The other day I was downtown at one of my wife and I’s favorite lunch spots. I know the owner fairly well, we used to train Jiu Jitsu together. We have tried to cheer him on and support him as he went through the turbulent lockdowns and restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. These days, his biggest struggle is the difficulty to properly staff his restaurant. From servers to cooks, he is short handed all the time. Then he said something which was quite amusing and speaks a lot about our culture. He said to properly care for his customers, he had to change the process of ordering and getting your food delivered to your table. This change meant that those who were seated would still eat in a timely fashion but the line to get a seat would, at times, back-up, sometimes quite a bit. He said when the line began to get long was when the problem really started. It seems that the longer the line, the more people wanted to get in the line. The line signaled to the passerby looking for a place to eat that this was a popular and trendy spot, so they just got in line. He said at high traffic times it was insane. People just got in line because there was a line, no other reason.
In our day, the desire and hope of doing the popular thing is part of the air we breathe. The constant feed on our phones from our social media accounts, the likes and reposts and comments we get drive our sense of worth. We do not go the movies or try a new restaurant or buy underwear from Amazon without first reading the reviews, seeing what other people have said about it. We check Rotten Tomatoes scores and read what some stranger said on Yelp. We want our choices to be the ones our peers would want. We desire to be found enjoying truly great things, wonderful things, popular things. Look, I do not think any of this is bad. I mean, we ought to search out the great things. We ought to aspire to be great ourselves. It is just that we can get quite confused and misled as to what greatness truly is. We can find we have been waiting in line for a popular restaurant only to find the line was because they were understaffed and overworked.
Now coming to church can often be a sobering shock to our quest for greatness. Of course, churches often fall into the same trap of doing what is popular or pandering to whatever will get them more positive reviews. Shoot, one of the things that came through the pandemic was that many churches put their services up online. Instead of going to church, you could stream it live via Facebook in your own home. So, pastors and church leaders could quantify their performance in terms of views and shares and likes and interaction. But the truth is, a lot of what happens in church is not going to be popular. It is not going to be regarded as great by the masses. In Mark 9, Jesus, the living Word of God, is walking with His disciples telling them what it means to be the Messiah, telling them He will be delivered into the hands of men and be killed and rise on the third day. They do not even ask any follow up questions. They are not interested in what exactly this will all mean. They are concerned with other things.
What concern could they possibly have that is greater than the path our Lord is going to walk? What is of more urgent attention than the proclamation that Jesus will suffer, die, and rise again from the dead? Jesus comes right out and asks them what they were talking about but none of them want to answer. Why? Why will they not answer their Lord? Because they were ashamed. As He was talking about His death and resurrection, about the work of man’s salvation, they were having a little argument about who among them was the greatest. Who was the most popular, the most loyal, the most powerful, the most faithful of the disciples?
Jesus then gathers His disciples around Him and very gently begins to instruct them. Now, to be sure, His teaching here is radical. It is simple and straightforward, but it is not what most of us want to hear. It is a great shifting of the order of this world. It is not easy to embrace for a people who have focused so much on greatness. For He says to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). To be first, to be the greatest is to be a servant. It is not to lift yourself up but to lift up others. It is not to climb to the top of the ladder yourself but to go down and help those who can barely make it to the first rung. Greatness looks exactly like what Jesus Himself is doing. He has come down. He has taken the form of a servant. He emptied Himself of what was rightly His so He might save a world bound in sin.
To make it perfectly clear what He is talking about, our Lord calls forth a young child and places the child in their midst. Now, I do not know how this looks in your imagination. Does it look like those serene paintings of your Lord and the little children, where everything is calm and wonderful? Or is it a little more the way I tend to think of it, as this very human and real child is suddenly thrust into the center of the circle. What starts as eagerness and joy turns to embarrassment and then to fear. The child wants to escape the scene and so hides his face and cries for his mother, as he tries to dart from the gaze of the onlookers. What becomes clear is that to be the child is not to be pure and holy and righteous but to be needy, to need the protection and care and compassion of others. To be the child is to be the receiver of the service of others.
Into this scene Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me” (Mark 9:37). The quest for greatness does not come by searching heavenward but by serving those who need the gifts and blessings you can provide. Greatness is not found in power and prestige and popularity but in love, in service, in compassion for the least. Again, there is no better example of this than the very work of our Lord Himself, the work He was talking about when they were arguing over who is the greatest. Think about it. As you were concerning yourself with what is popular, with what is going to get you likes and positive reviews, the Lord of life itself became your servant. He served you by bearing your sin. He served you by loving you before you even knew of His kindness. He served you by dying and rising as your substitute. He treated you as the greatest treasure in all the world and did whatever it took to bring you into the Kingdom of God.
So, now He turns you out into this world, into the lives of those around you, into your families and friends and the strangers you meet. He sends you out to find the greatest by serving those in need. Those who need the works of your hands, your wisdom and guidance, your care and compassion. He sends you out to forgive as you have been forgiven.
And here is the amazing promise He attaches to this quest for greatness. He says when you receive the little ones, when you serve the least, you actually find you are receiving Jesus Himself. We do not necessarily find Jesus in the powerful and the popular and what our world would consider great. No, we find him in the hurting and lonely and small ones our world would easily pass by. To be great in service is to be doing the work of our Lord, bearing our cross and following Him. This is what it looks like to receive Him. And to receive Him is to receive the One who sent Him, and there is nothing in all the universe greater than that.