November 27, 2016
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated film to be produced by Walt Disney. Released in 1937, it was adapted from the Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, not to be confused with the Brothers Gibb, otherwise, Snow White would have been singing, “Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah Staying Alive” as she ran from the wicked queen. The tale is the story of Snow White who hides out in the woods with the Seven Dwarfs to escape the evil Queen.
As you remember, the story begins with the evil queen approaching her magic mirror every day to ask the question, “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” Everything’s fine, as long as the mirror replies, “Why you are, of course,” fulfilling the queen’s insatiable vanity. But one day, something happened. Snow White had grown up, and the queen was no longer the fairest, giving rise to a plot of murder, escape, rescue of the seven dwarfs, a poisoned apple, Prince Charming, and happily ever after.
The real problem, of course, is all too often, there is no such thing as happily ever after. Why? Because the problem of the queen is inherent in all of us. We want to know, who is the fairest of them all? Who’s the strongest, the fastest, the best-looking, indeed, who is the greatest of them all? As Michael reminded us a couple weeks ago, whether it’s ESPN, the Oscars or People Magazine, we’re all obsessed with the question, “who is the greatest, the prettiest, the sexiest?” Who’s on top – who’s the best.
The truth of the matter is, we all struggle with the question. And behind that question is the real issue – we’re performers. We want to know, how am I doing compared to everyone else. How’s my performance as a worker, a student, a father, a husband, a mother, a wife – how do I stack up with my peers, how am I doing? Who’s the fairest, the greatest of them all? Turn in your Bibles to Mark 9. We’re going to find today Jesus has some strong things to say about the question and the attitude behind the question. Let’s read the text – Mark 9:30-37.
Even the disciples struggled with the problem – who’s the greatest – how am I doing? How am I doing compared to Peter, James, John? You see, these disciples are an awful lot like us – they are born performers, strivers, with their eyes on me, competing with everyone else. Not only that, they were keeping track of everyone else – and they each thought themselves doing pretty well, by their own scorekeeping methods.
Later, the week before His crucifixion, the mother of James and John will come up to Jesus and say, “How about it Lord, why don’t you let my sons sit next to you in the kingdom – one on your left hand, one on your right? They’re pretty great boys, don’t you think?” And the other disciples, when they heard about it, got mad. Why? Because they could hardly believe the insensitivity of James and John, who no doubt put their mother up the task. How can you ask such a thing right before He dies – right before He bears the sins of the world on His shoulders. That’s not it at all – they’re angry because they were gunning for the seats. They had their eyes on number one – they each thought themselves worthy of the honor. Who’s the greatest – that’s what mattered. Notice, by the way, this discussion comes on the heels of Jesus’ prediction of His humiliation. I came not to be served, but to serve, and give My life a ransom. And the disciples are worried about who’s the greatest. A jarring distinction between Jesus’ humility and the disciples’ proud desire for recognition. Jesus speaks of giving His life; they speak of gaining theirs – of status, privilege and recognition.
This is the second of three times in short order Jesus gives a passion prediction – He’s going to Jerusalem where He will be handed over, killed, but raised again. And each of the three predictions is followed by some failure on the part of the disciples – typically as they had their eyes on themselves – some act of pride or self-interest. In the first one back in chapter 8, after Peter got it right – You’re the Christ, the Son of the living God – Jesus gave His first passion prediction, and Peter pulled Him aside to rebuke Him – not so, Lord, not while I’m alive. To which Jesus responded – don’t miss this – get behind Me, Satan. You have your eyes on man’s interests – your own interests, not God’s. How so? Well, Peter thought they were on their way to Jerusalem to set up the kingdom, in which he would no doubt play a big part.
The second passion prediction is this one, followed by the disciples arguing about who was greatest. Stop and think about that for a minute. The disciples had just come through some significant failures. First, up on the mountain, Peter said, it’s really cool to be here – let’s build three tents – one for You, Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. That was too much for the Father who then said, “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him.” In other words, be quiet Peter, and listen to My Son.
Then, when they get back to the other nine disciples, they find them arguing with some scribes because they’d been unable to cast out a demon. They’d failed miserably. Jesus is frustrated with them, “How long do I have to put up with you?” Now, they’re headed through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem, and Jesus gives the second passion description. Do they get it? No – they don’t understand, and they’re too scared to ask about it. Next verse, Jesus asks them, “What were you discussing along the way?” They’re silent – an indictment – because they were arguing about which one was greatest.
After the third passion prediction, James and John commission their mom to go ask Jesus if they can sit on either side of Him in the kingdom – places of honor. We’re the greatest – we deserve the seats. The point is, these guys suffered from narcissism – an unwarranted self-focus. Let me give you the outline of the text before I preach my entire sermon. We’re going to look at these verses where we’ll see:
- The Disciples’ Faulty View of Greatness (33-34)
- Jesus’ Correct View of Greatness (35-37)
Let’s look first at this second passion prediction. It’s the shortest of the three – I’ll be delivered, I’ll be killed, I’ll be raised again. But there are a couple of things to notice. First, the first phrase is a play on words, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men.” The Son of Man will be killed by men – the very ones He came to save. Second, He will be delivered or handed over to the hands of men. He will be handed over, not by men, but to the hands of men. Most agree this is a divine passive – God is the one handing Jesus over – it was the plan of the Father carried out by the Son. It was the Father who handed over His own Son. He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all.
Well, after this second passion prediction, the disciples still don’t get it – they didn’t understand, although I’m not sure He could have made it any plainer. Mark has been making a case for the slowness of the disciples. Seems like cased closed. They didn’t get it, but they were too afraid to ask. Somehow, even they knew they should understand it.
That brings us to our text. Jesus is talking about His coming death – they’re talking about greatness – which one of them is the greatest. So, Jesus talks to them about true greatness in the kingdom. Remember, Jesus has changed His focus from the crowds to the disciples – to us – teaching us what true discipleship is. And it’s quite different from the world’s pursuits. Living like this will never get you on the cover of People Magazine or Sports Illustrated.
Mark says they got to the house in Capernaum – likely Peter’s house, where they’d stayed quite often. Jesus, either hearing them argue or knowing their thoughts, asked them what they had been talking about along the way. From shame or embarrassment, they were silent for a moment. You can see their furtive glances – perhaps looking for Peter to say something – he always does. However, this time, Jesus fills the silence.
Now, you can imagine how the argument must of unfolded. No doubt, everyone thought Peter might be the favorite. Peter himself perhaps reminded them of some things as he claimed his own preeminence. After all, I was one of the three who got to go to the top of the mountain for the Transfiguration. I walked on water – remember that? Whenever Jesus talks about us, He always puts me at the top of the list. And remember Caesarea Philippi – I got it right – You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Remember what Jesus said? Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you Peter, but my Father in heaven. God talks through me, does He talk through you?
No doubt at this point, someone chimed in – yeah, you walked on water, but you almost drowned – so that’s kind of a wash. Sure, you were at the top of the mountain, but God yelled at you. And right after God spoke through you, so did Satan –“Get behind me, Satan.” Certainly number one is still up for grabs – don’t you think? If greatness is based on performance, it is.
The disciples thought so – they argued about it. They all had a different opinion, and they all had different ways to grade. Maybe it was John. He no doubt said. “I was on the mountain, too. And I’m the beloved disciple.” No, it’s not John, he’s too mushy. It’s James, the strong one. He probably argued his brazen character and bold commitment to the Lord earned him the top spot. James had passion. Yeah, someone pointed out, but you’re always angry – you’re calling fire down from heaven to burn people up, you son of thunder.
You see, it depends on your grading system. Some thought Andrew was the greatest – it’s not those upfront guys like Peter and John – it’s the behind the scenes guys who get the real work done. It’s the Andrews of the world who are the greatest – and I’m personally sure they’re right. Rest assured the reminder of the group had their own self-preoccupied, prideful, selfish, self-aggrandizing arguments as well. “When compared to everyone else, it ought to be obvious, I’m the greatest.”
Now remember, this whole argument, these grading systems were all in the context of Christ followers – the future church. Been with us ever since. Corinth had the problem – I follow Paul, I follow Peter, I follow Apollos, but I follow Christ. Do we ever do that? You better believe we do. Who’s the greatest Christian? What’s your definition of greatness? What’s your grading system? If your grading system is numbers or success or influence or status or power or prestige, then it’s the biggest churches, the most books published, the most Dove Awards. Who’s the greatest, who’s the most well-known, who has the most influence? But is that kingdom greatness?
You have to understand, the Jews had an entire grading system. The rabbis often wrote about it. They even thought they’d figured out who got to sit closest to God in the kingdom – ahead of the angels. You see, that’s why James and John were fighting for the seats. Jesus is suggesting when we get to heaven, the seating chart may be different than we think.
You see, I have a feeling, when the disciples had this argument, they weren’t saying things like, “I’m the greatest because I’m the most needy. I’m the greatest sinner. God’s grace is most evident in my life. I’m the greatest simply because I’m not the greatest. I’m the greatest because I serve.” For them, it was who’s the greatest – who gets to sit next to Jesus? Who gets to tell people what to do? Who will have the place of honor? Who will be served?
Which brings us to our second point as Jesus gives the true definition of greatness. He took the position of a teacher by sitting down and calling the Twelve to Him. And He makes this incredible statement, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” This would have been shocking. No one then, and no one now, sees greatness in being last, and serving. No, greatness is in being first and being served. You have to understand what Jesus is doing. The true definition of greatness is found not in being served, but serving. Now, that’s bad enough, but not just serving, but serving the least in the kingdom. Plato once said, “How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?” This was the prevailing thought of the day.
Jesus called a child to Himself and set him before them. Further, He gathered the child in His arms. The disciples had hardly even noticed the kid. This was the most unlikely picture of greatness anyone would have had. We’re talking about greatness, Jesus, what’s the deal with the kid? Get the picture – a little child surrounded by 12 grown men. In what possible way was the child great, certainly as compared to them? Jesus, with firmness in His voice and steel in His eyes says, all the ingredients necessary for greatness in my kingdom are in this child.
At this time in history, children were totally insignificant – they had no status, no rank, no privileges – to say they were overlooked would be an understatement. They were to be looked after, not looked up to. And the word here is paidi,on – that is, a little child – we should probably think of a toddler. Jesus calls him, he toddles over, barely able to walk, and Jesus sets him before them as He gathers him up in His arms. After a moment or two, the clamoring dies down – all eyes are fixed on Jesus, and He says something that would have totally shocked them, and I believe it needs to shock us this morning.
First, in Matthew He says, this is greatness. He said, “Whoever the humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” They were speechless – even the child was looking around saying, this is greatness? Jesus says, if you want to be great in my kingdom, you have to be like a little child. Know this – throughout His entire ministry, Jesus has been switching all the price tags of life. All the things we’ve thought valuable, the things we pine after, that we’ve fought for all of our lives – Jesus says, they’re of no value, they’re worthless. Greatness in God’s economy is not found in privilege; it’s found in being least – in serving. Think of all He has said: If you want to live, you must die. If you want to save your life, you must lose it. If you want to be great, you must suffer. If you want to be first, you must be last. If you want to be great, you must serve.
Listen to what He’s saying in terms of this no-count, insignificant little child – there is no value in strength, there is no value is status, there is no value in performance, there is no value in wealth, there is no value in stuff, there is no value in prestige or anything else the world wants to honor as great. You want to be great in my kingdom? Then you’ve got to let go of all your comparisons, all your self-focused attempts to make yourself look great, all your performance. Greatness in the kingdom does not come from what you do – it comes from who you are.
What was it about this child, any child, that made Jesus point him out? It wasn’t his behavior – obviously – anyone whose ever had a toddler knows that. It wasn’t necessarily a child-like faith, although we’ve maybe heard that before. What was it? It was his humility and lack of concern for social status – it was a recognition of his total dependence. Without others to take care of him, he would die – that’s the point. Dependence makes you humble. When you’re totally dependent on someone else for your life, it breeds humility.
Now, give that toddler a few years to grow up, start becoming self-sufficient, self-dependent – in fact, by the time they’re a teenager, they know everything – give them some time to start becoming independent, and they start becoming less humble, they start looking to themselves, to their own abilities and performance, and they start becoming proud. Jesus says, there’s no place in my kingdom for proud, self-sufficient, great-in-their-own-eyes people.
A child is a picture of dependency which produces humility. You see, true brokenness produces humility. Said another way: true believers are humble. And that is the picture of greatness. Notice, we don’t know the child’s name, we don’t know the age, we don’t know the gender – we don’t really know anything about him or her – that’s the point – it isn’t about us – it’s about Christ and His kingdom.
A nondescript child. Have you ever felt like that in the midst of the kingdom? In the midst of a bunch of disciples who seemingly walk on water – right by the Peter, James and Johns of the world? I have good news for you – greatness does not come in the things you do – in your abilities, in your performance. It comes through humility. In that sense, the thief on the cross is as great as Billy Graham, and so are you. I can’t wait to get to heaven to see who’s sitting next to Jesus. I sense it’s not going to be who we expect. You’re striving, you’re pushing, you’re jumping up and down trying to be recognized, and Jesus is going to pluck someone from the back of the crowd, with eyes cast downward, unwilling even to look up, and sit right next to Him. Because greatness is in humility.
Humbling ourselves is tough. We spend our whole lives covering up our weaknesses, our inadequacies, our faults. We work hard at being independent, performing so we can be proud of ourselves. We may not argue with one another about who’s greatest, but it’s what keeps us up at night. How am I doing – how’s my performance? We try to cover shortcomings with power and status and position. Most of us don’t like this idea of having to be insignificant, unimportant. Maybe that’s how you’ve felt for a long time. You’ve felt pretty unimportant in the kingdom – the only thing you’ve ever really had is Jesus – no recognition, no status, no power. I have some more good news for you today. It is only those kind of people who are great in the kingdom. It’s that kind of person Jesus is looking for. Later, Jesus will say these words, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”
For some of us this morning the problem isn’t our inadequacies, it’s our strengths. Some of you need to humble yourselves. You need to humble yourselves before your children, before whom you’ve been powerful and strong, in control and in charge – but you’ve never been humble – they’ve never seen you with walls down. Some of you need to humble yourselves before your spouses – husband, wife – you’ve been waiting for him to change, you’ve been waiting for her to change – and the Word of God speaks to you today and says, unless you turn, unless you change, unless you humble yourself like a little child, you’ll never restore your marriage. Some of you are sitting there thinking, I hope my spouse is listening – and by those thoughts, you betray that just don’t get it.
Who is it? Roommates, parents, coworkers – other people in your lives who have seen your wisdom, your power, your wealth, your status – but they’ve never seen you broken – they’ve never seen you humble. I don’t know what the Spirit of God wants to do in your life today, but I’m trusting that some of you will altogether change your way of thinking.
Back to Mark as we close. Jesus gathers this little child in His arms and says, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but the one who sent Me.” You see – not only do we need to change the way we look at ourselves and our false pursuits and definitions of greatness – we need to change the way we look at others. Children at this time were overlooked – insignificant – unimportant. Jesus’ point is not that we all work in children’s ministry – although that’s not a bad idea. Jesus’ point is that we start looking at others – receiving others – despite how the world grades them. If they are brothers and sisters in Christ, we receive them in Jesus’ name, thereby receiving Jesus, in fact, receiving the One who sent Jesus. (Matthew 25 – Least of these – social justice)
See, here’s the point. Who do we serve? Those who make us feel good about serving? Those who can either give us something back, or make us feel important by serving them? Jesus says, look for the least in the kingdom – look for little children – look for those who can give you nothing back – serve them. And that is greatness.