“Great Servant” (Mark 10:35-45)

Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 21, 2021

“Great Servant” (Mark 10:35-45)

Are you familiar with what an oxymoron is? An oxymoron is when you put two words together that seem to contradict each other. The two ideas don’t belong together. The classic example is “jumbo shrimp.” Another would be “plastic silverware.” Or “civil war.” Well, today in our text we have two concepts put together that don’t seem to fit. It’s the idea of being “great,” placed side by side with the idea of being a “servant.” Those two thoughts would seem to cancel each other out. But not the way Jesus tells it. And not the way Jesus demonstrates it. For he is the ultimate “Great Servant.”

Let’s set the scene. Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem, where you might expect him, being the great Messiah, to take up the throne of David and restore the glory of Israel. But does Jesus look or sound like a great man about to take power? He downplays talk of glory among his disciples. He denounces the typical exercise of power wielded by the rulers of this world, and he forbids it among his followers. 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.

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: “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, formed the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had taken those three along with him on some special occasions, like when Jesus raised the girl from the dead, or when Jesus went 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, so maybe James and John here are trying to get first in line 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 to 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, without batting an eye, “We are able.”

Here Jesus tells them that they’re off track, and they still don’t get it. They don’t understand what Jesus means by the “cup” 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, James and John, you will indeed drink this cup and experience this baptism. Suffering and sorrow will be your lot also, although you don’t realize it now.

And that is what did happen later. James was the first of the apostles to be martyred, as we read in the Book of Acts. John would live a long life and die a natural death, but he too will suffer much for the sake of the gospel. John was exiled to the Isle of Patmos in his old age, among other things.

So 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 ones we read about being placed at Jesus’ right and his left are the 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 glory and 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. We also, like the disciples, are seduced by the idea of greatness and glory. What’s in it for me? Are my desires being met? Am I getting the applause and recognition I deserve? “Pay attention to me!” each one of us thinks. We must confess that we are no better than those 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, 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 our example, yes. But he is far more than mere example. Jesus serves by doing something only he can do. And this is why the Son of Man is going to Jerusalem, namely, “to give his life as a ransom for many.” “To give his life as a ransom”: 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, and he does it in the only way possible: He gives his life by dying on the cross for our sins, for our redemption. 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 defines those terms. Rather, our life lies in the more difficult path of servanthood and sacrifice. Jesus will travel that road with you, supporting you and strengthening you along the way. To this, Christ has called you. For this, Christ has freed you.

“Great servant”: Those two words together may sound like a paradox. But with Jesus, they work. Jesus is the ultimate great servant, the Suffering Servant, who gave his life as a ransom for you. He has redeemed you, set you free from sin and death. And now we follow his lead, in living lives of servanthood toward one another.

Published in: on March 20, 2021 at 11:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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