This past Thursday in Washington DC, an airman formerly stationed at Hurlburt Field received the Medal of Honor, sixteen years after he gave his life in the battle that saw him receive the award. The press release from the Secretary of the Air Force said this about Technical Sergeant John Chapman, “[he] earned America’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, for the actions he performed to save fellow Americans on a mountain in Afghanistan more than 16 years ago. He will forever be an example of what it means to be one of America’s best and bravest Airmen.” Tech Sgt. Chapman was chiseled, molded and formed, by training and combat. In the end, being chiseled gave a window to his heart and the bravery and sacrifice he was willing to show in military service.
That’s what being chiseled by suffering can do. It gives a window to our hearts and the bravery, courage, and steadfastness we have. Of course, being chiseled hurts. Suffering hurts. It leads people to see into their hearts characteristics they may not want. Things that normally wouldn’t bother us are like a huge hammer swinging and chiseling off huge chunks of our peace and calm. Hurt can surface from moments we thought we chipped off long ago. In moments of suffering instead of changing our reaction, we want to get rid of the suffering. We want less chiseling and less hurt, then the window to our hearts can show better things.
The disciples should’ve been trying to gain understanding about what Jesus had just told them about his future. “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men, they will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” This wasn’t the first time Jesus said this. But it hurt each time. Because they didn’t understand. Instead, they whispered to each other, arguing about their relative rank in the kingdom of God. The disciples expected a political kingdom in which power and position went to the most deserving, the most influential, most charismatic. It was only natural they would try to figure out which of them that would be. Petty jealous rivalry.
When they didn’t understand, they should’ve asked Jesus. Jesus wasn’t afraid to ask them and chisel down at their misunderstanding and get them to the right answer. “What were you arguing about on the road? But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” Their silence spoke volumes. They had to know their fighting about who was best wasn’t right. Biggest of all, they missed understanding their connection to what Jesus said about the future. The window to their hearts in a time of suffering, or suffering to come, showed they were full of themselves. Who was greatest next to Jesus, and who would get the best position in the new kingdom was all about them. They didn’t even realize what it meant for their master. What window to his heart was being shown by this prediction?
High school teams across the country are starting football, cross country, and volleyball seasons. Student athletes are chiseling themselves through training, sweating, and hard work. They have ambition, and it’s good. Coaches make students run laps until their insides hurt to teach kids about hard work. Parents get them up early for practice, have them work till homework is done, and still do chores. Suffering inflicted by coaches and parents are for good. Only temporary setbacks. Suffering must be overcome. Adults have ambition too. A relationship might have to overcome all odds to work, and a couple won’t stop with a little hardship. Whatever economic status, we might have ambition for more. Suffering drives us. We rally, work harder, so we can achieve our dreams. Ambition sets the tone. It shows a window to our hearts. But maybe we don’t like what we see. We chisel away anything that keeps us from our goals and ambitions. Suffering becomes a rallying cry for acclaim, recognition, or advancement in position. Suffering and being chiseled shows how we turn inward to ourselves for solutions. That makes us just like the disciples asking who was greatest.
Jesus turns the ordinary human ideas of first and last upside down. What everyone just “knew” wasn’t anymore. The power structure as old as time was upset. “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Jesus isn’t stomping on ambition. He wants you to be the greatest, be number one. But number one the way Jesus sees greatness. Nothing about titles, authority, power, or ambition. Being first, being great, means being last. Serving all with no service being too lowly. Service means sacrifice, a willingness to be chiseled, and the benefit going all to someone else who may never realize or appreciate it.
How can that work? If a coach would say something like that to the team or a parent at home, it wouldn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to you. The key to understanding is realizing you are nothing by yourself. A little later Jesus says, “For even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” How this works is Jesus lived your existence. Took the chiseling of a lifetime. He had every right to claim first place. But he made himself last. Served all. Greatness for Jesus came in serving. Serving you. Glory came from being willing to serve and be last. His suffering, the betrayal, his death were all part. Looking into the heart of Jesus through his suffering you see his grace. You receive grace from God. Grace lets you see yourself as nothing without Christ. Jesus had a heart filled with love for sinners who didn’t love him first. He came after you to win you for himself. He is a Savior serving when he could have been served. Loving people and filling them with his love. Grace-filled, enabled to live and serve and be his people, that’s you and me now in Christ who gave his life for many.
The gospel turns the chiseling of suffering into a window in your heart. Even in the midst of suffering you’ll serve because Christ served you in love first. You’ll be last, knowing that’s greatness in the kingdom of God. Jesus used the real life picture of a child to illustrate. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.” That child, perhaps sitting in Jesus’ lap, was to the Jews shocking. Children were to be not seen and not heard. Jesus showed personal touch, loving intent, and a window to his heart by demonstrating love to this child. His point was if you receive a child this way, something lowly and not important to adults, you’ll be reaching for greatness in the kingdom. Serve those who seem to be low in society, serve them physically and spiritually, and that’s greatness.
Children cause a lot of chiseling for parents. It’s hard work, it costs a lot, and the responsibilities and worries can bring on suffering. Bear the burden, lead in your child’s spiritual care, and even when it hurts it will show a window to your heart. That’s greatness to God. You can be chiseled with suffering when it costs you something to help another. But it might give you an opportunity to talk about your Savior too. And no service is too low. You might sacrifice some time by getting involved in a card writing campaign we’re developing to write a friendly note to new movers welcoming and inviting them to come worship in the future. You might struggle to make it each week, but you give generously anyway to the ministry and work of your Savior. People may not recognize your sacrifice. TV reporters may not interview you. Those you help may not appreciate it. That too will be suffering, but that chiseling will still show a window to your heart. There you and others will see God’s grace. You’ll see your Savior who went through suffering to glory. Was last and ended up first. You’ll be last in this world, but Jesus says you’re achieving greatness. In his forgiveness and love you go through the chiseling to eternity.
Even as a church we face the same temptations to be first. The community has plenty of programs to make this world better. To address real suffering that’s out there. Shouldn’t the church do something about that? We could appear first in the world’s eyes, real advocates for change. It’s true those programs are good and serve the community. But let’s be careful we don’t lose our gospel focus. Jesus gave the church a first responsibility. Proclaim to people just how dead in sin they are and share Jesus with them for forgiveness. If the church won’t do that, it might look first to the world, but it will be lost. The church will experience chiseling as it suffers to proclaiming God’s truth. That won’t cause us to waver though from the truth. God’s Word calls us to be last, serve, proclaim. In that way, the church will be great to God.
They say suffering brings out the truth about people. Suffering chisels away. What’s left is a masterpiece of sacrifice and serving. Suffering shows the truth. It is a window to the heart. Your heart has been won over by Christ Jesus. You are a child of God, bought with the blood of Jesus, paid for with his life, granted the promise of eternal life. You have been made first. The way to greatness is by being last. Going back to serving. Going back to loving others. In that way, your chiseled heart will truly show the love of Christ.