Today we continue in a sermon series on the secrets of success. And like I said last week there really are no secrets to success. The things I’m going to share with you are things I suspect that we almost all already know; we just sometimes fail to practice. And so they are good reminders for us.
And again I thought would be a very relevant subject during this season of the year not just for all of those who have or will very soon be graduating, but for all of us to remember and reflect on. This morning I want to ask what is true greatness? What does it mean to be truly great? Again how timely this question is in a week where we commemorated the 70th Anniversary of D-Day and the unbelievable bravery and sacrifice of those known as the Greatest Generation.
There was a pastor who received a card during pastor appreciation month. This was a particularly kind note and since we don’t always receive kind notes it was one that this pastor particularly treasured. It said, “I think you are the best preacher I have ever heard in my entire life. I heard Billy Graham once and you are a better preacher than Billy Graham. I feel like when you preach God is speaking directly to me.”
The pastor felt good about that note any carried that card with him all day until he came home from the office. When he saw his wife he said, “You won’t believe what somebody wrote to me today. A person in the congregation sent me a note and wrote that my preaching was better than Billy Graham’s and any other preacher he they had ever heard. This person feels like I am speaking to them every time I preach and I am the best preacher they have ever heard in their entire life.”
His wife said to him, “Who was it that you sent you this note?”
The pastor said, “It’s a woman in our church with impeccable taste when it comes to preaching. She is very bright and intelligent and clearly appreciates great preaching.” He then went on and said to his wife, “How many great preachers do you think are really out there? I don’t think there are very many. How many do you think could be compared to Billy Graham?”
His wife turned and said, “One less than you think!”
Hank Ketchum, the creator of Dennis the Menace, once gave this sound advice. He said, “Flattery is like chewing gum: enjoy it but don’t swallow it!”
Our Scripture reading today takes place shortly before Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey on that first Palm Sunday. The Scripture tells us a crowd has gathered around Jesus, as are the disciples and the mother of two of his disciples, James and John. Their mother is with the disciples and the crowds following Jesus.
Now Jesus had called these two boys three years earlier to be his disciples. They have been part of a successful family fishing business on the Sea of Galilee. Their father Zebedee owned several boats and they were probably the most successful and well-known of all of the disciples because of their status as owners of a large business. Most likely a few of the other disciples who were fishermen worked for James and John’s father Zebedee. They left the successful fishing business to follow Jesus for three years.
So the disciples believe that finally Jesus is going to announce himself as the King, the long-awaited Messiah. He’s going to march into Jerusalem and lead a revolt against the Romans. And because they believe God has commissioned Jesus to do this they believe that things are going to change.
And so Zebedee’s wife, James and John’s mother comes to Jesus and asks Him for a favor. She says to Jesus, “Jesus, I want you to declare my boys, James and John to be those who will sit on your right hand and on your left hand when you come into your kingdom.”
Now, to sit on the right and the left in ancient times, the King would place on his right his oldest son and on his left he would place his lead general. Well Jesus didn’t have a son and he didn’t have a general. “I want you to declare to me and others Jesus that my sons, James and John will be on your right and on your left.”
And you can picture her doing this, can’t you? She looks and sounds to me an awful lot like a Loudoun County “soccer mom” who wants to make sure her boys are in the starting lineup for the soccer team.
And in the process maybe to cut Peter out of the picture; not entirely. But there’s only one right hand and one left hand and always in the Gospels when you read about the three disciples that are closest to Jesus it’s Peter, James and John. Now James and John’s mother is asking, “Put my boys on your right and left,” and that left Peter sort of taking a backseat.
In many ways this scene makes perfect sense to me. The mother goes up and is trying to get a good position for her children in life, trying to help them be successful. In Mark’s Gospel it says that it was James and John who asked Jesus to be placed on his right and on His left.
So what would we call this when someone who wants to be the top dog or be in charge or rise up to the best seat in the house? What do we call that motivation of someone who wants to be successful? Typically we call that motivation ambition. So these boys are ambitious, and their mother is ambitious for them.
I suspect that many of us in this congregation can relate to this because we have a lot of very ambitious people who are a part of this church. Many of you are driven and you like to succeed. You like to win and you are competitive and you work for that top spot, whether it is in sales or the corporate office or whatever it may be. That’s a normal part of life for many of us. And so that’s what we’re seeing in this story. We’re seeing a picture of ambition and a desire for greatness.
Now as we think about this we have to first ask, what role does ambition play in the Christian life?
In the New Testament we find that there are two different Greek words for the word, “ambition.” One of those words has a positive meaning and the other one not so much. The apostle Paul writes a letter to the people in Philippi and he writes this in Philippians 2:3-4 (NRSV).
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
So there’s this idea of selfish ambition and it has a negative connotation and Paul tells us to stay away from that. James says the same thing in his letter in James 3:16 (NLT). “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
The Greek word for selfish ambition is “eritheía.” This word was also used in the democracies of ancient Greece to describe some people who were running for office who were primarily concerned for themselves. Funny how it seems some things never change! And we’ve all seen this in both political parties this kind of ambition takes over and leads a candidate to say and do things that they would never have said or done otherwise because they want to win. So this is the idea of “eritheía.”
Now Paul uses another word for ambition and that word is “philotimeomai” and this is a word that is used in Romans 15:20 where Paul says, “Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the Good News.”
So Paul has this ambition or drive to preach and share the good news. He also uses this word in 2 Corinthians 5:9, “We make it our ambition to please God.” Or in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 (NIV) Paul says this: “Make your ambition to lead quiet lives, minding your own business and working hard so that your daily life will win the respect of outsiders.”
So there’s a good ambition in the Scripture and a not so good ambition. The not so good ambition is normal; it’s sort of how we are wired. We want to win. We like to be on top. And there’s this other kind of ambition which is noble and in fact that word literally means…“to have a deep love for the honorable.”
The difference between these two types of ambition is the object of the ambition. Is the object my own glorification and my own advancement or is the object that which is good and noble and honorable, that builds up and blesses others or honors God.
In my own life I struggled with the negative kind of ambition because I like to win. All my life I’ve always wanted to be the fastest or the smartest or the best or whatever even though I often couldn’t be that. I always wanted to win.
That’s why some years ago I gave up playing church league sports. I used to love playing church league basketball and softball. But I didn’t like what the competition did to me. I would too often find myself getting too charged up. Those competitive juices would get flowing are there were times when I would find myself saying things and doing things in the heat of competition that I wasn’t very proud of. It’s not good for the pastor to get kicked out of a church league softball game. But it happened many years ago. Remind me sometime to tell you that story. By the way it’s not as bad as it sounds.
As I have gotten older and wiser and more mature in my faith I have discovered that the deep desire to be that top dog and to be the best often comes into direct conflict with what Jesus was teaching it means to be great. There is this other definition of greatness and so the real question for us is: Which kind of ambition are we going to practice? Is it eritheía, the desire for self glorification or is it philotimeomai which is about the pursuit of that which is noble and good, with a concern for others first?
R.T. France wrote a great commentary on Matthew’s gospel and about this passage he says this: “The natural human concern with status and importance is clearly one of the most fundamental instincts which must be unlearned by those who belong to God’s kingdom.”
We have this natural human instinct and the question is: are we willing to unlearn it or are we going to channel it in a new direction? I used to pray, “God please take away this ambition. And then what I began to realize is that He wasn’t taking it away and so I began to pray “God Please help me to remember always what really matters and to channel my ambition in ways that are healthy and helpful and seek to honor God and others.
Now I’m guessing you might struggle with this in some way. It might be for your career advancement but it might be in other ways. It might be that you constantly compare yourself to other people.
I learned a lot about this early on in my own ministry. When I was serving the Wakefield Church I was the President of the Portsmouth District clergy group. Part of my responsibility was to help plan our monthly district pastor’s meetings. One year we decided that it would be great to make our monthly programs an idea and resource sharing time. So for example as Lent approached we asked all the pastors to bring all their best ideas for sermons or sermon series or other stories or illustrations that were particularly powerful so that we could share them with one another. And I will never forget what one of the pastors in the group said. He came up to me afterwards and said, “Why would I want to share all of my good ideas with all of these pastors and let them get an edge on me?” He said that like we were in competition with one another. And I said, “The last time I checked we were on the same team!”
You all have heard me talk about John Dyksen the senior Pastor I worked with when I served as the associate at First UMC in Winchester. He taught me many things but there are two things I remember he said. He said to me once, “You will be a lot happier in ministry when you stop caring about who gets the credit.” I’ve always tried to remember that and live by that. But you know what, it’s not easy!
He also taught me something else. One day after he was diagnosed with cancer and he knew that things did not seem that they were going to get better. We were talking about what was going to happen to the church in the eventuality of his passing and what that meant for my future there and so forth. And if that meant I was going to have to move, nobly I wanted someone who would come in and keep the ministry that we built going strong and building upon that foundation. But my insecurity said, “What if they come in and do a better job than I did?” And one day as we were sort of discussing this he looked at me and said, “Randy remember this: None of us is irreplaceable.”
Ouch! That one hurts. But the truth is that he was right. None of us are irreplaceable. And he was teaching me something about greatness. You know if you have gifts and you’ve done an amazing job at whatever it is that we do, where do those gifts come from? They came from your genetics and your parents and the people who have poured into your life and your life experiences and somewhere the Holy Spirit was a part of that process. But most importantly, they came from God, so what business do we have taking credit for those and thinking were all that. Those are gifts which are given to us and we use them wisely hopefully to benefit others and to serve God. And none of us are irreplaceable. You’re just not that big of a deal when it all comes down to it.
Have you figured this out yet? According to Jesus, the path to greatness is figuring this out. It takes a long time for many of us to figure this out and some of us never get there. Our whole lives are spent on trying to claw our way to the top. We want to be the King of the Hill and in the process of doing that, when we forget the lessons Jesus teaches us about greatness and we only focus on ourselves, we find ourselves very lost.
And I would just tell you as a way of thinking about this, when our ambition to be great overcomes our ambition to be good it becomes toxic. So let me ask you: Is your ambition to be good stronger than your ambition to be great?
This brings us back to the conversation that the mother of James and John is having with Jesus.
The other disciples get wind of this conversation and they are upset. Why do you think the other disciples are upset that James and John and their mom had come to ask if they can sit on the right and the left of Jesus? Because they all wanted to sit on the right hand and left hand too, right? Every one of them had the same ambition and they are irritated and frustrated and jealous.
And you can understand this too because you probably work somewhere where somebody got the promotion that you should have gotten because they weaseled their way into the heart of the manager.
I used to sell furniture at Sears while I was in seminary in Kentucky. And it was a great job for a seminary student. I worked on a commission and made a really good income. It wasn’t too difficult. People would come in and they would look over the furniture on display there and I would spend time with them and help them choose the right pieces to fit their taste and budget. And often they would find something they’d like and then they would say, “Well let me think about it. We’re going to go home and come back and get it tomorrow.” So I would write down the stock numbers and give it to them. I’d give them my card and tell them to be sure to find me or ask for me when they came back.
Well there were a number of times where I would come back the next day and I would find that the people came back this guy I worked with named, Dana had rand them up under his own number. And oh I was ready to kill the guy over $50 commission. It really made me mad when he did this.
And so I can understand why those other disciples were frustrated with James and John and to top it off they brought their mother into it! “You brought your mom in to ask for this favor? Seriously, come on man.”
So Jesus calls all of His disciples to Himself and when He does that He says this: “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be the first among you must be your slave.”
Jesus is teaching about success. He’s teaching us that greatness is found in serving other people and it is a byproduct of giving yourself away. Greatness is defined by your capacity and your willingness to humble yourself and bless others and to build them up and encourage them. This is where you’re going to find true greatness.
And what’s interesting about this is that Jesus teaches us something fundamentally true about being human and modern-day business folks have discovered have figured out that it is actually true in every endeavor in life.
The father of the theory of servant leadership in the business world is Robert K. Greenleaf and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership teaches this concept. But the truth is that he is not the father of servant leadership. Jesus was the father of servant leadership. Jesus was the first one who said, “This is what it looks like to be great and when you do this everything else seems to work better.”
It’s all about giving; giving yourself away in serving others. Giving of yourself to add value to this world. Giving of yourself to make the lives of others fuller and richer and this world a better place. It’s about putting more in than you take out.
And that is exactly what Jesus has said that if you are going to be great you must be a servant of others. Paul says to put the needs of others before your own needs. St. Francis of Assisi summarized this when he said these words. “It is in giving that we receive.”
This is in many ways counterintuitive because we often think that we need to do is to be looking at how we receive but instead we look at giving and in the process of that we find that we’re blessed, we end up receiving.
This also ties into how we look at the work that we do in our daily lives. You will either look at each day as a paycheck it’s something you do and maybe you hope to climb the ladder and to be successful, or you look at it and say, “You know I have a chance to serve people your day and recognize that you have a chance to serve people by the job that I do. And almost any job which has the potential to help people is a job they can be looked at this way. If you are in a job that actually hurts people you might want to consider finding a new job.
But the truth is that most of the work that we do has the capacity in some way to be able to help people then that’s what you can focus on and not your paycheck and the rest begins to take care of itself. You can do that in any line of work.
I hope that many of you find it rewarding, what you do for a living. But my hope is that you will also find something here the church that you will find meaningful as you give and as you serve. There are opportunities every single day of the week for you to serve in some capacity here at the church or through one of our ministries. And what you find is that through the ministries of the church come some of the most rewarding things you’ve ever experienced. Whether it be teaching a Sunday school class or being a youth advisor or packing back pack or distributing food at Grace Ministries or going on a mission trip or serving on a committee or ministry team or singing in the choir or serving as an usher or greeter, or 100 other things.
Selfish ambition or an ambition to do what’s noble and right and good. And the one is a path to feeling a lack of satisfaction in life and the other’s a path that leads to life. Have you figured this out yet? Have you discovered it’s not really about you? Have you discovered that life is really found when you become a servant?
Let me end with this. John Wesley who is the founder of Methodism gave three rules that he said if we will live by we will find life and success. The first was to do no harm or avoid all of the evil that you can. The last one was to do the things that help you grow in your love of God like studying the Scriptures and prayer and worship. But the middle one is the one I want you to remember today as you leave. “Do all the good you can, everywhere that you can, as often as you can to everyone that you can.”
Do this and you will find life and success and greatness? The greatest among you will be your servant.
Sermon Topics: Success in Biblical terms