What is the one human quality that drives us to success while causing all sorts of problems at the same time? It is ambition. Ambition is one of the driving forces in our lives. It propels us to excel in our jobs. It pushes us to reach our goals. It can give us a reason for living. Ambition is one of the tools that the world uses to measure success.
There is another way to measure success-one that is not of this world-and that is the topic of the Gospel reading from Mark 9:30-37. We sometimes think that we can measure success the way the world does. We mistakenly believe that if God receives glory for what we do, then it should be glorious for us also. We must remember God’s faithful servants from the Bible, and we must remember that their situations were far from easy or glamorous. For example:
- Noah built.
- Abraham moved.
- Moses led.
- Josiah restored.
- Rahab protected.
- David conquered.
- Nehemiah repaired.
- Ruth stayed.
- Jeremiah preached.
- The poor widow gave.
- The Apostles went.
- The early church persevered.
Ordinary people did extraordinary things and even though they may have thought their actions were insignificant at the time, the Lord through his word, has allowed us the opportunity to see the role these good people played in the greatest story ever told.
I read a story a few years ago about a couple of school kids. One had gotten into some trouble and was going to have to walk a few laps at recess and wasn’t taking the news very well. Another student who wasn’t even a close friend stepped in to offer encouragement. She informed her peer that she wouldn’t have to walk alone. She would stay by her side, cheering her on the entire time. When the teacher remarked what a wonderful thing she had just done, the student shrugged and replied, “It’s no big deal. It’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Can you image a world if everyone had the same attitude? Can you imagine a church if everyone had that attitude? It’s those Kingdom-minded thinkers who change the world. Those who forgive, love, go the extra mile, and live righteously, not out of a sense of obligation, not because they’re trying to earn their salvation, not to be seen by others, but because that’s what they’re supposed to do.
The Lord might also call us to do simple, humble acts that show compassion toward other people and which display God’s character. These deeds are not done for personal gain. They are done out of an outflow of God’s love in us and for his glory.
Jesus argued that the way to be successful or get ahead in the spiritual world is to become like a child. In Jesus’ time, children and women were seen as little more than property. Little children were considered useless until they were old enough to help with housework. In other words, they were humble and lowly. The child in this passage represents all of God’s people. The greatest people in God’s kingdom are not the rich and the powerful, but the poor and the helpless; not the ones with the most servants, but those who serve others the most. Jesus argued that if we help those who are humble, lowly, poor, or oppressed we will be successful from a heavenly point of view.
The disciples did not realize this. They were still thinking of success in worldly terms. They were concerned with using earthly ambition to get ahead in heaven. Jesus knew that this was what the disciples were talking about, even though they did not answer his question. You see, Jesus knows everything about us-what we think, what we feel, what our thoughts are, etc. He knew what their problem was and he also had the solution. The disciples tried to hide their discussion, but you can’t hide anything from God.
The disciples could not understand the true meaning of power described by Jesus because they were afraid to ask the right questions. Instead of asking how they could better understand and fulfill Jesus’ mission, their main concern was finding out how each of them could become the greatest. The disciples’ attitude was one that Jesus had to address. We have to do the same. If not, we will end up conspiring with sinners to defeat righteousness. God disciplines his children by speaking the truth to power and offering correction. We and the disciples need to learn that the true heavenly power that Jesus inaugurated is in the form of service to others.
It can be difficult for us to let go of our desire to succeed in earthly ways. It is part of our human nature for us to be in control. We want to be independent. We want to be in control of our lives and our goals, and this includes the desire to succeed. We need to let go and let God control our destiny and successes if we want to be first in his eyes. We need to let go of our desire to get ahead and replace it with a desire to serve others, especially the less fortunate.
A good example of this type of success is Franklin Graham. He is the president of Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization. He got involved with that organization in the 1970s when he was asked by the organization’s founder, Dr. Bob Pierce, to accompany him on relief missions throughout the world. Franklin Graham rose from humble servant to the organization’s president by following God’s path to success. Along the way he became a born-again Christian. Later, he became an associate evangelist with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and eventually President of the Association when his father, The Rev. Billy Graham, stepped down. Franklin Graham once said that God called him to the ditches of the world and his father to the stadiums of the world.
Billy Graham is another example of God’s definition of success. He humbly answered God’s call as a young man and became one of the world’s greatest evangelists, leading untold thousands to Christ while at the same time running the Association and his team of associates in a humble, moral manner.
If Billy Graham and Franklin Graham are examples of God’s definition of success, there is another member of the Graham family who best represents the lowly and suffering people whom God calls us to serve. In her book “In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart”, Billy Graham’s youngest daughter Ruth shares the story of her struggles with two divorces as well as her children’s problems with drugs, rebelliousness, eating disorders and teenage pregnancy. She also shares how all of them were helped by God’s love as shown by concerned friends and family members who were ready, willing and able to help her and her children.
Jesus constantly challenges us to be a servant, to think of others instead of ourselves. If we feel unhappy and unfulfilled in our lives, perhaps it is time to take a long hard look at our lives. We have to ask ourselves if we are I-centered or others-centered, because our decision will affect our eternal destiny. The child in this Gospel passage represents the new birth or new start necessary for real leadership and real life. The road to happiness is the road of service. The way to greatness is not possible without a servant heart, a servant hand, a humble heart and a humble hand. Jesus himself is a good example of the greatness of service and humility. He came to earth as a servant. He humbled himself to the point of death on a cross, and thereby became highly exalted by God.
Some of us might think that serving someone is beneath us or that somehow the act of serving others diminishes us. On the contrary, those who serve the most are the greatest people on earth—and in heaven. Jesus asks us to embrace those who are in need. We are to show concern for the less fortunate. To welcome a child is to welcome one of low status who might not tell anyone else of the welcome or mention the name of the host to others.
Those who would be first must be last. This is the opposite of our ambitious ways, but we have to admit that Jesus was right. Our ambitions are compulsive, suspicious, obsessive, jealous, resentful and full of revenge. The only ambition that truly gives life is the ambition to serve others. In God’s eyes what is important is not what we have to offer, or what we do not have to offer, but who we are. It means relying on God’s strength instead of our own. As God said to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”.
There is an interpretation of Exodus that teaches that Moses not only put the tablets of the law that he received on Mount Sinai into the Ark of the Covenant, but also was commanded by God to add the broken pieces of the first tablets that he broke in anger after seeing the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. The broken and the whole were together in the same ark. Likewise, the broken and the whole are together in the embrace of a loving God. The image of God is upon all of us. If we want to be successful in God’s eyes, we must show the image of a serving, humble God.
Faith is not about a church doctrine or power or privilege. It is about service to others-service to the point of sacrifice. It can be expressed equally through individual actions and experiences as it can be in churchwide attitudes, actions and public declarations. Each and every day we will have the opportunity to show how Christ’s love can bring healing to our hurting world. The only way we can do this clearly is with the greatest humility-just as Jesus did when he set the little child among the disciples.
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- Matthew Henry Concise Commentary. Part of Lessonmaker 8 Bible software package.
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- Graham, Franklin: Rebel With a Cause: Finally Comfortable Being Graham (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.; 1995)
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- The Rev. Stephen Lewis, “Insignificant Greatness”. Retrieved from www.day1.org
- Graham, Ruth: In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Inc.; 2004)
- Jim Burns, “The Road to Happiness”. Retrieved from Crosswwalk@crosswalkmail.com
- Pastor Bob Coy, “Down is up”. Retrieved from www.activeword.org
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- Berni Dymet, ‘The Guillotine”. Retrieved from Christianity.email@example.com
- Jude Siciliano, O.P., “First Impressions, 23th Sunday (B)”. Retrieved from www.preacherexchange.org
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- Carl L. Schenck, “Ambition”. Retrieved from www.ministrymatters.com/all/article/entry/3075/ambition
- Alyce M. McKenzie, “Commentary on Mark 9:30-37”. Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org/preaching_Print.aspx?commentary_id=393
- The Rev. Charles Hoffacker, “The Kid from Capernaum”. Retrieved from www.sermonwriter.com
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- Rabbi Marc Gellman, “The Broken and the Whole: God Knows and Loves Us All”. Retrieved from www.arcamax.com/religionandspirituality/godsquad/s-1198200
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- Paula Harrington, “The Big Deal”. Retrieved from http://forthright.net/2012/09/12/the-big-deal/