20 Pentecost Proper B24
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Mark 10:35-45 Sermon
October 21, 2012
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
39 "Praise To The Lord, The Almighty"
409 "Let Us Ever Walk With Jesus"
31 "When All Thy Mercies, O My God"
507 "Spread, Oh Spread Thou Mighty Word"
GOD MEASURES GREATNESS DIFFERENTLY
TEXT (vs. 13-16): “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.'"
It's been a while back when I was working behind the desk at a hotel, that this gentleman came in and told me that his last name was "Pansing."
"Pansing?" I asked. "Are you by any chance related to Lu Pansing?"
The gentleman's jaw almost hit the floor. He said, "How do you know my Aunt Lu?"
Then I had to explain that I really didn't know her very well personally; I just knew more about her. However, my uncle, who was a schoolteacher in Lincoln Public Schools for many years, knew her very well. She was quite an active part of the School Board for many years, and otherwise very active in the community. I met her when she was running for reelection to the School Board, and then I discussed whether or not I should vote for her with my uncle. He had nothing but glowing words of praise for her and her unselfish service to the community. And for each successive election, she continued to win her seat with virtually no campaigning or electioneering whatsoever.
2012 is an election year, and Election Day is a short 16 days away. I don't think any of us need to be reminded of this fact either. On my jaunt between my home and the church this morning, I can't even begin to count the number of political campaign signs that I've seen posted almost everywhere. You can't turn on the television or radio without hearing one candidate smearing the other candidate in one way or another. And quite frankly, I'm getting very tired of it. I can't wait for it to be over.
And in about half a month, we'll know who was successful in all of these political races. The various candidates that win in this election will reckon that all of the time and money spent on their campaign was well worth it. And the losing candidate just simply loses out. In most instances, it doesn't usually take too long before a losing candidate sort of fades into oblivion. Unless that losing candidate makes a name for themselves some other way, the next generation will probably not even recognize the name. The voters in the upcoming election will answer the question of who is the greatest.
In my personal opinion, I don't really care about all of the hype surrounding an election. What interests me is what a candidate will do for the people who elect him or her. I want the problems in our society taken seriously, and I want that elected official to make that a priority. I don't care what kind of a name the person makes for themselves, or how much prestige they have. I want them to do a good job. To me, that's what makes a person great.
This morning in our Gospel lesson, we find two main characters who are brothers. Their names are James and John, sons of a fisherman named Zebedee. Jesus came to them and called them into his service. They would leave the family fishing business and devote their lives to Jesus and his ministry, full-time. Maybe it wasn't like entering into the political arena, but still it was a huge first step to take.
Now I don't know what they were expecting at the outset; after all, how hard could it be to follow around this itinerant preacher by the name of Jesus? This might be just the "dream job" these guys were looking for! No more of this toilsome work of a fisherman. Working for the promised Messiah of the Old Testament had to have its perks! And being the good Jews that they were, they most likely considered being amongst his disciples as an honor and a privilege.
The story about this presented in our Gospel lesson this morning, recorded in Mark chapter 10 also has a parallel account. The same story is recorded by Matthew in chapter 20; however Matthew's account mentions something that Mark doesn't. You have the Mark account of this story in front of you in your bulletin. To give you a bit more detail, allow me to share with you Matthew's account, so you can better appreciate the situation going on here.
Let's examine verses 20-23: "Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 'What is it you want?' he asked. She said, 'Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.' 'You don't know what you are asking,' Jesus said to them. 'Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?' 'We can,' they answered. Jesus said to them, 'You will indeed drink from my cup, 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 by my Father.'"
The twist that Matthew adds to the story is the addition of Mrs. Zebedee, the mother of James and John. Matthew records that she was the one who approached Jesus with her two sons, and she was the one who wanted her boys to hold a special high position in God's kingdom. Mark on the other hand indicates that this request came from James and John themselves, and doesn't even mention the mother. So why the difference? Isn't the mother a key element to the story?
In a sense, she is. She has to be, otherwise God wouldn't have seen fit to direct Matthew to include her in the story. However her absence in Mark's account drives home the point that the blame for this question cannot be shifted on to the mother. Since James and John were with her when she came to Jesus, it is to be clearly understood that they were in full agreement with her request. Even though the encouragement initially might have come from the mother, ultimately it was James and John themselves who had to take the responsibility for it.
Another thing to consider is the other disciples' reaction to this event. Today's Gospel from Mark records in chapter 10 verse 41: "When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John." This is an almost verbatim agreement with what Matthew records. Since the other disciples were upset with the two brothers, they undoubtedly knew that they were the ones responsible for this request, and not just the mother. And they might also have been thinking to themselves, "Hey! Why didn't we ask Jesus this question ourselves? Why should these two backwoods Zebedee boys have the cushy positions?"
But if we consider these people together--the mother, James, and John, I seriously doubt if any of them really had any concept of what they were asking. The mother was probably thinking something like, "Okay boys, you've left your father's business, and you've dedicated yourselves to Jesus. I think he owes you something more for all the hard work you've been doing. After all, this is God's own Son we're talking about, and it is within his power to do anything he wants to. I'll go with you and we'll march right up to him and get what you deserve." It's almost like the wife who keeps nagging her husband to march right into the boss's office and demand a raise.
James and John probably thought at first that they didn't want to bother Jesus with such things; but after some persuading, they went along with the idea. Ultimately they were the ones responsible for it, and they incurred the anger of the other disciples.
James and John, along with Mrs. Zebedee looked at this situation in much the same way a lot of people look at running for a political office, with all the power and authority and prestige. Many don't even consider the responsibility of it all and the down side of things. For James and John to be sitting on the right and left hand of Jesus was a way of wanting to share his power and authority. They had no appreciation for what Jesus would have to go through to complete his ministry on earth.
So Jesus poses the question to them in verse 38. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" That's a fair question, and it's one that both James and John agree with. That question however has a very sharp point. Jesus wants to know if these two would be willing to accept what the Father has in store for him.
Now if they had comprehended what Jesus had been previously telling them, their answer might have been different. Three times now Jesus has told them very directly, what was going to happen, that he is going to die; and each time they react badly, seeming to miss his point entirely. Earlier, Peter actually rebuked Jesus for talking about his rejection and suffering; and Jesus responded by calling him "Satan." Peter was thinking in earthly terms, and not accepting things according to God's plan.
Every time I have studied this section of Scripture, I wonder to myself how differently James, John, and their mother would have acted if they could have actually visualized what would happen to Jesus. I picture Mary at the foot of the cross, looking up at her son. Then I wonder how Mrs. Zebedee would have reacted if it would have been her looking up at her two boys hanging on crosses. I daresay that their question would have been either drastically altered, if not completely eliminated.
But we have our old sinful human nature that keeps hounding us. We are very much like James, and John, and their mother in our way of thinking. We like to assure ourselves that we can have positions of earthly security and power at our disposal. We want to be in complete control of things. We want God to give us whatever we ask, regardless of our selfish motives.
Jesus gives us that guarantee of eternity in heaven with him. It doesn't matter at all what physical position we might hold in Christ's kingdom. All that matters is that we have the assurance of heaven always before us. That's what is most important in keeping our earthly hope alive and well.
In verses 43-45 of our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells his disciples: "...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 is describing what true greatness is according to God's standards. When we place ourselves on a pedestal and put worldly prestige and power above everything else, then we aren't great in the kingdom of God. Jesus showed us what true greatness is, by being obedient even to death. Christ's greatness came because he gave his life as a ransom for all of humanity.
In humility we come to Jesus just as we are. We shed all of our worldly fame and fortune, and cling to him in faith alone. We realize that it is only through faith that we can inherit our heavenly reward, where we will live and reign with him forever. The road might not be an easy one, but it will definitely be worth it. We will receive the reward of our faith in Jesus, which is the salvation of our souls.
At the beginning, I mentioned a lady by the name of Lu Pansing, and the conversation I had with her nephew. As a boy, he remembered her as this woman who showered him with love and affection, and let him play in her back yard.
One of the reasons I mentioned Lu Pansing this morning, is that she passed away this past Thursday at the age of 92. Listen to a few lines from her obituary: "With a concern and love for all children, especially those having trouble learning to read, Lu went to Rochester, Minnesota to study the Orton Gillingham Method for remediating children with dyslexia. As the first lay person in Nebraska trained to teach the Orton Gillingham Method, she shared her knowledge and expertise with teachers, volunteers, and parents. She helped form the Nebraska Chapter of the Orton Gillingham Society and lobbied to incorporate this method of teaching dyslexic children into the Lincoln Public Schools curriculum. Lu worked to make the world a better place.... Above all, Lu loved to travel. Once again, she shared her enormous interest in the rest of the world by inviting all of her grandchildren to travel with her. She led them through Europe, visiting art galleries, museums, and places of government, expanding their horizons and instilling in them an openness to love all peoples and cultures.... Lu’s legacy was emblematic of a life well lived. To the family, she embodied wisdom, nurture, encouragement, humility, intelligence and counsel for all. Conversations with Lu were both precious and precise, no posturing, but quiet listening, taking in one’s opinions and gently imparting knowledge as she made her points clear in the kindest, most agreeable manner. She held a tender spot in her heart for everyone, and were she to disagree with someone, it was done with love."
You perhaps have never heard of Lu Pansing, but you have a taste of what the definition of true greatness really is. When it came to serving humanity, she was indeed a great leader who never sought glory or prestige for herself.
Today we meet two brothers and also a mother who had some very mis-guided notions about what it meant to be great in God's kingdom. The positions of glory they were seeking came with a very hefty price tag. It was a price that Jesus was willing to pay so that we could be saved by grace through faith in him alone. Even though James and John and their mother could not pay this price themselves, they would nevertheless be recipients of the benefit--not by elevating themselves to positions of greatness, but by humbling themselves, confessing their sins and trusting in Christ alone for forgiveness.
That's the same for each of us here today. Our greatness comes because of what Christ has done for us. And this greatness demonstrates itself in the humble service that each of us shows to others throughout our lives. We don't place ourselves on a pedestal because of who we are, but instead we give all glory to God alone who has given all true believers the eternal hope of heaven.