Monday, March 30, 2009

Sermon on Mark 10:35-45, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, “To Serve and Be a Ransom”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today in our Gospel reading Jesus contrasts true greatness with the self-promotion of the world. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

James and John were fairly shameless in their request to be granted whatever they wanted…as if Jesus were a genie in a bottle to do their bidding. And what a request! To be the right-hand and left-hand men to Jesus, when He came in His glory. Of course, who was better qualified? They were the go-getters, bold and over-confident in their abilities. They were confident that whatever honor or greatness Jesus would rise to, that they were equal to that ascent. They were fit to share in that honor and glory. Apparently the other ten disciples had less confidence in James and John, than they had in themselves. The ten disciples became indignant or sorely angry when they found out about this request. Was it because they thought it should have been them instead?

Isn’t it easy to become the center of your own universe? That our will, our preferences, and our ambitions should be held up as superior over everyone else? Of course, who knows better than us? Life should conform to our demands, so that in true Burger-King fashion, we can “have it our way, right away.” Advertising surrounds us with this idea, making the buyer supreme, in choosing every customizable product or experience available. On the radio a few months ago, they made the comment that “Advertisers tempt us to project our hopes on the objects they are selling.” Our hopes are placed on the material objects we gather, in the expectation that they’ll give us fulfillment. And once again, we’re at the center. Everything revolves around us and our satisfaction.

When we become the center of our own universe, watch out! We’ll begin to start making some outrageous demands. Like “seat me at your right hand or left hand in your glory.” I wonder if I’m the only Christian who’s ever secretly wondered if they have a shot at either place. Of course this is nothing but prideful arrogance and missing the entire point. If we’re not so self-promoting to think that we’ll be God’s favorite, at least we’ve probably shared the opinion of the disciples James and John that we know what’s best for the rest. We don’t hesitate to set ourselves as an authority over Scripture, judging what to keep and not to. Or in work, church, or family, we become the self-appointed experts on everything. Obviously this attitude is not compatible with Jesus’ view of discipleship or with true greatness.

Jesus warns the disciples that those who were considered rulers lorded their power over others, exercising their power and authority over them. This is standard operating procedure for how the world works. But Jesus says, “But it shall not be so among you!” This self-promotion and putting ourselves at the center of the world, won’t fly among Christians. This attitude must be repented of, and put behind us. Jesus says that whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. In a black and white contrast to the way the world seeks greatness, Jesus says that the path to true greatness is by the road of humility, servitude, and suffering. This path, Jesus showed James and John, was more difficult than they thought it to be.

He said they really didn’t know what they were asking for, because there was a cup He was going to have to drink, and a baptism that He was going to undergo, in His rise to glory. What cup? At a meal? What baptism? His baptism in the Jordan river? The cup that He was speaking about refers to a well-known Old Testament metaphor for God’s judgment. The Old Testament prophets wrote in many places about the “cup of wrath.” Honestly, it’s one of the most fearful and terrifying images in the Bible. A cup that is filled with wine, wine that represents God’s wrath that is storing up against sin. The longer God’s people sin and rebel against His law, the more the cup fills up with the wine of His wrath. Then in frightening imagery, the prophets wrote that God would force them to drink this cup of wrath to its bitter dregs, and that they would stagger and reel from His fierce anger (Is. 51:17ff). God’s punishment would be unleashed, and it would make them stagger like drunken men.

These are chilling words, and are difficult to hear. How can we think of God as wrathful? Is He not a God of Love? He most certainly is. But to deny God’s terrifying wrath against sin is to deny God’s absolute opposition to evil. It would mean that God is tolerant of, or even approving of evil. But the Psalms say of God: “You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you” (Ps. 5:4). Evil cannot exist in the holiness of God’s presence. He takes no pleasure in evil, not in the least, and to believe in such a god would be even more terrifying. A god for whom evil was no different from, or just as acceptable as the good, would be like a judge who shrugs at and ignores heinous crimes, and lets off the guilty with the innocent. There would be no difference between his blessing and his cursing. But we have no such God. We have the God who is truly the God of Love, and who is utterly opposed to evil. His wrath and love are not incompatible, nor are they opposites.

To quote an excellent observation of another pastor: “The opposite of love is hate. The thing that God hates is sin. He is vigorously and relentlessly opposed to sin and all evil because sin mars, disfigures, and destroys what He has lovingly created. From that standpoint, the more God loves, the more He will be angry with everything that mars the perfection of the beloved, the more he will be angry with sin. That’s not hard for us to understand. If you had spent all day painting your garage only to have some vandals come along at night and spray paint obscene graffiti messages all over your garage, wouldn’t you be angry? In a very real sense, God’s wrath could be seen as God’s love blazing out in fiery indignation over every sin and evil that makes obscene what He intended to be clean!” (Pastor Stephen Starke, 3/21/07 Sermon on Propitiation.)

So this background helps us to understand what Jesus meant about the cup He was going to drink. It helps us understand the sheer human terror that Jesus felt in the garden when He prayed that if there was any way, that “this cup” could be taken away from Him, that it would be. Jesus knew the cup of God’s wrath that He was about to drink would cause Him to stagger and reel from God’s fierce anger against sin. More than just the physical torments that we see vividly on the cross, but the spiritual torment of sin and guilt and shame upon Him, and the righteous anger of God pouring out against Him for all that sin has done to mar, profane, and destroy His creation. This was the baptism that Jesus would undergo…the baptism of His death on the cross, the shouldering of all the sins that He had been washed in, and bearing them till His life ebbed out. This is the astonishing way that God maintained His holiness and wrath against sin, yet in unbounded love turned His wrath away from us sinners.

We were spared from drinking that cup of wrath, because Jesus drank it for us, to the bitter dregs. He staggered and reeled under the force of the blow, till the weight of the cross was so unbearable that Simon the Cyrene humbled himself to become a servant to Christ, this condemned criminal dragging the heavy weight of His own cross, and the even heavier weight of sin. Jesus asked James and John if they were able to drink this cup. They answered that they were able. They would share in the cup of Jesus’ sufferings—James, when he was the first of the 12 disciples to be martyred, and John, though he was not martyred, endured persecution and exile for his faith. But even this limited participation in the sufferings of Christ was not sufficient to grant them places at Jesus’ right and left hand. And their sufferings could not compare to Jesus’. But when they shared His cup, and in whatever small way we share this cup of suffering through our own persecution for the sake of Christ—we’re even more so participants in His grace and blessing. For “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).

So for us the marvel of the Gospel, the good news about Jesus, is that by His drinking of the cup of wrath for us, He turned God’s wrath away from us. God’s wrath against sin will not weigh against us because by faith we have been enfolded in the loving arms of Jesus. Here is how Jesus became our servant, and became a slave to all. Jesus, the only Son from heaven, took the lowest place, becoming a servant of mankind. Becoming the lowest criminal to die an inglorious death. To drink the cup of wrath that was filled for us, and thereby turn God’s wrath away from us. He did what no one else could or willed to do. He chose not to have it His way, He chose not to possess all material things and lord His power and authority over all His subjects. He sought nothing for Himself, but everything for us. He chose to be the humblest slave and servant of all, even giving His life as a ransom for many.

To be a ransom. A word connected with slavery and servitude. We were truly slaves chained and sold in sin. And He became the slave of all to be the ransom of all. He took our place on the auctioning table, ransoming our lives, and surrendering His own. He took the terrible fate of the cup of wrath so that we now stand acquitted, innocent before God. Not because God left sin unpunished, or had no wrath against sin. But because Jesus Christ our Blessed Savior, turned away God’s wrath forever (LSB 627). So we are now free to give our lives in service and humility to those around us. We know the futility of self-promotion and seeking to be first. We know that that path does not lead to glory or greatness. But since we have been ransomed from the slavery of sin, we can enter into the voluntary service of others, so that they might see Christ’s love in our actions and words. And we can help call and steer those who find themselves under the wrath of God, to find shelter under His everlasting love, and to become one of the ransomed. Ransomed by the life of Jesus. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. What actions or attitudes in our own lives are examples of self-promotion or self-centeredness? Why are such attitudes unchristian?
2. What is the cup that Jesus spoke of drinking? Why was it so terrible? Read Isaiah 51:17-52:3. Jer. 25:15ff.
3. Are God’s love and wrath contradictory? Why not? What would be lost if God’s wrath against sin were denied?
4. How does God spare us from His righteous wrath without ignoring sin or taking evil lightly?
5. In what limited way do Christians partake in Jesus’ cup of suffering? How is the cup of wrath turned into a cup of blessing for us through Jesus’ death?
6. How was Jesus a servant and a ransom for many? What does this mean for your life and actions?

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