Dr. Chris White September 1, 2013
I believe there is one reason why people leave church and even, as they might say, give up on God: experience did not line up with expectations. Unmet expectations are a drag, whether we’re talking about a movie or a marriage, but when you tie expectations to something holy, like God and church, you are not prepared for disappointment. If you do not adjust expectations, you will not live long in the land of faith.
This adjustment is inevitable. We all have to make it. But this adjustment is actually to one word, our word of the day: servant. This is the word where all expectations of God’s grace in Jesus Christ actually begin. I think I can say with some confidence that anyone who wants to be near Christ but resists the role of serving one another will never feel at home in the land of faith.
Jesus best explains this word in a passage from Matthew 20. If you would, read verses 20-24 with me.
Here is what we call a helicopter mother. This mother of James and John is more than just a mother, however. Judging by other accounts of names, she appears to be the aunt of Jesus, making these men Jesus’ first cousins. She has an inside track, and she is not afraid to use it. She seeks Jesus out to ensure that her sons get a good place at the table. As Jesus relays, they do not know what they are asking—because his kingdom is going to come by crucifixion. The cup that Jesus speaks of is the suffering before him, and even as they say they are willing to drink from it as well, their actions in the week to come say otherwise. And so Jesus turns them away from the subject. But the other disciples have heard. They are now indignant.
This is not as outlandish as it looks. We know something about securing a place at the table for our own children. We know the insecurity we feel with so many eyes watching the same prize. We remember how mad we got when the fleet of feet toddlers got every Easter egg on the lawn before our kids even had a chance. We also watch the news crews that follow the annual frenzy at Wal-Mart on Black Friday, and we actually expect that people will be crushed in the rush for a $60 discount on a television. This feels like a world of limited seats, be it in heaven or in the theatre or at the table, and it lures us into acting like starving people in a food line. We are afraid that only those in the front of the line, the first, the great, will get anything.
And we’ve come by this conviction honestly. Read with me verse 25: Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” He’s speaking here of the Roman rulers that they regularly watch lord over their own Gentile people. High ranking Jews resorted to the same tactics. This was the era of dictatorships—Caesars and Pharaohs, Pilate and Herod. The highest positions of power enjoyed an almost religious devotion as well as all the benefits to boot. Jesus also mentions high officials, literally, “great men.” These were the people set apart as distinguished or noble. At the heart of these positions was their right to exercise power—they spoke, people moved. This, in the eyes of these disciples, appeared to be the pinnacle of life. These great men did not wait in lines, they did not fear famines, and they answered only to their gods. What is the best the world offers? To be one who is served and does not serve. As far as the disciples can see, that would be the great benefit at Jesus’ right and left hand.
It is to these expectations that Jesus speaks what follows in verses 26-28: “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is one of those “time froze” moments in the ministry of Jesus, because here he offered the critical expectation that must mark the life of a follower of Jesus. He uses the same words, great and first, that we use for those who distinguish themselves in this world. But in his kingdom the rules are upside down. In his kingdom, the greatest are servants and the first are slaves. All the fame and benefits of his kingdom are awaiting those who serve, not those who expect to be served.
Jesus is our model for the word and the deeds. He is not one who in his greatness and “firstness” expected to be served. He came to serve humans. You and me. And this service is in his death as a ransom. This is the word typical of payment for a slave’s freedom. He paid the ransom for the penalty of sin. And the payment was his life. Not only did he show us the reach of his love, he also showed us how his disciples are to live. We are not here to be served but to serve.
This word servant (diakanos) is the word we translate deacon actually. It is a word generally used to describe menial labor—home cleaning or serving tables. It is not an insulting word, but it is a word that spoke of labor that asked for little training or skill. This is the servant’s life, and it is to be our life in Christ. And here is the critical point: the farther we get from the expectation of serving others, the farther we move from a life that has any hope of peace with God. You will not be long for this faith if you want faith to be something that does not require serving Jesus and people. And you will not be happy in this church if you secretly hope that this church will serve you. We all know that we walk into faith and church with a host of expectations. We are in the age of “Your Best Life Now” and “Power” and “Secrets of the Kingdom.”There is much we hope God will give us, the church worship services will give us, and church people will give us—and we should enter faith and church with anticipation of God’s power. But I believe that the better part of people who walk away from God and faith do so because they cannot reconcile themselves to the simple, gritty, table-cleaning, floor-sweeping role of a servant. We are waiting for something to happen, when all the while we are the something that should be happening in someone else.
“Servant” is the centering weight of our faith. It is what Jesus did, it is what Jesus would have us do. The skinned knuckles of a servant is the work of Jesus’ people, and, most important, it is where we find him. If you are not willing to find him through serving others, you simply will not find him. A writer named R.C. Lenski once noted, “God’s great men are not sitting on top of lesser men, but bearing lesser men on their backs.”
Our lives should have a fair share of Good Samaritan stories (Luke 10:25) and washing feet stories (John 13) and bearing crosses stories. We should also have our share of the least of these stories: the hungry, the naked, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned (Matt 25). And we should have marriage stories, parent stories, kid stories, and neighbor stories. For all the difficulties these situations create, they are places that Jesus waits for us.
I want to close with two stories came my way yesterday, very different but sharing the same message. The first involves a young woman named Brandy, a girl of some fame in years past… The second story is of a woman named Jelena Ma, stranded in a Detroit airport…
So the question is, how big does the crowd have to be to be a God-sized act of service?