Sermon: Success God’s Way

In her 2005 book on John Paul the Great, Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan draws some sharp distinctions between differing kinds of greatness. She writes about one particular encounter she had: “I am talking with the head of a mighty American corporation. We’re in his window-lined office, high in midtown Manhattan. The view—silver skyscrapers stacked one against another, dense, fine-lined, sparkling in the sun—is so perfect, so theatrical. It’s like a scrim, like a fake backdrop for a 1930s movie about people in tuxes and tails. Edward Everett Horton could shake his cocktail shaker here; Fred and Ginger could banter on the phone.

The CEO tells me it is “annual report time,” and he is looking forward to reading the reports of his competitors.

Why? I ask. I wonder what he looks for when he reads the reports of the competition.

He says he always flips to the back to see what the other CEOs got as part of their deal—corporate jets, private helicopters, whatever. “We all do that,” he says. “We all want to see who has what.”

The CEO is a talented and exceptional man, and I think afterward that he might, in an odd way, be telling me this about himself so I won’t be unduly impressed by him. But what I think, instead, is that it must be hard for him to keep some simple things in mind each day as he works, such as a job creates a livelihood, a livelihood creates a family, a family creates a civilization. Ultimately this CEO is in the civilization-producing business. Does he know it? Does that give him joy? Does he understand that is probably why he is there?

This man creates the jobs that create the world in which we live. And yet he can’t help it: his mind is on the jet.”[i]

In today’s Bible story, Jesus reminds us that God does not measure success in the same way the world measures success.

Jesus called the sons of Zebedee – James and John – the Sons of Thunder, reportedly because they were quick to anger and frequently got into loud arguments with one another. John, as the younger brother, was incredibly competitive: Called himself, “the disciple Jesus loved.” Had to be the first to the tomb—running ahead of Peter (but then waiting until Peter got there to go into the tomb first).

I can well imagine James and John as the instigators of the argument the disciples were having on the way to Capernaum over `who was the greatest’ disciple. [Mk 9:1 – 5]

In today’s story they were apparently at it again. Can you imagine the hutzpah it took for them – not to ask mind you – but to assert that they wanted Jesus to do whatever they asked him to do? That’s incredible enough! But to then presume that Jesus should promise them a seat on either side of him in glory must have seemed simply outrageous to the other disciples—who, indeed, got quite angry when they overheard the request.

John Calvin called this Gospel narrative “a bright mirror of human vanity,” because “it shows that proper and holy zeal is often accompanied by ambition, or some other vice of the flesh, so that they who follow Christ have a different object (objective) in view from what they ought to have.”[ii]

No doubt, we can all agree, with those first disciples, that James and John’s attitude was totally inappropriate. But, if we are honest, part of our uneasiness might have to do with the fact that, in some ways, we are all the “sons of Zebedee,” as one put it.

We might not be inclined to make the kind outlandish requests as did this self-absorbed biblical duo; but, let’s face it, many of us spend much of our lives scheming for those kinds of privileged positions.

In seminary, there was a regular four-some of fellow students that I’d go golfing with on the weekends. One of foursome was a young man who was a really good golfer – had played golf on his college team – and who was from a very well-to-do family. He was a very nice, very unassuming kind of guy. Had kind of a quiet charisma; a very likable sort. But the rest of us couldn’t help but notice that his was the one BMW amongst all the clunkers in the seminary parking lot. Or that he always wore designer golf clothes, while the rest of us played in jeans and t-shirts. And not only that, but he always beat the rest of us by about twenty strokes.

At any rate, in the waning days of our seminary endeavors, we were all on the golf course for one last round together, sharing with one another where we were applying for jobs and what field of ministry we were hoping to go into.

When finally asked, our wealthy young friend reluctantly shared that he had been essentially guaranteed a position as an associate pastor, with about an eighty thousand dollar package, at a church in Boca Raton—the premiere golf mecca of Florida. Included in the package, of course, was a membership to one of the swank local golf clubs.

And I remember thinking, “How sad. How very, very sad . . .” Not!

Actually, I thought, “Man! How does this guy rate?! And how can I score that kind of gig?!”

We pastor-types might not be upfront about our more self-center yearnings; but we’ve got them like anyone else. James J. Thompson voices our communal confession: “We want that large church in a growing area with the nice, comfortable salary. We want a reputation as a strong, convincing preacher. We want our children to be at the top of the class. We want a lot of things that we never admit out loud.”[iii]

We see someone in one of those privileged positions in one of those big churches and we get a twinge of “steeple-envy,” as we used to say in seminary.

But, here’s the thing: Success God’s way is not the same as success the world’s way.

Occasionally one of my parishioners will make a comment about one of the mega churches which seem to be cornering the religious market of all the young adults. The organist of the church I served in Wichita, Kansas, used to call those mega-churches: “Six Flags over Juh-HE -sus.

“How can we compete with that?” they’ll ask me. Or, “Why bother even trying to reach out to those generations?”

In my mind, those kinds of comments are not just anxious harbingers of doom. Nor should they be relegated to the category of rhetorical. Those are questions that have to be seriously considered and faithfully answered. Because they go to the core of our sense of purpose; our “raison d’etre” as the French say – our reason for being.

And what the world tells us our raison d’etre is not the same as what God says our raison d`etre is.

Willow Creek Community Church, in South Barrington, Illinois – which boasts a membership in the tens of thousands, with 24,000 worship attendees every week and an annual budget in excess of thirty million dollars – is one of the largest, and therefore presumably most successful, churches in the nation. However, several years ago its founding pastor, the Rev. Bill Hybels, wrote a very courageous op-ed piece about his church and its ministry.

It came on the heels of an extensive in-house study done within the membership of that mega-congregation in 2007. And, as it turned out, that survey revealed that some 63% of the congregation felt spiritually unfulfilled. In his article, Hybels responded to those survey findings by confessing an essential failure of the Willow Creek philosophy.

Since their charter in 1975, their primary focus had been on seeker sensitive worship services and programming; which, obviously, had ultimately yielded colossal results. The deficient reality, however, was that while people were enthusiastically joining the church in droves, they were not experiencing real spiritual growth. The church was not nurturing a deepening relationship to Jesus Christ within its membership.

Unfortunately, since March of this year, Willow Creek Church has been embroiled in sexual misconduct allegations against Bill Hybels involving several women in the congregation resulting in the resignation of Hybels, along with that of a number of other pastors and church elders; ultimately leading to investigatory proceedings.

Success as the world measures it is not the same thing as success God’s way.

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche – a community for the developmentally disabled and those who dedicated their lives to care for them, which is now found in 50 countries worldwide – has a very different view of what it means to be a faithful community.

“Community,” says Vanier, “is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy—in fact, [just] the opposite [is true].”

[Such] “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of a man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness. The beauty of man is in this fidelity to the wonder of each day.”

“If we are to grow in love,” concludes Vanier, “the prisons of our egoism must be unlocked. This implies suffering, constant effort and repeated choices.” [iv]

Being a disciples of Jesus Christ is not about achieving personal greatness. It’s not about acquiring power and prestige. It’s not about being the `biggest and the best.’

A more apt motto for our own church might be:

“First Presbyterian Church—Striving to be Last.”

For “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all.” [Mk 10:43, 44]

When the Sons of Thunder asked to be seated at either side of Jesus in `his glory,’ he told them, “You have no idea what you’re asking for.”

Even though Jesus had previously discussed the manner of his death three times with his disciples, they still didn’t `get it.’

The disciples were not hearing – perhaps didn’t want to hear – what Jesus was trying to tell them—trying to prepare them for. They were still in denial about it all.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus prodded.
“We are able,” boasted James and John.

“[Indeed] The cup that I drink you will drink,” Jesus told them. “And you will be baptized with the same baptism with which I am baptized.”

`Although it won’t be at all what you think it’s going to be.’

Eager to ease into positions of power and glory, the brothers couldn’t possibly have realized at the time that they would be called upon to sacrifice everything.

Indeed, James would be the first of the disciples to be martyred for his faith. As the Book of Acts records [12:1ff], Herod the king had James executed by the sword; the only apostle whose martyrdom is so recorded in the pages of the New Testament.

However, his brother John (after whom the Fourth Gospel is named) would survive the other eleven, and go on to live to a ripe old age. The other eleven disciples were all martyred – executed in some fashion, as was their Lord Jesus – for their faith.

“By all appearances,” said A. W. Tozer, “our Lord died an [abject] failure, discredited by the leaders of established religion, rejected by society and forsaken by His friends. It took the resurrection to demonstrate how gloriously Christ had [in truth] triumphed.”

“Yet,” Tozer went on to say, “today the professed church seems to have learned nothing, How much eager-beaver religious work is done out of a carnal desire to make good?”

Many would-be disciples today have transformed the profundity of God’s Good News into `Christianity Lite’; and the church has often become complicit in it.

We live in a consumer society. A dog-eat-dog competitive culture which has led to the emergence of consumer-minded Christians: seekers who move from one church to another, tasting the religious wares of each one and, when satiated, move on to the next mall. Consuming and consuming more without ever investing themselves in ways that lead to connecting their journey with genuine discipleship.

Genuine discipleship requires commitment. It requires personal sacrifice. It requires merging one’s life with the life of the community of faith. It requires moving from consumer to contributor; making the transition, as Jean Vanier puts it, from `the community for me’ to `me for the community.’

I grew up Presbyterian. About 75% of our congregations have 100 members or less. But I still wholeheartedly believe that Presbyterianism has something of unique and intrinsic value to offer the emerging generations of our culture: an authenticity in faith; a clarity of values; an inclusiveness within community.

And I also tend to believe that the smaller the church can be and still function, the better it will function in the manner which God has designed.

Because in the small church we truly become – not consumers – but a family of faith. In the small church we form close, life-long relationships—strive to really get to know each other and care for each other. Therefore, in the small church we have a greater chance of experiencing God in very personal, intimate ways. And, in the small church, we are much more inclined to think in terms of `what can I do for this community,’ rather than `what can this community do for me.’

The small church, I truly believe, is at the very heart of Christianity.

While First Presbyterian Church is not, strictly speaking, a small church as it is defined numerically by our denomination. We, nonetheless, tend to function more like a small church: more focused on relationships than programs; more intent on growing our mission than our membership; more interested in deepening our discipleship than our coffers. And we believe that – by being obedient to God in these vital ways – our church will become spiritually magnetic to those who are truly seeking to be in a loving, obedient relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ; by serving him together as the church.

For we believe that – by so striving always to serve others – God will bless us with whatever we need to continue serving in Christ’s name.

Charles Malik says that, for the Christian, “Success is neither fame, nor wealth, nor power; rather it is seeking, knowing, loving, and obeying God.”

“Success is living in such a way that you are using what God has given you—your intellect, your abilities, your energy—to reach the purpose that He intends for your life.” (Kathi Hudson)

Like most churches today – both large and small – we too must confront the challenges of a rapidly changing culture in an increasingly complex world.

We should now have a better sense of who we are as a community of faith today (see the vision/mission/core values page on our church website:

Perhaps now it’s time to ask ourselves the more deeply probing questions: Why do we exist? What is our reason for being? What is our purpose in the world?

I can’t tell you what the answer is. But I can tell you that it will most certainly call for us to continue seeking new ways to serve others in humble obedience to God and in the love of Jesus Christ. And if we strive faithfully to do so, then we surely will find our God-given purpose in life.


(*Expanded version)

[i] Noonan, Peggy, John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father, Wheeler Pub. 2005.

[ii] Calvin, Jean (John), Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists,  Vol. I, (William Pringle, trans.), Eerdmans Grand Rapids, 1957.

[iii] Thompson, James J., Theological Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4.

[iv] Vanier, Jean, Community and Growth, Paulist Press, 1989.





Success as the world measures it is not the same thing as success God’s way.


“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy—in fact, the opposite.” —Jean Vanier (Founder of L`Arche)


Presbyterianism still has something of unique and intrinsic value to offer the emerging generations of our culture: an authenticity of faith, a clarity of values, an inclusiveness in community.