Fifth Sunday in Lent – Series B
Perhaps a rundown of the catechetical themes which have occupied us since Ash Wednesday might be helpful here. Imagine yourself in the shoes of a person entering the church, preparing for his or her baptism at Easter. He/she has heard about Jesus, but now is the time to be introduced to the very heart of the faith.
1. In the first week Jesus conquered our foe in the temptation narrative, his ministry of reconciliation was built on the truth of His son-ship and the victory he won over our enemy, thus manifesting the kingdom of which he is King.
2. The second week corrected the idea that Jesus has won all the victory therefore our life is now one of leisure and ease. Jesus enjoined us to take up a cross and follow him. The salvation of the world is accomplished in the cross and the saved will start to take its cruciform shape.
3. In the third week, Jesus cleansed the temple, was it the temple of our hearts and lives that he cleansed? John said that he did not entrust himself to the Jews of his day because he understood the hearts of humans, but we heard him imply Christ has entrusted himself to us.
4. Last week, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Jesus speaks to us about faith, that the one who is in that relationship called faith will be saved and is already walking in the light. Faith does not fret snakes slithering around my feet and biting me, but looks to the one on a pole, suspended between heaven and earth.
For the catechumen this fifth Sunday, the Sunday before Palm Sunday, wraps all these themes into a bundle and then suggests that when taken together, this victory, this cross, this faith, this presence of Christ in our lives results in a person who is defined by service. The Jesus who won the victory, the Jesus who invites us to bear a cross with him, the Jesus whose faith I share and the Jesus whose presence I enjoy, that Jesus is manifest in my life when I am stooping down to comfort a child, or kneeling beside a dying woman’s hospital bed to hold her hand. He shows up when I am making the lunches for my children, the lunches about which they may well complain to their classmates. He shows up when I am up late writing one of these Sunday’s Sermon notes and he is right there when you are writing your sermon and preaching it on Sunday. Jesus shows up not in the power and glory of our big buildings or the size of our ministry. The fact that we have not risen to the heights of Saddleback or Willowcreek does not make Jesus less here. In truth, it may be the case that in our ministry to those folks in the nursing home, Jesus is more here than there.
I find it rather ironic that the whole “40 Days of Purpose” netted its author that much cash. Yes, I know, he did the right thing and gave much of it away. But the fact of it is that Lent has always had that purposeful message embedded in its forty days. How did he manage to make so much money off such an old idea? The purposeful life is a Lenten theme, but not quite the way that 2
Rick Warren put it. The difference is that the purposeful life is rooted in the victory, faith, presence, and cross of Christ, not the Christian exercising his will. And so perhaps, shaped by this Christ, we have another service to provide, the service of love for all, even to the guy whose parking lot is full on Sunday mornings.
Does that sound arrogant? It probably does, but I don’t really mean it to. The human will is a cruel taskmaster on which to hang one’s purpose. Obedience to that taskmaster can achieve amazing results because we are the gifted creatures of an amazingly resourceful God. And, I must admit, the accusation of Lutheran apathy toward the things of sanctification can indeed be a valid critique. It is to our shame that we confess the true God and are motivated by His sweet Gospel and yet we manage to give and live so little. I would contend, however, that failure is not a failure of our will, but brings us back to last week, the failure of faith. We dare not point to the Arminian believer who trust his/her will and think that we have it right. It is a bankruptcy of our relationship with God which leads to a life which can see little beyond the grim realities of the Church budget and our own lack of time to do anything good. That said, we ought not look at our brothers and sisters in Christ who are busily bending their wills to the program as necessarily better off. They may have a few more dollars for the budget, but Christ has a way of making a little go a long way. They may in fact be serving an insatiable master who never lets them rest and who never gives them real peace. That is why I think perhaps we need a little love for the sanctification obsessed crowd.
What God is most concerned about and what we also must be concerned about is state of that heart which is engaged in that service. The simple truth is that the angels sing better than we do and God can get all this stuff done without us. He does not need our offerings. He is after us, the human being, the person, not the obedience, but the person. He loves us, you see. As we come to the week prior to Palm Sunday and Holy Week, the readings today would frame those events as the most bizarre act of all history, the Creator God to whom belongs all praise and honor will serve the rebellious creation by going to a cross and unjustly dying there, that he might enter into a relationship with us in which we are not his slaves, but his beloved people.
For every Christian who comes to that dark Friday we call “Good,” there is a terrifying reality. He hangs there for me. It is not something I bought or earned or deserved, but it was simply and wholly done, for me. The one who ought to be served by 10,000 angels on either side of him becomes the servant of all. He is surrounded by his torturers, scoffers, and weeping women, not angels. In his death he has become the lowest of the low, a corpse, little more than compost for the next biological cycle. He dies there for me. He has not come into the world to condemn the world but to save it, to serve it.
That cruciform service now is not the new thing to which we aspire, which we “will to be.” That cruciform service which Christ rendered on the cross is simply our very life. We have to lose the idea that we are somehow in a neutral position which allows us to choose it, that there is this spiritual middle ground on which we can scratch our chin and ponder whether we want to do this 3
or take some other option behind door #2. This service, this life comes into us every time we partake of that supper, it informs us when that word engages our mind, and it took root and has grown in us since the day of our Baptism. Every time the Christian’s eyes turn toward that cross, we are reminded and remembered as the products of and now the demonstration of that divine self-emptying love. I am not standing on some neutral ground making a decision about whether to serve Christ today with my time, treasure, and talent. I am caught up in a flood of divinely gracious love, or not. There is no neutral ground on which I might stand, I am either in that flood or not. In the same way that it is banal to think that we make a decision to fall in love, so too the life we live is no more about our decision to follow. Our decisions, when we make them, are simply another part of that life.
Collect of the Day
Almighty God, by Your great goodness mercifully look upon Your people that we may be governed and preserved evermore in body and soul; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Almighty God, by your great goodness… again we hear of God’s power and goodness laid side by side. It is interesting to me that most people don’t immediately leap to God’s goodness from his power. Most often they leap to an accusation that he is abusing his power or, if he is good, he is not using his power. When bad things happen, we are quick to blame God. How come you hardly ever hear of folks blaming the Devil for bad things? But such thoughts miss the next part of the prayer, the plea that God look with mercy upon his people. The man or woman who renders some human judgment of God has missed a fundamental part of the equation. The terrible things that happen to us on occasion are not acts of some undeserved or unjust capriciousness. The reality is that they are the normal way things should be. Suffering, pain, death, and much more are not the unjust imposition of a cruel God, but the earned and just deserts of a rebellious creation.
But this serves to point out the real need for the prayer. We ask God to look mercifully upon us. Mercy is what is shown to the guilty, to the defeated, to the person on the bottom of the situation by the one at the top. We ask God to govern us. That he would preserve us in body and soul sounds a lot like what we expect our doctor to do for us, but this govern part is where we run into a bit of a problem. We like to think that we could govern ourselves if we just did not have all these external things happening to us that are beyond our control. I could get along just fine if the economy, the health, that neighbor, my spouse,…Where does that conversation end?
The truth that no one wants to admit is that we have a governance issue, and it is staring at us out of the mirror when we shave in the morning. I can barely walk past a plate of donuts, forget about actually controlling myself in things that really matter. My anger, my greed, my lust for power, my craving for pleasure, my need for security I can control and status I can flaunt all combine to be my real governor. I need a new master, and I am not that master. 4
That takes God mercifully looking on me. I would like to think that I can at least get my will right, getting my priorities in order, even if I don’t actually act on them. I can at least want to act on them, and that is governance, isn’t it? Is it? No, let’s be honest here, it is not. And if I am able to look behind that face that stares out of the mirror at me in the morning, I really need God to answer this prayer. I cannot really govern myself. If it hangs on my decision, on my act of the will, I am lost.
We use govern and preserve regularly in our speech, but do we really mean the same things as a governor on my truck which prevents it from going too fast or the preserves which are stored in jars in my basement?
Do we so lionize the idea of self-sufficiency and self-governance (freedom) that we cannot even imagine what we are praying for here? Is there a tyranny of self? Have we fled from one imagined dictatorship into a more terrible one of our own devising and which we cannot will ourselves to leave? Our culture simply breathes this stuff, we don’t reflect on it, we just do it.
24 And Judah and all its cities shall dwell there together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks. 25 For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”
26 At this I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.
27 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. 28 And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the LORD. 29 In those days they shall no longer say:
“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
30 But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” 5
35 Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: 36 “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.”
37 Thus says the LORD: “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the LORD.”
Context with Jeremiah is always a dicey thing. The book really appears to most modern readers as though it has been put through a blender. The chronology is all messed up and we can discern no thematic rationale for the arrangement of the parts. It just looks random sometimes. But I have included some context here because it is helpful to reading this familiar passage. We hear this every Reformation Day if we use the prescribed readings for the day. The implication is that Luther helped us see this new covenant. Is that arrogant of us? Is it accurate of us?
The passage immediately prior to our text is very interesting to juxtapose here. It recalls Jeremiah’s call from the first chapter. There you will notice that Jeremiah is given six commands, the very same commands which are remembers/repeated here. Jeremiah has been charged to tear up, destroy, throw down, turn over, and only later to plant and build up. It sounds like we are getting to the planting and building phase here.
The passage after it is also really interesting. God essentially gives great hope here to a people who have been shattered and carried away into exile. They are wondering if they will even exist in another generation. God’s promise is strong and sure. As long as the physical order stands they will be his people and shall never pass away. Notice how Jeremiah speaks this promise to the people of Israel. When Jeremiah lived and wrote, the northern 10 tribes had been destroyed for over a century. They were gone! When he juxtaposes Israel and Judah next to each other, he means to point to the geopolitical nation which the Assyrians destroyed. But in the lens of Christ, the children of Israel are the children of Abraham – think Galatians 3 here. We are children of Abraham by faith. This promise applies to us too.
When we turn our attention to the verses which we will read, it is instructive that this passage is also the passage we hear on Reformation Day. The issue of service, why we do it, why God wants it, stands at the very heart of the Reformation event. Luther knew the cruelty of the 6
taskmaster of trusting in the human contribution to this equation. He might say the “Our Father” 100 times, but if his mind wandered once, if he even thought just once that it felt like a burden, was it pure? Was it good enough? Would it get him God’s favor? The Reformation happened because Luther asked those sorts of questions and because he was not satisfied with the “good enough” answers he got from late medieval scholasticism. Finally, after much sturm und drang he fell into the hands of his gracious God and everything changed, the very door to heaven opened, his works were no longer in that economy of salvation, at least not that way. Now they were simply what they were, the life lived in Christ, empowered by the Spirit, filled with Christ.
Jeremiah reminds us that this is all about heart, the person, the real person who lives at the center of this. This is not about some external obedience to a rule which is imposed upon us from the outside. Unlike the covenant which God made at Sinai, this covenant will be written on the very hearts of the people. It is different, and yet, if you look at it, it is exactly the same thing that he said through Moses. I will be there God, they will be my people. It is the real relationship which God seeks. It is what he always seeks and what he seeks still. It is why he goes to cross and tomb, why he pours out Spirit, and why he meets us in supper and sermon, people and forgiveness today. This heart writing is what happens in baptism. This is the good work begun in each of us and which God brings to completion on the day of Jesus (Philippians 1:6)
Notice the bitterness which is latent in this text. God says it will be different the next time, they broke that old covenant, even though I was like a husband to them. God feels jilted? The OT prophets often likened the relationship of Israel to God to that of a cheating wife who betrays her faithful husband. Anyone who has spent time around real people knows the image of pain and disappointment that metaphor evokes.
The new covenant will be within them and thus unbreakable in the way that the old one was broken. He will write it on their hearts. It will be so well known that no one will have to teach it, because all will know it perfectly, from the littlest child to the greatest of them. I am not entirely sure I am able to say just what that means, but I can imagine at least part of it. It means that this relationship is not something that I have to learn or have imposed on me, but it will be the most natural thing in the world for me. God is my God, I am his person. In one sense that has been absolutely true since the day I was baptized. But this concept is a little like a marriage. The newlywed on her honeymoon has much to learn about her beloved. They are married in the legal sense, but over the coming decades they will grow much closer together until like many older couples I know they will start to finish each other’s sentences. I am also looking forward to the day when that reality is all that I can see. It is a now and a not yet truth to speak. So there is a little room for the preachers and teachers of theology, I guess. I will have to learn a new trade in heaven, but I think many of us will start out with vocational training when we arrive. No one will need my theology classes there, nor will they need my sermons. They will know and love 7
perfectly in that place. What could I add to that? Perhaps I will take up full time gardening. The winter off sounds rather appealing to me sometimes.
We wondered what the fulfillment of this prophetic word of Jeremiah is. Do we see this happening at Pentecost? Does it happen in our baptism? Is this eschatological, fulfilled in the last day? Is it something that happens in the church now, is it something we celebrate at a funeral when we say that this person is in Christ and will be raised to new life? Is this the new life we are talking about?
We leaned toward an eschatological answer to this one. Yet, isn’t this the very question that Paul wrestles with. We are sinners and saints right now. We are right now transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12) and Christ dwells in us (Galatians 2). Those who walk in the light are one with Christ and the Father (I John). It is the tension of the now and the not-yet.
Beth Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm, this means that each section begins with the next line of the Hebrew alphabet. For some reason, Jewish poets loved these little word plays.
9 How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. 10 With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! 11 I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. 12 Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! 13 With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. 14 In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. 15 I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. 16 I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.
Psalm 119 is an extended meditation on the Law of God. Every verse mentions some synonym for God’s Law/Word. This is also the perfect text to accompany the words of Jeremiah. Look at verse 10 here: The Psalmist loves God with his whole heart, he prays that God does not let him wander from the commandments. This is best understood as someone in love, who cannot get enough of the beloved.
I would read this as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s vision of a new world in which we perfectly know the Law of God, inscribed upon our hearts. 8
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him,
“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”;
6 as he says also in another place,
“You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
The letter to the Hebrews presents the preacher with a bit of a conundrum. Mark A. Powell says that it is a little like a movie which the critics love but the audiences avoid. Theologians love Hebrews, but it is not an easy read for the average Joe in the pews. It presents one of the longest extended arguments in the entire NT, second only to Paul’s letter to the Romans. What makes this amazing to me is that it is perhaps one of the most profound books in the NT and we don’t even know who wrote it. There was at least one other mind running around the first century church who was easily the equal of Paul and John and we cannot even tell you the person’s name. That should give all of us a few reasons to doubt the scholars who come up with the “surely” and “undoubtedly” statements in their NT introductions and commentaries.
What seems to be happening in the text is that the author is making an appeal to someone to stay Christian. It appears that the audience may well be priests who converted to Christianity but 9
now are thinking about reverting to their prior role as Jewish priests. It says in Acts 6:7 that a great many of priests did indeed confess Christ in those first decades after Pentecost. The audience clearly understands Jewish rituals very well and the author clearly knows his ways around Scripture and does not feel the need to explain it to the audience either. In the extension of our passage we read above the author chastises them for not knowing more. He expects that they should know more, even be teachers of the faith. All this suggests a Jewish group of people.
The argument of the writer to the Hebrews makes use of a common formula from rhetoric in the first century. He argues that from the lesser to the greater. This is a comparative argument which compares a small thing to a big thing, notices the similar and the differences. The first verses of the book are a clear example. “In the past God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, now he has spoken to us by his Son.” In the past and the present God speaks. That has not changed, that is the same. But in the past it was through prophets, now it is more authoritative, more authentic, it is through the Son.
The general gist of the argument is that it is better to be a Christian than it is to be at the pinnacle of the Jewish religious structure. He makes this argument based on the fact that Jesus is so much greater than Moses. The Aaronic priesthood serves in the Law of Moses, but the Christian serves Christ of whom Moses was a prophet. The Christian does not need to make sacrifices because Jesus has made the one and the final sacrifice which ends all other sacrifices.
In this text today he is using the strange Genesis story of Melchizedek. This odd chapter in the Bible had also been revisited in Psalm 110. The Jewish interpreters of the Torah took their text very seriously and very literally. They noticed that there was no genealogy of Melchizedek, there was no record of his death. “If it is not in the Torah, it does not exist” was one of their basic assumptions and thus they assumed that Melchizedek did not have a beginning or an end. Of course for the writer to Hebrews, steeped in Jewish understanding of the OT, this was just too good to pass up. This was Jesus. Because Abraham bows to him, and through Abraham, all his offspring also bow before Jesus, that includes Levi and Aaron who are both descendants of Abraham, they are therefore inferior to Melchizedek.
This argument style is hard for us and the writer seems to be addressing questions which we are not asking. Yet, the careful reader sees that this odd book does speak to us. For our purposes today, we will want to focus on verses 7-10. Notice especially the profound Christology here. Jesus learns obedience through suffering and becomes the salvation of all who obey him. At first this would seem to speak against the very theology I put forward in the OT lesson, but not so. The obedience of which he speaks here is the very covenant of which Jeremiah wrote. Jesus is made perfect here, and his sacrifice is what makes this obedience an act of the obedient. This is all about the great sacrifice of the Son of God. It seems odd to us to say that Jesus learned and that he became perfect. How can the eternal Son of God learn anything? He knows all! How can He be made perfect when He already is perfect? 10
This seems, to me, to be saying that Jesus became the perfect Savior. Without that incarnational experience, the suffering, the dying, the entombment, the resurrection, He is not a perfect Savior, not the Savior we need. Remember that this salvation is born of the love of God for us. That love has created within God a self-imposed dilemma. He loves his creation, cannot bear to see it destroyed, and yet he is just, he is righteous. He cannot bear a rebellious creation. So he had to become the perfect Savior. That Savior would save from within, learning obedience through suffering. The guy who wrote this was Athanasius in a little book called “On the Incarnation.” If you have not read this, you really want to.
We were curious about Melchizedek. The Jewish tradition had read their Torah very carefully and noted that there was no place which included Melchizedek in any of the genealogies. He seemed to have no beginning and no end. Yet, Abram bowed down to him. That made him super important but he did not seem to be plugged into the human race. The Christian authors, including the writer to the Hebrews, picked up on this and suggested that this Melchizedek was actually Jesus. Thus, when the Jewish readers of this book are thinking about going back to being priests they are actually choosing a lesser priesthood than the priesthood which serves Jesus/Melchizedek. Abraham, the father of Aaron by several generations, served Melchizedek and thereby so did Aaron. The text is proving that this presumed decision to leave the Christian fold and return to Jewish priestly service is a step down, not a step up as they seem to be thinking.
At the end of the passage, it seems to suggest that Jesus only saves the people who are obedient. But that is a presumption on our part. The text itself does not demand this reading, but our human nature leaps to it. It is equally viable as a reading to suggest that the obedient Christ becomes the source of salvation, that a true obedience, which he has imparted to all of us, who are now obedient as well. The hard part here is that sinner/saint dichotomy which we continue to struggle with. But consider the Jeremiah text as well. It is written on our hearts. When? Now, and then.
Mark 10:(32-34) 35-45
32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
35 And 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “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?” 39 And they 11
said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 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.” 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
I think it is important to notice that these words start with fear. The disciples and those following Jesus are afraid. He does little to calm their fears, telling them about his death. Do they understand it? Mark regularly suggests that the reader of his Gospel account knows more than the disciples do. But it is interesting that he couches this in a climate of fear. It would appear from this and other places that the readers of Mark are also afraid, at least he spends a great deal of time with that issue.
There was an old Roman coin I heard about, with a profile of a bull looking at both a plow and an altar. (I looked for a picture of it online but my 15 minute search yielded nothing, so perhaps it is apocryphal) The motto was “Ready for either.” The idea was that the Roman people were ready for the sacrifice of dying in war or to give their lives in the service to the republic. Today John and James ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left when he comes into the kingdom. They believe they are asking for what amounts to the positions of prime minister and secretary of state or something like that. Jesus asks them if they can drink his cup, which would be an honored position. Can they be baptized with his baptism? They say, “Yes.” Do they have a clue what they are asking for here? I doubt it.
Jesus then says that they will indeed be baptized with his baptism but he cannot give the position on his right or left, there are others for whom that has been prepared, presumably a pair of thieves who will be crucified on his right and left side on Good Friday. Did John and James really realize that they were asking for that? I don’t know. Knowing their behavior in the garden and when Jesus was on trial, I really doubt it.
Yet, like the bull ready for either the altar or the plow, the two brothers would give their lives to Jesus. James was the first of the twelve to be martyred. John would serve longer than any of the others. They both expended their lives in service to Christ, but very differently from one another. One serves as a sacrifice, the other pulls the plow of a 50+ year long apostolate. The story is that when he was in his 90’s the people carried John into church on his bed so he could preach. Talk about never retiring.
It is really the last part of this text which will probably interest us, at least it interested me as I prepared. The son of man did not come to be served but to serve. Jesus couches the passion event in terms of service and then he connects this to the Christian. We will observe that passion event 12
in a little less than a week, for the catechumen, for the Christian, the cross looms large over this text. Jesus says that we know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, but it is not to be like that with us. If the scholars are correct and Mark was written in the context of the Neronian persecutions of the first century, one can see why they were afraid and this whole “lording it over each other” comment would have had special significance. The Romans were slaughtering Christians in Rome in a most cruel way. Nero was covering them in pitch or tar, crucifying them or tying them to a post, and setting them alight to illuminate his dinner parties. That comes to us from Suetonius, a second century author of an imperial “tell-all” book. It is to be different with us. We do not exercise power over one another, but we serve.
Our lives are shaped by the crucified, our Lord who died like our fellow believers on those flaming posts, hanging there for the amusement of Roman cruelty. Jesus did not cast his gruesome death as horrible injustice, although it was. He cast his death as an act of service, and then said that we likewise are the servants of all. The word here in verse 44 is “doulos” or “slave.” This translation does us the favor of translating it properly. Crucifixion was known as the slave’s death, for no citizen could be thus executed. When Jesus calls his followers to be slaves of all, that was not simply a nice sentiment, especially for Mark’s audience. They had experienced it firsthand.
Today, we may not be setting the outcasts and slaves among us ablaze to satisfy the cruelty of some despotic emperor, but we know a few things about lording it over one another. In Oregon our governor has been forced to resign because he apparently thought some rules did not apply to him. But one hardly needs to turn to politicians to see this. How many of the homes in our parishes are rendered cruel and inhospitable by someone who construes relationships to be “all about me”?
It is not to be that way with us. Next Sunday we will hear Paul’s Christological hymn in Philippians 2. Our minds are to be those of Christ, who made himself nothing, a crucified corpse. Humility is our path. This reading prepares us to hear Christ not only define our salvation but the life which flows out of that salvation act.
This life seen/perceived not only in what we do, but how we do it. This is born of a servant heart. This is about emptying ourselves – this is removed from the self-aggrandizement which seems to have driven James and John to make their request. This is the gift of Jesus to us rolling over us and transforming us into something that looks somehow like him, like him in his suffering, in his death, in his service. Our human nature lusts for power and authority. By nature we seem to exist in the very center of our own little solar system and all is supposed to revolve around us. But Christ displaces that. He writes a new “code” on our heart (Jeremiah) and that governs us differently. Now our joy is the blessing of our neighbor, the gift of self to another, the putting another into the first place. (See Philippians 2:1-5) Christ belongs in the center of our solar system; we are tied to him in a loving orbit by the gravity of his love. To think otherwise is simply to be in denial of a profound reality which the Gospel proclamation has made to us. 13
Too often we have allowed people to remain in that old reality and tried to conform our Christianity to that self-centered world. We would not let this Christianity actually redefine us, actually change us. We are afraid to ask people to take up a cross and follow Him. We are even embarrassed sometimes to ask them to give up an hour on Sunday, so we make it as convenient as possible, we will feed their desires for entertainment. We have to make them want to come, and that “want” is almost always born of a world in which they are the first priority. We are afraid to ask them to live in a world which believes what Jesus says here.
This preaching will have to challenge this. Will we invite them out of this world or will we smash the old way? Madison Avenue is dedicated to telling us that we deserve. It shows up in our prayers which never get past the “gimme” phase. Does God heal us just to make us better or does he heal us so that we might sing his praises? Are we afraid of eternity? Are we afraid of a God who might actually govern our life? Do we have a head knowledge of God and have not learned obedience through suffering and even when suffering comes we won’t learn obedience from it.
1. I like being in charge, in fact it is part of my very being. I like to make the rules and I especially like to make other people obey them.
2. That lust for power expresses in a number of different ways. In the presence of God’s almighty power, I might secretly hang onto my power to choose, to be a decider, even grasping at the power to say “no” because God gives it to me. Just because we sit in pews does not mean that we have eluded power’s grasp over our mind and heart.
3. This manifests in some terrible ways in our lives. We would rather be the master of a dingy little corner of the world than serve in heaven’s glory if someone other than self would be at the center of it.
4. But this is a cruel and bitter world we create when we each stylize ourselves as masters of our own destiny or at least of our own will. For even our will is poisoned by sin’s rebellion, every decision, every act. And so, whether we want to or not, we hurt and destroy, we value the other less than we do ourselves and finally the world gets to be a very lonely place as each of wanders off to be king of our own little place.
5. Worst of all, our little kingdoms have no room for anything larger than ourselves, and that includes God. Of course the committed self-centered person thinks that is just fine, but most of us have at least enough sense to realize that this is a problem, but how does one fit God into a world so small?
1. God does not wait for me to see the light before he acts. As Paul said, while we were still enemies. It is the jilted God who sends Jeremiah and the prophets of comfort to the people of Israel.
2. God’s greatest hurt came from the folks who used his name and sang the psalms, but from whose hearts he was excluded. God is not looking for the externals of marriage, but our hearts and he will not be satisfied until he has them, finally coursing his way into the very center of our being, yes, even the blood of his Son Jesus Christ. There does he evict the old man and create a new man in a relationship with Him.
3. And so he gives us a new set of eyes with which we can see the world. The priesthood of old is not as great as the servant hood of heaven. This kingdom Jesus brings is not like the old kingdom with its rulers and authorities. This is the kingdom where king wore a crown of thorns and held the child in his lap, where the king bent his heavenward journey on that first Easter to dry the tears of a Mary Magdalene.
4. And thus Jesus empowers another sort of life in this world, one based not on what comes to me but on what comes from him and through me to you, and from him and through you to others, including me. It is a world of a real community in which we are bound not by need to engage in a mutually consumptive economy, but by the love which has declared each of us a child of God and a person of divine dignity and worth. I am defined by God to be a servant, it is who he made me to be.
5. God has made room for himself in our kingdom by taking on human flesh, shedding his own human blood, dying our human death, so that he might blow the roof off our little world and connect us directly to heaven’s joy and heaven’s peace and best of all, to heaven’s love.
1. The slave of all…. (Gospel – That the hearer serve God and his beloved people with a joyful heart, born of Christ’s great love for him/her.)
This sermon needs to start with the fact that Jesus is the slave of all, giving his life as a ransom for the many. We are not asking anyone to become Jesus. We are noting that in being connected to him we will start to look more and more like him.
We don’t have many slaves in our community. We fought a bitter war 150 years ago to free the slaves, or at least that is the common understanding of that bloodbath we call the Civil War. The preacher will need to be somewhat careful with the term. Recent news reports have highlighted the fact that slavery is hardly a practice which was left behind in the 19th century. Today it is illegal in the US, but still practiced, often in the sex trades, but also in an indentured servitude forced on immigrants. We have slaves, but often they are invisible to us. 15
We do have another sort of voluntary slavery, if that is not oxymoronic. The gladiators of today are often found on the sporting fields and televisions screens. They toil for us, for our entertainment, for our civic pride, and for our insane competitive nature. They work hard at it, run risks, travel great distances, compete fiercely, and suffer from the elements. We pay many of them well, it is true, but it cannot entirely be about the money. I bet if you offered most athletes a job which they did not enjoy but which asked them to work that hard, you could not pay them enough to do it. But they are not in this only for the money, even when they are professional athletes. They are in it for the love of the game.
The fifth Sunday in Lent defines the Christian life as a life of service, a service which explodes out of the cross event, and sometimes, gruesomely, has even looked like the cross event as Christians in service have been martyred. For others this has meant not martyrdom but lives of quiet and sometimes difficult service. Look at John who asked today to sit on Jesus right or left. Look at many others, I bet there are a few stalwart old saints whom you could mention in your own parish. I had a gal who had taught Sunday School for 69 years in my former congregation. That is another way to give a life. How can God get away with asking that much of someone? And for what compensation? The question itself betrays the fact that this is hard for us to understand and often we misunderstand it. They say a professional football player experiences in one game the equivalent forces of being in a high speed auto accident. Think about being in a car wreck every week for 16 weeks in a row. Could they really pay you enough to do that?
In a week we will come the solemn days of holy week, when Jesus will demonstrate real servant love for this whole world. He will ride into Jerusalem, knowing what will transpire. He will be betrayed, cruelly treated, finally crucified, murdered, and dead. This changes everything, you see. Our service is no longer in the economy of buying and selling. I am not paid for what I do, God would never demean it that way, nor do I pay him for what he gives me. That too is a diminution of what we are talking about here. This is the sweetness of a child doing something for a dear parent, this is the lover and he beloved. God has written on our hearts. This is a gift given, which transforms the whole human life. Yes, make me that sort of a servant, someone who is passionate about what I am doing, who will work hard at it, and love every moment of it.
2. I have not come to be served, but to serve – that is the way is shall be among you. (That the hearer repent of his/her grasping for power and be transformed into a servant of Christ)
We have all experienced this and we know it is really painful when it happens. The Church, which is always a gathering of sinful people ought also to be the gathering of God’s humble and gracious servants united in the forgiving love of Christ. They are still sinners, and they will still sin, but this assembly ought to be a place which deals with sin differently than the rest of the world. Too often, however, what should be most like a 16
loving family becomes the arena of human power struggles and contention. The issue doesn’t really matter here; it changes from place to place. In one congregation it is purely personal, in another the budget is the flashpoint, in yet another it is the preacher, and still in another it is the music. At the heart of all of them is an ugly truth about all of us. We like power and we exercise it to our destruction. We lust for glory, and we are willing to forget the mission, the purpose of the Church entirely, destroying the mission of God’s kingdom so we can hold our turf, get our way, exercise our place and position and power. The fastest way to stop growth in a parish is to get them to turn on each other.
James and John sought power today, they wanted to be big cheeses in what they envisioned would be the new kingdom. They would be, but it would not turn out at all like they imagined as they walked down the road with Jesus. We should not be too hard on poor James and John here. The other disciples rode them pretty hard, but the truth be told, they were more angry because they had not thought of it first. Jesus defines for us another way today and then empowers it. This place in which we gather as the people of God is to be marked by a different sort of ethos, another sort of attitude. This is not the place for “lording it over” one another. This is an assembly of service. That reality is empowered by the fact that Jesus has poured out his Holy Spirit into each and every one of us. That “renewal of the mind” as Paul calls it in Romans 12, is not a pious wish on our part, but it is a real action Christ’s part. Just look at what he did with James and John.
That reality starts not with me, not with some act of my will or my decision, but with Jesus on the cross and has continued to this day in every place that his people gather. Consider what Jesus did that Friday we call Good. The attitude of which Jesus speaks starts with His genuine humility. By rights he could have had the worship of a million angels, but he hung around with idiot disciples. He could have stopped the very world from spinning, but he let himself be nailed to a tree. He had all the rights, but he suffered the wrong because he loved us.
Shall we really stand up for our “rights” today even when it is not in the best interest of our fellow believer or our fellow human being? Jesus also acted in service. He forgave those who hurt him, and sought their blessing. He did not spurn the foolish disciples but once more patiently explained to them what this kingdom was about, just as he does for us once more today. This sermon is really Christ’s solemn appeal and teaching for you this day. Finally, he showed them how it worked when he gave his life for the sins of this whole world. This is our heart that stops beating on that cross, and it is our life which is raised on that first Easter morning. Now we live in him, shaped by him, with his Spirit dwelling in us and his love coursing through us.
What shape does that take among us? How does that change the way we conduct our meetings? How does that change the way we speak to one another and about one another? Christ transformed these power grubbing disciples into something marvelous. 17
All those disciples would give their lives away for Jesus, because they loved him and he loved them. James would be the first to die, John would spend his life in service, preaching until he was 90! What did Jesus do to them? The very same thing he does for you today. It is the body broken and blood shed we share at this altar, the very transformation that turned these disciples into the apostles on which our faith is built. (Ephesians 2) That same crucified and risen Christ comes to you today, to work the very same change in you.
The next time you are tempted to put yourself into the middle of your universe, when the words come up from the bile and you are ready to hurl them across the table to someone, know that Christ has given you another word to speak, so speak that word: “I forgive you.” Know that Christ has poured another sort of life out for you and into you. Live that life. He really has given you that life, let it out. What a gift of new life he has given you to live.
3. And he learned obedience…and became perfect. (Epistle – That the Holy Spirit would inspire the hearer to holy awe and obedient love as we come to Holy Week)
The Epistle reading says a strange thing about Jesus. He learned obedience. For many who have been schooled in the modern church which has fought hard battles with those who would say Jesus was just another man, we have put a great deal of energy into the idea that Jesus is God. And with good reason, for our salvation hangs on that crucified Son of God.
How can God learn anything when he already knows everything? God is almighty, how can he gain power? He cannot. God is already holy, how could he become more pure? That is silly. So how can the omniscient God learn something? And yet, here it is, right in front of our eyes, in the Bible itself.
St. Augustine loved these little conundrums. He called them “wrinkles” in the text and says that God deliberately puts them in the text so intelligent people won’t fall asleep in church. He gives us little bits to think about. God is interested in us asking these questions. He likes the inquisitive mind.
It is not a mistranslation, nor a corruption of the text. He learned obedience and in doing that became the perfect savior of you and me. He even gave that obedience to us. Remember the discussion of the Ten Commandments we had two weeks ago.
One way to think about this is in terms of experience. I could study the mechanics of riding a bicycle and be able tell you the physics of balance and why riding the machine more rapidly makes it easier to balance, but until I got on the silly bike and rode it, I would hardly know how to ride the bike.
Jesus knew obedience as the eternal, incarnate Son of God since before the world was made. But in his death upon a cross, the suffering, and sacrifice he endured there, he 18
learned it, experienced it. He took up human nature and with it the possibility of rebellion and failure to obey. He put perfection in to practice. He passed that test and tasted the bitterest dregs of obedience on Good Friday. Finally a human had learned what no other human had ever mastered. He perfectly obeyed.
But the preacher needs to beware here. We are walking into the mystery of the incarnation and to suggest that we have with this little bicycle illustration figured out this passage would be arrogance on our part. These are deep waters and there is much here which defies our comprehension. Ignorance is not really the problem here, the real problem is imagining that you know something.
The real message of this text is found in the fact that Jesus’ obedience has made him our perfect savior. Appointed by God to the highest place, he has walked Golgotha’s cruel path, agonized under a lash and been pierced for our transgressions. Humble and obediently he went, knowing full well what he was about to suffer, but for us and for our salvation he went anyway. Not only learning obedience but imparting it to us as well.
Paul says in Galatians 2 that this Jesus dwells in us. Right here the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus became the source of salvation to the obedient, but their obedience does not come first but after Jesus’ work. Jesus has become the source of salvation for all who obey him. Even the obedience, you see, is really his and really him. He is the source of salvation, it all comes from him. He became a man to learn human obedience from the inside, and to perfect human obedience, the obedience which had been lost in a garden long ago.
Now having become a man, he has given that obedience to all mankind. He has restored what has been lost, perfect fellowship with God in which our lives are perfectly obedient in him. We are, it is true, sinners. But we are also and equally saints. It is true. That saintliness is not our accomplishment, as if we have finally gotten it right. Our saintliness is his creation, because Jesus got it right.
But that saintliness is not just an idea or a thing which we imagine. It is a real thing which takes real shape in our lives. Look at John and James in the Gospel readings. They certainly did not have it right there, and yet, in decades to come they would bear witness to Jesus’ love beautifully in a life given to service and sacrifice. Jesus is doing the same thing to us today. Imparting his perfect obedience to sinners.