In just days we will turn from our Lenten focus on the frailty of our human “flesh” which inevitably leads us to denials, betrayals, and the murder of Messiah. We will turn from these to the wonder, mystery and glory of resurrection. We will turn from our failures to God’s triumphs, from our “Can’t!” to God’s “Can!” and from death—our own and everyone else’s—to life. We will rise with Christ to … greatness. Or will we descend to … greatness? Or, is it both, will it be rising with a view to descending with Messiah to … greatness?
Indeed it is, and we will, if we will. But the “if-part” surely plays a critical role, at the heart of which is the person of Jesus himself and his understanding of “greatness.” We will turn from death to life, but this is Jesus’ life. We will turn from weakness to power, but this is Jesus’ power. And we will turn from defeat to triumph, but this is Jesus’ triumph. This is Jesus’ way, not ours.
In just days we will rise to greatness, but this is the greatness Jesus identifies and makes possible. This is a greatness that doesn’t actually look so great, that at first doesn’t even register at all on the standard scales of greatness. That is why I suggest that it would be better to think and speak and expect to descend to greatness. We will rise/descend to greatness, if we do, as Jesus defines and offers greatness.
It seems bazaar to me how followers of Jesus, myself included to be sure, have a way of not following, sometimes even in the name of following. Here is a case in point: often we follow Jesus to a place that we somehow imagine is beyond the place where Jesus very clearly and intentionally led and leads his own. In this matter of greatness, we follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to the garden of his agonizing struggle in prayer, to the place where he is tried, to the place where he is humiliated and tortured, and to the place where he ends his suffering on a cross where he cries—ironically and profoundly: It is finished!
We follow with due respect, contrition, remorse, horror, repentance, and gratitude. We follow knowing that Jesus did all of that for us, knowing that our desperate need drew him to such costly and extreme love. We follow to that scene and wait with hope for resurrection morning. We follow with confidence that all Jesus has done, he has done well, that once for all it is now finished. Our sin has been dealt its death blow. Our former slave-master has suffered irrevocable defeat. Our future now floods with glory and light. He rises and so do we, and so will we. We follow Jesus to such depths and then through the depths “up to” such heights. Where “up in the heights” we might imagine a greatness that is beyond (maybe “behind” would be a better word here?) where he leads, a greatness that the world also understands and practices only this time a greatness that actually works now that it is wielded by true and triumphant followers of Jesus.
This imagined “greatness,” however, reflects the spastic twitches of the Deceiver whose demise is both assured and “at hand,” by the odd power of God unleashed in the world through cross and resurrection. Though in the death throes, the Deceiver would make us think that Jesus’ awesome and stunning triumph leads us all the way back to an understanding and pursuit of a “greatness” that, in fact, almost succeeded in ruining all that God made good. Even in the final gasps of breath, the Deceiver lies.
Jesus says, “Here is greatness, in the light and life of his Kingdom.” To be first is to be last and servant of all. To be important is to value and embrace the least and left out—to receive the little children, to embrace them and welcome them above all. Aspiring to be “great” is to organize and prioritize so that “little ones” receive the care and support they need to thrive. Following Jesus down into the depths of death, through their murky shadows, and then up to Kingdom heights, is to land in a realm where it is “natural”—that is, native or endemic to the culture of that place—to serve the other, to insist on the other’s need first, to welcome those whose presence offers no particular benefit beyond the pleasure of their company, to sense the need of others as keenly as we do our own, and to provide for others as we would for ourselves and our own.
Jesus leads to a place where “greatness” as he defines and embodies it seems natural, beautiful and good. A place where the powers of creation and redemption converge to undo death by reclaiming its victims from the tomb, in order to re-form them and re-animate them with Jesus-risen-from-the-dead-breath so that Jesus’ way actually become the way, the truth, and the life his followers embody for all to see. In such a place as this rising to greatness will look mostly like descending to eyes still clouded by this world’s fog.
Let the children come.
Let all the “little ones” feel the immensity of their significance and value.
Let the” left-out” know their company is now most desired.
Let the last be among the first to hear their names called.
Let the broken learn their wounds no longer bar entrance.
Let the disgraced and shamed discover the grace that weeps and reaches for them.
Let the empty find a fullness that perfectly matches their hunger.
Let the bound delight in new freedom, strengthened by joy they can’t find words to explain.
And, let all the others wait and watch and cheer.
Lord, let Your Church and any others who will descend to such greatness!