Background Passages: Genesis 11:1-9; Luke 9:46-48; Matthew 20:20-28 and John 13:1-17
LeBron James, the star of the Cleveland Cavaliers, recently signed an endorsement contract with Nike estimated to be worth a staggering $1 billion. Samsung, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Kia pay serious money to the NBA star just for tweeting his fascination with big screen televisions, his love for Diet Coke and a Big Mac. Each time James tweets an endorsement for products produced by any of these firms, he earns $185,000. He has made quite a name for himself.
That companies value his name so much is a witness that ours is a culture obsessed with celebrity. The proliferation of entertainment or sports magazines reflects our interest in the lives of the rich and famous. The world buys what these celebrities sell and gives credence to what they say simply by virtue of their fame.
Celebrities are not the only ones who desire name recognition. Many of us drive ourselves long and hard to achieve great things, motivated by the desire to become famous…to make ourselves a name. It’s not a recent phenomenon. In fact, a look at ancient biblical history takes the concept to absurd heights.
In Genesis, God’s blessing and commission to Noah and his family after the flood was abundantly clear, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” They were to take on the responsibility of raising families and spreading out across the earth to fill it again with people obedient to God the Creator.
Just a few generations later, his descendants thought they had a better idea as they migrated eastward. Genesis 11 tells the intriguing story we know as “The Tower of Babel.” The people made a deliberate choice to stop spreading out across creation as God ordained and instead agreed to come together and “build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
Focusing the story on the tower misses the point. It was never about the tall tower. It was never about joining God in the heavens. It was always a story of the self-centeredness of a rebellious creation that deemed themselves more capable than God of determining their future. Note the statements of hubris evident in the scripture, “Let us make bricks…” “Let us build ourselves a city…” Not a word of honor to God. Not a thought to his will for their lives. Rather, a deep-seated desire to master their own fate and build their own celebrity. “Let us make a name for ourselves.”
In its broader context, we see two opposite views of man’s existence. The people of Babel built a city and a tower to make them great among the people of the world. A chapter later, their egotism is countered when God calls Abram, promising that he (God) would make Abram’s name great. Author David Atkinson writes a central truth that “the prerogative of making a name great belongs to God.”
The story itself points out the futility of our efforts to make ourselves great as understood by our culture. In the story, the people build a tower “to the heavens,” yet God must descend to assess the situation. God’s actions within the story stress the eternal insignificance of anything man might accomplish as he seeks to exalt himself.
It happened all too often among Jesus’ disciples. Their position or status within the group of 12 believers remained a constant source of debate and argument throughout Jesus’ ministry. One day as they walked along the road, Jesus overheard the same tired argument erupt among the 12 about whom among them would be the greatest. Luke tells us that Jesus wrapped a little child in his arms…one whom society deemed of less value. He told them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me…For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
Later, the mother of James and John petitioned Jesus to elevate her sons to positions of honor within his kingdom. She wanted to help make a name for her sons. He chastised the brothers for not fully understanding the implications of their requests. It didn’t take long for the rest of the disciples to discover the end run they had made to put themselves in positions of authority. They were incensed and a divisive argument ensued.
The Master called one of his famous “come to Jesus” meetings. As he gathered them around, he taught them what it meant to be great. It is a powerful message for us in our celebrity-driven culture.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave, 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.”
He later personified that message. Somewhere in an upper room in Jerusalem, Jesus shed his cloak and draped it across his chair. He wrapped a towel around his waist. Poured water into a bowl. As he knelt silently before each disciple, he washed their dusty feet, drying them with his towel.
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” Jesus asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. No servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
There it is. Laid out as plainly as possible. Making a name for oneself does not come from exalting oneself or lording one’s authority over another. Making a name for oneself does not come in ignoring the will of God and doing what you desire. Making a name for oneself doesn’t mean building towers or monuments to your hyper-inflated ego. Making a name for oneself does not mean seeking celebrity and name recognition.
Jesus teaches us that greatness in the eyes of God stems from our obedience to his will and acting with a servant’s heart to minister to those in need. Humility, service and love rest as the foundation for godly living. God marks the greatness within us by the sincerity of our humility, the strength of our service to others in need and the depth of our love to those the world deems unlovable.
It seems to me we have a choice each day we live. We make a name for ourselves by serving the Name above all Names. So, do we choose the tower or the towel?