–This is the approximate text of the sermon I delivered at Community United Methodist Church on August 2, 2015. It was my first time in the pulpit in 12 years.–
Mark 10: 35-45
I want to begin this morning by asking all of you a question. Have you ever had something in your life that you were disappointed in, that let you down, that didn’t live up to your expectations? Go ahead and raise your hands. Maybe it was some kind of family gathering, a party, a wedding, or a vacation. Yeah, it looks like most of us have had that feeling. It’s all a part of the human experience.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about here. Has anyone ever seen the movie “Christmas Vacation” with Chevy Chase? Yes, it’s a classic and it’s a Christmas tradition with my family. Well in this movie Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, invites his whole family to his house for a good old fashioned family Christmas. There’s his wife and their two kids, his wife’s parents, and then his parents all in the house. Then for good measure, his wife’s cousin Eddie (played very memorably by Randy Quaid) and his family eventually show up as well. As part of his plans for the perfect Christmas, Clark decides to build the biggest Christmas light display that you’ve ever seen on his house. He gets up one cold, December, Chicago morning and staples something like “10,000 imported Italian Twinkle lights” to his house. It takes him all day, and various hijinx ensue, but he finally gets them all up.
So late that night Clark calls the whole family out to see the house as he turns on all the lights for the first time. His family stands there in their pajamas and bathrobes as Clark gets ready and asks them to a “drum roll” sound for him. Clark picks up the two pieces of cord, starts to sing “Joy to the World,” and connects the two cords in anticipation.
And nothing happens.
Not a flick of light even to offer a glimpse of what he had imagined. The house stays in darkness. His family begin to laugh at him and poke fun at him. His dad comes up and says “You know son, you need to get up their and check each and every bulb, because if just one is out, the whole thing won’t work.” And then we watch as a little bit of disappointment creeps into Clark’s expression.
Isn’t our relationship with God like that sometimes? Just when we think we have him all figured out, just when we think we have God put into a neat little box, just when we think we know how he works…something happens and we end up disappointed.
But I want to suggest something to you this morning. Our God is a God who will consistently challenge our expectations. So often, even in the face of our disappointment, God will still be working on something for us that just might work out even better.
Before we get to the Gospel reading this morning, I want to take us back to the Old Testament and the time of King David. Well, before David was king actually. After Israel had been in the Promised Land for awhile they asked God to give them a king to rule over them just like the other nations around them had. God asked them “Are you SURE this is what you want?” And it was. So God set a king over Israel named Saul. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. Throughout the book of 1 Samuel you can read about Saul’s reign and the things he did to defy God, but by the time we get to 1 Samuel 16, God has had enough of Saul. He tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem and find a man named Jesse, who had many sons. God told Samuel that one of Jesse’s boys will be the new king over Israel.
So Samuel goes to Bethlehem and meets Jesse. They set up a feast and Jesse brings in his sons to stand before Samuel. The first son, Eliab stood before Samuel and the old prophet was elated! Eliab was a striking young lad, a man in his own right, his body probably honed from years of work in his father’s fields. “Yes,” Samuel says, “surely this is God’s anointed king!”
But God says: “Not so fast. He is NOT the one, and be careful, because I don’t see as humans see.”
So one by one the rest of Jesse’s sons come before Samuel, but none of them are God’s chosen one. Then there’s a problem, because Jesse seems to be fresh out of sons! So Samuel, who was probably hungry at this point says to Jesse, ‘Is this all your sons?” Jesse replies, “No, there is the youngest, but he is just a boy out tending the flock. Surely you don’t want him.”
Well Samuel orders the youngest, David, brought in, and says “Bring him, because we’re not eating until he comes.” So David is brought before Samuel and sure enough, this young shepherd boy is God’s chosen king.
Samuel was disappointed when Eliab wasn’t chosen, and God challenged and defied his expectations. What about Jesse? I’m sure he was floored that God had chosen his youngest. And what of David? He obviously didn’t expect to be chosen. In that culture birthrights and places of honor always went to the oldest, so David didn’t even bother to show up.
Yet God used David, that young boy, and made him into the greatest king that Israel would ever know. He grew into a powerful military and political leader who vanquished Israel’s enemies and made them a force to be reckoned with in the region.
Which brings us to our readings today. The Gospel of Mark is the very first Gospel, written before all the others. It’s a story about the life of Jesus, and one way to read it is to read it as a story about how Jesus becomes King. Now, the Jews were living under Roman occupation at the time had some very specific ideas about what their new king, their deliverer, their Messiah, would be like. They had great expectations for him, and as you read through the Gospel of Mark, as it slowly dawns on the disciples that Jesus is the Messiah, they attach these expectations to him as well, despite the fact that he tells them over and over again that this is not how all of this is going to go down.
In our story today, Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem for what will turn out to be the final Passover that Christ will spend with his friends before his death, but the disciples don’t know that that’s what’s going to happen. Their feelings are betrayed when James and John walk up to Jesus and say “Teacher, we want you to do us a favor.”
“What’s that?” Jesus asks.
“Well, when you come into your glory, we want you to arrange it so that one of us may sit at your right hand, and the other at your left.”
You see, James and John don’t think that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. They think he’s going to bust some heads. They believe that Jesus is going to put the Romans out on their ears and become this powerful king that they’re expecting, like David was.
They expect Jesus to be raised on a throne and crowned with gold and jewels, just like David. And when that happens, they want to be right in the middle of it, one on Jesus’ right, and one on his left. Then the Sons of Thunder (as they were called) would have really made it! “Yeah, Jesus, the King? Yeah, I’m his right hand man. He doesn’t do anything without me! I followed him from the start!” James and John craved these positions of status in Christ’s coming kingdom.
Well imagine Jesus looking at them with maybe a half smile as he says “You don’t know what you’re asking for. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism that I will experience?”
“Yes Lord,” they say, “We are able.”
Have you ever wanted something so bad from someone that you really don’t care about the consequences involved? “Yeah, ok, I can do that, whatever. Just GIVE IT TO ME.”
That’s what’s happening here.
But Jesus tells them: “As a matter of fact, you will drink the cup that I will drink, and you will be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with, but as for these places of honor, this is not for me to decide. These places have already been prepared by my Father.”
Of course the other disciples get cranky when they hear this, and they get into a big argument with James and John over who is going to be the greatest. Jesus calls them over, tells them to knock it off, and then I picture him letting out a big sigh with an expression of “You guys still don’t get it, do you?”
“Look,” Jesus says. “You know that the rulers of the gentiles (the Romans) lord it over them and are tyrants over them, but it is not to be so with you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever among you desires to be first must be the slave of all, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Have you ever sat in a class or a lecture of some kind and heard the speaker say something that you know what pretty DEEP, but you can’t quite process what he or she means just yet? I think this is what happened here. Jesus’ words probably gave the disciples something to think about, but I don’t think they got it just yet.
Well, Jesus and the disciples move on to Jerusalem. The disciples commandeer a donkey, and Jesus rides triumphantly into the city in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The disciples must have surely been thinking “This is it! Let’s do this!”
But the story doesn’t work out that way, does it?
A few days later Jesus is betrayed, handed over to the High Priest, and then handed over to the Romans who execute him.
Do you think that left some people disappointed? I’m sure it did. Disappointed and scared, probably.
They didn’t get the king that they expected, but I suggest that Jesus became king nonetheless. The disciples all deserted him, but John’s gospel says that one disciple, “the disciple that Jesus loved” stayed at the foot of the cross with Mary, Jesus’ mother. The general feeling among scholars is that that disciple was none other that John himself, who had just a few days prior, asked for a position at Jesus’ side when he came into his glory.
I wonder what he thought as he gazed up to his dying friend. Jesus had not been lifted up on a throne, but on a cross. He had not been crowned with gold and jewels, but with woven thorns. There was no herald proclaiming his kingship, there was just a simple sign on the cross above his head that read “King of the Jews.”
Jesus had become king in a whole different way, by giving up his life.
And do you think that John, as he sat there, trying to comfort Mary, looked up at Jesus and recalled the conversation about he and his brother being on his left and right? While he thought about it, did he glance to Jesus’ left and his right? Did he see those “positions of honor” now occupied by two thieves, dying alongside Jesus? Did he hear when one of the thieves, with more humility than John or James had ever exhibited, begged Jesus by saying: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom?”
Well, we know that the story didn’t end there. Good Friday is always followed by Easter morning. Despite the disappointment of the disciples, God turned around and challenged their expectations again 3 days later, when Jesus rose from the grave.
And when he did that, he started something new. He inaugurated a new creation, he kicked off the start of a new kingdom, to which all of this disciples, and all of us, are to belong and be a part of.
But what does that mean to you? What are your expectations about being part of this new kingdom? Do you think it’s going to be comfortable? Do you think it’s going to be easy? Do you expect a position of status and privilege? Sometimes I think we do, especially in America where we are so used to being able to do what we want, when we want.
But as Jesus told the disciples, that’s not how any of this works. If we want to be great, if we want to make a difference in his kingdom, then we have to be servants.
Nowhere is this teaching modeled better than in John 13, when Jesus takes off his robe, ties a towel around his waist, and washes the dirty feet of 12 ordinary men.
I want you to think about this for a minute. If you believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be, if you believe that he is who the scriptures claim he is, then you believe that he is the Son of God, second person of the Holy Trinity, one in being with the Father. You believe that he created each and every one of us and everything in our world from the depths of the oceans, to the vast forests of the north, to the great expanse of the Sahara desert.
When you look into the night sky, you believe that he created the stars and set them in their courses.
You believe that He is King of the Universe.
That king took off his garments and washed the feet of those men. One of them, Peter, would deny that he even knew Jesus three times before the night was up just to save his own skin. He also washed the feet of Judas, who in just a couple of hours would betray him to his death with a kiss.
That’s not the behavior you expect from a king.
But it is the example of Christ, in service and in love for everyone, regardless. Throughout his life Jesus mirrored that love. He touched and healed people with various diseases that not only ravaged their bodies but made them ceremonially unclean and outcasts to their culture. He had dinner with tax collectors and hung out with prostitutes. It got to the point where the religious authorities of the day point blank asked him:
“WHY ARE YOU HANGING OUT WITH ALL THESE SINNERS?”
To which Jesus replied that that is what he had come to do, and these were the ones he had come to serve.
So I want to dare you this week. I dare you to go home today and spend some time with God and ask him to challenge your expectations. I want you to ask him to put you in a position, to give you a chance, to mirror Christ’s unflinching, unconditional love to someone this week.
It might be uncomfortable. Jesus even tells us that we must love our enemies. He doesn’t say “Try to begrudgingly get along with your enemies,” he tells us to love them. That’s not easy, nor is it comfortable.
What might that look like? Maybe it means showing genuine love for someone you consider unlovable. Maybe it calls you to deeply love and reconcile with someone that you have deep disagreements with on many issues. Maybe it’s a calling for you to stand up to the racial injustices we are seeing in this country and say “This isn’t right. This cannot continue. This is not what we are going to let America continue to become.”
It’s not easy, and it’s not comfortable. But if we can love and serve both God and our neighbors, we might be surprised at what happens. When you go serve and love someone unconditionally, you just might see them turn around and do the same for someone else. The more and more we do it, the more and more God works through us to make the world a better place.
So prepare for God to challenge your expectations. You never know, he just might blow your mind!