We all seek to be great, consciously or unconsciously, we all want to be the best. We might define “greatness” differently or have different goals or dreams. But none of us want to be average or second best. We want to matter, we want what we do day in and day out to matter. I think this search for greatness is a pre-set trait in humans. It drives us to work hard and improve on what we’ve done in the past, it pushes us not to accept average. None of us go to a restaurant and ask the waitress “what’s the most average thing on the menu.” We don’t make it a point to go watch the movies that have had a so-so review, we don’t stay at 2 star motels if there is a 5-star hotel close by, we don’t shop for the most average car, we want the best car and the best price. And it’s not just ourselves, we expect greatness out of those around us. Like watching our kids at sporting events or expecting all A’s on their report cards, we want our kids to do their best and be their best. We expect our co-workers to pull their weight at least, maybe more. We expect the Pastor to have a powerful, Spirit filled, awe inspiring message each week. I don’t think any one of us have ever prayed, “God, help me to be average”
Why do we do this? Why do we compete to be the best? We all seek greatness, but what does God seek for us and what is the correct path to get there?
Mark 9:33-37 Who is the Greatest
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest. Sitting down, he called the Twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and servant of all.” He took a child, had him stand among them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one little child such as this in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but him who sent me.”
In Mark 9 we see Jesus leading the disciples on a road trip. We don’t know for how long or how far this trip was, but we do know that Jesus wanted to use this time to teach His disciples privately and not have the distractions they would face in a city or public area. There’s nothing like a road trip to have a captive audience.
When we think of a road trip we probably think of the open road, windows down, wind blowing, bright skies and green fields or a cooler full of snacks, the radio playing, great conversations and a feeling of freedom. I know for my family these feeling last for about an hour tops, then it becomes, “he’s touching me”, “she won’t stop looking at me”, “I have to go to the bathroom”, “I’m hungry” and of course, “ARE WE THERE YET.” The best part of a road trip for us is the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes, everything else is basically no fun at all. The cushy car seats start to feel like concrete medieval torture tables that we’re strapped to, and if we forget to strap in we get the obnoxious “DING DING DING” from the dash board until we tie ourselves down again. Sometimes the long hours of a road trip will bring out the worst of us. Even as adults, we can get annoyed with each other, patients run thin and we may even begin to argue about things that we wouldn’t normally argue about. Maybe this is just me, or maybe not.
It’s no stretch to say our spiritual journey is a lot like a road trip. We start out ready and excited for what’s ahead, soon we wonder how much longer and eventually our patients are running thin and we begin asking God, ARE WE THERE YET? How much longer until I reach my destiny, can we take a pit stop? Like kids in the back seat, its hard for us to understand why we can’t be there now, were ready to be great now but often we don’t want the process that it takes to get us there. But as we mature, we begin to realize, sometimes it’s more about the trip than the destination, and more about the people you’re traveling with than where you are traveling to. You don’t arrive at greatness. Greatness is about the journey not the destination. Greatness is who you are, not what you do. The journey is what makes you who you are, it polishes and perfects us. We are on a lifelong road trip with Jesus, we will have high times and low times, joys and sorrows. But the main thing is that we will be with Jesus in it all.
On the road trip in Mark 9 there wasn’t a minivan, there were no cushy seats to complain about, but they did have a lot of time together to allow their patients with each other wear thin. The disciples begin arguing about which one of them is the greatest. I can imagine Peter and John leading this debate on the trip. “Remember the transfiguration, I was the one ready to build three shelters, you were just standing there with your mouth open,” “They didn’t even want shelters, you sounded ridiculous.” Then James speaks up, “You guys aren’t even supposed to be talking about this” Eventually all twelve could probably rationalize why they were closer to Jesus or why they were His favorite.
When they got to Capernaum Jesus asked the Twelve, “What were you discussing on the road?” The disciple where silent, they didn’t want to answer. When they came face to face with their Savior, the debate didn’t seem so important. I wonder if they realized at that moment, compared to Jesus none of us are great. They had Jesus at their side, the Messiah, the Alpha and the Omega, the creator of the universe and they were wondering who was greater. In the face of Jesus, we have to realize that we are far from greatness, shoot, were far from even being good.
Romans 3:10-18 None are Great
As the Scriptures say, “No one is righteous—not even one. No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.” “Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave. Their tongues are filled with lies.” “Snake venom drips from their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “They rush to commit murder. Destruction and misery always follow them. They don’t know where to find peace.” “They have no fear of God at all.”
As Christians we must be careful not to argue over moot points or senseless things. Things like being frustrated with situations Jesus never got frustrated over or get bogged down with things Jesus never got bogged down with or offended by things Jesus didn’t get offended by.
Something very interesting happens here on the road trip in Mark 9. Jesus didn’t interfere, He heard the argument happening and allowed it. But afterwards when He questioned them about it, He doesn’t criticize their desire for greatness, He doesn’t rebuke them for wanting to be great. That’s significant because sometimes we think our desire for greatness is wrong. That is selfish, or prideful or superficial. We desire greatness because we were created for greatness. It’s a God given desire, not a sinful desire. God put the impulse in us to be the best we can be, to achieve the most we can achieve. We were designed to reach our potential, not waller in mediocrity with no higher or greater aspirations. We are created in the image of God and He’s a Great God, so its logical to sense and chase greatness ourselves.
Jesus doesn’t knock them off their desire to be great, He redefines what greatness really is. It’s not wrong to want to be great, but it is wrong to try to be great the wrong way. Like the disciples, most of us are not sure about the correct path to greatness, thanks to our fallen and confused world. This world, our society and the enemy himself have all tried to tie greatness to what we have or what we have done. That’s what the enemy usually does. He can’t change God given desires or plans for man, so he attempts to pervert or twist the pathway to fulfill our desires and God’s plan, to lead us somewhere else. Our positive, healthy desire for greatness can get so twisted that it hurts us and those around us if we don’t understand Gods definition of greatness and His path to achieve it.
Last is the new first. When Jesus told this to the disciples that had to be confused. This teaching of Christ still gets confused today. If we want to lead, we must serve. Our purpose is found in how we relate to other people. Our purpose is not fulfilled by recognition or in comparison to others, our purpose is fulfilled by serving others the way Christ did. Jesus is the friend of sinners, finding and loving sinners is what motivated Him. Jesus achieved greatness by loving people no one else loved. He wanted the disciples to associate greatness with serving, loving and giving. True greatness is always about other people. In following Jesus, we have to be a friend of sinners as well. We can’t just be a friend of Jesus, its got to be both. And the best way to be a friend to someone is to serve them, to meet their needs that they can’t meet on their own. That’s what Jesus does for us, He meets our need for salvation, He saved us from eternal separation from God, we couldn’t do it on our own. And it’s this servants’ heart of Christ that we get transplanted into us, that pushes us to serve others. If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and the servant of all. (vs 35) Jesus is saying that in Gods economy, last is the new first, the way up is down, the way to the top is to serve at the bottom. The servant is the leader and the leader is the servant. If you want to be first, you must be willing to be last. Instead of finding contentment in positions, job, or titles, we find it in a person, and that is Jesus Christ. If true greatness was measured by recognition, fame, being the best or accolades only very few would be able to achieve it. Only a select few could have greatness. But when we define greatness the way God does, we are all capable of it, serving others is something we all can do. Being great is within all of us in God’s eyes.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.”
Servant leadership is our identity and calling as Jesus followers.
Mark 10:45 Came to Serve
For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus used a child to make His lesson about servant leadership clear to His disciples and to us.
“Whoever receives one little child such as this in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but him who sent me.”
So, what is He saying? I’m taking this to say, children are important, they need to be served. If we aren’t willing to welcome a child, we aren’t willing to welcome Jesus, if we want to be close to Jesus, we need to be close to the children.
The thing about kids, as any parent already knows, is they are a lot of work. They can’t be left on “auto pilot”, especially small children. You can’t give them a 20-minute pep talk in the morning and expect them to be good to go for the day. In fact, in the course of a day with a 2-year-old, you may literally have to save their life 10 times (“stay out of the road, don’t go by the water, don’t touch that, don’t eat that, etc. etc.”) we feed them, dress them, take them to the bathroom. Essentially, a child needs to be cared for all the time and they never once realize that it’s you keeping them alive. Even older kids need lots of care and attention. They need love and encouragement even when they say they don’t, that’s probably when they need it most. It’s a full-time job loving kids. The best part of all is, kids will get mad at you, they will say mean things to you, they will drive you absolutely crazy and never once thank you. But we keep going back for more. Maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at here. A child can’t repay you, they won’t thank you, they will never mention you on Instagram to their friends. A child can’t even help you back. In fact, often when we serve older children they resist us, get mad us, criticize us and push back, they may even resent us for the help we give them. If we want to be great, we have to serve people like this, we have to serve them as if they were kids. That means it’s thankless, you’re never honored, and they never give anything back to you. We just have to desire to be with them to love them unconditionally with no expectation of anything in return. To just be there, any time, anywhere.
Often with God, we are these kids. The kids who never cooperate, we often don’t thank Him for the limits He gives us. We can’t repay him or even help Him back. Often, we get mad if it doesn’t go exactly how we want it to. We will criticize, second guess and doubt but Jesus keeps serving us.
True greatness is in the relationship the servant has to those being served. It’s not for the “thanks” or the “recognition.” We serve because that’s what Jesus did and that’s what greatness is. We have an opportunity to redefine greatness and the pathway to it. We were created for Greatness!