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"Included in Such Company"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on March 3, 2024
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Mark 10:13-45

Have you ever thought to yourself, how did I ever get to be friends with this person?

I was thinking that a couple of weeks ago when I was visiting with my old roommate from college. He was returning from a hunting trip out west and stayed with us on his drive back to Washington, D.C. He'd gone into the military, into the Air Force after college, and has stayed with it. Now, 20-plus years later, he's a full bird colonel and a veteran fighter pilot, callsign "Duke." He flew F-16s, multimillion-dollar fighter jet missions over Afghanistan and Iraq and Korea, and God knows where else. Along the way, he did an exchange tour with the German Luftwaffe, the Air Force there. Not only did he learn to speak German fluently, he also got qualified to fly German fighter jets. And then when he returned home to the states, they made him a squadron commander. And now because of his background in aviation and foreign language and leadership, he got picked up for defense attaché duty in Eastern Europe, which means he and his family are going to be picking up and moving to Hungary this summer, working for the U.S. Ambassador there. First they sent him to D.C. for a year of diplomat training. He and his wife just completed their intensive language course, passed the test with flying colors, and now they are functionally fluent in Hungarian, too. And now he and his family are going to be living in Budapest for the next three years.

But there he was, sitting at my dinner table the other night chatting with my children about life. Duke, the multilingual, multicultural combat fighter pilot, diplomat, commander, hunter, and just an all-around good guy. Faithful husband, father, kind, humble, funny, wise beyond his years. And I'm thinking to myself, how did I ever get to be included as one of his friends?

C.S. Lewis, in his writing on friendship, comments on this feeling. He says sometimes when you're with an old friend or friends, people you've gotten to know or have kept up with over many years and you're hearing their stories and their insights and laughing at their jokes and seeing them in action, and when you're able to set aside, even if only for a moment, all your internal insecurities and comparisons and rivalries and pity parties, you can simply appreciate them, admire them, and be grateful to know them—humbled, even.

Take for example how it worked with two pro basketball players, Irvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird. These two were probably the greatest ballplayers of their generation, but for them it began as a rivalry. The year was 1979, the NCAA championship game, and Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans defeated, humiliated, Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores, who had been undefeated up unto that point. And Larry Bird never forgot it. Magic became his bitter enemy. And Magic reciprocated, and the two of them would be bitter rivals for the next decade of pro basketball. Secretly, they compared themselves to each other. They checked each other's points and assists and wins and losses, and they gloated over each other whenever they got the chance. After both retired from pro basketball, years later they made a documentary about this rivalry. The film features separate interviews with the two men, and in those interviews each man shares his deep appreciation of the other. Larry, now an older man, isn't trying to compete with Magic anymore. Instead, he says with simplicity and honesty that could only come from Larry Bird, "Magic's the best there ever was."

And Magic, well, he still knows he's the best, but now weathered and mellowed by life, he's also learned that there are some things more important than being the best. And he says that he wishes that he could be more like Larry. See, that's the kind of feeling I'm talking about. Not competition, not self-deprecation, just honest admiration. And the person doesn't have to be a professional athlete or a fighter pilot for you to feel it. When you've come to know any person over many years and you can appreciate how they've fared through all they've done and suffered, you can find that same admiration and wonder at how you got to be so lucky, so blessed beyond deserving, to be included in such company.

I think it was that feeling partly that prompted a man named Mark to write his famous biography of Jesus of Nazareth. It was the awe and gratitude and wonder at being included in such a company. Historical sources indicate that Mark was included in this company through Peter, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus. Those were the 12 Jesus had chosen to be His ambassadors. They were the core group, but there was a wider circle of followers and Mark was most likely included among them, this larger group of Jewish people that believed Jesus was their Messiah, their promised King. They had followed Him into Jerusalem; they'd seen Him crucified, and they were witnesses of His resurrection and were united around the hope that Jesus was truly the King, the Head of God's kingdom, the rule and reign of God. And that God, His Father, had put Him in charge of the universe and everything in it and that He would return to raise the dead and make everything new.

Mark was included in this hope. And so we can imagine how blessed beyond deserving he felt to be included in such a company. These diplomats of Jesus, commissioned to spread the Gospel, the Good News of the coming rule and reign of God, Mark would live to see many of those original apostles sacrifice their lives for the message of Jesus, and he deeply admired them. And he was blessed beyond deserving to tell their story, a story that sometimes reveals their blunders and failures, but knowing how they fared through all they did and suffered, he admired them. Most of all, Mark admired Jesus. You can feel his admiration of Jesus when he tells the story. I want you to listen with me to these scenes that come from chapter 10 in Mark's Gospel biography. I want you to listen and get a sense of why Mark considered himself blessed beyond deserving to be included in Jesus' company.

The story begins as people are bringing children to Jesus so that He might touch them. But His disciples, Jesus' disciples, they rebuke them. They try to shoo them away. And Jesus, when He sees it, gets really irritated with His disciples and says to them, "Let the children come to Me. Don't stop them because the Kingdom, the rule and reign of God, is of such as these. I'm telling you for sure, unless you receive the rule and reign of God like a child, you will certainly never enter it." And embracing the children in His arms, He blessed them by placing His hands upon them.

Now, as Jesus was setting out on the way, a man coming up to Him and kneeling before Him, said to Him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? None is good, but One, God. You know the commandments: Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not defraud. Honor your father and mother."

And he said, "Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth." And Jesus looked at him and loved him and said to him, "You lack one thing. Go sell all you have and give to the poor and you'll have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me." At this the man's face fell and he went away grieving because he had many possessions.

Now, Jesus turning and intently looking around says to His disciples, "How difficult it will be for those with possessions to enter the rule and reign of God." And they were amazed at Him saying this. And in response He again says to them, "Children, how difficult it is to enter the rule and reign of God. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the rule and reign of God."

And they were even more astonished and they said to Him, "Who then can be saved?" And Jesus looked at them and said, "As far as people are concerned, it's impossible. But not as far as God is concerned. All things are possible with God." Peter began saying to Him, "Look, we have left everything and have followed You." Jesus declares, "I am telling you the truth. There is no one who has left a house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for Me and for the Gospel. No one who will fail to receive now in this appointed time, a hundred times more houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands—with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. But many will be first who are last, and many will be last who are first."

Now they were walking on the way up to Jerusalem and Jesus was up ahead leading them, and they were excited. But others who were following were afraid. And Jesus once again takes the 12 to His side and begins to tell them the things that are going to happen to Him. "Look," He says, "we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man is going to be betrayed to the chief priests and the scribes. And they will condemn Him as deserving death and hand Him over to the Gentiles, to the pagans. And they will mock Him and spit on Him and scourge Him, and they will kill Him. And after three days He will rise."

Now James and John, the sons of Zebedee, go to Him saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask." "What do you want Me to do for you?" He says. "Let one of us sit at Your right hand and the other at Your left in Your glory." "You don't know what you're asking," He said. "Are you able to drink the cup that I'm going to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I'm going to be baptized?" "We are able," they said. "The cup that I'm going to drink, you will drink. The baptism with which I'm going to be baptized, you will be baptized. But to sit at My right and at My left is not for me to grant. These places are for those for whom they've already been prepared."

Now the 10 overhearing this, started to get really irritated with James and John. And Jesus calling them to Him says to them, "You guys know that those who supposedly rule over the gentile nations, the pagans, lord it over them, dominate them, and their great ones exercise full authority over them. But this isn't how it is among you. If anyone among you wants to be great, he will be your servant. And if anyone wants to be first, he will be slave of all. Because the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as an atonement, as a sacrifice to include many. To include all." That's from Mark 10.

There is something about Mark's admiration for Jesus that can't compare to his admiration for the 12 apostles. It can't compare to Larry Bird's admiration of Magic Johnson or of Magic's for Larry or of my admiration for my fighter pilot friend or of your admiration for your friends. Because we all have a sense of how our friends fall short, right? But Mark and the other disciples saw something different in Jesus. It's not enough to say that they admired him. Worship is more like it, because they saw how Jesus never fell short. And when His words came true about His crucifixion and resurrection, they put all the pieces together. With His healing people and casting out demons and walking on water and stilling storms and forgiving sins and feeding thousands and teaching like no one had ever taught before, they saw Him for who He is—not just the promised King of the Jews, but the Word of God in the flesh, the Son of God who gave His life to include us, all of us, in His company.

That's how Jesus described His mission, as a work of inclusion. Mark 10:45, He described His death as an atonement; sometimes it's translated as ransom. An atonement is something that makes separated parties be at one. The word, atonement, it's just a phrase smashed together, "at-one-ment." It's a work of inclusion, of including those who were once excluded. It's God's work to include us in His company because we had excluded ourselves. We had developed this way of thinking that separated us from God and His way of thinking. See, God is always thinking about how He can use what He has to serve others. And we got ourselves into thinking how we can use what we have been given to serve ourselves. And our thinking, human thinking, has made the world, God's good creation, into the rivalry-ridden, money-loving, self-aggrandizing place it is today. And it breaks God's heart.

It makes God angry because He sees all the evils that result when friendship turns to rivalry and self-pity turns to hatred and self-serving turns self-destructive. God is angry, but also always thinking how He can use what He has to serve, not Himself, but others. And so to break this cycle, to exclude this thinking without excluding us, He sent Jesus to be the "at-one-ment." The self-giving sacrifice that unifies, that brings together, that includes everyone. And how does it work—Jesus' sacrifices, atonement? The Bible gives a simple answer. By faith. By forsaking our trust in our riches or status or sense of entitlement and trusting Jesus instead. That's how we receive this atonement, this at-one-ment with God. But where does this faith come from? By hearing God's Word, listening to His story, including Mark's story. Mark wrote this story in the inspiration of God's Spirit and in the overflow of his admiration for Jesus.

Mark wrote it for you and me so that we could be included in this company, His company. To worship Jesus as our Messiah, our Teacher, our Lord, our God, and to admire Him as a Friend. Now friendship doesn't normally begin in admiration. Friendships usually begin when two people are interested in the same things, right? I got to know Duke, the fighter pilot, because we went to the same college and we had similar reasons for wanting to go to that college. And we became roommates because people who knew us both thought we had similar interests. That we looked out in the world and saw many of the same things, the same paths to run and trails to ski and mountains to hike. And having become roommates, Duke and I became friends. Because we did often find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder, looking out toward the same things.

And then through the years we have come to appreciate each other through these shared interests. And the central interest who has kept us together for over 20 years is Jesus. I was blessed to see a friend lead Duke to faith in Jesus while we were roommates. I was blessed to pray with him the night it happened. I saw Jesus come into his life and change everything—and he hasn't been the same since. And I've been blessed to see Duke's faith in Jesus deepen and mature through the years. I called him the other night to tell him that. To thank him for his recent visit and to tell him how grateful I am to be his friend. He says the feeling is mutual and also that he and his family have come to admire The Lutheran Hour. So how about that? We're going to have some listeners in Budapest, Hungary, at least for a while.

So here's what Duke and I and many others have learned. The more you listen to the life of Jesus, whether it's in Mark's biography or Matthew's or Luke's or John's, the more you are immersed in His life, the more you admire Him, the more grateful you are to be included in His company, to go on admiring Him, worshiping Him. And then also to stand with Him, to be led by the same Spirit, to develop the same way of thinking, not competing but receiving, not striving but serving, and standing shoulder to shoulder with Jesus, looking out into the world and seeing what He sees. In other words, to know Him not only as King and Savior and Lord and God, but also as Friend. Amen? Amen.

Reflections for March 3, 2024
Title: Included in Such Company

No reflection segment this week.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"What a Friend We Have in Jesus" by Charles Converse & Joseph Scriven, arr. Dorothy Christopherson. From Hymns for All Saints: Psalms, Hymns, Spiritual Songs (© 2008 Concordia Publishing House)

"The God of Abraham Praise" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.

"May God Bestow on Us His Grace" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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