What is greatness? And what is glory? What does it mean to be great? Whom do you think of when you think of greatness and glory? Michael Jordan flying to a slam dunk. Or Ken Griffey hitting a home run. Or John Elway throwing a last-minute game winning touchdown. Or Tiger Woods hitting a massive t-shot. Maybe it’s Bill Gates. Or Sylvester Stallone. Or Stephen Spielberg. Or, well, you can probably fill in a name for yourself.
For some greatness and glory mean power, prestige, popularity, possessions, property. A double platinum album. A killer deal in the stock market. The head of the class. The chief executive officer. A staff of hundreds. Responsibility for millions.
Greatness and glory are what James and John were after. They were looking for a place of greatness in the glory of God’s kingdom, favored seating at the heavenly banquet to the left and to the right of Jesus. And they were bold enough to ask Him for it. “Grant us to sit, one at your right, the other at your left when you come into your glory.
It’s a strange request that comes at a strange time. Jesus had just told his disciples for the third time that he was going to Jerusalem to be handed over to sinful men, be crucified, and on the third day rise again. And still they don’t seem to get it. They act as if they hadn’t even heard. Jesus announces that He is going to Jerusalem to die. And James and John ask about the seating arrangements at the banquet afterwards. They even act as if Jesus owed them a favor. “Give us whatever we ask of you.”
This is blind ambition, the relentless pursuit of honor and glory for its own sake. The same thing is at work in us. It drives to dominate others, to elevate ourselves by climbing on the backs of others. It is the ruthless pursuit of “success” (as we define success) at all costs, even the cost of our own souls. Greatness and glory cannot be pursued as a goal. If greatness and glory are what you’re after, you’ll never get there, and you’ll spend your entire life running after something that cannot be grasped that way.
James and John understood neither greatness nor glory. “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. There was a cup to drink, and a baptism to fulfill. Jesus was speaking of His death on the cross. That was the shining moment of His greatness. That’s when He came into His glory. When he hung on the cross. To His right and His left were a couple of common criminals. These were the ones appointed by the Father to share in His glory, because the glory of Jesus is to die for sinners and the greatness of Jesus is His self-sacrifice. James and John didn’t comprehend that.
They were still looking at things in terms of the greatness and glory of the world. Even the ten others were infected with the same disease. They became indignant over James and John, and the disciples started bickering among themselves. We see it in thebusiness world every working day. We see it in government as politicians scramble over each other for personal power and gain. We see it in the home as family members seek power and control over others in the family. We even see it in the household of God, in the church, wherever power is exercised, in church boards, in voters assemblies. There it’s usually excused and glossed over as “the business side” or the secular side of the church. But there are no such categories as sacred and secular, or spiritual and material or eternal and temporal. It all belongs to the Lord.
Jesus warns his disciples, “That’s how the Gentiles act. Their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their high officials let everyone know who’s the boss.” “Not so among you,” He says to His disciples. Jesus puts an end to all power plays and political nonsense in His Church. “Not so among you.”
We need to hear this word and take it to heart ourselves. To a church that has taken on the ways of business and politics, a church that has district presidents instead of shepherding bishops, directors instead of deacons, flow charts and power structures in place of fasting, prayer, and obedience to the Word of God. To a church that is more comfortable with the ways of Wall Street and Madison Ave than the narrow way of sacrifice and the cross, Jesus says a resounding, “Not so among you.”
We need to hear this word from Jesus whenever we find ourselves getting a bit too big for our britches, when we start bickering about who’s in charge or who’s the boss or who’s answerable to whom. Whenever we start to think in terms of personal power and control, honor and glory, our Lord’s leveling No needs to ring in our ears, “It must no be so among you.”
Greatness and glory in the kingdom of God is the greatness and glory of the wood and nail, the body and the blood. It is the greatness of servanthood and self-sacrifice. Do you want to know what greatness looks like? Do you want to gaze into the face of glory? Then look at the cross. There is true greatness; there is true glory. Greatness is the Son of God divesting Himself of His divine honor and glory and putting on the robes of a servant, bending down to wash the feet of His disciples, extending his arms to die on a cross, giving his life as a ransom for the life of the world. Greatness is the Lord and God of the universe means becoming obedient to death under the His own Law. Glory in kingdom of God terms is to hang naked and bleeding on a cross. No wonder Jesus said to James and John, “You don’t know what you are asking.”
Jesus had a cup to drink – the cup of God’s wrath poured out against our sin. And he drank it to the dregs on our behalf. Jesus had a baptism to fulfill. In the Jordan river Jesus was baptized as a sinner. His baptism put him on the road to Jerusalem and the cross where He died as a sinner among sinners, “where he poured out his life unto death and was numbered with the transgressors.” This is the greatness of God and His glory. Greatness means suffering servanthood; glory means a cross.
Greatness means not to be lord and master, but servant and slave of all. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” To be great is to give your life in service of others. To be first in line is to take your place with the slaves in the back of the line. Luther said that the Christian is at one and the same time completely free and completely bound. He is completely free, the slave of nothing. And yet he is completely bound, the servant of all. Christ has freed us to serve as we have been served.
Greatness in the kingdom of God is the greatness of servanthood. God came down to us; He reached all the way down to us. That means if we want to serve God, we don’t reach up, we must reach down, bend down, lower ourselves. The place of honor not above but below. The place of glory is not in self-service, but in self-sacrifice, in giving yourself away to others in the name of Christ.
One of Pres. John Kennedy’s most frequently quoted phrases is: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The small catechism would expand this to the other spheres of life as well. Ask not what your church can do for you, ask what you can do for your church. Ask not what your family can do for you, ask what you can do for your family. Don’t ask, “What will I get out of it? What reward is there in it for me? What bang will I be getting for my buck? How will this improve my position?” But instead ask, “What can I give? What do you need? How can I help? How can I give myself away?”
No work is beneath the dignity of a disciple of the God who works from below, the God who reached down, the God of the manger and the cross. Do you want to experience the greatness and glory of the kingdom of God? Visit the sick, comfort the dying, give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, care for the orphaned, the widowed, the poor. Visit the imprisoned. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.
There was a great scene on the TV show ER a couple of weeks ago. It was the show that was broadcast live. Someone had gotten sick in the emergency room and they were interviewing the guy from what the hospital calls “environmental services.” That’s the guy who comes to clean up after someone gets sick. As he’s mopping the floor, the man talks to the cameraman. “Are you are Christian,” he asks, not waiting for the answer. “I believe that God made man in his image. But the darndest things come out of people. The way I see it, when I mop up the mess, I’m doing God’s work. You’ve got to be a believer to do this job.”
When you think of greatness and glory, think of blessed Mary, who gave up her big wedding plans, her name and reputation, her entire life, to say yes to the Word of God and to bear God’s Promise Incarnate into the world. Think of St. Paul, on his way to greatness as a rabbi, having studied under the greatest teachers of his day, a pharisees among pharisees, who gave it all up to serve the One he once persecuted. Think of Mother Theresa in our own day, born to a wealthy family, who could easily have lived a life of comfort and style pursuing riches and pleasure, who gave up everything she had to live and work among the poorest of this world’s poor, even down to wearing the clothing of the poor she served. Think of the woman who gives up personal ambition and advancement to be a mother for her children. Think of the man who gives up the promotion and the raise in favor of spending time with his family, to be a father and husband, who gives up Sunday morning sleep and sports to bring his family to church to hear the Word of God. Think of those who give up their lives so that others might live. That’s kingdom of God greatness and glory.
The greatness and glory of Jesus Christ is the greatness and glory of self-sacrifice. It is the greatness and glory of the Suffering Servant spoken of by the prophet Isaiah. It was God will that Christ should suffer and be made a guilt offering for the world. Therefore God says, “I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
This greatness of servanthood is not something we can stir up in ourselves. This isn’t some kind of self-help through self-sacrifice. This is the work of God. This is the life of Christ lived in us and through us. Jesus promised a Baptism and a Cup for James and John. They would be baptized with his baptism. They would drink of His cup. Jesus was baptized into our death so that we might be baptized into His death and immersed in His life. Jesus drank the cup of suffering so that we might drink the cup of blessing, His blood poured out for us, for our forgiveness and life.
People will say, “I can’t do this kind of life. I can’t give myself up like this.” And that’s true. You can’t. You must die. You only get in the way. Christ must live in you and through you. He is the one who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life up as a ransom for many.
Here in the Liturgy, Jesus comes to us, not to be served (He doesn’t need our service), but to serve. To serve us with His gifts, His word, His body and blood, His blessing, His death and life for our salvation. He comes to be our servant. And then He sends us in peace to our neighbor, not to be served, but to serve as we have been served by Christ. Baptism and the weekly Lord’s Supper do that to us. We are put into Christ in Baptism; and Christ is put into us in the Lord’s Supper.
We become “icons” of Christ for our neighbor. An icon is an image picture that makes visible what is hidden, a little window into the heavenly realm. The Bible calls Jesus the “icon of the invisible God.” Jesus makes the invisible God visible; He reveals God to us. When we bend down to serve our neighbor, when we reach down in sacrifice to others, we are an icon of Christ, a picture of the Jesus, for our neighbor. Through our giving of ourselves, the world comes to know Christ who gave Himself up for the world.
Do you want to learn greatness? Do you want to experience glory? Then be baptized with Jesus’ baptism. And drink deeply and freely from Jesus’ cup. Let His baptism and His cup have their way with you – killing you to your self and your sin; making you alive to God in the life of Jesus. You no longer live. Now Christ who is in you lives. He is your life.
And He is the one who came as a servant, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. And for you.
In the name of Jesus,