I enjoy video games. Used to play them all the time. When I was on a break from college, I mastered three games: Crazy Taxi, Splinter Cell, and NBA Street, vol. 2. When a child, I played Super Mario, Donkey Kong Country, and other Nintendo games. Today, my children love their Nintendo Switch. Just the other night, Carter was playing Mario Kart with a friend and he loves when he and I sit down to play a game together.
Games are fun in part because they offer the feeling of accomplishment that comes with achieving victory. We feel satisfied by the great thing we have done when we have reached the end, finished all the levels, beaten the final boss. So the playstation slogan from a few years ago makes sense. They advertised their new system and new games with the slogan:
Maybe you’re not a gamer, but we can all relate to that slogan: greatness awaits. We want to be great. We want to make a name for ourselves. We want to be remembered. We want to achieve great things. When we’re young, we look ahead and feel that greatness does await. When we’ve passed through our youth, we hope that greatness is what we have achieved. And we hope that greatness is what awaits our children and grandchildren.
Greatness awaits becomes a motivation, a driving force in our lives. It may not be as noticeable as some others, but it’s there. We have the ambition to achieve great things, especially in the minds of others. We want to be noticed, to be remembered, to be considered for the great things we’ve done.
The disciples want that, too. And that’s where we find them, but especially James and John, in our gospel reading from Mark. They believe greatness awaits. They have given up their lives, sold their possessions, and left their families behind to follow Jesus, believing that greatness awaits. Now, they want some of that greatness to become reality. Hear the boldness of James and John, the jealousy of the remainder of the disciples, and Jesus’s astounding reply, in Mark 10:35-45
The disciples believe it. James and John have the boldness to ask for it. And the remaining ten disciples find themselves very jealous as result.
This interplay of power dynamics among the twelve, this look into the inner workings of the disciples, reminds me of a phrase I picked up from a professor of mine: politics is just a fancy word for relationships. Indeed, it is. Here with the disciples, we see that: the power dynamics at play in their relationships, the jockeying for position among the twelve, the striving for recognition by Jesus and the hope that each one of them will achieve greatness at the leadership of this teacher. Those power dynamics, that jockeying, the willingness to sacrifice each other to achieve greatness; all of that is the nature of their relationship with each other; all of that is politics.
Politics is just a fancy word for relationships. If we think about our relationships, we can see politics at play. There are politics at play in the relationships between children and parents, especially as children grow up and assert more of their own authority. That’s power dynamics working: who has the power, who can wield the power, and at what cost?
There are politics at play when an elderly parent can no longer take care of her or himself, leaving the children to do so. One child often ends up doing the majority of the care, but sometimes the other sibling or siblings decide they deserve an equal share of the estate when their mother or father passes away. That’s politics; the power dynamics of siblings at play.
We have friends, or have known friends, who seem able to dictate to us what we should do, what we should think, what we should buy. Then we have other friends to whom we can dictate what they should do, think, and buy. Maybe they buy a car so you have to have a similar one. Or they stop coming to church so you stop coming to church. That’s politics; power dynamics of friendships at play.
Politics gets misconstrued: it’s not just about elected leaders and the functioning of our democracy. It’s about relationships; the power dynamics constantly at play around us.
That’s what we see here. Mark gives us an insider’s view into the inner workings of the disciples. They weren’t a merry bunch of twelve men who simply followed Jesus where he went with harmony. They had intrigue, jealousy, spats, infighting, jockeying for position, and all the things that come with coworkers who want to please the boss so they can get ahead. All of the usual intraoffice politics are at play among the twelve; the power dynamics of a workplace are on display. As such, the disciples are not unlike that TV show The Office. I’m sure there’s a Michael Scott, a Jim, a Pam, and a Dwight Schrute among them.
For them all, whether on the TV or here in the scripture, they jockey, they cajole, they labor, they goof off even, in the hopes that their efforts will result in what they all desire and believe:
In your life, where do you desire to achieve greatness?
For some of us, that’s in career. We have ambitions or, perhaps if now retired, we had ambitions, and we drove after those. Ambition can take many forms: for power, for prestige, for wealth, for status, for position. But in all of its forms, our motivation is to achieve greatness, to realize the greatness we seek. If now retired, perhaps we can look back and see how we achieved that greatness we sought, achieved a greatness different than initially sought, or failed to achieve greatness; a lasting legacy that haunts us.
For some of us, the desire to achieve greatness is with our families. We want our family to be the best: the best achievers at school, at sports, the most involved across extra-curriculars, the most popular with the widest array of friends. We want to be at the center of community social life, the privileged who set the social calendar or we want to be those who are invited by the social elite of Eastman. We want to be seen in the right circles with the right people so that others will know that we have arrived. Perhaps, if retired, we once lived and moved in that circle or failed to ever do so, a lasting source of bitterness.
For some of us, the desire to achieve greatness comes in other forms. We want a social media following that makes others envious. We want to be wealthy and known for it. We want to be generous and known for it. We want to have a great reputation. We want local power to make things happen. We want to be the first to do something novel. We want to own all the desires of our hearts.
And what is that greatness?
It’s whatever we want. We define greatness as getting that thing we long for the most, whether status, possessions, power, wealth, or privilege.
We want. That’s the phrase that comes up over and over again, here in what I just said and in our reading this morning, no less than ten times: we want. And whatever we want, that’s how we define greatness.
Well, it’s not the only way we define greatness. We also define greatness as getting others to think that we’re great. For most of us, greatness is not in the eye of the beholder, it’s in the eye of all those looking at us. We want them to think we’re great: our coworkers, our families, our friends, people in the community, our social media following, people at church.
And so, we strive for whatever it is we want so that others will think we’re great.
In other words, greatness awaits those who follow what they want and achieve it.
That’s what James and John think. They want greatness by being known as Jesus’s right hand and left hand men. They want greatness because they believe Jesus is great and they want to be known as his numbers one and two. Which is apparently what the other ten want because they become exceedingly jealous.
James and John fail to achieve the greatness they sought. Sometimes, we fail, too. I’ve known too many people who dreamt of greatness and then, at the end of their lives, were full of bitterness and despair over the disappointment of not achieving it. Other times, we do succeed. But then, I’ve known too many people at the end of their lives who had little time to recount stories of their former glories because they no longer thought they mattered much at all. Instead, they realized they had neglected the things that mattered most in pursuit of greatness.
Because in the end, what we want the most in this life doesn’t end up mattering. And what we think we need the most in life is often not what we want.
In other words, we think greatness awaits by pursuing what we want. But then, whether we achieve that greatness of not, we realize at the end of life that it didn’t matter at all. And, we come to realize we’ve neglected the things that matter most in pursuit of what we thought would make us great.
That’s just human nature. And yet, we continue ambitiously striving for what we want because we believe:
Jesus tells the disciples, and us this morning, that it’s only if we’re brave, bold, and willing to sacrifice all those ambitions, all that striving, and willing to give up our belief that we can achieve greatness, that we actually discover what greatness is.
Jesus says that those who follow the mission achieve greatness, but not their personal greatness, the greatness of God. Those who follow the mission must sacrifice their desire for greatness. He uses provocative language for them in their day and for us today: those who wish to discover greatness in this life must become slaves to the mission.
And the mission is simple: to make the greatness of God known. God’s greatness does not await. It is here and now. And we are the people to whom is given the mission to make it known to the world.
But it requires great sacrifice to choose to follow that mission.
Jesus uses the example of Gentile rulers, who use their power to lord over others, no matter who they are, to prove how great they are as rulers, how much power they have. They are demonstrating politics: they have power in the dynamic relationship between them and those they rule. And that power dynamic means oppression for those who live under their lordship.
Jesus says that in the Kingdom of God, for those who follow the mission, that power dynamic is reversed. Whatever power we might have should be put to use for the mission, to serve others, to help others; in the example of Gentile rulers, to offer release to the oppressed.
Anyone with power would not want to do that. To oppress others is to gain more power, so why give that up? Greatness awaits rulers who know how to utilize their power in relationships with those they rule by making sure they don’t forget who is ruled and who rules.
This is simply one example but it applies universally: anyone with power in any relationship will utilize that power to their own ends. Think of siblings with each other when a parent dies, or friends who want their friends to buy something or do something, or family disputes that turn vitriolic and legal, a sign of wrestling over who has power. Politics is indeed a fancy word for relationships. And in our relationships, we have those power dynamics; we have politics.
Jesus challenges us on how we live into those power dynamics. Human nature says to utilize them for our benefit, believing that greatness awaits.
Jesus flips the script. That’s not how it works in the Kingdom of God. We should use whatever power we have in relationships for the benefit of the Kingdom of God, to make God’s greatness known.
To make his point abundantly clear, Jesus says that whomever among you wishes to be great must be your servant. And in the world we know, it makes no sense. For if we apply his words, we discover that it changes our priorities, our striving, our actions.
If we are servants of God in our careers, it means we do nothing to advance our own position. We instead find all the ways we can use our job to show others Christ. There are many ways to do that but here’s one directly related to the scripture: we cease striving for position, jockeying with others, playing the politics game at work. Instead, we do the job God has given us to the best of our ability, making sure that in all we do, our actions witness to Christ who lives within us.
If we are servants of God in our families, it means that we make no decisions based on what others might think of our family. Decisions about extra-curricular activities for kids are made on whether or not it will develop that child into the person God made them to be, not to prove how talented or special our children are. Decisions about what we purchase are made not to prove something to other families but on whether or not that expenditure will reveal Christ. Those who follow Jesus in this way, those who ascribe to the mission, live within their means and usually more simply than their friends and colleagues; a powerful witness that we’ve given up trying to appear great within our social circle.
If we are servants of God in our friendships, we choose those people based on whether or not they help us fulfill the mission. We come to not care at all what circle we’re in nor how that circle is regarded by others. We don’t care what people think if we’re seen with the wrong crowd. We don’t follow our friends; we labor together with our friends for the mission that we share, making each other better as we seek God’s greatness, not our own.
If we are servants of God on social media, with local power, with our finances, in all our strivings, we come to not care what others think but only about what God thinks. We care not to witness to our own greatness, to our own wealth or status or privilege or power, but instead to witness to the presence of the Kingdom of God in our midst.
Greatness does not await. It’s here and now in the Kingdom of God.
In other words, to be a servant of God, to serve the mission, to live into this scripture as Jesus commanded, we must no longer strive for greatness. Instead, we must learn how God is great in our own lives and witness to that through all we do.
That might sound simple, but all of us respond to the power dynamics of the relationships in our lives. Those personal politics matter. We care what people think. We want to be well regarded, we want wealth, we want nice things, we want high status, we want to be thought of as great, however we define greatness.
And Jesus asks us to give all that up.
That’s a hard ask. I have known very few people in my life who have fully lived into this ask. I am still on the journey of learning to live into it myself. But that’s just the point: we will always be tempted to achieve greatness on our own, so becoming a servant of the mission is a lifelong task. The question then is not if we have achieved it but, rather, if we’re on the journey toward achieving it.
And that starts with recognizing how we seek greatness for ourselves and willingly giving that up.
So here’s the question this morning: are you on that journey at all?
When it comes to your social life, do you care more about how those friendships make you a better Christian or how they make you known in this community for being in the right circles?
When it comes to your family, do you care more about how your family is perceived and making sure that you get your fair share of estates or do you care more about how your family is serving the mission to make God’s greatness known?
When it comes to your wealth, do you care more about purchasing what you want so you can prove to others how wealthy you are and keep up with perceived demands or do you care more that your money is being put to use by ministries like this church who make God’s greatness known?
When it comes to your work, do you care more about what you can achieve for yourself in position and power or do you care more about how you can utilize your position to make the greatness of God known?
Taking the journey toward becoming a servant of the mission requires giving up social striving for position, jockeying with family to demonstrate how great yours is, buying everything you want, career ambitions, and the like. It requires all of that because, ultimately, it requires that we no longer allow the power dynamics in our relationships with each other to determine how we act, what we do, what we purchase, how we live our lives.
Believing that greatness awaits, that we can achieve greatness, is what causes us to allow power dynamics in our relationships to determine our actions.
We must instead choose to believe that greatness is here and now and that we bear the responsibility to be a servant to the mission of helping others know that the greatness of God is among us, that the Kingdom of God is here and now.
When James and John ask Jesus to become great, Jesus tells them they must cede their wants to God. When the other ten disciples get jealous, Jesus tells them that those who wish to become great must be a servant. When we read this scripture, Jesus tells us we must give up our strivings and desires for greatness to make God’s greatness known.
Naturally, we seek to make ourselves great, defining our greatness by whatever we want. Jesus says to us that we must be servants of the mission, making God’s greatness known to the world.
Greatness does not await. Greatness is already here.
So this morning ask yourself: do you believe it? Are you pursuing greatness or are you a servant?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.