Could you believe it? Over these last two weeks, you likely saw or heard about this hoarding of toilet paper. If you were in stores when this first began, you probably saw the carts with 3 or 4 jump packs of toilet paper. Now, if you step into a store you can barely find any paper products, especially TP. Why toilet paper, you know? I don’t know, but you got to wonder if those people gathering up all this toilet paper had any thought about others. And, if you were in need, or are even still in need, of toilet paper you likely couldn’t help but wonder, “What about me?” Isn’t that interesting though? In times of uncertainty, as we get so worked up about others worrying only about themselves, about “me.” We often at the same time are really only thinking about “me” too. This is the case for a lot of things in our lives.
Do me a favor. Think about the last time you had a photo taken of you and some friends or maybe you and some family. After that picture was taken and you got to look at it, who’s the first person you looked at in the picture? Did you look at everyone else in the picture? “Oh, boy, grandma, had such a nice blouse on that day I got married. No, you look at yourself! And why is that? Is it that we forget what we look like? “Oh, I forgot I have brown eyes; I forgot – good thing I have that picture…” No! We like to look at ourselves. We like to see ourselves.
It doesn’t have to be pictures. Do this test. Next time you’re in a conversation, pay attention to how quickly in that conversation you shift the topic back to yourself. If statistics are accurate, 60% of our conversations are on our favorite topic: Me, myself, and I. We talk about ourselves; we look at ourselves, we think about ourselves. To be clear, I’m not saying this is always a bad thing, but go back to the TP, the toilet paper. If you needed toilet paper for you and your family – you’re completely out – and you saw someone pushing a cart with four jumbo packs, you probably wouldn’t think that person pushing that cart was very great. Instead, you might think that person was selfish and uncaring. Even though, if the roles were reversed, well, you’d be okay with that.
That brings us to this word, one word, in our lesson today. If you were to start our lesson at verse 20 of Matthew chapter 20, this is the first word you’d come across, the word is “Then.” “Then” as in this is what happened next. Let me read it for us. “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.” We might not think much of this situation. People came and fell down at Jesus’ feet and asked him for favors all the time it seemed. Yet, this moment was unique. This woman falling at Jesus’ feet was the mother of James and John, two of Jesus’ closest disciples, and she came to Jesus to ask a favor for her little Jimmy and her little Johnny, which is kind of silly. These were two grown men. Jesus even gave these two a nickname, he called them the “Sons of Thunder” because they weren’t afraid to thunder their thoughts and speak their minds. Yet, here comes mom, very humbly, and she asks Jesus, “Can you do my boys a favor?”
But what was Jesus talking about just before this? It’s a key detail in this story. Mom’s request comes in verse 21, but Jesus was saying some important stuff just before this starting at verse 18. He told his followers that the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
There could be a lot of appropriate responses to what Jesus said here. For instance: Jesus you are going to be spit on, mocked, beaten, killed, just for us? How could we ever thank you? That would have been appropriate response. Instead we get that word, “then.” Mom, with James and John, apparently think this is a good time to bring Jesus their request. Right after Jesus is done talking about what’s going to happen to him, they decide it’s a good time to talk about what’s going to happen to them. So, mom comes to Jesus and says, “I’d like to talk about the seating chart in heaven. We’ve really thought this through, could James sit on your right and John your left? You can swap it if that makes more sense.” You see what they were doing here? Jesus said the word “suffering” and what did they hear? “Glory.” Jesus said “cross,” and they heard “crown!”
Let’s talk about that. This isn’t maybe a fair comparison but let’s say you’re sick or you get sick and you’re dying and the first response you get from a member of your family is this, “Do you think I can have your car…you know after you die.” That’s often how we think, it’s our human nature. The moment something happens, or we hear some news good or bad the first thing we think of is how will this impact…me. Case in point for us. There’s a dangerous unknown virus out there. First thought to enter many people’s minds, I better make sure I have everything I need, like toilet paper. Forget everyone else.
You ever notice this with yourself? Maybe you’re in a conversation with someone and the whole time you’re just thinking what does this have to do with me? Can we talk about me now? It’s very easy for a me-first mindset to prevail in our conversations and in our actions. And think about that, if it’s me first, then where is Jesus? If I am first, then Jesus certainly isn’t. This is what sin has done to us. It has created in us this desire to be great, to have these deep longings for greatness. We long to be heard, we long to be seen, we long to be loved, we long to be valued, we long to stand up and stand out with our reputation. And sinfully, pridefully, we think that if we’re going to stand up and look great, well, we are going to be the ones who make it happen. We are going to claim or earn those places of greatness. But that’s not what we need. No, not at all. What we needed was what God gave. He gave us Jesus.
And so here is Jesus, the Son of Man, and he knows that we have these sinful longings in our hearts that puff us up with pride or drag us down in despair. Those longings to be heard, to be seen, to be loved, to be valued. And so, he said, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go to a cross and make it happen. I’m going to drink the cup of God’s wrath and give you a reputation, a greatness above all others, you will be called forgiven children of God. Then I’m going to rise from the dead. Why? So that you can have that place, a seat, in my kingdom one you don’t deserve.” This is who Jesus is – it was never about him! It was always about you, always about our salvation. Doesn’t that make Jesus great? So, I love how Jesus finally responds to that request from mom. He says, “You don’t know what you’re asking.” You can’t claim the glory you seek because I need to get it for you, for everyone. And to do that I need to suffer and die for you. I need to serve you.
What’s interesting is that the other ten disciples caught wind of this conversation and we’re told, “They were indignant.” They were mad. Why didn’t we think of this? Now, we are going to get seats 3-10 instead of seats one and two.” They too suffered from a me-first attitude and were looking for greatness in all the wrong places. If only they had been listening to Jesus’ words from earlier. If only they had bothered to focus just for a moment on what he said about his own suffering and his own death. Then they would have seen what greatness looked like. It’s not some ruler lording over others and sitting in important places. It’s selfless service thinking of others, not of self. And if this is how Jesus views greatness than why would we view it any other way?
Think about it. What is it that makes a great husband and a great father? It’s not a controlling domineering man. It’s a man who loves his wife and his family just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Greatness is that selfless love and service. What makes a day great? We might think it’s a day when everything happens the way we want it. But really a great day is when you are just so overwhelmed by God’s love for you that you, just say “Wow, I want to love and serve others today out of love for him” – and you do. What’s a great life? Is a great life a long obituary where all your accomplishments are listed out for all to see and marvel at? No, a great life is one where Jesus’ love was first and foremost in you heart. Where everyone else was in second place and you third: Jesus, others, and then you. Because Jesus said “Whoever wants to be first among you must be a servant…must be a slave. That is greatness in my kingdom.”
We struggle with this. Why? Because I want my life to matter and I want to do something that makes a difference. Well, did you hear what Jesus said to you today? He said, you do matter so much so that he laid down my life just for you; he made you great. And your life does make a difference, your life is great when you look at those opportunities, the places, the people, the God you have and you say, “How can I selflessly serve?” Whatever it is, that’s an opportunity for you to make a difference, to be great in the eyes of your God as you serve in the same way that he still to this day serves you.
And you know it, you know, especially in these days of fear and uncertainty, that the world needs to hear just how great Jesus is and how selflessly he served us all by his death and resurrection. And your act of greatness, your act of service, is to tell them. It’s to point to that cross and say, “There is greatness, dying for you. Living for you. There is Jesus making you great, perfect and holy, now, and one day in eternity. Isn’t he great? Amen.