning the plans of God and, because of this, they misunderstand what makes for greatness in the kingdom of God as well. They demonstrate they’re confused when it comes to…
2. The power of God (vv. 46-48)
It’s really interesting how quickly we forget things. Or, maybe I should say, it’s really interesting how quickly our natural, sinful tendencies override the good we’ve been taught to pursue. If you have children, then you’ve experienced this. You tell your children not to do something clearly and calmly yet, within minutes, they’re at it again. And, adults do the same thing. We’re simply more sophisticated at concealing our upside down ethics.
This is what we see with the disciples in this section. Jesus has demonstrated what greatness and power in God’s kingdom look like. He’s cared for and met with and loved on society’s outcasts. He’s regularly taught the twelve about his mission, twice now that he must be crucified—that he must suffer and die a sinner’s death. Nonetheless, just after telling them this, they begin to quibble about their power—about who’s the greatest. Look again at these verses. Luke tells us:
An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (vv. 46-48).
Sometimes we imagine that the argument between these disciples was blunt and arrogant and boastful. But, I don’t think it was because Luke gives us a detail which indicates it was likely a somewhat more sophisticated and subtle argument they had here. Luke tells us that Jesus knew “the reasoning of their hearts” (v. 47). In other words, Jesus needed to dig deeper than the words being used—to contend for their greatness—in order to unearth the motives and desires under those words. Friends, this was a wolf of an argument in sheep’s clothing.
Can you hear them? It was such a blessing to give up Thanksgiving dinner, with my family, and serve at the homeless shelter. Oh, yes, truly a humbling thing, that’s why, after I did it last year, I felt called to open a shelter in my family room. I did that a few years ago. Now I use the whole house, year round, for God.
So, what does Jesus do to turn their notion of greatness right side up again? He puts a child next to him…right next to him! Now, it’s important to understand what the cultural perception of children was in Jesus’ day. In the ancient Near East, a child was the antithesis of great. In fact, Israelite kids, under twelve-years-old, couldn’t be taught the Torah. Time spent with them, consequently, was considered in some circles to be a waste.1 Thus, when Jesus guided this small child to his side as an example of greatness, it was an unexpected cultural move. In this passage, Christ is flipping our view of power on its head.
If so, then what’s the new lesson? What does greatness and power look like in the kingdom of God? I like how one scholar explains it. He writes:
…instead of seeking status for ourselves (out of pride as an associate of the Messiah) we Christians should, as Jesus did, identify ourselves with those who have no status at all, welcoming them to join us in the kingdom…[for] by ministering to a child [or one of the least of these] one ministers, without realizing it, to Christ himself.2
One of the things I totally love about the church is that it’s a motley crew. Unlike every other human organization, it brings together vastly different varieties of people through faith in Jesus. It challenges us to rethink our own, personal ideas about greatness—Christ makes us reevaluate them. You, consequently, cannot look at me and say: I don’t need you. And, I cannot do that with you either. I need you, and you need me…according to Jesus. Furthermore, we are both exceedingly great because of Christ’s love for us.
In fact, it’s his love which compels us to practice this new greatness ethic—to love and elevate and celebrate those whom we consider to be least among us. We do this because the eternal Son of God:
…did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him (Philippians 2:6-9).
Friends, while we were still upside down in our sin, God the Son intervened on our behalf. While we were not great, our great God humbled himself to serve us and save us. He is our model for and guide to true greatness. Amen?!
Well, this brings us briefly to our final point:
3. The people of God (vv. 49-50)
I love this little vignette because, as the disciples begin to get Jesus’ lesson, it’s like John has an “uh-oh” moment. Let’s pick up at the end of Christ’s teaching about greatness. He brings his message to a conclusion:
“…For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” [And, then, before Jesus can even say: Class dismissed. John announces:] “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us” (vv. 48-49).
Friends, the disciples’ temptation to be territorial is just like ours…isn’t it? Can’t we be a bit competitive in the church? Don’t we often draw lines declaring who is in and who is out? I’ve even encountered this at seminary—of all places! The very institution designed to train Christlike shepherds can be very competitive and produce an “insider-outsider” culture. To such line-drawing Jesus says: Stop it! He looks at John and the disciples and says: Yep…that was dumb.
“Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you” (v. 50).
In the name of Jesus, this man was casting out demons. God was giving him (in no uncertain terms) success. And, when we stop in order to consider the context of the disciples’ efforts to keep him from continuing his work, we can see the irony since they, themselves, had just failed to cast out a demon (Luke 9:40). This dude’s making us look bad! they worry.
Friends, we must celebrate when the church moves forward in this world—not simply when our church moves forward. During our current facility transition, it’s been such a blessing to work with both Community Alliance and Living Water. If I called Mike Leonzo up and asked him if we might use their building, he’d say, without hesitation: Yes! There’s no rivalry. He roots and prays for us to succeed. And, we must pray for them to succeed as well since we, together, are the people of God. Friends, it glorifies God when we work together…in unity. Amen.