The Servant Heart
March 17, 2010
Updated March 3, 2022
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 20:20-28
Author: Rev. Bruce Ballast, Crosspoint CRC, Chino California
Marion Mill, in many ways, lived a fairy tale life. She was born in a royal palace in Hungary. Her first spoon was solid gold. She was sent to the best schools. For college she was sent to the most prestigious school in Vienna. There she met and fell in love with a young medical student named Otto, and the fairy tale life continued. Otto and Marion married and migrated to the United States to live in Hollywood, where Marion would pursue her dream of being an actress. While in Hollywood, Otto became so interested in movies that he gave up his medical practice and eventually became a director of movies. He became more widely known than his wife, actually--he was the famous director Otto Preminger.
Marion became famous in her own way, though. Her beauty, wit and charm made her a famous international hostess in their homes in New York, in Hollywood and in several family homes in Europe. But Marion, it turned out, couldn't handle the fast life of Hollywood. She began to drink and take drugs. She had numerous affairs. Eventually her life and lifestyle became so sordid, even by Hollywood standards, that Otto divorced her. Marion then went into a depression that led to her attempting suicide three different times.
In a final attempt to get her life together, she moved back to Vienna. There, at a party, she met another well-known medical doctor, a man named Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer was home on leave from his hospital work in Lambarene, Africa. Marion was so fascinated by this man who gave up a potential for great honor and fortune to work in an obscure African village that she asked to meet with him. Over the next six months they met regularly as Schweitzer shared about his desire to make a lasting difference with his life. When it was time for Schweitzer to go back to Africa, Marion begged him to let her go with him. To everyone's surprise, Schweitzer agreed. Marion, the princess born in a palace went to a little village in Africa and spent the rest of her life emptying bed pans and tearing up sheets to make bandages for the putrid sores on the poverty-stricken African nationals.
Marion wrote an autobiography that she titled, All I Want is Everything. When she died Time magazine quoted these words from that book: "Albert Schweitzer says there are two kinds of people. There are the helpers, and the non-helpers. I thank God that He allowed me to become a helper, and in helping, I found everything."
There are two kinds of people: helpers and non-helpers. When we read this passage we find that God has purposed that His followers are the helpers. In the words of the Bible, you are called and commanded to be a servant. In fact, God created you in such a way that you will not find ultimate fulfillment until you are serving others. I remember reading the magazine Psychology Today several years ago. The theme of that month's publication was the powerful impact that serving has on our mental and emotional health. Those who helped, volunteering in nursing homes, in poor areas of the city, or in churches, were found to be happier and healthier in emotional and physical ways than those who did not. God created you in such a way that you need to serve people in order to really experience happiness.
So God designed us to serve. Yet we, like the disciples, have a difficult time getting the message that this is God's call for our lives. Jesus took the time, as this passage makes clear, to school the disciples on servanthood. Let's go to school with them and learn some things that we are going to have to be aware of if you are going to fulfill this part of God's purpose for your life.
I. Check Your Motives
First of all, if you are going to be a servant-hearted person, you have to be aware of your motives. A motive is simply the reason you do what you do. What's behind your action?
The disciples, of course, had left everything to follow Jesus. They were being mentored by him to become leaders in the future church, and in that process were being taught to preach and to care for people. But sometimes their motives got a little messed up. In this passage we read that the mother of James and John came to Jesus with a request. The request was for honor and power. Now, to be fair to this woman, you have to remember that in the previous chapter, verse 28, (19:28) Jesus said that the disciples would be on thrones in the new kingdom. So he talked about honor and power in that context. Apparently, this mother and her two children discussed that teaching and decided that if they were going to be on thrones anyway, they might as well have the positions of special honor and glory. And the way the story reads, it seems that the brothers put their mother up to this. So what was their motive? Honor, glory, power. That's what they wanted. When they started out following Jesus I suspect their motive was to experience God more deeply and meaningfully. Then, as they realized that Jesus was about restoring the Kingdom of God on earth, their motive began to drift to things like power and honor and glory. They still hadn't grown to understanding that the motive for serving others is simply that it is the right thing to do. They still didn’t realize that the motive of serving people naturally springs from loving Jesus. It’s doing the kinds of things that Jesus would do.
When you read the chapters in Matthew that come before this, we see that this blind spot on the part of the disciples was an ongoing problem. They just didn't seem to get it. At the start of chapter 18 the disciples were arguing about which of them should be the greatest in Christ's Kingdom. They assumed that Jesus was going to set up a kingdom in Jerusalem. That meant pomp and power--and they wanted to be part of it. Jesus responded to their concerns about who was great by pulling a child into their midst and saying, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
You would think that maybe they would have gotten the point. But in chapter 19 we find the disciples turning children away (verse 13). They told the mothers that Jesus was too important, too busy to bless those considered to be unimportant. Again, Jesus used a child and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (v. 14)
Then there is this incident. First the two brothers demonstrate their self-centeredness by working through their mother for this request. And then read verse 24: “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers." They were indignant because they didn’t want to be in any way considered less great than James and John. They wanted a shot at these positions, too.
Unfortunately, this wasn't the end of the matter. In the gospel of Luke we read that just after the institution of the Lord's Supper, "A dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest” (Luke 22:24).
When you think about being a servant, you have to be aware of this: you have within you the deep desire to be honored, to experience glory, to be important, to be served. It is a natural desire, at least natural for sinners like us. It’s so natural we see this phenomenon of vying for position and prestige in nature. Farmers noted years ago that if they put ten chickens together in a pen, in a short time you will witness an amazing phenomenon. Within minutes the chickens, even if they were strangers to each to each other before, will form a hierarchy based on dominance. That's where we get the term "pecking order". Instinctively they will determine, through a series of skirmishes, which chicken is number one, which is number two, and so on all the way to ten. It's an important process, you see, because the lower you are on the pecking order, the more you are pecked.
The interesting thing is that you can watch the pecking order almost anywhere. You see it among businessmen in a room together. If they didn't know each other before walking in the room, they will begin to tell stories to determine who is most effective, who is more important. You can see it in gatherings of church leaders. Put pastors together in a room together, and even if they didn’t know each other before you will see them develop a pecking order. Usually it is formed through a series of questions like, “How big is your church? How big is the budget? How many this? How much that? And within 20 minutes or so a pecking order begins to emerge. You see it in your world, too, don't you?
This is the thing we must fight within ourselves. If you are going to improve your ability to serve, check your motives. Do you really want to make a positive difference and contribution to the others in your world because of your love for Jesus Christ?
II. Look to your Model
A second key to improving your serve is to look to your model. Jesus calls his disciples together and gives them a principle. In the world, he says, this is the natural way of things: authority, power, glory, honor. In the world's system we should be expending as much energy as we possibly can to get to the top. But among us, the followers of Jesus, he says, a different value should be at work. We should be people who serve. In verse 26 Jesus says, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” Interesting word, isn't it? Slave? A slave is someone who really has no rights and no honor. The whole purpose of the life of a slave is to serve his or her master. In other words, our purpose is to serve Jesus. Our whole being should be directed to the cause of Christ, and the way we do that is by serving other people. Our primary mission is to minister to people, not be admired by them.
To make his point even more forcefully, Jesus points to himself as the model. He says, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Do you want to know what servanthood looks like? Look at the life of Jesus. We read about him in John 13, the scene where the disciples all arrive for a meal. The disciples are so concerned about the pecking order that none of them volunteers to do the work of a servant and wash the others' feet. So Jesus gets up and, going from one to the other, washes and dries. Then he says, "If this is the way I, your master, your teacher, act, then know that you should do the same."
The earliest Christian hymn that we know about was a hymn about Jesus. It's found in Philippians 2.
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross."
This is our model.
A nursing school graduate illustrates how this could happen in our lives and hearts. This woman took a job in a long-term care facility. One of her first patients was a woman named Eileen. Eileen’s major health problem was that she had had an aneurysm burst in her brain, leaving her totally unconscious to the observing eye, and apparently unaware of anything that was going on around her. It was necessary to turn Eileen every hour to prevent bedsores, and she had to be fed through her stomach tube twice a day. Eileen never had visitors--there was apparently no one who cared about her. One of the other nurses said, "When it's this bad you have to detach yourself emotionally from the whole situation…." As a result, more and more Eileen came to be treated as a thing, with people just going in and doing their work and then leaving again as quickly as they could. But this young nurse decided that she, in living out her Christian faith, would treat this woman differently. She talked to Eileen, sang to her, said encouraging things to her, and even brought her little gifts. On Thanksgiving Day, however, the young nurse came to work reluctantly, wanting to be home on the holiday. As she entered Eileen's room, she knew she would be doing the normal tasks with no thanks whatsoever. So she decided to talk to Eileen and said, "I was in a cruddy mood this morning, Eileen, because it was supposed to be a day off. But now that I'm here, I'm glad. I wouldn't have wanted to miss seeing you on Thanksgiving. Do you know this is Thanksgiving?"
Just then the telephone rang and the nurse turned away from the bed to answer it. As she was talking, she turned to look back at Eileen. Suddenly, she said, Eileen was "looking at me…crying. Big damp circles stained her pillow and she was shaking all over."
That was the only emotion that Eileen ever showed, but it was enough to change the attitude of the entire staff toward her. Not much later she died. The young nurse closed her story this way: "I keep thinking about her….It occurred to me that I owe her an awful lot. Except for Eileen, I might never have known what it's like to give myself to someone who can't give back."
That's catching the spirit of Jesus: giving to someone who can't give back. So, examine your motives, examine your model--look to Jesus and ask for the mind and heart of Jesus to occupy you. Then finally, expect some misery.
III. EXPECT SOME MISERY
This almost goes back to examining your motives again. When the mother of James and John expressed her desire for her sons, Jesus said, "You don't know what you are asking…Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?" The cup that Jesus was going to drink was his death on the cross. He prayed about that painful experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Lord, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours." What Jesus was saying here is that this attitude and action of servanthood will not always be easy, nor will it always be the cause of joy in our lives. It costs something to become obedient even until death. You'll serve someone, and they won't appreciate it. Instead, they will push you away or take advantage of you.
Two college students learned this the hard way. They were part of a singing group that occasionally led Sunday services at a local prison for first-time offenders. After the service they would interact with the inmates over games in the dining room. During a game of ping-pong, one of the inmates asked one of these young men if he would step outside to talk. The Christian agreed, though with some hesitation because the man was a convict, and he did weigh at least one hundred pounds more than the singer. Outside, sitting at a picnic table, the inmate said, “I heard what you and the others said about joy in Jesus Christ. I want that joy. How do I go about getting it?” A prayer later, and the man had accepted salvation in Jesus Christ.
On the way home that night the young Christian shared with one of the other team members what had happened. Together they rejoiced that God had used their work to be a channel of grace that day. And together they committed to helping their new brother in Christ. Since the man was soon to be released, they went to work. Through contacts at their churches, someone offered him a job. A dentist offered to fix his teeth, a glaring deficiency in his appearance. Someone else from their church donated an old car for transportation to the job. An apartment was rented, and the refrigerator was filled with food. With great hope and anticipation the college students picked the man up the day he was released and shared with him all the arrangements that had been made.
To make a long story short, within three weeks of his getting out of prison, the convict disappeared. He stole from his boss, and he ran away with the car, the food, with everything he had been given.
The two friends had a long talk one evening, expressing their grief over what had happened. One of them said, “What a waste of time, energy and money!”
The other said, “How embarrassing to go to the people that we had asked for help and tell them what happened! Why did we do this anyway?”
And finally, one of them said, “I'll never open up my heart to such a person again.” It was this last statement that brought them back to the "Why?" question. Why did they do this? As they talked, prayed and searched the scriptures they came to the realization that if they had done what they did for any other reason than serving Christ, it was done for the wrong reason. To serve only when the response is positive is not Christ-like.
You see, we can't control what others do with our service. Someone else's gratitude or growth cannot be our motivation. If that is the case, there will be many times of severe disappointment. Rather, we can expect disappointment, we can expect rejection, we can expect misuse and abuse of our servant heart. But we serve anyway, because we are serving Jesus.
Where is God calling you to serve? Whom is God calling you to serve? This is the tough part. You have to make the choice over and over again to be a servant. In his book, Descending into Greatness Bill Hybels tells about the time that he and his wife Lynne were first married. They were young, and they were poor. It didn’t take much for them to make the choice to be servants, because no one was honoring them. But as they gained affluence and influence, the draw was there to take in all the honors and have more and more people serve them. So, he said, choices had to be made. Servant opportunities had to be sought.
You are most likely in that category of someone who has been blessed by God enough that you will need to seek opportunities to serve. As you do, remember when you choose to serve someone, not thinking about what you will get out of it, you are living out your purpose, fulfilling God’s destiny for you.
We close this message with a prayer from the book, Creative Brooding by Robert A. Raines (Macmillan Publishing, 1966):
Dear Lord and Master,
I am like James and John.
Lord, I size up other people
in terms of what they can do for me;
how they can further my program
feed my ego,
satisfy my needs,
give me strategic advantage.
I exploit people
ostensibly for your sake,
but really for my own sake.
Lord, I turn to you
to get the inside track
and obtain special favors,
your direction for my schemes,
your power for my projects,
your sanction for my ambitions,
your blank check for whatever I want.
I am like James and John.
Change me, Lord.
Make me a man who asks of you and of others, what can I do for you?
Other Scripture: Philippians 2:1-11
Contemporary Testimony paragraphs 42, 43
Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 49
Lord Speak to Me that I May Speak PsH 528
O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee PsH 573
Jesus Calls Us; O'er The Tumult PsH 553
Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love PsH 601
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