Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 25, 2012
Text: Mark 10:32-45
James and John don’t get it, or at least they don’t want to get it. Jesus is eagerly going up to Jerusalem to accomplish the salvation of the world, to atone for sin, to die. He is leading the way, urging His disciples on, His disciples who are amazed and afraid, because they know the danger that awaits their Master there in the Holy City. He speaks of it plainly: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise” (Mark 10:33-34; ESV). Here He is speaking of His death and resurrection, and all James and John can think about is their desire for positions of honor and influence, at the right hand and the left of Jesus when He comes into His Kingdom. The other Ten are no better. They are indignant with the two brothers, not because they have asked for such a great honor, but because they beat them to the punch.
So it goes with the disciples of Jesus. They are always arguing about who is the greatest, and missing the point of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, missing the point of Jesus Himself. Jesus must give them a lesson in humility. More importantly, Jesus must give them a lesson about His own person and work. Jesus must direct the attention and faith of the disciples away from themselves, and to Him as their Savior and Lord. You already know the way it works in the world. Those who seem to be in control, the elite, the rulers, lord it over their subjects and exercise authority over them. Kings demand the service of their subjects. It is so even today. The irony is not lost on us when we call our self-serving politicians “public servants.” It is not to be so among you, says Jesus. “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (vv. 43-44). Jesus turns the paradigm on its head. The greatest in the Kingdom of heaven is the least of all. You become great by serving, by becoming a slave to your neighbor. You become rich by giving everything for the sake of the other. And of course, by this definition, the greatest is not any one of the Twelve, nor any one of us. It is Jesus Himself. “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).
Ponder for a moment the profundity of that statement, and the depth of God’s grace to us in His Son. This is the mystery of our faith, that God’s own Son should willingly, and out of great love for us poor sinners, lay aside His divine majesty, and become one of us. He who is Almighty God makes Himself nothing, takes on the form of a servant, becoming flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, humbling Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. For us. For you. For me. For all people. That He might ransom us, buy us back from sin, from death, from hell and the power of the devil, for God. Today we also commemorate the Annunciation of Our Lord, the day angel Gabriel was sent by God to announce to Mary that she would conceive and bear a Son (Luke 1:26-38), the Son of God, who would save His people from their sins. And in the moment the angel spoke the Word of the Lord, the Holy Spirit came upon the Virgin Mary, and she conceived. The Word became flesh. God became a man. The little embryo in Mary’s womb was no less than Almighty God, who had humbled Himself for His people’s salvation. No earthly king would do that. Earthly kings exalt themselves before their people. Jesus, the King of heaven and earth and all that is in them, does just the opposite. He humbles Himself and serves His subjects. And then He dies for them. He is not simply our example in this, although He is that. We should humble ourselves, as Jesus did, having this same mind among ourselves, as Paul tells the Philippians (2:5ff.), though we’ll never do it perfectly in this life. But more importantly, behold what your Lord here does for you. He dies for you. He dies for the forgiveness of all of your sins. He dies so that you may have eternal life in Him. He dies so that you may be reconciled with the Father. He dies so that you can be freed from your self-promotion and self-seeking, freed from your desire to be the greatest, forgiven for your sinful pride, and give yourself, into death if necessary, for your neighbor, with love in Christ Jesus. He dies, and He is raised from the dead on the third day, so that you may die in Him, and be raised to new life, all of which is accomplished in Holy Baptism.
It is often true that we, like James and John in our text, don’t get it, or at least don’t want to, what it means to be Jesus’ disciple, what it means that Jesus Himself came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. Because by nature, in our fallen flesh, we seek to avoid the cross and suffering. We are by nature theologians of glory, who despise the theology of the cross. We want glory and majesty and power, not humility and suffering and weakness. That is why we prefer Easter to Holy Week and Good Friday. We fail to understand that Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), that His death is the salvation of the whole world, our own salvation, and that the way of humble service is the definition of true greatness in the Kingdom of God. Repent, beloved. Humble yourself. Believe the Word of the Lord. Know that you are a sinner, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. There is no greatness in you. He is your greatness. And He has redeemed you for Himself, to be His own and live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, to love and serve your neighbor, and to suffer, if necessary, for your Savior and for His Word and His Church. It is a great honor to suffer for His Name’s sake. Because again, in the Kingdom of God, the world’s definition of honor and greatness is turned on its head.
What ever came of James and John’s request? Jesus said that to sit on His right and His left when He comes into His Kingdom is not His to give. It is for those for whom it has been prepared (Mark 10:40). So when Jesus came into His Kingdom, when He was lifted up on the cross, as it turns out, it was a thief on His right, and another thief on His left. James and John did not know what they were asking. They certainly didn’t have in mind to be crucified with Him on Good Friday. Jesus comes into His Kingdom on the cross, as He is giving His life as a ransom for His subjects. There is even a sign above His head that says so, an official Roman proclamation, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). James and John do not receive the honor of being crucified on His right and His left that day. But Jesus does promise them they will suffer. They will be baptized with Jesus’ blood and drink the cup of His suffering. And they will be martyrs. It will be a great honor. James will be the first of the Apostles to die for the faith. John will suffer intense persecution throughout his life, a living martyr. And they will finally get it. They will finally understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, the crucified, what it means that Jesus came to give His life as a ransom for them, and for all people. And they will finally understand that Jesus is great in His giving His life, the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate act of service, and that they are great when they serve and suffer in Him.
What are we to make of all of this? Beloved in the Lord, you don’t need to push and shove your way in front of others, to jostle for first place, to climb to positions of honor and influence on the backs of others. That is not true greatness, in spite of what the world says. Repent of all that. You are called to be great in service. You are called to be great, if necessary, in suffering. You are called to receive the service and suffering of your Savior, Jesus Christ. He who died for you has baptized you into His death and resurrection. He has pronounced you righteous. He speaks His tender Word of consolation to you. He teaches you. He nourishes you with the holy Supper of His Body and Blood. All your sins are forgiven. You are God’s own child. You have eternal life. There is no greater honor. There is no greater greatness. You don’t achieve these things by climbing over others. Your Savior achieves these things for you by giving His back to those who scourge Him, by giving His hands and His feet to those who pierce Him with nails, by giving Himself for you. He is the greatest, who became the least. You, the least, are great in Him. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.