Anyone Can Be Great!
A sermon based on Mark 9:30-37
Sunday, September 30, 2012 – Pentecost 18B
Back in April, Time Magazine released their annual issue of the 100 Most Influential People in Our World – A list of who they consider to be the greatest people of our day. This year's list includes such names as athletes Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow, entertainers, Stephen Colbert, Rhihanna, and E.L. James (the author of Fifty Shades of Grey), and entrepreneurs like Mitt Romney and Sara Blakely (the inventor of Spanx -- those girdles made of spandex).
But that leads one to ask, "How exactly do you define 'greatness'"? Webster's dictionary defines "great" as being above average, but above average in what? In intelligence? In power? In wealth? In popularity? While that may be the way the world defines greatness, how do we?
This morning we hear the somewhat embarrassing account of the disciples discussing that very question. We hear them argue about not only the definition of greatness, but about which of them best fit that description. After all, Jesus had taken only three of them up the mount of Transfiguration to see him in his glory and told them not to tell the other nine what happened there. Meanwhile the other nine had trouble driving a demon out of a boy. Naturally, this led some to think they were greater, and others to think they were inferior.
Now, as Jesus is spending some "alone time" with his disciples in one last intense training period before his death, he teaches them about the cross, and he teaches them what it really means to be great.
This morning, Jesus turns the book right-side up for us too and teaches us what it means to be great. Jesus shows us how to be great. We become great by focusing on the cross. We become great when we humbly serve him in thanks for what he's done. Listen now to Jesus teach about true greatness in Mark 9:30-37…
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise." 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. 33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." 36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."
I. By Focusing on the Cross (v.30-32)
Imagine seeing Jesus standing on top of that mount of Transfiguration dazzling white, brilliant with glory! Imagine watching a demon violently come out of a boy with a shriek at the command of Jesus. What power, what glory! How great Jesus must have seemed! The disciples must have recalled John the Baptist's words, "He must become greater!" (John 3:30) and thought "Now we're getting close. Soon he'll reveal how great he is to the world. Soon he'll take a throne and be the best king with the most wealth and power and glory! He will be a king truly worthy of the title others gave themselves – Jesus the Great."
And they were right. Well, sort of. Jesus would soon reveal how he was the greatest King the world has ever seen. But the disciples had the wrong idea of greatness. Jesus would not be political great, he didn't come as a general to lead an army against the Romans, but to single-handedly fight Satan, sin, death, hell. Here's how he'd do it… Here's how he'd show his greatness…
He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise." But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
"What? Be killed? How would that show he's great?" the disciples must have thought. "He must be talking in parables again." They still didn't get it. But the memory of Jesus calling Peter "satan" was too fresh in their minds and they were scared to ask for clarification. Besides, what if their idea really was wrong? Ceasar was great. Herod was great. The Roman generals who conquered the world were great. They had power and wealth and armies. They didn't willingly go to their death. Why would Jesus, who had already proven how great he really was, willingly be brought low to suffer a shameful death? And the disciples put it out of their minds to continue the discussion on their ideas of greatness.
Jesus is true God, with more power than we can imagine. He can create anything or alter history instantly by simply speaking. Who could be greater than that? Yet, he gave it up. But why? Why would Jesus "the Great" willingly be humiliated, stripped of his clothes, tortured on a cross, and suffer a shameful death? Well, you know the answer. It's for us. Out of love for us, "he made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:7-8) He humbled himself to pay for our sins.
Are we so different from the disciples? Don't we too have a desire to be number one, to be better than everyone else? Don't we too have those same "me-first" attitudes that lead us to cheat and lie, to slander others, to politick and play games, to do whatever it takes to get ahead, to get what we want, even calling our selfishness "ambition" and pretending it's a virtue? Don't we play the "I'm greater than you are" game in the way we treat our classmates who may not be as "cool" as we are, with our co-workers who sometimes struggle to do what we find easy, with our family members who don't do for us the things we think they ought?
For these attitudes and actions that put ourselves ahead of others we deserve the shame and the torment that Jesus willingly endured. But we won't ever face it because of the cross. Jesus humbled himself for us. He died for every selfish desire we've ever had to be number one, to be better than everyone else. He died to pay for our "me-first" attitudes and times we've played "I'm greater than you."
And the resurrection is our proof. Jesus rose again victorious, having conquered Satan, sin, death and hell… for us! That's what makes Jesus truly great! As John pointed out, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (1 John 15:13) This is what makes Jesus greater than any other religious leader. He didn't just teach the way to salvation he became the way to salvation.
And not only does that make Jesus great, but it makes us great too. William Shakespeare once wrote this famous saying on greatness: "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them." We aren't born great, but steeped in sin. On our own we can never become great enough for God. But we've been given greatness by our Savior, who took away our every sin so we're not only great, but perfect in God's sight. Greatness has been thrust upon us by God's grace!
We're great, not because we have intelligence or talent, fame or money or a nice car, not because we do great things or make great changes in society, or because we're so great toward God. But we're great because of what Jesus did—taking our every sin away on the cross. Keep your focus on the cross and you are truly great!
And this greatness, given to us, thrust upon us, humbles us of our own pride and it makes us eager to thank him for what he's made us. It makes us eager to serve him in humble thanks…
II. By Serving Him in Thanks (v.33-37)
Does it seem odd that after Jesus finished talking about how he would suffer and die on the cross for his disciples they would engage in the petty argument of which of them were the greatest? Maybe Peter, James and John started it. "We got to go in the house when Jesus raised Jairus' daughter, you guys didn't." (cf. Mark 5:37) "We got to go up the mountain with him and can't tell you what we saw there. It's a secret." (Mark 9:2-12) If not outright stated, it may have been implied, "We're clearly better than you. We are the elite. Jesus even thinks so." And Jesus called them on it…
When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Like a parent catching the kids bickering, Jesus asks, "What were you guys talking about back there?" And like little kids caught in a fight, they hang their heads in shame and keep quiet, understanding that Jesus wasn't likely pleased by their conversation. But to instruct them, Jesus didn't scold the disciples, but gave them a vivid and powerful object lesson. Holding a little child on his lap he told them what true greatness was all about…
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." 36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."
So what's Jesus saying, that teachers and mothers are great and everyone else is inferior? No. What he's saying is that true greatness is found in humbly serving others in thanksgiving to Jesus without any thought of being repaid. No wonder Jesus used a little kid as an example.
Think of it this way… Have you ever changed a diaper? Some of you have changed a few more than others, but what if you had the baby up on the changing table, you finished the diaper change and then you said, "Alright, kid, that will be $.25 for the diaper, $.05 for the wipes, $3.00 for labor, not to mention the handling fee, the hazardous waste disposal fee… Let's see… Your total is $5.25. Pay up, buddy!" How much do you think you'd get out of the baby? Nothing, right? Babies can't pay you back for what you do to them. Little children can't repay you for all the meals you've prepared, for all the laundry you've done, for all the sleepless nights. So why do you do it all? Why do you take care of them? Because we love them. We serve out of love, looking for nothing in return.
That, dear friends, is what it means to be great. True greatness is found in serving. True greatness is seeking nothing in return. We serve others, not to get something out of them (that's manipulation), but simply out of love—love for each other (Cf. Romans 13:8-10) and especially love for our Savior, since he tells us "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me" and "…whatever you [do] for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you [do] for me." (Matthew 25:40) When you serve someone without any thought of getting something in return, Jesus views it as a personal favor to him and a favor to God.
When you serve without any thought of repayment, then you will be great! So make yourself first… the first to offer to do the dishes, the first to say "I'm sorry," the first to sign to up to volunteer, the first to change the diaper, not looking to get anything for it, but only to say "thanks" to Jesus who, didn't "come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45) Be the first to share the message of his greatness with others to thank him for making you sinless—for making you truly great! Then, even thought you may not have the most money, the most power, or the most brains, thought you may never be featured in Time or in any magazine, by humbly serving others in thanks to Jesus, you will truly be great! Amen.
 A reference to the children's message, where Pastor read a book upside down. It made no sense until it was turned right-side up.