Pastor Chris Tweitmann
These days, there is a lot of talk about being the G.O.A.T.
Not the furry, sometimes shrieking animal spotted on farms and sometimes on viral memes and YouTube videos.
G.O.A.T., the acronym. The Greatest Of All Time.
Many sports fans have crowned the NFL quarterback, Tom Brady, as the GOAT because of his numerous playoff appearances and seven Super Bowl championships.
Others might argue an athlete like Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretsky, Bill Russell, or Michael Jordan better deserve that title.
And didn’t the world-famous boxer, Muhammad Ali, once proclaim himself “the greatest of all time”?
But talk of being the GOAT need not remain limited to the world of sports.
We all have, deep within us, a desire to excel, a longing for significance.
The quest for greatness is thrust upon us almost from birth as from the moment we start out in this world, we are graded, ranked, and compared alongside others.
As we grow up, we start building our resumes, our online profiles.
They all boast our achievements – because, in one sense, that is what they are designed to do – to make the case for our greatness.
No one wants to be no one. We all feel the push to be somebody – to be great, to be the best.
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once brilliantly captured how innately strong this pull within us when he remarked on his problem with winning a silver medal – of coming in second place.
As he put it, “when you win the gold – you feel good, and when you win the bronze – you think, “Well, at least I got something.” But when you win that silver, it’s like, “Congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers, you came in first in that group. You’re the number one loser. No one lost ahead of you!”
Whether we’re an athlete, a student, an employee, or a boss, whether we’re a sibling, a parent, or a spouse, we all strive to be the best, the G.O.A.T. in our field, in our station in life.
But how does one become a GOAT? What makes a person a GOAT?
What is it, that measure of greatness that will get us there? And how can we recognize it – greatness – when we see it?
As the sum of our lives continues to be whittled down to bullet points supported by photos, tweets, and descriptive hashtags, Jesus teaches us, in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, what greatness actually is and how we can take hold of it.
But as we prepare to listen, Jesus’ idea of being a GOAT is completely different from the measures and standards we typically use.
Right on the other side of yet another miraculous healing
“…the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father.” – Luke 9:42
– that of a poor father’s demon-possessed son, and
“And they were all amazed at the greatness of God. While everyone was marveling at all that Jesus did…” – Luke 9:43
while everyone else is marveling at what Jesus has done yet again, the twelve disciples – Jesus’ chosen followers – are preoccupied with other concerns.
What likely began as a friendly debate – a conversation to pass the time – has abruptly turned into an argument between them.
And the topic of this growing dispute?
“An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.” – Luke 9:46
Luke tells us it was over the question of who might be, of who would be the greatest among them.
To be clear, the measure of greatness the disciples were squabbling over appears to be about which of them was closest to Jesus, which of them knew Him best, which of them was most privileged in His counsel, which of them would rank highest in their pecking order as followers of Christ.
Also notice, they are not assessing themselves currently – as they are now.
No, the disciples are looking forward – envisioning, anticipating, predicting who among them would prove to be the greatest when all is said & done.
Perhaps all this speculation started because of Jesus’ recent trip up a mountain
“About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.” -Luke 9:28
– when Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him and left the other disciples behind.
While up there, Peter, James, and John got to see Jesus’ glory in a way the other disciples did not.
“As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus.” -Luke 9:29 – 30
Maybe it was the perception of these three disciples’ apparent “inside track” with Jesus that became the impetus for the ensuring conversation that quickly spiraled into a quarrel.
Either way, as they jockey for position, each disciple clearly fancies himself as having what it takes to be the best – to be the G.O.A.T. when it comes following Jesus.
Only moments earlier,
“Jesus said to his disciples, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” – Luke 9:44
Jesus told his disciples to listen carefully as he shared with them the news of his approaching sacrifice – his willing suffering and death.
But Luke tells us that
“But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.” – Luke 9:45
the disciples couldn’t grasp what Jesus was saying – that it was hidden from their understanding.
Is it possible, in a touch of sad irony, that it was the disciples’ preoccupation in arguing about their relative importance to each other that prevented them from being able to track with Jesus?
Beloved, let us take note of this – especially in these days of increasing competition and polarization within the Church.
Any presumptive rivalry within the Body of Christ gets in the way of our truly understanding who Jesus is – the kind of Lord and Savior we worship.
Every assertion of perceived superiority between and among other Christians that we assert as disciples of Jesus actually takes us off course – leading us away from rather following Christ.
That this is most certainly true becomes evident by how Jesus responds to this brewing tempest in a teapot.
Going beyond the explicit debate between the disciples, Luke tells us Jesus “knew their thoughts.”
In other words, Jesus was able to recognize more than what they were arguing about – who would be the greatest; he could discern the underlying issue – why and how they were arguing about it – the disciples’ flawed perception of what true greatest is.
Therefore seeking to move beyond the initial question fueling their debate, Jesus draws a child by his side to interrupt the disciples’ argument.
With this child standing before them, Jesus declares to his followers,
“Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me…” – Luke 9:48
Jesus then rounds out his proclamation with these words,
“For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” – Luke 9:48
Let’s briefly break down the object lesson Jesus is trying to teach us.
To begin with, Jesus, in his answer, implicitly reframes the question to being less about who is the greatest and rather, what defines true greatness in the Kingdom of God.
Whereas we tend to measure greatness in our perceived stature or through comparison with others, Jesus presents greatness being found in our connection to him – knowing and following Christ.
While some may still maintain what makes greatness is being the best at what you do in life, Jesus unflinchingly proclaims greatness is not inherent to a person but again, is established by our relationship to him.
That this is so, immediately becomes clear, as with his words, Jesus directs his disciples’ attention towards the child standing in their midst.
It’s a redirection that would have surprised his followers.
This is because in the Greco-Roman and Judean world, while children were loved by their parents as they are today, unlike today, a family’s survival back then depended on everyone being able to contribute to the welfare of the home.
Therefore, until a child could bear some of the load, he or she was, for all intents and purposes, an economic liability.
Children then, in the ancient world, were ranked among “the least of these” – the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized.
Entirely dependent upon adults, children had no social standing or significance.
And yet let us carefully pay attention to what Jesus says:
“Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me…” -Luke 9:48
Jesus is aligning himself – his presence – with a child.
To receive a child – someone who has no social value or standing – is the same thing as to receive Christ.
In fact, Jesus goes in further than this as he adds, it is to receive the one who sent him.
In other words, to receive a child – again someone who has no social value or standing – is the same thing as to receive God, the Father and Jesus, the Son.
There are two important insights to be gleaned from this.
First, in the kingdoms of our own making, greatness is measured by high position, fame, money, and power.
In our kingdoms, no child would qualify as great let alone the greatest.
We view, we raise, we spurn children on to possibly become great, to work hard to achieve greatness.
But if greatness comes from God – being in relationship to Christ, Jesus in equating welcoming him with welcoming a child, then in the Kingdom of God, greatness – the greatness of God – is to be found in all children.
The child Jesus places before his disciples is, however, representative of more than a specific demographic – all children.
The child is representative of everyone who is completely on the fringes, who is wholly overlooked, of those persons and groups of people who seem to us not even to be in the field of consideration for any discussion of greatness.
In the eyes of the world greatness looks like people who do great deeds – those who gain great power and recognition.
By this measure, such persons are a selective few in number.
Jesus, however, frames greatness in God’s Kingdom quite differently.
His Jesus’ object lesson prohibits comparison between his followers.
For if greatness is found in the least of these through relationship to Christ then the same greatness can be found in all people – not limited to a few persons but open to everyone – even a little child.
This is the Gospel.
Greatness was ours because of the One who first fearfully and wonderfully created us in his image.
But we rejected that ultimate standard of greatness in the pursuit of our own glory – seeking our own greatness apart from God.
As a result, true greatness continually eludes us.
As whatever greatness we boast in achieving inevitably gets acquired by putting down the competition, by leaving people behind, and by disqualifying others from having the same opportunities as we do.
And all along the way, the pursuit of greatness borne of our pride, cannot satisfy our gnawing fears and insecurity.
Even when we think, when others tell us, we are the best, we still keep looking over our shoulder at who is coming up behind us.
We still struggle to be content with whatever we have – always wanting more but never having enough.
Beloved, the good news is greatness is not something we have to achieve.
We don’t become great because we take all the right actions, We don’t become great because we conquer every obstacle before us. We don’t become great because we are better than all the rest.
Greatness becomes ours through the One who comes down in the midst of all our brokenness and incompleteness and graciously redeems the relationship with God we so carelessly throw away.
Greatness becomes ours thanks to the One
who lovingly restores our full potential – to become the best of who we created to be by our Creator.
Greatness becomes ours because of the One who willingly dies to clean up the mess we’ve all made and then conquers death – resurrecting our hope for a full, abundant, and everlasting life.
The question that lingers is how do we live out the greatness that is ours – not by any of our achievements – but only thanks to the finished work and ongoing presence of Jesus?
This leads to the second insight from Jesus’ object lesson here.
One more time, let us picture the child standing next to Jesus and before his disciples.
Jesus declares that in welcoming those who are like this child
– those who vulnerable physically, economically, and socially
– we are welcoming him and the Father who sent him.
If greatness comes from God – from being in relationship to Christ, then we are in the closest proximity to Jesus, we are following his lead when we are welcoming and serving the least of these in his name.
Greatness in the Kingdom of God does not derive from accumulating wealth, titles, accolades, and accomplishments or advancing our own status and interests.
Again, that’s chasing after our own glory rather following Jesus.
No, if we want both to experience and reflect the goodness, the best of what Christ offers to us, then we must engage the world and each other like Jesus did.
And how did Christ come into our lives?
Jesus came into this world not among the “great” ones, but rather as the apostle Paul later writes,
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” -Philippians 2:5 – 7
Jesus emptied himself and laid aside the glory of his divinity – all for the sake of attending himself to the poverty and suffering of this world.
In both his purpose and his work, with whom did Jesus align himself?
By his own designation, not just in words but in his actions – through later taking off his outer garment, grabbing a towel and a basin, and kneeling before his disciples and washing their feet
and ultimately being stripped of all dignity and even his life itself on a Roman Cross, Jesus presents himself not primarily as a lord or a king, or even a savior but as a servant – the servant of all who are in need.
Extending the call for us to follow, where did Jesus direct us to find him?
In the aftermath of his resurrection and ascension and through the presence of his Holy Spirit, Jesus told us we would continue to find him among the least of these – among the forgotten, downtrodden, persecuted, and disenfranchised.
To welcome and serve someone in the name of Jesus is to recognize the value and worth of another person – no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done – as someone created in the image of God as someone forgiven, saved, and sought after by Christ.
Our path to greatness lies in following Jesus in welcoming the stranger, caring for the vulnerable and overlooked, protecting and giving voice to the weak, the helpless, and the hurting advocating for those who have been unjustly sidelined and excluded.
When Christ assures us it is least among us all who is the greatest, he is not advocating for a hierarchy of service – the more people you serve in the name of Jesus, the greater you are.
We must take care not to serve others out of our own need.
If this the basis of our service to others – to ease our conscience, to feel better about ourselves, to gain the notice and approval of those around us – then we are not serving others in the name of Jesus.
If we are helping and serving others more for your sake than for theirs, then we aren’t living for the Kingdom of God, we are living for a kingdom of our own making.
Again, greatest is not something we achieve; greatness is something we reflect from within us – as a gift received, as gift available to all, a gift that benefits everyone in Jesus Christ.
As we accept God’s invitation for greatness, we enter the reality of what God is doing and what opportunities the Spirit of Christ is offering us.
Those daily opportunities are not hard to miss.
They are, more often than not, the small, seemingly insignificant moments, those, from our perception ill-timed interruptions, that in truth, can have eternal consequences.
Greatness in the Kingdom of God looks like slowing down, noticing, and coming alongside those who are struggling.
Greatness in the Kingdom of God looks like being open rather than too busy, when another person risks admitting their vulnerability and asking for help.
Greatness in the Kingdom of God looks like being compassionate and forgiving rather than judgmental and condemning, when encountering another person who is having a bad day – someone who isn’t presenting themselves as very likeable.
Greatness in the Kingdom of God looks like standing up and speaking out when another child of God is being abused, taken advantage of, or just plain disrespected instead of observing from a distance and saying or doing nothing.
Greatness in the Kingdom of God is reflecting the presence of Jesus – the character of Christ – to others who are having a hard time seeing and believing that Jesus is really there – is truly for rather than against them.
The disciples here are acting childish. In response, Jesus is calling them and us
– to be childlike
– to embrace a childlike faith and humility
– removing the need for competition and the push towards comparison.
A desire for greatness is innate to all of us.
Making us in his image, God has made us to be great and do great things.
In our homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces, within our families, marriages, and friendships, within each of our spheres of influence, the Lord has a pathway toward greatness for you and me – for us together.
Far beyond the varying ways we tend to quantify and qualify greatness – a six-figure salary, a coveted award, a prestigious title or social status, or even our own self-defined bragging rights, God our Father maintains a distinct, singular measuring stick for determining greatness.
In our forgetfulness and rebellion, God came down to present that reflection of true greatness – of who we were meant to be, of who we can become, in Jesus Christ.
Beloved, God refuses to define the greatness of your life in dollars or cents, family or friends or kids, paychecks, promotions or raises, education, possessions, accomplishments or accolades.
Our greatness comes in relationship to Jesus – the Jesus who comes for us, who claims us, who redeems us, who empowers us as God’s children.
Our greatness is reflected in following Christ – being like Christ in a broken and hurting world.
Like Jesus, let us give of ourselves and invest our lives so that others would also be able to know and grow, to thrive and mature in God’s loving presence, the amazing grace of their Maker.
Let us reflect the greatness of God we have received in Christ through our service towards each other – but particularly, those most in need. Amen.