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Loving Last Place

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Introduction

(Praise the church for their kindness to me last week. “If you're visiting, I want to tell you about the church that you just stepped into.”)
If you're visiting, I want to tell you about the church that you just stepped into.
I have lived much of my life paralyzed by the potential for failure. I can remember as a child obsessing over grades and tests and papers to the point of making myself physically sick. And, can I just be transparent with you for a second? If you were to ask Megan this morning about my greatest source of anxiety and fear, she’d tell you that my greatest fear is that I’m going to be the one to fail and kill this great church. I love ICBC more deeply than I know how to adequately express, and I can tell you with integrity that I would rather resign and mow grass than to be the one who leads Iron City toward death and apathy or even mediocrity.
But, let me tell you what God’s been dealing with me about. Much of my view of success and failure is flawed. My definitions of greatness and failure are horribly off center. You see, I am like you, and I have ambition, and what’s ethically tricky is that my ambition is tied to this church. And so, as a result, I find myself needing to define my success and my failure in measurable and quantifiable ways. It’s easier to define my success by how many are coming rather than how faithful we are being to sow the Gospel seed and make disciples. So, last year shattered me in a lot of ways. After three years of growth, we saw decline in the second half of last year. And, I’ve spent a lot of that time paralyzed with feelings of failure. But, here’s what I’m beginning to realize: It shattered me because I needed to be shattered. Being the pastor of ICBC had become my singular identity and my ambition had become my mission rather than the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. I was shattered because in many ways I was trying to advance my agenda and my reputation rather than that of Christ. It shattered me because I was defining success by the standards of the world and not by the standards of the Kingdom. Because, as we’re going to see again this morning, first place in the Kingdom often looks and feels like last place on earth. But, when you’re living Kingdom values, you can love last place in the here and now.

God’s Word

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Last Place’s Best Example

“the Son of Man will be delivered over” Jesus is marching toward his death as he presses on toward Jerusalem. He is in his final days. And so for the third time since chapter 16, we see Jesus predicting his death to his disciples. Jesus knew where this road was carrying him, yet He was resolved to walk it anyway. His death was a willing and voluntary death. He knows what Jerusalem holds, but his love for his Church compelled him to go nonetheless. And, as Jesus labors to teach his disciples to live with a last-first ethic, it is the perfect time for him to talk once again about his death. Jesus isn't a hypocrite. There is nothing that He calls his disciples to do that He himself wasn't willing to do. You see, if you want to learn what it looks like to live out a last-first ethic, then really all you have to do is look to Christ. He is our example. And, He is the evidence of its power.
“to the chief priests and the scribes…to the gentiles” Matthew lays out his description of this prediction very specifically. Notice how he frames it. He says that Jesus will be 'delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes.' So, that would likely be a description of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body over the Jewish people. Then, he says, "They will....deliver him over to the gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified." So, that would be the Romans. This would be Pilate and executioners. This is the most specific description Jesus has given up until this point. Do you see what Matthew is showing us here? Jesus is going to go before the Sanhedrin, and they're going to appear first and He's going to appear last. They will condemn him, and He will appear powerless. They will appear dominant, and He will appear weak. Then, Jesus will be turned over to the Romans, and it will appear that they are first and that He is last. They will judge him, and He will be silent. They will chain him to a post and beat him, and he will lie there bleeding and swollen. They will nail him to a cross, and He will cry out in thirst. They will spit upon him, and He will have no recourse. They cast lots for his clothes and mock him by calling for him to take himself off of the cross. The Gentiles will lay Jesus in a tomb guarded with soldiers, and it will appear that they are first and that He is last. It will appear as though they have won, and He has lost. Jesus is the best example of last place ever given.
Jesus is marching toward his death as he presses on toward Jerusalem. He is in his final days. And so for the third time since chapter 16, we see Jesus predicting his death to his disciples. Jesus knew where this road was carrying him, yet He was resolved to walk it anyway. His death was a willing and voluntary death. He knows what Jerusalem holds, but his love for his Church compelled him to go nonetheless. And, as Jesus labors to teach his disciples to live with a last-first ethic, it is the perfect time for him to talk once again about his death. Jesus isn't a hypocrite. There is nothing that He calls his disciples to do that He himself wasn't willing to do. You see, if you want to learn what it looks like to live out a last-first ethic, then really all you have to do is look to Christ. He is our example. And, He is the evidence of its power.

Obscurity Will Turn to Glory

“he will be raised on the third day” But, then the earth shook and the soldiers became like dead men, and the stone was rolled back. And, on the third day, Jesus was raised! On Friday, Jesus appeared to be last, but on Sunday He was first. On the cross, He appeared to be least, but in the resurrection, He was proven greatest. The resurrection is proof that finishing last on earth ushers in greatness in the Kingdom of God. Jesus was judged by Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate, and He appeared last before them. But, being raised on the third day, He was to ascend to his judgement seat and before him Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate would bow, declaring him as Lord.
But, then the earth shook and the soldiers became like dead men, and the stone was rolled back. And, on the third day, Jesus was raised! On Friday, Jesus appeared to be last, but on Sunday He was first. On the cross, He appeared to be least, but in the resurrection, He was proven greatest. The resurrection is proof that finishing last on earth is worth being great in the Kingdom of God. Jesus was judged by Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate, and He appeared last before them. But, being raised on the third day, He was to ascend to his judgement seat and before him Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate would bow, declaring him as Lord.
APPLICATION: Brothers and sisters, if you believe in the Resurrection, you can be okay with finishing last. The defining promise of my life: Obscurity will turn to glory. Dale Turner. Ethelyn Lester. Nobody in all of the Christian world may know their names, but God does. It's gloriously Christlike life to serve faithfully in the obscurity of your local congregation so that Christ might be glorified more there.
Matthew lays out his description of this prediction very specifically. Notice how he frames it. He says that Jesus will be 'delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes.' So, that would likely be a description of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body over the Jewish people. Then, he says, "They will....deliver him over to the gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified." So, that would be the Romans. This would be Pilate and executioners. This is the most specific description Jesus has given up until this point. Do you see what Matthew is showing us here? Jesus is going to go before the Sanhedrin, and they're going to appear first and He's going to appear last. They will condemn him, and He will appear powerless. They will appear dominant, and He will appear weak. Then, Jesus will be turned over to the Romans, and it will appear that they are first and that He is last. They will judge him, and He will be silent. They will chain him to a post and beat him, and he will lie there bleeding and swollen. They will nail him to a cross, and He will cry out in thirst. They will spit upon him, and He will have no recourse. The cast lots for his clothes and mock him by calling for him to take himself off of the cross. The Gentiles will lay Jesus in a tomb guarded with soldiers, and it will appear that they are first and that He is last. It will appear as though they have won, and He has lost. Jesus is the best example of last place ever given.
The resurrection is proof that finishing last on earth is worth being great in the Kingdom of God. Jesus was judged by Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate, and He appeared last before them. But, being raised on the third day, He was to ascend to his judgement seat and before him Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate would bow, declaring him as Lord.

Helicopter Parents and Clueless Disciples

APPLICATION: Brothers and sisters, if you believe in the Resurrection, you can be okay with finishing last. The defining promise of my life: Obscurity will turn to glory. Dale Turner. Ethelyn Lester. Nobody in all of the Christian world may know their names, but God does. It's a gloriously Christlike life to serve faithfully in the obscurity of your local congregation so that Christ might be glorified more there.
“the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons” James and John's mother came to ask Jesus for a favor. Now, she kind of seems like the Marie Barone of the disciples' mothers, doesn't she? She's a helicopter parent, perhaps, a bit too involved in the lives of her adult sons. And so, she kneels before Jesus and asks him what we can only say is an audacious question. A question which she has probably been put up to by her ambitious sons. She very likely believes that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to establish an earthly kingdom. And, they apparently took it very seriously when Jesus said that they would reign with him from 12 thrones. So, she asks him, "When you establish your Kingdom, when you stage your coup, when you are in charge, will you give my boys the two positions of greatest honor, one on your right side and one on your left?" So, on one hand, she's showing a high degree of confidence in Jesus in that she appears convinced that He will be the king, but on the other hand she shows a great deal of audacity and presumption and ignorance in asking that her boys be the greatest in his court.

The Best Example of Seeking First

Can you even imagine? This would be like when the fleet of plains is approaching the beaches of Normandy upon which it is assumed there will be mass casualties and a private looking to the commanding general and asking him for a promotion. “Excuse me, sir. I’d like to have a seat right beside you during the welcome home parade.” It’s so audacious and so presumptuous and so poorly timed that it’s disgusting. Jesus is heading to his slaughter and his disciples are jockeying for position.
So, I want you to notice how Matthew lays this out. He starts in chapter 19 talking about the first being and the last being first, and encourages the disciples, “It’s going to look like you finish last, but you’ll be first if you stay the course. Then, in chapter 20, it starts with a warning and a parable, saying, “Your nature is going to be to try to finish first. Then, He points us to Jesus as the ultimate example of last place on earth being first place in God’s Kingdom. Then, he brings us back to the disciples, and what do we see? The example of what not to be. If Jesus is the best example of finishing last, the disciples are the best example of seeking first.

Status-seeking, Agenda-driven Disciples

“You (all) do not know what you are asking” What we’re seeing here is a prime example of status-seeking, agenda-driven Christianity. James and John were already set aside in a group of three within the disciples that Jesus spent the most time with. But lately, Peter had gotten a lot of attention, and they wanted to nail down their spot. Positions of such prominence in the Kingdom, then their family's stature would be raised, and their future would be secured. They would be hailed as heroes, and Marie Barone be able to tell everyone at the hair salon about them.
You see, what we're reading here is nothing more and nothing less than a first century version of the prosperity gospel. "Jesus, will you make me great? Jesus, will you give me power? Jesus, will you give me prominence? Jesus, will you make my life better and easier and more fun?" But, this is not the Kingdom gospel! You see, the agenda-driven gospel says: Jesus make me great. The Kingdom gospel says: Make me like Jesus. Whatever the cost, whatever the means, whatever the affliction. Make me like you, Jesus, so that your Name may be great.

‘You Get God’

ILLUSTRATION: Agenda-driven Christianity reduces Jesus to something far smaller than who He actually is. He wasn't James and John's ticket to the big time. He was the King who came to buy every, single one of his people out of slavery with a payment of his own life. When we were in Swaziland at the pastor's conference, we realized very quickly that we were going toe-to-toe with the prosperity Gospel. After every two sessions, we would do a Q and A where the pastors could ask us questions about the things just taught, and it became hostile very quickly during the first Q and A. One of the prosperity preachers asked: If God isn't going to bless us with money and new things and health, then where is the 'good' in the 'good news?' And, Mike Snyder, pastor of our sister church Eastaboga Baptist said: "You get God! That is the Good News! You get Him!"

Whose Agenda Are You Advancing?

APPLICATION: Do you come to Jesus for the purpose of advancing his agenda or your own? In other words, do you come to Jesus for any other reason other than to get Jesus? Fix your marriage? Bring your wife home? Help your rebelling kids? Prove you’re serious about turning over a new leaf? If you come to Jesus with any agenda outside of total surrender to his agenda, you will find yourself disappointed and outside of the Kingdom. Brothers and sisters, status-seeking and agenda advancement is counter-Kingdom. To follow Christ, you must come and die!

Status-seeking Destroys Fellowship

“And when the ten heard it, they were indignant” You can imagine how this request landed with the rest of the group. Here’s a group that have all made the same sacrifices and the same commitments. They had all been homeless with Jesus. They were all following him to establish his Kingdom. Where do James and John get off believing they are more deserving of the thrones of honor than they are? So, jealousy and envy and resentment breaks out among the disciples, sounding eerily similar to the parable that Jesus told about the servants who wanted to be paid more from last week.
Status seeking and personal agendas not only affect your status in the Kingdom, but they also divide and destroy Christian fellowship. When you seek to finish first, when you seek to make your name great and to advance your agenda, Jesus tells us clearly that this is what it takes to cause you to finish last in his Kingdom. But, what we learn by the example of the disciples is that not only does it affect your status in Christ’s Kingdom in glory, but it also destroys unity within Christ’s Kingdom on earth.

Two Examples of Greatness

“The Gentiles lord it over them” And so, Jesus responds by giving them two different examples of greatness as seen in two different approaches to relationships. First, Jesus talks about the Gentiles, that is, the Romans who were ruling over them and who were about to execute him. And, understand clearly, that this is who Jesus is comparing his disciples to. He’s saying, “You want status? You want thrones and rank and power and prominence? This is what the pagan’s seek! This is the greatness that is found in the world. This is the greatness that is measured by how many you conquer, by how many answer to you.”
Worldly greatness is rooted in personal benefit. And, as a result, worldly relationships only exist so far as they bring personal benefit. "Jesus, will you give my boys seats of highest honor?" "Why do you believe you are more deserving than we are?" "Does my wife make me happy?" "Does my husband cause my heart to flutter?" "Is my church exciting enough?" In other words, “Am I getting enough benefit? Am I getting all that I deserve?” This is the cry of the person who seeks to be served and to finish first.
“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” The second example of greatness that Jesus gives is himself. The Gentiles, and in this case the disciples, defined greatness by whom would serve them and how they would be treated and what power they could exercise. Jesus defined greatness by enslaving himself to others. He defined greatness, not in being served, but in serving. Jesus did not come to rule as a master; He came to enslave himself by paying the ransom so that we could be set free from our slavery.
"My church is not as exciting as the other one."
Worldly greatness is rooted in personal benefit; Kingdom greatness is rooted in personal sacrifice. James and John asked: “Can we have seats of highest honor?” Jesus voluntarily was to lay down his life as a ransom for many. So, there is a priority shift. Not "What do I gain?", but "What can I give?"

A Greater Vision for Your Life

APPLICATION: Jesus is giving us a greater vision for our lives than what comes natural. He’s calling us to a joy far deeper than a greatness that dies quickly. Jesus is calling us to a joyful slavery. And, I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s exactly what we see. Jesus came and lived and died, and he did it as a joyful slave who delighted in saving men and glorifying God. So, He enslaved himself not to the positions of earth and prominence but to the will of God and the good of others. And, this is exactly what He has enabled his own disciples to experience.
Brothers and sisters, have a greater vision for your life than heart flutters and cheap laughs and fading riches. Chase last place in every area of your life. What if you changed the way that you thought about your marriage? What if you stopped thinking of your marriage as a source of happiness and instead started thinking of your marriage as an opportunity for serving Christ? What if both of you started seeing who could out serve the other in your marriage? What if you stopped approaching your job as the defining marker of your success and started approaching your job as an opportunity to demonstrate to the world your slavery to Christ? What if you stopped thinking of your church in terms of how it makes your feel and what it should do for you and started seeing it as an opportunity to sacrifice your life for Christ’s glory? Brothers and sisters, the key to gospel unity is servanthood! And, I’m telling you, if we became slaves and servants, divorce rates would plummet and work places would be reached and churches would be unified! Have a greater vision for your life than cheap thrones and empty laughs!
I’m telling you divorce rates would plummet!

Landing

You see, what we learn when we look at Jesus, is that success in the Kingdom often looks like failure on earth. So, if we define our success as the world defines success, the Christian life will destroy us. But, if we take hold of Kingdom success and joyful slavery, then we can learn to love last place. Because in the Kingdom, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
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