When I first came to America, I noticed many governmental organizations are named “services.” Internal Revenue Service (IRS), US Postal Service (USPS), Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which has since become US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), etc. Contrarily, many other countries prefer to use the term “authority” rather than “service.”
However, times have changed. If you have been to some of those services, you don’t feel you are being served. They act like authoritarians and dictators. Some officers are outright rude. A few years ago, I took my father to the immigration office in Newark for an appointment. It was a cold and windy winter morning, but we had to stand outside in line for hours to get in.
My father was over seventy at that time and was not very healthy. I was concerned that he might faint. When we eventually got inside, we saw a warm and huge empty lobby that could hold ten times the people still lining outside. I thought they kept people out because there was no room to wait inside.
To American standards, it’s fair to say that those immigrants were treated less than animals, but they could do that because those people didn’t have a voice. Maybe it was just Newark. I tweeted a complaint and got comments from many people saying they agreed and had heard of the problem.
I don’t know if my tweet had any effect at all. The good news is, I’ve heard that the immigration service at Newark has improved significantly in recent years, but I am glad that I don’t have to go there ever again. It was a mockery of the term “service.”
The concept of “service” came from the Christian principle of servant leadership exemplified by Jesus. Jesus said,
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35).
He set an example by washing the feet of his disciples. Based on this principle, Government officers are supposed to be civil servants. It’s an excellent concept, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to prevent power from corrupting them.
We all know “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” No matter how we name our organization, power makes us forget our service mission. Authority can be intoxicating. How can we stay humble as we become more successful and attain more power?
So, today, let’s explore the secret to greatness without losing our soul based on this week’s scripture lesson.
[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper. You are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you, and you are satisfied in God.]
The scripture lesson for today is from the Gospel According to Mark 9:30-37. [Listen to the Word of the Lord!]
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 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.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 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.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mk 9:30–37 ESV).
[This is the Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God.]
Notice Jesus said, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him.” What’s interesting is that he said he would be “delivered” into the hands of men, as if he was a property or an object that can be handed from one person to another, somewhat like UPS delivering a package.
In another sense, he was like a child who got handed over from one person to another. When I was three years old, my parents delivered me to the hands of my grandparents to let them raise me in another country. As a child, I had no choice as to where I should live or grow up. Every child’s fate is in the hands of the adults.
In the context of his passage, Jesus was comparing himself to a child whose future is predestined by his father’s will. The last time when he told the disciples about his impending death, Peter rebuked him for saying the silly thing. Peter believed Jesus should choose his own destiny, but Jesus rebuked Peter back, saying,
“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33).
(We discussed this verse in my message last week. You can rewatch it if you miss it.) What it means is Peter was setting his mind on the human will rather than the divine will. The human will is to take control of our future in our way, but Jesus prefers to follow the divine will to fulfill God’s greater purpose. This time, when Jesus talked about his death and resurrection again, they dared not even ask Jesus to explain.
They forgot Jesus’ teaching of “ask, and you will be given.” If they did ask, Jesus would have told them Isaiah’s prophecy about his impending suffering.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7).
It says, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” That explains why Jesus said, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him.” He would be delivered like a lamb to the slaughter. Isaiah then said that it was according to the will of God,
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. (v. 10).
One of the hardest things in life is to submit to the will of God. We must learn it from children. As adults, the ambition to control our future makes us miss God’s greater purpose for our lives. Like Jesus, we should let the will of God prosper in our hands, rather than prospering our own will that leads to insignificant accomplishment comparing to God’s greater dream for us.
Jesus’ death on the cross looks like a horrible failure at the time, but when we look at it 2,000 years later, it was the most successful accomplishment in human history. No other human being has made such an impact. Jesus made that impact by fulfilling the will of God.
We need to spend most of life learning to navigate the will of God. We focus too much on developing IQ and EQ, but what’s most important in life is SQ, Spiritual Quotient, or Spiritual Intelligence. This pandemic has put a lot of strain on people’s SQ.
Spiritual intelligence is to know that God has a better plan for us and being able to sincerely say, “Thy will be done,” even if it is painful, shameful, or doubtful. Jesus knew his disciples did not understand it, so he chose a different route to teach them why submitting to God’s will is the path to greatness.
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. (Mark 9:33-34).
They were silent because they were embarrassed. Instead of discussing Jesus’ submission, they argue about their ambition. They wanted to know who is the greatest among them to be the prime minister of Jesus’ kingdom? But they didn’t know the price of greatness.
James and his brother John wanted to sit on the left and right of Jesus when he established his kingdom. Their mom once asked Jesus on behalf of them for those positions.
But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” (Mat 20:22).
To drink the cup means to suffer like Jesus. He called it the bitter cup that he preferred not to drink it if it was possible. He asked God to remove that cup from him, but only if it was God’s will. So, to drink the cup he drinks means to pay a high price for greatness. They said they were able, maybe out of naivety.
He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (v. 23).
We know that eventually, they did pay the price. According to historical records, James was beheaded by order of King Herod Agrippa. John was exiled to the island of Patmos. Even after paying the high price, they were not guaranteed the positions.
Jesus said it was not his decision but God’s predestination. The uncertainty seems discouraging, but James and John should be commended for their courage to pay the price without the certainty of the reward. Now, Jesus explains the path to 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.” (Mark 9:35).
Jesus revealed to us that the path to true greatness is descending, not ascending. This statement has a double meaning. First, Jesus is talking about himself. He descended to death to serve the world. As the Apostle Creed says, “He descended into hell.” That depicts the extent of his suffering. Isaiah 53 that I quoted above is known as the Song of the Suffering Servant.
Secondly, he was teaching the disciples and us to follow his example to become servants of all, and descend to true greatness. Now he taught an object lesson.
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.” (v. 36-37).
Jesus used a child to represents the powerless, the vulnerable, the immature, the marginalized, the weak, the disadvantaged, and the ignorant. In those days, children were not valued and respected as they are today. Parents had the right to sell their children for slavery if they needed the money.
Children were often treated as annoyances. Once, the disciples were driving out the children when Jesus was preaching, but Jesus stopped them and let the children come to him. Children have a special place in Jesus’ heart. He said unless we become like children, we cannot enter the kingdom of God.
The word “receive” is translated from Greek δέκομαι (dékomai), meaning “to accept.” That means we are to accept the powerless, the vulnerable, the immature, the marginalized, the weak, the disadvantaged, and the ignorant.
We must understand the difference between “approval” and “acceptance.” We often confuse the two. Approval is based on logic, but acceptance is based on love. There are things people do that we disapprove of, but we are called to accept them despite the fact. There are things my children do that I disapprove of, but I accept them because I love them.
If we love only those we approve of, our love is shallow. Jesus wants us to love even our enemies. Do we approve of what our enemies do? Of course not. We don’t have to approve what they do, but we must accept them.
Jesus said, “Whoever accepts one such child in my name accepts me.” “In my name” means doing a deed as if you are doing it to Jesus. Paul explained,
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus … Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col 3:17a, 23-24).
That is the secret of serving those who we don’t want to serve. We do it for the Lord and not for people. That’s what Jesus means to do it “in my name.” It’s not easy, but it’s doable. It keeps us away from vain ambition and unexpected corruption because we cannot do enough for Jesus in return for what he has done for us, so there is nothing to brag about our service to the needy.
When Jesus was on the cross, he asked God to forgive those who crucified him.
Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).
Jesus asked the Father to forgive them not because they were innocent but because they were ignorant. That’s what acceptance means. It’s very difficult to serve the ignorant. I am sure there are people in your life that are incredibly stupid that you want to shun at all costs. However, if Jesus could serve them by dying on the cross for them, why can’t we accept them in his name?
He is truly the servant of all. So, as we have learned, according to Jesus, the path to greatness is not ascending but descending. It’s counter-cultural in those days, and it’s still counter-cultural in our days because our culture still believes greatness is ascending.
John the Baptist put this idea succinctly,
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30).
Let’s descend to greatness. He must increase, but we must decrease.
Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest the fruit of profound happiness.