Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on October 18 2009.
Psalm 104: 1-9, 24; Mark 10:35-45
I saw a T-shirt the other day… on television, as I recall. Some wise guy had it on. I don’t know what program it was; it may have even been a commercial, and I just caught a fleeting glance of it. But it did get my attention. The only word on the shirt was THEY.
How many times have you heard someone else say, or you have said it yourself, “You know what they say.” This guy on TV evidently decided to provide some identity to THEY, whoever they are.
Well, they say, “The third time is charm.” They also say that bad things come in threes. That’s what they say.
When we come to this conversation between Jesus and the brothers Zebedee, the disciples James and John, Jesus has told them and their compatriots three time – three times! – that he will be tried and convicted, will die on the cross and then be raised again. Three times. And you know what they say. Three times are charm. Bad things come in threes.
You would think by this time that the disciples would be catching on, but evidently that is not the case. They still think Jesus is going to set up a new kingdom that will rule Israel from a political perspective. And when that happens, he’s going to need some help and they’re just the ones to provide it.
In that regard, very little has changed in the two millennia since that time.
Exhibit A: Every time a new president comes into office, the first order of business is building a cabinet. Obviously, those who have been key players in the
election bid stand the best chance of being selected for the most important posts. I would imagine there is a lot of resume polishing when the election results first come in and the dust is beginning to settle. After all, in the world of politics, being shy doesn’t get the job done. Nobody’s going to look out for you any better than you will yourself, so get that resume in good shape and get in line. When it comes to politics, the first shall be first and the last shall be last.
I realize I’m coming across sounding like a political expert, and we all know I’m not. I don’t know much about politics at all. But I know people who do, and I’m willing to guess I’m not much wrong about this.
What do James and John know about politics? They’re fishermen, the sons of a fisherman. Wouldn’t be surprised if fishing didn’t run several generations deep in that family. They were raised on the sea and know how to throw nets, gut fish, sell their produce in the local market, sweat and toil and work for a tough day’s wage. That’s what the brothers Zebedee know. What do they know about politics?
It could be they’re trying to escape the hard toil of the fishing business, to end their family’s generations-old reliance on the sea. Maybe they’re trying to put the smell of it, the hardness of it, behind them and say goodbye to the fishing world. Who knows?
Well, they may not know much about politics, but they know a thing or three about ambition, don’t they? And they’ve now caught a vision of who Jesus is and what he can do. They’ve seen him in action and are very much aware that when it comes to the Nazarene, it’s not business as usual and never will be, not ever again. He has a gift, a way of doing things that is nothing short of miraculous. When he comes into his soon-breaking kingdom, the Romans are going to scurry back to where they came from, and the Israelites are going to enjoy a prosperity and freedom they have never before experienced. Jesus may be called the Son of David, but when he comes into his glory it’s going to be better than David could ever imagine.
That’s what James and John, the brothers Zebedee, are thinking. That’s what they know.
And they want to be a part of it. No, check that. They want to be more than a part of it. They want to be front and center where the action really takes place. “Teacher… grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” James – or is it John? – wants to be Secretary of State. John – or is it James? – dreams of being Chief of Staff. Right seat, left seat… front and center, where the action is, where the glory is, where their names will be in the news every day. That’s what James and John want.
I’m also willing to guess that this desire isn’t just felt by the brothers Zebedee either.
I wonder if they instinctively knew that what they were asking was misguided and out of place. There is no evidence in the scripture – none at all – but you can’t help but get this feeling from the way the story is written that they’re a bit embarrassed about this whole thing. It’s the way they approach Jesus, the way they ask him, away from the others, over to the side, in the shadows, as if this really isn’t their idea.
If that is true, did daddy put them up to this? Was it mama’s idea? Who knows. What we do know is that when they make this request of Jesus, they use a ploy that children often impose on their parents. They try to get Jesus to make a commitment to them before he even knows what he is committing to.
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
“Daddy, we want to ask you something and we want you to say yes.” Let me ask you parents… does that sound familiar? If so, did it ever work with you?
I will remind you that we are considering this story from the gospel of Mark, and that Mark was the first known New Testament gospel to be written. In fact, most biblical scholars believe Matthew and Luke had Mark in hand as a resource when they wrote their gospels.
You will also find a version of this story in Matthew’s gospel, though it is told a bit differently. How differently? Well, in Matthew, Mrs. Zebedee, James’ and John’s mother, is the one who comes to Jesus and makes this request. The boys don’t do it, mama does. Remember: Matthew has Mark’s version of the story in his lap. Does Matthew tell the story this way – with Mrs. Zebedee coming to Jesus – because he really thinks this is the way the story occurred, or is he attempting to take some heat off the two disciples by putting it on their mother?
We don’t know, do we? And we never will, not on this side of heaven anyway. But regardless of who did the asking, you know what this does, don’t you, this request to give places of honor to James and John? It plays off the relationship between Jesus and the brothers Zebedee. What I mean is that they’re asking Jesus to trust them, based on the relationship they’ve developed in the time they’ve traveled and shared ministry together. They’re making a huge emotional withdrawal from their relationship account, believing they’ve got enough in the account to cover it. But, they figure the risk is worth it. Why? If Jesus grants them what they want, the future is limitless, filled with glory. They will be called great!
“Teacher… grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Glory. Glory. What do they know of glory? Not much, that’s for sure. And before we think James and John are the only disciples who think about doing something like this, check out the reaction of the other followers of Jesus. When they find out about this conversation, they are predictably angry. Angry because James and John are trying to pull a fast one on them, an end-run around them, or angry because they didn’t think of it first?
Jesus has told them three times that he will suffer at the hands of the religious and political authorities, will die on a cross and be resurrected. Three times. And you know what they say. Three times ought to be charm, certainly enough to get the message through and penetrate their thick skulls. The message is this: his kingdom is not political, it is a place in the heart. His rule will not be over government, but over those who choose to follow him in sacrifice. There will not be places of honor, only of service.
Have you got that? Good, because it’s for certain James and John don’t.
There’s a context to this story. There’s always a larger context to scripture, and in this case it is really important. Jesus has begun telling his followers that this little enterprise they are on is not going to be a cake-walk. He dispatches the man we have come to call the Rich Young Ruler and sends him home with a heavy heart because he is not willing to give up his wealth. Jesus then tells his disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to make it into the kingdom of heaven. Peter reminds Jesus that they have given up everything to follow him, and instead of a pat on the back Jesus says that those who will receive much in the kingdom are those who have left their homes, their family, their livelihood. It is then he says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
If you had been there to hear all that, how do you think you might have reacted? Mark says they were afraid (10:32), afraid.
Fear can do many things. It can bring out the best in people and the very worst. It can motivate some and reduce others to Jello. Fear can clear out the cobwebs and cause people to think clearly and rationally, and it can cause others to go off half-cocked. Fear is neither good nor bad. It just is what it is, and those who react to it in different ways do so because of what is first in their hearts when they encounter their fears.
In the case of the brothers Zebedee, the fear factor does not cause them to behave well. Seeking places of honor is to gain security in an unknown future. Jesus is their security blanket, and they want to be as close to him as they can get. What they don’t know – what they can’t possibly know despite the fact he has told them three times what will happen in Jerusalem – is that the place on the right of Jesus and the place on the left will be the other crosses at Golgotha. And we all know they will be occupied by common thieves.
Do you see the irony in all this?
Well, let me tell you where the irony in this story hits me. We’ve been doing a lot of talking around here about the next decade, and how it will impact the life and future of this church. It seems to me that what we’ve given most of our energy to of late is in seeking security for that future. Obviously, we want the PulaskiHeightsBaptistChurch to thrive and do well. As we approach our centennial, our collective heart’s desire is that the second century of service on the corner of Cedar and Kavanaugh would be even greater than the first.
But that isn’t going to happen if we seek security, especially if that security is just another word for bigness or greatness or glory. Greatness is not found in places of position or authority. Greatness is found in humility and service, in risking the way of the cross. I think we need to ask ourselves how much of our motivation for planning for our future is driven by our faith or our fear.
One minister has said, quite eloquently, I think, “Fear is a small cell with no air in it and no light. It is suffocating inside, and dark. There is no room to turn around inside it. You can only face in one direction, but it hardly matters since you cannot see anyhow. There is no future in the dark. Everything is over. Everything is past. When you are locked up like that, tomorrow is as far away as the moon.”1
James and John think they are asking Jesus for future places of honor, of greatness. But what they are really asking him is to be locked up in that little cell of fear where there is no light or air or room to move… where there is no tomorrow.
The only way to face tomorrow is placing ourselves in the hands of the One who has told us – not three times, but thousands of times – that the only way to follow him is by way of sacrifice and service. If we will be willing to do that, though there is no guarantee where it will take us, we will know that we’re in very good company.
Lord, find us willing to follow you wherever it takes us. We do not ask for places of position or greatness, but only that you use us for your will. Through Christ our Lord we ask it, Amen.