Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 29 • 18 Oct 2015

Job 38:1-7
Mark 10:35-45

Rev. Chris Udy

It would be easy
to turn today’s Gospel reading
into a whinge and a moan
about the world in general
and politics in particular -
but that leave us with nothing to do
except feel righteously outraged.
Ranting at the world
is fun for a little while -
it even feels like we’re doing something useful -
for a while -
but pretty soon we recognise
that it’s only when we find a way
to change ourselves -
to change what we think and do,
to change how we live and work,
and by our changes,
to encourage others like us
to work for healing in the world -
it’s only when we change ourselves
that we can make a difference.
And if we don’t change -
if we don’t do something positive and active -
then we remain grumpy passengers,
or maybe worse -
collaborators and contributors
to the world’s distress and confusion.

Strange to hear that sort of thing
at the beginning of a sermon -
usually we wait for the confrontation
to come somewhere near the end -
but the reading for today from Mark’s gospel
turns things upside down -
and what Jesus says to James and John
is confronting to us as well.

Like most of us, James and John
thought Jesus was something special;
like most of us,
they wanted the world to be the way
Jesus said it should and could be -
a place of justice and compassion,
where love and truth are the fundamental values.
Like most of us also,
James and John hoped and believed
that by staying close to Jesus
they would be there
when his vision of the world was fulfilled.
Jesus called it ‘the kingdom of God’ –
the reign of God – God’s intended order
finally and fully revealed -
and James and John imagined
that when the Kingdom of God finally appeared,
that would be a wonderful day
to be part of the celebration -
up there on the platform, at the high table,
for the coronation dinner, or swearing-in ball -
whatever it was that would happen
when Jesus finally took control
and appeared in all his glory.
So one day, when Jesus was walking alone,
James and John came up to him and said
“Teacher, we want you to do for us
whatever we ask of you.”
(Sounds a bit like six-year-olds
trying to lock in a parent) -
“And what is it
that you want me to do for you?” Jesus replied.
“Grant us to sit,
one at your right hand, one at your left,
when you come into your glory” they said -
sounding suspiciously like
factional manipulators in politics -
except that they had no votes or influence to offer.
And Jesus replied
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

In a world that often works
through special deals and purchased loyalties,
James and John were doing
what could only be expected
of anyone with ambition and initiative.
They were claiming a spot on the team,
showing they were hungry -
demonstrating ticker, some might say.
They understood the world,
and they knew that positioning is vital -
so they had a strategy,
and, like Mr Turnbull just a month or two ago,
they were doing what they could
to be ready when the situation changed.

The only problem was
that the prize they had imagined -
that moment of glory and power
when the Kingdom of God is revealed
delivered nothing of the bright glamour
and exclusive control they had in mind.
Like most people
they thought of glory and power
as it was exercised by rulers and rich folk -
none of whom accumulate what they have
through their own wisdom or strength;
all of whom receive wealth or power
as an inheritance -
through the loyalty and obedience
and ingenuity and effort of others.
Rulers and rich folk are utterly dependent
on purchased loyalties and special deals -
no-one can eat legislation or a bank deposit,
and those who’ve been raised high by dodgy deals
can just as easily be dumped by them.

“You don’t know what you’re asking”, Jesus said,
and then he continued,
using images that make sense to us
because we stand on the Easter side of the cross,
but couched in language James and John
could not possibly understand.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,
or be baptized
with the baptism that I am baptized with?"
to which James and John replied,
all ignorance and bluster:
"We are able."

In the story of Jesus, the moment of glory -
the time he ascends his throne -
the day he displays his greatest power
is Good Friday.
The night before,
in that room with his friends
he’d talked about his cup -
certainly a cup of celebration and communion –
but also a cup of sacrifice and suffering -
and although he’d prayed in the garden
that it would not be necessary,
when the moment came and his choice was clear
Jesus completed the road to the cross.
Everything he’d done and said
since the day he was baptised by John
was leading him down that road -
and if James and John wanted to share
in his celebration and communion –
in the glory and power of God’s purpose revealed -
they would have to embrace his life -
from baptism to cup -
and that would always lead to a cross.
“Can you endure my baptism and drink my cup?”
Jesus asked - and they replied
“Oh yes, no problem, no worries”.

“You will drink my cup” Jesus said,
“and you will be baptised with my baptism,
but sitting at my right and left
is not in my power to grant;
it’s for those for whom it has been prepared.”

On the day of his glory -
on the day Jesus revealed God’s kingdom on a cross -
those to his right and his left
were not James and John -
they were criminals – convicted thieves –
and they’d been crucified with him.
And on that day everything turned upside-down.
Where rulers are enthroned
with the cheers of the people
and the ostentatious support of the armed forces -
on the day of his glory
Jesus had been condemned by the people
and his little band of followers – his rag-tag army -
had betrayed and deserted him.
Where rich folk flaunt their wealth
with expensive clothing and exclusive symbols,
Jesus was naked and bleeding;
on that day he had none of the signs
that rulers and rich folk rely on
to show how high they’ve been raised up
and demonstrate their power -
he couldn’t even choose his companions in death:
but that day remains
the clearest, strongest demonstration
of one man’s influence and significance
that any time or culture has ever seen.

James and John couldn’t possibly know
what it was they were asking -
and Jesus couldn’t explain to them
in terms they would understand.
They had already started
on their own way of the cross,
and they would share with Jesus
in his baptism, and his cup,
just as Jesus said -
but only on the Easter side of Good Friday,
would they begin to understand
just what Jesus had been saying,
and realise that they –
like all of us, and like Lucas today –
had been called and blessed to work with Jesus
to change and heal the world.

James and John left Jesus
once again walking alone down the road,
but when other disciples
discovered what they’d asked
an argument broke out:
not because the disciples thought
James and John had asked an inappropriate question,
but because they all wanted
to be second in command to Jesus.
None of them understood
where the road they were on was leading,
or what they would find at the end.
They thought James and John
were grasping and inappropriate
but like most of us they were envious
of anything that even looked like power.
So Jesus had to hose them all down once again.

He called the disciples around him
and he said:
“You know that among the Gentiles
those whom they recognize as their rulers
lord it over them,
and their great ones are tyrants.
But it is not so among you;
whoever wishes to become great among you
must be your servant,
and whoever wishes to be first among you
must be slave of all.
For the Son of Man came
not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Everything’s upside-down with Jesus –
a cross is a throne, a death begins life,
and service is the beginning and end of power.

A servant is someone who can change and respond.
Servants adapt their hopes and plans
to the needs of other people;
they listen carefully,
to make sure what they’re doing is helpful.
They watch what’s going on
so they’re ready to respond.
A servant’s value
isn’t measured by influence or assets -
servants are valued for what they do,
and who they are,
and whether they make the lives of those they serve
more fruitful, more peaceful,
more meaningful and hopeful.
The best of servants sees beyond
the whims and desires of the moment
and offers the kind of wise help and honest advice
that builds a future for a household and a world,
that’s healthy, and sustainable, and good.
And the best of servants sees beyond
the hungers and ambitions
of any one person, or party, or nation:
true service is universal and impartial.
“Whoever wishes to be first among you
must be slave of all.” Jesus said,
“For the Son of Man came
not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life a ransom for many.”

There are no special guests
at the celebration of God’s kingdom.
There are no exclusive deals or purchased loyalties
at Jesus’ table.
Every one who comes to the feast of the Kingdom
comes in as a servant -
and a servant is one who adapts and changes
according to the needs and hopes
of those they have chosen to serve.

It’s easy to whinge and moan about the world,
either in a sermon or somewhere else -
it’s easy to trade on loyalty for favours
and try to set up the deals
we think will keep us safe -
but that’s not what Jesus offers
in his baptism and his cup.
We have to change.
We have to serve.
If we want a world where the highest values
are justice and truth and love,
we have to make love and truth our highest values
and make a stand for justice
and live every day, in every relationship,
with compassion, and forgiveness
and with grace.