Who is the greatest?

Good morning, Friends! Thank you all so much for coming here today. I know that we’re all thankful to be here.

We’re on our way to Easter, the day when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

It’s a joyful day, and we all look forward to it. But before Jesus could rise, he first had to suffer and die. And that’s the part most of us would like to skip over. But we can’t.

So, during these weeks before Easter, we remember some of the important things that happened, and some of the important things Jesus said. Today’s reading is one of them.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the other ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.

Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:35-45

What makes people great? What made people think that Jesus was the greatest person who ever lived?

For some people, it was the miracles that Jesus did. He made blind people see. That’s amazing! He made deaf people hear. Incredible! He made people who hadn’t walked in years, get up and run and skip and dance. Beyond belief!

But Jesus said miracles weren’t the main reason that he came. Oh, sure, he went on doing them, all the time.

He fed thousands of people with a banquet, just by giving thanks over five rolls and two dried fish.

He came to a country wedding, where the wine ran out, and the party was going to have to end with disappointment. And he blessed some barrels of water, and turned them into wine, and the party kept going on and on.

He calmed physical storms. He calmed mental storms. He helped people who no one could help. He reached out and touched people with leprosy, the living dead, and made them healthy and whole again.

But Jesus said, “These aren’t really why I came here. These are signs of God’s power. What I want, is for you to believe. What I want, is for you to have the same life that I have. The life that begins today, and lasts forever.”

Jesus said, “If you trust in me, you can pray for anything, in my name, and God will give it to you.”

So James and John, two of Jesus’ closest friends, ones who he picked out on the first day of the gospel, they asked him something. They asked if they could come and sit by him, one on his right hand, and one on his left, when Jesus ruled in glory.

They must have figured, “Hey, he said we can ask for anything, right? And we’re his best buddies, right? We’ve been here with him since the beginning, right? So, let’s ask for what we deserve. Let’s ask him to make us his #1 and #2 people, when the party really starts!”

On the surface, it wasn’t a bad request. I mean, they knew that Jesus was great. Who wouldn’t want to be great, like Jesus? Who wouldn’t want to bask and share in his glory?

But what Jesus knew, and what they didn’t understand, is what really makes greatness, great.

There are many kinds of greatness. Out there in the world, many people think you’re great if you’ve got a big and powerful army. If you can march in and conquer nations, if you can defeat them and make them do your will, that’s being great.

But that kind of greatness only lasts a short time. Other people aren’t defeated forever. Even the most powerful tyrant eventually dies. People always want to be free.

Or some people confuse greatness with winning at sports. How many times have you watched some athlete say, “I am the greatest!” They’ve won more games than somebody else. Or run faster, or jumped higher, or made more twirls and spins than some other person.

That’s achievement. That’s impressive. But the record they just made, that doesn’t last forever. Pretty soon, somebody comes along and scores more home runs, or makes more flips in the air, or shaves a couple more seconds off the time. And the greatest athlete is superseded.

Today, we’ve got an even more ridiculous idea of greatness. If somebody puts up a two-minute video, and has more ads, or gets a few thousand people to click on their hashtag on social media, we call that greatness.

But that’s just getting attention. And you know what? It doesn’t last. Back in the 60’s, somebody said, “Everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame.” Today, it’s more like 15 seconds. And then it’s gone. That kind of greatness only means we’ve got a really short attention span.

Who are the people who are really great? Not the ones who get the most points on a new video game.

How about the people who created the new polio vaccine? Or the people who developed insulin, that saves the lives and the eyesight of millions of people, every day? How about the people who found a cure for tuberculosis, or vaccines for COVID?

Those people are really great.

Or what about people who are famous for human rights? What about the people who wrote the Constitution, and the other people who worked to get those rights for everyone? What about the people who said that slavery was wrong, and gave their lives to put slavery out of business?

Those people are really great, too.

Jesus said that James and John – two of his very best friends – may have had a good ambition, but they had a totally wrong idea about what greatness really is.

He said, “You don’t know what you’re asking. You think it’s about getting baptized, or about taking communion.”

But Jesus said, “For me, baptism means dying. And communion means giving my own blood. Are those things you can do?”

And James and John said, “Oh, yeah! We can do those things!”

But Jesus said, “You can drink that wine, and you can get baptized my way, but it’s up to God to pick who sits on my right and on my left in glory.”

Then all the other ten got angry with James and John. So Jesus called them all together and said, “You know how the world measures greatness. The world calls people great if they conquer nations and make everybody do what they say.”

“But among you,” Jesus said, “greatness means something completely different. Whoever wants to be great, is a servant. And the greatest of all is the person who serves at the lowest level for everyone.”

And that’s what Jesus himself did. He did all those miracles, but then he stripped down, and dressed like a slave, and washed people’s feet.

He could have called for an army of angels to rescue him, but he let himself be arrested, and tried by a kangaroo court, and whipped, and crucified.

His greatness was to lay down his life for the world. His greatness was to accept a shameful death, and be mocked by his enemies, and die between two thieves, and be buried in a grave that didn’t even belong to him.

Jesus didn’t pretend to be a servant. He didn’t pretend to be humble. Yes, he was and is great. But Jesus has a different idea about what greatness is.

Today, the world calls someone great if they shout the loudest. If they appeal to people’s fears and prejudices, and tell them what they want to hear.

Today, we’re obsessed by how to be successful. There are uncountable books, and shows, and seminars, and web sites and blogs about how to be successful in this world.

But very few of them talk about success and greatness the way Jesus does.

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant. Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

So, who’s great today?

  • The doctors and nurses and front line workers, who risked their lives and lost their lives for total strangers during the COVID epidemic.
  • The teachers who worked twice as hard as usual, to try and help their kids keep learning, in impossible circumstances, and the parents who worked their own job and then taught for hours every day at home, to try and make up for having no school.
  • The people who worked overtime, for years, to get food on the shelves, so that we would all not go hungry.
  • The people who worked to bring comfort and hope, during all those hopeless times.

All the people who have been servants, in all kinds of ways – that’s what Jesus is talking about. Even the littlest things, for the least of our brothers and sisters – Jesus said, “You did it to Me.”

As we move in the direction of Easter, we look forward to the Resurrection, to Easter Sunday and to glory.

But we also remember, what Jesus said about what greatness is.

It’s the signs. It’s the miracles. It’s the incredible grace. It’s the life forever.

But it’s also the least of things. It’s the cup of cold water, given in Jesus’ name. It’s the word of encouragement, or the hand on a shoulder. It’s the miracle of forgiveness. It’s sitting at the table of a lonely person, and the meal we share.

It’s doing things without thanks, or recognition. It’s holding back, instead of hitting back. It’s all the things we can imagine, that a servant would do – that Jesus would do.
Because being a servant was what made Jesus great.

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