A truly great person is someone who puts the needs of others first.
This is something we both do and don’t understand. A woman at one of our Lutheran churches in Tennessee received the good news that she was pregnant, and then the bad news that she had cancer. The doctors told her that they would have to start chemo therapy immediately to save her life, but that would also mean that she would have to have an abortion. She told the doctors that the chemo would start after the baby was born. I don’t know yet if she will live or not. We understand the greatness of that mother’s self-sacrifice.
Christ was going to give up his life too, for many more than just one, and his death would save us from death forever. We understand the greatness of that, at least in part. But when he was telling his disciples about it, they didn’t understand. They too busy trying to make themselves look great. As they were arguing, Jesus started talking about his powerlessness and humility. “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.”
What was all this talk about death, they must have wondered. Was Jesus just having a bad day?
Later, when they arrived at a house in Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been talking about along the way. He knew. And they felt that their prideful boasting along the way had been wrong, so they didn’t say anything. Their thoughts about greatness were so different from God’s thoughts.
It happens to us, too. Sure, sometimes we understand the greatness of putting others first, but a lot of times we don’t. When feelings are hurt, whose are more important—yours, or the other person’s? When money gets tight, who gets cut out of the budget—yourself and the things you like, or your God who asks you to thank him with your offerings? If we don’t at least get a warm fuzzy feeling from making the sacrifice, we might not do it.
Jesus teaches us true greatness in the Kingdom of God. True greatness is humility, because it takes humility to truly understand what Christ’s sacrifice means for you, and it takes humility to truly be able to serve others. Hear his words from the Gospel of Mark:
They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to 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.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
1. True greatness for the disciples
When the disciples were all wrapped up in their discussion of being the greatest, they were not ready to understand what Jesus was telling them. Each was trying to prove why he deserved to have a powerful position in God’s kingdom. Then, when Jesus tried to tell them about his suffering and death, they were confused. They didn’t understand why he had to die, and we hear that they were afraid to ask him. They were trying to prove that they were great, and no one wanted to be exposed as the fool who didn’t understand. They kept their mouths shut, and so their pride prevented them from understanding how Jesus’ death would be the greatest and most powerful act of his kingdom. Their pride stopped them from understanding, so they could not be truly great in God’s kingdom at that time.
Then Jesus showed them how unreachable true greatness was for them, if they were going to be such proud, self-seeking disciples. He said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Now how is a person supposed to do that, if he has to be concerned about making himself great in the kingdom of God? Jesus could put other’s first, because he was the Son of God, and no one was going to say he didn’t belong in heaven. But, apparently, the felt they had to prove why they belonged with Jesus and why they deserved a position of honor. At the time, they were too preoccupied with themselves to be concerned with the needs of others. At the time, they couldn’t be truly great.
Jesus took a little child in his arms, and showed his disciples what true greatness in God’s kingdom looks like. That little child was great, so great that anyone who welcomed him would be welcoming Jesus himself. That makes this little child someone very important in God’s kingdom—like an ambassador maybe. If you welcome an ambassador who is sent by a king, it is like you are welcoming the king himself.
What made the little child so great? He didn’t have anything to offer Jesus. He couldn’t do any great service. He couldn’t offer any great advice. He hadn’t done any miracles by Jesus’ power. He hadn’t even left everything to follow Jesus, like the disciples had. He was simply there, believing that Jesus loved him, only because Jesus said so. That humble attitude made him truly great in the Kingdom of God.
If the disciples would be humble, like that child, they would be truly great in God’s eyes too. They wouldn’t be worried about their position. In humility, they would be able to admit their faults and failures, and understand that Jesus would die to save them, even though they weren’t the perfect disciples. In fact, he would die because they weren’t perfect, because they were sinners. They would know that God loves and honors them not because of anything they had done, but simply because of what Jesus has done for them. Then, since they wouldn’t have to worry about themselves, they would be able to be concerned with serving others.
True greatness in the kingdom of God is humility, because it takes humility to truly understand what Christ’s sacrifice means for you, and it takes humility to truly be able to serve others. Let’s think about how important that same childlike humility is for your greatness in the kingdom of God.
2. True greatness for you
When you are young, humility means that you don’t have to worry about being good enough. Its ok if you are not the coolest kid in school, or not the smartest. You don’t need to be the best athlete to be a valuable person. Hopefully your parents will think you are valuable just for who you are—but if not, you don’t even have to prove yourself to your parents. You have Jesus, who takes you in his arms and tells you that you are great. If you will be humble enough to admit that you have faults, then you will know that Jesus loves you, even though you are not perfect, and even if you haven’t done anything special for him. He loved you enough to die for you, to take away your sins. You don’t have to prove that you are worth his effort. He died for you, just the way you are, with all your sins and faults and failures.
Now, if you know how great you are to Jesus, you don’t have to worry about making yourself look great. You don’t need to join in the gossip. You don’t need to cut someone else down to make yourself look better. You can stand up for those people and protect them, even though it might mean that everyone will make fun of you. It doesn’t matter, because you are great in God’s sight.
When you grow older, get a job, and maybe get married and have a family of your own, you still don’t have to prove yourself. You don’t have to be the perfect parent, the perfect spouse, or the perfect worker. Humility means that don’t have to be right all the time. If you are willing to confess your sins and admit your faults and failures, you will understand how greatly Jesus loves you. Yes, you should know better, but you don’t. Yes, you should do better, but you don’t. Still, he loves you just like he did when you were a child, because his love for you is not based on anything you do for him. He just plain loves you, and he gave himself up on the cross to save you from your sins. He did that even though he knew what all your faults and failures would be.
Now, if you know how great you are to Jesus, you don’t have to worry about making yourself look great. At work or in the home, when someone fires a few harsh criticisms your way, you can respond with patience and gentleness, instead of firing back and making the problem worse. You can forget about your own hurt feelings and concern yourself with the other person’s feelings, because you don’t need to justify yourself. Your greatness is secure. You are great in God’s sight in spite of your faults and failures, because of Jesus.
Because you are great in God’s sight, you can make sacrifices when your work and family life conflict. When you absolutely need to be at work, it’s ok, because you don’t need to be the perfect parent and spouse to be great in God’s sight. But also, when you need to be at home, its ok to give up a certain promotion or not work so many overtime hours, because you don’t need to be the perfect worker. Yes, your career could be better if you spent all your time at work, and your family life could be better if you spent all your time at home, but you can’t do both, and you don’t have to. You don’t have to be perfect. Confess your sins, admit your faults and failures, because Jesus loved and died for the man who is not the perfect husband, father, or worker. He loved and died for the woman who is not the perfect wife, mother, and worker. Now since you don’t have to justify yourself in the things you do, you are free to be concerned about the needs of your spouse or children, and do what is best for them—whether that means you need to stay at work for them, or be at home for them.
When you get old, humility means that you don’t have to be the perfect wise old sage, whom everyone listens to and appreciates. And you don’t have to have the abilities that you used to have in order to be a valuable person. Jesus loves you and died for you, even if you can’t do anything special for him right now. He died to save you, just the way you are, even with all the faults and failures of your whole life.
Now, if you know how great you are to Jesus, you don’t have to worry about making yourself look great. Think about how Jesus also was not valued nearly as much as he ought to have been. His words, too, fell on deaf ears far too often. And yet, he gave his life for all of us, even the ones who did not listen. You can give yourself up for people who don’t value you and don’t listen to you too, because you are already great in God’s sight. You don’t need to be the voice of authority. You don’t need people to be persuaded by what you say just because you say so, no matter how much younger than you they are. You can give up all that greatness for yourself, and give yourself to others. Be the quiet voice of reason, tactfully and patiently leading others to see what you see. After all, you already have all the greatness you need. With all your faults and failures, Jesus puts his arms around you and calls you great.
Humility and greatness go hand in hand in God’s kingdom. You need humility to understand that it is not your own goodness that caused God to love you. He just did, and he proved it when he died to save you on the cross. You need humility to let go of yourself now, because you are already great in God’s sight. In humility, put yourself last and others first. It’s Christ’s sacrifice of himself for your salvation, and your sacrifice of yourself for the needs of others. This is true greatness in God’s kingdom. Amen.