When it comes to basketball, who is greater – Michael Jordan or Lebron James?
As human beings, we seem to be fascinated by the subject of greatness. Many strive for it in their lives. Many of us enjoy discussing greatness in our conversations with others, for instance. We talk of greatness in the world of sports. I recently heard two announcers in a baseball game discussing who is the greatest baseball player of all time and how this particular rookie they were watching was destined for greatness.
Historians talk of great statesmen, great Presidents. Most recently with the death of Senator John McCain, we heard him described as a great American hero. In the field of business, who are the greatest entrepreneurs, greatest companies to work for? You can find them on the Internet. Jim Collins wrote a bestseller book for companies: Good to Great. In entertainment, we argue over who are the greatest actors or movies or bands of all time. We love to talk about what is greatest.
Greatness has been defined as something or someone who is heads above the rest, superior in their area or field. We find Jesus giving His take on the subject of greatness in our story for today. Jesus and the disciples are walking down the road to Capernaum.
It is important to keep in mind, Jesus had already begun telling the disciples that He would be suffering and dying in Jerusalem and rising from the grave. Of course, they didn’t get it the first time around. Shortly after, Jesus was transfigured on the mountain before Peter, James, and John, and they heard the voice of God speaking to them about Jesus saying “This is my Son; listen to him.”
Now they are on the road again and headed to Capernaum in Galilee. Jesus is once again telling them about what will happen to Him later in Jerusalem. “The Son of Man,” which was His favorite title for himself, “will be betrayed, killed, and will rise again.” They didn’t understand, Scripture tells us, and they were afraid to ask Him to explain.
Why do you suppose they were afraid? Maybe because they’d seen Peter get chewed out the last time he questioned the words of Jesus. Or perhaps because some things you just really don’t want to know. They sound painful. Ignorance can be bliss, we think to ourselves.
Sometimes when we talk to someone, we will say, “I am afraid to ask this but . . . “ meaning, I don’t really want to pursue this subject. The disciples wanted Jesus to be the Messiah King they wanted Him to be: royalty, powerful, headed toward taking over Israel as King. Perhaps they were afraid they might be wrong about Him.
We soon learn in the next part of the story that they did not really listen to Jesus or take Him seriously had God told them on the mountaintop. After His prediction about suffering and death and resurrection, Jesus was walking out in front of them on the road, and they were lagging behind. He hears them discussing something, and the conversation was getting more and more heated. When they got to the destination, Jesus asked, “By the way, what were you talking about back on the road?” They were silent.
Can’t you picture them – red-faced, embarrassed, looking down at the ground like kids caught red-handed at doing something wrong? They knew Jesus didn’t like this kind of talk. You see, they had been arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest disciple. Who was the one destined for great leadership? Who will be the top dog under Jesus when He comes into power with His new administration? Their idea of greatness was attached to the idea of power, position, stardom, and status.
Jesus already knew what they had been talking about, and when He didn’t get a response, He sat down, signaling to them that this is a teaching moment. When they were all settled in, He looked at them and said, “Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant of all.” The disciples must have thought this was the craziest thing they had ever heard! It was a totally upside-down way of thinking.
Before we get too hard on them, we might, if we’re honest, deep inside feel the same way as they did. Last is first? I like being first in line, whether it’s a fast food counter or a church dinner. I like getting first dibs, being first in opportunities, first in terms of status and recognition. I like being the first one out of the parking ramp after a ball game and beating the crowd out. But Jesus says the last is first when you follow Him. It involves taking on an unselfish attitude, putting yourself aside.
This is something we all battle with. It is congenital, a disease we’ve all had since the time of Adam and Eve. Selfishness and pride still work within. We are wired for it. We like to be first, the center of all things.
The great composer conductor Leonard Bernstein was once asked in an interview what is the most difficult instrument to play? He responded with his quick wit, “Second fiddle. I can get plenty first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet, if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”
Many of us tend to love the limelight. I’m a bit that way myself. I love to get a step up on everybody else. Look at how people line up on Thanksgiving night ahead of black Friday to get first shot at the bargains. If someone butts ahead of us, we get stoked. We get mad about it. Fights even break out. I was here first!
The disciples had to be wondering about this “servant” business Jesus was talking about. Maybe you are, too. A servant sounds so unglamorous. Servants back then were those who waited on others, waited tables. It doesn’t sound like a fulfilling thing to do with one’s life. Servanthood is a tough concept to come to terms with in a look-out-for-number-one, take-care-of-yourself world mindset. We automatically wonder who will look out for me. It’s different to be a giver instead of a getter, to be a forgetter instead of a scorekeeper, to be compassionate instead of competitive, to give your all for the sake of someone else.
What makes it so difficult to serve others anyway? Schedules need to be kept. We have limited personal energy, and (probably the biggest reason of all) others. People can be difficult to like and to love. They are ungrateful at times. I have to remind myself that on the night Jesus was arrested, which wound up with Him being crucified, Jesus actually washed the feet of Judas, who He knew would betray Him. As our King, Jesus walked the talk that He gives His subjects about serving. He doesn’t call us to anything He hasn’t already done.
Later, Jesus will give them His mission statement: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.” It is exactly what He did. He emptied Himself for you and me, poured Himself out so we might have a new, reconciled, forgiven life with God. He gave everything at the cross for our welfare. He is our servant King.
I came across a story that touched my heart and speaks well to this subject.
A couple of years ago at the Special Olympics, nine finalists in the hundred-yard dash prepared for the start of the race. When the gun went off, the contestants with various disabilities headed down the track toward the finish line. Part way down, one of the competitors fell. He tried to get up, but fell again. He tried again but without success. Finally, he just lay on the track and began to sob. One by one, the other eight contestants heard him crying and stopped. They all headed back toward their fallen competitor. When they got there, they helped him up and all nine contestants held hands, walked down the track, and crossed the finish line together.
The crowd couldn’t believe it. They rose to their feet and gave a 15-minute standing ovation. These young people may have been disabled physically, but they were very advanced spiritually. They knew they were called to serve others and not themselves.
This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “Be a servant of all.” It is what leads to greatness.
Finally, Jesus gets very specific about who is to be served, making us perhaps even a little more uncomfortable. While we would prefer to choose who gets our service, Jesus addresses the question with a flesh-and-bone object lesson. Scripture says Jesus takes a child in His arms, hugging him as if He is presenting the child to them. Then He says, “Whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the One who sent me.” Interesting.
This is a concrete application of servanthood. The rubber hits the road in how we take care of one another, how we show hospitality, and how welcoming we are. He says, Welcome children. Take care of them. This is a mark of belonging to Me. This is greatness – Jesus style.
This direction from Jesus must have seemed radical since children in ancient culture had no status, which meant they were considered to be of little importance.
What is Jesus really saying here? He is not just talking about children. He is saying membership in Christ’s community means giving status, serving others who are helpless, taking care of them. It’s all too easy to serve those who can serve you back or do something for you in return. I’m reminded of a verse in the book of James warning the early Church against favoring the rich and powerful over others who are poor and in need.
This presents us with an attitude check here. How hospitable are we to people who are unlike us, can do nothing in return, and may not even show gratitude? Jesus said, Putting other people first, being a servant of all – even to those who can’t return the favor – is greatness in my book.
Why should I take this life lesson on greatness seriously? Why should I listen to Jesus? Listen again to the statement I just covered with you.
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the One who sent me.”
Truly, this is the Son of God who is talking.
I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35 when He describes His return as King at the end, “I was hungry; you fed me. I was thirsty; you gave me drink. I was a stranger; and you welcomed me.”
This verse also reminds me of the last words of the musical, Les Miserables. “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
I also take this life lesson from Jesus seriously because the One who stated it was resurrected by His heavenly Father on Easter affirming that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He knows what He is talking about when it comes to God and living life. God was again saying, “This is my Son. Now listen to Him.”
I listen to this lesson on greatness because I know the One who taught it loves me. He died on the cross for me, and He wants what’s best for me. He was in the beginning with His Father and the maker of life, and He knows what makes life work best. Something is to be gained in living the life of a humble servant according to Jesus – abundant life, a great life as God intended for you.
I love this statement Mother Teresa wrote one time:
“We all long for heaven where God is, but we have it in our power to be in heaven with him right now – to be happy with him at this very moment. Being happy with him now means:
loving as he loves,
helping as he helps,
giving as he gives,
serving as he serves,
rescuing as he rescues,
being with him for all the twenty-four hours,
touching him in His distressing disguise.”
May you have the great life Jesus envisioned for you, trusting Him for salvation and humbly serving others as He served us. May you one day when you see Him face-to-face, hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer