“Drink the Cup I Drink”

Mark 10:32-45

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.

Going Deeper

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”

“Sell Everything, Follow Me”

Mark 10:17-31

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the moneyc to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it isd to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another,e “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,f 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

This morning’s passage immediately follows last week’s passage. Last week we heard Jesus’ instructions that we are to become like children in order to receive the kingdom of God, that the kingdom belongs to those with child-like faith in God as their heavenly Father. In this morning’s text we hear the counter-point: that those who rely on their wealth for their security and status have the most difficult time entering the kingdom of God. The man we meet in this morning’s passage is the chief example of someone whose hope is found in their own resources and abilities, instead of in the gracious, providential hands of God and in his kingdom. The invitation for us this morning is the same invitation we have heard throughout Lent: to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. In light of this morning’s text, denying ourselves looks like putting our absolute trust in God as Father to provide for our every need in every situation; taking up our cross looks like using what resources and abilities we have, not to protect ourselves, but to support our neighbors in need; and following Christ may look like losing everything we have, only to find it again in the life to come.

The Rich Man’s Bold Request

We meet the rich man abruptly, catching up to Jesus as he begins another journey, and falling down at Jesus’ feet. The man asks Jesus the only question that really matters, the question that only Jesus can answer: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”. This question is for all of us who recognize that our lives on this earth are temporary, fading. How are we to be sure that our deaths are not the end? How can we know that we will be welcomed into heaven’s glory when our time on earth is finished? This is the burning question that drives the man to Jesus, to run to him and fall on his knees at his feet. It is this same question that draws us to Jesus, and inspires us to seek his kingdom first in everything we do.

But if we read this man’s question a little more carefully, we discover that the man is perhaps not seeking the kingdom of God first. The man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”. First we notice that this man is busy trying to save himself. He is not looking for salvation as something God does for us; he is asking Jesus what he can do to attain and produce his own salvation. He wants eternal life on his own terms. The second clue that this man is on the wrong track is seen in what he’s ultimately asking for. Other New Testament passages from Jesus or Paul or Peter talk about inheriting the kingdom of God, the whole reign of God as king over all of life. But this man is not asking to inherit the kingdom of God, to become a child and heir of the king. This man is only asking for eternal life, as if he could have reward without the relationship. This man wants all the benefits of salvation without the reality of adoption into the family of God as one of his beloved sons. The rich man in this morning’s text asks to inherit eternal life not out of a desire to love God and enjoy him forever, but as insurance against death.

As we stand in the middle of Lent’s journey, I wonder if we see ourselves at all in this rich young man with his bold question. Are we working for our own salvation, to earn God’s eternal life on our own terms? Are we following Jesus Christ for what he can give us, or because we recognize that this is the purpose for which we were created: to be the children of God he made us to be, to be adopted through Christ to be heirs to the kingdom of heaven. We cannot expect to receive the benefits of salvation without receiving first the one who saves us, Jesus Christ. And Lent’s long road to the cross reminds us that following Christ will not always come with benefits. At times, following Christ may, in fact, take everything from us; this is true for countless of our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world today, whose lives are in danger because they have given up everything to follow Christ. Christians in China and Muslim countries and other places hostile to Christianity understand that following Christ and becoming part of the family of God is our ultimate good, and their only comfort in the face of persecution and torture and death is the promise that abundant life with God in Christ does not end in death, but is everlasting.

The Good Teacher’s Hard Answer

We Protestant Christians often look back to Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, and remember his great doctrine that started the whole Protestant Reformation: justification by faith alone. We are made right with God, not by observing commandments, not be doing anything to achieve our own salvation, but by God’s grace received through faith, which is a gift from God. If we hold this to be true, that only faith in God through Jesus Christ can save us and restore us, then we must ask, “Why does Jesus give this man the commandments?”

When we read Jesus’ answer, we are surprised to discover that Jesus answers the man’s question how the man expects to be answered. Jesus tells him, “You know the commandments.” If we are eager to earn our own eternal life, then we have all the instructions we need: all we need to do is follow the Law perfectly. The Law was not “Plan A” to save God’s people, which turned out not to work because we’re not perfect, so he sent his Son as “Plan B;” Jesus did not come to replace the Law, but to fulfill it. When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he fully understood that sinful humanity is incapable of perfectly obeying the Ten Commandments. The Commandments were not a checklist for personal piety in order to earn salvation; God gave the commandments as a blueprint for the community of faith that, when used as the architecture of the community, created a space for life in a world ruled by sin and death. That’s what the commandments do, that’s what they’re for: to make space for life in the land of death. So when Jesus answers the man’s question about eternal life with, “You know the commandments,” he’s not being flippant or dismissive of the man’s question; he’s answering the question he was given very directly, because the commandments are the faith community’s first rule for life.

And if we look at the commandments that Jesus names, we discover that it isn’t even all ten. The Ten Commandments can be divided into two tablets: the first four commandments direct our relationship with God, and the last six commandments direct our relationship with our neighbors. Jesus summarizes the two tablets by commanding us to Love God and Love our Neighbor. In this instance, Jesus only names the second tablet, the commandments concerning our neighbors, without any mention of the first tablet, the commandments concerning God. For some reason, Jesus offers this rich man instructions to love his neighbor if he would inherit eternal life. But this isn’t enough for the man. The man answers – perhaps a bit presumptuously – that he has kept all these commandments since he was a child, and yet there must be more. The Law might help structure the community while it lives in this world, but how can we hope to live beyond this world, beyond the death that inevitably comes? Surely the law cannot save us from death, can it? What are we to do?

We read that Jesus then looked at the man and loved him. Jesus understands the anxiety and dread that death produces in all of us. Jesus in his fully human heart feels the terror of death, because Jesus is on his way nearer and nearer to his own death, and he is beginning to feel the weight of it. And so Jesus has compassion on this man, and invites him to follow him with a unique call to discipleship: “Sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” Sell everything, give away what’s left, and follow me. This is not the call he gave to his other disciples, this is a unique call for this man specifically, because this man’s wealth and possessions will need to be dealt with before he can follow Jesus as a disciple. Jesus loves this man, and invites him to follow and learn the only way to eternal life; but before the man can follow, he must deal with what’s in the way. He must deal with the obstacle to faith.

We read next that the man’s face fell, and he went away deeply saddened, because he had great wealth. This rich man has heard the invitation to follow Jesus Christ, who is the only Way to eternal life, but he cannot give away his wealth and possessions first. His wealth and possessions are too important to him; maybe they have even become an idol for the man, one of the ways he has tried to earn or produce eternal life for himself. Jesus tells this man that he lacks only one thing, but what he must gain is not another physical object, another trophy or prize or symbol of his status. What this rich man must gain is the child-like faith we read about last week, the faith that everything we need in this life and the life to come is to be found in the hands of God who loves us as a Father. This man must let go of all his great wealth in order to gain this one thing, this absolute faith, and he cannot do it.

The Confused Disciples’ Difficult Lesson

Jesus uses this brief encounter with the rich man to teach his disciples more about the nature of the kingdom of God. After the man leaves disappointed and saddened, Jesus turns to his disciples to explain to them that wealth is an obstacle to faith, which is how we enter and inherit the kingdom of God. Remember what we heard on Transfiguration Sunday a few weeks ago: that our souls are like mirrors, and whatever we place first before us is what we reflect to the world. When we place our wealth first in our lives, what we have and earn and save and spend, we reflect that to the world. We evaluate ourselves by how many dollars we are worth, and we evaluate ourselves in comparison to how many dollars others are worth. And what is worse, our world works in such a way that if someone gains more wealth, it means I must be losing mine. Placing wealth first in our lives creates in us a spirit of competition and an attitude of scarcity. We can have very little hope of receiving God’s grace when we are preoccupied with who has more than we do, and how little there is to go around. That is not how God’s grace works. That is not how the kingdom of God works. If we place wealth as our number one priority, we are training ourselves to walk away from grace and out of the kingdom. Let’s be careful.

Peter once again interjects, this time to protest that he and the other disciples can’t be who Jesus is talking about, that they have left everything – their nets, their families, their communities, their reputations: everything – to follow Jesus. Jesus responds by reassuring Peter: 29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Jesus reassures his disciples that they are on the right path, that it is when we let everything else go in order to follow Christ and inherit his kingdom that we discover everything we released will be restored to us. What is perhaps most surprising is Jesus promises to restore all things to us in this present age. When we place the kingdom first in our lives, we discover that we are surrounded by the family of God – all of those people who have also left everything to follow Christ. And in this family, in the kingdom of God on earth, we also discover that what we have is not for us, but for others; and what we need is not in our own hands, but in the hands of another. This is what happens when the kingdom of grace starts to sink in, that we begin to trust deeply as we start to share generously. The answer that Jesus gave the rich man is not poverty, but trust: child-like trust in our good and loving Father who is willing and able to provide for us, protect us, and preserve us in his care.

And the natural consequences of all of this is that many who are first in this world will fall behind as they fail to understand the growing kingdom of grace, while those in last place, the ones who know they need the help of others to survive, begin to grow and flourish in God’s kingdom of abundance and generosity. As we trust more and more that God really will provide for all of my needs in any and every situation, we sense in us a growing concern for the lowest and last and least among us, that gradually replaces the world’s preoccupation with gaining prestige and privilege and power.

The rich man put his hope in his own resources and abilities; the disciples put their hope in God’s gracious kingdom. God invites us this morning to deny ourselves by completely trusting in God our Father to provide for our every need; God invites us to take up our cross by using what we have to protect and provide for our neighbors in need as agents of God’s kingdom; and God invites us to follow Christ by losing everything we have, only to find it restored to us completely in his kingdom of grace.

Going Deeper

A guide for personal reflection and family/small group discussion

Psalm for prayer: Psalm 23

Questions for reflection and discussion:

Listen: What is God saying to you in Mark 10:17-31? What new life is God calling you to? What old life is God calling you away from?

Reflect: How has God provided for you recently? Do you regularly look for what you need to come from his hands, or from your own?

Study: Discuss this quote from James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful Community:

Forbes online magazine quantified how much money a person would need to “live well.”…The bare minimum amount needed to finance this kind of life is $200,000 annually, but in many cities that number goes up. If this is the standard of the good life, then it might make we who live on much less feel as if we are exempt from giving because we are not truly living – at least living well.

Discernment will mean asking, How is God leading me to use my financial resources? In light of the great need in our world, what is God calling me…to in terms of standard of living and material possessions? It will not necessarily mean that we will be asked to sell everything and live among the poor. But it does mean that we will look at our income and assets in a new light – one illuminated by the light of the kingdom of God.

Commit: What has God given you that he is asking you to pass on to someone else? How will you be a conduit for God’s riches to those in need this week?

Exercise for spiritual training: God is My Shepherd

Write out all the ways God is like a shepherd: e.g., a shepherd provides, protects, leads, rescues, etc. Next to all of your descriptions, write out one way that God has been like a shepherd for you. How does God protect you? How does God lead you? How does God care for you? How does God watch over you? For each of God’s shepherdly acts for you, write out a sentence or two of prayer in gratitude for God’s mighty work and love for you for his Fatherly gifts.

Closing prayer: “I must decrease, that he may increase.” (John 3:30)

Read ahead for next week: Mark 10:32-45, “Drink the Cup I Drink”

“Receive the Kingdom as a Child”

This sermon series through Mark, we’ve been considering the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the start of his reign as God’s anointed King. As we begin Lent, we listen for our King’s call to deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him. This morning Jesus offers us a particularly appropriate image for what denying ourselves looks like. Lent’s invitation to self-denial sounds inconvenient and intimidating and maladjusted; Jesus makes sure we begin to understand precisely what he means, and what we can expect when we accept his invitation.

Mark 9:30-36, 42; 10:13-16

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.

 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

If we have eyes open to see it and hearts ready to accept it, Jesus invites us to become like children in order to receive his kingdom of life. This may seem a simple, harmless request from our King, but this should give us some surprise. How are children better suited to receive the kingdom than we able, responsible adults? Our King’s request, which is really more of a command, should also give us some concern. Even if it does make sense, that children will inherit the kingdom, how is it possible for us able, responsible adults to become like children again? These are the questions we must answer if we are to faithfully follow Jesus Christ as our King, and as our Savior, on his way to the cross for us, and for the whole world

Children and the Kingdom

Our passage this morning begins with another journey through Galilee. These are not quick bus rides, or even car trips, but wearying walks, under the overbearing sun and in the clinging dust, over rugged mountains and through treacherous riverbeds. It is on one of these rigorous walks that Jesus is trying again to warn his disciples about what is to come. Jesus is trying to prepare these young men for what will happen to him in Jerusalem at the hands of those who should know better, the religious leaders who should be welcoming and worshiping Jesus, not rejecting and executing him. This is too much for the disciples to grasp, even though Jesus speaks plainly to them.

Somehow, the disciples skip over this lesson. All they catch of this is that the kingdom they were promised is getting closer. They miss the importance of how Jesus will bring in his kingdom: that the kingdom of God comes by a cross instead of a crown. The disciples ignore Jesus’ warning and instead bicker about who will be greatest in this new kingdom. Jesus catches them vying for prestige and status, which is the greatest possible irony of this story. Jesus is teaching them that this kingdom will come by being killed, instead of by killing, by being humiliated instead of by being elevated, and his disciples are playing “rock, paper, scissors” about who gets to be Jesus’ right-hand man. The scene is almost comedic, until Jesus tells them, “Whoever would be first must become dead last, and the servant of all.” This doesn’t make any sense. This is the exact opposite of how the world works. What kind of kingdom is run by servants and underdogs?

And to drive the point home, Jesus brings forward a child, to show them exactly what he means: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Jesus shows his disciples a child: someone least able to appreciate status or power, someone who appreciates competition only in the context of play and never for personal gain, someone still filled with the wonder of innocence. It is this kind of person, this child-like character that Jesus offers the disciples as a lesson for what we are to become if we are to be able to fully receive and welcome the King and his kingdom in our lives.

But what do children have that makes them able in a unique way to receive the King? Aren’t we called to grow up into spiritual maturity? Aren’t we as adults more valuable contributors to the kingdom’s mission in the world? I don’t think we should be too quick to accept children as a perfect metaphor for Jesus’ lesson. Children are not perfect – none of us are – but they offer us an image of the kind of life that is able to truly welcome the kingdom.

Jesus doesn’t explain further. He only says we must become like children. But our best guess is that the childlikeness Jesus is asking of us is trust. Children cannot provide for themselves or defend themselves, but they usually don’t feel any need to do so. We all come into this world with the sense that we are to be taken care of, that we are someone else’s responsibility. Gradually, as we grow older, we are given increasingly higher amounts of responsibility, larger and larger obligations, which slowly remove from us that sense of being held, of being cared for, of belonging to someone else. Sadly, more and more children do not grow up with this care; and even if they do, we are asking them to grow up younger and younger, placing the weight of responsibility, and work, and college, and “real life” on their shoulders. How are our children to hold on to their child-like trust if we take it from them?

Our Lord and Savior places children among us as a reminder that we do in fact belong to someone else. For those in our Heidelberg Catechism class, this is review, but what does the first question and answer of our Reformed Catechism tell us is our only comfort in life and in death? That we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. This attitude of child-like trust makes us uniquely and particularly able to accept Jesus as he is, as the King of the Cosmos and Lord of Eternity. Without a sense that we already belong to him, we cannot welcome him as Lord and King because we are still trying to be our own lords, the kings and queens of our own castles, and that only leads to anxiety, and misery, and exhaustion. We are created beings, and pretending to be creators in our own right is sin: that’s why Adam and Eve were kicked out of paradise in the first place. Ruling over our own kingdoms, like the world expects us to as adults, is what the Apostle Paul calls “living after the flesh,” and it only leads to death. Jesus invites us to become like children: to trust, aware that we belong to a gracious King who offered his whole life for us.

Children of the King

There is still one question remaining: how? If we are able to believe that all this is true, that Jesus asks us to become like children if we are to welcome the coming new kingdom and our King with joy and gratitude, then how is such a thing possible? The world trains us well that adults are to be responsible managers of their appearance and reputation and job, their belongings, their children and families, etc.. In essence, our American world demands of us to assume a throne we assume is empty. The opposite is also true: if you do not have a job, or a good reputation, or a house, or a houseful of belongings, or children, etc., it is because you are not a good enough king or queen to deserve such a kingdom. We make judgments on “Have Nots,” even ourselves when we don’t match up, because we feel we must earn our way in this world, and whoever has not made their way did not earn it.

But children don’t earn their way. The comfort and stability and safety and love that children enjoy is given to them without any discussion of earning or deserving; or, at least, it should be. Jesus’ invitation to become like children flies in the face of all our attempts to earn our way in this world, and it is an offence to our American way of doing things. Nevertheless, Jesus invites us to become like children, and what is more, he himself makes it possible for us to become children of God.

In Romans 8, Paul reflects on how it is we can become like children:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Did you hear that? Jesus Christ, in his act of love on the cross for us, so embraced and identified with us, with all of humanity, that when God sees us, he sees his Son Jesus Christ, and claims us as his child. To confirm this adoption, God sends the Holy Spirit to live within us, as a guarantee of our adoption. That is what the sacrament of baptism is all about: baptism is the outward sign and seal of what is already true inside us. That is why we baptize children and infants in the Reformed Tradition, because the spiritual reality of baptism is that we are adopted as children of God in Christ! Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross have opened the way for us not just to become like children, but to actually become true children of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit working inside us.

Maybe what’s so intimidating or offensive about the call to deny ourselves and take up our cross is that we don’t really understand what kind of God would ask us to lose ourselves, to say “no” to ourselves. If God was a loving Father, wouldn’t he want us to be happy? This is the gospel that America has by-and-large bought into: God only wants us to be happy, and as long as we’re all basically good people, then we’ll all get to heaven where we’ll be even happier. But in the American gospel, there’s no real need for Jesus. Sure he’s an inspiring teacher who shows us how to be good people, and he’s our always-available best friend who helps us feel better when we’re sad, but in the American gospel, that’s it: Jesus does not need to die, to rise again, to suffer, to conquer sin. In the American version of Christianity, sin does not exist. If this is the gospel you have found yourself believing, you have missed some very important details. We are not basically good people, as our call to confession reminded us this morning. We are totally unable to live good lives, even with Jesus’ example. We are not called to be happy, but to be holy. And Jesus doesn’t tell us to sit back, relax, and let him handle it; he tells us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. And if we do, if we go all in on this backwards kingdom – where children and underdogs are on top, and able, responsible adults in charge of their own kingdoms are left outside – then we are adopted into the family of God, without doing anything to deserve it, without anything good in us to reward. Adoption into God’s family cannot be earned or won, but it is also a whole lot more than about being happy while we live the way we want.

What if I were to tell you that this is the good new of Jesus Christ? What if the gospel is about more than just a reserved spot in heaven and permission to live whatever way you wanted in the meantime? What if the gospel of Jesus Christ is that you have been adopted by a loving Father who claims you entirely as his own, and now you belong not only to him, but to his family as well? What if the gospel of Christ, and the kingdom of God, can only be welcomed by people who know how to receive it as children, instead of trying to win it or take it or earn it or deserve it? How would you live today differently if that’s true? If you are not the king of your castle, but really just the steward of the true King’s resources, how will you spend your money this week? If you belong not just to a nice church, but to a world-wide family of God, what does that mean for our disagreements, our conversations, our needs? If all that is asked of you is that you become like the child you truly are in Christ, how will practice your devotion to our Father in heaven? This might be a complete reversal of how you’ve heard the gospel before, and this might mess up some of the categories and rules you have in place. But this is the word of Christ for us this morning, if we have ears to hear and hearts to receive.

Maybe this is the first time you’ve heard the gospel. Or maybe you’ve heard it, but it hadn’t taken hold of you like this before. Maybe you’ve noticed that something inside you is looking for this, looking for a loving Father who has a plan and a purpose and a calling on your life, looking to belong. Know that the work is already done: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is seated at God’s right hand, advocating for you and praying for you now. And if something inside you is urging you to accept this gift of salvation, to claim this for yourself, then the Holy Spirit of adoption has already been given to you, and is working on you. What is asked of us, is to deny ourselves in order to receive Christ, to claim his sacrifice as a payment for our sin, to welcome the adoption that is offered to us. It’s that easy, and it’s that hard. We do not earn this; we only receive it.

“Take Up Your Cross”

Last week we witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus, a shift in the gospel narrative: Jesus is finishing his work to announce the kingdom of God is near, and is beginning his work to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus is on the way from small-town Galilee to the big city of Jerusalem, from the margins to the center, where he will perform his ultimate act of kingship. But before any of that, Jesus must prepare his disciples, his 12 closest students, for what is to come.

Mark 8:27-9:1

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

“This adulterous and sinful generation”

If we’re to understand some of the impact of this morning’s passage, we must consider the place in which this episode takes place. Jesus has led his disciples to another Gentile area of the Galilee region, the area surrounding Caesarea Philippi.

Caesarea Philippi was the location of a major spring of water that came up from a great hole in the earth, a deep cave in the rock. This spring was ideal for shepherds watering their flocks, but the spring receded, and the sheep would often wander into the remaining cavern and die. This danger led the more superstitious shepherds to name this cave the gates of hell, an opening to the underworld Hades. Soon shepherds began intentionally sacrificing their sheep there, throwing them into this cavern, in order to appease the Greek shepherd god Pan. Today this cavern is called “Pan’s Grotto,” and it is believed to be the site of much of the ancient worship to Pan, along with other gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman myths.

In Greek mythology, Pan was a lusty and frolicking god, always making music and playing pranks. The cult-like worship of Pan, we gather, was much the same, involving animal sacrifice, to be sure, among other abhorrent rituals. The revelry and debauchery in honor of Pan would have shocked the disciples, good Jewish boys. They must have known the reputation of this region, and I’m sure they were increasingly uncomfortable among this “adulterous and sinful generation.”

It seems that Jesus has a mission here, a purpose for coming to this region specifically, for Mark to mention it. All of this region’s strange rituals and disgusting practices were done out of fear for what the capricious and selfish gods and goddesses might do to them. Greek and Roman myths are full of gods behaving badly, toying with humans for their own amusement and schemes. Jesus seems to set up a contest here, a comparison between the man-made gods of the world, fashioned in the image of humanity, and the Son of the one true God, God-made-man, who fashioned humanity in his image.

“Who do you say I am?”

It is here that Jesus asks his disciples for his public approval rating: “Who do people say that I am?” It turns out there is some confusion: he’s either the new incarnation of John the Baptist, recently beheaded by Herod, or of Elijah, who was long dead but prophesied to return, or of some other prophet come to shake up Israel from its spiritual sleepiness and to declare the Word of the Lord. The crowds following Jesus see what he does, but they cannot discern who he is. The public is unable to see deeper, unable to perceive Jesus’ true identity: the very Word of God, God made flesh. They are interested in hearing what Jesus says, but they’re not committed to following him, embracing his way of life as their own.

Therefore, Jesus is looking for more than public opinion: he asks his chosen disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” While the crowds get it wrong, Jesus is inviting his disciples to see him for who he really is, who he has been saying he is all along. And Quick-Draw Peter gets it: “You are the Christ,” or Messiah. A preposterous confession to make of your Rabbi from Nazareth, that he is the anointed King of God, but that is what Peter, and the other disciples, are slowly discovering to be true. Peter and the other disciples are able to perceive who Jesus is, his relationship with God and his calling to reign over God’s kingdom on earth; but they have signed on with this new King with the expectation that they will be awarded positions of influence and power within his new kingdom. If Jesus is the divine King as they understand – the chosen agent of God who will restore Israel’s political autonomy and might – then it makes sense that they have placed their hopes on his political mission. But if Jesus is an entirely different kind of divine King, then the disciples must change their understandings of Jesus’ mission, and reconsider their positions and expectations as they follow him.

Jesus breaks the news to them here, now, in plain language, that this is exactly what they must do. Essentially, he tells them, “True, I am the divine King you were promised, but this is what ‘King’ really means: a terrible ordeal of shame, torture, and death; and then, new life, and the kingdom come in power!” The disciples expect the kingdom to come without any need for suffering or shame, rejection or pain. They cannot fathom how such suffering could bring about God’s kingdom, and Peter openly rebukes Jesus for even suggesting such an offensive thought. And it is offensive to hear that the gospel, the good news, includes the call to suffer, and even to die. Jesus rebukes Peter openly, even calling him Satan, the great enemy of life, in order to emphasize that this is exactly what must be, and any other route to the throne is false and self-serving.

“Take up your cross”

Next, Jesus draws together a crowd of people to teach, and Jesus goes one step further: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Friends, we follow a Lord and Savior who laid down his life, took up his cross, and demonstrated self-sacrificial love; we worship him and follow him by doing the same, often in places where such worship looks particularly foolish.

And it is foolish in this world to embrace suffering. Suffering in our world is considered optional, that you can choose whether or not you are unhappy; and if optional, why would anyone opt to suffer? In fact, there are countless products and events and distractions created specifically to help us either numb ourselves to pain or avoid pain altogether. Some of these things are benign, harmless, even helpful and good, but many of the things we turn to in our anxiety or distress have undetected dangers to us. Our food is pumped full of fats and sugars to satisfy our anxious stomachs; our media is pumped full of celebrity gossip and so-called reality TV to numb our anxious minds; our homes are filled with the stuff we have purchased to help us feel secure and self-sufficient. Even the good things we need can take on unhealthy and even addictive properties. They entice us away from the gospel’s invitation to live abundant lives in service and worship to our loving Creator God, who has promised to give us all we need, and gave us the ultimate gift: his own Son Jesus Christ. It has become all too easy in our society to trade abundant life in Christ for a shadow of life, a hollow shell of the existence we were created for. The call to take up our cross is an offensive one, a scandalous one, and one that is easier and easier to discard as fanatical or radical; but the call still resounds: “deny yourself; take up your cross; follow me.”

At the same time, many of us have had little choice whether we will take up our cross, because crosses have been thrust upon us. Our suffering certainly isn’t optional. We did not get to choose whether or not to embrace suffering; the suffering was given to us, forced on us. The unexpected loss of a loved one, the paralyzing loneliness of aging or divorce, the exhausting anxiety of unemployment, the silent strangulation of abuse, the looming threat of death: all of these things happen to us, and our natural instinct is protest, to lament to God and our neighbors that this isn’t fair. This isn’t the way life was supposed to be. This isn’t what we deserve. Hear this morning that our sufferings break the heart of God, and he gives us permission to come to him with our laments, our anger, and our confusion. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. This isn’t the abundant life Jesus came to offer us.

But at the same time, Jesus doesn’t tell the crowds and his disciples, “Lay down your cross, I’ve got this. Take up your life, and take it easy.” That’s the American gospel, not Jesus’. Instead, Jesus tells them and us this morning, “take up your cross, follow me. Lose your life, and gain mine.” Jesus Christ came into this world to suffer, in his whole life, but especially during these next few weeks of Lent, on his way to the cross, for us. He did choose suffering, he did embrace loss, and loneliness, and anxiety, and abuse, and death, for us. And the mystery of this, the powerful and strange and transforming mystery, is that Christ’s voluntary sufferings on our behalf give our own sufferings meaning and purpose. Christ’s death on the cross for the sake of each one of us means that our own sufferings can become a place where we encounter the heart of God for us. It may be a terrifying encounter, it may mean that nothing can be the same afterward, it may change us, because that’s what is means to see God face to face, but that is what our suffering can become because of the cross of Christ.

No one wants to suffer, and God does not want us to suffer. But suffering is a part of our daily lives now because of the presence and influence of sin in the world. The good news of the cross is that the reign of sin is defeated, and even suffering falls within God’s plan to renew and restore the world, because he orders all things in such a way that all things must work together for the good of those he loves, those he calls to himself. It is not God’s will that any should suffer, but when suffering is given to us, we can bravely and faithfully embrace it; we can obey Christ’s invitation to take up our cross, because God is at work to redeem our sufferings and transform us by them into Christ-like people, agents of renewal and transformation in the world.

So when loneliness or anxiety seize you, and your first instinct is to turn on the television to see if someone else has it worse than you, stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and ask God to meet you in the loneliness. This may be terrifying, to admit loneliness, but in taking it up instead of running from it, you may discover that God can transform painful loneliness into holy solitude, a place where you and He can meet together and a small piece of you can be restored. Such small and quiet acts of obedient and faithful self-denial are a peculiar and even offensive witness to a way of life that is utterly foolish, and yet utterly hopeful.

“See the kingdom of God come with power!”

I realize that what I have preached this morning might sound foolish, naive. It may even offend some of you, to hear this new, young pastor tell you that you must embrace the inconsolable pain and terrible sufferings you have had to experience. The wisdom of the world says that pain must be killed, or numbed, and if you can’t do that, then at least pain must be hidden away so that no one else has to deal with it. In our world, to embrace suffering, to put pain on display, will offend people, because it will hold up a mirror to the pain they are working so hard to conceal. But Jesus Christ invites us to be foolish, even offensive, in the eyes of the world, to take up the crosses we’ve been given, and follow him.

And in Lent’s journey of suffering and weakness and crosses, Jesus Christ holds out hope to us. Jesus Christ tells his disciples that all these things must happen, and afterward, he will rise again, and the kingdom of God will come with power. The disciples seem to not hear this last bit, this message of hope, because they are too scandalized by the suffering that must come first. Let us not miss the message of hope this morning. If Christ our King has initiated a new kind of life, a new way of living where suffering has lost its sting and death itself is defeated, then we must hold on loosely to the lives we have, and wait expectantly and actively for the one to come. And during Lent, waiting will look like taking up our cross with the expectation that even suffering itself can be transformed into a place where we meet our Savior Jesus Christ face to face, as he joins us in suffering and transforms us to be like him for the sake of the world.