Nehemiah 4:13; Matthew 20:16-28

June 12, 2011 | Brian Bill

A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, 5, and Ryan, 3.  The boys began to argue over who would get the first one.  Not wanting to miss a teachable moment, the mom said: “If Jesus were sitting here, He would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake.  I can wait.’” Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, “OK.  Ryan, you be Jesus.”

In their book called, “Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids,” Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller write this: “High hopes and idealistic goals are a part of every young family.  New moms and dads look at their little bundles of joy and envision a family where cooperation reigns over self-centeredness, closeness overcomes competitiveness, and a joy-filled family is the inevitable result.  An interesting transition takes place in many parents, however, as their family grows and matures.  These same parents give up their positive vision in exchange for basic survival skills.  They just want to get through the day…Why is it then that eager, hopeful parents turn into frustrated, disillusioned parents in just a few years?” 

As we getting ready to wrap up our series next week called, “Eight Words to Change Your Family,” our focus today is on the essential quality of serving because families that serve together are strong together.  So far we’ve looked at the words: vision, love, forgiveness, truth, church, and commitment.  Next Sunday we’ll hone in on the word honor.

Selfishness can run rampant in our homes or servanthood can flourish in our homes.  I like what Steve Farrar has said: “We’re all selfish…God sometimes chooses to deal with our selfishness by giving us someone to care for who is infinitely more selfish than we are.   Babies are not only the cutest creatures on the face of the earth; they are by far the most selfish.  The way God deals with my own selfishness is to give me someone to serve who has zero interest in serving me…Not too many people in the world could out-selfish me one-on-one.  But every time we’ve had a baby, I’ve met my match.  Each of my kids resembled me.  I don’t mean they looked like me, I mean they were as selfish as me.  That meant that somebody in the family was going to have to grow up.  Guess who was nominated?”

The solution to selfishness in our families is to learn how to be a servant

Are you ready to grow up?  The solution to selfishness in our families is to learn how to be a servant.  I like this definition: “Seeking to overcome self-centeredness by looking for ways to help and care for others.”

Being part of a family carries with it serving responsibilities and serving opportunities.  And the lessons we learn in our families is preparation for our mission in the world.  As we’ll discover in our text today, our default setting is selfishness, not other-centeredness.  In order to improve our serve we must seek the Savior and follow the model of the Master.

Strength through Serving

Please turn in your Bible to Matthew 20.  We’ll see that our families are a lot like those first followers of Jesus.  And so we must…

1. Monitor our motives. 

We notice in verses 20-21 that our motives can get all mixed up.  The mother of James and John came to Jesus with her sons, “and kneeling down, asked a favor of Him.”  The mom’s name was Salome, who was likely the aunt of Jesus.  In Mark’s version, James and John are eager to have their mom go to bat for them.  Perhaps they knew that they’d have a better chance with Jesus if she made the request for them.

The phrase “kneeling down” is an act of homage or reverence.  Some translations use the word “worship.”  Salome is following a very common protocol.  She begins with a general request and then is ready with her answer when Jesus asks, “What is it you want?”  She responds by saying, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”  

It’s really easy for our motives to get all messed up.  James and John were interested in glory, position and rank.  They wanted to be the closest to Jesus and they wanted to be higher than anyone else.  And their mother desired the best for them, which isn’t bad in itself.  It’s easy for us as parents to become so set on the success of our kids that we run right over others.   It’s helpful to remember that our kids learn most through the losses in life.  Their character is built through stress not success.  

When faced with this mother’s mixed up motives, Jesus asks a question to get to the heart of her heart: “What is it you want?”   Answering questions like this can be very helpful to us as well: “What is it that I want?”  “Why am I doing this?”  “Who am I serving?”  “Who do I want to impress?”  “What is this teaching my kids?”

2. Expect the unexpected. 

After mom makes this bold request, Jesus responds rather bluntly: “You don’t know what you are asking.  Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”  The word “cup” symbolized suffering or affliction.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed in Matthew 26:39: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Surprisingly, both James and John eagerly reply, “We can.”  I think they were a little too quick in their response.   And Jesus’ answer is a bit shocking in verse 23: “You will indeed drink from my cup…”  They wanted glory but Jesus tells them to get ready for some grief.

Friends, if we’re serious about following Christ, we will face difficulty.  Philippians 1:29: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”  James didn’t suffer long because he lost his life as the first of the twelve to be martyred (Acts 12:2).  John lived into his mid 90s but his life was filled with huge challenges, culminating with his isolation on an island.  Revelation 1:9: “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”

Friend, if you’re serious about serving, then get ready for some suffering.  You might be taken home early like James or you may battle a long time like John did.   We’ve done a disservice by promising that the Christian life will be trouble-free and by promoting ministry as always easy and fun.  It will cost you to serve Christ!  Thank you to so many here who are willing to pay that price. 

If you sense yourself wanting to pull back or find yourself wondering if your ministry matters, allow the words of 1 Corinthians 15:58 to encourage you: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

3. Put others first. 

After monitoring our motives and expecting the unexpected, we must strive to put others first.  Verse 24 tells us how the other ten felt about James and John’s power grab: “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.”  

This word “indignant” means “to be greatly afflicted.”  They were really torqued that their teammates were trying to get special treatment and they weren’t going to give up the top spots without a fight.  They weren’t appalled by the brothers’ lack of understanding of true servanthood; they were bothered that these two got to Jesus first.  The spiritual attitude of the ten was not any better than that of the two.  Have you ever noticed how easy it is to be angry at the sin we see in others, while we indulge in the same ones ourselves?  Why is it that we condemn in others what we excuse in our own lives?

Here we see that selfishness always results in dissension.  When we think only of ourselves, community breaks down and unity is replaced with division and backbiting.  That’s why one of the best things we can do as a family is to serve together.  Turansky and Miller write: “Unfortunately, instead of growing out of bad patterns, children actually grow into them.  If not counteracted, selfish habits will simply become more entrenched.” 

After seeing the selfishness and competition and tension arising among His followers, notice what Jesus does in verse 25: “Jesus called them together…”  That’s exactly what needs to happen when there is strife and friction in our families.  We need to come together.  When Jesus calls this timeout He does so with tenderness.  Later on, when looking out over Jerusalem, Jesus said in Matthew 23:37: “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”  Jesus is gathering his children together and holding them closely.  I picture Him calling a huddle and saying something like this, “Guys, huddle up.  Let’s form a tight circle.  Get a little closer so you can hear what I’m about to say.” 

Parents, if you sense selfishness or that some bad patterns are taking root in your home, call a huddle.  Bring everyone together and remind them that you are a team.  Jesus knows their default systems are set on selfishness and so he calls them to servanthood.  He doesn’t take the two brothers aside and blast them, nor does He slam the ten for being resentful.  He brings them back to family togetherness and then gives them a lesson in how differently things are to run in His kingdom: “…You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.”  

In verse 26 Jesus reframes their understanding: “Not so with you…”  A Christ-follower must not operate this way.  The meaning here is: “It shall not be,” or “It must not be.”  In the family of God there is only one category of people: servants.  Notice the rest of this verse and verse 27: “…Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”  This was a counter-cultural and radical teaching for Jesus to define greatness in terms of servanthood because slaves were considered to be socially inferior.  

If the disciples wanted to be leaders in His kingdom, they first had to become servants.  What is a servant?  A servant is someone whose heart is intent upon, and whose will is bound to, the will and wishes of another.  

One of the best biblical images of this single-minded resolve to put others first is found in Psalm 123:2: “As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God.”  When the master moves his finger to give a command, the servant simply obeys.  A true servant is one who has learned to subdue the defiant autonomy of self and to subject the will to the wishes of another.  What God says goes.  When God says, “Jump,” we should say, “How high?”

My parents came in for the day on Thursday.  It was great to see them for many reasons, but right near the top of the list is that they came bearing blocks of real Wisconsin cheddar cheese!  Later in the day my dad and I toured the War Museum.  I knew he would like it a lot since he is veteran.  While we were there we met a gentleman who served in a battle in World War II.  His uniform was in the museum along with a brief description of what he did.  When I read that he saved the lives of three of his fellow soldiers I thanked him for serving our country and he very humbly replied, “I just did what I was supposed to do.  They would have done the same for me.”

That’s exactly what a servant is supposed to do.  That’s how Jesus defined a servant’s job description in Luke 17:10: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” 

Have you ever noticed how a conversation with Jesus doesn’t always turn out the way we thought it would before it began?  We have so many things that need to be changed in our lives because we’re more wowed by the world than most of us care to admit.  

God’s ways are very different than our ways.  Here are a few contrasts just from the Book of Matthew that should be reinforced in our family huddles:

  • To gain your life, you must lose it (Matthew 16:25)
  • To experience eternal life, you must have the faith of a child (Matthew 18:3)
  • To receive, you must first give (Matthew 19:21)
  • To be great, you must be a servant (Matthew 20:26)

4. Follow the model of the Master. 

Jesus does not just shake up our self-centered motives and warn us to expect the unexpected.  He also challenges us to put others first.  And, in case we’re wondering how to do this, He offers Himself as the perfect role model.  Look at verse 28: “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.”  Jesus is both our model and our motivation.  He also provides the power when we serve in His strength and not in our own.

He served the needs of others and then demonstrated the ultimate act of servanthood when He gave His life as payment for our sins, so that we can be set free.  The true standard of greatness is the Savior’s pattern of selfless servanthood and self-sacrifice.

Let’s see if we can bring this all together by looking at on Old Testament parenting passage.

Stationed to Serve

Please turn to the book of Nehemiah.  Families and the faith community are faltering because of external opposition and internal selfishness.  Likewise, fatigue, frustration and fear can lead to fractures in our families.  

In response, notice what Nehemiah does in Nehemiah 4:13: “Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest point of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows.”  Nehemiah positioned them as families so they would know what they were fighting for.  

This is the defining moment for the community of faith.  When they saw each other as family units serving together in a larger family of faith, great power was unleashed.  Nehemiah rallied the families to serve where they were most needed because family bonds of love and protection are very strong.  I can almost hear parents saying to the enemy, “You mess with our kids and you’ll have to mess with us!”  The very future of their families and their faith community was at stake.  Families are designed to serve each other and to serve together in a cause bigger then themselves.   Check out these verses from Nehemiah 3:

3:10“Jediah…made repairs opposite his house.”

3:23“…made repairs in front of their house…made repairs beside his house.”

3:24“…repaired another section, from Azariah’s house to the angle…”

3:28“…the priests made repairs, each in front of his own house.”

3:29“…made repairs opposite his house.”

3:30“…made repairs opposite his living quarters.”

Imagine if you will that there are functioning families of faith stationed on the walls all around Livingston County, fighting for their families and for every other family.  As one way to fortify our families, we’ll be offering an “Art of Marriage” seminar this fall.  Stay tuned for more details.

 After looking everything over and sensing the friction and fractures among families, Nehemiah refocused his troops in verse 14: “…Don’t be afraid of them.  Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome…”  It’s as if he called a holy huddle to remind them of God’s greatness.  Nehemiah knew, even in the face of opposition, that the success of the wall was wholly dependent upon God who inspired its beginning.  

Does your marriage seem unmanageable?  Are your kids out of control?  Don’t quit.  Don’t retreat; instead remember that the Lord is great and awesome!  Take your eyes off the mess of your marriage and place them on the majesty of God.  Choose to remember God’s faithfulness when your family is faltering.  

Drop down to verse 20.  Because the work was extensive and spread out, and families could feel isolated, we read that Nehemiah came up with a plan: “Whenever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there.  Our God will fight for us!”  When the wall is breeched, we must all come running and fight together.  And that’s when God shows up and fights for us as well.   Did you catch that part?  It’s only after families come together, that it says God “will fight for us.”  

Don’t be surprised if your family feels like a war zone but instead of fighting each other, begin fighting for each other

God fights for us and yet we must fight for our families.  Listen to the last part of verse 14: “…and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”  This is the right fight!  Don’t be surprised if your family feels like a war zone but instead of fighting each other, begin fighting for each other.  Don’t give up on your wayward child.  Don’t bail on your parents.  Serve your siblings.  Fight for your family!

I want to end with some practical ways that we can flesh out servanthood in our families.

Fleshing Out in Our Families

1. Memorize Philippians 2:4. 

This verse is short but will literally change our family life if we put it into practice: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

2. Change roles and responsibilities for a day. 

It might be good to switch chores with another family member.  Or instead of switching, why not do yours and your sibling’s?  Practice random acts of kindness.  Do it anonymously.  Feed the dog when it’s not your turn.  Make your sister’s bed.  Pick up your brother’s socks (ok, that’s too much). Take out the garbage. 

3. Ask this question around the dinner table, “I wonder what life is like for .” 

Do this for every family member.  This will give you some ideas for serving and help you live out Galatians 6:2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” 

4. Celebrate selfless acts of service. 

Catch your kids doing good things and celebrate servanthood.  Encourage them to serve your neighbors.  Challenge them to reach out to a classmate who is being left out.  Cheer them on as they look for ways to serve.

5. Model a lifestyle of servanthood. 

This church is filled with selfless servants. We don’t have to make serving complicated or cumbersome.  We just need to help our friends.  

When we teach a child to serve, we’re also teaching that child to become a servant for life because children who serve become adults who serve.  And families that serve together are strong together…and they may even share some pancakes.

I close with some words to ponder from Kevin DeYoung…

“I beg of you, don’t go after the next generation with mere moralism…The gospel is not a message about what we need to do for God, but about what God has done for us.  So get them with the good news about who God is and what he has done for us…Give them a God who is holy, independent, and unlike us, a God who is good, just, full of wrath and full of mercy.  Give them a God who is sovereign, powerful, tender, and true.  Give them a God with edges.  Give them an undiluted God who makes them feel cherished and safe, and small and uncomfortable too.  Give them a God who works all things after the counsel of his will and for the glory of his name.  Give them a God whose love is lavish and free.  Give them a God worthy of wonder and fear, a God big enough for all our faith, hope, and love.

“Do your friends, your church, your family, your children know that God is the center of the universe?  Can they see that he is at the center of your life? We have an incredible opportunity before us…We can give them substance instead of style.  We can show them a big God to help make sense of their shrinking lives.  We can point them to transcendence instead of triviality.  We can reach them with something more lasting and more powerful than gimmicks, gadgets, and games.  We can reach them with God.  Imagine that.  Reaching the next generation for God by showing them more of God.  That’s just crazy enough to work.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?