30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know this, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He told them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill him. But three days after he is killed, he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the statement 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 way?” 34 But they remained silent, because on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 Jesus sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and placed him in their midst. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes not just me but also him who sent me.”
Some of you are great a cooking. Others are great at carpentry, electronics or plumbing. Some of you are great at numbers so you can keep track of your accounts, your assets and your annuities. Others of you are very good at games on your phone, taking videos of your family or caring for your friends. I would guess that everyone here today wants to be great at doing something. There is something in us that longs for greatness. Now, before we go on, let’s be sure we’re in agreement on a definition of what it means to be great. To some it means you’re super smart, super rich, or super powerful, and to others it just means you’re the best at doing something. I think you see that an argument about greatness could go on for some time—what it means and then who’s the greatest. In Mark’s gospel the disciples were caught doing the same thing when Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they remained silent, because on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” Embarrassing! But not surprising. The disciples had a great misunderstanding about what greatness was all about. And now that I have mentioned it, I wonder how many of us might have a misunderstanding of greatness. May the Holy Spirit guide us today as we consider
The Great Misunderstanding About Greatness
In God’s kingdom
In Mark chapter 9 the focus of Jesus’ ministry transferred from being mostly public to being private. He was spending more time with his disciples to instruct them in preparation for what was to come in God’s kingdom.
“30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know this, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He told them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill him. But three days after he is killed, he will rise.”
Now if that sounds familiar, please know that I am not repeating last week’s sermon. This is now the second time that Mark records Jesus spelling out the suffering and death that lay ahead of him. Jesus clearly and plainly discussed this with his disciples. Of course, we understand what Jesus is talking about because we know Jesus is talking about God’s kingdom.
What sounds a little surprising to us is what comes next:
“32 But they did not understand the statement and were afraid to ask him about it.”
I wonder if they didn’t get it because they didn’t want to get it. Here’s what I mean. A Savior who was going to suffer and die didn’t seem like much of a Savior in their minds. How can a dying Savior can’t be a GREAT Savior? And since they end up talking about their own greatness in the coming verses, it certainly sounds like they weren’t thinking about a Savior from sin, death and hell. Whatever the reason, we know they are uncomfortable because unlike other occasions when they simply asked Jesus what he was talking about, this time they were quiet and afraid. On account of their great misunderstanding about Greatness in God’s Kingdom, their focus was not on Jesus. They were caught up with a theology of glory, not a theology of the cross.
We have the same stubborn sinful nature that doesn’t want to admit that what Jesus says it true. It would be uncomfortable for you to confess your sins that caused Jesus to suffer on the cross. “Surely a lustful glance, a lazy effort, a missed prayer or just an occasional bad word”—those type of sins can’t be that bad and deserving of that horrible a punishment, can it? But, every evil thought, every curse word, every potty mouth syllable, every sinful act of disobedience separates you from God and condemns you under God’s curse. It really is the great misunderstanding of God’s kingdom today. God still demands perfection, and you don’t have it! Therefore, Jesus had to suffer and die to pay the penalty of all your sin, yet the hesitancy of people to admit that we need help, that we need Jesus is clouded. There are so many who really don’t understand what Jesus did for us because suffering and death is not GREAT in the eyes of the world. Often people want their Jesus to make life easier, make this place a better place to live, and bring peace among the nations. That would be great. But, it would only be a great in this world, and until this world ends, or you die—whichever comes first! No, Greatness in God’s Kingdom is Jesus Christ—his birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. Greatness in God’s kingdom is Jesus Christ.
Greatness for God’s Kingdom
We know what is great in God’s kingdom. But, what about his people today? How can you and I show greatness for God’s kingdom? Granted, what we have to show the world is weak in the eyes of the world, but not to us. St Paul said it,
“18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God”
1 Corinthians 1:18
Don’t let this surprise you! The Children of Israel didn’t want to stand up against Goliath because they saw themselves as weak. David stood up against Goliath because he believed in the greatness of God and fought Goliath for the sake of God’s kingdom. Elijah saw weakness in God’s plan to deliver his people from the wicked hands of wicked King Ahab and Jezebel so he ran off into a cave. God let Elijah see strength. Not in an F5 Tornado, not in an 9.5 Earthquake, and not in the Roar of a forest fire. Greatness for God’s Kingdom was in the still small voice that said there were still 7,000 who had not bowed their knees to Baal and were faithful for God’s kingdom. And the Greatest picture of God’s strength for his kingdom is the cross of Jesus. There in his death is the greatest of great—the salvation of mankind! Hear Hebrews 2:14-15 explain it better:
“[Jesus] shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
The greatest misunderstanding of God’s kingdom to the world is made clear to you and me by the power of the Holy Spirit. I can show you. You know how many times you’ve failed to follow God’s will—kids tempted to not listen to mom and dad; high schoolers tempted to engage in sexual activity, do drugs or ignore the curfew; parents who are tempted to let their kids “figure it out” without guidance and direction, to resist lying, stealing and hatred. When your family was feuding, when finances were fickle, all of this is from the devil and causes great misunderstanding for God’s kingdom. But, the Holy Spirit worked through the gospel in word and sacrament to create faith in your heart. You believe Jesus died to rescue you from the power of the death and the devil. Jesus paid the price that you couldn’t afford—your life. You believe it was your Savior’s life, death and resurrection that is your eternal solution. Dear Friends in Christ, the message of the cross that seems foolish to the world is the great news of your salvation!
Now, it is time for greatness for God’s kingdom to show itself in your life. Flee temptation. Take your stand as God’s own. Rejoice when you’re weak, then you’re strong in Christ. I know this isn’t easy. Even the disciples still wrestled with their great misunderstanding of Jesus’ words. Think about it! Jesus had just explained to them about his selfless sacrifice to save them from the curse of their sins. How did they respond?
“33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they remained silent, because on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.”
The disciples were exhibiting that the sinful nature has always known—without God we are too strong for each other. That’s because of pride and self-interest. But, hearts with God have a change to actually think about the other person’s eternal needs.
So, Jesus explained it to them.
“35 Jesus sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant of all.”
What a puzzle! To be first you must be last. I don’t recall that working in the TSA line at the airport! This appears to make even less sense in regard to being great! I know I didn’t wake up this morning thinking, “I hope my sermon, the food I eat and the NFL team I like are NOT GREAT today!” No! our natural ambition is not to be the last, but to be the first! Would you like to serve someone breakfast in bed tomorrow, or be served breakfast in bed? Money, muscles, and magnificent abilities are great in the eyes of the world!
And now it’s time to ask ourselves: Do I misunderstand greatness? Do I think I’m great because the world recognizes my gifts and placed me in an office of authority? Do you think you’re great because you have a title in your name or a position of honor at work? Or how about in eyes of God? You’re tempted to think you’re great in God’s eyes because you go to church more, volunteer more; or maybe you think you’re so great that you don’t need the means of grace so I don’t need to be in church, or you’re so great you’d never stoop so low to wash church windows, toilets or for sure any of our feet! So, Jesus says to us all, “Be careful that you’re not in danger of seeing yourself as the greatest!”
If you’re tempted to think you’re great, just give it some time and that greatness will waste away. The products produced today will be replaced by products of tomorrow and current jobs will be replaced by new ones. Today’s food will be tomorrow’s waste. And money, muscles and magnificent abilities will be replaced by deficits, deficiencies and dementia.
But, if you truly want to know greatness, the look to Jesus on the cross. When you understand the greatness of his sacrifice for the forgiveness of all your sins, then you’ll begin to understand what real, lasting greatness is. Jesus put himself last on the cross so you could be first in glory! Jesus’ selfless service is great!
Do you understand what this means for you? Your greatness is not dependent on you, but on Jesus who suffered, died and rose for you. You are great in God’s eyes because of the righteousness of Jesus that covers you, not because of the eternally worthless things you’ve accomplished in this life. So, Jesus said,
“If anyone wants to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant of all.” Then from the righteousness of Jesus comes the “works of service which God prepared in advance for you to do”
Your thankful service will show itself every time you humble yourself and serve others with your time, talents, treasures and testimony. (here’s the tough part) even if they don’t deserve it or appreciate it.
Jesus gives us a great example.
“36 Then he took a little child and placed him in their midst. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes not just me but also him who sent me.”
Even politicians get this. The world may not look to caring for children as something great and glorious. But, when they pick up a toddler for the photo op, people notice. So, for all you parents, teachers, care-givers, Mornings with Mommy helpers who selflessly serve children, God says this service is great in his eyes. Those who are showing their love for Jesus by selflessly serving others are showing the characteristics of greatness for God’s kingdom.
Some of you are great a carpentry, electronics or plumbing. Some of you are great keeping track of your accounts, your assets and your annuities. Others of you are very good at games on your phone, taking videos of your family or caring for your friends. And now I think you know what it means to be truly great, I mean really great! It’s not really about prestige, power, control, or influence. That’s a huge misunderstanding. Rather being great is all about Jesus. It’s about Jesus who died—that’s great. About Jesus who rose—that’s great. About Jesus who will take us to heaven someday. That’s great. So, let’s rejoice that we are great in all that comes from him and use it to his glory. Amen!