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Worship Theme: Pride has no place in love.

Sermon Theme: What It Means to Be Great

What does it mean to be great? A simple definition is to do or to be or to have an ability that is above average. For example, I’ve had pizza before that was good, but the pizza I had the other night was great! But here’s the deal, I’m not going to tell you where that great pizza came from because you might not agree with me at all that it’s really great. And therein lies the trouble with determining what is truly great. Ask an avid sports fan, “Who is the G.O.A.T. (You know what a G.O.A.T. is right? It’s the Greatest of All Time) of their favorite sport,” and you have just opened up an endless debate. Ask a history buff or a political junky who is the greatest American President, and again, you’re going to find differing answers. What it means to be great is hard to pin down.

Some might argue that being great at something seems like a sinful pursuit, that we should all be content with just where we are at and who we are as individuals. But God created you and me as unique and special individuals with varied gifts and talents. So, the pursuit of greatness is not necessarily something wrong, but perhaps we need to look at the underlying desire, approach, and goal of being great.

So, do you know what it takes to be great? The world defines greatness through accomplishments – things like power, prestige, success. But in today’s reading, Jesus does something very “Jesus-esque.” He flips the script on what the world sees as being great and offers up a much better, dare I say, greater, definition of what it truly means to be great.

Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem for the last time together as a group. You see, Jesus was only a short time away from the events of holy week that would lead up to his betrayal, arrest, trials, and crucifixion. That’s the reason why Jesus’ disciples were so astonished and the other followers were so afraid. Jesus had already on two other occasions predicted his death at the hands of the Jewish leaders. Why, Jesus, are you going to Jerusalem if you know that you’re going to die? That amazed the disciples and frightened the crowd. Now, for a third time, Jesus pulled his disciples aside and told them what was going to happen.

“The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Jesus knew what awaited him in Jerusalem. He knew that he would suffer and die. But he also knew the end goal. He would rise, victorious, as the rescuer of all sinners. But the disciples just didn’t get it! Each time after Jesus shared his impending death with the disciples, they responded with pride and misunderstanding. The first time, Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the Promised Messiah and then said, “No way! You’re not suffering and dying, Jesus!” After the second time, the disciples started arguing among themselves about who was the greatest.

And now this time…James and John – part of the inner circle of disciples along with Peter who got to be with Jesus on some special occasions like his Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane – James and John came to Jesus with a question. What did they want? They wanted to have the seats of honor, prestige, and power – one sitting on Jesus’ left and the other on his right. They wanted to be great! They still had in their minds that Jesus as the Messiah was going to set up an earthly kingdom and they had ambitious sights set on the best spots when that happened. Come on James and John, right?! How could you be so ignorant and arrogant? We need to keep in mind that even though they had spent around three years learning with Jesus, they still were taught throughout their life by their religious leaders that the Messiah was going to come and build an earthly kingdom for Israel. It doesn’t excuse their error, but it does help us understand their thinking.

And also, before you come down too hard on those two, give some careful reflection to your own life and attitude. The world still can influence you in the wrong way about Jesus and your life with him. Jesus still offers up the same question, “What do you want me to do for you?” What do you want? Perhaps you’re creating a more sanctified list at this moment because you’re here in church, and that’s good if you are, but how often don’t you seek more prideful things from Jesus? Like you just want or even need to be right for once. You want to be recognized and noticed. You want to be successful. You want to be the best. Lord, I want you to make me…. you fill in the blank. These are the things that world says you should have. You should seek power, honor, prestige, success…to be great at what you do even at the expense of others. That mentality tugs at the heart of the prideful sinful nature and causes you to miss out on what greatness really means. In fact, it makes us think that we are much greater before God than what we are and we’re led away from Jesus who we pridefully don’t think we need.

Notice something important in this conversation. Jesus never reprimanded James and John for their request. But he did correct them about how they would go about accomplishing greatness. Jesus told James and John that they would drink the same cup he would drink and be baptized with the same baptism that he was baptized with. In other words, the suffering that Jesus would go through, they too would face that in their lives because they followed him. Jesus was setting the stage for what greatness really means.

But before he got there, the other ten disciples got up in arms about James’ and John’s request. I don’t think that it was so much of a “How dare you ask Jesus such a question!” but instead it was more a prideful, “How dare you beat me to asking Jesus for that privilege and prestige!” They all wanted to be the greatest!

Jesus pulled them aside and told them what it really meant to be great. He told them how the world views greatness. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” In other words, greatness and worldly leadership means power and being in charge, of having others answer to you. It means using intimidation, fear, and leverage to become great. But Jesus flips it around and instead says, “This is what greatness looks like. You want to be great, be a servant. You want to be first, be a slave to others.” True greatness is not about being first or best. It’s not about the biggest bank account, or getting the best grade, or being the most successful. It’s about serving others and putting their needs first.

Just think about how that would play out in your life for a moment. What places would you see blessings if you flipped the script on what it means to be great? Would there be less stress in your life to achieve when you’re serving? Would you feel more content? Would your relationships be better when others see that your concern is for them? What if you were a humble servant, like the Apostle Paul, who described in 1 Corinthians how he become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some? Would more people see Jesus if you weren’t so proud?

Maybe you can see that this is a better way of life and really great. But how could you possibly achieve this? By turning to the one who was really great at being truly great. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus, as the Bible proclaims and as the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to believe, is the Almighty God who humbled himself by taking on human flesh and life when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He did not take on that flesh in order to be have the best carpentry service in the Nazareth region or to become the highest-ranking religious leader among the Pharisees or to challenge the emperor of Rome to his rule. He did not come to be waited on hand and foot by his followers. No, he came to wash feet and to serve others, to serve you. Jesus came to live for you and to offer up his life as the payment to set you free from your sins. Jesus came to wash you clean so that you can stand before God covered in his perfection. Jesus suffered the agony of hell so that you can be set free and enjoy the amazing love of God. Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve. Isn’t that great?!

That’s why Jesus was so willing to go to Jerusalem, even though he knew it would end in his death. Because he knew that his death would not be in vain, but would serve your eternal needs. His resurrection proves that his service was great in God’s eyes and proves that you are set free from your sins.

That’s the reason why you can be great by selflessly serving others. In Jesus, you are made great as a forgiven child of God. Your eternal life is secure. No amount of power, prestige, accomplishments, or efforts in this world are going to change that fact. So, you’re set free today to achieve greatness in a new way, in the way that God defines greatness, by serving others with God’s love. That is what it means to be great. Amen.


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Milwaukee, WI 53202