You do not know what you are asking

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/17/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Mark 10:35-45. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Can you remember the last time someone came to you and said, “Hey, I need to ask a favor,” and you knew before they said anything more that you didn’t want to do whatever it is they were about to ask you?

Jesus knew what James and John were going to ask him, when they came to him and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus had just gotten done telling the Twelve what was about to happen to him – that he would be jailed, beaten, condemned, and executed as a criminal, and that after three days he would rise again.

But the Brothers Zebedee either weren’t paying attention, or they were suffering from a very strong case of denial. Because the very next thing, they approached Jesus asking for plum positions in the new revolutionary administration. Basically, they ask him, “Jesus, when you’re king of Israel, will you appoint the two of us as your top lieutenants?”

Jesus says to them, “You do not know what you are asking.” And they absolutely don’t. They think the path that Jesus is about to walk is one of human kingdom. Human authority elevates the ruler above the subjects. Human empires establish a hierarchy of dominance. The more powerful you are, the richer you are and the more people you control.

But Jesus tells the Twelve,

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. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

The kingdom of God changes the story. Jesus inverts the pyramid! Those who are at the top are the people who have lost everything, those who are poor. The princes of this empire are those who can’t even control their own lives, much less the lives of others. 

Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who weep. 

This is the kingdom where Jesus will come to reign, not because he has conquered his enemies with the sword, but rather by opening the channels of self-emptying love, which swallows up the power of death, sin, and hell.

The disciples can’t see it yet, but they, too, are on this path of self-abandonment. “You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus says something ominous to the disciples. He says: “You’ll drink my cup and be baptized with my baptism. Don’t you worry about that.” Maybe for the disciples these words were encouraging; but for us as readers, it is disturbing. Because we know what Jesus’ cup and baptism are. We know the way he is going. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

So Jesus promises the disciples his cup and baptism. One thing Jesus can’t do, though, is promise a seat at his right or his left in the kingdom. The Brothers Zebedee ask Jesus to allow them to sit in positions of prominence when Jesus comes into his glory. But what they still can’t wrap their heads around, is that Jesus’ glory will be darkness. His crown will be one of thorns. His throne will be the cross. Those who sit at his right and left in his glory will be common criminals, bandits, insurrectionists. They will die alongside him, not because they deserve some special distinction, but precisely because they are the lowest of the low.

You do not know what you are asking.

It makes me wonder: Do I know what I am asking? Do I really have a grip on what it means to be a follower of Jesus? Am I prepared to join those who are last, forgotten, powerless? Am I able to drink the cup and be baptized by Jesus’ baptism?

For me, it’s encouraging to realize that the Twelve were in no way prepared for the path of crucified love that Jesus would demonstrate for them. On their own, they were not able to drink this cup. But through the power of the resurrection, through Jesus’ presence among them, through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were clothed with power from on high. The disciples received power that allowed them to become powerless, selfless, fearless, bold. They became like Jesus, pouring out their lives for others.

This story reminds me that I can’t hope to make myself like Jesus. I don’t know what I am asking. Yet I have hope that, like the first disciples, Jesus will guide me, transform me, and make me like him in this world. Our faith is that the Holy Spirit will fill us with power and conviction – with a joy that we could never muster on our own.

The good news of the kingdom is that we don’t know what we are asking, but God knows us down to the marrow. We can’t imagine what it means to drink the cup, to follow Jesus all the way to the end. But we don’t have to. It’s not a matter of our own strength. Jesus has promised us: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” He has promised to walk with us. He is showing us the way. Through all the challenge and bewilderment, he will give us joy as we walk with him. Even as the kingdom of God is nothing like we expected.