The radical sayings of Jesus: the first shall be last

Luke 13:22-30

I wonder if you remember Roald dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, in which the story had an unexpected ending. I remember one, where an unscrupulous antiques dealer was trying so hard to persuade a farmer that the unique and almost priceless antique wasn’t really worth much, that while the antique dealer went to fetch his car the farmer chopped the legs off the chest, so it fitted into the car better. In another a wife killed her policeman husband with a frozen leg of lamb, quite a formidable weapon, and at the end of the episode she took the lamb out of the oven and served it up to the her late husband’s colleagues, unsuccessfully looking for the murder weapon.

I’m told that the best jokes are those which have an unexpected punchline, but I won’t make you endure any of those tonight!

Jesus says, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. In some respects this a pretty clear statement – if you are at the front, don’t assume you always will be, and if you are at the bottom, don’t assume you always will be.

This saying is just one example of how Jesus turns expectations upside down, and what was unexpected becomes what is expected. What I want to say to you is that by saying the first shall be last, Jesus is taking the conventional wisdom, and just turning it upside down, and the reason for that is because that is so deeply rooted in who Jesus is, and what he stands for, that it’s all we should expect from him, even though we manage to avoid expecting that.

In many churches and chapels, you’ll often see a picture of a long haired, bearded, Jesus in a white robe with fluffy animals and clean white children around him, all looking serene and clam. An image of Jesus many British people are all too keen to settle for.

By contrast, there’s an American Football player, Norm Evans of the Miami Dolphins, who wrote a book about his faith, his conversion, and his view of football as a result. When it came to his perspective of Jesus, he wrote, “I guarantee you, Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game. If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot-six 260-pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays.” Setting aside the fact that Christians believe Christ is alive, he’s presenting a very macho version of Jesus.

Fritz Peterson, a baseball player for the New York Yankees, gave his take on Jesus like this, “I firmly believe if Jesus Christ were sliding into second base, he would knock the second baseman into left-field to break up the double play. Christ might not throw a spitball, but he would play hard with the rules.”

These American sportsmen are clearly not presenting conventional views of Jesus, but it all shows just how much our own background and our own experiences and passions bring to bear upon what we think is the conventional view of Jesus. I think that’s something we all do.

From our lives and our experiences, we paint our picture of Jesus. This is not only true as individuals but as congregations. When we are hurting from life’s tragedies, we often see Jesus hurting with us. When we are joyful over an unexpected blessing, the fulfilment of a dream, the completion of a goal, we often see Jesus rejoicing with us. When we are proud of our accomplishments, even our faithfulness, we often see Jesus glorying with us. When we are angry over an insult, a personal attack, or an injustice, we often see Jesus angered with us.

In short, we do have rather a tendency to pigeon-hole Jesus, to put him in a box, wrap him up in a neat little package and make him predictable. We can tend to trying to hem Jesus in by our passions, our life, our experiences, our hopes,
dreams, goal and we them think we know all that we need to know about him.

Yet, when we read the Bible, what I find is that we’re given a glimpse of who Jesus would be as he lived among God’s creation. And I don’t think he would be who anyone expected. Jesus would go to places others would never go, have contact with people others would never associate with, do things others would never dream of doing, and be someone no-one else could completely understand. Jesus would break down barriers, cross lines, trash tradition, throw away most conventional thinking about God and, as a result, change lives like no one else. I don’t think people then were prepared
for Jesus, and sometimes I wonder if we aren’t either.

When Jesus talked of the first being last, and the last being first, it was one of the great examples of how his whole teaching was turning everything upside down, and just not what people expected or wanted to expect. I think Jesus knew what his beloved, but somewhat behind, disciples needed to work on. Surely it’s the conflict within each of us, because of our ambition and ego and status; our selfish wants and desires. Jesus turns all this on its head when he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last.” The trouble is that all too often, we don’t get it. Understandably, because it’s the sort of thing you understand with your life, in your living, in your day-today experiences within family, your community, and your church. Thankfully, Jesus has modelled it for us, shown us the way; and we are invited to follow his lead, invited to die a little to self each day, we are invited to become a little less centered on our self every time we do something truly generous for someone else.

And eventually, we will know, deep within, that God’s love really is freely offered. Free for me, free for you, free for everyone, free for all people, for all time, for all needs. Free, but life changing. It cost Jesus’ his very life. And it will and does cost us ours. The first shall be last is an invitation to die to envy and selfish ambition, to pride and privilege. We are invited today to become great by becoming small, to become a leader by becoming a servant, to grow into the fullness of Christ.

May we have the humility to realise that our social hierarchies, be they class, intellectual, economic, post code, or whatever, are profoundly undermining of the human spirit, not to mention the divine order. May we be hit in the head, grabbed by the throat, and wrestled to the floor to understand that others share equally in God’s grace, whether we like them or not. May we realise that we really cannot have it all: caring for others and trying to be a good person, while rigorously maintaining social status, having all the money we want, and being thin to boot. To follow in the footsteps of Jesus means there will be cracks in our personal edifice to be tolerated, if not also appreciated and honoured. So, may we forget all pretences, share God’s grace equally with others, and lift each other up when struggles lay us low. Now and always.

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