The Unusual Path to Greatness
4th Sunday in Lent
The Unusual Path to Greatness
Text: Matthew 20:17-28
Reality TV is ruining our country. That’s probably not a surprising or controversial statement. It seems pretty obvious that Reality TV is causing a lot of problems.
The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are ruining the way Americans think about dating and love and marriage. There is very little on those shows that would be considered God-pleasing love or relationships.
Celebrity reality shows are ruining the way we think about our lives. When we see the homes and cars celebrities have and the carefree, lawless lives that celebrities live, all we do is crave things we cannot and will not ever have.
Reality game shows are ruining our work ethic. People think that they can just sing in front of a famous judge on American Idol or X-Factor or The Voice, or dance on So You Think You Can Dance, or present your business on Shark Tank and you’ll get the golden ticket to fame and fortune. Rather than putting in all the blood, sweat, and tears to work toward your dreams, people think they can get in front of someone famous and take the easy way to success.
Now it is certainly nice that certain people “get a shot” in life, like the small town Texas girl that might win American Idol. But for that one person that wins a reality show there are tens of thousands that do not win. It’s always humorous, yet somewhat annoying, to watch people’s pride on these TV shows when they don’t win. Most contestants feel like they deserve to win. They’ve been waiting. Their life has been tough. They need this. Then it’s even more humorous, and more annoying, to watch the people who can’t sing or can’t dance but think they really can. They get cut from the show and they blow up in anger because they really are great and they really deserve a chance and they really should be winners. Really?
For many reasons, reality TV is ruining our country. Perhaps the biggest reason is that reality TV feeds our pride. Everyone now wants their five minutes of fame on TV. Everyone now thinks that if you can only get in front of the right person you can have the easy path to fame and riches.
Body Sounds a little like James and John today, doesn’t it? We heard today how they approached Jesus with their mother who had a very bold request. Verse 20: “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’” A rather bold request, isn’t it? That would be like a White House intern going up to the president and saying, “Excuse me, Mr. President. I’ve been around you for three years now. How about you make me your vice president?”
We can see how great their pride in themselves was in what they said next. Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you are asking . . . Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “‘We can,’ they answered.” Jesus was giving them a dose of reality, that it was about to get very difficult to be his follower. Jesus had just been teaching about his suffering and death. “Can you do this too?” Jesus asked. Almost without thinking they responded, “Oh yeah, no problem!” Talk about confident self-assurance!
But if you really want to see how puffed-up with pride these brothers and their mother were, look at the paragraph before this. Verse 17: “Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to the them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
This was now the third time that Jesus taught his disciples specifically about his suffering and death. He was telling them that this was now the time. This was the fulfillment of it all. Now was the time to finish what he came for. He was about to suffer and die.
So after such a serious conversation about such an important thing, James, John, and mommy thought it would be best to ask for front row seats in heaven? Jesus was completely focused on winning salvation for the world, and there was no, “Thank you,” or “That’s great, Jesus,” or “We’re praying for you Jesus”? It’s almost like they thought they didn’t need to worry about that suffering and death stuff because they were shoe-ins for heaven. It’s almost like they thought they were more important than any other person in the world so why not ask if they can sit on Jesus’ right and left in heaven? It’s like they were on an American reality TV show and they thought they could get the easy way to glory in heaven simply because they knew Jesus and “deserved” it.
As foolish as the brothers were, we know what that kind of pride is like. It’s like when I sit through an entire Sunday service and the whole time my mind is wandering off thinking about my schedule this week or my roast in the oven or how quickly I can get to the beach after church—because my things are more important than what Jesus has to say. James and John’s pride is like when I assume that I know best about every little thing, that I should have a say in every little thing, and that I should probably have the last word on every little thing too. James and John’s pride is like when I start thinking about Christians on different levels or classes and I feel like I am on a way higher level than other Christians—I mean, come on, look at their life compared to my life. Yes, I know confident self-assurance and foolish pride. I know it too well.
Interestingly, James and John weren’t the only prideful disciples in this story. The other ten didn’t exactly have a humble response either. Verse 24: “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.” There are a lot of different ways the others could have reacted. They could have shook their heads and then shook it off. They could have gone and privately talked to James and John and shared their frustration. They could have lovingly shared with James and John how that was a bit on the bold and prideful side and then they could have encouraged them to focus more on Jesus then on themselves. Instead, they chose to be indignant. They were angry and upset. And we might wonder, were they angry that James and John thought to ask Jesus first? Were they angry because they were jealous that James and John might get better spots in heaven? Or were they simply angry that James and John were being so bold? Whatever the reason, their pride got in the way and they were extremely angry.
As foolish as this reaction was, we know what that kind of pride is like too. It’s like when someone else gets a raise or a bonus or a new position and I am so upset that I wasn’t the one that got it. Their pride is like when someone says something that I think is so dumb and foolish that I’m angry they would ever say something like that. Their pride is like when I am competitive with everyone else, always thinking that I should come out on top and I should get all the special treatment and I should have all the power.
The reality though is that none of the disciples were right in their behavior. All of them showed shameful pride. Their attitudes needed to change and their pride needed to leave. Verse 25: “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the 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 your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
The first reference point Jesus gave to them was their local rulers and leaders. The Romans used and abused their authority. From the simple Roman soldier to the Roman governor (Pontius Pilate at the time) up to the Roman Senate and the Roman Emperor (Tiberius at the time)—most were filled with power-hungry pride. They took advantage of people. They lorded their rank and positions over people. They fought for higher positions. Sometimes they even killed for higher positions and power (think Brutus stabbing his friend Julius Caesar 75 years before this).
Very obviously, Roman culture and government was very similar to American culture and government. People use and abuse power all the time today. They scratch and claw and cheat and play dirty for more power and more fame and more money. Then they pridefully lord that power over others. But speaking of those kinds of rulers Jesus says, “Not so with you.” Jesus’ disciples don’t act like that.
So Jesus gives a second point of reference: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Instead of pridefully pursuing power, we are to humbly serve like Jesus himself.
When it comes to power and authority, who has more than Jesus Christ himself? He made the universe. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. The Bible says that he uses his enemies as a footstool. He is God over all and in all. If anyone had the right to be proud of his power and glory in his grandeur, it would be Jesus Christ.
Yet what did Jesus do? Rather than lording that power over puny humans that disobey and dishonor him, or rather than gloating in pride over his perfection, he chose the path of love and humility. He chose not to be served but to serve. He chose not to demand payment but to make the payment himself. Jesus willingly gave his innocent life in death in order to give to those who are guilty eternal life.
And that why we are here today though. That is why we praise and honor Jesus. This is why we worship him and and glorify him and thank him and give him our best. He gave himself to serve and save us.
Knowing that Jesus humbled himself to forgive all my pride and all my many sins brings me a change of heart. Suddenly, I’m not the most important person in the world. Suddenly, other people and their opinions and their lives do matter to me. Now, I want to be patient and calm with others as I talk to them lovingly, even when they act like bozos like James and John did. Now, rather than getting what’s mine or getting what I deserve or getting my slice of the pie, I’m more concerned about serving and helping others rather than being served by others.
This is The Unusual Path to Greatness. Look at Jesus. Our God and Lord humbled himself to be our servant, even giving his life to forgive our sins and open the doors to heaven. Now we praise him for the greatness of his love and mercy.
Jesus teaches us that if we want to be great, there is no easy way out. There is no shortcut. There is no grandiose version of glory that we deserve like James and John thought. Instead, The Unusual Path to Greatness is walking in the footsteps of Jesus. It’s serving. It’s helping. It’s loving. It’s sacrificing personal good for the good of others.
You might ask, “What’s so great about doing that? That doesn’t sound great at all.” Think about the disciples though. They quickly learned what it meant to be humble and to sacrifice. Every disciple would go on to suffer for the sake of Christ (except Judas who committed suicide). This very James who was asked if he could drink the same cup as Jesus would go on about a decade later to give his life for Christ when he was beheaded. Nine others of the disciples were martyred after him. James’ brother John was the only one who was not martyred. But he lived a humble life in persecution, being exiled to the island of Patmos. Yet what do all those eleven disciples now have? They live in everlasting glory and joy with Jesus in heaven.
This what’s great about serving. This why being humble is such a joy. This is why this unusual path leads to greatness. Trusting in Jesus’ forgiveness and following in his humbles footsteps of love is the path that leads to heaven. You see, we have a perspective that the world does not have. We may be humble and serve now, but one day we will live in glory and joy with Jesus in heaven forever and ever.
That’s not something we ask for or deserve like James and John originally thought. That’s something that Jesus gives by his grace. And that is a greatness I do want.
Posted on March 31, 2014, in Church, Sermons and tagged American Idol, Angry, Church, Greatness, Humble, Humility, Indignant, James, James and John, Jealous, Jealousy, John, Matthew, Matthew 20, Pride, Salome, Sermons, Shark Tank, So You Think You Can Dance, Sons of Zebedee, The Voice, The X Factor, Zebedee. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.