October 21, 2018 – Pentecost 22 B
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
As a child, I was given a piece of advice…many different times. That piece of advice was “be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” As a kid, if anything, that was an incentive to wish more. If I had a genie or some sort of magic wand, I would have used it until it begged for mercy. I had a lot of wishes. As I grew up, I began to understand the saying a little bit more – sometimes the wishes we make, the things we think would make us happy, are actually a lot harder, a lot more painful, than we first expect. I get a real dose of that medicine when I first wished to run marathon. Inevitably, around mile 22, I always ended up thinking, “I can’t believe I paid money to do this. Why did I do this to myself?” I got better, of course, and I haven’t quite learned the full lesson yet as I continue to run. But what starts out as a wish to finish a race usually involves me unwishing it along the way. I don’t say that as a way to brag, but to illustrate that, even adults need reminders to be careful what they wish for. Oftentimes, what we desire does not end up being the stroll through the park or the mountain top experience we hope it would be.
I hear this sentiment in our gospel lesson today, too. James and John, brothers, decide that they’d like to sit at the Jesus’ right and left side when he rises to power. We see, again, the disciples positioning and posturing for power. What makes this even more ironic is that this comes right after Jesus’ third declaration that he must suffer and die (Mark 10:32-34). They’re all walking to Jerusalem and Jesus tells them, quite explicitly, that he is going there to die. But, as we’ve seen these last several weeks, the disciples don’t quite get it. They don’t understand. They know he’s the Messiah, they know they’re following the one who was promised to usher in God’s kingdom on earth, yet they don’t yet understand that his methods, his ways, are different than the ways of the world.
And before we beat up on James and John, the sons of Zebedee, for being so foolish, let’s take a look at the reaction of the disciples. If anything, they’re mad that they didn’t think to ask Jesus. Perhaps they wish that they had the boldness to ask Jesus, firsthand, if they could have that honor. But Jesus cuts through all of this posturing and positioning for power. He tells them, again, that greatness is not seen in lording over someone, in commanding, or in being served, but it is seen in sacrifice and serving others.
We have the benefit of hindsight as we gather here to read this, and the author of the gospel did, too. I have to believe that he understood, and I hope that we understand, that Jesus’ true act of power, the depths of his love, is not shown while sitting on a throne, but by hanging on a cross. That goes so contrary to everything we see around us, so against every social norm and common sense. We expect that the power of this world would be seen in climbing the social, corporate, or political ladder. We expect that we will be rewarded for doing the right thing and gaining power. We expect a king to be sitting on a throne, a president to be sitting in the Oval Office, and a corporate mogul to be sitting in a corner office on the top floor. This is what we expect. But Jesus doesn’t play by those rules. Jesus’ invitation to follow and come and see what God is doing comes with a lot of surprises and sometimes don’t make a lot of sense. Isaiah, in his song of the suffering servant we read earlier (Isaiah 53:4-12), paints a very vivid picture that we see coming to life in Jesus Christ. Afflicted, bruised, broken, forgotten, betrayed, and neglected, yet, at the same time, this is the form the Creator would take, this is the way the Divine would work, to gather people together.
James and John expect that, as the Messiah, Jesus would be lifted up, but they don’t understand that this is how he would be lifted. God does not work through commands from a throne room, but through sacrifice on a cross. And that sacrifice is your ransom. Through that death, you have died to sin. Instead of a throne, we see a cross. But this cross, this death, is not a pointless act of violence, but an act of promise and hope. Christ was broken for us, for you, for all of creation, and through that has broken the chains which bind you to sin and death. Christ was raised to life and, in that, we find new life for us, for you, for all of creation. This is the promise of baptism, that you have died to sin and rise again to newness of life. This is the promise of Holy Communion, that Christ’s body and blood are still yours, that you are loved, that you have a place at the table, that you are saved already. It is an invitation to come and see, it is a summons to follow, but it is first and foremost a declaration of God’s love for you.
In a world that tells you to work harder, be smarter, gain power, get better grade, and make more money, the gospel puts a question mark behind each claim. Ultimately, the question it asks is, “Am I good enough, right now, for God to love me?” and the answer is an enthusiastic, “Yes!” You are loved. You are saved. You are given victory over sin and death by the sacrifice of Jesus and tomb that could not hold him. In a world full of wishes, Jesus tells you that you can stop wishing. You are already enough. You are already loved.
So we’re left wondering what to do with James and John and you and me. “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” Following Jesus won’t guarantee you a seat with the powerful or a bank account full of money. It won’t give you a life without pain or answers to all of life’s worries. But, filled with an endless, unconditional love, it gives you the strength, the boldness, and heart to serve. Because the heart of God is the heart of a servant and God has come to serve all of humanity. You were created in God’s image, just as all of humanity, from your neighbor across the street to your neighbor across the world. You are served by God, just as all are served by God. So, bound together by a God who serves, we serve. Loved by God with a sacrificial love, we sacrifice to show that love. Forgiven, we forgive. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. And all the walls we’ve built up around us will fall down and we will truly see the face of God in everyone we meet.