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I invite you to open your Bibles or Service Folders to the Gospel lesson for today, Mark 9, as we hear what Jesus teaches his disciples and us about true greatness.
A favorite children’s book at our house is Yertle the Turtle. Yertle wants to be the greatest so he has all the turtles stack themselves on top of each other so he can be the king of all he sees at the top of the stack. But then, a turtle named Mack at the bottom of the stack burps, and down comes Yertle. His greatness didn’t last. Jesus wants his disciples of all times to understand that that’s the way earthly greatness always is. It doesn’t last. He teaches us that he is the greatest, and that greatness in his kingdom comes through humble service.
Mark tells us, verse 30 They (Jesus and his disciples) went on from there (the area of Caesarea Philippi) and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know this, because he was teaching his disciples. Jesus was trying to avoid the crowds as much as possible so that he would have time alone with his disciples. They needed some intense instruction because they were about to experience some intense testing of their faith. Notice how often in our Gospel readings over the last weeks Jesus tells them what is about to happen. He tells them about his suffering, death and resurrection before it happens so that when it does they will be better able to handle it.
What did the disciples get out of this very clear, plain talk about what was about to happen? As Jesus again repeated in plain words 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 we are told that v. 32 they did not understand the statement and were afraid to ask him about it. This statement reminds us of the Biblical truth that they needed the Holy Spirit to open their minds, which he did when Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection. For now, they didn’t fully understand why Jesus had to suffer and die and rise again, and they were afraid to admit that they didn’t understand.
This is a good reminder for us not to do what they did. If we don’t understand something Scripture says there are two things we should do. Pray that the Holy Spirit would open our understanding, admit we don’t understand and ask our fellow Christians to help us.
Instead of admitting their ignorance the disciples argued about who was the greatest. Peter, James and John had gone with Jesus up the mountain and witnessed the transfiguration. The other nine disciples had stayed behind and were unable to cast out a demon. Who’s the greatest?
You can see how Satan must have been working to puff up the pride of Peter, James and John tempting them to think that they were greater than the others because Jesus had taken them with him and left the others behind. Maybe they were arguing that if they had been asked to cast out the demon they would have been able to do it. Maybe Andrew piped up and pointed out that he was the one who had brought Peter to Jesus. If it had not been for him, Peter might never have met Jesus, so that made him at least as great as Peter. Maybe James and John were already thinking about what they would later ask Jesus, that they should be the ones to have the most honored places in his kingdom, one on his right and one on his left. They must have had a pretty heated discussion as they walked toward Capernaum. They tried to hide it from Jesus, but, of course, Jesus knew what they were discussing. He knew he had to confront their sinful pride, for as James wrote, such envy and selfish ambition is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil… it leads to disorder and every evil practice. So Jesus confronted them. He asked, what were you arguing about on the way? But they remained silent. Their conscience immediately convicted them so that they were ashamed to admit that they had been arguing about who was the greatest.
Envy and selfish ambition are built in to us, they are a part of the sinful nature that we inherit from Adam and Eve. Think about it. What’s one of the favorite words of a 2 or 3 year old? “Mine!” No matter how sweet and innocent a child seems, just put them with other children and some toys and within minutes there will be children fighting for the same toy even though there are 20 other toys they could play with.
Envy is built in. It’s part of our sinful nature and Satan works to exploit it so that he can divide and conquer. The more people are fighting with each other striving to be the greatest, the less work will get done for the Lord; the fewer people will be reached with the good news of the gospel; and people who might be reached will be turned off because “those Christians are just like everyone else. They’re fighting with each other trying to be the greatest.” Satan loves to fan pride, envy, and selfish ambition into flame so that he can cause division and hinder the Lord’s work on earth.
Satan used this tactic in the early church. Ananias and Sapphira had prideful selfish ambition. They wanted to have everyone think they were the greatest by selling property and pretending to bring all the money to the Apostles, but actually keeping some for themselves. God stepped in with a powerful judgment to keep their pride and selfish ambition from causing trouble in the infant church.
Satan is still at work today trying to fan pride, envy and selfish ambition into flame to cause disorder and to thus hinder the work of the Lord. Sometimes people call it church politics. It rears its ugly head when someone new suggests an idea that might be pretty good, but it didn’t come from one of the leaders in the church, and “we’ve never done that before,” so the person’s suggestion is rudely put down and maybe called “foolish” or “impossible.” It rears its ugly head when someone thinks or implies that because they provide the church with a lot of financial support things should be done their way, and if they aren’t then they threaten to redirect their offerings somewhere else. It rears its ugly head when we think that some jobs in the church are beneath us, or when we think that reaching out to certain people is beneath us, or when we claim that we won’t be a part of something because someone hurt our feelings, or our idea wasn’t the one that was chosen by the majority. Satan uses the pride, envy and selfish ambition that is built in to our sinful nature to try to divide us, to cause disorder and hinder the Lord’s work.
Satan is not only at work in the church, but he is at work in our families. Think about how pride and envy affect your marriage. Aren’t a lot of problems between husbands and wives the result of the struggle to be the greatest? Isn’t the failure to admit when you are wrong and to apologize the result of sinful pride? Don’t you see Satan smiling as these things cause all kinds of disorder in the family?
We don’t have time to talk about how these things affect society and government—class envy, sinful pride, who’s the greatest, they have too much, they have too little, they aren’t sharing—We see these things causing all kinds of disorder and every evil practice.
How did Jesus handle the eruption of envy and selfish ambition among his disciples? With a simple question. By asking them what they had been arguing about he pointed out their sin. They felt shame. They knew they were wrong. Then, sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant of all.” He modeled his servant attitude as he graciously and patiently continued to instruct them.
How do you get to be the greatest in God’s kingdom? Not like Yertle the Turtle. Not by demanding that people acknowledge that you are the greatest and forcing them to serve you. You may be king of the hill for a while, but sooner or later someone is going to knock you off.
Those who are great in God’s kingdom are the ones who aren’t worried about being the greatest, but who are humbly working to bind up the wounds of those who get knocked down trying to be the greatest. They are the ones who are binding the wounds of those who God’s law has crushed, whose pride has been crushed, who have been humbled to say with the tax collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” They are those who welcome a child into this world as a gift from God, not as someone they can abort if their prideful plans are threatened, and then who welcome that child into God’s kingdom through baptism. Who see that raising a child to know the Lord is greater than a career that makes them rich and famous. They are the ones who don’t see the poorest and the least as beneath them, or as someone they can use to advance themselves, but as opportunities for service and as those who need to hear God’s word as much as they do.
Who’s the greatest? Of course, Jesus is. He is the greatest because he willingly came down from heaven not to be served, but to serve. Everyone was beneath him, yet he served everyone. Jesus is the greatest because he never gave in to pride, or envy, or selfish ambition. He resisted those temptations to sin as our substitute under God’s law. He is the greatest because in serving us, who didn’t deserve even a moment of his attention, he gave his life as a ransom for us. He suffered on the cross and was forsaken by the father for all the times that we have given in to pride, and envy, and selfish ambition. The only way to enter his kingdom is through faith in Him, through acknowledgment that we aren’t the greatest, he is.
In response to his service to us that won us salvation Jesus calls us all as his disciples to examine ourselves daily and acknowledge where pride and selfish ambition has reared its head in our hearts, and caused disorder in our life and the lives of those around us. He calls all his disciples to rejoice daily that he served us by sacrificing himself in our place on the cross. He calls all his disciples to be inspired by his selfless service to serve one another in love so that the spread of the good news of the gospel might not be hindered by arguing about who is the greatest.