Dear Friends in Christ,
One day I happened to find portions of my old High School Yearbook online. Because I had lost mine in a move many years ago, it had been over twenty years since I have seen it. Do you remember those predictions that were made about what people will do with their life? Somebody’s going to be a hairdresser, somebody’s going to own a dress shop, somebody else is going to manage a hockey team — all sorts of dreams and plans as you moved away from the safety of school, out into the “real” world of life.
We never know where people are going to go in life, or where we will end up. In today’s Gospel lesson, James and John, two brothers, and some of the first disciples of Jesus, have aspirations for greatness. They ask Jesus for a favour. They would like to be first in honour when Jesus came into his glory. They probably imagined how wonderful it would be when the whole world realized just who Jesus was. So they wanted him to agree that they could be with him and be his closest assistants and share in the power. Apparently they had been thinking about this for a time, for we read in Mark chapter 9 that they were arguing about which of them was the greatest, but were afraid to tell him.
Their request may not be that much different from our prayers to Jesus. Give me a good job, Lord…help me get that promotion, Lord. Please save me from this cancer, Lord. Let me move to a better home, Lord. Please, Lord - just let my mother live a few more years.
Jesus does tell us, "Whatever you ask for in my name, I will do it." (John 14:14). People love this verse, and it gets abused A LOT. They use this to mean that if they pray for a Ferrari, then a Ferrari should appear on their driveway. The catch (if I can call it that) is that when we ask in the name of Jesus, we are asking that HIS will be done, not OUR will. If it weren't that way Jesus would be a kind of Genie who gives us three wishes before he disappears, and we'd all be even more greedy and selfish than we are now.
Now when James and John ask for the highest positions when Jesus comes into his glory, St. Matthew, in his Gospel, reports that their mother was there, and she's the one who made the initial request for them. So there's a matter of family pride here as well. "Jesus, my boys have left their home and occupations to follow you, so be good to us and see that they don't get left behind when things begin to take off for you."
We can learn a lot from this conversation. One is we don't always know what we are asking for. Whenever I hear this I think of the criminals who were crucified next to Jesus. After all, that is where Jesus was glorified. God's glory was to die on the cross to win salvation for the world. If James and John had gotten their way, they would be the ones crucified next to him.
Have you prayed and asked for something, and didn't get it? Then you found out later that it was a real blessing that God didn't answer your prayer in the way you wanted? Perhaps you did pray for a promotion, only to see it go to someone else, but then that position is downsized later. You might call that, "The Mercy of Unanswered Prayer." Well, there's an answer, but it's not the one you expected. But it is a gracious answer because God knows what is best for us.
It is truly gracious in that our Lord looks ahead in our life and sees what we really need. You may think you want that promotion and you truly deserve it, but who knows if you are ready to face the unseen difficulties that go along with it. You may think that you want to be famous, but only God knows if you could truly deal with the stress of that lifestyle. You might ask to be rich, but only God knows if you are prepared for the demands that it would put on your family.
Another thing we learn from this conversation is that for the Christian the desire for position and power should only be realized when one can submit to servant hood. To serve Jesus is to be a servant to other people. Jesus taught his disciples not to "Lord it over one another." God does not put us in positions over others so that we feel important. He does it so we can help and care for other people.
As a Christian we learn this from Jesus himself, who humbled himself and became obedient, even to death, to help us with our greatest need.
James and John are not ready for responsibility, because at this time they crave it for themselves. They will not be good servants if they only want a comfortable position in the coming kingdom. Someday they will serve Jesus unselfishly, even to the point of giving their lives for him, but at this point they need more training.
We are in training too. God wants us see how we can serve him. God has elevated believers to a high status. 1 Peter 1:9 says, "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into His wonderful light." That means as a believer you have a new status.
You are a priest. Now priests have two jobs. One is to pray. On the cross Jesus cleansed us of our sins so that we can pray for ourselves and for others. We offer prayers to God for others, interceding on their behalf, asking the Lord to have mercy on them in their need, and to bless them according to His will.
The other thing that priests do is sacrifice. This is what is missing in James’ and John's request. They are not ready to sacrifice. Jesus says to them, "Can you drink the cup that I drink?" In the Old Testament to drink a cup means to share in someone's fate. Usually it was to receive punishment from God for the wrongs you did.
Jesus drank the cup of God's judgment against sins that he didn't commit, but others did. The disciples weren't ready to do this.
He also asked if they were ready to be baptized with the baptism he was baptized with. Now this can be confusing if we are thinking He is simply talking about a typical water baptism here. Certainly all the disciples had been baptized by this time. What he means is a baptism of blood — the suffering he is about to undergo at the hands of the people in Jerusalem. Jesus knows they are not ready yet, but their baptism of blood — the suffering they would face for being a believer — would come later in their lives.
We never know where this life will lead us. But if you are a believer in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, then you will be led to some form of service and sacrifice. We may receive some recognition from others, but we should not seek it. Rather, the words of Jesus ring in our ears, "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all."
I have a story of servant hood to leave you with this morning. A woman found a stack of checks all made out to someone named Stacy, with a bank deposit slip for an amount over $3,000. Rather than call the woman, she decided to take the checks to the bank and deposit them in the woman's account. She told the teller that the owner would likely come in soon all upset about losing the checks. Tell her the money was found and deposited. Then tell her to read this note, which said, "Hi, Stacy, I found your deposit and brought it to the bank. I don't know if you take the train to work in the morning, but there is a homeless man who sits by the station nearby here every morning, and if you would like to pass on the good deed, he could use a cup of coffee and a bagel tomorrow morning. Have a great day."
That was a Tuesday. The man was seen having a bagel and coffee on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. It seems Stacy was very happy about having the lost money deposited in her account.
That's an example of the kind of service God wants us to perform. We have not recovered a pile of lost money, but our Lord has restored blessings far more precious — a restored relationship with God, forgiveness of our sins, an inheritance in paradise. Those blessings move us to respond in service to others.
If you are a believer, then Jesus will be moving you to serve others, and show that you care and that you rejoice in the fact that you have been made blessed before God. So I challenge you — as you head out of church and back into this sinful world, do not seek glory, but instead find someone you can help, and do it! If you can’t help them physically, help them emotionally or spiritually. If you can’t help them spiritually, pray for them. Make yourself the servant of all, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."