From the moment we’re born, there’s an issue that takes front and center in our lives: Who will be in charge?
Born in sin, we’re born craving power. Like Adam and Eve, we want to “be like God.”
I once heard the story of a father who took his six year old daughter to a high school basketball game. As they took their seats, the dad told her, “Now, honey, you can go anywhere you want here in the seating area. You can also go to the concession stands. You can go all the way down to the very first row of seats to talk with your friends. But you can’t cross that line down there. That’s the line between where we’re allowed to be on this side and the place where the players, coaches, and referees can be on the other side. If you cross that line, we’ll go home.”
The little girl said she understood, then promptly went down to the edge of the line her father had told her not to cross, looked back to make certain that he was watching, and stuck her toe over the line. Dad collected daughter and they went home. Her attempt to assert power without accountability failed.
Please turn to the lesson, Mark 10:35-45. Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. Jesus knows that there, He’ll be rejected and crucified before rising from the dead.
But the disciples, thick as ever, are excited. They’ve come to believe, rightly, that Jesus is God’s promised Messiah (the Christ). But their idea of what that means is different from God’s idea.
They’re sure that Jesus will enter Jerusalem, get the crowds riled up, toss the Romans out of power, and establish Himself as the King of renewed Israel. And they’re sure that as Jesus loyalists they’ll get a piece of Jesus’ power, ruling alongside Him.
They think these things even though Jesus had already told them that the Messiah would be a suffering servant and that only those who submit to the deaths of their old selves, trusting Christ to lead them through the ultimate cross we all must endure, physical death, onto a resurrection life with Him, can experience the kingdom of God.
In Mark 10:32-34, Jesus tells them all of these things again. After Jesus’ two previous predictions of His death and resurrection, one or all of the disciples put their feet in their mouths. They just didn’t seem to understand what Jesus was telling them so clearly.
Scholars have suggested many explanations for the disciples’ thickness. But for me, one explanation stands above them all: They felt the strong magnetic pull of power.
The disciples had experienced Jesus as a powerful person, one who could make the lame walk, the blind see, the dead rise. They wanted a share in His power to set things right.
And for them, setting things right meant throwing out their Roman oppressors, toppling the religious elites, making the country happy with all the material wealth they could ever imagine.
They didn’t understand that Jesus was playing for much higher stakes than ruling over a world dying in sin. Jesus, God in the flesh, had come to turn this world upside down, to call sinners to repent for their sin, and give their whole lives to Him so that He could give a new and everlasting life in a new and everlasting creation to all who believe in Him.
Jesus came into the world to put us and the whole creation, weighed down by the decay and death unleashed by human sin, right with God, in sync with God, at peace with God and His original intentions for His creation.
That goal is a lot more important to Jesus than a piddly thing like leading a country which, like all countries, will burn at the final judgment.
Jesus is going to Jerusalem not to take control of the first century Judean equivalent of the White House. He’s going to take a cross and, as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out, the cross isn’t just the way God forgives our sins
...it is God’s way of putting the world, and ourselves, to rights. It challenges all the human systems which claim to put the world to rights but in fact only succeed in bringing a different set of humans on top.So, after this third prediction of His death and resurrection, Jesus knew what to expect. At least one of the disciples would surely open mouth and insert foot. They would misunderstand and they would let the human desire for power prevail in their thinking.
In the opening verse of our lesson, two brothers, James and John, approach Jesus: “Teacher, we want you to give us whatever we ask.” These two sons of a wealthy fisherman named Zebedee want Jesus to give them a blank check. “Give us whatever we want,” they say.
But Jesus doesn’t fall for that. “What do you want me to do for you?” He asks them, knowing exactly what’s coming. Verse 37 has their request: They want seats of power in Jesus’ kingdom.
Jesus responds, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
Jesus’ words here are filled with deep meaning. In the Old Testament, the image of drinking from a cup symbolized taking punishment for evil. “Drinking the cup” was a way of saying, “Receiving God’s judgment for sin.” Psalm 11:6 says: “Upon the wicked [God] will rain coals, fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup.”
Jesus was telling James and John that He was going to drink from the cup of condemnation for human sin that He didn’t deserve in order to save us from sin and death.
Jesus knew how bitter the cup would be. That’s why later, in the garden of Gethsemane, before His arrest, He would pray, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me...” But then, Jesus would pray, “Nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”
Jesus would drink from the cup. And He requires all who follow Him to drink it too: We drink it when we admit our sins and our need of Christ to save us, when we confess our faith in Jesus as the only way for us to be saved, the only way for us to enter God’s kingdom today and in eternity.
Jesus’ baptism was His cross. Our baptism is the death of the old self that rises from the water as children of God and is crucified each day in the self-disciplined way of life known as daily repentance and renewal.
It isn’t easy following Jesus. It entails the death of our selfish old Adams and Eves, the renunciation of power, and the commitment to serve and love God and others. All of this is foreign to our natures and can only be accomplished through the grace and empowerment of God!
In verse 39, James and John say that, of course, they can drink the cup from which Jesus will drink and endure the baptism with which He will be baptized. Jesus tells them that, in fact, if they are intent on following Him, they will drink the cup. They will be judged by the world and suffer for their faith in Him. And, in fact, James would become the first of the twelve apostles to be executed for believing in Jesus. His brother John would die an old man, living in exile on the island of Patmos for that same faith.
We live in a country in which you can’t be killed just for being a Christian. (Though you can be ridiculed and excluded for it, all in the name of tolerance.)
But, because we belong to a King Who has conquered sin and death, no matter what happens to us for following Jesus--shady business deals we have to turn down, friendships we may lose, power we may give up, we can say with the apostle Paul who, as he pondered his own death, wrote, “...to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Jesus tells James and John that He can’t promise them higher places in His kingdom and Jesus doesn’t promise that to us either. Just being in God’s kingdom, not because we deserve it but because Jesus died and rose to make a way for us should be enough for anyone.
Whether Jesus calls a person to be a pope, president, king, stay-at-home mom, factory worker, or shoeshine boy, if she or he can live each moment on earth as a follower of Christ and live each day in the certainty that they will spend eternity in His presence, it is enough. It’s all any of us need!
Now, the other apostles hear James and John’s cheeky request for power and, seeming not to hear Jesus’ words to them, become incensed with the Zebedee brothers. On the brink of a presidential election, the results of which will not put our world right or put those who don’t know Christ right with God, no matter who wins, Jesus’ words are important to remember. They put things in perspective. Read what Jesus says in verses 42-45 with me aloud, please:
But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them: "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to be great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.”True power that changes the world--that changes us--comes from only one place. It comes from Jesus Christ and it only comes to those who empty themselves of all pretense to deserving special privileges or even a fair shot in life.
The Bible tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s intentions for us. But all who believe in Jesus Christ don’t get what we deserve. We deserve death. Instead, we get what our servant King Jesus fought to give us by resisting the easy path, the offer of earthly power. Jesus died a criminal’s death for us so that He could rise and give us life with God that begins now and is perfected in eternity.
I’m almost 59 and I’ve been a pastor for 28 years. But I’ve only begun to learn the lesson Jesus teaches in today’s gospel lesson. We are not in control. (Since I have children, I should have known that already. But I’m a slow learner.) For me, after a lifetime of secretly wanting to be the BMOE (Big Man on Earth), the realization that I don’t need to be in charge to have good life with God has come as a relief!
From a cross and an empty tomb, Jesus Christ has paid the price for us to receive the gift of new and everlasting life. We don’t need to carry the world on our shoulders. We need not bear the burden for seeing that everything is just right. Our job is to simply do our best and then let God bless our mess!
If you’re burdened by a need to keep everything together, I hope that this comes as a freeing word for you today.
Follow our servant king Jesus by letting yourself be a servant yourself--a servant of God and a servant of others.
Trust your life to Christ alone.
Let His power fill you, inspire you, give you peace and hope.
Even when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus will always lead you the right way.
He will give you so much more than the things that power in this dying world possibly can.
He will give you life with God.
There is no greater blessing that we can aspire to than that. Amen