Sermon for Lent 5B, preached on Sunday, March 18, 2018.
We often dream of going back in time. But how far? Perhaps we might enjoy the innocence of childhood but none of want to be a teenager again. The teenage years are always the hardest. Not really a child, you are told to grow up. Not really an adult, you are told you are not old enough or mature enough or big enough to do what you want. When I was a kid, it was being told you were too big for your britches. It is a real Tennessee saying, originating with Davy Crockett, who first said it about Andrew Jackson, another Tennessee boy, “I liked him once but when a man gets too big for his britches, I say good bye.”
The ten walking with Jesus might have felt something similar against James and John. They had gotten too big for their britches. They were conceited enough and held themselves in such high esteem that they went to Jesus and asked for places of glory on His left and right when Jesus came into His kingdom. It was a bold move. Too bold. It only riled up the other apostles and made them look downright foolish in front of Jesus. “You don’t even know what you are talking about,” said Jesus to the impudent boys.
But the ten were not simply offended by this request. They were jealous. They too were in search of a piece of glory. In nearly every place in the world, glory is revealed by the number of people who move when you shout jump. That is surely what James and John had in mind when they asked Jesus for a share in His glory. It is surely what the rest of the apostles had in mind when they stewed and fretted over two of them beating the rest to the punch and perhaps getting the upper hand over the rest of them.
In the midst of all of this Jesus was speaking of greatness. It was not the place of honor you request but the path of service and suffering you endure for the sake of another. This is not the fruit of pride or arrogance but borne of love, pure love. Somehow or other all the disciples had missed this. Were they daydreaming? Were they intentionally ignoring Jesus? Or were they so defined by the bullying ways of this world and by the power that is used to coerce that they did not hear or understand what Jesus was saying? What about you?
We think that there is a fixed amount of glory in this world and to get some you must take away glory from somebody else. Hence the put down. If somebody gets too big for their britches, you engineer a put down to remind them they are children and you are the adult in the room. But Jesus does not play this game. Shockingly, Jesus takes their request seriously.
Do you want to drink of the cup of suffering I must drink or be baptized into the death I must die? What could they say? They were in it too deep to back out now. Sure we can. And then what? Jesus gives them the cup of sorrow and woe, the unjust condemnation of the world He came to save, and the agony of his death on the cross. You will drink the cup I drink and you will be baptized with my baptism. Not only James and John but all who seek the Kingdom of God. We are called to a different glory. This is the glory of the cross.
Everyone who follows Jesus takes up the cross, denies himself and herself, and walks with Him the way of that cross. It is the way of self-denial and control over your heart. It is the way of repentance and humility. It is the way fraught with the minefields of a world set against you and demons seeking to take you down. It is the way that offers little from princes or powers but requires everyone to trust in the Lord alone. It is not the cross you choose any more than it is the glory you seek. God knows your heart. It is the way of endurance and not of quick and easy victories. It is the walk of faith in the power of grace. That is the cross.
Greatness in the Kingdom is from Him who gave His life as a ransom for many. For the unworthy and undeserving. For the selfish and petty. For the bold sinner and the secret one. This is the shock. Jesus is not speaking theoretically. In fact, just before James and John made their request of Jesus, our Lord was speaking plainly and openly of what was going to take place. The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes who will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles and mock Him and spit on Him and flog Him and kill Him and after three days He will rise. Lest anyone miss it, Jesus says it so painfully blunt – Boys we are going to Jerusalem right now just for this to happen.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. Like Jesus and His disciples, we are headed to the cross. We live a cross shaped life. No one can escape it. It is the daily battle we fight against the child in us that just wants to cut and run. It is the complaint in us that life is too hard, that we give too much and get too little in return, that we never have time for ourselves, that people don’t treat us fairly, and that no body understands us. This is not what we bargained for.
But it is the only path that has a destination. This is the only path that brings you home to your eternal dwelling place. This is the only path where sinners find forgiveness. This is the only path where love is more than a passing infatuation. This is the only path to real greatness. This is the only path to the eternal reward God has prepared for those who love Him. This is the only path to a future bigger than death. Your eyes may not see this but faith does. For this is what it means to trust in the Lord, to walk in His ways, and to put all your hopes and dreams in the basket called grace.
We may want a world which is fair, where we all get an equal share in the glory, where no one has to give up too much, and where everyone wins in the end. But that was never this place. Here the great still dominate the weak and the rise to power comes by stepping on the people under you. This world was never going to be fixed. It had to be tuned upside down. And this is what Jesus does. He manifests the greatness of a Savior who dies for sinners, of a holy man who clothes the evil with His righteousness, of the innocent who sacrifices Himself for the guilty, of the God who came not to be served but to serve by giving Himself as a ransom to rescue the many.
The miracle of it all is that this path is also ours. He calls us to drink from His cup and to be baptized into this holy life. He gives us our part in His work, to do His bidding.
Husbands walk this path by loving their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. Wives walk this path by following their husbands as God’s man in the home. Children learn sacrifice from parents who put their happiness second to the good of their sons and daughters. The world sees it in love for neighbor, welcome for the stranger, time for the wounded, and care for the sick and needy. We walk this path by muzzling our mouths so that anger is contained and vulgarity is held in check. We walk this path by controlling our hearts so that we are not ruled by lust or driven by unbridled passions. We give ourselves up for others all day long, purely out of love because He first loved us and gave Himself up for us.
Heaven will not be some great egalitarian state in which we are all equal, no one is first and no one is last. Heaven will still have saints whose sacrifice was greater than ours and who sit in places of greater honor than we do. But the gift of heaven is that our hearts will fully and finally be broken of our envy, our jealousy, and our pride. We will neither resent that some are first before us or pity those who are after us. For the gift of heaven is contentment. The blessing of heaven is joy that comes not from who we are or where we stand or even what we have done but Christ only and Christ always.
If, as the Father wills it, James and John actually do get to sit one on Jesus left and one on His right, will you be disappointed? Will you huff and puff about the nerve of it all or the unfairness of it all? Or, if that is how heaven will be, will you learn to rejoice in the gracious gift of God, not simply to James and John, but to You? For the brightness on the faces of the saints is not that they got what they wanted but that they see Jesus. And this brightness shines through us even now, though imperfectly, as walk the way of the cross, take up the path of loving service, and joyfully put others before ourselves. For this is what God has done for us.
My friends, the great treasure of this world and eternal treasure of heaven is not that others fear or respect or even honor you. It is that the Lord has looked upon you, loved you enough to become one of you, taken all your sin and guilt upon Himself, died in Your place upon the cross, and rose to bestow upon you the unimaginable joy of everlasting life. Do not begrudge God His generosity by fighting for a piece of glory that is fading when you already have the glory that will never pass away. Amen.