By Paul Koch –
I remember my first full time job was managing a small retail store in a fancy upscale shopping area of Newport Beach. One sunny day I walked to the door of our shop and saw a huge crowd of people all moving past the store with looks of joy and excitement in their faces. As I looked off to the right, in front of a very high-end Jewelry store I could see the unmistakable reason for their excitement. It was Shaq himself. That’s right, the monster center of the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal, who had been signed to the team the previous year was right there. Standing 7 foot 1” and weighing a little over 300 pounds there was no mistaking his presence. A massive entourage was with him and people gathered around shouting and cheering like there were welcoming the return of a victorious king. This was before the Lakers went on their championship run. But he was famous, he was a star. He was one of the greatest.
This is what we do with famous people, with those that we see as the greatest. Whether that is the greatest athlete or actor or singer or inventor or business owner. We like to be near the greatest to be close enough that perhaps some of their greatness might rub off on us. In fact, our country elected a president who didn’t promise to cater to this or that specific political platform, but rather brilliantly promised to make America great again. We love greatness. We know it when we see it and we want to celebrate it, to be a part of it.
It is the world in which we live that shapes our view of greatness, it always has and always will. The advertisers and entertainment machines of our age paint for us the ideas of greatness, so that we know it when we see it. Yet even these images have been shaped by the ones that have gone before them. Before movies and TV there were comic books and radio. Before them classic literature and the stories of the ancient world. Before the written stories there were the verbal traditions, ancient poems that shaped the worlds image of greatness. It may not be a clear line, but I think there is a connection between the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Beowulf.
And it is not like these things happen only outside the church. That somehow, we who gather here resist the world’s images of greatness. Churches measure themselves in the greatness of their numbers, in the amount of butts in a pew on a given Sunday morning. Greatness of the faithful children of God is decided by their popularity or their orthodoxy or their influence on the political landscape. Not much different from any other consumerist activity there is a common view that the successful churches are the truly great churches. And so, it is with the members that make up a church. The greatest are those who have it together. Not that they are perfect or without sin, but they are the ones that attend to the right things, the ones who look like Christians, the ones who not only talk the talk but actually walk the walk.
But then something happens, something that doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense to us. Our Lord Jesus Christ challenges everything we thought we knew about greatness, everything that the world has presented to us, from the ancient works of antiquity to the best athletes of our childhood and the great superhero movies today. It is not a faithful picture of greatness, there is a fundamental flaw at the core which changes then how you are to receive, how you are to treat greatness in your midst. And it all starts when Jesus overhears his disciples having a little argument amongst themselves.
Let’s recap the scene. Jesus has just told them about his great act. About the fact that he be delivered into the hands of men and the will kill him and after three days he will rise. Now they don’t understand this. This doesn’t make any sense at all, perhaps part of it is because the is the Son of God. He is the great King of kings, that means he isn’t the one who suffers and dies. Now, they don’t want to look foolish, so no one asks him anything about it. Instead they begin to talk about what they do know, about real greatness. Who knows how it started, but perhaps one was comparing himself to another. Perhaps it was Peter, James or John who had been on the mount of transfiguration. Perhaps it was the one entrusted with the most responsibility or the one who came from a more prestigious background. Maybe it was the disciple who gave up the most to follow Jesus, the one who walked away from an otherwise lucrative career. Perhaps this one was the greatest.
Any of these answers are reasonable. They make sense on our world. They are simply how things work. But, as I said, Jesus challenges it all. He has them sit down and says that if you want to be first you must be last of all and servant of all. If you want to be the top of the top, the greatest, you must be the lowest, the least. Now, I know that sounds like some strange saying that Yoda would use, but he follows it up with the ultimate object lesson. Jesus takes a child and puts him in the midst of his disciples and says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receive not me but him who sent me.”
The greatest of the great is the Father who sent the Son who dies and rises for your sins. To receive the greatest is to receive the child that he places in their midst. Now we may look a that child and say, well the child has simple faith, the child is innocent, the child is cute or something along those lines, and so you say that is what makes them the source of greatness. But that is not really the point is it? For your Lord has already said that to be first you must be last. So, what is it about a child that makes them fit this mold? Well, a child is in need. Constant need of care and protection. Children aren’t heading off to work every morning to pay the bills. They aren’t clothing and feeding themselves. Oh, sure they can dress themselves and eat on their own, but they still need adults to care for them, to go to the store for them, to drive them, to protect them from the dangers of our world. Our Lord begins to open your eyes here to a new way of seeing greatness, greatness is the one most in need. To receive a child in the name of Christ is to receive greatness.
Now this, then, begs an important question for you. Who among you is the greatest? The greatest among you are those most in need. Those who cannot do it on their own, those who are dependent upon something else. It isn’t the self-made man or the accomplished businesswoman, it isn’t the confident and bold Christian who seems to have it all under control. The greatest are those who are barely hanging on, those who see themselves on the fringe of the blessings of God. Perhaps they don’t think that they fit in, perhaps they are filled with shame and doubts an anger and are just waiting for one more excuse to chuck it all leave the church behind. Those, Jesus says, are the greatest. Don’t let them go, receive them in his name, embrace them, celebrate them, for they are the greatest.
Who is the greatest? is not a bad question. For it directs our actions, it moves us to care and support and love. The greatest are those we are most ready to forgive, they are those we want to be near, those we long to hold on to. Now to be sure Jesus, is the greatest of the greatest, the King of kings and Lord of lords. And what did he do? He became the least. He who knew no sin became sin so that in him you might become the righteousness of God. And then he embraces you in Water and Word, bread and wine so that you might not be lost but live eternally in his presence. Why? Because you can not do it on your own, because you need his love, his forgiveness, his care and protection, because you are the greatest.
And so, in Christ you can see the world a little differently. You can see a glimpse in the midst of our entertainment driven society of the greatest. They are all around you, they are the lost and the hurting that fill your lives. They are the ones that have hurt you, that have disappointed over and again. They are the ones who do not know of God’s redemption, those who have rejected his forgiveness. They are most in need, they cannot do it on their own, they are the greatest. Let us receive them as such.