Sermon 10-21-18: “Whoever Would Be Great Among You”

I preached this sermon on October 21, 2018, at Cannon United Methodist Church in Snellville, Georgia. My first sermon in a while! (I will preach again on November 25.) The video comes directly from an iPad, so the quality isn’t as good as it will be as soon as we get some multimedia equipment replaced at our church. We had some recent flooding… it’s a long story. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!

Sermon Text: Mark 10:35-45

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As we read the gospels we often like to identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” the heroes and the villains. And we identify with the good guys. And in the gospels that’s usually Jesus, right? We are like Jesus, and we are not like those bad old Pharisees. Or we’re like the Good Samaritan, and we are not like the bad old priest or Levite. Or we’re like the sheep, and we’re not like the bad old goats. And when we read today’s scripture, chances are we say to ourselves, “We are not like those obstinate, slow-witted, egocentric disciples—especially James and John! We are not like James and John!”

And I agree. We are not like James and John.

Consider one of the most difficult teachings in the New Testament, which comes from the lips of Jesus himself: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26.

Jesus is using hyperbole—that is, he’s exaggerating on purpose to make an important point. But the point is clear: that his disciples’ love for and have allegiance to Jesus is so great that all other loves and allegiances look like hatred in comparison. If you’re forced to choose between your love for and allegiance to Jesus and your love for and allegiance to everyone and everything else in the world—including the people who mean the most to you—the choice is clear: we disciples choose Jesus every time!

And we may read these words and think, “It’s so difficult. I’m not sure if push came to shove, I could make that choice” But guess what? Back in Mark chapter 1, that’s exactly what James and John do! They are literally mending their fishing nets on their father’s boat, working as part of their father’s business. And when Jesus calls them to follow him, they literally leave their father behind. Could I do that? Thank God I’m saved by grace because what Jesus is asking is so hard!

But not for James and John… So you’re right: I am not like James and John.

Or consider the scripture that Sondra preached on last week… the Rich Young Ruler. Remember? Jesus gave him a choice. You can choose Jesus or you can choose all of your earthly treasures. The choice is yours. You can’t have both. It’s one or the other. And, sadly, we know that the Rich Young Ruler chose earthly treasure over Jesus. Even here, James and John make a very different choice. Because, while they’re not as wealthy as the Rich Young Ruler, they had money. They had a respectable business. They had the means to make more money. They had a livelihood. They had a career. And when Jesus called them, they left it all behind.

I am not like James and John.

I mean, back in 2003, 2004, I answered Jesus’ call into ministry, and I made some sacrifices. And certainly my wife and family made many sacrifices. But I made sure before I answered that call that over the next three years of expensive seminary I could somehow find a way to make ends meet. I could somehow find a way to support my wife and young family—whether by student loans and scholarships, or moving down to Forsyth, Georgia, where we could life in a parsonage while I pastored a small church there part-time. I found a way before I followed Jesus. Not so James and John. When he called them, they left immediately… which takes a lot of faith on their part.

So I am not like James and John.

In fact, it took a lot of faith for them to make this request of Jesus. Right? “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” First of all, they really believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They really believed that he was coming into his kingdom. They really believed that there was going to be glory when they did. And they really believed that Jesus had the power to give them what they asked for. That takes faith!

And they were bold. Jesus tells two parables about the importance of being bold in prayer. In one, a man needs bread because he has some unexpected company. And he literally goes to a neighbor’s house, knocks on his door at midnight, wakes up the whole family, and insists on his neighbor getting up and getting him some loaves of bread. That’s bold! That’s brazen! Yet that’s how Jesus says we ought to pray![1]

Or consider the persistent widow. She wants justice from this judge, and so she pesters him. She won’t leave him alone. Until finally he says, “Look, I’m going to give you what you want, not because I fear God, not because I fear you or any other person, but because you’re driving me crazy!” And Jesus says that our prayers ought to be a lot like that[2]… bold… brazen… And that’s the kind of prayer that James and John have when they ask Jesus to do this for them.

Just last week I heard a podcast sponsored by the United Theological Seminary, which is a United Methodist-affiliated seminary in Ohio. And this podcast featured an interview with a young woman who, like Sondra and me, is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. And she was talking about prayer. She was talking about the power of prayer. She was talking about how, when she and her congregation would pray the that Holy Spirit would do something powerful, God has answered. Her church has been very fruitful. The Holy Spirit has been doing things like performing physical healings. The Holy Spirit has been giving people gifts of prophecy and words of power. The Holy Spirit has been baptizing the people in that congregation with power. The Holy Spirit has been transforming lives. The Holy Spirit has been transforming their community. She had never seen anything like this, and it happened when she prayed—when her people prayed.

And she said something that has stuck with me. I’ve been thinking about it all week. It kind of punched me in the gut. She said, “When we believe in Jesus, we do not receive the junior Holy Spirit. In fact, we receive the exact same Holy Spirit that was poured out on the disciples and the other believers gathered at Pentecost. We receive the same Holy Spirit that empowers the disciples throughout the Book of Acts. We receive the same Holy Spirit that we see working in powerful ways at the church in Corinth in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. That’s the Holy Spirit that we receive. We don’t receive some kind of junior Holy Spirit that doesn’t really do anything.

And I’m thinking about this: Next weekend our church has its Fall Festival. And I’m sure that there are going to be hundreds of people from our community who are going to be on our campus to enjoy the festivities. Are we praying—are we praying—that the Holy Spirit will somehow use us and do something powerful through us to bear witness to Christ, to somehow reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ? Are we praying for that? Are we bold enough to believe that somehow a humble event like a Fall Festival can bring people to Jesus. I hope we do!

If we’re like James and John we’re going to pray for the that kind of power. We’re going to pray for that kind of boldness. We’re going to pray believing that the Holy Spirit can do something like that! Amen?

So I feel convicted because I know that so often in my life I am not like James and John!

Jesus said, “You know the saying, ‘Four months between planting and harvest.’ But I say, wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest.”[3] And next weekend those fields are going to be ripe for harvest. And God is calling us to go out and reap that harvest. If only the Holy Spirit will empower us to reap that harvest.

different James, the brother of Jesus, said in his letter, “You do not have because you do not ask.”[4]

O.K. I’ve just been saying some nice things about James and John. Those are some things they got right. But let’s face facts: they were mostly wrong. Verse 37: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Now, they didn’t understand Jesus’ words about suffering on a cross, dying, and being resurrected. But they understood that when Jesus got to Jerusalem, Jesus the Messiah would somehow be coronated as king. And they might have to do some fighting, but that was fine: James and John weren’t nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” for nothing! They knew how to fight! They were powerful men, and they were prepared to fight for Jesus. And after they won the inevitable victory, guess what? One of them wanted to be Prime Minister. And the other wanted to be Chief of Staff. They wanted to have the most prominent positions in this new kingdom that Jesus was inaugurating.

What they really wanted in so many words… they wanted glory. “Lord, just give me a little bit of glory.”

I can totally relate. Twenty-five years ago, before I got an engineering degree, I went to work in sales for AT&T. Large-system sales. And I was new at the sales game, and I needed to be taught the ropes. So they assigned me a mentor, a very successful salesman with the company named Alec. He was wonderful… good Christian man. Very successful. You go into his office and you see the trophies, and plaques, and certificates attesting to his great success. The company had awarded him a couple dozen vacations to exotic places on the company dime.

And Alec told me on more than one occasion… he said, “Brent, I don’t really do this for the money. I’m not really motivated by the money. I’m motivated by recognition. And I said to him, “Alec, well in that case if you would just sign over your commission checks to me… because I’m really in it for the money! You can keep the trophies.” No, I didn’t say that, but I wanted to say it! But I was naive back then, and I know better now. Because you know what? I can completely identify with Alec’s thirst for glory. Because I have this sinful place in my heart in which I find that I want glory. I crave it! I crave applause and approval and awards. And would it be the worst thing in the world if I were appointed bishop? I don’t think so.

Maybe you’re a little like me?

I want to invite you to turn in your Bibles to a very familiar story, the Parable of the Prodigal Son… Luke 15. You know the story. He gets his father’s inheritance early. He goes off to a foreign land. He squanders every penny, literally, on wine, women, and song. He’s penniless. He’s starving. He’s broke. He decides that he needs to go home. He decides that he’ll be a servant in his father’s house, in which case he’ll at least have three square meals each day. But guess what? His father won’t hear of it. Instead, his father welcomes him back. His father embraces him as his beloved son… and throws the biggest party imaginable.

Everyone’s happy, right? Wrong! His older brother, who has been faithfully serving—slaving away for his father all these years—is very unhappy with what his father is doing. In fact, if you look with me in v. 29, he says, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.”

You see, as faithful as the older son had been, he had an ulterior motive. He really wanted recognition. He really wanted some glory. And he was mad that his father had never given it to him. And look how the father responds in v. 31, “Son, you are always with me….” In other words, the father was saying to the older son, “You have me. You have everything you need. You have me! Am I not enough for you? You don’t need anything else. You have me and everything that belongs to me. I know what you need, and you don’t need anything else!”

And I wonder if one question that God is asking some of us today is, “Am I enough for you?” Is God enough for us? Or are we looking somewhere else? Are we looking to someone else to give us what only God can give us?

This is a cliché. You’ve heard it before. We all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. I like to think of it as  a tank—an empty tank—and that tank is going to be filled up by something. It’s either going to be filled up by God and the things of God, or it’s going to be filled up with stuff that we think we need to fill it up. But if God doesn’t fill up that tank, nothing and no one else will. Not your spouse, your children, your significant other. Not your career, your possessions, your friendships, your romantic relationships. Not your academic success, your athletic achievements, and no amount of recognition and no amount of personal glory can ever fill up that empty tank. Only the Lord can do it!

Is the Lord going to be enough for you and me? Oh, I pray… I pray that he will be.

About six weeks ago, you might have seen a picture that was making the rounds on social media of an actor named Geoffrey Owens. You probably don’t know the name, but if you’re of Generation X like me you will know his face. In the late-’80s and early-’90s Owens was a supporting actor on the number one show in America… The Cosby Show. He played Elvin Tibideaux, Sondra’s husband. Anyway, this photo showed him working at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey where he now lives. And there was an unflattering article accompanying the photo which said, in so many words, “See how the mighty have fallen!”

Owens, after all, was on the number one show in the country for years, and now look what he’s doing! And—surprise, surprise—he’s gained some weight.” As if middle-age doesn’t happen to all of us!

So I’m happy to report that the news outlets that published the photo were roundly condemned for “job-shaming.” Here’s a guy making an honest living to support his family. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!

Except… except… if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us do think something is wrong with it. Why? Because we secretly believe—all evidence to the contrary—that things like fame, popularity, career success, awards, good looks, money—all of which Owens surely possessed even as a supporting actor on the number-one show in America—we secretly believe these things will make us happy, and satisfied, and fulfilled.

So when we see Geoffrey Owens today, we see a man who was on top of the world—or close enough—and he seems to have lost everything. How tragic!

But why? Why would we feel this way? If Jesus is telling the truth in today’s scripture—that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all”—then Geoffrey Owens has lost nothing—absolutely nothing… of any lasting value.

Look, I don’t know anything about actor Geoffrey Owens’s spiritual life; I don’t know where he stands in his relationship with Jesus. So what I’m about to say is hypothetical… but I do know this: If it took losing all the accoutrements of Hollywood fame, celebrity, and wealth in order for him to find Jesus, then he would be able to say, “It was totally worth it. It was totally worth losing everything the world values if, in return, I get Jesus… Totally worth losing everything else. Because Jesus is everything.” What does Paul say in Philippians 3: “I count it all as loss. It’s garbage in comparison to knowing Christ.”

But listen… the message here today is not “try harder”: Try harder to be servant. Try harder to be the slave of all. Try harder to work for Jesus. I’m not saying, “Roll up your sleeves and work harder.” That’s not the solution. Because if we’re going to be the kind of servant that Jesus calls us to be, it doesn’t mean working harder.

It does mean trusting harder.

But more than anything it means loving Jesus more. I’m convinced from my own life—and I’m sure this is true for many of you—but I’m convinced that there’s not really any problem ultimately that can’t be solved by loving Jesus more. Falling in love with Jesus.

So I want you to think for a moment about any corny love song that you like. O.K., so I’m thinking of one. And I’m going to try to sing it. It goes something like this: “I would climb any mountain/ Sail across the stormy sea/ If that’s what it takes me, baby/ To show how much you mean to me.” You know the song. It’s by Foreigner.

But you hear what he’s saying. Every good love song says something like that. I would do anything for the person that I love. You know that’s true. Many of you are in love. Many of you remember being in love. You know what it feels like. Climb a mountain? Absolutely! Sail across the stormy sea? By all means! Lay down your life… like the Prince song… “I would die for you.” That’s how it feels when you’re in love.

So what we need to do is… we need to fall in love with Jesus again, or fall more deeply in love with Jesus again.

O Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit enable us to fall more deeply in love with you. Amen.

1. Luke 11:5-13

2. Luke 18:1-8

3. John 4:35 NLT

4. James 4:2c

6 thoughts on “Sermon 10-21-18: “Whoever Would Be Great Among You””

    1. Our video situation is pretty bad right now. It will get much better soon. We had a flood (an A/C pipe) in the A/V room recently. Our cameras are out of commission.

  1. Wow! A lot of heavy stuff rolled into one sermon! Here are a few of my thoughts in the “for what it’s worth category.”

    First, I don’t agree that if we just start praying hard enough, we will see things like physical healings, prophesying, and speaking in tongues. I don’t believe that “charismatic” believers (of whatever denomination) trust in God more or pray more fervently than their “ordinary” counterparts, and that’s why they see miracles and we don’t. If they are really seeing the miraculous (which I personally doubt, of course, given my “cessationist” beliefs), that’s great, but it is up to the Spirit how he wants to hand out his gifts, not us by “demanding” them. Now, I do agree that we should be earnest in our prayers and have the expectation that God will answer, but as James also says, “You ask, and have not, because you ask amiss.” What we really need to be praying for is not the miraculous, but for lost souls to be saved (as you quite correctly recognize) and spiritual growth in ourselves and other believers.

    Second, I readily agree that James and John are light years ahead of me in the faith and devotion category. But I wonder just how wrong they were in what they asked for in this passage. Paul says that he runs as one seeking the prize. He fights to win. He has a crown waiting for him. He is interested in gold, silver, and precious stones. Daniel (I think it is Daniel) says that those who win many to salvation will shine like the stars. Hebrews 11 says the faithful were looking for the heavenly reward. So, I don’t think it is necessarily wrong to “seek for glory”–it just has to be the right kind of glory, for the right reasons, and by the right means. Note that Jesus doesn’t actually chide James and John for their request. Instead, he tells them maybe they aren’t quite up to the task so much as they think they are, that only God the Father will decide “who sits where,” and they had the wrong idea about what the “glory” we are supposed to be seeking involves. So, while it is quite correct that “God is enough,” God says that with him, “he will freely give us all things.” God does not mind there being an expectation on our part that “he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” Hebrews 11:6.

    Finally, while we are unable to “pull ourselves up by our own boot strings,” I think (and you may actually agree with me on this–I’m just not quite sure from what you say here) that the Christian life does involve a lot of work. We “labor in the field.” We “invest” what God gives us and obtain a return on that investment. Paul says he worked harder than them all (yet not I, but Christ who lives in me). We are supposed to “pray without ceasing” (as in your examples), which actually takes a good deal of effort and “self-sacrifice” (much more than actually characterizes me). Peter says to add this to that to the other. James says that “faith without works is dead.” Etc. So, while we recognize with Paul that God must be working in and through us, we still are to be “putting out effort.”

    Well, I don’t want to give the impression that I did not get a lot out of your sermon! I thought you made a lot of good points. But it is sort of the “nature of the beast” with me to pick out things to consider about most everything that I hear or read! My hope in that regard is that I am being somewhat like the Bereans! 🙂

    1. Regarding your first point, I remember that you’re a cessationist. But I’m sure that you agree that we as a church ought to be praying fervently for the salvation of people’s souls, for revival, for success and boldness in evangelism, and for transformation of the community. My “application” of bold prayer wasn’t to miraculous healings, etc., but to our church’s Fall Festival—that it would be a platform for effectively sharing the gospel. I perceive that we of the Methodist tradition, at least, often fail to expect success in evangelism, or even to pray for it. We Methodists are not, in general, bold in praying that we would reap the harvest that God has set before us.

      As for the second point, no commentators or preachers I read or heard believe that James and John were right in asking what they asked for. They share with me the conviction that James and John were seeking their own glory rather than God’s. I don’t perceive that self-glorification is ever what scripture commends—even if God’s people may still be glorified. The extent to which we’re rewarded in heaven won’t be based on personal glory-seeking, will it? Anyway, these commentators interpret Jesus’ response, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” as a gentle rebuke. The implicit answer to the rhetorical question is “no.” This seems even more clear in Mark’s placing their request immediately after Jesus’ warning about his impending suffering and death.

      I don’t disagree at all with your third point. In fact, I’ve been reading Proverbs recently, and I’m struck by those verses that speak of God’s providential hand in the midst of human effort. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Or even Psalm 127:1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” This is a paradox: The Lord is building even as human laborers are building; the Lord is watching, even as watchmen are watching. This is amazing to me.

  2. Just started feeling well enough to read this. Excellent Sermon!

    When a Christian has a near death experience, believe me, you don’t think about all the “work” you did for the LORD. Rather you reach with all your heart for the one who can comfort you and who gave you eternal assurance of His love.

    1. Thanks, Grant! I’ve become sensitive to how human-centered our sermons and our “God talk” can be. I want to hear about God and his gospel!

      Glad to have you back!

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