Becoming Great

One of the things which have increased greatly over this past year is the quantity and even seriousness of conspiracy theories. Now, there are a lot of reasons for this. The growing overreach of government control, the distrust of the media, the feeling of helplessness, the growing awareness of social injustice, the hatred and vitriol coming from our political leaders… and on the list goes. Now some conspiracy theories are easily dismissed, they are too crazy, too outlandish to believe. But there are others that seem plausible, or if not plausible, they at least offer a narrative which seems to explain what is going on in our world. This is what we want, some explanation to account for all the variables. For many have this feeling there is a big game being played in our world and we are the ones who have less and less control over how it is played.

When we look at the moves being made, when we take in the power struggles and the deceit and count those who are hurt and who are gaining in authority and prestige, we know there is a game being played. But if we are honest, we know we have all had our own part in playing a similar game ourselves. Our game is not played out in international politics or fueled by corporate intrigue, but still, we play it our own way on a much smaller more localized level. Among our friends and family members, amid our fellowship we play a game where we seek to be viewed as important, as crucial to the success of the organization. We want recognition and some slice of glory for ourselves. We want to be recognized in some way as being wise or influential. Every one of us, in our own way, wants to be great. Now, that looks different for each one of you. Perhaps you want to be viewed as the humblest, or the most helpful, or the most gracious, or the most intelligent, or the most caring and thoughtful. It is all part of the game we have been playing for our whole lives, a game where one rises above another, where we compare ourselves to each other to establish worth.

This game certainly is not unique to our age. It is not unique to our culture and situation in life. No, it was the same 2000 years ago when Jesus was walking the earth. He was heading up to Jerusalem and began once again to tell His followers what is in store for the Son of Man. He gives a prediction of His coming passion, death, and resurrection. He tells His followers the startling news about what is coming. He says to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock Him and spit on Him and flog Him and kill Him. And after three days He will rise” (Mark 10:33-34). These disciples, who had faithfully been following our Lord, who had seen His miracles and sat at His feet as He taught them, hear this shocking news and the very next things they do is jockey for positions of power. They are still concerned with playing the game, focused on getting an edge over their competition.

James and John are the focus of the conversation, but we learn quick the issue is pervasive among all the disciples. “Teacher,” they say, “we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.”  I always thought of this like someone who says to you, “I want to tell you something, but you have to promise not to get mad.” Anyway, Jesus clearly is not fooled and wants them to get to the point. What do they want? “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). What do they want? They want the seats of honor. They want the prestige and the greatness which comes with the glory of their Lord. They move right pass the suffering and death and speak about seats of honor.

Now, if Jesus’ Kingdom were like all other kingdoms this would have made sense. If His glory could be defined the same way everyone else in our age defines glory, this move by James and John could simply be a shrewd way to win the game. But here is the issue because His kingdom is not like other kingdoms of man. His glory is not defined the way everyone else would define glory. So, Jesus says to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Now, the cup Jesus drinks is the cup of God’s wrath. He will drain the cup of the Lord’s judgement on sin. Jesus’ moment of glory is defined by the drinking of the cup where He atones for the sins of the world. And the baptism He undergoes is not a water baptism where one is washed in the forgiveness of God. Rather, it is a bloody baptism where one is overwhelmed in suffering and death.

Now I do not know if James and John fully understood all this. I tend to think they were still wanting to win the game, still wanting to get their temporal glory over the other disciples. So, they are quick to give an answer without full understanding what they are saying. For they boldly declare, “We are able.” Jesus probably shocks them by agreeing and telling them they will drink the cup; they will be baptized in this way. That is, they will suffer. They will endure trials and persecution and even martyrdom. The game they thought they were leading is not turning out so well for them. And then Jesus says to them,

“But to sit at My right hand or at My left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Mark 10:40

We will get back to that in a moment. For now, look how the other disciples respond to this whole exchange. The text says they become indignant. Why? Are they mad at their boldness or that they are troubling Jesus? Or are they mad they did not think of asking first? Maybe they are indignant because they are beginning to look like losers in the game of greatness? This seems far more likely because Jesus has had enough of the games we play, enough of our misunderstanding of His Kingdom and glory and what it is to be His disciples. For when He calls them all together, He says, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” The game you want to play is the world’s game. “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).

Glory in Jesus’ Kingdom is marked by service, not by being served. It is achieved by giving of yourself for others, not by getting what you can when you can. To become great is to actively give of yourself for someone else. Such notions turn our whole world upside down. The focus of life itself takes a different shape if the fundamental questions are not centered around how you can make a name for yourself or how you can get recognition. Think of how radically different it all looks if the questions are instead about how you can better serve someone else. Think of how different the game is played if your quest for greatness in this life is mapped out as a quest of care and love and forgiveness for others… and not just the ones you want to love, not just the ones who are easy to forgive. Rather, true greatness is found in serving those who do not deserve your service.

You can be led to such greatness, not by following the desires of your heart and not by caring about the game the world plays but by following your Lord. He says, “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). His glory is not to be lifted-up in praise and adoration before this world but to save the world, to save you. His left and right hand, those seats of glory were already prepared for someone else, someone other than James and John. We see those seats, not with the famous, in fact we do not even know their names. They are filled by two unknown thieves who are crucified, one on His left and one on His right. There is His glory. There is His great work. There is your forgiveness. There is the love of God for you.