How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are.
(1 John 3:1)
“Hey mom, of all your kids, who’s your favorite?” As some of you might know, and the rest of you are soon to find out – I come from a big family, like circus big. Naturally, as kids, each of us wanted to know where we ranked and which one of us was our mom’s favorite. In a family of 14 kids, you might think it would be easy to get lost in the mix. I guess each one of us wanted something to hold over our many siblings – kind of like I’M certainly not lost in the shuffle because I’M mom’s favorite. I must be better, more important, more lovable than you, because I’M mom’s favorite. So, that question surfaced from time to time among the Scharf children. “Mom, who’s your favorite?” And with grace and wisdom that still escapes me, she would respond, “I love all of you the same, but you’re my favorite Matt.” And, as big as my family was, I knew there wasn’t another kid named Matt in the mix, so that was good enough for me. Foolish questions from silly children – maybe. Things we joke about now as adults – definitely.
As silly or foolish as those childhood questions might seem, the fact that we felt compelled to ask them demonstrates a very real and a very important point. The sinful nature inside each of you and inside of me always wants all the attention. It wants to be unique, most important, and the greatest part of us. How many times have you felt slighted that someone else was picked for a team or a group instead of you? Or that someone else got to play or to speak or be involved or received some honor instead of you? Maybe you’ve grown out of those kinds of jealousies, but maybe you’ve been the person who sat quietly seething with white hot, silent rage as someone else took credit for work you did. You hate the teacher’s pet and the boss’ favorite. Not so much because you have a problem with the concept, but you hate the teacher’s pet and boss’ favorite because you’re not it. Growing up doesn’t mean these kinds of thoughts go away. I’m more qualified for that job. I’m better suited for that position. I’d do ten times better than my supervisor if I were in his spot. If each of us takes even a cursory look at our lives and relationships, we see immediately that we’ve all been guilty of wanting glory for ourselves instead of God. We’ve wanted to be considered great in one way or another - not to glorify God but to aggrandize self.
The existence of a vain, glory-hungry sinful nature is nothing new. Jesus’ disciples showed their own on more than one occasion. Mark tells us, They came to Capernaum. When [Jesus ] was in the house, he 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. We might think, “What?!” Is that a normal topic for conversation among you and your friends – you get together and talk about sports…the weather…hammer out which one of us is “the greatest”? Why would they be talking about this? Well, this section of Mark’s gospel comes after the Transfiguration – when Peter, James, and John got to go up that mountain with Jesus and get an unveiled glimpse at his divine glory. And a few chapters before this, Peter, James, and John also got to go with Jesus and witness him raise a little girl from death to life. So, perhaps the thoughts started turning in the minds of the other nine disciples. Why did Jesus take Peter, James, and John up that mountain for the Transfiguration or into that room to witness a Jesus raise a dead girl to life? And why were they so tight lipped about what happened up there? Do they think they’re better than us? Does Jesus think they’re better than us? You know how the human mind works. It starts small, but ends up consuming you.
You can almost imagine how their argument went: As we’d expect, Peter pipes up first, “I’m the spokesman for this motley crew, and it was my confession that Jesus said was the rock on which he’d build his church and the gates of hell would never overtake it! Come on, I walked on water with Jesus!” Judas chimes in, “Yeah, but you sank, remember that part? Who’s the keeper of the coin around here? I’ve got the money, I’ve got the sway.” “You wanna talk about money?!” Matthew shouts, “I had tons of it. I was a tax collector, and a successful one, too. Look how much I left behind to join the likes of you smelly fishermen!” Andrew thinks he’s got the trump card, “Guys, let’s just put this one to bed - I was Jesus’ FIRST disciple. I’ve got seniority!” John protests, “But I’m the disciple whom Jesus loves!” Everybody’s got their claim to greatness, and we’re no different. We, like the disciples, want to be part of that “inner-circle.” We want to receive special attention. We want to be important. We want to be the person people look up to and respect. We want to be great.
But maybe the struggle for us today isn’t pushing and shoving to get noticed and make our way to the top of the heap. Maybe the trouble goes in the other direction. Did you catch that line from our Old Testament lesson? Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth…which was written by…MOSES! Yes, Moses wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so I don’t doubt for a second the authenticity of the statement or its validity. But it made me stop and think - if I were writing a book about myself, wouldn’t it be tempting to slip that little detail in there about myself? Now Matt Scharf was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth. Maybe outright pride isn’t so much the struggle for us in this room, who are gathered around the word of God. We all know pride is bad, so I’m going to be the exact opposite of proud. I’m the humblest ever. I’m more humble than you. And just like that, the very thing Jesus calls for – true humility – is something I turn into a measuring stick to compare myself to my neighbor. In the process, I’m anything but humble. So, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that pride in all its forms – whether it’s false humility or outright one-upmanship - is really a starting point for all sins. If I’m focused on myself and serving myself, my eyes aren’t on my neighbor next to me. They’re on my own heart, from which spring evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, etc. False humility is just pride wearing a different dress – or sackcloth. Humility is one of those slippery traits, because once you proclaim to have it, you’ve already lost it. If you want to be first, you’ve already disqualified yourself.
Jesus knew that his disciples were struggling with this issue, just as surely as he knows we are. He didn’t give in to their sinful desires and just let them have their way. Instead, he showed them how to be truly great; how to be first in the Kingdom of God. Serve. Be last. This turns our natural conception of greatness on its head – and rightly so. What seems nonsensical to our human reason and unnatural to our human heart is in perfect order in God’s Kingdom. Love means service. Humility is really an exalted state. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “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.”
Jesus’ powerful paradox precludes personal pride. Greatness in God’s kingdom isn’t about being first. In fact, it isn’t even about you. If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all. There’s no “half-way” down in humility. Who’s the boss? Not you. You’re not even middle management. You’re the last. You’re the servant of all. Jesus said it twice so we’d hear it twice – Want to be first? You’re last OF ALL and you’re servant OF ALL. See what that means? Who has a right to talk to me that way? Who has a claim on my precious time and personal resources? Who is the beneficiary of menial tasks that seem below me? ABSOLUTELY EVERYBODY…and it’s great. Hold on – this seems to echo some of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. Remember how he said our relationships with others should go? Cheek turning, cloak giving, loving and praying for enemies. But doesn’t that sound like an instruction manual for how to be a total pushover? LOVE my enemies? Maybe if I want to get walked all over like a doormat. Turn the other cheek? Then I’ll be a target forever. Give freely to the one who asks, no matter who it is? Then I’ll be a mark for people to take advantage of me. Jesus isn’t giving us worldly advice on self-defense, legal procedure, or financial management. He’s teaching us a lesson of love. When I see those opportunities to forgive, to give, to be generous, ultimately to show love – my question shouldn’t be, How can I avoid being taken advantage of, scammed, or walked on? When I see those opportunities – even with my “enemies,” my question is always, “How can I be Christ to this person?” Even to the little child, who can’t pay you back and probably won’t appreciate all you do.
That’s exactly what Jesus did. If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all. Did you notice how, with that simple sentence, Jesus described his entire life on earth? Look at the One who’s talking with his arms wrapped around a little child. He’s the One who didn’t think of his own heavenly glory as something to be jealously held onto. Instead, he made himself nothing. The same One who calls us to enter the kingdom of God like little children and to serve little children in his name, he’s the One who himself became a child in Bethlehem. Instead of jumping on the self-aggrandizing bandwagon headed for worldly greatness, Jesus humbled himself; leaving behind heaven’s glory and the eternal praise of angels to be born a human child. Rather than letting the devil’s temptations to pride sidetrack the grace of God, Jesus tore down the barrier of sin that stood between us and holy God with his perfect humility – even humbling himself to the point of death on a cross. What could they ever offer me? wasn’t even a thought that crossed Jesus’ mind. Instead, his every thought was focused on saving you. In the face of the devil’s tempting What could they ever offer you? Jesus was determined to give you everything. God made flesh becomes the very last and the servant of all, and in so doing, put you first of all, elevating you to the status of royal priests, baptized in his name, washed in his blood.
Here’s how Jesus defined greatness, 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. Here’s where Jesus’ glory is found – under the shame and ugliness of the cross. And he did it for you. The one who really knows what true greatness is, and is worthy of service from everything in the universe stoops down to wash the feet of his disciples, refuses excesses of worldly comfort, gives up everything if it meant having you – and he doesn’t regret it for a second.
So, God, of all your children, who’s your favorite? Well, you are, and you, and you, and you. You’re the greatest in God’s eyes – not because of what you do or who you are. But because Jesus Christ has died and risen for you. And now, his love that so penetrates our heart and soul turns our attention outside of ourselves and sets us free to see others as the greatest, because they, too, are souls for whom Jesus died and rose. Do you have great expectations? Are you looking for greatness? Look to Jesus and see greatness in action. Humbly serve and joyfully give of yourself. Not because it will save you, but because you have been saved and set free in Christ. You can love with no thought of what you’ll get in return, because that’s exactly how Jesus has loved you. You can give of yourself with no thought of reaping some benefit, because you’ve received an undeserved gift beyond comprehension – forgiveness for your sins and life forever in heaven. Greatness in God’s kingdom is not about advancement of self. It’s about dying to self, and being raised to new life with your Savior Jesus. Looking for greatness? Look to Jesus. He’s set you free from sin. He’s set you free to love. He’s set you free…to be great!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.