God's Story, Our Story: The Call to Serve
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Mark 10:32-45
Jesus and his disciples were on their way up to Jerusalem. This is the movement of Mark’s narrative. It is the movement of the season of Lent. As Good Friday draws nearer, we, like the disciples, are following Jesus as he makes this climb towards Jerusalem. Jesus is on his way up in the literal sense that Jerusalem was the highest place topographically in Palestine. Jesus is on his way up in the sense that the story is climbing to its climax--the moment when Jesus will be enthroned as king and his kingdom established.
But here’s the thing: in the kingdom of God, the way up is the way down.
"While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See we are going up to Jerusalem…” But then this: “And the Son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”
In the kingdom of God, the way up is the way down.
But the disciples didn’t get it. This isn’t the first time Jesus tried to explain it to them. In fact, it’s the third time he predicts that the Messiah must suffer and die only to be raised again three days later. Yes, he is the king they—and the whole world—has been waiting for. Yes, he is bringing God’s kingdom of peace and justice that will turn the world upside down and put it right side up. But this kingdom will not look like any kingdom the world has ever known. The path to victory will not come in a display of worldly power and might but in a display of humility and weakness. A Roman cross. A crown of thorns. A crowd of mockers. A borrowed tomb. The way up is the way down.
Jesus has just foretold his death (for the third time) when James and John, the sons of Zebedee which means “thunder,” shuffle up beside him as he leads the way and they make a bold request. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” They have something specific in mind, but they’re afraid to say it without trying to get Jesus to promise first. Like when our kids really want something, and they know there’s a good chance we’ll say “No,” so they see if they can trick us into promising before they ask.
But Jesus is no push over. “What is it you want me to do for you?” he asks. They say to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory.” In other words, “Jesus, promise us that will be awarded the highest places of honor in your cabinet when you’re in charge, ruling the world—one at your right hand, one at your left.”
On the one hand, it may strike us as a strange request, and ill-timed, considering Jesus has just talked about his imminent suffering and death. On the other hand, who can blame them for being ambitious and trying to get ahead. They’ve got chutzpah, these Zebedee brothers. Jesus says to them: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I’m about to drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
What cup? The cup of sweet victory, like a glass of champagne uncorked at the after party when the election has been won and the confetti drops and the music blares? Or the cup of responsibility—like when there are hard decisions to be made and troops to be commanded and orders to be delivered. And what baptism? The baptism of beings specially chosen by God—assigned an important task?
Sure. They could drink that cup. Heck yeah. They could share in that baptism. They’re the sons of Thunder, after all. They were born to lead.
But Jesus is ultimately not talking about the cup of victory or the cup of responsibility. Nor is he ultimately talking about the baptism that gives them special privilege. He’s talking about that bitter cup the prophets of old like Jeremiah warned about: “For thus the Lord, the God of Israel said to me: Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it” (25:15). And he’s talking about the baptism that anointed him not for special privilege but for service and suffering.
“You do not know what you’re asking,” Jesus says to James and John and their mother. They didn’t. They had no clue what they were asking. “Can you drink this cup, this cup that bears God’s holy wrath? And can you share in this baptism—that bears a shameful cross?”
“Yes, come to think of it,” Jesus says, “you will drink my cup. And you will be baptized in my baptism.” I wonder if these future images flashed in his mind: James becoming the first Christian martyr, run through with a sword by King Herod because of his courageous leadership (Acts 12); John exiled on the island of Patmos, praying and worshipping and writing letters to young churches being bullied by the Roman Empire. Yes, they would drink the cup and be submerged in the waters of baptism. As his witnesses, they would know his suffering.
But not just his suffering. Also his resurrection and life! Could it be that Jesus is talking about the cup he would share with them days later at the Passover, when he broke bread and said “Take eat, this is my body.” And then he took his cup and said, “Take and drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26-30). And his baptism that would involve not just water but the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost?
Think about this. Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath, the cup of judgment that we deserve because of sin. And then he gives us his cup—the cup of forgiveness, the cup of salvation. Jesus takes our cup, and he gives us his cup. And so when he says to the sons of Thunder and to us, “Yes, you will drink my cup,” could it mean that, yes, to be his disciple means we will know suffering; but even more so, to be his disciple means that we will know the joy and hope of forgiveness, of salvation, of being raised to new life with Christ?
In the Kingdom of God, the way up is the way down.
“You will indeed drink this cup and share in my baptism, but as to awarding places of honor, that’s not my business. My Father is taking care of that.” By this point the other ten disciples have caught wind of this little side conversation. Leave it to the sons of Thunder to make a power play. And the rest of the group is furious. Things heat up. Tempers flare. Of course, we all know that the real reason they’re so upset is not because their own motives are so pure, but because James and John beat them to it: each of them wanted to sit at Jesus’ right hand or left. Usually what infuriates us most about others is the thing that resides in our own hearts.
So Jesus calls a “time out.” He gathers them together to settle them down, and he tells them: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Say that again, please: Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave. Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
And just like that, Jesus redefines greatness. In the kingdom of God, the way up is the way down. Greatness comes not with grasping for power, beating out the competitor, networking to secure a place of privilege and superiority over others. Greatness comes with humility, picking up a basin and a towel and becoming a servant.
In his little gem of a book The Sefless Way of Christ, Henri Nouwen puts it this way:
“Our lives in this technological and highly competitive society are characterized by a pervasive drive for upward mobility. It is difficult for us even to imagine ourselves outside of this upwardly mobile lifestyle. Our whole way of living is structured around climbing the ladder of success and making it to the top. Our very sense of vitality is dependent upon being part of the upward pull and upon the joy provided by the rewards given on the way up.”
But in Jesus we see the opposite, says Nouwen; “The story of salvation stands radically over and against the philosophy of upward mobility. The great paradox which Scripture reveals to us is that real and total freedom is only found through downward mobility. The Word of God came down to us and live among us as a slave. The divine way is indeed the downward way….[Jesus] moved from power to powerlessness, from greatness to smallness, from success to failure, from strength to weakness, from glory to ignominy. The whole life of Jesus of Nazereth was a life in which all upward mobility was resisted….The disciple is the one who follows Jesus on his downward path and thus enters with him into new life.”
In the kingdom of God, the way up is the way down. The way of discipleship, of missional living, is a call to serve. It is a call to get down, embrace humility, and become a servant to all—not grudgingly or pridefully but with joy and freedom! It is a call to take up our cross, to die to ourselves, and become our truest selves in Christ. “I must decrease” said John the Baptist, “and he must increase.” This is the constant prayer of a servant.
James and John wanted to be at the right hand and the left of Jesus in his glory. But who would be the ones at Jesus right and left when the hour came for him to be glorifed—the moment when he would be enthroned as king in the humility of the cross? It would be two thieves, hanging up on their own crosses, one to his left, the other to his right.
There’s a story about a visiting pastor who stood behind the Communion Table after the bread and wine had been offered, and stretched his arms out wide to pray the prayer of thanksgiving. “Look, Mommie,” a little boy exclaimed loud enough for all to hear. “He’s trying to look like Jesus on the cross.”
Yes, that’s just it. That’s what the call to serve is all about: trying to look like Jesus on the cross. In a society that prizes upward mobility, that jockeys for power and recognition, that is driven by selfish ambition, we humbly take up the cross and choose Jesus’ path of downward mobility.
What would this look like for you? To take up this role as a servant in your marriage and family? At work or school? In your neighborhood? In our church community? Who is God calling you to serve, without the expectation of reward or attention? Richard Foster urges us to pray this prayer daily, “Lord Jesus, as it would please you, bring me today someone whom I can serve.” Maybe serving others looks like allowing yourself to be served (which can be the hardest thing of all for many of us!). Ultimately, the way of the cross is not only about occasions when we serve others but a lifestyle of service!
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” writes Paul in Phillipians. “But with humility, consider others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests to but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being formed in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him thename that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and ever tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:3-11).
So come to this Table, where the exalted King of heaven and earth serves us, gives us his body and his cup so that we, too, might join him in his mission by becoming servants to all. And as you come to this Table, remember: in the kingdom of God, the way up is the way down.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.