Recipe for Greatness

What is it that makes people great?

Video of this message can be found here: https://youtu.be/ow1TdTlm8QM

Recipe for Greatness

September 19, 2021*

By Pastor John Partridge

Proverbs 31:10-31                 Mark 9:30-37                         James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a

What does it take to be great?

We’ve heard of people like Alexander the Great, Peter the Great, Darius the Great (from the book of Daniel), Cyrus the Great (who captured Israel and carried them into the Babylonian captivity), there was Herod the Great in the time of Jesus, and Wikipedia says that there are 91 historical figures known as “the great” including kings, queens, military, religious, and mythological figures.  But obviously, even a list like that doesn’t include magicians that bill themselves that “the great” something-or-other, or a Muppet character like the ironically named, “The Great Gonzo.”  Nor do such lists include people that we would consider to be great in our more modern era, like General George Patton, President Eisenhower, Lee Iacocca, Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, or anyone else.  Referring to people as “the great,” in any form other than stage acts, seems to have fallen out of favor. 

But what is it that makes people great?

In scripture, King Lemuel’s mother had a few ideas, she taught them to her son, and he recorded them in Proverbs 31 (which, incidentally, is the only chapter that we know was essentially written by a woman).  We often hear Proverbs 31 referred to as the description of the “ideal woman” but today I want to avoid any sexism that might be lurking there, and as we read, I want you to consider what it is, that made King Lemuel, his mother, and the writers of Proverbs think that such a person was so great. (Proverbs 31:10-31)

(The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him)

10 A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.

If you were keeping track, let’s compare what we saw in this ideal human being and see if anything there can inform us about what it is that makes us think of a person as “great.”  As I read, I saw that she does good, is trusting, works hard, is a provider, a negotiator, is perceptive, understanding, generous, kind, well-prepared, well-respected, wise, her kindness is repeated a second time, faithful, godly, and excellent.  And as I think about that list, the thing that I notice is that nearly all those things are things that were done for the benefit of others and not for herself alone.

Let’s hold on to that idea and move on to the story in Mark 9:30-37, when several of Jesus’ disciples argue among themselves about which of them is the greatest.

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Despite Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, that we heard last week, the disciples still don’t understand what Jesus was talking about when he said that he was going to die, be buried, and rise again.  And not only did they not understand, after Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” they’re all afraid to even ask Jesus what he meant when he said those things.  It is no accident that just as we are told that they lack understanding, we also see them arguing about who is the greatest and, in pairing these two ideas, Mark emphasizes that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus had been trying to teach them all along about greatness and humility either.  Injecting himself into their argument, Jesus explains, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” and, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus not only emphasizes servanthood, but uses children, who had no rights, no property, and no voice as his example.  Children could offer them nothing in return.  Children had no political influence, and they were, perhaps, the epitome of people that might be described as “the least among us.”  And it is they that Jesus points to when he says that we welcome God when we care for, and about, them.  Jesus says that to be great, we must first be a servant of others, and that specifically means caring for those who have less than nothing.  Greatness is not about doing for “me” but about doing for others.

And just in case there is any doubt remaining in our minds, James piles on, repeats some of what we’ve already heard, and stirs in some additional clarity in James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a when he says:

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? [that’s the same thing we heard in Proverbs, remember?] Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace forthose who make peace.

4:1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so, you commit murder. And you covetsomething and cannot obtain it; so, you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

James says that we should demonstrate our faith through the good works that we do, wisely, for others and that the opposite of greatness is envy and selfishness.  Boasting out of ego and bending the truth to our own purposes are the hallmarks of earthly, unspiritual, and devilish wisdom because envy and selfishness bring disorder and wickedness along with them.  But real wisdom is pure, peaceable, gentle, flexible, merciful, and produces goodness without partiality or hypocrisy.  James continues by saying that conflicts between believers are caused by the selfish desires within us.  Our selfish desires turn into covetousness and cause us to fight with others to get what we want. 

All of that explains why God doesn’t answer our prayers.  God ignores our requests because we ask for ourselves and not for others.  God knows that the things for which we are asking will be spent on ourselves, on our comfort, and our pleasure and for that reason God says “no” and our prayers remain unanswered.  Instead of living selfishly, James says, we should surrender our lives, and our prayers, to God and draw near to him. 

The key to greatness is… selflessness.

The recipe for greatness flies in the face of the “me” generation, it runs contrary to the message of “get rich quick,” or “greed is good,” or “what’s in it for me” and stands in utter opposition to the message of the prosperity gospel and countless televangelists.   The real recipe for greatness isn’t about the accumulation of stuff, or amassing piles of money, power, or influence.  The recipe for greatness is about humility, compassion, persistence, producing good fruit, impartiality, peace, mercy, gentleness… and love.

When we put the needs of others ahead of our own, when we dedicate ourselves to using our power to serve others and not ourselves, and when we lift our prayers to heaven on behalf of others, then God will hear our prayers, and only then… will we discover greatness.


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.