The Greatest

Posted by on Sep 10, 2014 in Faith Words |

Words of Faith

Rev. Rita S. Platt

October 21, 2012

“The Greatest”

Sons of Thunder. That’s the nickname Jesus gave to James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were two of the first disciples called by Jesus, a couple of people in the inner circle. Sons of Thunder is an awesome name. If they were a motorcycle gang, you’d see it emblazoned on their jackets. Or a rock band who were introduced at a concert, “Here they are, the Sons of Thunder!” But “sons of thunder” is what Jesus called James and John.

And although that was their special title, these two had another title in mind. They want to be known as the greatest of Jesus’ followers. So this morning, they walk up to Jesus and say: “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask.”   Mark 10:35 NIV

Now they had Jesus’ attention. Think about it: if someone walks up to you and says, “I want you to do whatever I ask,” you’re going to pay attention to the next sentence! And so, Jesus said, “What do you want me to do?” Mark 10:36 NIV

This is the moment they had been waiting for – their carefully prepared statement: “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in glory.” Mark 10:37 NIV   Now, if this was a cartoon strip, allow me to put the next panel in and that would be panel where James and John are imagining what they are thinking right now: in their mind they have a vision of Jesus in glory and majesty, and beside him, his Dream Team – James and John. And they would also, I believe, see persons who were gazing up at the triumvirate. And the onlookers would be in awe of their greatness: “If only I could be like them.” I think that panel would look something like that. They wanted to be known as the greatest.

Jesus didn’t need that panel. Jesus knew his followers intimately. After all, he’d called them and lived with them. I believe that’s why he said, “You don’t know what you are asking?” Mark 10:38 NIV Indeed, they didn’t.

But before we move on to what they’re asking, let’s step back just a little bit and begin to figure out how James and John dared to make this request, how they thought they were the greatest.

First of all, we know this is an illusion.   As James and John looked around at the others, they began to compare themselves one with another. And obviously, they really thought they were the greatest. It’s a common problem. We see it throughout history.

Remember Alexander the Great? The Macedonian king and general took control of the vast Persian Empire in the 4th century B.C. Alexander had greatness stamped on his head from the beginning. He was tutored by Aristotle until the age of 16. By the age of thirty, he had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas. He was undefeated in battle and is considered one of history’s most successful commanders. He still in many ways holds that title.

That certainly would seem to be enough, but when you have the illusion of greatness, it is never enough. So Alexander wanted to conquer to the “ends of the world.”

Seeking to reach the “ends of the world,” he invaded India in 326 BC. Now you and I know India is not the end of the world, but it was 326 BC. He had a vision in sight, that would extend to all the world and was focused to do just that and he marched on. The only thing that stopped him was that eventually he was forced to turn back at the demand of his troops. Alexander would have kept on going; after all, he was the greatest! Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC. and he never extended his kingdom to the end of the known world.

And history isn’t the only source of persons who have this illusion of greatness. The theme is actually lived out in our everyday life.

There’s the man who was stranded at the airport on one of those bad weather day that grounds the entire airport. He kept crowding to the counter trying to get the airline staff to move his name higher on the stand-by list.

The agent had just put down the microphone, having said to the crowd the third or fourth time. “Those of you who are on standby please sit down and we will call your name when there is a seat for you.”

But this man kept pestering the agent, explaining how important it was that he get on the next flight. Finally in exasperation he asked her, “Do you know who I am?”

The agent had had enough. Picking up the microphone, she announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a man who doesn’t know who he is. Would someone please claim him, offer him a seat in the waiting area, and tell him I’ll talk to him when it’s his turn?” His illusion of greatness: “Do you know who I am?”

History, movies and ordinary life remind us We are not as great as we think we are, but it’s a common thought that is sometimes heard. We think we are more important than we are.

But illusion isn’t the only problem. There’s also the confusion with what greatness really is. As I prepared this message and the title, “The Greatest,” came to my mind, there was one person who came first, and that is the famous Cassius Clay, who was better known as Mohammed Ali.

He was the greatest. His total fights – 61; wins – 56; wins by a knockout – 37. Among these were three rival fights with Joe Frazier, who was considered to be the greatest in boxing history and Ali won those.

Ali was well known for his unorthodox fighting style, which he described as “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

But way back in the beginning – in 1964- before the world knew anything about him, he knew he was great. Listen to these words which he spoke in February, 1964, in an interview prior to his match with heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, in his poetic way:

“I’m the greatest. Fifteen times I’ve told the clown what round he’s going down.

                And this chump ain’t no different. He’ll fall in eight to prove that I’m great.

                And if he keeps on talkin’ jive, I’ll take him down in five.”


Pompous, arrogant? And yet, the world was stunned when Ali won that championship in the seventh round. He knew he was great.


In 1984 Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Twenty years after the diagnosis he wrote his autobiography, appropriately entitled Soul of Butterfly.   Here’s a quote from that autobiography:

                Wouldn’t it be a beautiful world if just 10% of the people who believe in the power of love would compete with one another to see who could do the most good for the most people?

He didn’t only write those words; he has committed his resources to live this out. By one estimate he has provided over 232 million meals to feed the hungry.

Between 1964 and 2004, life changed and Ali’s idea of greatness changed. He realized the pompous arrogance of 1964 had been confused. He learned what it was to be truly great.

And Ali, that young boxer, is not the only one to be confused.

The other 10 followers overheard the conversation James and John were having with Jesus and they became indignant. I don’t think they became indignant because James and John thought they were the greatest; I think they became indignant because they thought they were better than James and John! Every one of them knew they were greater than James and John. I think they become indignant because they thought “Who do they think they are? Don’t you know that I’m better than they are?” I imagine that little cartoon bubble on the side of each of them, thinking “I’m the greatest.”

Jesus, of course, saw the problem that was occurring. He knew the confusion about the true meaning of greatness so he used the opportunity as a teaching moment:

                “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord over them and their high     officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your                 servant.Mark 10:42-43

We understand that that word “servant” (diakonos) was offensive. A servant was hired to maintain another person’s home and property. It was a low position. Later, Jesus uses that term, “slave.” And those were forced to serve. Again, a low position, but Jesus said that the servant and the slave were great.

Jesus turned the disciples’ thinking upside down because the disciples were thinking that you rise to greatness. You climb over somebody else; you have to be better than somebody else. Jesus was teaching that you descend to greatness.

In the world, greatness is determined by how many people SERVE YOU; what is your entourage? But in God’s kingdom, greatness is determined by how many people YOU SERVE.

The name, John Wooden, may not mean anything to many of you, but he was a legendary sports figure in basketball. He’s a member of the basketball Hall of Fame in two areas: as a player in 1961 and as a coach in 1973. He was the first person to be enshrined in both categories. His ten NCAA championships in twelve years while at UCLA are unmatched by any other college basketball coach. In twenty-seven years he won six-hundred-twenty games, including eighty-eight straight in one historic stretch that still remains.

One would say his is one of the greats. But even at the height of his career, he did not allow that to change him. If you Google John Wooden, you will find wonderful, inspirational quotes that he has written. Allow me to share one:

Talent is God-given; be humble. Fame is man-made; be grateful. Conceit is self-given;     be careful.

Wooden died in June of 2010 at the age of 99. At that time, President Barack Obama made a statement about him. I’d like to read a portion of that:

I salute the way he achieved all of that success with modesty and humility, and by wholeheartedly                dedicating his life to the betterment of others. Even after he became one of the game’s early heroes, he              worked as a high school teacher. And for the rest of his life, on and off            the court, he never stopped               teaching. He never stopped preparing his players, and everyone he met, to be their best.


Are we aspiring to greatness? The good news is each one of us can achieve it.