This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/21/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 53:4-12, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
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A beginning is a very delicate time. At the start of a long journey, it seems like any route is possible. In a story’s introduction, the reader can imagine any outcome. But as we walk further down the road we begin to discover what the journey really looks like. Slowly but surely, our story becomes less about what we imagined it would be, and more about what is actually happening.
Jesus’ first disciples were very young. Quite possibly teenagers, or at most in their early twenties. Jesus, the man they looked to as teacher, lord, and future king, was just barely in his thirties. The Jesus movement was a young people’s movement. A movement quite literally fresh off the boat. A movement of people with very little past and an enormous horizon for a future.
It is a wondrous and fearful thing to be a young adult. Just out of school. In that first job. Or out on the road. Exploring the world. It seems like anything is possible. Young people have no idea what’s coming, but the world of their imagination fills in the gaps. The future is so wide-open, anything is possible.
The disciples were ready for anything. They were primed for adventure, to become the heroes that Israel so desperately needed. To break the yoke of Roman occupation and restore the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. To make Israel great again.
The disciples didn’t have much in the way of personal history or life experience, but they had tradition. They had a cultural context to draw on. They had the shared story of the Hebrew people. And this story told them that they should expect a new king, a messiah, a strong man like David to emerge and to restore Israel to its former glory.
They believed that they had found this man, this new king, in Jesus. These young disciples gave up everything they had – walking away from family, friends, and jobs – to follow Jesus wherever he went. In retrospect, this seems very brave and self-sacrificial. But at the time, it was probably a whole lot more self-interested. They believed that Jesus was the messiah sent by God to restore the fortunes of Zion. Jesus was going to be the big man in charge, and the disciples were going to be his inner circle.
It’s kind of like joining an early stage startup, if you can imagine that. Sure, you’re expected to work long hours for low pay. But you’ve got equity. You own a part of the company. And if the company takes off, you get rich. All that hard work will be worth it, because you invested your life into the shared project.
For these early disciples – who we see from today’s text were really quite ambitious people – the Jesus movement was a lot like that. It was a startup, and the disciples were basically equity partners. Sure, Jesus didn’t look like much yet. Just another Rabbi wandering through the Judean countryside. But when he became king of Israel – oh, boy! Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the others were going to be sitting pretty. They’d get to command armies, serve as top officials, and generally be very important people. That initial public offering was going to be huge.
In this morning’s gospel reading, we see that the disciples really have the wrong idea about how this startup is really going to work. They’re still at the beginning of the road, and imagine it can lead exactly where they want to go. They’re still reading the novel’s prologue, imagining the happy ending that must lie at the end of the story.
They don’t understand yet. They don’t realize what it means that they’ve been given equity in the Mustard Seed Startup. They can’t wrap their heads around how this story really ends. They still think they’re going to be lords of the earth alongside their king Jesus.
They’re all thinking it. All of the disciples have their youthful ambitions and imaginations, pushing them forward into a glorious destiny. And as with any group of ambitious people, there’s a fair amount of tension within the community as the internal pecking order gets established.
All of this unspoken jostling for preeminence comes to a head in the tenth chapter of Mark. Most of the chapter is about Jesus trying to get the disciples to understand what this movement is really about. The empire of God isn’t what they expected. It’s nothing like the empires of this world, based in relationships of domination and submission, the rule of the strong over the weak.
Jesus teaches the disciples that only those who become like little children will enter the empire of God. He reveals that it is almost impossible for the rich to enter the empire of God; only by surrendering everything can they hope to enter it. These two teachings, one right after another, upended all the common wisdom about who was good, important, and worthy to rule.
Even more so than today, children had virtually no rights in the ancient world. They were at the bottom of the pyramid – better seen and not heard. The vision that we get from Isaiah, that “a little child shall lead them” was almost too ridiculous to be believed. Leadership was for the strong, not for the weak.
The rich, on the other hand, were supposed to be blessed by God. In the ancient world – including in the house of Israel – there was always a strong strain of prosperity gospel teaching. The idea that if someone was rich, it was a confirmation that God was on their side. Those who are on top of society are there because they deserve it somehow.
Today’s society has pretty much the same idea, even if we use different words. Maybe we’d say that the rich worked hard, made good choices, and were really smart – so maybe that means that one percent of the world’s population deserves to own half of the earth’s wealth. In ancient society, it was common wisdom that the wealthy were rich because of God’s favor. The world is as it should be, and rejecting the rule of the strong, the rich, the powerful, was fighting against the divine order.
In just a few short lines in the tenth chapter of Mark, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-lenders at the heart of establishment religion. “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” It says that the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. So he repeated it, to make sure they understood. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Many who are first will be last, and the last first.
This isn’t what the disciples signed up for. They joined up with the Jesus movement in order to be part of the new Judean 1% in the empire of God. They were ready to be rich, powerful – people blessed by God.
So even when Jesus told them all these things directly, the disciples were having a really hard time hearing it. As Upton Sinclair famously observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Perhaps even more importantly, it’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their hopes, dreams, and worldview depend on them not understanding it. The disciples were so full of their ideas about how the story should end – about the triumph and glory that should be theirs as charter members of the Jesus movement – that they just couldn’t wrap their heads around what Jesus was actually saying to them. So Jesus tried again. Mark says:
Again [Jesus] 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 delivered over to the chief priests and the 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.”
And it’s right after this – after Jesus has told them to be like children. After he’s told them that it’s the bottom rung in society, not the top, that will enter the empire of God. It’s after he’s tried to shatter the disciples’ startup mentality and wake them to the trials and suffering that are coming, that James and John approach Jesus to ask for a bigger share of the company.
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
“And what’s that?” asks Jesus.
“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
I can just see Jesus face-palming at this point. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”
You don’t know what you’re asking, because you still think that this path is about glory. You still imagine that the road of discipleship ends at power, honor, and prestige in the eyes of the world. You still don’t understand suffering. You don’t know what it means to give up everything to follow me. You haven’t surrendered your naive ambitions and lust for control.
James and John think they do understand. “We’re ready,” they say. “We can be baptized with your baptism and drink the cup you’re going to drink.”
And then Jesus says what are probably some of the most ironic words in the whole Bible: “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.”
The disciples came to Jesus asking for the best seats in the house, but Jesus knows what it means to sit at his right and his left. Those aren’t seats. They’re certainly not thrones. They’re crosses. Those who will sit at Jesus’ right and left are those who will be crucified on either side of him. The disciples still can’t imagine it, but the inauguration of the empire of God is Jesus’ execution. His throne is the cross. His crown, of thorns. Jesus reigns from a throne that is completely opposite and diametrically opposed to the throne of Caesar. The king of Israel reigns from the cross.
In our reading this morning, Jesus calls us out of our youthful foolishness, out of our enthusiasm and imagination of what grand deeds we can accomplish, what heights we can ascend. The gospel invites us to join Jesus in the Desert of the Real. We discover victory in surrender, redemption in suffering, glory in submission and service to others – including our enemies.
This is not the path any of us signed up for. Just like the disciples, we haven’t been ready to hear it. But Jesus is telling us now, clearly. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to embrace the savior that Isaiah talks about, whose life was made an offering for sin – whose sacrifice wipes away our transgressions.
This same Jesus, this crucified king is inviting us to join him. To become like him. To allow our lives to become a sacrifice that, together with Jesus, redeem the world and usher in the empire of God.
This is good news. The simplistic, selfish minds of our youth may reject it, but the way of Jesus is one of hope, liberation, and joy. The gospel of the cross requires us to experience two seemingly contradictory realities at the same time:
First: The way of God is marked by suffering and loss.
Second: The way of God is one of triumph and peace.
These are both true. And we can’t have one without the other. No cross, no crown. No loss, no victory. No suffering, no peace. The prophet Isaiah describes this double reality so beautifully:
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to surrender our will to power – our insatiable desire to be the best, the brightest, the strongest, the most honored. Becoming like Jesus, we are invited to bear the sins of many, to make intercession for the transgressors, to become priests of the new covenant – cleansing the world through the life blood of Jesus.
As we enter into a time of waiting worship, let’s ask God to uncover all the ways that we use our religion as a mask for our own unexamined ambitions. Holy Spirit, come be in our midst. Show us our hidden darkness and bring us into the light. Make us people who are like your son Jesus – able to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism. Make us people who bless the world through our obedience, sacrifice, and love.