“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this fifth and final Sunday in Lent is from the Gospel lesson read just a few moments ago from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, the disciples had bad timing. This was not something extra-ordinary, but simply a consequence of the sinful nature that they share with us. Saying inappropriate things at the worst moments is one of the more embarrassing aspects of our fallen nature, and often it leads us into big trouble. Earlier in Mark chapter ten, the rich man goes away sad, and Jesus says “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” He then goes on to tell His disciples exactly how this will play out in His own life. “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 after three days He will rise.” Could Jesus have put it any more clearly? His kingdom is not of this world, but instead will be founded on His shed blood, as He who is first makes Himself last. Like the rich man, the disciples should not cling to glory but should follow the example of their Lord- “many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
But the disciples still don’t get it. And not only do they not understand, but James and John choose this very moment to make a self-serving request. “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.’” Wow! There is something to be said for being bold in prayer, and I would encourage each and every one of you to cry out to your Lord and Savior in the confidence that He will answer. But this request of James and John is self-serving, it is self-seeking, none of what Jesus has just taught is getting through to them. James and John do not see Jesus as the suffering servant, they see Him as an avenue to get what they want. And what they want is glory. “And they said to Him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” Those who believe in Jesus are so often tempted to see Him simply as a distributer of what we want, whether it be money, possessions, respect, or glory. Too often our prayers have more to focus on our wants rather than our needs and the needs of those around us. The kind of request that James and John made has no place among the disciples of Christ, both then and now.
“And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.” The other disciples make quite a show at being upset at the two brothers, but their motives are far from pure. They are simply upset because James and John beat them to the punch, their images of glory are the same. They can outwardly demonstrate their indignation, but in reality it is born of jealousy, and clothes itself in indignation to hide the fact that they would have done the same. The disciples all want to know who the greatest is, each and every one of them has missed the point of all that Jesus just taught. And so Jesus must teach them again.
“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. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.’” How often do we play power games in the Church? How often do we have jealousy for the blessings of another? How often do our prayers focus on ‘what’s in it for me’? We are so much like the disciples, tempted to jockey for position, to use Jesus as our ‘wish machine,’ and then show some self-righteous indignation when others do the same. My friends, it should not be this way! That is the way of the world, the way that sinful humanity operates. Not so in the Church! In the Church we are called to be servants above all, servants of every person everywhere. We are to serve them with the love of Christ- our love and service is based off of Him. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Jesus was the only one who truly deserved to be served by all humanity, and yet He did not demand such service, but instead Himself took the form of a servant. Jesus demonstrated that to us throughout His life, but the greatest object lesson of that service was yet to come: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
It was only at the moment of the cross that the disciples would truly see what Jesus was talking about. It was there that His true and ultimate servanthood would be revealed. For at the cross the firstborn of all creation, the One begotten of the Father from all eternity, would allow Himself to be bruised and beaten, mocked and humiliated. There the sinless Son of God, who had no wrong of His own to answer for, would make Himself last, there and only there would the truth of His words be made visible reality: “But many who are first will be last.” There He placed all others, indeed all of fallen humanity, you and me before Himself, counting your deliverance as more important than His very life. There Jesus reversed the request of the sons of Zebedee. James and John wanted glory, they wanted to place themselves first, but Jesus told them what the life of His followers truly entailed. “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?” The disciples clearly showed that they did not know what they were asking when they replied, “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, but to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
James and John would drink the cup because their lives were conformed to the pattern of Christ. He would be the one to drink the cup, and He would drink it for James and John, you and me, for all people. For this cup was the cup of God’s wrath, a cup that had been filled to the brim with the punishment that all our sins deserved. The psalmist writes: “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” This was the cup that we deserved, we deserved to face the wrath of God for our sins, but Jesus came to us as a servant and willingly drained it to the dregs. The only human who did not deserve to drink the cup was the one who drank it in our place- He drank it so that we would not have to. On Calvary’s cross He drank it, as the sun hid itself and God turned His back on His Son. There Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled: “Thus says your Lord, the LORD, your God who pleads the cause of his people: ‘Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more.’”
But this drinking of the cup, Christ’s suffering and death on Calvary’s cross, was not simply an object lesson, it was the very means by which Christ would deliver us from our sin. The only way that Christ’s death could be an example of service is if His death meant something, if it actually atoned for our sin. Christ did not simply die on the cross as if to say, “Go and do likewise,” He died to deliver us from our sins, from our sinful jealousy, our jockeying for position, our prideful requests from Jesus, each and every one of those sins were paid for. And they were paid for because Christ gave His life as a ransom for our sin. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Every word at the end of this verse is significant. Christ serves us by dying for us, by dying in our place, on our behalf. We were trapped in bondage to sin, living as slaves, but Jesus came to us, He became a slave like us, He became a slave in our place. But He did not only become a slave, He also paid the ransom price to deliver us from our bondage. And what was that price? His very life. He gave up His life on Calvary’s cross in our place, drinking the bitter cup of God’s wrath for you, for me, for all people. He paid the ransom, the price we owed to God, with His very blood. He is the servant, He is the one that pays the price, and He Himself is that price. Jesus plays all the roles, for we by ourselves could do nothing toward our own salvation. And He rose again on Easter morning triumphant over death- just as He has life, so we too will follow His pattern, because of the ransom that He paid, the cup that He drank, we too will be raised to live with Him forever.
Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” The death of Christ was a bloody baptism, it involved His own suffering and death to pay for our sins, His suffering and death in our place. But for the disciples, Christ’s bloody baptism pointed forward to another imitation of Christ. All those who follow Christ have the possibility of laying down their lives for Jesus, all of us may imitate His death by becoming martyrs. We will not drink the cup of God’s wrath, for thanks be to God that Christ drank it for us, but we will drink the cup of suffering, of persecution for the sake of our Lord. Our lives will be conformed to His, and He will be beside us in all that we face. That is part of the baptismal life, part of being baptized into Christ. Paul teaches us this in Romans chapter six, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Our baptism is into His ‘bloody’ baptism on the cross. The old sinful person in us is drowned and put to death in those waters, and a new person, one ransomed by the blood of Christ, one claimed by God, is brought forth to live before Him. Just as our Lord describes His death as a baptism, so our baptism is into Christ’s death. May our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the One who stood in our place, the One who drank the cup of wrath for us, the One who baptized us into His death, preserve us in that faith until eternal glory, Amen.