If You Want To Be Great …
September 20 2015
Jesus’ disciples knew that they were following a great man. Peter had already identified Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus didn’t deny it. The disciples had seen Jesus heal sick people. It was clear that His teachings were special. Peter, James and John had seen Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah. There was no doubt that Jesus was a great man, maybe even the Messiah.
The disciples must have thought that they had the inside track to greatness themselves. There were only twelve of them, and as Jesus expanded His mission and ministry, they must have thought that He would need all the help they could give Him. Jesus’ disciples knew that He was going places. He had been making Himself known all through Galilee, and now they were on their way to Jerusalem. As more and more people came to know Jesus and see what He could do, they would climb on board of the bandwagon. The disciples may not have been quite sure which direction Jesus would drive that bandwagon, but they probably hoped that He would take over the country, assemble an army, and drive out the Romans. Then He could build a palace in Jerusalem, like David had done so many years earlier. He could establish alliances with rulers of other countries. Before long, He would have things sewed up. Nobody could stop Him. And when that happened, He would need all the help he could get. Where would that leave the disciples? Would He make all twelve of them top-level managers, or would he pick four or five for top positions and let the rest of them serve one tier down? If He did that, some of the twelve would be working for others of the twelve. Which ones would be on top and which ones on the bottom? Nobody knew, but they knew that big changes were coming, and they were nervous and exited at the same time.
So, as our passage from Mark 9 begins, they had been arguing about who among them would be the great ones . It was obvious that Jesus had already marked Peter, James, and John for top positions. Maybe the rest of them would be working for Peter, James, and John. Or maybe Jesus would find places at the top for all of them. Maybe all twelve would report directly to Him. They would like that better! They liked Peter well enough, and he was clearly leadership material, but Peter had a terrible temper and a tendency to shoot from the hip. You never knew what kind of crazy thing Peter might do next. The disciples liked Peter, but they weren’t keen about working for him. Peter might be a disaster waiting to happen. And James and John? Do you know what they called James and John? The Sons of Thunder. That’s what they called them. Sons of Thunder! How would you like to work for someone with a nickname like that? What if you worked for the Sons of Thunder and made a mistake? Would they fire you? Nobody knew, and nobody was anxious to find out.
So the disciples had been arguing among themselves about which one was greatest. Questions like: Am I going to work for you, or are you going to work for me? When you get to the top, what would you like to accomplish? What about Bartholomew? He was a quiet one, but you have to watch the quiet ones. Pretty soon the quiet ones end up running the whole show. Or what about Simon the Zealot? If Jesus wanted to run off the Romans, Simon the Zealot would be the logical choice to do the job. Nobody hated Romans like Simon. He kept a long knife under his robe and knew how to use it. Would they all find themselves taking lessons in the martial arts from Simon someday? Nobody knew.
And so they talked about it as they walked along. Hopefully, all twelve of them would be great, but who would be the greatest? Who would be the hero? Whose name would go down in history? They wondered about it and talked about it. They tried not to talk about it in front of Jesus, of course. Jesus was a funny guy. You never knew how Jesus might take things. They had their private ambitions, but they preferred that Jesus didn’t know about them. It would be better to wait so that He could see them in action. Then He could reward them for a job well done!
With their minds on such things, they probably hadn’t really heard Jesus when He had told them what He was going to do. If they had been listening, they would have been smarter, but they had been talking. When Jesus told them what He was going to do, they may have been too busy talking about who would be the greatest to have heard Him. Jesus had told them that He would be handed over to His enemies and killed, and that He would rise again after three days. But the disciples may not have been listening and that wasn’t what they wa nted to hear anyway.
So when they got to Capernaum, Jesus took them inside a house and asked, “What were you arguing among yourselves on the way?” They probably didn’t know what to say. They were probably embarrassed. The probably looked at the floor and shuffled their feet. They may have felt like little kids caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Nobody answered. Not even Peter, who always had a quick answer on the tip of his tongue. Jesus didn’t say, “I know what you were talking about!” He didn’t rebuke the disciples. He just answered the question that had been in the back of their minds, what must we do to be great? Here’s how Jesus answered it: “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all”
Now He had their full attention!
You know how it feels when you are thinking one thing but the person you are listening to says something completely different? It’s like you need to turn your head around and listen again. That’s how the disciples must have felt. “Excuse me, Jesus, say that again! Maybe I’ll understand it this time.” So Jesus said: “If any (one) wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all.” They may have acted like they knew that already, but they didn’t have a clue. So Jesus called over a little child. Then He took the child in his arms. I can imagine Jesus pulling that child close. Maybe He said a kind word to the child or asked the child a question. If Jesus asked a question, you can be sure that He waited for the child to answer. You can be sure that Jesus listened to and paid attention to the child. And while He did that, the disciples would have watched but probably still did not understood.
And then Jesus said: “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but him who sent me”
What was Jesus talking about? He said, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me.” In that culture, people had an obligation to practice hospitality. When travelers came, you had an obligation to feed them, put them up overnight, protect them, and treat them as family. That’s what it meant to welcome someone. It meant to take care of their needs and help them. The disciples were not inclined to welcome children. They were inclined to run them off because children are noisy, they run and jump and drive adults crazy, they cry, they interrupt you at the worst time .But Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me.”
They had been talking about who was great, and Jesus told them about true greatness. The person who serves and is willing to serve ethers, even a child, is the one who is truly great.
Do you want to be great? Then serve.
Jesus chose a child to drive a point home to the disciple, and to us But it isn’t just children whom we are to welcome and serve. . That child stood for anyone who is helpless, anyone who needs help, anyone who is hungry or thirsty or anyone we can help in any way. Jesus wants us to help people, to help anyone, in any way we can. That willingness to serve others and help others is what Jesus says makes us great.
The disciples had a problem and were arguing about who was greatest. We still have a problem with that today, don’t we? Many of us and others want to be recognized as being important. Many of us still have our ambitions to be great.
Even in the Church we have those who want greatness. So who is great in this church? Is it the preacher? I admit that there are times I would like to think so, but it isn’t the preacher. Is it the Clerk of Session or another Elder? No, it’s the person who is willing to serve and get involved in serving others. It’s the person who agrees to do something because they want to serve. It’s the person who sees a need and does something to fill it because they want to help and serve, not because they want the credit for it. That’s ther person who is the greatest.
We are electing Elders today. Ruling Elders we call them in the Presbyterian system, as opposed to ministers who we call Teaching Elders. But Ruling Elders should always remember that they get their authority from Jesus, who tells us that true greatness comes from serving. I attended a conference a few years ago and the National Elders Conference was taking place at the same time and in the same place. I noticed that many attending the Elders Conference had on T shirts that read “Elders rule when they serve”. What a great reminder of Jesus’ teachings. Greatness comes through serving.
Let me tell you a story about greatness. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was famous for the work that she with people who were dying. She revolutionized the care that people in hospitals and hospices receive as they are dying. Thousands of people have experienced gentler, kinder deaths because of Kubler-Ross’s work. One day Kubler-Ross noticed that a particular woman seemed to have a special touch with dying patients. She was a maintenance woman who made beds and cleaned rooms and emptied bedpans, but dying people always seemed to be more peaceful when she was around. Kubler-Ross asked the woman her secret. She said: “Well, I’ve been up the mountain and I’ve been down the mountain. I’ve lived in many valleys. The worst was when I went to a public clinic with my three year old daughter in my arms, and before we could see a doctor, she died of pneumonia. I could have become cynical and angry, but instead I decided to use my pain to help others. I’m no stranger to death, and that’s why I’m not afraid to talk and touch those who are dying. I try to give them hope.” Right then an there Kubler-Ross promoted her. She made the woman a special counselor to the dying in that hospital. We might be tempted to say that Kubler-Ross made the woman great, but that isn’t what happened. Kubler-Ross simply acknowledged that the woman was already great, great in compassion, great in caring, and great in giving hope.
Do you want to be great? Be great in Jesus’ eyes! Be great in God’s eyes! Serve others. Find someone who needs help, and do what you can for them. Find needs and fill them with your service. Do it in Jesus’ name. If you will do that, Jesus will take it personally. He will say, “You did it for me.” And He will bless your life. Amen.