Now, But Not Yet
The Danger of Self-Importance
I learned to drive a standard shift in his old pickup truck that would rattle and almost fall to pieces at 50 mph because the front was so out of alignment. But he wouldn’t get the front end aligned because he said we would drive it too fast and that was how he made sure we drove a reasonable speed. Something possessed my dad to buy, in the summer of 1976, a Ford Mustang.
It was a 1966, cherry red, with black bucket seats, and a 289 V8 engine.
At the time I was driving a 1966 or ’67 Chrysler Newport that had belonged to my grandparents.
I was thrilled with the idea of driving a Mustang around campus, rather than my grandparents’ old car. The day before I went back to school he changed his mind about taking the Mustang because it had too many miles on it – 60 some thousand miles.
The real reason I wanted to drive that Mustang was not because it was a better car. The Chrysler was actually the smoothest driving car of any car I have owned. But it wasn’t cool. The Mustang oozed cool, and that’s what I was interested in. I could feel much more important in a Mustang than I could a Newport.
That’s what it’s often about in our culture, isn’t it? We want to be seen, to be noticed, to be important.
Listening to the news early in the morning the other day, I was amazed to hear one reality star talk about promoting her “brand.” Her brand wasn’t a product, it wasn’t her TV show – it was herself. Promoting a brand, evidently, now means to nurture one’s fame. In 1968 Andy Warhol predicted that in the future everyone would be world famous for 15 minutes. He’s proven to be fairly prophetic. These days, it seems that most everyone has their own web page, their own blog, their own Youtube channel and in doing so raises their every word and action to a level of importance that the entire world should know what we are thinking and doing at every moment.
We live in a celebrity obsessed and fame obsessed society. So many people want to be famous and important. I think this desire actually springs from a very deeply rooted, God-given desire for living a life of significance. The problem, though, is that so many people are confusing significance with self-importance.
This can happen in the strangest of places, as we see in our Scripture passage for this morning. We are continuing our series of messages Now, But Not Yet, about the kingdom of God breaking into the world and beginning to take root and to grow, but the kingdom is not yet fully realized.
This morning we come to a passage that takes place during the Last Supper. As Luke records those events, where Jesus breaks the bread and says it his body, about to be broken on the cross, and takes the cup and says it represents his blood, which is about to be poured out, notice the reaction of the disciples. This is a scene of momentous importance, taking place just hours before the death of Jesus; this is the final teaching he gives before his arrest, and what are his disciples doing? Are they discussing how they can be like Jesus? Are they discussing how to continue his mission? Are they discussing the amazing truth of God himself in human flesh about to be executed by his own creation? No. Luke says this – a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest. At this moment of tremendous import, just hours away from the crucifixion, here is what the disciples are doing – they are arguing about which of them is the most important. John may have been saying I think people see me as more important than everyone else. After all, I’m considered the Beloved Disciples, so surely I must be the most important. No, says Peter, I am. I am the one to whom Jesus most often turns. No, James tells Peter, people know you are an impetuous hothead and that’s why they all see me as most important. No, says Judas, I am the most important because I am going to pull us away from all this talk of spirituality and into the political realm and bring about a political kingdom. And on and on it sadly went.
And the amazing thing to consider is, this is happening in the presence of Jesus! Imagine the absurdity of this scene. This was the time, the memory of which has become central to our worship two thousand years later, when they should have been focused on their calling and how they could serve, not upon who was the greatest.
Jesus has just poured out his heart about the giving of his life on the cross and here were his closest followers not only missing the point entirely but making a mockery of what Jesus had said by arguing about a matter that was in total opposition to what Jesus was about. He must have been shaking his head. These are the guys I chose to be my closest followers? Should I go back and pick another group? These are the ones who will continue the ministry and mission of God? These are the ones who are going to take the message of God to the world? They are just hours away from taking over the mission of Jesus and they don’t get it. He must have been shaking his head and thinking these guys just aren’t ready.
Now, having said all that, perhaps I should speak in their defense. Sometimes, when we are faced with something so overwhelming we turn to something of far less significance, and the reason we do that is because it is so difficult to handle difficult truths and difficult realities. This is why political discussions so often get reduced to the inane and inconsequential. It’s much easier, don’t you think, to talk about something of no consequence than it is to talk about the overwhelming issues facing our country. Churches do this as well. Do churches sometimes argue about silly things? Of course they do! Why do churches sometimes argue about things such as the color of paper the worship program is printed on? Because it’s easier to do that than it is to talk about communities all across the land that are falling apart and how we are called to love and minister to those communities and to try and put them back together. One of the biggest arguments in my home church as I was growing up was over how much of the church to air condition. Should it just be the sanctuary and fellowship hall or just the sanctuary? And should we air condition the classrooms as well? I don’t remember much discussion – or certainly as much passion – about loving and serving our community.
The disciples found it easier to talk about who was most important than face what it meant that God has such an unbelievable love for us that he would become a flesh and blood person named Jesus and die for us, and not only does he go to the cross for us but he asks us to take up our crosses as well. I don’t blame the disciples for lapsing into such a crazy discussion; I would rather talk about anything else than the call to take up a cross. I would have been right there with them, saying can we talk about something else? Anything else?
But Jesus redirects them back. Jesus brings them back from the talk of self-importance and reminds them it’s not honor or importance they are looking for, but significance. Self-importance is often just a misdirection of our desire and need for significance. Living a life that is meaningful and significant is a God-given desire. God wants us to live lives that are meaningful and significant to others because our lives are meaningful and significant when we love and serve others and make a difference to them. We are not significant when we appear on a reality show or when we have a million followers on Twitter, or when we have a web site that gets a thousand visitors a day. We are significant when we reach into the life of someone who is broken and say I love you and I will walk with you and I will point you to a God who is real and his love for you is real.
That’s what Jesus did. Jesus didn’t give people a belief system or a theological framework or a how-to guide; he gave himself, and he gave a calling to us to be like him by giving of ourselves. Self-important people don’t do that; they are too important to deal with you. Self-important people raise their nose in the air, and they sniff, and they look down at you and say I’m not dealing with you. I’m too important for that.
But not Jesus. Jesus not only walks into our brokenness; Jesus allowed his body to become brokenness for us.
That is a mixed up, upside down, crazy way of living according to the values of the world around us. Everybody knows the way you get ahead in this world is through self-promotion. How can you get anywhere without putting yourself out there and fighting and scratching for what you want? But Jesus flatly says don’t be like what we see in the culture around us. He says in the world around us people lord their power and authority over others, but then says, you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves (verse 26).
In this passage, as in so many, Jesus reminds us that the values of the kingdom turn the values of the world upside down. In a world where you have to scratch and claw to get ahead, in a world where you have to step on others as you climb the rungs of the ladder of success, Jesus is saying we are called to a different way. Greatness in the kingdom, Jesus says, is not measured by power or title or the size and location of one’s office, but by the willingness to serve.
So here are a few suggestions. One, get out of the rat race. I don’t mean quit your job; I mean quit worrying about getting the biggest office or whatever it is that is the greatest measure of importance to you. Two, look for opportunities to live with significance. What can you do to minister to someone around you? Third, what can you do to bring the kingdom to our corner of the world? We minister to individuals, but we also minister to the larger community. Three short points, but three very big tasks.
Looking back to my dad’s Mustang, I know now that I was better off not having that car. I didn’t think so at the time, but I understand it now. Instead of shaking my head about the car I could have had, I have a sense of gratitude that I wasn’t given something that would have blown my head up in self-importance.
Significance, not self-importance. That’s what Jesus taught his disciples.