32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
39 They replied, “We are able.”
Then 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; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Going Up to Jerusalem
The journey we read about in this morning’s text is the journey we’ve been on all Lent: the journey from the safety and anonymity of Galilee to the danger of exposure in Jerusalem. Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, announcing the kingdom of God come near and demonstrating its arrival with miracles. But Jerusalem is the great climax of Jesus’ mission on earth, the ultimate purpose for which Jesus came to earth in human form: to be betrayed into the hands of the religious leaders, tortured, crucified, and buried; and three days later, to be raised again to new life. Jerusalem is where Jesus will inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth, and triumph over death and sin once for all.
And the disciples are beginning to sense all of this, that Jerusalem is the end of the road they have been walking with Jesus all along. And with it, they are beginning to feel somehow what this journey to Jerusalem will mean for Jesus, and for them. They cannot be ignorant of the rumors that have begun to circulate, that Jesus is a very unpopular figure among the religious and political authorities. His controversial teachings and disruptive miracles have undermined the customs and laws that the priests and scribes and Pharisees have spent their whole lives to maintain. In the mind of the disciples, the end of this journey they are on can only be dark and empty and bitter, because the disciples see that Lent can only end in death.
The disciples, and the crowd of faithful followers around them following Jesus, see where he is headed, and we read that they are astonished and afraid. They are amazed that Jesus would go to the very place where he is most in danger; they are afraid that he will knowingly and willingly go to his death. But what should astonish us and amaze us, and even terrify us, this morning, is that Lent does not end in death. The culmination of Lent’s long journey to Jerusalem is not the cross, but the empty tomb. We discover at the end of this journey that in dying, Jesus Christ has conquered death, and in rising, Jesus has instituted a new kind of life: an everlasting life with God that breaks into and transforms our everyday lives now.
The disciples and crowds and chief priests and scribes cannot have understood this great news that Jesus tells them. No one rises from the dead; no one comes out of their tomb, only into it. When Jesus tells them that “after three days he will rise again,” what could they have thought he meant? Every other time we read in Mark that Jesus warns his disciples of his death, and promises them that he will rise again, Mark writes that the disciples are perplexed and confused about what this could mean. But in this particular episode, we read that James and John have a very different response.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
James and John may not understand what Jesus means when he says he will rise again; but these brothers believe Jesus enough to sense that something bigger is coming, something impossibly new. All of Jesus’ teachings and demonstrations of the coming kingdom of heaven have begun to sink in for James and John, and this latest hint tells them that it is nearer now than ever. They take this opportunity to show Jesus that they believe what he’s been saying all along, but they also show that they have their own ambitions for their role in this coming kingdom.
They must know that what they want from Jesus is selfish and inappropriate, because they don’t ask Jesus outright. We read that they come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” They don’t ask Jesus for what they want: not yet; instead, they tell Jesus to answer, “Yes,” to what they’re about to ask, as if they can somehow trick Jesus into granting their wish, like some genie bound to his lamp. How many of our prayers begin this way? Maybe we don’t say this in so many words, but don’t we begin our prayers with the silent, secret expectation that Jesus will do for us whatever we ask, that he will blindly and swiftly grant our wishes? And isn’t that right? If Jesus loves us, why wouldn’t he give us whatever we ask for? Isn’t that what Jesus himself promises us, that he will do whatever we ask in his name?
In this morning’s text, Jesus does not answer James and John as they ask. Jesus doesn’t say, “Yes, whatever you ask. Your wish is my command?” But Jesus also doesn’t rebuke them. He doesn’t wag his finger in their face and tell them, “You wicked students, how dare you try to manipulate your Teacher!” Jesus simply replies, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus neither affirms nor rejects the request of James and John; Jesus invites them to ask. When we ask for something – anything: whether we truly need it or merely want it – Jesus listens to us. Jesus invites us to ask for whatever we will, regardless of our motives or our desires or our needs, as long as we come to him openly and honestly, in faith that he hears our prayers. But our prayers are not wishes to be granted, and Jesus is free to respond for our good.
James and John ask for positions of status and prestige in the soon-to-come kingdom of God on earth. The brothers have been listening closely and carefully to what Jesus has said, but they have misunderstood what kind of kingdom this is going to be. They are sure that Jesus’ new kingdom will be just like all the other kingdoms of earth, like David’s kingdom was, or Rome’s is. And if Jesus is going to Jerusalem to take the throne, they want to be a part of it. They ask to sit at the right and left of Jesus’ throne, and they are prepared to help Jesus take that throne by force. The other gospels remember James and John as “the Sons of Thunder,” and they must have been eager to prove their nickname for Jesus. So when he asks them if they’re prepared to drink the cup he drinks, to be baptized with his baptism, again they misunderstand their Teacher. They hear their General asking if they’re ready to fight his fight, and they eagerly agree. Jesus sees that they don’t understand, so he answers them as best he can: that they will share in his mission to Jerusalem. But they cannot understand that this mission is not to kill, but to be killed. The paradox is that Jesus is going to Jerusalem as a conqueror, but a spiritual conqueror; not to topple any earthly kingdom, but to destroy death itself. James and John have signed on for this mission, but the reward for their loyalty will not be the positions of power that they expect.
And when the other ten hear what James and John asked for, to be Jesus’ number 1 and number 2, they are angry; not because James and John made a foolish request, but because they didn’t get to ask first. All twelve of Jesus’ closest students would like to sit at Jesus’ right hand, to be rewarded for their sacrifice and courage and faithfulness with positions of comfort and authority. And what do we expect from Jesus for our faith? Aren’t we counted among Jesus’ disciples in this? What if Jesus were standing here this morning, and asked each of us in turn, “What is it you want me to do for you?” How would you answer? What do you want Jesus to do for you? Maybe you expect comfort from Christ, or financial security, or peace of mind. And maybe we even feel that we’re entitled to what we want, because we said “yes” to Jesus when we could have said “no.” We have given up the easy and broad street of sin and selfishness; shouldn’t we be given something in return? And maybe we even believe that Jesus should do whatever we ask, if he loves us. If he loves us, wouldn’t he want us to be happy? But happiness is not our ultimate good. Jesus’ mission is not to make us comfortable in this life; Jesus’ mission is to destroy the old life ruled by sin, and offer us a new life in him.
The Cup Christ Drinks
Lent’s difficult and terrifying journey to Jerusalem and the cross reminds us that following Christ does not always come with comfort or reward. Sometimes, following Christ will demand everything from us, and ask us to continue following only for the sake of being close to Christ. If you have encountered one of these times, or if you are walking through this right now, you know that this can be one of the darkest moments of life. Many of us will come to or have already come through a season when comfort and joy leave, and only the desolation of God’s seeming absence surrounds us like a night without dawn. And in these “dark nights” we come face to face with the question: is Jesus enough? Or am I following Christ like the crowds – and sometimes even disciples – did: for what he can do for me? This is a hard place, a barren wilderness, that we are sometimes led through in order to grow deeper in our faith and stronger in our trust in God. Jesus is inviting James and John, the other ten disciples, and maybe some of us this morning, into that very space of deep trust, where we discover that Jesus Christ is enough, and we drink the cup he drinks.
James and John are told that they will drink the cup Christ drinks, that they will participate in what Jesus is about to do. Jesus makes sure that his disciples hear him clearly before they get to Jerusalem, that his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of the world. He is not going to rule as other kings do, by lording over his people as a tyrant. The power of the kingdom of Jesus is not like the power we’re used to, the power that the disciples expect: controlling, manipulating, self-serving, self-aggrandizing. The cup that God has given Christ to drink is not to enjoy any earthly position of authority and status, but instead to become a servant, and pour out his very life for the sake of the world. Jesus talks about his cup here, this bitter cup of suffering and shame and servanthood; in the garden of Gethsamane, Jesus prays that this cup would be taken from him. We are all given griefs and pains and sorrows that we would rather not endure, cups that we would rather not drink. Jesus tells James and John that they will drink from his cup, that they and all the disciples will share in his journey to the cross. Jesus invites us all this morning to drink the cup that he drinks, to become a servant to others rather than seize positions of power for ourselves.
But remember what Jesus told his disciples in the first few verses: Yes, the cup that he is about to drink will be violent and awful and lonely, but three days later he will rise again. We are invited to share in that cup, to take upon ourselves here now the dark way of the cross, because after the cross comes resurrection. After Lent comes Easter! We cannot get to the new life in Christ without first going through the painful process of giving up our old lives and putting them to death. This putting off the old self is not a one-time ceremony, but a daily response to the grace of God, whose mercies are new every morning. Every morning we are offered the bitter cup of self-denial: if we choose not to drink from it, then we spend the day asking Jesus our selfish, small prayers and expecting great things, only to be disappointed when we go to bed at night exhausted and humbled and burdened by everything we tried and failed to accomplish ourselves; but if we drink from this cup, if we deny ourselves, if we agree to be servants to everyone rather than rulers of our own kingdoms, then we spend our day with open eyes to see where Jesus Christ is leading us, open hearts to love those we meet as Christ does, and open hands to receive all of the good things that God is constantly showering upon us through Christ, and at the end of the day, we can rest in God’s goodness and love satisfied and at peace in Christ. But we cannot enjoy the new life that is saturated with Christ’s presence, without first laying aside the old life, without drinking the bitter cup that Christ himself drank from first.
The good news of Lent is that when we drink the cup of Jesus Christ, he is present with us, and we come to discover, if we respond in patient faith, that Jesus Christ is enough. And the really good news, the mystery we celebrate, is that when Jesus is finally enough for us, we are set free from our wants and needs and thrones, to live new lives in Christ. Receive this good news, friends, and live.
A guide for personal reflection and family/small group discussion
Psalm for prayer: Psalm 107:1-9
Questions for reflection and discussion:
Listen: What is God saying to you in Mark 10:32-45? What new life is God calling you to? What old life is God calling you away from?
Reflect: Why were those following Jesus “astonished” and “afraid” that Jesus was leading them to Jerusalem (v.32)? How is what Jesus tells them a comfort (v.33-34)?
Study: Read Genesis 1:26-31, and listen for what humans are created to do. What does it look like to “subdue the earth” and “have dominion over it” according to God’s original plan? God created us to rule, but what does Jesus show us about how to rule? Now read Mark 10:41-45 again, and listen for how Jesus teaches his disciples about ruling. Can anyone rule by serving? How? How do our leaders rule over us? How do you “rule” your household, or business, or friendships? How does Jesus challenge you and our leaders in his teaching and example?
Commit: How will you become someone’s servant this week? Who in your life is in need of your attentive care and service? What thing(s) will you do to serve them? Could you serve in secret?
Exercise for spiritual training: “Drink This Cup”
Hear Jesus ask you, “Can you drink the cup I drink?” Prayerfully ask, ”What “cup” has God given me to “drink”?” John Calvin interprets the cup as “the measure of afflictions which God appoints to everyone.” Each of us has experienced something difficult in our life that keeps us trapped in our own misery, unable to trust God and others. What in your life makes it difficult for you to trust God and believe that he is good? What might it look like to “drink this cup,” to “take up your cross,” to let in this difficult reality of life so that with it Jesus Christ can also give you the power of his resurrection and new life to overcome it? Who can help you do this? How will you ask for help?
Closing prayer: “I must decrease, that You may increase.” (John 3:30)
Next week’s sermon: Mark 12:1-12, “Respect My Son”