True Greatness (September 23, 2018)
Think of someone that you know personally, whom you would consider great. They could be a great friend, a great mentor, a great teacher or leader. Try to identify at least one person whom you would consider great. Have you thought of someone? Then consider: What is it that made them great? How have they impacted your life in a positive way? Keep those thoughts in mind as we listen to how Jesus says we should measure greatness.
Many of his followers would agree, Jesus was doing great things. It was probably the miracles they heard about first – how he provided food for a great crowd on two separate occasions, how he healed the sick, the lame and the dying, how he even had authority over the wind and the waves! This Jesus could do great and wonderful things! And as people stayed with him, followed him, perhaps hoping to see what great wonders he would perform next, they inevitably heard his great and profound teachings. Teachings that often challenged the natural way of thinking about topics such as, who is my neighbor, how many times should I forgive, and what does it really mean to obey the law of God. His closest followers, the twelve disciples, even got deeper insight into just who Jesus was so that they believed and confessed a great thing about Jesus: that he was the Christ, the promised Messiah. And how great Jesus revealed himself to be, as he lifted the veil and revealed his full glory to three of his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, when he was transfigured before them.
Amazingly, God did not reserved these great things only for himself, he allowed his disciples to do many great things as well. They were the ones who got to carry Christ’s message to the people. They were sent out two by two, and possibly on other occasions, bearing Christ’s authority so that they could proclaim the peace of God, saying, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Lk 10:9). They also were enabled to do great miracles – healing the sick and casting out demons in Jesus’ name.
But, suddenly, they weren’t able to do such great things. It actually happened just before the section of the gospel that we read today. It was while Jesus revealed his glory to Peter, James, and John on the mount of Transfiguration, the rest of the disciples tried and failed to cast a demon out of a young boy. And Jesus actually scolds the disciples who weren’t able to do this great thing. He said, “You unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Mk 9:19).
When the disciples later asked Jesus why they couldn’t drive this demon out, he answered, “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mk 9:28-29). This, along with what comes next reveals the underlying issue of why these disciples were no longer able to do such great things. When they left that place and were walking along the road, the disciples were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. I’m sure it began when Peter, James and John began to describe what they saw when Jesus went up the mountain with them. “His clothes were dazzling white, brighter than lightning! Oh, y’all should have seen it!” “Well, why do you guys always get to go? Why didn’t Jesus take us?!” “Well, we’ve been with Jesus longer, maybe he thinks that we are farther along in discipleship.” “No way! John, I’m much more experienced than you! You’re too young.” “Yeah, and I’m not as outspoken as you, Peter!” “But when Jesus asks a question and we are all nervous about answering, aren’t I the one who steps up for all of us?” And so, they were arguing over who was greatest among them by what they were doing. And I think that’s why the disciples weren’t able to cast out the demon. Somewhere in their ministry their initial humility over why Jesus would choose them was lost. Their reverent awe over what Jesus could do through them turned into selfish ambition over who could do the greatest things. “You are thinking only of yourselves,” Jesus was saying. “This one comes out by prayer – prayer to the real source of such great things.”
It’s so easy for us to fall into that very same trap. We want to use our gifts to do ministry, help at church, and reach out to those who have not yet heard about Jesus. And it feels good! It feels amazing when God uses your gifts and talents in service to the gospel. And we want to do it again! Serve God once again saying, “Guess what, God, I’ve got more to offer! Check this out!” Yet somewhere along the way our motivation gets skewed. We hear compliments and praise, or see results from the work that we do – which may have started with the best of intentions, but then it goes to our heads and we forget to give God the glory. As humility turns to ego, as motivation changes, so does our direction. Although it started with the excitement of serving God, it soon becomes all about serving myself. And soon, we are left just like the disciples, arguing over who is greater and so wrapped up in our own deeds that we completely miss what Jesus was trying to say as we walked down that path.
What was Jesus trying to say? What did Jesus say to the disciples as they were walking down the road? I read it, earlier in the service. Do you remember? It almost seems like a random thought inserted for no reason because in two verses Jesus made his statement, the disciples didn’t understand it, and so they dropped it to get back to arguing about how great each one of them were. But they were so sidetracked that they completely missed the beautiful Gospel revealing why it is Jesus who is truly great. Listen again. He said, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise” (Mk 9:31). It certainly didn’t sound very glamorous or powerful. Being killed certainly didn’t sound very great. But as the disciples argued about greatness, Jesus was giving them the key to true greatness. The key to greatness, which he spelled out plainly, is: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35).
Jesus walked the path of a servant deliberately, methodically, not turning to the right or to the left for personal honor or selfish ambition anywhere along the way. He walked the path of servitude from Pilate’s hall to Calvary, bearing the cross even for the one who just sentenced him to death. But the path didn’t start there. He walked the path, willingly, from the garden of Gethsemane to Herod’s courtyard even for the one who just betrayed him. He walked the path from Galilee to Jerusalem, for disciples who would rather argue about who was greatest rather than take Jesus’ words of suffering and death to heart and struggle as they seek understanding. He walked the path from the throne of heaven to the depths of hell, for people like you and me who often seek recognition in our actions rather than acting out of recognition of our Savior. That’s why he is the greatest. He is the one who was willing to serve even those who aren’t worthy of being served. His mission was all about you. And he was unwavering in that mission. Not faltering despite our weaknesses. Persistent in loving you at all costs. He is the greatest, because he didn’t do it for himself. Rather, he did anything it would take to hold you in his arms and welcome you into the Father’s house.
Such greatness you or I could never attain. But you don’t need to. In fact, your thought should never be, how can I be great. Christ didn’t walk his path thinking, “How can I be great?” He walked this path for you! That’s why James says, “If you harbor selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (Ja 3:14-15). He goes on to say what is truly great, what is truly wise – and notice there is not even a hint of self-ambition in it. “Wisdom that comes from heaven” he says, “is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (Ja 3:17). It’s completely focused on others just as Christ was completely focused on you. In fact, it’s completely focused on others out of love for what Christ has done. It’s concerned only with receiving Christ’s love and then imitating it. Is it hard to do this? Yes, of course. Are you always going to be recognized as great by those you do it for? No, but that’s not why you do it. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35).
Do not concern yourself with greatness. Rather, think of everyone else as greater than yourselves – even those who may seem unworthy or lowly. Take, for instance, a little child. We typically think of little children as being fairly lowly. They follow where their parents go. They do what their parents ask them to do. They are followers. It seems they wouldn’t need any special attention beyond that of their parents’. But yet, the one who invests their time in a little one like this – the one who goes through the painstaking and repetitive ups and downs of raising a child physically, and especially spiritually, is truly great. That kind of person is great because they are motivated by and follow after Jesus’ own heart, serving even those who are lowly.
So, as you look back on your life, who was it that was truly great in your eyes? I’ll bet it was someone who was simply there for you – to celebrate the joys, bear the sorrows, and go through everything in between. I’ll bet it was someone who took a genuine interest in you and cared about even the little things that you had mentioned only in passing. Often, those who are great in our lives are the ones who went out of their way to care about you. They were not motivated by greatness but only by their Savior, who went out of his way to serve you to the fullest.