Isaiah 53:4-12; Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Good morning! How many of you played the lottery this week? Be honest. I played. For those of you who don’t know, the estimated jackpot for Friday’s drawing in the Mega Millions lottery was one billion dollars. That’s billion with a B. I didn’t even know about it until Friday, when I was sitting at the cigar shop and one of the guys asked if anyone wanted to go in on some lottery tickets.
Of course, I said, yes! Who wouldn’t want to win a billion dollars? Yes, I know the odds. I know how stupid it is to play the lottery. But if a bunch of guys at the cigar shop all chipped in, and I didn’t put anything in the pot, then I’m sure they would have won, and I’d look like an idiot. It was worth the few bucks I kicked in to make sure that didn’t happen.
After we bought those tickets, we fantasized about what we would do with the money, then someone mentioned that lots of lottery winners go broke—they don’t know what to do with all the money and they give it away very quickly to friends and family. As the cliché goes: be careful what you wish for.
In our lesson from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus all but tells James and John, “be careful what you wish for.” This is probably a familiar story to many of you. The gospels suggest that among the disciples, Peter, James, and John were closest to Jesus. As such, it’s not really surprising that James and John would ask Jesus for a special blessing—a divine lottery ticket, if you will.
Jesus asks them what sort of payout they’re expecting if he grants them this winning ticket. They respond, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They want the positions of honor at the banquet table when Jesus comes into his kingdom.
They still don’t get it. They want a better version of the world as it is. They want to enjoy their blessings, they don’t seek to be a blessing. They don’t envision a world transformed; they just want the best seats at the table. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about other people. It means they’re seeing themselves first. Their eyes are on worldly blessings. In the future.
In all honesty, I didn’t realize the New Jersey Lottery was going to hand me such a good sermon illustration this week. It’s easy to laugh at James and John—or any of the other disciples when they don’t quite get it. But the disciples are just like us. Sometimes we don’t quite get it. We don’t like the world as it is, but most of us fantasize about how much better things would be if we just won the lottery. I know I have!
I’d start by paying off the church’s mortgage. Seriously. That’s the first thing I’d do. Then I’d pay off my student loans and my car and my mom’s car. I certainly wouldn’t quit my job—I wouldn’t want you to have to search for another pastor. I’m thoughtful like that, really. Besides, I need the health insurance. Then I’d probably make another big donation to the church to cover my salary and benefits for a few years. I’d also pay all the taxes on my winnings; you have to render unto Caesar. Finally, I’d set up a charitable foundation to give away most of the money. I would be the head of that foundation and I’d draw a modest salary, of course.
If it sounds like I’m bargaining with God so that I’m the next Mega Millions winner… Well… You might be right. And I’m sure a few of you have had those fantasies, too. This is, ultimately, a fantasy about control. I’ll admit it. I’ve thought a lot about a future in which I’m in control because I won a boatload of money. But honestly, God, I’d do sooooo many good things with all that money! Mind you, in this fantasy, I’m in control, not God.
I thought about calling this sermon, “Be Careful What You Wish For.” That was the obvious choice. But I don’t want to scold any of you, much less scold James and John. To understand this story, we have to consider its context in the Gospel of Mark. Up to this point, most of Jesus’ ministry has taken place in the countryside, in and around the Galilee.
In the here-and-now of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is about to start his journey to Jerusalem. While Mark doesn’t offer an account of the trip, the story of Palm Sunday begins in the next chapter. Jesus is going to walk to his eventual death and sacrifice for all of humanity. Then Jesus asks James and John if they’re prepared to drink the same cup and undergo the same baptism as Jesus.
This is not a reference to Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. This is a reference to the crucifixion. James and John see themselves seated at the places of honor at a banquet; Jesus is suggesting that they should see the other two crosses Calvary, on Golgotha. This is not earthly glory!
Jesus reminds the disciples—and us—over and over again that the true path to greatness comes through service to others: “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.” That is not at some point in the distant future, that’s right here and right now.
It’s easy to focus on the word ransom and think of some blessing in the future; you know, that whole thing about being saved from death and damnation. But the ransom is so much more than that. We are not simply saved from death and damnation. No.
We are not just saved from, we are saved for. We are saved for the work of building the kingdom of God. We are saved so that we may be a blessing to others. This is the reward of the divine lottery, this is the other reason that Jesus paid the ransom. We live into those lottery winnings, into that ransom, when we become servant-leaders. Yet we live in a world in which very few of us are faced with the reality that we might die as Jesus did.
What does servant-leadership look like? Servant-leaders must be willing and able to change. This usually requires a good amount of self-examination, too. It often requires us to get out of our comfort zones as we take on new tasks or new ministries. Today, in this congregation, we get to witness two wonderful examples of servant-leadership.
In a few minutes, we’re going to ordain Laura Depko to the office of Deacon. This will mark a moment in her walk of faith in which she moves from being a member of this congregation to being a leader of this congregation. She will lead by serving others. May you be changed forever by your service, Laura.
And later today, a whole bunch of us are participating in the CROP Walk. Now the CROP Walk isn’t that big of a change for most of us, but we have some young people walking who have never volunteered for things before. This a first act of service for some; the first time they’ve had to ask other people to support their cause. The CROP Walk is literally a walk of faith. It’s also one of the first steps on the road to servant-leadership.
When we are baptized, we are baptized into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and along the way, we’re baptized into his ministry and his work. We must all walk toward Jerusalem, toward the death of our old selves and living into our calling to be a blessing to others. Let’s take joy in the examples of servant-leadership that we see around us today, and then let us look within, so that we may see all of the new and wonderful things to which God calls us. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to walk to Jerusalem, too. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation on your journey of faith. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!