Servanthood: the Mark of True Greatness

Mark 10:35-44

The Request of James and John

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

39 “We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Show picture of Three Dog Night on screen and ask if anyone can identify them.  Then talk about their popularity and greatness years ago and how I saw them at the Arena in St. Louis at a sold-out concert where 16,000 adoring fans sang along with them as they performed well known hits like “Eli’s Comin’”, “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “Celebrate,” “One,” and of course “Joy to the World.”  They attained the pinnacle of success.  But you know, when you’re on the pinnacle, the only way to go is down.  And that is what happened to Three Dog Night…their concert in the Flora Park that Marilyn and I attended probably 15 years ago.  That night they were Two Dog Night because one of them was missing.  However, this past year he showed up in Effingham as part of the Happy Together Tour that features former greats from the old days of rock and roll.

Even though what happened to Three Dog Night has been played out countless times on other “great” people and “great” groups, unfortunately, the world still defines greatness these days in terms of popularity, power, possessions, prestige, and position.  If you can pack arenas and demand service from other people, if you can command a 6 or 7-figure salary, if you can rub shoulders with the so-called social elite, then you have truly arrived.  You have made it to the top.  All of which is certainly a far cry from the humble, servant-like mentality that Jesus lived out on a daily basis and that he calls us to live as well.  Make no mistake about it, my friends, God measures your greatness not by how many people serve you, but by how many people you serve.

Of course, the problem we’re talking about here is not new.  It’s been around since the beginning of time.  Even before man entered the picture, a bright and glorious angel by the name of Lucifer became dissatisfied with his position in heaven and wanted more.  So he rebelled against God and tried to take his position and power away from him.  Listen to how Isaiah 14:12-14 describes what happened: “How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth… You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”

And ever since that unsuccessful act of prideful rebellion, Lucifer, who later became known as Satan, has been trying his best to get back at God by leading his children down the path of pride and self-centeredness rather than the much more noble and God-pleasing way of humility and service.  So as we draw to a close the sermon series I began on May 22 of last year and that I entitled “How to Live a Good News Life in a Bad News World,” I want to spend my time this morning taking a look at what God has to say in his Word about what it really means to be a servant, under the theme: “Servanthood: the Mark of True Greatness.”

And the first point that I want to make is that real servants are available to serve.  I’ve seen so many examples of this over the years here at Salem Lutheran Church, but the one that especially came to my mind while I was working on this sermon was the Heimgartner family and the many problems and challenges they faced last year and that they continue to face with their son Roston and all of his health issues, not to mention mother Julie’s battle with Lyme disease and daughter Padamae’s heart problems and the fire they had and the different moves they had to make, all of which required the aid and assistance of their church family.  I don’t know how many times I heard Julie say, “We just love our church family!  We don’t know what we would do without them.”

In 2 Tim. 2:4 we read: “No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him.”  I love that word enlisted there because it reminds us that we have been enlisted by God to serve in this vast army that we call the Church.  And sometimes that service is required when it’s not exactly convenient for us or when we might have had other plans.  And that is really the true test of servanthood.  So let me ask you, my friends, are you available to God anytime?  Can he interrupt or mess up your plans without you becoming angry or resentful?  Are you willing to give up the right to control your schedule so that God can use you at a moment’s notice whenever and wherever he has need of you?  Those are tough questions to answer, aren’t they?  But I do believe that if you will remind yourself at the start of each day that you are God’s servant, those interruptions won’t frustrate you as much, because your agenda will be whatever God wants it to be.  Or to put it another way, you will begin to see the interruptions of life as divine appointments for ministry, given to you by your commander-in-chief.  That’s why I like to begin my day with this simple prayer: To go as I’m led; to go when I’m led; to go where I’m led; that is my prayer, Lord.

Then secondly, real servants are not only available to serve, they look for ways to serve.  They live by the Latin phrase “Carpe diem!”  That means, “Seize the day” or “Seize the moment.”  In other words, whenever they see a need, they do it.  They don’t wait to be asked.  They don’t wait to be told.  They don’t wait to be invited.  They don’t wait for ideal circumstances.  They just do it.  Gal. 6:10 says: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

So guys, when you get home from work and your wife is cooking supper and you see that the dishes haven’t been done yet, you don’t go to her and say, “Hey, honey, have you noticed that the sink is full of dirty dishes” because if you do, you might find out what it’s like to have one of those dirty dishes broken over your thick skull.  Rather, you dive into those dishes and like a Texas tornado you get them washed, dried, and put away.  Just be forewarned, though, that if you do that without being asked it just might cost you in terms of medical bills when your wife keels over with a heart attack, but it will be worth it.  Whenever I do premarital counseling with a couple, I always say to the man: “Do you want to know the most romantic words you can ever say to your wife?”  Of course, he’s all ears at that point.  So I tell him, “All you have to do is say, ‘Honey, is there anything I can do to help you?’”  She’ll be putty in your hands at that point.

And for you wives, when your husband comes dragging in the door after a long hard day of work and he looks like he’s been beaten up and pushed around, chewed up and spit out, your job is to encourage him, to serve him, to come alongside of him and let him know how much you appreciate him and all that he does for the family.

And kids, if your mom and dad have been a bit grumpy lately and you can’t figure out why they’re just not catering to your every wish, whim, and desire, first of all, understand that it’s tough being an adult in this high-stress day and age.  But also recognize that you can make their job a whole lot easier and their days a whole lot brighter by pitching in and helping around the house.  Clean your room.  Make your bed.  Cook a meal.  Do some laundry.  Do you realize how much more smoothly our lives, our homes, and our jobs would run if each one of us would look for ways to serve than to be served, for ways to make life better and easier for those around us, and then follow through on those ways?

Then another mark of true servanthood: Real servants do their best with what they have.  As I was working on this sermon I came across this interesting verse in Eccles. 11:4: “Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.”  That’s the NIV translation of that verse.  Now let me read it to you out of the New Living Translation: “If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.”  Listen, my friends, you may want to wait for those perfect conditions before you do an act of service, but sometimes acts of service need to be done before that.  So please understand that less-than-perfect service is always better than the best of intentions.

I believe one reason many people never volunteer to serve in the church is because they’re afraid they just can’t do it good enough.  They have come to believe the lie that serving God is only for superstars.  And sadly, some churches have fostered that myth by making an idol out of “excellence.”  These churches unwittingly proclaim, “If it can’t be done with excellence, then it shouldn’t be done at all.”  Well, guess what!  Jesus never said that.  Nor did he practice it.  I mean, just look who he picked to be his disciples: a rough around the edges fisherman named Peter who was always putting his foot in his mouth; a hated tax collector by the name of Matthew; a stubborn, have-to-see-in-order-to-believe fellow named Thomas; two brothers named James and John who had a real problem with pride and with controlling their tempers.  And the rest were no better.

Because of that, I want it to be known right here and now that at this church we follow the same principle that Jesus followed.  We might call it the “good enough” principle, which simply states that less than perfect is good enough.  Or to put it another way, your service doesn’t have to be perfect for God to use it and bless it.

And that takes us to one more mark of true servanthood that I want to talk about this morning.  And that is that real servants maintain a low profile.  They don’t promote or call attention to themselves.  They don’t stomp on other people in their attempt to make it to the top.  In fact, they could care less if they make it to the top.  Instead, they follow the words of 1 Peter 5:5 which says: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  Understand, my friends, that self-promotion and servanthood are like oil and water.  They do not mix. Real servants avoid the spotlight because they know that always being in the spotlight blinds you.  It blinds you to your own faults.  It blinds you to the true needs of others.  And worst of all, it blinds you to the God who is the real source of any abilities you have or success you might attain.

As I was working on this sermon I discovered that in America there are more than 750 “Halls of Fame” and more than 450 “Who’s Who” publications.  And while I’m sure it must be a very gratifying feeling to see your name or picture in those places of recognition, such accolades of man do not matter to true servants of God because they know the difference between prominence and significance.  Let me illustrate that difference by using the human body.  You have a number of prominent and noticeable features on your body – your fingers, your arms, your legs, and so on.  But you know what?  You could do without some of them, couldn’t you?  We’ve all known people who have.  But try doing without some of the hidden parts of your body, like your heart, your lungs, your liver, your brain.  Those are the parts that are indispensable.  And the same is true in the Body of Christ.  Those who serve behind the scenes are just as important and significant as those who serve out front.

So you want to be great someday?  If so, then find that greatness in a life of service to God and service to your fellow man.  Follow in the footsteps of Jesus who said of himself in our text for today that he, the Son of Man, came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.  Yes, Jesus gave all of himself in service to us, literally, even to the point of offering his life on the cross for our sins and our salvation.  And I believe nothing would make him happier than for us to first of all receive that gift of salvation by faith, which is the easy part.  But then comes the tough part.  And that is to reflect our gratitude for this incredible gift by giving our lives in service to others, not so that we can be saved because that’s already been taken care of, but because by God’s grace we already are saved.  And as we give of ourselves to others, may we in turn discover that servanthood is indeed the mark of true greatness and one of the best ways to live a good news life in a bad news world.

Amen.