“What’s So ‘Great’ about Jesus?” (Mark 10:35-45)

Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 25, 2012

“What’s So ‘Great’ about Jesus?” (Mark 10:35-45)

Today is March 25, which means it is exactly nine months before December 25. And being nine months before Christmas, March 25 is the day when the Annunciation of Our Lord–that occasion when the angel Gabriel came to the virgin Mary and told her she would conceive and give birth to a son–this is the day when the Annunciation normally would be observed. But since this year March 25 falls on a Sunday, in the season of Lent, the readings for this Sunday take precedence. But I do think that the words spoken by Gabriel at the Annunciation provide an interesting–and somewhat puzzling–backdrop for what we find in today’s Gospel reading, which we will get to in a moment.

But first consider what Gabriel had said of the child to be born of Mary. In the Annunciation account in Luke 1, Gabriel tells Mary: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

“He will be great.” He will inherit a throne. He will reign as a king. “And of his kingdom there will be no end.” Pretty impressive stuff. But is that what we see when we fast-forward the tape and catch a glimpse of Jesus about thirty-three years later, as he comes toward the end of his public ministry? Where are all the signs and trappings of greatness? Where is the throne? Where is the kingdom? Where is the ruling and reigning and exercise of power? “He will be great”? I just don’t see it. And so our question this morning: “What’s So ‘Great’ about Jesus?”

Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem, yes, where you would expect the Messiah to take the throne of David. But does Jesus look or sound like a great man about to take power? He seems to downplay talk of glory among his followers. He denounces the usual exercise of power done by the rulers of this world, and he forbids it among his disciples. He stands the usual concept of greatness on its head, and he puts himself forward as the prime example. Jesus redefines greatness in a radically different way. What’s going on here?

Jesus’ disciples were thinking of greatness in the customary way. Glory, positions of power, that sort of thing. If Jesus is going to take office as the Messiah, they at least want the best seats in his cabinet: “And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’”

James and John must have thought they had an inside track on the prime spots. And not without some justification. They were, after all, among the very first disciples that Jesus had called. They had given up a profitable fishing business to come and follow Jesus. James and John, along with Peter, appeared to form the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had taken those three along with him on some special occasions: when Jesus raises the girl from the dead, when Jesus goes up on the Mount of Transfiguration.

So as far as the disciples go, Peter, James, and John were the “Big Three” out of the Twelve. Peter, of course, was usually the first one to speak up and take the lead, and so maybe James and John here are trying to get in line first for the plum positions before Peter beats them to it. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

But James and John are missing the point of why Jesus is heading for Jerusalem. Jesus tells them this: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they are quick to respond, “We are able.”

Here Jesus tells them they’re off track, and they still don’t get it. They don’t understand what Jesus means by the “cup” that he will drink or the “baptism” with which he will be baptized. This will be no royal cup at a king’s banquet. Instead, it will be a cup of suffering, a cup of sorrow, from which Jesus will drink deeply. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus will pray, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” This cup of suffering is not the cup of glory you are thinking of, James and John.

Likewise with the baptism Jesus will endure. It will be a baptism of blood and agony, suffered on the cross. It will be a baptism into death and burial, Jesus’ dead body being laid in a tomb. James and John, you don’t know what you are asking.

Later, when you know better, James and John, you will indeed drink this cup and experience this baptism. Suffering and sorrow will be your lot, as well, although you don’t realize it now. And that is what happened. James will be the first among the apostles to be martyred, as we read in the Book of Acts. His brother John will live a long life and die a natural death, but he too will suffer much for the sake of the gospel, exiled to the Isle of Patmos in his old age, among other things. Jesus tells them: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 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.”

Positions of glory are not the point. The only people we read about being placed at Jesus’ right and at his left are two thieves dying alongside him when Jesus is crucified. Is that what you want, James and John?

But it’s not just James and John. When the other ten hear about what those two are asking, they get upset, because they also are thinking about the glory and the greatness. “And when the ten heard it,” our text says, “they began to be indignant at James and John.”

It’s the two, it’s the ten, it’s all of us. Are we not also, like the disciples, seduced by the idea of greatness and glory? What’s in it for me? Are my needs and desires being met? Am I getting the applause and recognition I deserve? “Pay attention to me!” each one of us says. We must confess that we are no better than the self-serving, glory-seeking disciples.

But Jesus uses this thirst for glory as a teachable moment and a call to repentance. He tells his disciples: “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.”

This is a radically different definition of greatness. It’s not about amassing power and controlling people. It’s not about getting your way and getting what you want. Rather, greatness is about service. It’s about what you can do for others. How can I be a blessing to those whom God has entrusted to my care? How can I be God’s channel of blessing to the people I meet and deal with, even if it means laying down my will and my desires? That is true greatness in God’s kingdom.

And Jesus sets himself forward as the prime example. Jesus is the teacher for his disciples in both word and deed. Referring to himself, he says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Think of how Jesus served. Tireless days and nights, helping all he met and all who came to him. Healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, forgiving sins, enduring opposition and rejection, teaching and bearing with slow-to-get-it disciples. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” If ever there was an example of great servanthood, it is Jesus.

Jesus is example, yes. But he is far more than mere example. Jesus does something only he can do, and thank God for it. This is why the Son of Man is going to Jerusalem, namely, “to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is redemption, Jesus setting us free at the price of his blood. Jesus sets us free from our bondage to sin, Satan, and death, in the only way that is possible, by him dying on the cross for us. Only the Son of God could pay a price that great, that it would cover the sins of the whole world. This is true greatness. “Greater love hath no man than this,” that Christ Jesus our Lord laid down his life for us sinners.

Dear friends, Jesus Christ gave his life as a ransom for you. He has redeemed you, a lost and condemned sinner, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. Now you are forgiven, now you are free. You have a place in his eternal kingdom. Christ’s cup of suffering is your cup of salvation. Christ’s baptism into death is your baptism into life everlasting.

But for now, in this life, the life of Christ’s disciples is not one of glory and greatness, as the world would define those terms. But rather our life lies in the more difficult path of servanthood and sacrifice. But our Lord will travel that road with us, supporting us and strengthening us along the way. To this Christ has called you. For this Christ has freed you.

What’s so ‘great’ about Jesus? I think we’ve got the answer. Jesus is the great Servant-King, who by his sacrifice has freed us for life in his kingdom. And in this way, Jesus truly fulfills the promise of the Annunciation: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Published in: on March 24, 2012 at 2:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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