18th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, So what is it? Is it achieving an award? Is it getting your name in the paper? Is it winning the first place trophy? Is it getting that big promotion at work? Is it receiving the praise of others? Is it having the power to tell people what to do? Is it having many faithful friends? What is it? What does it mean to be “great”? How do you determine “greatness”? Our world has come up with a certain value system of determining greatness. If you are this, if you have this, if you can do this, then you are great. But the problem is, things can change, health fails, friends turn their backs, power is lost, things disappear. So the question before us today is: Are you great?
In our text for this morning Jesus gives us a totally different value system for “greatness.” The time of our text is Jesus’ last and final year of public ministry. During this time He is starting to withdraw more and more from the crowds and from the public eye. Jesus purposefully avoided the crowds of people who had seen Him feed the five thousand and seen Him heal the sick and who wanted to make Him a great earthly king by force. That wasn’t the “greatness” that Jesus came to this earth for. In fact we’re told, “Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were because he was teaching his disciples.” Jesus was moving around carefully and cautiously and taking the time to give His disciples, His friends, some intensive training. Jesus was clueing them in to the purpose for which He came.
He told 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.” There it is. So intent was Jesus on preparing His disciples that he told them right out before it even happened so that they could be prepared and not be afraid when it did happen. Jesus is going to the cross. He has set His sight on Jerusalem and there is nothing that’s going to stop this from happening. And He’s going to be betrayed. It’s going to be brought about by someone close to Him, a friend is going to hand Him over. So Jesus’ warning goes out to all of His friends essentially, “Don’t be that friend!”
Well, the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about. Of course hindsight is 20/20 vision. We are so familiar with Jesus’ death and resurrection that we can’t properly put ourselves into the disciples’ situation here. Jesus is telling them that he’s going to be handed over into the hands of people and they are going to kill him. That sounds repulsive Jesus! What are you talking about Jesus? But they were afraid to ask Him.
The whole message of Jesus’ suffering is repulsive to a part of us too. It’s repulsive to hear that the only perfect human being to ever live was subjected to brutal beatings, mocked, spit on, and left to die a most humiliating and excruciating death on a cross like a heinous criminal, abandoned by friends. Can we humans really be so perverse, so sinful, so wretched, that the only just payment for our sins could be God’s Son dying on a cross? We aren’t that bad, are we? Well, we don’t have to look much further than the words of our text.
While Jesus was explaining His impending suffering and death, while he was secluding Himself and shunning earthly fame, and glory, and popularity, what were the disciples doing along the way? Doing their best to pursue it! Discussing and arguing with one another about who of them was the greatest. Who was going to be the right hand man in the new kingdom? What glory am I going to get out of this? Is someone going to be getting more glory than me and therefore too much?! What can I get out of this? How is this going to make me look good? What can I get out of this friendship? Why should I be friends with them, they never do anything for me! Where’s my glory? Where’s my greatness? How can I get ahead and get what I want? How perverse! How inconsiderate! But does it sound familiar? We don’t have to look too far from our own hearts to find the same sins of selfish ambition, pride, and arrogance.
Here Jesus is focusing on His coming suffering and death, don’t you think He deserves a little attention, a little sympathy, from His friends? How would you have reacted? How would I have reacted? “I’ve had enough with you! Here I am about to go to the cross for you and all you can think about is your own glory and your own greatness? Why bother? What’s the use! I’m through with you and your petty little arguments and your insignificant little disagreements! I’m done!” Is that what Jesus did?
What did Jesus do? Jesus, whose love and patience and compassion is far deeper and far more profound than you or I will ever grasp sat down. He called His disciples to Himself and gently instructed them. “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” What? To be first you must be last and servant of all? In essence Jesus is saying, “It’s fine to want to be first and want to be great, but your way is all wrong.” God’s way is so much different from what our world says. In our world only one can be first, not so with God, to God there is no limit to first place, to God it’s “anyone.” Our world says to be great you need to have a lot of people serving you, lord your power over others, but God’s way is different. His greatness is found in seeing in other people not as means to our own ends, but rather opportunities to help and serve. His greatness is found in serving others humbly and selflessly sacrificing your own time, your talents, yourself even when it’s not noticed or appreciated!
Then to illustrate His point even further Jesus took a little child. In our society we focus on children, we listen to them, we gather to watch them play soccer and yell and root for them. Not in Jesus’ day. In Jesus’ day children were nobodies, non-people, they were expected to stay at home and stay out of the way until they were old enough to contribute to society. So, Jesus taking a child into His arms would have been shocking maybe like a CEO bringing a toddler to an executive meeting. Welcome anyone, even a little “insignificant” child, care for people who can’t give anything in return, in God’s eyes, that’s true greatness.
It is this profound love of our God that penetrates right into our heart and soul, into our life. It’s not our ambition in life to get ahead, to surround ourselves with people who make us feel good, but rather it’s our ambition to imitate Christ. It is the love of Christ that so penetrates us that causes us to reflect His love in our lives and attitudes with those around us.
We are compelled to reach out in friendship to all those whom God has placed in our lives and around us. Not because we must, not because we have to, not even because this is what God commands of us, but rather because this is what we want to do. We want to be friendly, we want to seek genuine friendship with those who are around us. Why? Because we are recipients of the greatest friendship. It was Jesus who chose to lay down His life, not for good people, not for people who deserved anything good, but for sinful scoundrels like you and me! It was Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many! Jesus did the greatest act of service by doing exactly what He told His disciples He was going to do: He went to the cross. Jesus thought of you and your eternal salvation and single mindedly focused on that march to the cross. And there he suffered and died, not for His benefit, not to make Himself look any better than what He already is, but rather for your good, for your benefit, to secure a place in heaven for you!
So let us reach out to those around us, those whom God has placed in our lives to serve. Let us help people, even the “least” who are around, help them physically and emotionally. But far more than that, let us help others out the way Jesus directs us “in His name.” As Jesus’ representatives we help people not so much in order to give them an easier life on earth, but in order to give them something far greater: their Savior. What’s the best thing a friend can do for a friend? To seek their eternal good. To share with them the Savior who suffered, died, and rose for them! The greatest help you can give someone is giving them what will last eternally: telling children again and again the message of the bible, telling your friend who’s loaded down with guilt about the forgiveness in Jesus, reminding a struggling Christian friend of Jesus’ undying love for them. That’s receiving someone “in Jesus’ name.”
In the world’s eyes that might not look so wonderful, so spectacular, you probably won’t make the headlines, or receive an award. However, Jesus notices. He sees your acts of Christian love. He sees your efforts to be a Christian friend to those around you from the least to the greatest. And did you hear what He said? He said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes….me!” If your act of love in receiving someone, anyone in Jesus’ name could be made really visible for what it really is, Jesus says it would be like welcoming Jesus Himself, welcoming the glorious Son of God, the almighty King of the eternal Kingdom, the King of kings and Lord of lords Himself! Oh, if it was really made visible for what it was the newspapers would flash your name in bold print on the front page! Yet, for the most part your acts of Christian love are hidden for now, perhaps no one else sees as it is covered with the coat of faith and one day the greatness of those acts love done from a heart of thanks to God will become visible on Last day. When Jesus will come and say to you, His friend, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world…for…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Now that’s greatness! Amen.