Guest speaker Alex Costanzo reminds us that God cares more about significance than success.
Good morning. It’s so great to be with you all. I want to give a quick shout-out to Riordan. Hi, everyone over at Riordan. Riordan is where I usually worship on the weekends, so hello to Ike and Sam over there. I can’t hear you Riordan. One of these days, I think they’ll actually be able to shout out loud enough that I’ll be able to hear them.
Happy Presidents’ Day weekend, everyone. I hope some of you get a chance to take a break tomorrow. Happy belated Valentine’s Day, also. Hopefully, some of you got a chance to celebrate. Valentine’s Day is actually a special day in our family because it marks the anniversary of our move to San Francisco. It’s our San Franniversary. Did you know that’s a thing? We’ve been here eight years now. It’s not quite long enough to get any respect from the natives, but we’re certainly not tourists anymore.
Michael and I have three sons. When we moved here in 2012, they were just four, nine, and 12. They were little kids. Now, we’ve got a middle schooler, a high schooler, and a sophomore in college already. Time really does fly. It wasn’t too long ago when Michael and I would think, “Okay, hang in there. Just two more days until we get a date night, and we can get away from the kids.” But now we say, “Okay, just two more days until we get to have family night,” because times they are a changing and kids grow up fast. They have their own schedules and priorities. They don’t always want to hang out with their old fogey parents anymore.
With one off to college, it’s very difficult to get all five of us together. I realize that our family will never really be the same because as our kids begin to leave home, we’re moving into that season of empty nesting. As a mom, I can’t help but wonder, did I do a good job? Did I prepare them well? Did I teach and model for them what’s really important? I feel like I have to compete with so much noise for them to hear me. The current generation seems subject to so many more voices than when I was a kid. Messages about what they’re supposed to do, how they’re supposed to look, how they’re supposed to feel, what they’re supposed to believe. It can be very overwhelming.
I remember when Rocco was applying to college. It was such a stressful process. There is so much pressure on these kids to achieve and to be successful, even before they get to college. It seems like you can’t get into college unless you’ve already had a successful startup. Right? But these messages of; ‘are you good enough and are you accomplished enough,’ affect the rest of us as well, especially living in the Bay area.
Did you know that San Francisco now has the highest number of billionaires per capita in the world? According to a recent Wealth-X report, one out of every 11,600 residents are billionaires. So you could actually be sitting next to a billionaire right now. It’s pretty easy. You know what, why don’t you turn to your neighbor and say, “Are you a billionaire?” Go ahead. It’s pretty easy, isn’t it? It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the culture of striving for success, but I believe that God calls us to something different. Rather than success, I think He calls us to significance. Let’s talk about success first. The definition of success, according to Merriam Webster is as follows, “The attainment of wealth, favor or eminence,” or how about the four Ps; power, position, prestige, and prosperity.
I want to take a quick moment to say that there is nothing wrong with success inherently. Many of us have worked really hard and achieve wonderful things. These achievements should absolutely be recognized and celebrated. However, what is the main focus in our lives? What gets us out of bed in the morning? Because if it’s simply to achieve earthly success, we need to understand that it will not always bring us happiness and fulfillment. In his book titled Success!, Glenn Bland tells of a meeting in 1923 of a group of successful financiers that was held in Chicago. This group of nine men ruled the financial world in 1923. They included people like Charles Schwab, the president of the largest steel company, Samuel Insull, president of the largest utility company, and Richard Whitney, who was the president of the New York Stock Exchange at the time. But 25 years later, something had gone horribly wrong, because four of the nine men, including Charles Schwab, were bankrupt. Two of the nine were in prison. The remaining three men had committed suicide.
Earthly success does not guarantee happiness or contentment. If you are a Christ-follower, the Lord never says that our focus on earth should be success. In fact, He teaches us to be concerned with heavenly things and not earthy things. In Matthew 6, Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”
John Maxwell is an expert in leadership and is also a Christ-follower. In his career as a writer and speaker, he has counseled many successful yet unsatisfied people. This is what he wrote in a blog post, “They went into their journey thinking, if I get more for me, I’ll be happier. They thought it would bring them satisfaction and fulfillment, yet their lives feel hollow. The problem is that self-centeredness and fulfillment cannot peacefully co-exist. They’re incompatible. Often these people grapple with the idea of making a career change in their forties and fifties. I asked them, ‘Do you really want to switch careers, or do you want to switch to a life that matters?’ A life that matters, that’s what we all want at the end of the day.”
The definition of significance, “Having value, substance, and meaning.” That’s how God created us, to have value, substance, and meaning for a life that matters. He created us to have a relationship with Him and to make a difference in other people’s lives. I like how John Maxwell says, “Self-centeredness and fulfillment are incompatible.” If success is our primary goal, it’s just about what we acquire for ourselves. There is something shortsighted and kind of myopic about that. It’s self-focused, self-promoting and therefore, it has limited influence and lasts just one lifetime. But if significance is about making a difference in other people’s lives, then it’s more about what we leave behind and what we take to heaven with us. There is a broader, more eternal perspective. It’s others-focused. It can influence many and can last for generations and for eternity.
Material things, our titles, even our bodies, they’re not going to last, but love, now love lasts. Love is the most powerful force in the universe and God is love. When we love others with His love, well, that’s significant. We leave a mark on someone’s life here on earth and store up treasure in heaven. So here is my first idea, God cares more about eternal significance than earthly success, more about eternal significance than earthly success.
In the time we have together, let’s see what Jesus can teach us about living a significant life. He wasn’t successful by earthly standards but had the biggest impact on humanity than any other figure in history. There is a passage from the Book of Mark in your handout. Jesus and his disciples are on the move. We’re a couple of years into Christ’s ministry on earth. On the one hand, His notoriety is growing, given the miracles that He’s been performing and people are flocking from all over to hear His teachings. But at the same time, His unpopularity with the Jewish leaders is also growing. He knows that He’s getting closer and closer to the cross, and He wants to prepare us, disciples, for what’s coming. But the disciples seem to have other things on their minds. Let’s take a look.
“Leaving that region, they traveled through Galilee. Jesus didn’t want anyone to know that He was there, for He wanted to spend more time with His disciples and teach them. He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of His enemies. He will be killed, but three days later, He will rise from the dead.’ They didn’t understand what He was saying, however, and they were afraid to ask Him what He meant. After they arrived at Capernaum and settled in a house, Jesus asked His disciples, ‘What were you discussing out on the road?’ They didn’t answer because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.” Okay, Jesus just busted the disciples. Right? He knows exactly what they were arguing about. As a mom of three boys, I totally relate to Jesus in this scene. I can’t tell you how many times I’m trying to tell my kids something important like, “I’m leaving and don’t forget to turn off the oven,” but they’re not listening because they’re arguing about something stupid, like who has the best taste in music or who can do the most pushups. I say, “Did you hear me? Turn off the oven and do not burn the house down.” Maybe if I yell loud enough, I’ll get some lip service. Right? “Yeah, yeah, mom, we heard you.” But maybe by now, a couple of them are wrestling on the floor and I have to step around them somehow to escape my crazy house. I’m really not feeling very confident that they actually heard me at all.
Jesus is plainly telling the disciples that He is going to die. I imagined them just staring blankly back at Him. They can hear the words, but there is no real comprehension. The minute they think that Jesus is out of earshot, they start bickering about who is the greatest. I wonder if this argument started even before they hit the road. Perhaps like many of the other Jews, the disciples thought that Jesus was going to ascend to political power, and maybe they were vying for His chief lieutenant positions. I think that they had earthly success on their minds. Well, Jesus is going to give them a vocabulary lesson on how to define greatness. All right, we’re going to pick it up at verse 35.
“He sat down, called the 12 disciples over to Him, and said, ‘Whoever wants to be first, must take last place,’ last place, ‘and be the servant of everyone else.’ Then He put a little child among them and taking the child in His arms, He said to them, ‘Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.’ Jesus is saying, “You guys want to be great? Be careful what you ask for because greatness is not what you think. It’s not about being on top and calling all the shots. That might be how you define it, but that’s not how my Father defines it.”
Jesus uses the child as an object lesson. In biblical times, children were at the bottom of the social ladder. It’s easy to gloss over the true impact of what Jesus was trying to teach them. He’s saying much more than be nice to children. He’s saying, “In order to be great in my Father’s kingdom, you have to be willing to serve anyone and everyone, even those who have a lower status than you, even those who don’t deserve it, even those who don’t appreciate it. You have to be willing to give yourself away.”
The irony here is that Jesus was trying to tell His disciples about how He was going to give Himself away, His impending death on the cross to pay for our sins, which is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice and therefore, His ultimate act of greatness. But the disciples didn’t get it, because they were still stuck in an earthly mode of thinking. The truth is that I personally relate to the disciples also in this passage. I understand how you can hear God’s voice, but not really get it.
When I was 30 years old, I was poised to become the youngest partner in my firm’s history. The closer I got to the prize, the more and more I threw myself into the work. But everything came to a screeching halt when I was told that the partnership wasn’t going to happen. They chose someone else at the last minute and I was devastated, just devastated. I felt betrayed. I had given the firm years of my life working 80 hours plus a week, sacrificing time away from Michael, putting off starting a family.
But right around that time, a guest speaker at my church said four little words that changed my life, “Christ descended into greatness. Christ descended into greatness.” I don’t know why, but that truth, hit me like a ton of bricks, maybe because it was such a stark contrast to what I had been trying to do in my career. I was attempting to ascend to greatness by beating out the competition. But Jesus achieved greatness with a completely different shaped arc, not by ascending, but by descending, not by competing, but by sacrificing. I realized that day that if I wanted to truly follow Jesus, I had to redefine what greatness was for me. True greatness is achieved by serving others, not by serving myself. This makes sense because God is great and God is love. When we love in His name, we also are great.
There is another passage in your handout. It’s from the book of Philippians. Listen to how the Apostle Paul so perfectly articulates Christ’s descent into greatness. This is one of my favorite passages in the entire Bible. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interest of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage. Rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, and being found in appearance as a man. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name.”
If I want to follow Jesus, it’s not all about me anymore. Jesus wants me to value others more than myself to help them, serve them, love them, and put their needs before mine, which is exactly what He did for me. So here is my next idea, a significant life puts others first, puts others first. Christ’s teachings were radical and counter-cultural and they still are. They still are. We have to choose to listen to a different voice, not our voice or the voice of our culture, but God’s voice. Our culture says, “Look out for number one.” God says, “Look out for others, even if it costs you something.”
I got an email from a friend this week who is connected with an underground missionary group in China. She asked me to pray for a family of a man in Wuhan. Let’s call him Dr. Lee. This doctor, who was a Christ-follower, was the whistleblower for the coronavirus in December, and he was arrested for it. He cared for infected patients as long as he could and eventually became infected himself. He passed away this past week, I believe it was on February 7th, leaving behind his wife who is eight months pregnant, who also has the coronavirus. Please join me in praying for this widow for supernatural healing. But instead of keeping his head down and minding his own business, Dr. Lee chose to listen to God’s voice to put others first, even though it cost him his life, which brings me to my next idea.
Living for significance may require a significant pivot, a significant pivot. To follow Jesus, we have to change the way we think, like the disciples in our passage, to shift from our earthly self-center thinking to the mindset of Christ. This shift is not trivial. For me, that talk about Jesus descending into greatness, was like a major course correction, because although I profess to be a Christ-follower, I realized that day that my identity was in my work, which was why my world came crashing down when I didn’t get that promotion. But God wants us to be all in, all in.
Where do we get our identity from? We get our worth from something. Only when we put our identity in the Lord as His precious sons and daughters, as citizens of heaven and not earth, can we truly be free to shift from our way to God’s way, from our agenda to His agenda. That process of aligning our minds and hearts with His takes time. It takes time, and it’s an amazing journey of growth. We’ve been exploring this theme of sow water and reap. Hopefully, some of you have your bracelets on today. I forgot mine, obviously. But I came across this saying as I was preparing this message. “Sow a thought and reap an act. Sow an act and reap a habit. Sow a habit and reap a character. Sow a character and reap a destiny.”
Maybe the Lord is challenging us to make a spiritual pivot to discover or rediscover our identity in Him, to shift our focus away from ourselves and toward others to redefine what greatness means to us. Maybe it begins with sowing more Christ-like thoughts in our lives. Maybe we make a bigger effort to read God’s Word daily, hopefully, or we start the Rise and Shines with Pastor Terry and perhaps, these thoughts will reap some new things for us. For some of us, maybe God is redirecting us in our work. Maybe it’s time to leverage our influence and skillset into a sector or an organization that more directly helps those who are in need, or maybe it’s about mentoring someone, even if it’s not part of our job description. Maybe we’re supposed to be bolder about sharing our faith in the workplace. For others, maybe it’s less about work and more about our relationships. Perhaps, we need to start paying more attention to our spouse, to our kids, or to honor our parents.
Michael and I have several good friends right now who are making big changes and frankly, big sacrifices to take care of their elderly parents, and it’s hard. What they’re going through is hard, but this is greatness in God’s eyes. For others, maybe it’s time to step up and serve here at Cornerstone on the weekend, or maybe it’s just about looking for opportunities to help someone as we’re going through our day. A simple kindness can have such a big impact. But there might be some of us who feel like, I don’t really have anything of value to give. I don’t have influence. I don’t have a lot of means. In fact, maybe we even feel downright unsuccessful, maybe even like a failure. Again, whose voice are we listening to? Because the Lord never says you’re a failure. Instead, He invites us to serve just the way we are, just the way we are.
Here is my next idea, no one is underqualified or overqualified to serve the Lord. There are no prerequisites or hurdles to live a significant life in Jesus. I love the language that Jesus uses in the Mark passage. He says, “Anyone who welcomes this child on my behalf,” anyone, anyone. It doesn’t matter if we’re educated, uneducated, wealthy, not wealthy. It’s not about our productivity or the size and scale of how we can help or any other performance measure.
For some of us, God wants to give us more confidence that we can do great things for Him because it’s not about our abilities. It’s about our attitude. It’s not about what we bring to the table. It’s about whether or not we’re willing to come to the table. While some of us need more confidence, others of us, might need a little more humility. Maybe what God is asking us to do is something we just don’t enjoy doing, or maybe it seems too lowly for us.
I was at the airport once and noticed a man arguing with the gate agent. Clearly, he was making demands that she was not meeting and he was getting very upset. At one point, he yelled at her, “Do you know who I am? Without skipping a beat, the gate agent got on the intercom and said, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen in the gate area, does anyone know who this man is?” May we never be too big for our britches to serve the Lord. No one is too important. No one is too unimportant in God’s eyes. It’s simply about what’s in our hearts.
Look at this beautiful verse in Ezekiel, “And I will give you a new heart and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” That is so beautiful. “I will take out your stony stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.” God wants us to respond to Him, to serve others in His name. When we do that, we do it from a place of gratitude and love for the Lord, for what He’s done for us, for saving us, not obligation or legalism or to feel self-righteous. Because here is the thing, we can’t love the way God wants us to love without Him. If we try to do it on our own strength, we’ll burn out or become cynical. Jesus has to be the source of our love and He wants to transform us so that we can love as He does. He wants to give us His Heart, which brings me to my next idea. God wants to give us the heart of a servant, the heart of Jesus, Jesus.
What does the heart of a servant look like? I’m going to put up some aspects of a servant’s heart that Jesus modeled for us. But as I go through each of these, here is what I don’t want you to do, I don’t want you to think of this as a performance review and grade yourself or anything. There are no report cards in church. But what I do want you to do is to just be open. How does the Lord want to expand your capacity to love and serve? Maybe jot these down, and come back to it later. Ask the Lord to speak to you.
The heart of a servant is, number one, available, available. The biggest challenge in our modern lives is that we are just so busy and our culture seems to value busyness. But am I too busy? Is there a margin in my life, so I can respond to people’s needs, and am I willing to help, even if it’s inconvenient or costly to me? Maybe I need to say no to some things, even if they’re good things so that I could say yes to the Lord.
Number two, compassionate, compassionate. Do I care about other people? Now, I know that’s kind of a funny question because as Christ-followers, of course, we should care about other people, but we’re all wired differently. Some of us are more naturally empathetic than others. Am I sensitive to needs? Am I a good listener? Or am I judgmental or critical? Maybe I try too hard to solve someone’s problem. I mean well, but maybe the Lord just wants me to be encouraging. Maybe I just need to be sitting in the pain with someone right now.
Number three, impartial. Do I play favorites? When I help someone am I thinking, what can I get out of this? Am I avoiding someone for a particular reason? Do I need to be open to helping new people in my life who maybe I normally wouldn’t be drawn to? Maybe it’s a neighbor or a colleague or a homeless man on my block.
Number four, the heart of a servant is generous. It’s generous. Am I in a season where God wants me to give more generously, maybe even more sacrificially of my resources or my time? I knew this guy back East, he and his wife had an interesting philosophy. They decided that they had been blessed enough materially. They had a modest, but comfortable home and savings tucked away for their kids’ college. So they decided that as their income grew, they would just give all the extra money away. They didn’t feel a need to trade up for a bigger house, a better vacation, et cetera, et cetera. They believed that God had blessed them just so that they could bless others.
I always just thought that was so challenging. That challenges me to store up treasures on heaven and not earth. Or maybe the Lord wants me to be generous in a different way to forgive someone, to be generous in grace, to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Finally, the heart of a servant is humble. We’ve talked about humility already. When I help someone, do I seek recognition? Maybe I’m supposed to bless someone anonymously. A friend of mine once told me, “There is no limit to what you can do if you don’t expect credit.” May we remember that nothing goes unnoticed to the Lord. He sees everything. Or maybe I’m to take on a role that seems beneath me. Maybe I’m supposed to just swallow my pride and still do it with enthusiasm and excellence. May I remind us that the God of the universe washed His disciples’ feet, their dusty, gnarly feet, to show them that nothing is beneath a servant’s heart and that even in the most menial tasks, we are doing something great in the Lord’s name.
I want to close with one last story. One day when my youngest son was leaving for school in the morning, he said to me, “Oh, mom, I feel so bad for you.” “Why do you feel bad for me?” “Because you’re blind and have cancer, and all you do all day long is sit on the couch and drink coffee.” “What makes you think I sit on the couch and drink coffee all day?” “Because that’s what you’re doing when I leave in the morning, and that’s what you’re doing when I come home from school,” which is true because once I get them out the door in the morning, he’s the last to leave, I finally get to sit down and enjoy my cup of coffee in peace. Right before he gets back home from school, he’s the first one to come home, right, I got to get more caffeine to get me through. So I relish the last few moments of peace and quiet with my afternoon cup of coffee on the couch.
But what my son doesn’t see is that I actually do have a life in between those two moments. I told him I was going to tell this story, and he said to me, “I still don’t know what you do, mom, between those two moments.” But you know something, my life certainly has not turned out the way that I thought it would. I never thought I’d be a stay-home mom, or that I’d lose my vision completely, or that I’d be living with cancer. To some people, my life may seem insignificant, maybe even pathetic.
I was at a networking function not too long ago with a bunch of my former colleagues, and many of them are quite successful. They’re experts and innovators in their fields. I’m really happy about their success. But it would be so easy for me to feel insignificant in that crowd, because my resume, just doesn’t stand up to theirs. But I don’t let myself go there.
God had different plans for me, and they might seem insignificant to other people, but not to Him and therefore, not to me. I am content with my life, more than content really. I am filled with joy and gratitude because I’m loved by an amazing gracious God who invites me every day to love those that He puts in my path.
So, here is my final idea I want to leave you with, don’t let the insignificant crowd out the significant. Don’t let the insignificant crowd out the significant. Ask the Lord for eyes to see and for ears to hear.
I just want to pray for us. Dear Father God, Lord, we love you so much. Thank you for your Son, Lord. Thank you for showing us what significance and greatness mean. Like the disciples on the road to Capernaum, Lord, maybe some of us have something on our minds today that feels like a big deal. Lord, you understand, you know our hearts. Give us your peace and your comfort and your wisdom. But maybe you want to show us something else, Father, something more significant for us to focus on. Whatever that might be, may we respond to you Lord with a tender and responsive heart that you have given us. We know that there is so much more to come into our lives with you. In your Son’s precious name, we pray. Amen. Bless you all.