Saturday, October 17, 2009

Asking For It

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise."

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask."

"What do you want me to do for you?" he asked.

They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."

"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"

"We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Jesus praying (Mark 14:36 + 11:22-5; Luke 11:2-4; Matthew 9:9-14)

A rich man was near death, and was saddened because he had worked so hard for his money, and he wanted to take it with him to heaven. So, he began to pray that he might be able to take some of his wealth along. An angel heard his plea and appeared to him. "Sorry," the angel said, "but you can't take your wealth with you."

The man implored the angel to speak to God to see if He might make an allowance. The man continued to pray that his wealth could follow him.

The angel reappeared and informed the man that God had decided to allow him to take one small case with him. Overjoyed, the man fetched his small executive attache case, filled it with pure gold bars, and placed it beside his bed. Soon afterward he died and showed up at the gates of heaven to be greeted by St. Peter.

But St. Peter, seeing the attache case, said, "Hold on, you can't bring that in here!"

The man explained to St. Peter that he had permission, and asked him to verify his story with God.

St. Peter checked and came back saying, "You're right. You are allowed one item of hand-luggage, but I'm supposed to check its contents before letting it through."

He opened the attache case and stared at the amount of gold bars in shock. After a moment, St. Peter looked up and said,

"Of all the things you had to bring ...why did you bring pavement?

When Jesus tells us to pray, He says things like “if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” and “when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

We say the Lord’s Prayer in church every week. The girls and I pray it at night. The other “famous” prayers of Jesus are in the Garden – “not my will but thine be done” and on the cross – “Father forgive them.”

When Jesus tells us about prayer, He tells us about humility, faith, and forgiveness. What he doesn’t tell us is to go asking for a seat of honor in Heaven.

For that, we’ve got the disciples. Like I said a few weeks ago, I’m convinced that the disciples are there to show us the wealth of poor choices we can make as followers of Jesus – and still be loved by Him.

So the dunderheads – I mean the Sons of Thunder – come up to Jesus with the most classic of questions. As a father and as a teacher, I hear this question all the time.

“I’m going to ask something, and I want you to say yes – will you say yes?”

What follows is never a reasonable question. James and John are no exception.

Jesus, however, like the fantastic teacher he was says, not yes, but “what’s the question?”

This is a point not to miss. The disciples show us how we live in ignorance – how to make the wrong decisions; Jesus shows us how to live in wisdom, how to make the right decisions. Our response to impetuousness and impropriety should not be anger, annoyance, or even a simple “no,” but love.

The Thunderheads miss this, naturally, and plow on ahead with their little plan: They want Jesus to "Let one of them sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."

Jesus ponders this for a moment and, I’d like to imagine, either drops his jaw or guffaws – “naw, you guys don’t mean that, do you? Haven’t you heard what I’ve been saying? Do you know what I’m in for? Are you sure you want to ask for this?”

James and John kind of buddy up, give each other a look and go “uh-huh, you bet, Lord!”

At this point Jesus knows the disciples haven’t been listening to him. He’s told them three times he’s bound to die when they reach Jerusalem, but no. . . the disciples have been figuring Jesus is just joshin’ and so they argue about who rocks the hardest.

I think here we should remember that bit in It’s a Wonderful Life, right after George saves Clarence from drowning in the river. They’re in the bridgehouse and George says he wishes he’d never been born. Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class (they’ve got their angelology a bit off, but what do you want from Hollywood?) – he looks up to heaven and talks it over a bit with Joseph – maybe a dose of what George wants will do him some good.

It reminds me a lot of Jesus’ first miracle at Cana. At first he says – “are you crazy” but then – wait – “okay, I’ll do that for you.” I think, perhaps, there was a little communication between Jesus and the Father when the Thunderheads said – “yes, Lord, we can follow you wherever you go – we can drink that cup.”

So Jesus said – well, yes you will follow me. “You’ll drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with.”

Well, they sure did. James was the first disciple to be martyred – slain at the sword of Agrippa I. John fared better – he died an old man exiled on an island after surviving being boiled in oil.

They got what they asked for.

Of course, Jesus isn’t done teaching them – or us. First he tells the disciples that they’ll follow him and meet his fate. Then he tells them that it’s not Jesus’ place to give out awards. The Father determines who sits where in glory, not Jesus.

It’s advice reminiscent of the passage in Luke where he tells us not to sit at an honored place at a table – because that’s for the master of the feast to decide.

I think that bit of advice, coupled with today’s verse, is important to our understanding of where we are as a church. No matter what we want, it is God’s prerogative to place us in position here on Earth. We’re not in Murray Hill because it’s the best location – we can complain all day about “what’s wrong” with this or that. We’re here in Murray Hill because that’s where God needs us to be – that’s where we’ve been planted. We’ve got God-given roots – there’s no point in chopping them up because we don’t like this soil.

Like Rev. Jim preached about last week, we’ve got to be the fertile soil. If we’re all dirt, and we are, the point of the message about seeds and soil is that the unsuccessful seeds are planted where there’s not enough good dirt – there aren’t enough good believers – or the believers are all shallow.

Brothers and sisters, I don’t see any shallow believers here today, but you know I don’t see any depth of field either. The Gators won last night without their star defensive player because they had at least two seasoned vets ready to take his place. Look at yourself, your hands, your feet. Can anyone here take your place? Do we have a bench so deep that we can take a solid hit from the enemy and recover? Or are we in a permanent state of recovery?

How do we get out of it? I think we need to return to today’s verse.

This reiteration of advice, of humility, “you can follow me, but your reward is not mine to give,” is not just for James and John – it’s for all the disciples.

Because, of course, the ten wonder what the Thunderbrothers are asking for – and when they find out, well, the bickering starts in earnest. And when you’ve only got a dozen folks in your circle you can’t afford to have any bickering. Jesus has to fix this and fast.

And so knowing that he won’t be with them much longer, Jesus reminds them of his most basic teaching:

That “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

That, not only is our shining place at the table not guaranteed, but our only job is to be servants. And we had better be servants of each other (and that’s to say, the Lord, as we read a few weeks ago). We had better be servants of each other than servants of ourselves. Because we don’t know what we need anyway. Left to our own devices, we ask to follow Jesus wherever he goes, not remembering that His journey includes the cross.

But when we serve Jesus, we are following him in the easiest way possible – by following his example. Perhaps he will ask us to follow him on to the cross – indeed, he says that those who give up their families, possessions, and livelihoods will be rewarded – but also persecuted.

But we cannot know our place in the will of God until we become servants of God’s creation – that is, of each other.

And let’s not kid ourselves. Jesus isn’t asking us to do “community service” for “brownie points.” He is telling us to be slaves – and if there’s one thing that slaves in the ancient world were – it’s efficient and silent and unobtrusive. Imagine, Jesus is contrasting God’s ideal of service – that of a slave, with the two worldly ideals – both the wealthy hypocrite in the temple and the Emperor of Rome himself, the Princeps – the “first among equals.” Jesus tells us if we would be, not a figurehead, a possessor of earthly wealth and spiritual emptiness, but truly the first, the best, the greatest – that we must become the least. We must serve everyone.

What service is this church giving? How are we serving our neighbors? How can we dare to ask God to fill this church if we are not filling the needs of those around us? How can we be the first if we are unwilling to serve?

Please pray with me and for our church,

Lord, we come to you knowing we have failed.
We are broken and fallen without you, Lord.
And even with your presence
and salvation through your son,
we still cannot know your will
except that it is your will we serve.
Give us hands and hearts and minds for service, Lord.
Show us today where we can serve you.
And let us serve you, not to be first,
but to be last,
and the servants of all.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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