Whoever is Great Among You – March 24, 2019, the Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 36:22-28, Mark 10:32-45
March 24, 2019

Jesus had “resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  And that was not just a statement about his travel plans!  It wasn’t just a note on his itinerary.  It was an ominous statement!  Because he knew what was going to happen there!  We know, too, don’t we!  But his disciples did not.  They didn’t get it.  And we see that even more in this story for today.

I told you before how one author called chapter 8 in Mark a turning point.  Before that chapter, he said, Jesus had most of his difficulties with the religious leadership, and those who would challenge him.  But after Mark 8, he had his greatest difficulties with his own disciples. They just didn’t get it!

This story for today comes right after the “rich man” story, where Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to see the kingdom of God.”  Do you remember?  His disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?”  And Jesus gives us these same words we heard a few weeks ago.  “With God ‘All things are possible.’”

So that was right before. Now they’re walking along the road – going to Jerusalem!  They were going to that place of great foreboding.  And we have this strange sentence.  “Jesus was walking ahead of them.  They were amazed.  And those who followed were afraid.”  Those two things, “being amazed” and “being afraid” seem strange together, don’t they? I’m not quite sure how they relate, but think about it.  Jesus was talking about those who had left home and family to follow, and how they would receive many things – things they left to follow him.  Homes, families, etc…  They would receive all those things “a hundred fold” – “and persecutions.”  “Wait!  And what, Jesus?”  “How did persecutions get in there?”  That’s probably where the “being afraid” part came in.  Maybe it helped for him to say “But in the end eternal life.”  And then he said, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

So there were things he said that were frightening for them to hear – and maybe confusing.  There might even be some similarity between these words – “amazed” and “afraid.”  Because sometimes things that are unexpected and maybe even confusing can be “amazing” even though they’re somewhat fearful.

Whatever the case, I think all of this was hard to take in!  Again, it isn’t for us, because we know the story.  But I can’t imagine what it was like for them!  “Hey isn’t the kingdom of the Messiah to be one of glory for Israel? What’s all this about persecution?”

So Jesus then took just the twelve aside and talked to them directly.  And he told them what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem!  And he told them in some detail!  “The Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes and they will condemn him to death!”  “And more than that!”  “They will hand him over to the Romans!  And they will mock him, spit on him, scourge him, and kill him.”  “And then, after three days, he will come back from the dead!” Again, we know this.  But imagine what it was like for them!

After that, I think it gets bizarre!  Because, at that point, without any kind of transition, James and John come forward and make this strange, completely out of place request!  “Let us sit beside you in glory.”  It’s as though they hadn’t even heard what he said!  And I think this is in spades an example of what was said before about Jesus having the greatest problems with his own disciples. This is them really “not getting it!” This is about what they expected in the coming Messianic Israel.  And they weren’t talking here about sitting beside him in the heavenly realm.  I’ve wondered about that, before.  But I don’t think so.  I think this is about what they thought it was going to be like in the earthly kingdom they were expecting!

And if that isn’t bizarre enough, Jesus does answer them.  “Are you kidding?”  (I put that part in.)  “Do you know what you are asking?”  “Are you able to drink the cup I will drink and have the baptism I’m about to have?” And I give them the benefit of the doubt here.  I think they did know that he was talking about the cup of suffering and the baptism by fire.  They didn’t think he was talking about some kind of “royal ceremony.”  But still they said, “Yes, Jesus.  We are able.”  It’s almost as if they were willing to say anything!

So Jesus says, “Ok, actually you will have that suffering, but the positions you ask for are not up for grabs.”  “Because that’s not what any of this is about!”  This is not about who will share power!!

So then we have the reaction of the others.  They were there listening to this, right?  It doesn’t say that James and John took Jesus aside and made this request. And was the others’ reaction? They were indignant!  And notice, they weren’t concerned that James and John didn’t understand what Jesus was saying about what would happen in Jerusalem.  They were just angry at James and John’s request! Because they didn’t “get it” either! They too didn’t make the connection with what Jesus said about how he was going to suffer!

I say all this, because it’s the background for this statement, which we often read as a stand alone passage.  Here it is. Jesus said, “You know that those who rule the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you!  But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 

Jesus was talking about a whole new way of thinking.  He was talking about sacrifice.  He was talking about atonement.  He was trying to show them his whole purpose, which involved all that “last shall be first and the first last” jazz.  And he was at the heart of that!  And still they didn’t get it.  They were still thinking as the world thinks.  And he told them how the world thinks.  The great “lord it over” the weak!  It shall not be so among you!  In my kingdom the last shall be first!”

That’s the Kingdom of God Jesus was trying so desperately to get them to see.  And the question is, do we see it?  Do we think the way the world thinks?  Or do we think the way God thinks?  Do we think in terms of power, like James and John were asking for at that moment?  Or do we think in terms of servanthood?

Those are great thoughts for Lent – or for the rest of the year, for that matter.  Are you thinking the same way the world thinks?  If you are, maybe you should ask yourself if you should consider thinking instead on God’s terms!

Jesus said, “It shall not be so among you!”  This is how I want you to think.  Whoever would be great among you must be your servant!  And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all!”  “And if you think I’m kidding about that, watch me!” “For it’s the same thing with me! For I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give my very life as a ransom for all!”

That’s the Jesus we follow. And no matter how you slice it, following Jesus means striving to be more like Jesus.  So think about that.  Think about how you think in comparison to how the world thinks. Think about doing things the way Jesus would do them, rather than how the world would do them.  And know that he is with you.  He is the pioneer and perfecter – the author and finisher – of your faith!  Let us look to him and his example, as we seek to be his people!