Scripture Mark 10:35-45
10:35 James 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.” 10:36 And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?” 10:37 And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."
10:38 But 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?"
10:39 They 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; 10:40 but 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."
10:41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.
10:42 So 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. 10:43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Today’s passage is yet another example of the cluelessness some of the disciples could exhibit. We have to wonder, sometimes, why he picked these guys.
You know, it is baseball playoff season. Last night one of the teams in the National League won the pennant, and the World Series is coming up. I know these things and I don’t even follow baseball. It is highly possible that baseball has given us one of the best examples of cluelessness outside of the Bible. I give you, “Who’s on First.” (two people perform a short section of the Abbott and Costello routine.)
James and John really seemed to have no more idea what Jesus was talking about than Costello did in this famous comedy routine. They thought they were asking to be his closest advisors, his lieutenants, as it were, when he defeated the Romans and became known to the whole world as the King of Israel. Whether they simply hadn’t been listening or they were just too self absorbed to hear what he had been saying, no one really knows. Just before they asked this question, Jesus had said to them, “33 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” And in the moments after this, his third time telling them about his coming death and resurrection, these two come forward and say, “We want to sit at your right and left hands when you come into your glory.” Reading this, we aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry or just shake our heads. And the other disciples got mad. Maybe they were all thinking the same thing, wanting to be the ones closest to Jesus, but James and John were the only ones who had the nerve to go up and ask for what they wanted.
You know, we laugh - or shake our heads - at these two sons of Zebedee. But I think we really aren’t that much different from them. We may not be asking to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands, but how many of us sort of pray that First Christian Church can be restored to its former glory? We were a big, influential church. Our Bible study groups overflowed the building - had to meet in other places around town, because even in this big, beautiful building there wasn’t enough room for all who came. There are pictures in the office of hundreds of people out in front of the building, and that’s just the Sunday school classes - in 1933. Today, instead of hundreds, we count 35 or 50 in worship, maybe 10 in Sunday School, and we get really excited when a special event fills the sanctuary. We would love to “grow the church” back to the way it was in 1933 or 1963. But It is no longer 1933, or 1963, or any of those long ago glory days. The world has changed. How people view church membership has changed. “Regular attendance” no longer means showing up every Sunday like it used to, when I was growing up. Today it might mean showing up once a month or every other week - because there are so many other demands on our time. Used to be nothing else happened on Sundays but church. And if I’m being honest, sometimes I think if I just preached well enough I could fill this building. Or if Leah managed to recruit half the high school then all their families would come and fill this building. Or if Bring a Friend Sunday resulted in everyone showing up with at least one person who had never been here before and stayed from that day forward and brought their families, and filled this building . . . Wait, what if every Sunday was Bring a Friend Sunday? hmmmm. We may not ask for these things out loud, as James and John asked to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands. The other disciples didn’t ask, but I bet they were thinking about it, just like we think about it. And some of us sit here, you know, and gather in meetings, and we plan ways to stay alive. Cause we don’t know what the future will bring for a small church that used to be a big one. And we are afraid for the future.
The disciples were afraid. And maybe, just maybe, James and John were just trying to deal with their fear, looking for a future that was secure. They were on their way to Jerusalem and their rabbi, their Lord, kept telling them, “I’m going to die there.” And they didn’t want to hear it, but they knew that the Temple leaders opposed him. They knew that his preaching was really upsetting some powerful people. And they knew that John the Baptist had lost his head not that long ago for preaching against Herod. They probably weren’t that stupid. But they were that afraid. And when we are afraid, we do every thing we can to make ourselves feel safe. So, James and John asked to be close - at Jesus’ left and right hands - And Jesus said to them, “Can you do what what I’m doing?” And they said, “sure we can!” Because they didn’t quite understand what he was asking.
Many times, when this passage is preached, we look at Jesus’ words to these sons of Zebedee as a threat. We often interpret “You will drink the cup I am drinking,” as meaning “Being a leader in this group is not what you are hoping for. Instead of power and wealth, you, too, will die a horrible, painful death.” But what if Jesus is simply reassuring them? What if this is not so much a threat as a promise? What if what Jesus is telling them is actually, “Your fear will not always drive you, as it does now. You will be empowered by the baptism of the Spirit to follow me into places you cannot imagine right now. You will drink of the cup I drink from - the cup of salvation, of healing - and you will know peace in your heart. You will be faithful, no matter what comes to pass.” What if that is what we are supposed to hear in this passage? What if Jesus is saying, in yet another way, “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus tells them again, as he has told them before, that whoever would be first must be last. He says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Once again, Jesus is asking his disciples, his followers - us - to give everything, with no promise of a reward of the sort we typically think of. Not “give and you will be rich and successful,” but “give because you love me.” Not “go out into the community and do good, and I will fill these pews.” But “do good because you love me.” Serve others, because you love them. Give of yourself - whatever you can give. If you have money, give money. If you have time, give your time. If you have special talents, share those.
Jesus only wants one thing from us - everything. Our hearts. Our love. Our service. Our lives. Jesus gave it all for us, and asks us to do the same. So ask yourselves, my brothers and sisters, what can I give?