The artist Rembrandt tried to paint the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. He did it twice. Twice he tried to help others see what faith looks like in that moment.
The first time, Rembrandt made a grand painting. This was done early in his life. At that time Rembrandt was famous. He had recently moved to Amsterdam. His halls were filled with students and his studio filled with clients. His first painting was over six feet tall and four feet wide. His vision was grand. As you look at the painting, you can’t help but be struck by the faith of Abraham. Isaac is stretched out on the ground, his chest bared toward heaven, his back arched as his father’s hand covers his face, pushing his head back to bare his throat. Rembrandt has painted a hero of faith, larger than life. Abraham’s faith and Rembrandt’s glory are all blended into one.
Twenty years later though … Rembrandt returned to this story of Abraham and Isaac as a different man. This time he came as an artist who was broke and as a man who was broken. His wife had died, three of his four children had died. His family life was in ruins and in less than a year, Rembrandt would declare bankruptcy. Broke and broken … his picture of faith was much different. This time the picture was small. An etching, about six inches by five inches. As you look at the etching, Abraham’s boldness in following God is hidden. All you see is his love for the child, for Isaac. Isaac is there kneeling alongside Abraham with his head on his father’s knee. Abraham covers Isaac’s eyes, hiding him from death, as if this were his father’s last and greatest blessing. Rembrandt no longer paints a hero of faith who is larger than life, but rather he draws a small picture … a servant of the Lord whose service is humble and hidden in love for his son.
These two paintings, they show us two ways of seeing faith. There is faith mixed with glory which is bold and larger than life and there is faith which is small and weak, humble and hidden in love for the least. I show you the contrast because, in some ways, it captures what is going on in our gospel reading.
We’re in the Upper Room. Jesus celebrates the Passover with his disciples and then he bids them farewell. In this one small moment between Jesus and his disciples, we see two visions of faith. Faith mixed with glory which is bold and larger than life and faith which is small and humble, hidden in love for the least.
The disciples reveal faith mixed with glory which is bold and larger than life. Luke tells us, “a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest” (22:24). While Jesus is predicting his death, the disciples are arguing about greatness. Having spent three years with Jesus, listening to his teachings, seeing him cast out demons, and rule over creation … they now turn their eyes, their attention toward one another to see whose life is filled with glory. “Who is the greatest?” they ask. As Jesus moves toward death, his disciples grasp for life. As Jesus welcomes dishonor, his disciples fight over honor. As Jesus speaks about suffering, his disciples argue about glory. They try to rise above the world and rule. Now, Luke doesn’t give us any specifics of their argument. We don’t know what they said … but do we really need Luke to tell us? We know it sounds like right? Arguments over greatness. Such arguments tend to be common among God’s people … back then, and even now.
Whether you look at the Church at large or at an individual congregation, it’s not hard to come across division and strife. God’s people are frequently broken up in arguments about gifts and greatness. It happened in Corinth. In Corinth you had a church blessed with a multitude of different gifts. Gifts like faith and healing and miraculous power that could make you stand up on your feet and sing. And in the midst of that place, was there peace? No. No, God’s people were too busy arguing about all the gifts. They were trying to see which one was the greatest. In doing so, God’s church became divided. People fought over God’s blessings. We heard in the Epistle reading, some followed Paul, others Apollos, and other Peter. The very pastors that God had given them became tools which Satan used to divide them. And Satan wants nothing more than to turn us against one another. And he will use God’s gifts to do it. He tries to turn our gifts into things which cause us to fight. Our confessions of faith, our offerings to God, our service in the Church, our witness to the world … they all become ways in which we can divide ourselves into groups. Into those who are really committed and those who are not. He gives us visions of faith, mixed with glory. Bold and larger than life. Slowly, our gifts begin to separate us as Satan uses the good things of God to divide.
And the tragedy of all of this is not the wasted time, not the wasted gifts, not the hurt feelings, and not the words said in anger. The real tragedy of all this is that we end up missing the very thing that God wants us to see. We miss out on his presence in this place, his work of loving service. We find ourselves busy with all the trappings of disagreement, when right in the midst of us God is doing the one that brings about agreement, the one thing that can make us all stand on our feet and sing, the one work which is greater than any that anyone here has ever known … the humble work of his saving service.
In Jesus, we have the true picture of greatness. Notice how Jesus responds to his disciples’ argument. Once before when they were arguing over greatness, Jesus took a child and placed that child in the midst of them (Luke 9:46-48). Remember, children in Jesus’ day had little to no social status. Yet Jesus interrupted the disciples’ grand and glorious vision by asking them to stop and look at the child. That child, that child who is easily overlooked and easily forgotten was to Jesus … a little picture of faith. Like Rembrandt’s Abraham holding his son lovingly on his knee, Jesus held a child and revealed a hidden nature of God’s glory. God’s glory is a life of embracing, receiving, serving the one who is the least in the Kingdom of God.
But Jesus does more than just talk about it, he places a child in their midst. Jesus claims that his disciples are children. When his disciples argue over greatness, Jesus reveals faith in humble service. He asks them, “Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?” (Luke 22:27). The disciples agree that Jesus was greatest among them, that he was the one who should be reclining at the table and they should be serving. But Jesus calls their attention to his actions. He is the one who serves. Not only has he served them at the table, but he is going to go and serve them as he suffers betrayal and dies on the cross. The Creator comes to die for his creatures. Here, hidden in this service, is the greatness of God.
Jesus radically identifies with that which is least in the world. Becoming the crucified one, rejected by the world, by the religious leaders, by his own disciples, and even by his heavenly Father and yet … and yet, in that rejection … he fiercely and faithfully holds on to every last sinner, every last fallen child of God. In his dying … Jesus silences all the arguments by revealing the awesome mercy of God. Through his death, the least are brought into the kingdom of God. As we, as you and I struggle for glory and seek to make a name for ourselves … Jesus freely gives us the only name which truly matters. … You are a child of God, forgiven of sin, and hidden in the embrace of God. God the Father extends his hand over you and gives you the greatest blessing. He hides you from eternal death by the death of Jesus. God now calls you his son, his daughter.
As children of God, we don’t know the future. We don’t know the struggles it will bring. But even though we don’t know … Jesus wants you to know the comfort of his service for you for all time. Although one will betray him, another deny him, Satan divide them, and the world fight against him … although we too have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, although all of this is true … there is one who comes amongst us and brings us the true glory of God. Jesus reveals God’s glory in suffering service. He comes to fulfill all that God has planned. He goes to the cross and offers his life that he might come today and offer forgiveness to you. You are a child of God. In Jesus, God has brought you into an eternal kingdom that death, the devil, and all of our petty arguments can never destroy. This world of arguments about greatness has become a place of great service in him. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.