Lent 5, March 25th, 2012
“Game of Thrones”
There's a popular series of books and tv shows out there called “Game of Thrones”. In it, rulers and would-be rulers of various kingdoms jockey for position and influence. And you can imagine why our pop culture goes crazy for stories like this. We all have those desires for power and glory. We all have our own little game of thrones. It's part and parcel of our sinful nature to seek out power and control, to go after glory.
Take James and John, they come to Jesus with a request. And you know its going to be trouble when they try to get him to agree before they even say what it is. But they're gunning for their spot in the game of thrones. They want the best seats in the new kingdom. When Jesus conquers the Romans, they want to be at his left hand and his right hand – his #1 and #2 go-to-guys. They want the power and the glory and the influence that they deserve for being his faithful followers all this time. And they want to make sure it's them and not Peter or Matthew or God forbid, Judas.
Oh, but as the disciples usually do, they have it all wrong. Even though he continues telling them plain as day what's coming – suffering, death, cross.... As Jesus says, they don't know what they are asking. They think Jesus coming into his glory will be one thing, when it will be quite another.
“Can you drink the cup I am about to drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am about to undergo? Are you able to do such a thing?”
“Oh yes! We are able!” But they still don't know what he means.
Jesus has in mind his suffering and death. He has on his mind, the cross. “Drink the cup” reminds us of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, where he prays that this cup would pass, but not my will but yours be done, oh Father. That cup of suffering. That cup of God's wrath which is about to be poured out on him A bitter cup, indeed.
And a baptism – a cleansing – of sin. Jesus was already baptized by John. A baptism which identified him with us, showed him as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Now the lamb of God was about to take those sins to another baptism. A baptism of suffering and death. A sacrifice of himself. A shedding of his blood. And there with him all sin would die. Can you do that, James and John? Of course not.
You don't know what you are asking. They will bow down before me, but in mockery. They'll dress me in fine robes of purple, only for a sadistic show. I'll have a scepter in my hand, but they'll beat me with it. And I won't be sitting on a jeweled throne of high honor, I'll be seated, rather, hung, on a cross, in shame. I won't be wearing a golden crown, but one of thorns. And while it will be written, “This is the king of the Jews”, that too will be further derision.
No, in my glory, it won't look very glorious. I'll be a pitiful picture, a stricken, smitten, afflicted wretch of a man. But there will be a place at my right and left hand – places for thieves. That's already been appointed.
In fact all of this has been appointed by the Father. It's his will. And it's good news!
See, life in Christ's kingdom is different. In the world, the greatest have servants. In his kingdom, the greatest serve. And the greatest is the servant, the slave of all. Who serves by giving his life as a ransom for many. Jesus is a king, but what a different kind of king he is. He is glorified, but his glory is in the suffering of the cross to forgive the sins of the world. Your sins, too.
We sinners are so concerned about our own little kingdoms, our own little thrones. We want to be our own masters, set our own rules. We re-define sin as what someone else does wrong, and not what I do wrong. Might as well make up your own commandments, but don't write them in stone, keep them flexible. You're in charge, remember.
And in our arrogance we would even make God the servant, that we could tell him how to do his job, and snap our fingers for him to do this that and the other thing for us. We want him on to act in our time, by our deadline. And that usually means, “right now”.
This calls for repentance. A turn-around, a change of mind. Jesus said, “you don't know what you're asking.” But they would learn.
James and John, and the other disciples, would soon see Christ in his glory, on the cross. They would seem him exalted in resurrection. And they would stand amazed as he ascended into heaven, to take back his heavenly throne. From there he rules his church in love, even today, seated at the right hand of the Father.
And from there he gives us his gifts, even today – a cup to drink, and a baptism to be baptized with. Gifts of grace and life. From there he would send his Holy Spirit, who empowered those power-hungry disciples with a different power – the power of the Gospel. The power of Christ's own message that the kingdom is at hand, and has now arrived.
But still, there is the cross we take up when we follow him. In Christ our own little thrones become our own little crosses. And it will be so until we too pass through the gate of death into the promise of life to come.
James would suffer his own cup and baptism – killed by the sword, the first of the 12 apostles to die. John would go on to die of old age, but still suffered persecution and imprisonment. For the apostles, and for us, glory is found not in a trouble-free life, but amidst the troubles and suffering.
It's found not in taking one's throne, but in putting others above you, before you. It means stooping down and washing feet. Just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.... so do we his servants, come not to be served, but to serve. For his sake, in his name. Amen.