I often wonder if I have the ability to recognize true greatness.
Take this Sunday for example. I celebrated Christmas with our entire church family by gorging myself on a meal that would have put your grandmother to shame.
This wasn’t your average church potluck. Nor was it the typical overcooked chicken, the ice cream scoop of mashed potatoes, a side of some non-descript casserole, and a sugar cookie. It was cranberry-glazed ham, homemade taters, green beans, sweet potato casserole, and rolls. Even my kids liked it.
What made the meal exceptional was not just the food, but the fact that a couple of men in our church made everything. They gave up their Saturday to prepare the meal, slaved away in the kitchen all day Sunday, and kept tray after tray of new food coming throughout the night.
I thanked one of these men while consuming his handiwork, and he mentioned that his wife had been out of town for the week leaving him responsible for their two kids, while also working his job and preparing a feast for our church to enjoy. Few people even knew he made the meal, much less that he did so in such challenging circumstances. Nobody publically praised him on social media. He probably didn’t even get to eat the meal he cooked.
Or take a scene from last week. I watched a young husband lose his 26-year-old wife to a 6-year battle with cancer.
This man stood before hundreds of mourners at her funeral and delivered a heartfelt, Christ-centered, hope-drenched reflection that demonstrated a reservoir of faith that few people will ever have. He’s not a pastor, not a public figure, not a noted author, just a normal follower of Jesus who demonstrated extraordinary greatness in a time of deep pain.
In that moment, he preached a far better sermon than anything I will ever preach in my life.
These episodes have heightened my attentiveness to uncelebrated greatness:
- The couple giving care to an autistic son who demands their constant attention
- Two sons walking with their father as he battles terminal cancer
- A husband who fights for joy while working several jobs in order to dig his family out of debt
- An elderly woman who gives handmade gifts to children in the church and writes personal notes of encouragement to their moms
Jesus told us this type of greatness would be hard to spot: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
Servants do not typically garner much fanfare. No one notices their work. They are servants, after all. That’s what they’re supposed to do.
And the same is true for those at the back of the line. They are there for a reason, right? If they were truly great, surely they would have worked their way up in the line a bit. If they are last, we assume, it’s because they just don’t have what it takes to be great.
The upside-down nature of the economy of the kingdom of God turns these assumptions on their head.
Christmas reminds us that the one who perfectly exemplified greatness willingly laid aside equality with God, not counting it as something he had to cling to at all costs. He took on human form, but not the kind that denoted true greatness—rather He took on the form of a servant. And, as a servant, he was humiliated, tortured, and killed.
Every onlooker would have certainly concluded that Jesus was last (Phil 2:5–8).
Yet, he was the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of His nature (Heb 1:3). He is greatness exemplified, and yet most who knew Jesus would have missed this fact.
And, so do I.
Not only do a consistently minimize the greatness and glory of God through my sinful actions, but I also miss the greatness of those whom He has saved.
We might be prone to object, arguing that no one but God is great and that all people are simply heinous sinners. Certainly, we are broken, deeply flawed, and prone to the sin that so easily entangles our lives. But for those who are in Christ, God’s grace—not our sin—determines our identity.
We stand before God justified (Rom 5:6–11), declared righteous because of Jesus’ work. We are being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to follow the model set for us by Christ. We are empowered to pursue greatness as defined in God’s economy.
To fail to celebrate exemplary human actions minimizes evidences of the grace of God in our world. It actually diminishes my worship, because I miss the fact that anytime I see someone doing something great like serving when they get nothing in return or demonstrating humble faith in the face of gut-wrenching pain, I see the power of God on display.
And, it’s right and good for us to celebrate this kind of greatness.