To Be Great
Texts: Proverbs 31:10-31, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37
Our texts this morning point to the concept of greatness. What does it mean to be great? Webster defines greatness as a quality or state of being great (as in size, skill, achievement, or power). Wikipedia defines greatness as a concept of a state of superiority affecting a person or object in a particular place or area. Greatness can also be attributed to individuals who possess a natural ability to be better than all others. So, greatness according to these definitions is about being number one, a winner, a success. It’s about power, control, wealth, fame, reputation, status, and position.
Jesus, however, gives us a different view of greatness. He says whoever wants to be first must be the last of all and servant of all. That’s kind of hard to grasp. Will you ever see the losing football team brag about their score the following day? Imagine the Packers going around saying ‘Yes, 3 to 38 against the Saints! We’re last!’ Not happening even in your dreams, right? Or imagine a political slogan that says “Let’s make America great again! Let’s be last and be a servant of other countries!” To be last? To be a servant of all? That’s not the kind of greatness to which we aspire.
“What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asked the disciples. But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. Remember, when Jesus asks a question, it’s not because he doesn’t know the answer. He already knows what they were arguing about.
Jesus is not saying that we cannot be great, or we shouldn’t be great. We just need to reframe our understanding of greatness. What does it mean for you and me to be great in the world today? What does that look like? And Jesus “took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
What does Jesus mean? He is not saying that greatness is in being a child. And he is not saying either that greatness is in being childlike. What he is saying is greatness is in welcoming the child. Well, that sounds pretty easy, right? Who wouldn’t welcome a child? But Jesus isn’t talking about the child but rather what the child represents. Back in Jesus’ day and maybe today too, depending on the culture, a child is a symbol of vulnerability, powerlessness, and dependency. A child has no rights, no status, no value. Greatness, Jesus says, is in welcoming and in receiving someone like that regardless of his or her age. Doesn’t that sound like what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ The least of these = the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, and so forth … Those are the symbolic children in each of our lives. For a nurse who bathes, changes, and cares for the elderly, the sick, the dying. She is a great one. For the workers in the law enforcement who risk their lives daily for the security of their community, they are the great ones. For the men and women who are giving of their lives so we can enjoy our freedom, they are the great ones. For the teachers who pour into their students, they are the great ones. The woman of wisdom Proverbs talks about who provides for her family. We can go on and on.
Greatness never puts itself in a position of superiority over another. It is not about me, my nation, my tribe, my people, my religion, my politics, my bank account, my house, my job, my accomplishments, my reputation, my status. Our greatness is revealed in our service and care of others regardless of her or his ability or willingness to pay, repay, or return the favor.
When Jesus talked about loving others even when they don’t love you, doing good to those who do not do good to you, lending without expectation of repayment, and inviting to supper those who cannot invite you back, he was describing greatness.
Greatness comes to us when we share with others who have nothing to share with us. Think of the young boy who shared his five loaves and two fish with 5000 people who contributed nothing but their hunger. He was great. When we overcome fear, tear down walls, and make room for one who is different, vulnerable, in need, then we are great.
Greatness is not something to be achieved or earned. It is a quality that arises within us when we know deep within how much Jesus has done for us.
When Jesus said that 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. He did it for you and for me. We are the child in this scenario. The helpless ones. The lost. And Jesus, the one who really knows what true greatness is, and is worthy of service from everything in the universe, stoops down to wash the feet of his disciples, refuses excesses of worldly comfort, gives up everything if it meant having you and me. And he doesn’t regret it for a second. You are God’s favorite child. Well, you are, and you, and you, and you. You’re the greatest in God’s eyes, not because of what you do or who you are. But because Jesus has died and risen for you. And now, when we truly know and have experienced the depth of his love for us, that turns our attention outside of ourselves and sets us free to see others as the greatest, because they, too, are souls for whom Jesus died and rose.
What does greatness mean and what it looks like? Let’s look to Jesus and see greatness in action. Humbly serve and joyfully give of yourself. Not because it will save you, but because you have been saved and set free in Christ. You can love with no thought of what you’ll get in return, because that’s exactly how Jesus has loved you. You can give of yourself with no thought of reaping some benefit, because you’ve received an undeserved gift beyond comprehension: forgiveness for your sins and eternal life. Greatness in God’s kingdom is not about advancement of self. It’s about dying to self and being raised to new life with our Savior Jesus. Looking for greatness? Look to Jesus. He has set you free from sin. He has set you free to love. He has set you free to be great!
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