I Believe In ServingErwin W. Lutzer | January 28, 2001
Selected highlights from this sermon
We all want to be great, and we frequently think that greatness comes from being powerful and being served by others. But Jesus says that true greatness comes from serving others—not being served.
Jesus Himself is the perfect example of service. He gave His own life for others. So can we serve like Christ—discerning the needs in our churches and helping to meet them?
I think it’s true to say that all of us have aspired to greatness. We’d all like to mean something to somebody. We would like to be able to live our lives in such a way that we might even be remembered, but somehow we want to do what is significant. And that desire for significance is actually God-given. We were born with that desire because God put eternity in our hearts. The problem is that in our fallenness we look for significance in all the wrong places. Some try to find it in wealth, for example. Then they are significant. Some try to find it in such things as fame and becoming well-known, being somebody, and they become addicted to approval. Others find it in power. They want to be able to control people, and somehow they think that if they can get enough control, they’ll have that thing called significance.
Well, as you know, this is a series of messages entitled I Believe in the Church and today we’re going to speak on I Believe in Serving because we’re going to find out where true significance lies, and that all of us can be significant.
Take your Bibles and turn to Mark 10, an amazing story in the Scriptures of some young men who wanted to achieve significance. We’re going to take a little walk with Jesus along the Jericho Road. Actually they are on their way to Jericho, and from Jericho, Jesus is going to come to Jerusalem. But en route we notice this in Mark 10:35: “And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Him and said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of You.’” That reminds me of my kids, “Dad, if I ask you something will you say yes?” “Well, first of all, tell me what you are going to ask. Okay?”
I want you to notice that this is the search for greatness on the part of these disciples, and Jesus does not promise ahead of time. He simply says, “What do you want me to do for you? Let’s get to the point.” I like that. He’s a bottom line kind of man. Verse 37 says, “And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your glory.’”
Now we may think that that was a little ostentatious. I haven’t used that word for a long time but it appears appropriate here. But Jesus promised them that they would. If you look at the Matthew account just before this He said, “The twelve of you are going to sit on twelve thrones, ruling over the tribes of Israel,” and so there was that promise. And so what they wanted to do was to ask the question, “Can we sit on Your right hand and on Your left?” Why did they ask it? There are a couple of reasons! First of all, we don’t get this from Mark, but Matthew shows us that their mother, Salome, was there. In fact, it says that she came kneeling before Jesus and was part of the question. “Can these, my sons, rule with You in Your kingdom, one on the right hand and the other on the left?” So what mother has not aspired that her sons might become great?
There’s another reason, and that is perhaps that James and John, whose father was Zebedee (As I mentioned, their mother was Salome.), came from a higher class. Maybe they came from a better neighborhood. You know, it says in Mark 1 that Zebedee, for example, had hired servants. Well not everyone had hired servants, and so he did, so maybe they felt that they deserved that kind of honor. As a matter of fact, I think that the real reason was this: They wanted to get to Jesus before Peter did because they knew that he was thinking this. Knowing Peter, he’d like to be both on the right and the left simultaneously. (laughter) And so what they are doing is they are coming to Jesus and they are doing an end run, and they are saying, “Is it okay if James and John (we’re brothers) sit on your right and left – the places of honor?”
Jesus gives them a very interesting answer. He doesn’t blow them out of the water, even though I think we would all agree that their request catered to a prideful spirit. But notice what Jesus said. He said, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I’m baptized with?” What Jesus is saying is, “You want to rule? Boy, you are asking for suffering. You want glory? I want you to know that before you get to glory there’s a lot that has to happen. As a matter of fact, it is going to be the cross that is going to precede the crown. Are you willing to go that route?”
What Jesus meant was this: “Drink the cup.” That’s the active part of His obedience. “And then be baptized.” What does the word baptism mean? It means to immerse. “Can you be immersed in the deep horror and rejection and grief that is going to be part of My experience? If you want to rule with Me are you willing to come with Me?” That’s what Jesus is talking about. And you’ll notice that they are perhaps too self-confident, but nonetheless they say, “We are able.”
They didn’t understand exactly what they were saying, but Jesus, in effect, confirmed that they would. “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with.” And Jesus, in effect, is predicting that James is going to be martyred. That’s what Church history says happened to him, and John is going to be exiled to the island of Patmos, and he’s going to give us the book of Revelation, as it is revealed to him in that context.
So Jesus says, “Yes, you can go through that difficult baptism and you will, but then He makes another point. He says, “But to grant you your request I cannot because the places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” What He’s saying is, “My Father has already worked out the seating arrangements and I can’t tamper with it.”
You know there are some things there is no use even praying about because Jesus said, “Not even I can change it.” Now if He really wanted to, He’d have to talk to the Father and get that worked out, but there are some things that are predetermined, and He says that the arrangements have been made and “That is not My designation; that is His designation, and I’m not going to tamper with the nameplates on the thrones.”
Now it’s very interesting to notice that the Bible says in verse 41 that when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. Why? What’s their problem?
Why didn’t they rejoice and say to themselves, “Now wouldn’t that be wonderful to have James and John sitting right next to Jesus. That’s a wonderful idea. Too bad I didn’t think of it myself. I really hope that Jesus grants it to them.”
What’s the problem? The simple fact is that you and I find it difficult to rejoice over those who have been blessed more than we have. We become envious of spirit because at root everyone of these disciples was thinking the same thing, asking the question, “Why can’t it be me?” That’s the problem. And that’s why Jonathan Edwards says that when we get to heaven we are going to be so free of envy that we will actually rejoice over the success and the blessing of others as if that blessing were our own. But the disciples aren’t there yet, so they are indignant.
Well, we’ve spoken about the quest for greatness. Now let’s look at the mark of greatness. Notice Jesus called them together and He said, “Let’s huddle, you guys, because there’s something we have to get straight. You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be a servant. And whoever wants to be first, go ahead and be first, but you must become the slave of all.”
What Jesus is saying is that worldly people do all that they possibly can to be in authority. They want to control, and when they control they hang onto their positions until their knuckles turn white. There’s nothing that they are going to do to let go of that. They will say to themselves, “I want to be numero uno. I want to rule by intimidation. I want to try to take charge and I will stay here, and if you become a threat to me I will destroy you. I will destroy you through gossip. I will destroy you by planting seeds of doubt in other people’s minds about you. I will do all that I possibly can to keep you underneath me.” I’m not talking merely about kings and presidents and the like. I’m speaking about people with whom you work, not people with whom I work, because I work here at the church. We don’t have anything like that.
And what Jesus is saying is that the people of the world believe that the more people who serve you, that that is greatness. But the opposite is true - that the more people whom you serve - is really the mark of greatness. And so you have people in the world who climb the ladder of success wrong by wrong. They will get ahead honestly if they can, dishonestly if they must, but get ahead they will.
Jesus says, “It is not to be that way among you. As a matter of fact, among you it should be entirely different. What you must do is to learn to serve.” If you wish to be great, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be great. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be first, but please understand how God defines it within the confines of His kingdom.
Now you ask, “Can a person run for a political office and be a committed Christian?” And the answer is yes. Jesus is not saying that there should be no rulers, but what He’s saying is most of them are there for their own good, no matter how often they talk about being for the good of the people. But there is such a thing as servant leadership. There is such a thing as God leading certain people to rule for the best of the community and for the best view and values that He Himself as God espouses. But oftentimes you know that old expression that says, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” there’s something within us that says, “We want to be first. We want our names engraved there.” So that’s the badge of greatness. It is service.
Ruth Harms Calkin wrote these wonderful words: “You know, Lord, how I serve you with great emotional fervor in the limelight. You know how I eagerly speak for You at women’s clubs. You know how I effervesce when I promote fellowship groups. You know my genuine enthusiasm at Bible study. But how would I react, I wonder, if you pointed to a basin of water and asked me to wash the calloused feet of a bent and wrinkled old woman day after day, month after month in a room where nobody saw and nobody knew?” Jesus said, “You want to be great, you be a servant.”
Now let’s look at the example of greatness. This is verse 45. Jesus says these words. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus said, “I didn’t come to this earth to have people run errands for Me. I didn’t come to this earth as some great potentate and expect all of My servants to grovel before Me. I did not come to this earth to bark out orders, expecting people to jump. I did not come taking advantage of My awesome power as God, a very God. I did not do that. I could have but I didn’t. I came to serve, and the way in which I served was I gave My life for the many. Instead of the many I gave them as a ransom.” What He means is, “I gave myself as a payment so that people could be redeemed, and that’s the way in which I served them.”
Now you think of all that that involved. You think of the cross. You think of the fact that he came to die for us, and suffer so pointedly and so directly. What Jesus Christ is saying is, “Use Me as your example,” and that payment that He made was a payment made to God the Father and not to Satan. He ransomed. He bought us out of the slave market of sin. He paid the penalty, so I have to say this because I may not have an opportunity to do that in the rest of this message.
Very briefly, if you are here today and you do not know God, and you do not know Christ as your Savior, that ransom then is of no value for you. He said, “I did it for the many.” He died so that we could be saved on the basis of His merit. And that’s how we have assurance that we are going to get to heaven. He died for us on our behalf, and He says, “That’s the standard,” and that is the lesson to be learned.
Well, we’ve hurried through the text, but what I’d like to do is to give you some life-changing lessons that I think that Jesus would want us to know today, and apply them to ourselves and to our church.
Number one, and this is such good news, anyone can be great. Isn’t it amazing? You don’t need money to be great. You don’t need fame to be great. You don’t have to be written up in the newspapers to be great. All that you need to do is to serve, and in the process of serving, you become great because the Kingdom inverts all of our values. It is a pyramid that is stood on its head so to speak where Jesus is saying that we can be great to serve.
One day someone asked Lorne Sanney of the Navigators back when he was president of the Navigators, “How do you know when you are a servant?” and he said, “You’ll know that you have the heart of a servant by the way in which you respond when you are treated like one.”
You see, in order for us to become servants there has to be a death to self. There has to be a dying to worldly ambition. There is a place, I believe, in the Christian life where we can be ambitious for God. But oftentimes that spills over very, very easily into being ambitious for ourselves, and as a result, we have this drive for power and this drive for significance. And we are finding our significance in all the wrong ways and in the wrong places. And so Jesus said, number one, “Anyone can become great.”
And you can become great by serving in obscurity in a place, like in the poem I just read, where nobody sees and where nobody knows. And those kinds of acts are most precious to God.
Let me give you a second observation. Servants see needs and meet them. That’s what servants do. Jesus saw our need and came and died for us. Listen very carefully. If it is service that makes a person great, and Jesus said it’s okay to want to be first and it’s okay to want to be great, but if it is service that makes a person great, then it is really service that makes a church great. It is not simply coming to the morning worship services. It is not simply being involved in perhaps your own little world, though we can certainly serve the Lord Jesus Christ on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but it is a sacrificial attitude of service within the context of God’s people and God’s ministries.
This morning if you were here for the opening you know that we are beginning an awesome ambitious ministry of the Sidewalk Sunday School, and as we learned, we need hundreds of people to be involved this summer to give up part of their Saturdays and perhaps an occasional meeting through the week. And we don’t know where those people are. All that we are doing is praying that God will bring them to us. Why? It’s because he that would be first among you, let him be the servant of all. Those who are willing to expend themselves on the part of others, that, says Jesus, is greatness. We have to think about that a little bit because its implications are far reaching for every one of us, particularly those of us who have public ministries.
I think, for example, of the Philip Teams. You know we have greeters and we have parkers and those who are helping in the ministry. Now that’s only a small slice but what we are looking for is people who are willing to say, “I see a need and I can connect the need with my own particular gift.” Now I could have preached on gifts today. I chose not to because all of us are gifted. The Bible says that each of us has a gift from God. As a matter of fact all gifts have the same source. They come from God and they are given for the same purpose – for the common good, said Jesus. And as a result of that we fit somewhere in the Body.
Now I know that there are some of you that, because of geographical reasons or other reasons, find it difficult to get involved. But I just want you to know this. As you look at the book of Acts, and as you look at thriving churches, what you find is this sense of commitment and involvement and sacrifice, and a willingness to investigate, and a willingness to help us to help you to know where you fit so that we can be a serving church. Sometimes you’ll get credit for it. Sometimes you won’t. Probably most of the time you won’t. Nobody will know about it, but what a difference it makes.
This past week I read a story about a man who had been so angry at the church. He never attended church. He said, “All that they want is my money. All that they want is to save me so that I can be another statistic.” And he had a deep bitterness in his heart, but as he was dying of cancer and was 75 pounds, when he was unable to speak, and he looked at all of the flowers that were there in the hospital room, and he saw all of the cards that the people of the church had sent him, and he saw all of the outpouring of love, he took a pen and wrote on a Kleenex box with his daughter present, “I was wrong.”
My dear friend, there are a lot of people out there we have to prove are wrong. They have conceptions of us that are not true. They think that all that we want is numbers, or all that we want is them for this or that. And they don’t understand that we really do want to love. We really do want to serve. We want to really represent Jesus well in this community as we frequently say in this church because we understand that even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many. And He said, “That’s the standard. That’s the way you evaluate service. Be first, but be first to be a servant and then you will be great in the Kingdom.”
There’s a third lesson and it is this: Those who serve are the ones who rule. You say, “Well thankfully Jesus served when He was here on this earth, but now that He’s in heaven sitting on His throne, and now that we are going to get to reign with Him, no more of this service anymore.” That’s what I would think.
You know, some of you may struggle with whether or not the Bible is the Word of God. That’s okay to struggle with it, as long as you keep reading it. But I’ll tell you something. There’s no way that anybody would make this stuff up. There is absolutely no way that anybody would come up with what is in the Bible unless it was inspired by God, because there is a passage in the book of Luke that says this. It says, “Be dressed and ready for service and keep your lamps burning like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door to him.” It’s talking about the second coming of Jesus Christ. “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth that He, the master (that is Jesus), will dress himself to serve and will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.”
And I say, “God, I cannot believe it. I believe it, but there’s a part of me that says, ‘How can this be?’”
Do you realize what it’s saying? It’s saying that when you and I are in the Kingdom, Jesus is going to say, “Well, you know, you had a hard time on earth. You lived in the city. Moody Church wasn’t all that you thought it was. You went through a lot of heartache. People around you died. You went through a lot of suffering. You know, it’s time for you to just relax. You recline and I’m going to put on my garments and take a towel and I’m going to serve you at the dinner.” Jesus is doing that.
And some of us will walk out of this church today without ever having really genuinely sacrificed for anyone in the last month or two. And Jesus said, “I’ll serve you.” That service doesn’t even end in the coming kingdom.
I was thinking to myself, “What would happen if everyone who was a member and attendee of Moody Church honestly and truly began to take upon themselves the role of a servant? I am talking about beginning with myself and the staff and the elders and the leadership, and then all the way down. Can you imagine the number of lives that would be touched if every one of us would say, “I want to touch two or three lives by service significantly and sacrificially this year.” Two or three! Some can do a half dozen. Some can do 10. Some who are involved in children’s ministry are going to do it for hundreds. But what if we all began to say, “When I see a need I’m going to meet it? If there’s someone in the hospital I’m going to visit them or write them or give them a card. If I see a specific financial need I’m going to help. I’m going to look for opportunities to serve.” Yes, those who serve are the ones who rule.
A.E. Whitham has an imaginary report on a visit to the New Jerusalem. He says, “In my wandering I came upon the museum in the city of our dreams. I went in and the attendant conducted me around. There was some old armor there, much bruised with battle. Many things were conspicuous by their absence. I saw nothing of Alexander’s or of Napoleon’s. There was no pope’s ring, not even the ink bottle that Luther is said to have thrown at the devil. I saw a widow’s mite and the feather of a little bird. I saw some swaddling clothes, a hammer, three nails and a few thorns. I saw a sponge that at one time had been dipped in vinegar, and I saw a small piece of silver. And while I was turning over a simple drinking cup which had an honorable place (You know that Jesus did say that if you give a cup of cold water in my name you’ll not lose your reward.) I whispered to the attendant, ‘Do you have a towel and a basin among your collection?’ And he said, ‘No, because they are still in constant use.’”
Jesus said, “Look, why don’t you relinquish your desire for power? If God gives it to you, fine, but don’t worry about the people at work that are trying to undermine you. Don’t worry about the people who would like to try to do something to cut you down. The Scripture says, “Seekest thou great things for thyself?” Don’t seek them. “Seek them not,” God says to Jeremiah. If God wants to give you great things, let God give you great things. Be released from that hassle because he who would be first, he who would rule, let him serve because even the Son of Man,” Jesus said, “did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.” And Jesus is saying, “Please use Me as your standard and example.”
Our Father, today we do want to thank You that Jesus came to give us an example of greatness. We thank You that even in the Kingdom, though we do not understand it, He shall gird a towel and ask us to recline at the table and come and serve. Oh Father, today break us down from our selfish, narrow lives, and make us a church that flourishes with good deeds and sacrificial service. We pray today, Father, for those needs that are represented, some of which we’ve referred to. Grant, oh God, many to come our way and to say, “Whatever it takes, whatever the cost, I am here to serve.” Do that, Lord. Unleash the power of your Church by becoming great through service. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.