Sermon: Who is the Greatest in the Kingdom of God

Who is the Greatest in the Kingdom of God
Mark 9:33-37
RUMC 27 Sept 2015

When I was a teen, I used to watch most of Muhammad Ali’s boxing matches on television.  Not only was Ali the Heavy weight champion of the World, but to me, he seemed larger than life.  Now to stir things up, he would tell anyone who would listen that as a boxer he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” and to get under his opponent’s skin, he would refer to himself as the “Greatest.”  Even today, at age 73, he still calls himself the “Greatest” although he is almost crippled from Parkinson’s disease.

When Jesus spoke about greatness, he did it in the context of humility in service for all disciples to become childlike in our faith.  The text for today’s scripture is Mark 9:33-37.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  This is the word of God for the people of God. 

Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, must be last of all and the servant of all.  And to drive the point home, he placed a child in their midst and showed his disciples what greatness was all about.  When I think of greatness, the words that come to mind would be superiority, distinction, excellence and the best.

The images that society sees as great would be people who do amazing things like the following people:  Tom Brady who won 4 Super bowls, David Ortiz and his 500 home runs, basketball star Lebron James and his amazing slam dunks, and Bill and Melinda Gates who have given billions of dollars to help wipe out Malaria and vaccinate African children.  In some circles Warren Buffett is seen as the ultimate genius in financial investments.  Celine Dion and Taylor Swift are considered great singers and looked up to by the younger generation.

Where society values talent, good looks, financial success and sports championships as the pinnacle of greatness, Jesus sees humble service and a childlike faith as qualities favored by God.

The people that I really admire are not the sports heroes or entertainment stars, but health aides, LPN’s and those family members who stay home and care for the sick.  My wife’s brother in law John who just passed away in late August was a humble servant of Christ.  Wheelchair bound for 18 years, his faith was simple and real, full of wonder, trust, and religious faith.  Just moments before he died, John opened his eyes, his mouth with a surprised expression, looked up to the ceiling, and then he was gone.  John was more than ready to meet his maker.

This week, a video went viral on Facebook and it was about an employee of McDonald’s.  What this man had done was close his cash register in the middle of lunch hour in Chicago and went over to help a handicapped man eat his lunch.   Those are qualities that Jesus admired.

This past week, Pope Francis on his whirlwind tour was in Cuba.  After that, he came to the US, met with President Obama, spoke before Congress, gave a speech at the United Nations, and made a number of stops in New York City and Philadelphia.  Ever since he became Pope in March of 2013, the focus of his ministry has been on the “greatness” aspect spoken of Jesus in the kingdom of God.

Earlier in the Pope’s reign, a six year old orphan boy from Columbia was present for a Vatican ceremony.  Seated in the front row with other orphans, this boy suddenly left his seat, climbed up the stairs, and gave Pope Francis a hug while he was giving a speech.  Security guards tried to get the boy off the stage, but instead, he stood close to the Pope who patted him on the head, then he sat in his chair.  Most people do not remember what the Pope said, but they will always remember how the Holy Father made the young boy welcome just as Jesus did so long ago.

To truly understand that when Jesus used words such as “servant” “last” and “childlike faith”, we need to realize that these are the words of the kingdom and we have dual citizenship.  For example, we are citizens of the United States and at the same time members of the Kingdom of God, but the values are opposites.

Greatness in the kingdom on earth is when we are first.

Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is when we are last.

Greatness in the kingdom on earth is when we rise to the top.

Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is when we are a servant.

Greatness in the kingdom of earth is when we achieve rank, position and title.

Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is a child.

Greatness in the kingdom of earth is when we are strong, powerful, talented, and wealthy.

Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is when we are helpless, unable to save ourselves, and dependent on the mercy and grace of God. 

Greatness and humble service is a win-win situation.  Why?  When we serve others, they do benefit and at the same time, we are rewarded inwardly.  An example of this reward was when Dr. Viktor Frankl was a prisoner at the Auschwitz Concentration camp during WW2.  Dr. Frankl gave what little medical help to the sick and dying that he could, but he also made this observation:  Dr. Frankl could see that those who were able to maintain their strength and sanity were the ones who shared what little they had with the other prisoners and went out of their way to be helpful.  It seemed that their physical and mental well being was strengthened when they focused on something besides themselves.

This leads me to think.  If any of us were to feel depressed or discouraged, a good antidote for our blues would be to get out and find someone to visit or do something for others.  When we get our minds off ourselves we will feel better, and that all ties into the servanthood that Jesus spoke about.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church said, “Do all the good you can.  By all the means you can.  In all the ways you can.  In all the places you can.  To all the people you can.  As long as you ever can.”

So I would encourage all of us to cultivate this greatness aspect of the Kingdom of God.  To keep our humble service from becoming a burden, we need to have childlike faith.  Have ever noticed, there is something special about the faith of a child?  Our children’s faith seems to have an innocence about them, a special trust in the Lord.  And that is what the Lord desires from us, but we as adults seem to complicate things.

When we grow older, many of life’s experiences can have a negative effect on the simplicity of our faith.  The way to stay fresh and vibrant in our faith is to stay close to the Lord through regular personal devotions and church worship.  When we do that, we maintain a childlike faith full of wonder and grace.

There is the story of a church member who stopped coming to church and the pastor decided to pay the man a visit.  As the two sat together in front of the fireplace and conversed about superficial things, the pastor took one of the tongs and separated a burning log.  Nothing was said and in a short period of time, the fire went out.  A few moments went by and the man said, “Pastor, I will be in church Sunday.”  To maintain the childlike quality of our faith, we need to nurture one another and stay close to the Lord.

The reason we have a year round Sunday school and we are starting up a Children’s music program is because it is a life time investment.  A child that is taught to give 10% of their income has no problems tithing when they become an adult.

Let me close: the words of Jesus are about greatness in the kingdom of God.  It consists of two parts.  It is humble service and childlike faith.  May our greatness come from doing good for the Lord, not from braggadocios sayings about ourselves, but may we enter the kingdom of God with childlike faith and serve in every way we can.