Good morning! Today we’re going to talk about how to pursue true greatness. I would assume that everyone, in some sense, wants to be great. Here’s what I mean. Maybe you don’t care to be rich or famous, but you do want to be great in the sense that you want to live a life that matters. You want a life of meaning. You want to feel that your life has counted. You don’t want to fritter away your days but want to feel your life had significance. You may not worry about the world too much. But you do want to be a great dad or mom in the eyes of your kids. And you do want to be a great husband or wife in the eyes of your spouse. You want to be a great employee in the eyes of your coworkers. You want to be a great friend in the eyes of your friends. And most importantly, you want to be great in the eyes of God. You want to live in a way that pleases Him.
How do we pursue or achieve that kind of greatness? I’m going to start by laying all my cards on the table. How do we pursue or achieve that kind of greatness? Here is Jesus’s answer today:
True greatness comes through serving others.
If you have high goals, if you want to matter, if you want to set the pace, if you want to be a leader, if you want to make a difference in this world, if you want to have a life that counts, if you want to truly be a somebody, if you want to be significant, if you want meaning, if you want to live a life that is pleasing to God, if you want to be truly great, this is your path: True greatness comes through serving others.
And Jesus is going to walk us through this truth with three lessons.
- First, Jesus will explain that his own greatness will come through serving others. His greatest moment, when he secures eternal salvation for humankind, will come through taking on the form of a servant and dying on a cross. Through that servanthood will come his exaltation.
- Second, Jesus will explain that our own greatness will also come through serving others. The cross-shaped pattern of Jesus’s life and ministry is our pattern. When we serve others for Jesus’s sake, we will find true greatness.
- Third, Jesus will explain that anyone can get in on this true greatness. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter how small your contribution, if you serve others in Jesus’s name, you experience true greatness.
So, that’s where we’re going today.
And listen. This principle is not just for Christ’s Kingdom or church. This is the way the world that God made works: true greatness comes through serving others. This is built into the fabric of reality. And if you can get this, life will get better for you because you will find that you are walking with the grain of the universe, not against. You will find that you are walking in step with God, not against him. So we gotta get this today: True greatness comes through serving others.
Let’s look at our passage for today. Mark 9:30-41…
For Jesus…True greatness will come through serving others.
 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know,  for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”
- So, this section begins with Jesus teaching about his death and resurrection. This is now the second time, in Mark, he has taught the disciples about his death and resurrection.
 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
- They did not understand. How so? Surely, they could comprehend the words themselves, but what they could not understand was the logic or wisdom of the plan. We must understand and remember that the Messiah was another word for King. The Messiah was in the lineage of the great kings of old, King David and King Solomon. And the Messiah would have an everlasting throne and reign. So, any talk of the death of the king sounded strange.
- If you’ve watch the Lord of the Rings, you know one of the great heroes of the tale, Gandalf, is always leaving the fellowship and returning at just the right time. When he disappears, there is always a good reason and purpose, but to the friends he has left, it is always difficult time of fear and confusion, as they wonder where he is and miss him and wonder if he will ever really return. I imagine the disciples felt this way. The idea that he should leave, for any amount of time, and especially through defeat and death, must have felt heavy and incomprehensible when you are in the middle of it, living it. And the promise of return may have felt hallow and unsure. From the time we were kids playing with friends, the statement “I’ve got to go, but I promise I’ll be back” is often greeted with skepticism. And it may be that the disciples felt that same doubt and skepticism about how this plan would in fact work out.
- But they’re afraid to ask. And why were they afraid to ask? The last time someone addressed Jesus about this topic they received a sharp rebuke from him. Do you recall from the previous chapter? Jesus, in Mark 8:31, teaches on this same topic, and Peter censures Jesus for this idea. In response to this censure, Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (8:33). So, they are still struggling to comprehend the plan, but everybody is like, “You ask him; I’m not asking him!”
Now, follow me here. Theologically, his teaching in verse 31 is about the heart of his mission of salvation ✝️, but in the context of Mark 9:30-41, this teaching also sets the stage for understanding true greatness. In this section of Mark, the cross ministry of Jesus not only means salvation, but it also gives us a surprising example of how true greatness works. And how does it work? The cross shows True greatness comes through serving others. This is Jesus’s path. And Jesus asks his followers to follow him on it, to take up their own crosses and follow him in service to others (8:34).
How do we know the cross is meant to also be an example for his followers? A couple ways. First, the way Mark combines this disclosure with the next two teachings about true greatness through serving suggests Mark wants us to see how Jesus’s way contrasts with the disciples’ initial thinking about greatness. Second, we know the cross is an example because Paul said so. In Philippians, Paul wrote, “ Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name…” (Philippians 2:5–9).
So Paul understood that not only did Christ accomplish salvation through the cross but he also laid out an example for us to follow. True greatness comes through humbling serving others.
The Apostle Paul would often look to this example to explain how we should live. One more quick example. Paul pointed husbands to this example (Ephesians 5:25). Paul would say do you want a great marriage? Do you want to be a great husband? Then husbands serve your wives and sacrifice yourself for her, just the way Jesus did for the church. You got big muscles? Don’t dominate her; ironically, that will diminish your marriage and your husbandry, not make you great. But instead of dominating, sacrifice your strength, give it away, in service to her, just like Jesus did for his church. And you’ll find your marriage is headed towards greatness.
Okay, so true greatness comes through service and the Cross is the example par excellence. Now, let’s turn to the next bit of teaching, and we will start to see how it all works together with the remaining sections of our passage today. Verses 33 and following…
For you…True greatness will come through serving others.
 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?”  But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
- Theater. You have just got to love the theater here. Jesus with his knowing question: “Hey fellas, what were you talking about?” Everyone takes a sudden interest in their feet. There had been a lot of chatter on the way, but now, for some reason, everyone is silent.
- They had argued with another about who was the greatest. At first pass, that seemed so ridiculous to me. “Really? They are arguing about who was the greatest?” But then, if you zoom out of this scene and start to remember what happened recently, it makes a lot of sense. What had happened recently? Well, three disciples got to see Jesus transfigured and Moses and Elijah, the great rockstars of Israel. But only three disciples got to do that. And then upon their return from the mountain, there were some disciples who could not heal a demonized boy. So, you’ve got three disciples who were seemingly elevated, and you’ve got some other disciples who were seemingly humiliated. And you can picture the tension and ribbing that might start. Maybe they’re about to eat and looking for someone to bless the food. And then someone cracks a joke about not asking so-and-so to pray for the food because it might not work. “Ha. Ha. Ha.” respond the disciples. Too soon? Then someone replies, “Well it must be nice to be the teacher’s pet.” And then one of the three replies, “Can I help that I’m a better leader than you? Look, maybe if you worked a little harder, you would get invited to these kinds of things.” And before you know it there is some genuine frustration about who’s who in the eyes of Jesus. And so Jesus teaches about true greatness.
 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
- You want to be great? Jesus tells us how: True greatness comes through serving others. This is how he ministered, and this is how we must minister. This is the way.
- A servant of all is the last of all. The servant puts everyone else’s needs first. The servant makes sure everyone else has breakfast, everyone else has clothes, everyone else has a lunch packed, then they worry about themselves. The servant has no self-centered agenda. Their agenda is determined by the needs of those they serve.
- And the last of all, the servant, is first. Who is truly great? The servant of all.
And then Jesus gives an illustration.
 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them,  “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
- Jesus leads a toddler into the middle of the group, and then he scoops him up in his arms. In the OT, God often describes himself carrying his people like a father carries a child. And here we see Jesus doing just that. It is a powerful picture of love, and we instantly, intuitively, recognize the profound beauty of this simple act of care and service here.
- But do we often recognize the beauty of service? Often, we do not. Often, we complain about parenting or the crazy kids at church or “kids these days.” We see the hassles. We grimace at the interruptions they cause. Or we say, “Leave me alone; I’ve got to get this important email done.” And we really think the email or proposal or project is more important. But Jesus says receiving a child, scooping them up in your arms and caring for them, that is the truly great thing. You want greatness? You want meaning and significance? You want to be first, to feel like your life matters? Well, then don’t spend your life chasing trophies; serve the next generation, and you will find true greatness.
- I was watching a sermon from Ray Ortlund the other day, and he put up a picture of a gravestone. It was the gravestone of some no-name pastor. And Ray said you have never heard of this guy, but I owe him an eternal debt of gratitude. Why? Because this pastor had, over the course of a decade, introduced a young girl and her family to Jesus and had changed the trajectory of that family for eternity. And that girl would become Ray’s wife and a part of his story, and their children’s story, their grandchildren’s story forever. But the gravestone sits quietly, and no one will ever write books about this man, and in fact, Ray said the church where this man pastored was absorbed into another church, and that other church recently closed. But as Ray told this story, one comment he made really stuck with me. As he reminisced about this forgotten, unknown pastor, he lamented, “This world has all the wrong heroes.” This world has all the wrong heroes.
- And that’s what Jesus is saying here. This world has all the wrong heroes. You want to be great? Then be like this no-named pastor who poured his life into a family for over a decade and changed their family for eternity. You don’t know him, but God knows him. You want to be great? Scoop up a child in your arms and care for them well. The world may not know you, but God will know you. You may not become rich, but you will be rich in what truly counts. You may not be famous, but you will have a legacy. You want to be great? Serve others in Christ’s name.
- I know many of you sitting here today are changed, forever changed – family changed, kids changed, grandkids changed, future generations yet to be seen changed – because someone that no one has ever heard of or will ever hear of became a servant to you and loved you well in Jesus’s name. (Maybe just take a moment to think of that person and thank God for them.) Would you be willing to be that to someone else? To your child? To your family? To your friend? To your coworker? This is the path to true greatness: serving others.
- But the importance of serving others is not only in helping someone. Jesus says service is so great because it is connected to receiving Jesus and the Father. “ Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” Serving others is a key expression of our faith in Jesus and God. What does it look like to be a Christian? Serving others. So we’re talking about being in step with the very heart of God and the mission of his Son when we talk about serving others.
Alright, now we come to the last teaching. Look with me at the final verses.
For Anyone…True greatness will come through serving others.
 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
- So here is a new scenario. There is a seemingly rogue healer. A few facts: He is casting out demons, not trying to cast them out. He is doing this in the name of Jesus, which he seems to be doing sincerely (cf. v. 41)…not as a power grab (like Simon the sorcerer in Acts) and not insincerely (like those Jesus cautions against in Matthew 7).
- But here’s the tension. It seems the disciples are thinking, “Well, surely we will be great because we serve in Christ’s name and we are front and center with Jesus. So, yeah, we need to do a better job of serving, but we’re still kinda special. But we saw this guy over here trying to be great, but he’s not onstage with us, so we told him to stop.” Do you follow the logic implicit here?
So what will Jesus say? His reply…
 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  For the one who is not against us is for us.  For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
- So let’s quickly summarize what Jesus is saying…
- Verse 39: This guy is headed in the right direction. He’s doing things in my name, and that means he’s for me.
- Verse 40: And that’s how it goes generally. The one working in my name, who is not against me, is clearly for me. (By the way, I don’t think this is a statement approving fence-sitting. The context is clearly that of someone working in Jesus’s name.)
- Verse 41: Seriously, anyone working on my behalf, even if it’s just giving a cup of cold water to my disciples, will get in on this greatness.
- Lesson: So, this principle – True greatness comes through serving others – isn’t just for the 12 disciples, but for anyone who is working in Jesus’s name, no matter how small the contribution, even if it’s just giving a cup of cold water to a missionary. So, that means, you, whatever your gifts or opportunities, can get in on this greatness.
So, there it is. That’s the sermon: True greatness comes through serving others. For Jesus, for you, for anyone…True greatness comes through serving others. That’s what Jesus is teaching us today.
But I want to add one important endnote… It must be in Jesus’s name.
True greatness comes through serving others for Jesus.
- It’s not service alone that makes for greatness. It’s being in His service. It’s not just signing up for a humanitarian effort. It’s not just donating to a good cause. It’s not working for a nonprofit. True greatness comes through serving others in Jesus’s name (v. 37, 39).
- This means submitting ourselves to him and his direction. We must submit to his definition of love. We must submit to his directions for marriage, parenting, work, and service.
- We must submit to his glory and his reign. It’s not that I do whatever I want but I cover my bases with some acts of charity. That’s not what we’re talking about. It’s that you become a servant of the King. Then, your service, however small, is something because he is something.
Conclusion: True Greatness lies here.
So, this morning, I ask have you submitted to Jesus. Have you surrendered your life to him and his plan? And are you submitting to his call to service in his name? I hope you will because down that path lies true greatness.
- Jesus says we will walk with him and the Father as we serve. He says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” We’re talking about being in step with All that is.
- Jesus says you’ll receive a reward. “…whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” (v. 41)
- And we will live the blessed life that comes from walking in God’s ways. The wise are blessed (e.g., the sleep of the laborer is sleep; rich can’t rest)…
- For the young people in the room, I know you are sorting this out. You’re trying to figure out what does it look like to have a life that matters. What does it look like to be somebody. And you’re not sure yet. You’re trying to figure out if is it being the best athlete on the team. Or is it being the most popular kid at school? Or is it being the best looking? Is it asking everyone to look to you? But the way to greatness is serving others. It’s when you are being a great friend that you make friends. It’s when you serve others that you find yourself content.
- For me, in this season of my life, where I find myself kind of having these midlife ruminations, it was good to remember where true greatness lies. I’m having some of those 40 something’s thoughts where I wonder what am I doing, what is it all about. You have your head down for so long coming out of high school, just working away, but at midlife you, do evaluate if you’re on the right track, if you’re aligning yourself with the right things, if you are achieving the right things. But what Jesus says here speaks to all of those feelings. It speaks to true legacy. It says don’t worry about the money; don’t worry about the car; don’t worry about the house; don’t worry about the titles; those are the wrong scorecard. You want to matter? You want true greatness? Serve others in the name of Jesus. Invest your life, give away your life, go last, and you will find joy.
Friends, this is the path of life. This is the way. True greatness comes through serving others for Jesus. Let us walk in this way. Amen.