Sunday, March 06, 2005

Sermon - Lent 4 - Matthew 20:17-28

Lent 4 – March 6, 2005
Matthew 20:17-28
“An Inappropriate Request”

Text: Jesus Again Predicts His Death
17Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 18“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
A Mother's Request
20Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21“What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22“You don't know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, 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 by my Father.”
24When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first must be your slave– 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

I. Introduction –
One of the blessings of a church calendar is that we get to retrace, each year, the important events in the story of our salvation. Particularly, in the life of our Lord Jesus. For example, we know that Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, and that it leads up to Holy Week. We know that in 2 Sundays we will be marking Palm Sunday, with our Lord’s arrival into the Holy City. Then we will observe Maundy Thursday, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and instituted the sacrament of His Supper. We know that Good Friday is coming, that darkest day in our church year, when we remember Jesus’ death for us. And we also know that Easter is right around the corner. We know what is coming. We know what to expect. And this yearly rhythm to our life of faith gives comfort, and helps us to grow in our faith.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples, just what is coming. What to expect. How it will all happen. Only instead of responding in faith, some of them came with an inappropriate request. In spite of this, Jesus presses on, and teaches them more about not only what to expect, but what it means. Let’s examine the reading, so that we too can know what to expect.

II. Jesus Sets the Agenda

Jesus Christ knew what he was doing. He was going to be arrested. He was going to be tried. He was going to be mocked, beaten, spit on, flogged, sentenced and executed. While suffering to death, he would endure the anguish of the Father’s forsaking, that is, the cup of God’s righteous wrath. Then, when he was dead, they would wrap him in burial linens and leave his lifeless body in the dark of a sealed tomb.

Jesus progressively reveals this truth to his disciples. Here is recorded at least the fourth occasion on which he predicts just what will happen to him –and each time it gets clearer. Now, even the details of mocking, flogging and the particular form of his death are given. As is the promise of Easter. He knew it was the Jews who would take him, and the Gentiles who would crucify him. Still, it is Jesus who sets the agenda. Jesus knew what He was doing. And he told his disciples what was coming.

But then James and John and their mother, boldly, (awkwardly?), and inappropriately come with an agenda of their own.

III. An Inappropriate Request

Have you ever had something really important to say to someone, and they just didn’t seem to want to listen? You want to tell them about your new job – and they want to talk about the latest sale at the store. You have exciting news about a new baby – and they want to complain about not finding a parking space. You want to say, “I Love You”, and they are worried about what to have for dinner.
I wonder if Jesus felt this way, as he poured out his soul to those disciples – speaking very plainly and seriously about something very important – namely, his arrest, suffering, death and resurrection – But THEY have “more important” things to deal with.

So here come James and John – along with mommy. Now admittedly, these were two of the “big three” disciples. With Peter, they were part of Jesus’ inner circle. They got to see the transfiguration. John stayed with Christ to the very end, the only disciple not to forsake him completely. And some scholars believe that James and John were even cousins or relatives of Jesus. They were already closer than the “crowds” and more “in” than most of the 12. But they wanted more!
A selfish request? Greedy? How could we describe it? Inappropriate at best.

First of all they seemed to ignore what Jesus had JUST SAID! “Yes, yes, dying and rising, Jesus. Whatever. Let’s talk about what’s really important. US, and our positions of honor and glory. We can get to this crucifixion business later.” Can you imagine? Sometimes I just want to see the look on Jesus’ face.

Furthermore, their request was inappropriate because they continue to misunderstand the true nature of Christ’s kingdom, and the true purpose of his work. They are looking for the earthly King, the political Savior, the Military Messiah. What a poor substitute such a Christ would be, when instead we have the very Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world. Who testified himself, “My kingdom is not of this world”. That would be way too small a kingdom. Instead, he rules hearts and lives by the saving Gospel. He brings a lasting peace, an eternal security that no earthly king could offer. Our annual theme reminds us of that, “telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36)

But any time we pick on the disciples, we must turn the focus also on ourselves. Let’s not think we are any less prone to sin, selfishness, and confusion. 2000 years later we are still capable of ignoring the most important messages Christ offers. We still look for God to be the kind of God WE want, to whom we may as well pray, “MY will be done, Lord”. We still underestimate just how mighty His kingdom is, how powerful His promises are, how great His love. Lent is a good time to be reminded.

And just as Jesus gently steered the conversation back where it needed to go, and refocused them on his suffering service… so too would our Lord direct our attention to His crucifixion and death and resurrection.

IV. Not to Be Served, But to Serve

Jesus lets the Zebedee boys know, that His kingdom means suffering. That’s what the “cup” is, a metaphor for the suffering He would endure. “Can you drink it too?” They thought they could, but they couldn’t really. Only He, true man and true God, the Lord’s anointed, could bear such a burden. Only He is the savior.
The irony is that they would suffer. James was one of the first disciples to die a martyr’s death. And John, though he died of old age, was persecuted and imprisoned for Christ, even exiled to the island of Patmos as an old man.

But the real suffering, the ultimate suffering, the paying the price of Hell and condemnation before God, Jesus would do that. For James and John, for Mrs. Zebedee, for the other disciples, and for you and me. For unlike the rest of the world’s rulers, our King is a servant. His kingdom truly is different!

When the other disciples heard what James and John were up to, they were upset. Probably upset that they were stabbed in the back, and that they didn’t think to ask the same thing sooner. Perhaps a quarrel broke out among them, as these supposed men of God wrangled over places of power and authority in the kingdom.

Another irony here, is that the disciples are promised thrones of rulership, “judging the 12 tribes of Israel”. And in the vision of heaven John sees in Revelation, there are 24 elders, wearing crowns, seated on thrones. They represent all of God’s people, who participate in the rulership of His kingdom. After all, He has made us a “ROYAL priesthood” – a nation of kings. And that includes you and me.
But remember also, our King of Kings sets the example of service.

While earthly kings are full of their own power and demanding obedience and servitude – Lording their authority over their subjects – it is not so with Christ – and “not so with you”. The Christian, a royal priest, is like the High Priest and King – first, a servant. Life in His kingdom means putting others before ourselves. Not seeking the best seat in the house, the power, the honor, the praise of men. But, “how may I help you, my neighbor?”

Even more than an example - Christ’s ultimate service of suffering and death to us is what makes us who we are – makes us holy, makes us part of the royal bloodline, and empowers us to serve by His Spirit. Jesus sets His 12 disciples straight, and he reminds us, His modern disciples, of the same.

As our Lenten reflection continues, we read of Jesus and his important agenda. But like the disciples and their inappropriate request, sometimes we make less of our Lord’s work. In sin we want power for ourselves. Still, it doesn’t stop our King from being our Servant, and through the cross and the resurrection, from making us royal servants too. The Lord bless us, as we serve each other and as we serve Him who has served us all, in Christ, Amen.

V. Conclusion

Oh, Mrs. Zebedee and her inappropriate request! But Jesus uses the occasion to again point to the service He would render - for the disciples, and “for many”. He is the Servant of all.

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