Sermon 1767 Mark 10.35-45 October 24, 2021
Growing up I got to see all sorts of pastors. There were eleven churches within a ten mile radius of La Crescent, Minnesota. Eleven churches. For comparison purposes, we’ve got three. Eleven churches. I got to see all types of pastors—even had four before I got out of high school, one who had been in the preaching ministry for over 50 years! I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning how to be a pastor, both from good examples and bad examples. Imitate the good, do the opposite of the bad. As a youth I learned the “pecking order” for pastors, but as the years have gone by, I have grown more certain the pecking order doesn’t only apply to pastors.
1. Great leaders in the church serve.
2. Great leaders in the church sacrifice.
Our text starts out with something so beyond the beyond, I don’t know what to make of it.
“Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask (35).’”
I have some advice for you. If someone wants you to promise to do something for them, but they aren’t telling you up front what they want you to do, the answer is “No!”
“‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’ ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said (37-38).”
Anytime Jesus tells us we don’t know what we are doing, it is a good time to stop dead in our tracks and go the other way. When Jesus tells us something, don’t seek a second opinion.
“‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’ ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared (38b-40).’”
The cup is the cup of suffering. Remember Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Take this cup from me (Mark 14.36)”? James and John will suffer for the sake of the Gospel. Wicked King Herod, the same one who beheaded John the Baptist and mockingly clothed Jesus with a purple robe, within ten years will execute James. John would outlast them all, dying of old age after persecution and exile. Oh, and his heart would break as he saw false teachers sprout up like weeds and lead the faithful astray. James and John each would suffer in their own way. A baptism, an initiation, of suffering awaited. But it was not for Jesus to grant seats of honor in heaven.
Now, back where I come from everybody was a theologian. They even trained their dogs to bark out the Ten Commandments! These learned people had time to speculate for whom those seats at the right and left hand of God were appointed. After I escaped their orbit, I came to the conclusion that if you were wondering about who would sit in those seats, it wasn’t going to be you!
OK, all that is the introduction to the body of our text. If your attention has wandered, it is understandable. Here’s where the sermon starts.
“When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (41-45).’”
There is a pecking order in God’s Church. Leaders last. Great leaders in the church serve.
Here’s the root problem, not only with James and John, but with all the disciples. (And, if it was a problem for the disciples, it is hard to think we are any better than they.) Pride seeks dominance over others. Pride seeks place. And with that dominance, with that place, comes perks. It is easy to see this in the world, where people are not even trying to be Christians. Jesus said the government leaders lorded it over others. Yes, they got carried through the streets in litters. They got food when everybody else was starving. They got first dibs on the goodies, the inside track on sweet financial deals. And everybody had to make way for them. They were important. Everyone else could wait. Jesus also said they exercised authority over people. That’s a nice way of saying they bossed people around. The faithful centurion tells us all we need to know about what authority is. He doesn’t want Jesus to be stigmatized by coming under his Gentile roof. “Just say the word and it will be done.” He knows what authority does. “I tell this one ‘Go,’ and he goes, and that one ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it (Luke 7.8).” Yes, any time there is a group of people a leader must emerge and give orders to coordinate the efforts. But there is a big difference in how orders are given. Just think of the first time your big sister got to babysit you. You don’t have to have much power to be greatly corrupted.
What is the answer to pride? We are so hard-headed I have a hard time visualizing leadership as anything other than bossing other people around on a whim. What is the answer to pride? Jesus puts himself forward. “Even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (45).”
Jesus never pushed anyone around. The only time he gave an order without a word of instruction was when he told the wind and the waves to be still or when he raised people from the dead. To everybody else, all who still had soul joined to body and ears to hear, he explained, he taught, he walked with them. “Do you believe?” he asks the father of the demon-possessed boy. “Lord I do believe, help me in my unbelief.” And Jesus drives the demon out. He puts his fingers in the ears of a man deaf and mute to show him what he is going to do for him. He asks blind Bartimaeus what he wants, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Tin horn dictators do not act this way. These are not the words of a petulant prince whose pheasant under glass was slightly overcooked.
Jesus died for proud, proud sinners. Jesus died for the ladder climbers. Jesus died for those who use whatever leverage they can over others to make their own lives a little cushier. The Lord of life let sinners take that life from him as they nailed his hands and feet to the cross. He submitted not only to his heavenly Father’s will which led him to the cross, but to the godless orders and decrees of a wicked and corrupt government which sentenced him to death.
That’s your leader. That’s my Lord. How can we show our love for Jesus as we feed his lambs?
Leaders last. Great leaders in the church serve.
We are where we are so we can serve the needs of others. I just got done teaching the Catechism class, “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others (1 Corinthians 10.24).” With these words God rebukes the attitude, “I got mine, go get your own,” among our leading lights today. Can you teach? Teach Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. Can you encourage? Encourage those who are starting to wither in their faith. Talk up coming to the public worship service where you can see and talk to your flesh and blood sisters and brothers in the faith. Can you provide? Provide for the needs of your family without begrudging them. I am starting to hear about people who view their children in terms of duty instead of joy, as if their children were a burden unfairly placed upon them. Be generous and joyful providers for your families and remember to refresh those in need. Especially now, don’t forget charity to those less fortunate and to the work of the Lord. Can you organize, can you administer? We are still looking for men who love to see things running on all cylinders at church. Can you come forward to serve this fellowship of believers on our church council for next year? Can we get a team of visitors trained so that when people are not afraid of someone breathing at their doorstep we can go out, thank them for visiting our church, share the Gospel with them and invite them to come back? In the midst of the storm we are sailing through, like the ship transporting Paul to Rome, we have thrown out everything which was not essential. Now that the storm is almost past, it is time to start mending the sails. Now is the time to start reloading the cargo. Now is the time to make plans to thrive, not just to survive. Will you help?
And if you can do none of these things, you can pray. Every one of us, from the pastor to the church president to the three year old in their first year of Sunday School, can pray. We can pray that, as God has unleashed upon us a pandemic by which he calls us to repent of our individual and corporate sins, so he will shower his blessings upon us, his chastened children.
Do that and you will be great in the kingdom of God.
Leaders last. Great leaders in the church sacrifice.
We have the cross in front of our church to remind us of the greatest sacrifice. That cross is central to our faith. Without the sacrificial death of Jesus, we have no reason to believe our God is a forgiving and loving God. Without that sacrificial death of Jesus, we have no hope of heaven.
No sacrifice can even be compared to the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. That sacrifice paid for our sins. That sacrifice won heaven for us. That sacrifice so pleased God the Father that he was also pleased with us. Atonement—instead of being on the outs with God we are at one with God.
So, no, I am not going to leave the impression that leaders can get those they serve into heaven. But I am also not going to leave the impression that following the sacrificed Savior will cost us nothing. We will make sacrifices.
When we scratch our heads over why people act the way they do, one theme emerges. We want things to be convenient. Two gas stations are identical. One on the side of the street where the traffic basically goes to work, the other on the side of the street where the traffic comes back from work. The one will get more business than the other because it is more convenient to stop on the way home. Movie theaters fear people won’t come to see the next Hollywood blockbuster on the big screen because it is more convenient to stream it at home. It is inconvenient to schedule and get to routine medical screenings, no matter how necessary. So people neglect them.
Our God will inconvenience our lives. He will put a heart in us that will get up in the middle of the night to care for a sick child out of love for that child, not because we would face social scorn and legal dangers if we neglected that child. He will give us a heart that will take the time out of our hurried schedule to help someone in need, like the Good Samaritan did in Jesus’ parable. That’s not natural. The natural thing to do is walk by because we are late, we are too busy! You see the natural happening every Sunday when most people are too busy to stop what they are doing and go to church to worship Jesus. Church attendance is one inconvenient sacrifice God calls for.
Helping others will take some of our time. Hearing God’s word will take some of our time. Even making the adjustment from watching the service on the computer at home to coming to and participating in the public worship is a sacrifice. And, yes, participating in the leadership and ministry teams of Green Valley Evangelical Lutheran Church are going to take some of our time. But remember. Jesus took time out from heaven to spend those terrible hours on the cross.
And that brings us to the biggest sacrifice, the one at the heart of all these other inconvenient sacrifices. We will sacrifice our very selves as we fight against the promptings and longings of our sinful human nature. The heart filled with me has no room for we. The hand that can only grab can never give. “How do I feel about that?” tends not to be one of the first things we Christians ask ourselves when confronted with the emergencies of others. We come last. You come first today.
I see one interesting aspect of this in our modern church practices. When I was a kid and there was a meal after church, we all had to wait until the pastor got done talking with So-and-So and greeting this one and that one. When he came into the fellowship hall, then he led the table prayer and was the first in line. We came last. I remember, because I would be hungry as a little tiger. Nowadays we say the prayer while we are still in church, before everyone is dismissed. They can eat while pastor talks to So-and-So and greets this one and that one. And he gets in line like everyone else, and usually by the time he gets there, he gets the end of the line. We come first. He comes last. A little thing, perhaps, but sometimes little things are telling.
1. Great leaders in the church serve.
2. Great leaders in the church sacrifice.
As I look back, I realize I learned a lot about being a Christian from my various pastors, from what they taught, from how they acted. Not a one of them could only provide bad examples. Not a one of them provided only good examples to follow. Like everyone else they were a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Saint and sinner at the same time, Luther put it. That’s the way you and I are. Saints and sinners at the same time. I am under no illusions that a halo hangs over my head.
But we try. We want to be like Jesus. That’s why we keep going back to the Bible, like an amateur cook going back to the cookbook, engaged in a detailed recipe. We try. And in the trying we find the Holy Spirit’s guidance, power and strength to serve, to sacrifice. Help others first.