Laetare, The Fourth Sunday of Lent April 2, 2000
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They said to Him, “We are able.” So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John. But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
In Christ Jesus, who is both Servant and Lord of His people, dear fellow redeemed.
Just about everywhere you look, you’re going to find a “pecking order.” By that I mean certain people in charge, having the authority to give orders. Other people serve as assistants, workers, and helpers. They follow the orders and do much of the work. We see this arrangement in the military. The general is in charge. He gives orders to the officers. They in turn pass the orders down the chain of command. Officers outrank sergeants. Sergeants outrank corporals. Corporals outrank privates. Everyone in the military has to understand his place in the structure of the unit. They have to know whose orders they must obey, whose will they must serve, whose work they must do.
By the same token you have to know your place in the family unit or the community. You have to know your place in the classroom, at the job site, or in the office. Employees can’t tell the boss what to do. It’s his business. Students can’t boss the teacher around. It’s her classroom. You have to know your place—your position in reference to the others, who may be over you or possibly under you.
Things are no different in the church either. As Jesus points out in our text, you have to:
When comparing the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of men, you see a striking contrast. There’s plenty of history to prove that kings get power-hungry. They lord it over the nation. They force the subjects to serve and obey their every whim. When you look at the kingdom of Christ, however, what a breath of fresh air! This King is not cracking the whip and barking out orders. This King is leading by example. Not only that—He is willing to make a sacrifice out of Himself. How many human rulers would do that for the good of the people? It’s a marvelous thing. Before making any demands on the people He rules, this King will serve you by saving your life.
Let’s think back to a time when we had no place in the kingdom of God. Yes, there was a time when Christ was not your King. In fact, part of us will always be a traitor and a rebel. Like Paul says in Galatians: “The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.” Your sinful nature and my sinful nature will not stay in line and take any orders from God. For that reason we are constantly stepping out of place. We buck the will of our King, even after we become His subjects by faith. We too have acted like the disciples in our text.
It seems so brash, so brazen—what James and John were doing. Together with their mother, they came to Jesus and requested a place of honor. “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” James and John may have felt they were somehow special to Jesus. After all, the Lord had chosen them exclusively, along with Peter—three out of 12 disciples—to go up the mountain and see the Transfiguration. What they conveniently forgot, however, was the fact that Jesus did not play favorites. They got carried away with their own feelings of importance. They were thinking way too much of themselves.
We have the same problem. We think too much of ourselves. We ignore the order of rank that God has established. First and foremost, our attention should focus on God the most. Then comes our family. After that our fellow believers. Then our neighbors, and finally ourselves, way down the line. Well, you know how it goes in real life. We get the order mixed around. We push our way to the front of the line. We try to scramble ahead of the other people. We even try to scramble ahead of God Himself.
That will always be the tendency of human nature—to seek honor, privilege, glory for one’s self. So many things that we do can be measured with one simple question: Do my words, my actions, and my lifestyle contribute to the glory of God? Or do I end up seeking the glory for myself? Let’s say you accomplish something noteworthy and people give you credit for this achievement. It feels good when they praise us. We like that feeling. Well, do we stop, turn around, and give the praise right back to God? Do we thank Him for giving us the talents and ability in the first place? James and John tried to seek their own glory, and so do we in our own specific ways.
Did you notice the disturbance the two brothers were causing? Mark reports: “When the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.” Here’s another tendency of human nature. The other ten disciples were not upset that James and John were doing themselves harm. The anger came from the fact that they were being passed up. They were thinking selfishly too. They were giving into a certain form of envy. We do the same thing. We look at somebody else’s good fortune and start to resent the fact they have more than we do. We forget where our place is. It’s under God, under His authority, which does include how much He has chosen to give us.
Let’s face the bottom line. I am guilty of serving myself. You are guilty of serving yourself. Unfortunately, this guilt is very damaging. It has the potential to drive us out of the kingdom of God forever. If you have sin on your record with God, you won’t pass inspection. Your record has to be clean. So all the sins of pride, envy, selfishness, and all the other sins that we could list—they put us in a very bad place: away from God, out of His kingdom, on the slippery slide leading straight down to hell. It’s a desperate situation, because we cannot pay the price of atonement. We are not able to undo what our sins have done.
Imagine this scenario. A man makes an attempt on the President’s life. A Secret Service agent does his duty and dies as a result. The assassin is caught and convicted. Well, the President happens to be at the trial. He stands up, approaches the bench, and says to the judge, “Your honor, I want this man to go free—no charge of murder on his record. I will take his place. I will serve his sentence. I will even take his death penalty, if that is what you rule.” You can just imagine the jaws dropping. You can just imagine the judge objecting: “We don’t do that in this court.” And yet that is what the King has done for you. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Our judicial system does not allow for substitution. No one can take the place of the accused and volunteer to pay the man’s debt to society. Not even the victim, assuming that the person even chose to do it, could be a substitute for the criminal. But in God’s court the practice of substitution is valid. Jesus takes your place under the Law. Jesus keeps the commandments for you, with the result that His perfection is accumulated on your record. Meanwhile, the guilt and punishment of your sins go on Him. When Jesus dies, when He suffers the pains of hell and feels the anger of His Father’s wrath, it counts. It pays the price of justice. It pays your ransom. In the kingdom of God you will find the King taking the rap for the convict. You will see the King dying for the criminal. The King pays the ransom price for the sinner and gives that man, woman, or child—every one of us—a brand new place in His kingdom.
Jesus has put you in your place. And that’s good, because the position we now have is one of honor and privilege. You have the privilege of God’s forgiveness. You have the honor of God’s love. You have freedom from all the troubling problems: guilt, fear, death, and hell. You have connections with God—a direct hot-line that taps into His power and mercy. You also get the inheritance. Your place in God’s kingdom means that you will live forever. You will have the perfection of Christ, resurrection from the dead, ascension into heaven, visual contact and communion with God the Father. Your place in God’s kingdom is a great position to have, because of what it makes you: God’s child, God’s heir, the never-ending object of God’s love and devotion.
Talk about status! You have the greatest status there is. As Paul says in Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” You’re on the receiving end of a great deal. That will help you to face the other side of the issue. Your place in God’s kingdom is not going to be a one-way street where you receive nothing but pampered privilege and luxury. You also get to work in God’s kingdom. After the King serves you by saving your life, you serve the King … especially in the way you serve each other.
Notice how Jesus puts this: “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.” The kingdoms of this world are not the model to follow. As followers of the heavenly King, we have a new goal, a better standard. We do what He did. We look to serve others, rather than have the others serve us. Paul shows you the way when he says in Philippians, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
Instead of asking, “What can I do to make myself happy?”, we now ask, “What can I do to make Jesus happy? What can I do to make my fellow believer better off.” Look around you here. Go through the membership roster that we passed out last Sunday. These are the people whom you serve. Are you ready to accept that? Are you willing to be a servant of your fellow Christian? We’re not in the slavery business. God calls you to serve; but He leads you to volunteer. He leads you to respond with a willing heart.
Remember what Jesus said about this. When talking about the ways and means of the world and the bad example of earthly kingdoms, he said, “It shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.” That’s not so much a command as it is a prediction. Christ will make His own words come true. Wherever He plants His kingdom in the human heart, wherever He builds the spiritual life of faith, there He creates the heart of a servant. Jesus will change your mind about serving other people. Jesus will give you the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit will lead you down the path of love.
There will be results. Christ will move us into action, as we visit the sick member, as we encourage each other in time of distress, as we pray for each other and help each other in time of need. Christ gives you plenty of opportunity to serve your fellow Christian. He also gives you plenty of incentive, plenty of reason to respond.
Remember the time when Jesus saw His mother from the cross? He told John, the self-serving brother in our text, to take care of this woman. John obeyed His Lord and served his fellow Christian. How could he do any less, when he saw what Jesus was doing for him. You can be like the apostle John, you know. Not the selfish man in Mark 10, but the later man—the humble Christian standing at the cross. Look at the sacrifice Jesus made for you. Look at the wondrous place of honor that He has given you. Once you see the King serving you with so much, you get to serve Him back. You also get to serve each other. It’s all part of His plan and your place in the kingdom of God. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.