As a preacher I have tried over the years to understand the situation in life of those to whom I preach. I try to imagine what things are like from your point of view. What is it that brings you into this church in the first place? What are you hoping to get out of it? When it gets to this point in the service, when it’s time for the sermon, are you excited? Do you expect big things? Or are you just hoping it won’t be too long? See, some folks come to church looking of a little bit of a spiritual high, a jolt of the good stuff to keep your going through another week. Then there are those that come to church because they are hurting or confused or feel lost in life and so they come seeking direction and healing and hope. Some, no doubt, aren’t all that sure why they are here. It is simply what they do, they’ve done it for years and so they show up as part of routine and habit.
When I step back and contemplate our life together as members of our Lord’s flock, I see that we tend to gather together in church not simply with empty hands longing to be filled but rather we come with personal preferences and preconceived notions about how things ought to go. It makes sense. After all, who among you doesn’t want things your own way? You know what you like and that is what you want. We have churches of all sorts scattered throughout this country. We are not meeting in secret, in homes, where your choices are limited. If you want praise bands and fog machines in worship, you can get that. If you want chanting and incense, well there is that option as well. There are an infinite number of variations of what church looks like out there. Variations on what is emphasized in the teaching. Variations on how the Christian life is understood, and variations on how assurance is understood.
Christianity today is not unlike the rest of our lives. It is a consumer driven industry, where your preferences and those who cater to them are perhaps the most important factors in why you go to any given church. Now that may sound a bit crass, but I don’t think it is very far off the mark. Honesty about this helps us to understand what is happening in our Gospel lesson today from Mark chapter 10. For it is in this same spirit that James and John say to our Lord, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Now look, I know that sounds a bit bold to us. Perhaps a little rude and arrogant on the part of these sons of Zebedee, but wouldn’t you do something similar? Think about it. Imagine that you had Jesus right there. Not just this or that particular church and how it worships Jesus, but Jesus himself. You could ask of him whatever you wanted. If you could have a say in how things go, wouldn’t you use it? Sure, you would. And I suggest what they wanted wasn’t all that different from what you might ask today. You might ask it a different way. You might put a little different spin on it. But in the end, we all desire to shine a little brighter, bask in a little glory, be given some authority and have a seat at the table.
Now what they ask is this: they say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” When Jesus comes into his glory, into his power and prestige, they want to sit at those seats of honor, one on his left and one on his right. Again, it may be a bold request but at least they make it. They don’t waste their opportunity to get in on the good stuff while they have access to it. They want to have it their way and their way, not unlike yours, is one of glory and honor. So, they ask. And Jesus says, “Look, you don’t know what you are asking.” And then he asks them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Their idea of prestige and honor is not the true nature of our Lord’s prestige and honor, their understanding of glory is the exact opposite of our Lord’s glory. After all, it is this same cup that he will speak about when he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane saying, “Remove this cup from me, Father. Yet not what I will but what you will.” This is the cup of the wrath of God, a cup of suffering and sacrifice for others. His baptism is a baptism that will claim his life so that others might live.
Their idea of glory is incorrect, for at the center of glory is not human prestige and honor. Rather at the center is the cross of Calvary. This is why he says to them though they will drink the cup and will be baptized as a sacrifice, he cannot give them those seats in his glory, for they are already prepared for others. Those who sit on his right and on his left in his glory are not the disciples, not the martyrs of the church, but they are unnamed thieves who are crucified with him. That is glory. That is highest working of God, to give your life for others.
See, these disciples weren’t looking in the right direction. They were looking first at themselves and then to some imaginary place of glory that would give them elevation in this life above others. It was all driven by their preferences, by getting in on the good stuff while they still could. But they are looking in the wrong direction.
But it’s not just James and John that have this wrong. As you know full well, this is the temptation that lurks within your own hearts, the desire to have it your way. We see it play out immediately amongst the other disciples. They become indignant of James and John. Perhaps they are mad that they hadn’t thought of it first. Perhaps they figure that now their opportunity is missed. But in any regard, they too are looking in the wrong direction. They are looking to themselves, to how they compare with each other, to levels of honor and glory and worth. And so our Lord reminds us,
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.”
This is how the world works. This is how our lives function. This is part of the machine of our great consumerist society. “But,” Jesus says, “It shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” See, Jesus here changes the direction in which you look. Instead of looking to yourselves or instead of looking up to the glory you seek to achieve, the prestige and honor and elevation in this word, he turns you to look to your neighbor. And not to look at them to see how you compare. Not to find out how they might provide for your wants and desires. No, you are directed to your neighbor so that you might serve them. Just as he came, not to be served but to serve.
The cross of Christ is the gift of your salvation. There all your fears and works and doubts come to and end. For there in the body and blood of Christ alone you are given assurance of eternal life. Temporal glory, prestige among a dying world, mean nothing compared to this gift. It is total and complete; you are free and forgiven and loved. And so, this gift gives you the freedom to serve one another. You can find joy and peace, not in being lifted up above others but in reaching out your hand and helping one another up.
When you go looking for glory and you find yourself looking to one another, when you look to those who are hurting and lost and afraid, those that sit beside you this morning, why then you are looking the right way. For it is here among the children of God that the Word of forgiveness echoes in your ears. It is here that charity and love prevail. This, then, is why we come to church.