In 1908, a baseball team by the name of the New York Giants was playing a division championship game. It was the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the bases were loaded. The Giants only needed a single run to win the game. The batter at the plate hit a single to right field, the run scored, but the player running from first to second base, whose name of Fred Merkle, never actually touched second base. He was tagged out, which ended the inning, meaning the run that had scored didn’t count. The Giants went on to lose the championship. In 1978, during Superbowl XIII, the tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, Jackie Smith, was wide open in the end zone for an easy touchdown that would have tied the game, but somehow, he dropped the pass. In 1982, at the end of the NCAA championship basketball game, a player by the name of Fred Brown actually passed the ball to the wrong team. So, what do Fred Merkle, Jackie Smith, and Fred Brown all have in common? Well, they were all ridiculed for their mistakes and they were each given the derogatory nickname “the goat.” You see, back in the day nobody wanted to be called the goat. Because it was a term reserved for the players who made the most notoriously humiliating and egregious mistakes.
But here’s the remarkable thing. Over the past few decades, the meaning of the term “goat” has turn around 180 degrees. Today, G.O.A.T. is an acronym that stands for “Greatest Of All Time.” And so, the likes of Michael Jordon, Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, and Simone Biles are all referred to as the possible GOAT of their respective sports. What was once a term that referred to the most humiliating mistakes you can imagine, has been redefined as a term referring to the epitome of greatness. Even the gameshow Jeopardy! last year held a tournament to determine the greatest Jeopardy player of all time. Just Google “G.O.A.T.” and you’ll find references to individuals in sports, entertainment, business, and politics all making the claim to be the greatest.
But, at some point, we have stop and ask the question, “What is greatness?” For most of human history, greatness has been defined in terms of success, power, achievement, wealth, control, status, influence, dominance, and the list goes on. And yet, here we are this morning to worship a rejected and crucified Messiah, who by almost every worldly standard was a failure. Two thousand years after his death, billions of people are following the teachings of Jesus, even though he was executed at the hands of the Roman authorities. So, maybe for those of us who choose to follow Jesus, there is a different paradigm for success. Maybe there is something radically different about how power works in the kingdom of God. Maybe there’s another way to define greatness.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus and his disciples have made their way back to the village of Capernaum, which was sort of their “base of operation.” Apparently, on their way back home, the disciples had been talking amongst themselves. Now Jesus decides to join in the conversation, and he asks his disciples, “So, what were you guys talking about during the trip?” And it’s like the disciples all turn into a bunch of nervous teenagers, because they are completely silent. I can just imagine their eyes darting back forth, not wanting to make eye contact with Jesus. Because they know that Jesus knows exactly what they were talking about. They know that Jesus knows they were arguing about who was the greatest. In other words, they were arguing over who was the G.O.A.T. They were thinking when Jesus conquers the Romans and ushers in the renewed kingdom of Israel, who is he going to declare is the “greatest disciple of all time?” Can’t you just see Peter, James, John, Andrew, and the others all comparing themselves to one another, jockeying for positions of power, seeking to be recognized and esteemed for their greatness?
But notice how Jesus responds. He doesn’t rebuke the disciples. He doesn’t chastise them for their ignorance. Jesus doesn’t tell them not to pursue greatness. What he does is redefine greatness according to value system of the kingdom of God. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last. Whoever wants to be great must be a servant of all.” Jesus makes it clear that greatness in the Kingdom of God is not measured by human achievement, wealth, power, status, prestige, or any of the other metrics that we use to measure greatness. Instead, greatness in the Kingdom of God is characterized by humility, service, sacrifice, and a deep awareness that “you know what, it’s not about you!” I mean, hasn’t that been the message since the very beginning? The message that God gave to Adam and Noah and Abraham and Moses and David and Peter and James and Paul. God has chosen and appointed leaders among his people, but he reminds them over and over and over again, that the calling and purpose and anointing of God is not about us. It is always about the glory of God.
Several years ago, the pastor of a large suburban church in Chicago wrote a book entitled Descending into Greatness. The book, as the title implies, describes the paradox of Christian leadership. The paradox that true greatness is found in sacrifice. Strength is found in weakness. Power is found in humility. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples not to pursue greatness, but he redefines greatness according to the value system of the kingdom of God.
And like any good preacher, Jesus introduces a powerful and profound sermon illustration to reenforce his point. He calls a small child into this gathering. He picks up the child in his arms. And he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and not just me, but the One who sent me.” Now I think we often read these stories about Jesus and children through our lens of our modern attitudes and perceptions about children and families. We value and cherish our children. We lift up the innocence of children as a virtue. We sentimentalize the experience of being a child. But children in the ancient world were essentially considered non-persons. They had no influence, no rights, no standing. They were utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. It’s not that parents didn’t love their children, but no one looked to a child as an example or illustration of greatness. And yet, Jesus, in a profoundly countercultural move, takes a child into arms and essentially says that this utterly dependent, vulnerable, powerless child is an ambassador for Jesus, and not for Jesus, but for the God who sent him.
My friends, we live in a culture obsessed with greatness. Yet that greatness is defined according to the value system of this world – success, power, achievement, wealth, control, status, influence, dominance, and the list goes on. But we have Savior who came to show us another way. We have a Lord who emptied himself and took the position of a servant. We have a King who became a slave and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Jesus came to show us the way of abundant life, the kingdom life, a life grounded in grace, rooted in love, and defined by service to one another. Jesus came to give us a glimpse of a way of life that can only be described as the greatest of all time!