In the Nicolas Cage movie, The Family Man, a corporate CEO is given the chance to see what his life would have been if he had made different choices throughout his life. One choice was to climb the ladder of success at the cost of everything else. Having made that choice, Cage's character discovered that he missed out on much of what made life meaningful and he was willing to abandon the life of popular success for something better. The theme is a common one in movies: popularity is not the most important goal in the world; climbing the ladder of success is not all it's cracked up to be.
Long before Nicolas Cage or movies ever came around, Jesus was teaching this same lesson to his disciples. In Mark chapter 1, Jesus had just begun his ministry. Jesus had called Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him and they had abandoned everything to follow him. But rather quickly they found themselves in the center of a whirlwind of popularity. Jesus took the disciples into the large, important, regional city of Capernaum, where Simon and Andrew had a home, and Jesus began to teach in the synagogue. That very first Sabbath as Jesus was teaching, a demon-possessed man stood up in the middle of Jesus' teaching and shrieked, scared to death that Jesus had come to destroy him. Jesus cast the demon out and, presumably, went on teaching, amazing the people with his authority.
After synagogue service, Jesus and his growing band of disciples went to Simon's home where Jesus healed Simon's mother-in-law from a fever. That night, as the sun set and the Sabbath ended, the entire city showed up at Simon-Peter's door, bringing their sick and the their demon-possessed to Jesus. If I was Peter, I could easily imagine myself thinking, Wow, I've made the big time! As Peter watched, everyone in this important city now knew where Peter lived and had come to his home. Peter was the disciple of, as far as the author of the Gospel of Mark was concerned, the most popular man on the planet. Peter was probably awake far into the night as Jesus healed the sick and cast out the demons that were brought to him. He probably fell asleep (assuming he could sleep) thinking, I've made it.
But then Peter woke up the next morning to discover that Jesus was gone. Peter and the other disciples began a manhunt for Jesus only to find that Jesus was nowhere in the city, so they began to search the surrounding countryside. Finally, they found Jesus, praying in a remote place and they urged him to come back because everyone was looking for him. Jesus didn't respond to the fact that everyone wanted a piece of him. Instead Jesus said, "Let's go on to the neighboring villages so that I may preach there too. This is why I have come" (Mark 1:38, HCSB). And Jesus never goes back into the city, at least not until the next time he makes the rounds.
Jesus had made the big time. Jesus was a popular teacher who commanded the attention of the people. The entire city knew who he was and what he could do. They flocked to his side. If Jesus was a pastor, his church in Capernaum would have hit mega-church status overnight. And Jesus told his disciples, "Let's go to the neighboring villages." Not cities. Villages. The phrasing in the Greek literally means, the little country towns. What?
See, Jesus wanted his disciples to know early on that following him had nothing to do with being popular or having "success." Jesus wanted his disciples to know that following him meant preaching the good news to everyone who needed it, even people in little Podunk towns and villages. Jesus came into popularity very quickly and then let his disciples know that he wasn't interested in popularity or in becoming the most famous exorcist and healer in the land.
There is nothing wrong with success or popularity. But never let your mindset be one that seeks those things out. Never begin to believe that you always have to move on to "bigger" things than where you are right now. Sometimes, being like Jesus means moving from big city popularity into the little country towns and moving "backwards" on the ladder of success because "success" can be a distraction and a snare.
Is God calling you to leave your place of popularity and influence for some place seemingly small and insignificant? Are you frustrated because you seem to be "stuck" somewhere without the potential for advancement that you hoped for? Maybe Jesus is trying to teach you the same lesson he had to teach the disciples: popularity and moving up in the world are a trap. Don't get caught in it.