Ambition/Greatness and humility are often at war in the Christian. Far too often, our selfish desire to be prominent gets in our way to do God’s work. During the course of my sermon preparation this week, I was reminded how such as always been the case.
During the mid 1200’s, the Mongol Empire spanned all of Asia. Think on that for just a moment: all of Asia was ruled by Khubilai Khan. Anyway, during his journey to the Mongol empire, Marco Polo was able to meet the emperor and begin to speak with him. Marco Polo shared his faith as best as he was able, but the Khan no doubt had questions well above Marco’s pay grade. The Khan asked Marco to return to Rome and ask the pope to send 100 men to teach Christianity to his entire court. Marco returned and petitioned the church on behalf of the Khan. Unfortunately, it took 28 years before a single delegate reached the emperor’s court. Cardinals did not want to go for fear that the pope would die, and they would not be considered as a candidate. Bishops refused to go because they would not be considered for the role of cardinal as those positions opened up. Priests avoided the assignment like the plague for fear that they would be passed over when the next bishopric opened up. In simpler terms, the leaders of the church were afraid that the maxim “out of sight, out of mind” would hold sway. Quite simply, they forgot whom they served, and they forgot their vocation. By the time the first delegate reached the Khan and offered to begin his catechesis in the faith, the emperor responded that he had grown old in his idolatry (Douglas Weaver, A Cloud of Witnesses, 52-52).
Think for just a moment how history may have been changed if these so-called leaders of the church had responded timely to the Khan’s request for instruction. Can you imagine how a Christian Asia might look today? Would the evangelism of the empire been much different than that of Rome? Might some wars have been avoided? Might our relations be warmer today because many in the West and in Asia would share the same Lord? Possibly. Of course, human beings would still be sinful, so there would likely still be conflict.
Our Gospel lesson reminds us as well of this desire to be great and what our Lord thought of it, in case we have forgotten part of the meaning of the Incarnation. Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. He is not looking for acclamation. He is not looking to be served. He is going where His Father commands knowing all too well how this journey will end. Contrast His behavior with that of His disciples. While He works determinedly to fulfill the role He has been asked to play, His disciples are arguing over who is the greatest for the third of six times in Mark’s Gospel (the others being 8:16; 9:14; 9:38; 14:4-5; and 14:29). And He asks them what they were arguing about. They know they are busted. They know He will be disappointed in their behavior. So they remain silent. And placing a child in their midst, Jesus teaches them that His greatest servants will be the ones who serve those beneath the notice of others.
You and I and all His disciples are called to put everyone else before us. If we want to be great by God’s standard of judging, you and I are called to serve others. Specifically, you and I are called to speak up for those who have no voice, to meet the needs of the needy, to be attentive to those of little esteem, to see the invisible among us, and remind the world that there are no insignificant members in God’s family. All were created in His image, and all should be treated accordingly.
The example of the Mongol empire, you might be thinking, is extreme when compared to your seeming sphere of influence. You are not called to evangelize emperors or presidents or chiefs of anything; your work, therefore, must not be as important as others'. Yet, when each of us considers that we are called to help raise up kings and queens and priests in His eternal kingdom, our job is no less important. When we squabble over ambition or try to determine who is greatest among us, just as Jesus’ disciples did this weekend or just as the Roman church did upon receipt of the Khan’s request in the 1200’s, we are possibly condemning others to an eternity apart from God. Considered in that light, our “little” jobs do not seem so little. In fact, God reminded us here that there is no more important job. When we serve others in His name and to His glory, seeds are spread and nourished. And the sinner is given the glorious news of God in Christ and the freedom to repent and serve Him. And when that choice is made by the sinner to serve the God, all of heaven rejoices. Think on that for just a second. By your faithful ministering to the least, the lost, the marginalized and the forgotten in your midst, you can bring a celebration to the Angels, the Archangels, the saints, and all the company of heaven. How insignificant, if you are truly serving Him, could you ever be?
Brothers and sisters, how do you treat the insignificant in your lives? Are they so insignificant that you do not even know they are there? Or has our Lord given you eyes to see them and their plight, ears to hear them and speak on their behalf and speak to them, and a heart full of His compassion that leaves you determined to share His love of them through your selfless service? They are weighty questions to be sure, but then no one ever said raising up kings and queens and priests were easy. After all, it cost Him His life to raise us up.