Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 29, 2009
Text: Mark 10:35-45
The disciples are always concerned about who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. They do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. If they had in mind the things of God, they would understand that Jesus is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. He is the greatest, not just because He is the Son of God, although that would be enough. He is the greatest because “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; ESV). Greatness in the Kingdom of heaven is not measured by success or power or glory, but by death to self for the sake of another. Greatness in the Kingdom of heaven is measured by depth of unselfish, self-giving love. Greatness in the Kingdom of heaven is measured by crucifixion. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus is the One who above all others lays down His life for His friends. He has no selfish motivation. He does not crave the glory it will bring Him. He seeks only the benefit of those for whom He suffers, those for whom He dies. And so He is the last who becomes first, the least who becomes greatest. Jesus Christ is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven, for He came no to be served, but to serve. And He came to serve in this way, that He gave His precious and holy life into death on the cross for many, for all humanity in fact, for you.
James and John get it all wrong. They come and ask their Teacher, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). Matthew tells us that it is actually the boys’ mother who makes this request, but this is certainly on behalf of the boys and they probably add their own pleas to hers. It is their desire for glory that leads them to make this request. But they do not know what they ask. What they think they are asking is to be exalted above their brother apostles, indeed, above all other believers. And it’s not as though they didn’t have a basis for this request. James and John were, along with Peter, Jesus’ closest friends, most trusted, privileged to see what the rest of the Twelve were not given to see. But they’ve missed the very essence of the Christian faith: what it means that Jesus is God in the flesh come to suffer and die for the sins of the world. The glory of God, the glory of Jesus Christ, is manifested in His death on the cross for the salvation of sinners.
To be glorified, as Jesus is finally glorified, is to drink the cup He drinks to its very dregs and to be baptized with the baptism with which He is baptized. This is not what James and John mean when they ask Jesus to sit at His right and His left in His glory. James and John and the rest of the disciples up to this point do not understand what this cup and this baptism are. The cup is the cup of suffering and death. On the cross, Jesus drains the cup of God’s wrath to its very dregs. Jesus takes all the wrath of God that should be directed at our sin, at us sinners, and directs it toward Himself. The cup is hell itself. He who knows no sin becomes sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). He is baptized in His own blood, the blood that pours from His thorn-crowned head, His pierced hands and feet and side. Can you drink the cup He drinks? Can you be baptized with the baptism with which He is baptized?
Jesus says to James and John, “you will” (Mark 10:39). Jesus says to you this morning, “you have!” For all of you who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death. That means you were crucified with Christ. That means that God counts Jesus’ suffering and death as if it was your own. Your sins are paid in full. You have been baptized in Christ’s own blood and all your sins have been washed away. And you drink the cup, indeed. You drink it, only Jesus’ death has made it no longer the cup of God’s wrath. Now when you drink the cup of Jesus’ blood, the cup of His death, it is a cup of grace for you. It reddens your lips with the blood of Christ shed for the forgiveness of your sins.
But there is another aspect of this. When Jesus says to James and John, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (v. 39), He is speaking about their own suffering for Jesus’ sake, and in the case of James at least, even martyrdom. The disciples of Jesus Christ will have to suffer as well. As Jesus sacrificed Himself for us all, gave up His life for us all, so now we who are disciples of Jesus Christ are called to give up ourselves, to die to ourselves for the sake of others, as a testimony to Christ. We are here not to be served, but to serve, and to give our lives. Not to pay the ransom for anyone. Jesus has already done that. But because Jesus has ransomed us, we give our lives and give them joyfully, knowing our true life is in Christ Jesus. Because Christ Jesus has given His all to redeem us, we can give ourselves, into death if that is what it takes, to confess Christ to others. Because Christ Jesus has given His all to redeem us, we can give ourselves and all we are and possess to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, granting shelter to the homeless, visiting those who are sick and in prison, and providing for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst. Because Christ Jesus has given His all to redeem us, we can have mercy on our neighbor, even die to self to such an extent that we forgive the neighbor who has sinned against us, no matter how grievously; even confess our sins and ask forgiveness of our neighbor when we have sinned against him. This takes God-given humility. This does not come natural to us. This is not how the world works. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (vv. 42-44).
We don’t like that language. We don’t want to be servants, and we certainly don’t want to be slaves! By nature, we don’t want to give ourselves for the sake of others. We hold back what we believe is rightfully ours. We hold back our money and our food and our time, not to say anything about our very lives. And forgiveness? Giving forgiveness? Asking for forgiveness? Confessing our sins? That is asking for too much. Beloved, repent. Jesus gave Himself for you; His very life! He drank the cup for you. He was baptized in blood for you. He suffered all hell for you. He died for you. Selflessly, for your benefit alone, to buy you back from hell, to pay your debt to God, to restore you to the Father who loves you, to give you His good Spirit. As your great High Priest, He did not exalt Himself, but undertook the ministry to which the Father called Him, to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the people, once, for all, in His body on the cross. Jesus gives His all for you to possess, and His supply is inexhaustible. So don’t think that by giving of yourself and your earthly possessions you could ever lack any good thing that God intends you to have. All things are yours in Christ Jesus. Don’t think that even if you are called upon some day to give your life for Jesus’ sake and for the Gospel that you could ever lack the life eternal and abundant that Jesus has won for you. You are baptized into Christ! You are God’s own child. You are invited each week to sup at Jesus’ Table, to drink the cup of His blood poured out for the sins of the world, for your sin, for your healing, for your life. All things are yours in Christ Jesus. And you will find that the more you give of yourself in the Name of Jesus, the more the gifts of Christ will overflow and abound. Whoever would be great must be servant. Whoever would be first must be slave.
Mystery of mysteries, Jesus came not to be served, but to serve you. How can this be, that God in the flesh has come as slave to humanity? In God’s great love for us, He sent His Son to pay our ransom, to give His life on the cross, to sacrifice Himself for our sin, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. He becomes the least. He becomes the last. And in this way He is the first and greatest in the Kingdom of God. This is the measure of greatness in the Kingdom of heaven: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45). “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). In His great love for us, Jesus has called us friends, and laid down His life for us. He has come to serve us and give His life for our ransom. And He still serves us, even this morning, with His Word and Supper. How great is our Lord Jesus Christ! Indeed, so great is He that we cannot help but join our voices with the saints in heaven: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). Worthy indeed is He who made Himself least for our sakes, for He is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. And we are baptized into Him, to bask forever in His greatness. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.