In the name of God, Source of all being, Incarnate Word, and Holy Spirit: Amen.
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What comes to mind when I say the word “Ambition”?
Maybe it’s a positive word for you, something to do with setting goals and working hard. Maybe it’s more of a negative word, something to do with lacking humility and trying to be better than other people.
As Christians we have a tricky relationship with ambition. The gospel of Jesus tends to turn ordinary ideas of ambition upside down. We serve a Lord of Lords who showed his ambition by getting stripped, beaten, and crucified. In Christian circles we tend to talk a lot about humility, and servanthood. And that’s a very good thing, mostly. In the world of the Bible it was a countercultural thing to prize servanthood. Ancient empires like Babylon and Rome didn’t have a lot of use for humility. Emperors like Nebuchadnezzar and Caesar didn’t see a need to act humble or to call themselves “servant leaders.” They called themselves lords and masters. They didn’t have any complicated feelings about pride. They dominated their subjects and they liked it.
In that cultural world, the message of a prophet like Isaiah was unexpected. In passages like the one we heard today, Isaiah talks about a figure scholars call the “suffering servant,” a righteous person who undergoes pain and humiliation. Christians have always seen these passages as foreshadowing the role of Jesus himself. But for many in Isaiah’s world, the idea of praising someone for suffering would have made no sense at all. Pain and humiliation made you, not praiseworthy, but a nobody. It can be hard for us today to appreciate how radical a message this is, precisely because we live in a culture that has been shaped by more than two thousand years of influence from the monotheistic religions and from messages like this one, that say that God actually loves the nobodies and the outsiders and those who suffer.
And yet there are still plenty of messages in our world today that say what really matters is to be the biggest, richest, most powerful. Messages about “winning” and about “greatness” that are essentially about narcissism, about having the most money or the biggest arsenal. As Christians we still have a countercultural message to proclaim, that God loves those who are little or lesser or left behind. Our reading from Hebrews today talks about how Jesus himself humbly accepted his suffering even though he was the Son of God. The text even suggests that Jesus somehow became more perfect through that suffering than he would have been otherwise. That would have made no sense to Augustus or Nebuchadnezzar. It would make no sense to some of our leaders today.
Now there’s a danger here. And that danger happens when we take the true message of the Gospel, that God loves those who suffer, and we turn it into a glorification of suffering itself, a kind of masochistic religion. It’s the kind of Christianity that inspires a certain kind of gruesome religious art that’s all about pain and punishment and agony, a kind of Christianity that focuses on the cross to the point of obsession and loses sight of the resurrection. It’s the kind of religion that encourages victims to submit to their abusers and swallow up their pain by clothing it in prayer. It’s the kind of religion that encourages false modesty and people stifling the gifts God has given them. That kind of Christianity is very dangerous because it feels so close to authentic Christianity. But instead of saying that God loves us when we do suffer and will one day wipe all the tears from our eyes, it says that God wants us to suffer and the tears in our eyes are a good thing. It’s a toxic perversion of the gospel, and it’s a tool powerful people have often used to squelch the legitimate ambitions of the people they’re oppressing.
Today’s gospel gives us a glimpse of God’s real attitude toward ambition. James and John come to Jesus, and they’re ambitious. They want places of honor on thrones next to him in his glory. This is the same James and John who, at another time, asked Jesus to call down fire from heaven on some people who didn’t accept their message. These two don’t get it—at least not yet. They still see life as a battle for greatness, for being the best.
And Jesus, of course, says no. But he doesn’t say no in the way we might have expected. Martin Luther King pointed this out, not long before he was assassinated, in a famous sermon called “The Drum Major Instinct,” one of his last. He pointed out that everyone has an instinct to be great, to achieve something, to be a leader, like a drum major leading the band. And what Jesus says to James and John is not, “How dare you want to be great?” He doesn’t say, “Being great is wrong, being ambitious is bad.” He doesn’t say “That’s selfish and wrong of you.” Rather he says, “Yes, there is a way to be great.” But as Dr. King points out, he gives a new definition of greatness. Not to seek greatness by dominating like Caesar. And not to give up on greatness by a kind of false modesty or glorification of suffering. But, he says, “Whoever wishes to be great must be a servant.” Real greatness in God’s eyes is about serving others in love. And that kind of greatness can be achieved by everyone, in any walk of life, anywhere and anytime. May God fill us with true, holy ambition for that kind of greatness, today.
 “The Drum Major Instinct,” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, February 4, 1968, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/drum-major-instinct-sermon-delivered-ebenezer-baptist-church.