Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. What does greatness look like? That’s a question humans have sought to answer for all of recorded history. Think, for example, about the ancient Greeks. Some would say that greatness looks like a mighty Spartan warrior who was a world-class soldier and afraid of no one. Others might say that greatness looks like one of the great Athenian minds, like Socrates or Plato, who literally changed the course of human thinking. Or think in more modern times. Some people would say that greatness looks like Steve Jobs—a man who started a small computer company out of his garage and then went on to lead the charge in some of the most significant technological advances our world has ever seen which literally changed the way that our world operates in just about ever way imaginable.
Some might say that greatness looks like Elon Musk, a cutting-edge businessman and engineer who has his sights set on revolutionizing human transportation on earth and in space in the next several decades. I could go on with any number of other examples of greatness. I’m sure that you can think of more than a few examples of your own. But the point is this: We humans are obsessed with greatness. We appreciate greatness when we see it in others. And for many of us, we strive for greatness in our own lives and in our own ways.
2. There are two guys in our Gospel Reading for today who are obsessed with greatness too. This story of James and John seeking greatness comes immediately after Jesus has told his disciples for a third time about his impending death and resurrection. But James and John don’t seem too bothered by what Jesus has just told them. They have other things on their mind. So they come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” How old are these guys? Five? It’s like that kid who thinks he’s being so sneaky and comes up to his Mom and says, “Mom, can I eat whatever I want for dinner?” And, of course, Mom knows full-well that the 5-year-old has his eyes on the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. How absurd! But the kid thinks he’s being so sneaky… That’s kind of what’s happening here in our story. James and John want Jesus to unconditionally give them whatever they ask for—no questions asked. But Jesus knows better. So he responds, “What do you want me to do for you?” So James and John spill the beans: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Now, on one level, I’m pretty sure that James and John knew exactly what they were asking. Just ask any kid about the importance of who you sit next to when Grandpa and Grandma are over for dinner. To sit next to the king is a big deal. James and John were asking to sit at the highest places of honor when Jesus began ruling in his kingdom. The honor of sitting next to the king as he rules in his kingdom is reserved only for the greatest in the kingdom. On one level, James and John knew exactly what they were asking. But at the same time, they had absolutely no idea what they were asking—Jesus makes that much clear in the brief exchange that follows where the brothers try to convince Jesus they know what they’re asking and Jesus insists, “No, you really don’t!” But then the rest of the disciples find our what James and John had asked of Jesus. Mark tells us: they began to be indignant at James and John. I probably don’t need to explain why the other 10 disciples were angry with James and John. To return to my example of Grandpa and Grandma being over for dinner, James and John’s request is akin to requesting to sit between Grandpa and Grandma for dinner. I don’t know about you, but that request was a quick way to start a fight in my house growing up. How dare you ask to sit in that special place! Do you think you’re that much better than me? What if I wanted to sit there? See, here’s the thing about greatness: we all want to be great. We all want to be treated as special. But our problem is that we are selfish and think of ourselves before others. We care more about ourselves than others because we’ve bought into the lie that that’s how we achieve greatness.
3. But Jesus disagrees. Listen to what Jesus says next: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” There are two things to notice here. The first should be the most obvious because it’s the theme that our reading began with. It’s no coincidence that immediately before this episode with James and John, Jesus was telling his disciples about his impending death. And then Jesus says here, as this episode ends, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus served us by giving his life for us. This is an incredible reality—the Son of God came to our world and became a human so that he could serve us. But not just so that he could serve us—so that he could die for us, forgive us of our selfish sinfulness, and restore us in our relationship with God. Jesus was willing to do all of that for you!
4. And because of Jesus’ selfless loving service toward us, there’s a second point we shouldn’t miss. Jesus invites us to be great in God’s kingdom through generosity and service. Notice that Jesus never reprimands James and John for wanting to be great—and he never reprimands you and I for desiring to be great. The drive to strive for excellence and greatness is a God-given desire. But like all of our desires, it needs to be checked so it doesn’t get out of control. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God—and I hope that you do—that greatness is accomplished through generosity and service. That greatness is accomplished by viewing others as more significant and important than yourself. That greatness is achieved by humbling yourself, looking to Jesus, and striving to live a life characterized by generosity and service like Jesus by the power of his Spirit within you. May our Lord Jesus grant each of us the desire and the ability to pursue greatness in his kingdom in this way for the sake of a world dying without a savior.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.