Being First

Themes: Mark

Chris Topping


Many of you who know me will know that I love sport – cricket is my passion but I am also really keen on athletics and am fascinated by the way in which athletes do the seemingly impossible.

How is it possible to run 13 miles in one hour? How can you run 100 metres in 9.58 seconds – it takes me longer than that to get out of bed some days!

Winning is always the goal and in the professional athlete there always seems to have to be a degree of arrogance.

There is a very fine line between being proud of what we achieve and that tipping over into arrogance. From my observations there are not many great athletes who are humble or who are prepared to readily accept that they are not the greatest. We cannot help but admire those who achieve sporting greatness but sometimes the character that goes with the victory sours our enjoyment.

Being the best is not often the bedfellow of humility. There are of course one or two notable exceptions.

Marcus Rashford is a very young man who is a truly brilliant footballer and has played for Manchester United (apologies if you are offended by my language) and England. Yet he is now the figurehead for campaigns in relation to childhood poverty. When you hear him speak he comes over in a remarkably humble way. He is however an exception to the rule.

There is another player at Man Utd by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo who is the very embodiment of arrogance.


You will recall last week Jonathan preached his sermon explaining how the teaching of Jesus was impacting on all the senses and how the disciples were beginning to learn about the road to Jerusalem and the path of the cross. Our passage this morning carries on that teaching but weirdly we have skipped a chunk of Mark’s narrative and without it we are a bit lost!

What we are missing is the transfiguration story where Jesus, Peter James and John are all on the Mount of Olives and then come down to find that the other nine disciples have been publicly humiliated by being unable to heal a demon possessed boy.

It is important for us to know this background because we pick up the passage as the disciples are having an argument about who is the greatest! It is not clear from the passage who was making the argument but as James and John are referred to as the sons of thunder in other places in scripture and then Peter is known for spouting off without engaging his brain – perhaps we can rightly take it that this was a heated debate.


The debate is of course quickly stopped in its tracks by Jesus and He reminds the disciples of one of the key themes throughout scripture and indeed in the Kingdom of God – the idea of humility. A counter cultural concept – we read

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”

Humility. As I alluded to at the beginning it is not often a highly prized characteristic of 21st century life.

Humility is also one of these subjects which is a tricky one to preach about.

As the preacher am I here to tell you how to be humble? Well hopefully not as unless I am very careful you will all be thinking about Charles Dickens character Uriah Heep, a man who was proud of being humble!

Humility should not be mistaken for weakness though.

Let’s see where we get to as I remind myself that it is often good for the preacher to hear their own words loud and clear and to hold up a mirror to themselves!

Humility - a Theme

The theme of humility is one which is familiar to us in scripture.

In the Old Testament God raised up men and women from humble origins to be part of His salvation plan. Joseph was taken by slave traders to Egypt where he was instrumental in making sure famine was averted. Miriam, a Jewish woman enslaved in Egypt, was instrumental in ensuring that Moses survived the killing spree of an Egyptian Pharoah. King David was taken from his role as a shepherd boy to be the leader of a nation.

We are reminded of the teenage Mary, mother of Jesus, and her prayer where she rejoices that God had chosen her and says

“He has scatted the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”

We are reminded in the beatitudes, part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount

“Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth”

Being humble is a character trait which is valued in the Kingdom of God, in stark contrast with the values of our society.

Humility – an Illustration

You only have to watch the cabinet reshuffle this week to see a lack of humility in action.

It is reported that Dominic Raab, a disastrous foreign secretary, who sat on a beach in Crete as the Taliban overran Afghanistan, refused to be demoted until he was given three alternative jobs – one of which is the role of Deputy Prime Minister… but the least said about our political leaders today the better.

Humility – an Example

In sharp contrast to what we are witnessing the example of Jesus time and time again is to act humbly. Even as He leads and teaches there is no arrogance at work.

We see Him touching those who were thought to be unclean, we see Him humbly wash the feet of the disciples.

His life of humility goes all the way to death on the cross whilst the powers that be are saying “No” to the Kingdom of God.

There are those poetic words in Paul’s letter to the Philippians about Jesus

“Being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

Humility – a Way of Life

The truth as I have already mentioned is that humility is the way of the Kingdom of God.

I read about US Congressman Walter Jones who voted to agree that the Bush administration could invade Iraq – he did so to appease those who had voted him into power. Later he would describe that decision as a “sin”. He had to attend funeral after funeral of service men in the knowledge that there was no intelligence that Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction. He said this [1]

“I needed to understand that the world I live in is a world of arrogance and Christ was a man of humility, and in the world of arrogance you will accomplish nothing with arrogance. You have to be humble.”

We may not have such a stark experience of the need to be humbled – let’s hope we don’t – but we do need to reflect and consider whether we are people who act with humility and who follow the example of Jesus.

Lessons in Humility

Earlier this week Cathy, Annette and I went to hear the annual Micah Lecture. The Micah project as you will know is part of the Diocese’s social justice programme run out of the cathedral is so named from the verse in Micah which says

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

I was reminded of those words as we listened to the lecturer, Chine McDonald, talking about her experience as a black woman living in a world where white supremacy and privilege holds sway.

There is a challenge to be humble enough to recognise that we are privileged in many ways. Those privileges which are ours because of the unfair structures of society need to be recognised and where we can we need to seek to repair the unfairness that exists.

We need to be humble enough to be challenged that we do not have all the answers to the questions life throws at us but more importantly to be humble enough to examine ourselves in the light of scriptural truths even when we think we have things sorted.

There is no point at which we will finish learning to be humble - it is part of our ongoing walk with God.

Humility leads to action

In all this talk of being humble we need to make sure that we do not forget the second part of Jesus’ instruction to His disciples.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”

We are to be humble and to be servants. As Uriah Heep was to learn declaring ourselves as humble is not enough, humility needs to be matched by our actions.

That is the strength and beauty of the verse from Micah – that as we walk in humility with God we have two other things to do

  1. To love – to be merciful is a better translation
  2. To do justice – we are to act in ways that makes this world more like the Kingdom of God.

It seems to me that we could spend all morning talking about how this works out in practice.

However perhaps as we go forward into this week we can think about how for us this does work.

How do we act in ways that bring about more justice?

May be that is in relation to the way we do our bit to look after the planet; to help those who are homeless; to donate our unused clothes to those helping asylum seekers and refugees?

As we recognise the good things we have, we recognise too that we need to act mercifully – to show mercy just as we have been shown mercy.


At the beginning we talked about athletes.

With one or two notable exceptions we don’t see humble sportspeople.

We accept that they will be arrogant and not terribly pleasant most of the time and when we are looking for role models, despite our admiration for them in terms of what they achieve, they may not be ideal.

The attraction of Jesus is that His humility is born out of strength. A humility born from knowing that He had nothing to prove but was loved by His Father in Heaven. A humility knowing that He was doing God’s will and was living in God’s plan for Him.

My prayer is that as we learn more of the Kingdom way of living we come to that point where we know we are loved by God and we can indeed do act justly, love mercy because we walk in humility with God.

In response to this passage we are going to sing together our next song The Servant King.

As we sing these words let’s reflect on the humility we see in Jesus and seek to learn how to serve each other with that same love.

[1] Congressman Walter Jones - quoted in On God's Side - Jim Wallis p153