In 1502, Raphael painted Madonna and Child with Book.[1] It is a simple painting. Nature and the civilized world fill the background, while Mary and the baby Jesus dominate the foreground. Mary and Jesus are intimately close. Rather than feed Him from her breast however, Mary hands Jesus a book.

The act is strange. In an age when books were a precious commodity, why would you hand one to a child? Jesus is too young to read. What can He do with it? Yet, Jesus receives the book from his mother, even pulling it closer to Him with His hand.

If you look closely at the painting, you will notice the book Mary hands Jesus is a personal prayerbook. Not only that, but she has also opened the book to a particular page and placed her thumb on it. The page is for the office of prayer at the ninth hour; 3 pm. It is the hour Jesus died.

Suddenly past, present, and future are woven together in this painting. Mary hands Jesus a prayerbook from the future where the Church remembers His passion. Jesus, still an infant, receives the book in His present before His passion occurs. God the Father’s promise of salvation, to forgive sin and to defeat Satan, is the past which holds it all together.

God’s saving promise from the past is joined to the infant Jesus of the present through this prayerbook of the future. The mystery of the cross holds all of it together.

God’s saving promise from the past is joined to the infant Jesus of the present through this prayerbook of the future. The mystery of the cross holds all of it together.

I thought of Raphael’s painting when I read our passage from Mark’s gospel. Jesus is handing His disciples a teaching (verse 32) which they do not understand. Yet, within the teaching is the mystery of the cross that will shape their lives and ours.

At this point in Mark, the disciples have witnessed the amazing ministry of Jesus. He has healed the sick, cast out demons, walked on water, fed thousands of people, both Jews (the five thousand) and Gentiles (the four thousand), and raised the dead. He has brought the beginning of the Kingdom of God to earth. It would be easy for them to misunderstand the Kingdom of God, however. They could see God’s Kingdom as a present deliverance from all evil, the temporal reign of peace and prosperity on earth.

Such misconceptions are still present today. Some believe God is to be tested by the amount of good He brings. Prayers becomes wishes for God to answer and should suffering come, then people are tempted to walk away.

Jesus, however, opens His disciples’ eyes to a deeper meaning of the Kingdom of God. Jesus confronts them with the deepest and darkest mystery of His Kingdom: Jesus came to give His life as a ransom for many (10:45). Suffering will not be avoided by Jesus but strangely and lovingly embraced. Through His suffering, Jesus will bring life out of death, light out of darkness, forgiveness for all people for all time out of His crucifixion.

No wonder Jesus is letting His disciples know in advance. This mystery changes how we see our lives on earth.

The disciples, who do not understand this saying, discover it changes things. It illuminates their conversation on the road. As they are following Jesus, they have begun talking among themselves. Their conversation has centered on greatness. It is interesting how Mark tells us they argued about this (verse 34) and yet, when questioned by Jesus, they remain silent. This is a debate they were passionate about and yet did not want to share with their Lord and teacher.

Discerning that which is great is not something prohibited for us. No. We need to know what is great. It helps us shape our lives, set our priorities, gauge our service. Trying to discern that which is great without talking to Jesus, however, is a problem. In this world, greatness is not self-evident.

Trying to discern that which is great without talking to Jesus, however, is a problem. In this world, greatness is not self-evident.

For this reason, Jesus intervenes in a conversation to which He was not invited and shines the light of the cross upon that conversation. He sets a child in their midst. He takes that which is overlooked and unappreciated and celebrates this child as the place where God is at work. In the Kingdom of God, that which is least becomes greatest, that which is last becomes first. When the Lord whom you follow is one who was crucified, there is no one so small and no act so humble it cannot be filled with the greatness of God. Such is the power of the cross. God indeed works in mysterious ways.

In our churches today, Christ still comes to remind us of the power of the cross. One way He does this is during a baptism. At the baptism of an infant, Jesus places a child in our midst. When the pastor receives the child from his or her parents, he does something strange. He makes the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead and chest. This child is marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.

Past, present, and future come together in this moment. The past work of Christ, forgiving our sins and claiming us as God’s children, is brought to the present as this child is received into the Church and marked as one of the redeemed. The future of this child is then promised to be one of experiencing God’s greatness. Though the child may not receive honors in this world, though the child may be shamed and dishonored because he or she is a Christian, this child will live in the greatness of grace, the mystery of the cross.

As Jesus said earlier in Mark, “If anyone would come after Me, let him take up his cross and follow Me” (8:45). Regardless of what comes, God’s grace guarantees that this child’s life of humble service will be one small part of the great works of God.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 9:30-37.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 9:30-37.

Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Mark 9:30-37.