Pastor Paul Waldschmidt delivers a sermon entitled “The Greatest” based on Mark 9:30-37 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered on Sunday, September 23, 2018
I had spent many nights dreaming about it, psyching myself up. I was only in 3rd grade at the time, but something about the annual Grade School Cross Country Meet lit the competitive fires within me. And now finally it was the first year that I was old enough to compete. In my head, the night before the race, I could picture how it was going to go quite clearly. My competitors and I would start off evenly, but my torrid, steady pace would propel me to the front of the pack, and I would win the mile long race going away.
That’s how it played out in my dreams. My “cross country” brain however was writing checks that my “football” body could not cash. The day of the meet I learned two things: First: never wear jeans for a cross country race. Second: I learned if I was ever going to succeed in any athletic competition, it was not going to be as a cross-country runner. I had dreams of coming in first, but when all was said and done, I finished….well, assuredly NOT in first.
And that was hard. Cuz no matter what we do in life we want to place high. The high school senior sets his sights on being Top 10 academically in his class. The bride planning her big day wants to have the wedding that her friends and relatives talk about for years to come. And middle aged dude? He wants his lawn to be the greenest and the thickest, the envy of all his neighbors. No matter how old you are, how matter what area of life you’re talking about, nobody is going to turn down a place on the medal stand.
All that having been said, it’s still pretty hard for the disciples to come out looking good when we see them jockeying for position and ranking themselves 1-12 in our text. They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, Jesus 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. It’s particularly a bad look for them when you consider the context. In the verses immediately before Jesus had just announced that it was time for him to walk toward Calvary, where his every thought would be utter sacrifice, his every action utter selflessness. While those somber and solemn words are still hanging in the air, the disciples move on to much more important matters. “Let’s decide once and for all. Which one of us is the smartest? Which one is the hardest worker? Who was the first one to come into the fold? Who’s the most eloquent? Who’s the most passionate?”
Can you imagine being so obtuse? So oblivious? That even confronted with someone in deep need of love and support, you can only talk about yourself? Actually…you probably can imagine that. We’re picking on the disciples because they’re easy targets in our text. But we spend so much of lives staking our claim to being the greatest. Think back to the last argument you had. You probably didn’t use the exact words, but I bet it had something to do with who was the greatest. I clean the toilets, because apparently I’m the only one around here who cares what this house looks like. (In other words…I’m the greatest.) You spend money like a sailor on leave and I’ve got to be the mature one who makes sure all the bills actually get paid. (In other words…I’m the greatest.) Did you forget to take the clothes out of the washer and put them in the dryer? Now I’ve got nothing to wear! (I would never forget to do that, so I must be the greatest.)
Subconsciously we spend our days in the never ending quest to convince ourselves or convince the people around us how great we are. Even when it comes to the student with his grades, the bride-to-be with her wedding and the middle aged dude with his lawn, there is a razor thin line between using God’s gifts with gratitude on the one hand AND ego boosting, identity defining, grandstanding “I am the greatest” thoughts on the other hand. It’s the line between being humbly thankful for what you have and being arrogantly prideful about what you have. It’s the line between seeking to glorify God and seeking to glorify me.
Like the disciples, we spend our days veering wildly over the line and back, over that line and back. Can you see why that’s so messed up? We’re trying to determine our worth by where we rank among their our. That number, whatever it may be, is subjective. (It depends on who you talk to) It’s arbitrary (it can vary from day to day). And it’s subject to flawed human reason. (What you might think is great might not be what God thinks is great).
Funny thing is, the disciples were going round and round on the road about who was greatest, when the answer was obvious. All they had to do was stop looking at one another and start looking at the guy who was walking on ahead of them. It’s understood, but it still feels pretty good to say—Isn’t Jesus the greatest?!
Consider that he knew what they were talking about on the road, he knew they were going to jostle for position in the most glory grabbing ways at the worst possible times. He knew that before he chose them as disciples, before they were even born and yet he chose them any way! Because Jesus is the greatest.
Jesus is the greatest because he’s bottomless patience with the slowest on spiritual uptake. That’s you and me. Because his blood splattered a cross as payment for the most vile, the most repulsive, the most stubbornly rebellious. That’s you and me.
Jesus is the greatest because he finds the most insignificant, the most plain, the most rejected, the last place finisher and he says, “You have value. You matter to me no matter what anybody says about you. They will all go away. But I will never change how I feel, I will never leave, I will never go away.”
Jesus is the greatest because at your baptism he repeated what he did in our text. You were the child he took in his arms and he said, “I welcome this one—poor, insignificant, unworthy though he is. I will cover her with my perfection. I will give her eternal life. And that will make this little one truly great.” That’s you and me.
Jesus is the greatest. The key to greatness is found in being like him. It’s not a ranking or even a respect given to you by your peers. It’s not the number of likes on your most recent Instagram post. That’s not what greatness is all about. 35 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.”
That’s exactly what he did! For a servant puts the needs of another ahead of his own needs. And that’s what Jesus did when he went to the cross. That’s another thing that makes him the greatest. He became the servant of all.
To illustrate the “all” for us he used an object lesson. 36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “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.” It’s not just about being nice to little kids. It’s about seeing people as Jesus sees them. It’s about giving the kids’ table as much attention as you give the head table. It’s about seeing the seeing seedy one and the scruffy one with the same eyes that you see the CEO. It’s being willing to unclog the hair from the shower drain, it’s scraping the caked on food off the dishes, it’s about putting the new roll of toilet paper in the holder instead of leaving lonely bare cardboard there for the next person to deal with. Imitating Jesus is not just about serving the insignificant ones—it’s about doing the insignificant things—and doing them for no other reason than the fact that you want to be like Jesus. He is the greatest and imitating his humility and service—that is the path to true greatness. Amen.