Who's the Greatest?
17 Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, Mercy and Peace to you from God our Father and His only Son, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
If you have an older or younger brother, or an older or younger sister, then you know what it means to compete for being on top of the pecking order. Even if you are an only child, you still can understand what it means to define yourself in a group whether it is in school or at work.
I can remember a game we played in our childhood called ‘King of the Hill’. It was a simple game with simple rules. A mound of dirt or snow would be the pinnacle of which one person would stand and take on any and all challengers to his position. The rest of the rules were straightforward; knock the guy off the top of the mound and become the new ‘King of the Hill’.
At home, my brother stood at the top of the proverbial hill. My brother and I fought constantly as we grew up. He was always making sure he was the alpha leader and I was always trying to knock him down and take his place. We both wanted to be the greatest.
Since the creation of the world, humankind has fought amongst themselves to be the greatest. We see an early example in Genesis 4:2-8.
“Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
“So the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.’
“Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.” [Genesis 4:2-8]
Cain wanted to be the greatest at any cost and it cost him dearly. We remember his name, because not only it is in our sacred text, but also because it was the first murder recorded in history. Cain may have achieved greatness but not in the way he desired.
From that moment on, the aspiration for greatness burned in our hearts. Just as God predicted, sin was at our door and its desire was for us.
Centuries passed with men of greatness making their names known. King David, King Saul and King Solomon all made their marks and more followed:
Pharaoh Thutmose III of Egypt, Alexander III of Macedon (commonly known as Alexander the Great), Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, and Adolph Hitler all wished to be king of the world.
Their desire for power and the ability to murder greater and greater numbers of their fellow men grew to immense proportions. Yes, these conquerors had great wealth, great power and great sin; but where is their greatness now? The most notable thing these great conquerors have in common is that they are all dead and their kingdoms have been dismantled.
It seems we have not learned to conquer our sinful desire to place ourselves above our fellow human beings. In fact, it has become humankind’s credo to be number one, to rise to the top and to be the greatest.
Ponder yet another fine example from our Scriptures, St. Mark 9:33-34…
“They [the disciples & Jesus] came to Capernaum. When [Jesus] was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” [Mark 9:33-34]
Can you believe it? The chosen followers of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, arguing who was the greatest? I suppose this incident could be viewed two ways. One, they were foolish for even thinking such a thing, they of all people should have known better. Or, two, they were foolish for even thinking such a thing and we of all people cannot think ourselves any better.
We sure have come a long way, haven’t we? We have really evolved and progressed past our petty desires to be the greatest. In a world of over 7.8 billion people, one would think the chance of one person being the greatest would be hard to quantify. Two hundred and fifty babies are born every minute; that’s 4.3 births per second. Our competition is continuously growing.
Still, we humans continually fight to be number one. It is true that we have become more specialized in our quest to be the greatest. The Nobel prize currently has 6 categories available to bestow on the greatest in their field. Such categories are in science, peace and literature to name three. This may seem like a great number of categories until you look at the 24 categories for the Academy Awards.
As the world grows, so does the amount of competition for greatness. No longer is the competition simply in athletics, but also in art, philosophy and science. When there is no award or recognition for some new category of achievement, we make one up!
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that it is meaningless to strive to be the best in the use of one’s God given talents; not at all. I am saying that when we focus on ourselves as the source of our greatness, we push God out of the way.
How many of us think we are better than someone else? How many of us think we deserve better than others because of who we are? We say to ourselves, “I should get that promotion because I work harder and I’m better than my co-workers” Or we think, “I should get a better table and better service because I’m richer and dressed better.” It is even as simple as, “I was here first! Let the other people have what is left over.”
No, my friends, time has moved on but we have not changed our base and sinful mindset. This is why a letter written over 1900 years ago is still pertinent today. As St. James writes;
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this… that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” [James 4:1-3]
Could this not be applied to every human being who desires to be the greatest? Cain desired approval from God; he did not have it so he murdered his brother. King David coveted Bathsheba so he used his authority as king to have her husband killed in battle. The disciples coveted a place of honor in the kingdom of heaven so they fought and quarreled. All the ‘great’ conquerors of history wanted more and more thinking it would satisfy their passion based on their sinful desires.
Satan, our greatest adversary, covets the power of God that he can never obtain, yet he continues to fight for our souls. Do not be deceived! The devil wishes to be the greatest conqueror of this world and will stop at nothing to get it.
He knows that he must turn us against God and the easiest way to do that is to turn us against ourselves. If we despise our neighbor, we rebel against God and his love. If we are deceived into believing that we are better than one another, we are putting ourselves above God; we are saying that we know better than He who created us.
When we do this, we end up loving ourselves more than God. We use the world as our yardstick to determine who is the greatest. As it is written;
“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” [James 4:4-5]
We will certainly become like every ‘great’ conqueror in this world – dead forever without a kingdom.
The fight for the title of ‘The Greatest in Heaven and on Earth’ began before we ever entered the world. Our eternal Father in heaven knows we are dead in our sin and sent us a champion greater than sin, greater than our adversary, the devil, and even greater than death.
Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, came to rescue us from an opponent stronger and with more endurance than us. We cannot last against the fists of the devil as he pummels us at every turn. He floats like a butterfly deceiving us with the desires of this world and stings us to death with our sin.
Jesus Christ stepped into the world and took the blows of sin and the sting of death in our stead. Only he could defeat Satan and he did so by being crucified, dying and being buried in the grave. But Jesus did not stay down for the count. Battered and bloodied, he rose in the final round to become victor over death. The fight is over; the battle won.
Jesus Christ conquered our enemy and now reigns over heaven and earth. We could never have won. Our victory is through the grace of God and nothing else. He is the greatest.
What does this mean for you and for me? Well, we are more to Our Savior than a mob of bloodthirsty fanatics; we are the beloved children of our Father in heaven. “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us” [James 4:5] Even though we sin against Him, He gives more grace. [James 4:6a]
We have been redeemed by Christ’s victory, therefore when we reach to God, He will draw near to us and the devil will flee. The love of God we now share is the wisdom from above. It is pure, peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, impartial and sincere. [James 3:17]
Our curse began at the beginning of the world, but our blessings endure forever. The promise of God came to us when we were baptized into the family of the One True God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit live in eternity where our home has been prepared.
To paraphrase the words of the prophet Jeremiah,
“The Lord gave us this knowledge and we know it, for He has shown us the victory of His Son. We humble ourselves before the Lord and he exalts us.”
Who is the greatest? The answer is clear; it is Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.