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4th Sunday in Lent
Matthew 20:17-28

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!  In the name of Jesus, friends in Christ,

What does it mean to be “great”?  Who do you consider in life to be “great”?  What is it that makes someone “great”?  Do you want to be considered “great”?  People want to be considered “great” in this world.  I think it is safe to say that no one sets out to live his or her life with the goal of being the most lowsy and good-for-nothing person who’s ever lived, am I right?  People want to be great and that greatness can take on many different definitions or descriptions.

To some greatness is being able to accumulate a great amount of wealth and possessions.  To some being great is to rise to a high position in the business world with a lot of influence and responsibility.  To some being great is found in achieving notoriety and rising to a position of power in the government.  To some being great is found in being popular, having lots of friends who will do anything for you, having a great name, doing something profound and dignified.  But finally, what many if not most feel is great is when you achieve a position of being able to give orders to other people or be listened to by others or to be sought after for advice and instruction.  Many even feel that being a great friend means that since you were there for many people in the past that they’ll be there for you when you need them to do things for you.  That would be greatness.

And it was this idea of greatness that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and their mother also were looking for.  They had been with Jesus for about 3 years, they were part of Jesus’ “inner 3” disciples, they had stuck close to His side.  They wanted Jesus to give them the seats on the right and left of his throne, positions of power and honor and control.  In those days if you were a powerful person and you really wanted to honor someone, you would put a chair next to your seat and that person who sat next to you would be able to exercise great authority and power, in other words would be your right hand man.  In America if you are part of the Presidential cabinet that means you are one of the President’s right hand men, you have power derived from the President, when you speak people better listen and obey.

And that’s the way that it works in this world.  But that’s not the way that it works in God’s kingdom.   To be in such a position of power that you can give orders to other people and they must obey means that you have that power or “greatness” at the expense of other people.  If you want to be the ruler you necessarily are in a position of telling other people what they should do.  So, other people become less or small so that you can look great.

And how did the other disciples feel about this?  They were indignant.  They were angry.  They were furious.  “Who do they think they are?  Do they think they’re better than us?  Why didn’t we think of asking Jesus that question first?”  They, too, wanted positions of power and influence in Jesus’ kingdom.

So what did Jesus say?  “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.”  This whole business of positions, or titles, of places of honor, of power, that’s how it works in this world, but not so with you, not so in God’s world, in His kingdom, in what matters before God.

Twice in this text before us Jesus called himself the “Son of Man.”  When Jesus used that phrase to refer to himself he was referring to an OT prophecy about the Messiah from the book of Daniel where it says, “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven…He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).

Jesus is greatest ruler of all.  He is the king who rules the entire earth.  He has all authority, His kingdom has no end, He has all sovereign power and glory and might.  But what did Jesus, this Son of Man, with all glory and power, just get done telling the disciples?  That he was going to Jerusalem to be betrayed, condemned, mocked, flogged, and crucified!  Jesus knew it, Jesus was headed to Jerusalem to face it.  And all those things are not what we would call “great” we’d call them “humiliating” or “degrading.”  We don’t think of someone being placed on death row or sentenced to lethal injection as being “great”!

But the fact is, all those things are exactly what makes Jesus so great.  Sure we praise Jesus for being great because he made this world, because of his wisdom in forming everything, because of how it shows his divine glory and power.  But if that’s all we knew about Jesus, if Jesus hadn’t been beaten and mocked and put to death, there’s no way that we could praise him from our hearts or out of love.  For if Jesus hadn’t done what he did on the cross then we’d have no reason but to think of God as the high and holy judge who will give us what our sins deserve, give us what all our selfish ambitions in life to get ahead deserve, give us what all our stepping on others to get ahead deserves, hell, eternally.

But this is exactly why we praise Jesus with our lives.  Not so much because of his power and glory, but for being punished and no so much just because he was punished but why he was punished.  He was beaten, mocked, spit on, crucified…for us!  He came to give his life as a ransom for many!  To rescue you!  To save you from eternal death and punishment for eternal life and glory!  And that’s what makes Him so great!

Jesus paid the price that you and I could not pay.  His payment set us free from sin and selfishness.  What Jesus did lays the foundation for how we live with other people as members of His kingdom.  You see, greatness isn’t found in titles or positions of honor or power.  True greatness is found in service to God and to our fellow human beings.

The mere fact that you are a father doesn’t make you a great father.  The mere fact that when you fill out your taxes and you can claim dependents doesn’t make you a great father.  Position doesn’t mean greatness.  Rather, what makes a great father is a father who sets aside his own interests in order to SERVE his family- not just providing for them physically, but spending time with them, listening to them, talking with them, doing things with them, leading them to God’s Word.  The mere fact of being a mother doesn’t make a great mother.  A mother having a child and being waited on at the hospital doesn’t make someone a great mother.  Rather true greatness is found in her loving service to her children, as she gets up in the middle of the night to feed the baby or does the other unpleasant things of being a mother.

The fact that you stood before God’s altar and committed yourself to being a husband to one woman for the rest of your life doesn’t make you a great husband.  A great husband isn’t one who just wears that title, but one who serves his wife, who loves her, who does things for her, who talks with her, who cancels the bowling trip with the buddies to take his wife out for dinner, those things make a great husband.  Similarly, the fact that you professed a lifelong commitment to one man doesn’t make you a great wife.  A great wife is found in loving service to her husband, who helps her husband, who supports him with words and actions as he leads for the good of the family.

The fact that you’re a student doesn’t make you a great student, or an employee doesn’t make you a great employee, it is how you serve others.  The fact that you are friend doesn’t make you a great friend.  What makes you a great friend to someone is when you put their interests ahead of your own, when you serve your friends, when you do things for them.

The only reason we know true greatness is because we have the greatest friend.  Our Lord Jesus became truly great by suffering for us and serving us in the greatest possible way.  So as His people our greatness isn’t found in being served by others, but serving others selflessly.  May Jesus empower each of us to be truly great like that!  Amen.