“Victory From God”

This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Sunday, May 21, 2017.

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 17:8-16

Our new life in Christ sets us against the grain of the world.

In Christ’s resurrection from the dead, we are given sure proof of God’s great victory over sin and death, and of our freedom from everything in us that is bent towards sin and death. We are free, journeying to freedom.

But our enemy wants us back. The grave will not give back its dead without a fight. Our past selves will strive to keep their hold on us. The Amalekites were devoted to the destruction of God’s people, Israel. In the same way, there are forces at work in this world that resent and resist the freedom that God has given us! The grain of this world – that God created good – has become warped toward death in rebellion against its Creator. When Christ willingly offered himself up to death, and then conquered that death in his resurrection, we became new creations with Christ, set against the grain of this fallen world. The very grain of the world resists us as we journey into freedom in Christ, along with the more aggressive rebellion of our own sinful selves still kicking and screaming to exert themselves, and of “[our] adversary, the devil,” who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

Take heart, Easter People: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Israel had faced the wrath of the Egyptians and the terror of the Red Sea, impossible hunger and incredible thirst in the vast wilderness, and now the attack of an ages-old enemy. And God gave them the victory.

The victory that is ours in Christ’s death and resurrection is ours now, but we know that our enemies are still at work. God defeats the Amalekites here, but the Amalekites continue to attack and torment the Israelites for generations. Christ’s hand is on the throne, and He reigns absolutely, but the enemies of sin, self, and the devil are not yet fully defeated. And so we are called to battle.

God’s victory frees us to be vulnerable with each other in His presence.

When God calls His people to fight, he calls Moses to the top of a nearby hill to pray, interceding for Israel with arms outstretched. We saw last week how God invited Moses to make himself vulnerable, exposing himself to the anger of the Israelites, and God did the same, making Himself vulnerable and open to Moses; and the Israelites were saved. We see the same thing this morning: Moses vulnerably displays his physical weakness in this challenging posture of prayer. And when he can no longer hold his arms up himself, he asks for help. And in this simple act of vulnerable prayer, the Israelites are saved.

It is one thing to practice being fully vulnerable to God in our prayers when we are alone; it is another thing altogether to practice being fully vulnerable to God in prayer with others.

We resist and reject vulnerability as a people, and consequently, we are more anxious, more alone, and more addicted than any other generation ever. We experience the world as more terrifying, more divided, and more hostile every day, and our natural reaction is to defend ourselves, or to numb ourselves, or to close ourselves off. But God has already conquered the world in Christ. God calls us, then, to live into that victory against the grain of this world, against the grain of our own sinful selves, and to experience the reality of His complete victory in the most unexpected, surprising way. Rather than barricade ourselves in our homes or our church, and take up arms against the world, God calls us out of our self-made security, and invites us to be vulnerable with each other in His presence. That’s what we see Moses doing here; and, even more, that’s what we see Jesus doing his whole life with us on earth.

If Christ is truly alive, and if Christ is true to his word that he is with us where two or three are gathered (Matthew 18:20), then any time we are with each other, we are in the presence of the Risen Christ, who knows our whole hearts. When we hide from each other, or posture with each other, or close ourselves off from each other, we also close ourselves off from Christ. This must not be. When you pray with others – the church, a small group, your family, a few close friends, or as a couple – you enter into the presence of the Risen Christ together. That same Christ has died to set you free, and has risen from the dead as a guarantee of your complete freedom from sin and shame. When we pray together with that victory of Christ in our hearts and minds, our prayers take on a new quality. We can pray boldly, with courage and confidence, without fear or doubt or reservations. We can also pray with quiet humility, recognizing that Christ is on the throne, and we are not; we do not know best what we need, and we do not know best what others need, but God who knows us and loves us does, and we can humbly bring ourselves and each other into Christ’s presence, trusting that God will continue to take care of all our needs according to His great wisdom and power.

As we practice this kind of prayer, our hearts and lives change from the inside out. The more we become aware of the power of Christ’s Spirit within us, praying always on our behalf, and the more we join our spirits with Christ’s Spirit in that kind of quiet, confident, vulnerable prayer together, the more we will become the new people that Christ is calling us and leading us to become: a people for his own possession, a people who reflect his presence and purpose to the fallen, groaning world, and a people of priests, bringing not only ourselves into God’s presence, but others as well, others who need to experience the God’s power to redeem, restore, and reconcile all things to Himself through Christ.

Therefore:

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

Ephesians 6:13-18, The Message

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“Water from the Rock”

This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Sunday, May 14, 2017. Though I preached this on Mother’s Day, this is not a sermon specifically for mothers; that being said, I pray mothers will find “good news” in this passage of Scripture, and this sermon.

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 17:1-7

When Christ our Lord was raised from death, and walked out of His tomb in glory, a new kind of life was revealed on this earth: a life that was dazzling in its purity, and impervious to death and fatigue. And, grace upon grace!, this newness of life that we see in the Risen Christ has been shared with us, made accessible to us, as we live in Christ. It’s the simplest prayer we pray when we begin our life-long journey in Christ, that we ask the Risen Lord Jesus into our hearts. And through His Holy Spirit, Christ answers, and His impossible Life takes up residence within us.

At that moment that Christ began to abide in you through His Holy Spirit, God began to accomplish His mission in your life – to redeem, restore, and reconcile you (and all things) to Himself. At that moment, you also began to abide in Christ, as He led you out of our own personal Egypts, your slavery to the stain of sin, the tyranny of the devil, and the patterns of this world.

And it may be, then, that, like the Israelites, who had experienced that same kind of deliverance from evil and slavery at the hands of our faithful and powerful God, we find newness of life to be mostly difficult. The Israelites were literally starting over: they had only what they could carry with them as they journeyed through a barren and challenging wilderness, following daily the real presence of God on earth, a pillar of fire and cloud, with whom they could communicate through their God-appointed intermediary, Moses. If you examine your experience of this new life in Christ, it maybe hasn’t felt like perfect peace and rest; maybe you’ve found that new life in Christ has felt more like dry, weary wandering in harsh landscapes of God’s distant silence. Many Christians today might say as much. For that reason, I think it’s true what G. K. Chesterton wrote:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

But if you have tried, if you have truly set out on this journey toward the goal – the complete salvation that awaits us in the Risen Christ when He returns, and we shall finally and fully be made like Him: fully human, perfectly reflecting God’s glory, completely reconciled to God and to each other – then hear Israel’s story at the Rock, where God poured Himself out to His people in extravagant, self-giving love, as your peace and your encouragement this morning.

God leads us to dry, desolate places to bring us to Himself.

God leads His chosen, beloved people to a place where there is no water, once again placing them in an impossible situation — beyond what they can bear — in order to see whether or not they will look to Him, for whom all things are possible. We see that they do not. Rather than learn from their past experiences in the wilderness and come to God in faith, they do what they always do when they get anxious: they complain. They blame Moses of poor leadership. And this time, they go so far as to threaten to stone Moses if he does not make water appear in the desert.

Of course, when we find ourselves in impossible circumstances, we also tend to react in predictable patterns, and those patterns are rarely patient, reasonable, or constructive. The experiences of Israel are recorded here for us as a negative example: see what these people did, and do differently! Instead of reacting anxiously and angrily and violently to impossible circumstances, choose to respond differently. We can read this story and shake our heads, because we can see that the Israelites obviously should have prayed. God’s presence was plainly visible to them in the cloud; why did they not simply ask God for what they needed? He had already provided for them in the wilderness; why would they not have the faith to trust Him to provide for them again? But if we rebuke the Israelites for their little faith, then we must also rebuke ourselves. As we journey together on this difficult, dry journey into new life in Christ, how often do we find ourselves in our own impossible circumstances, and react in the same faithless patterns? Do we not also do everything we can in our own power first, complaining and blaming all the while, and only think to pray as a last resort?

The test of faith we find here in this story is to structure our lives, now that they have been renewed in the resurrection of Christ Jesus, to anticipate the obstacles ahead of us on this new life journey – the temptations and difficulties and burdens that we know we will face – and to endure those dry places with prayerful perseverance.

Prayer is our first and greatest resource in our new life.

God answers the needs of the Israelites dramatically. Where Moses is afraid of the people’s violent anger against him, God calls Moses to make himself vulnerable, and expose himself to their anger by walking calmly before the people, showing them what radical faith looks like. And God does the same! He tells Moses that He will stand on the Rock, so that when Moses strikes it with his staff, it will be God Himself who is struck, and He will pour Himself out to provide for the needs of His people. This is a shocking picture of prayer. God invites us to come to Him, making ourselves vulnerable, exposing our need and our insufficiency and our fear; and God promises to meet us in prayer with that same vulnerability, making Himself open to all of who we are: our anger, our doubt, our fear, our accusations. God is not threatened or afraid of your emotions; He stands ready to meet with you in your need. And He will answer your every need out of His own infinite riches.

The journey into Christ-likeness is not guaranteed to be easy. Quite the opposite. You are being invited to live an impossibly good life in a world that is committed to destroying itself. If you agree, and you set out on this journey anew each morning, you will experience dry places of want surrounded by people who are satisfying themselves on the things of this world; you will experience lonely places surrounded by people who seem to experiencing connection and belonging in the broken systems of this world; you will experience vulnerable places of exposure surrounded by people making themselves seem strong and successful and impervious to danger. And in those dry, lonely, vulnerable places, God is with you, abiding in you through His Holy Spirit, and He invites you to abide in Him, and He will satisfy your soul.

If it is true of you that “The Christian ideal” – the Risen Christ Himself – “has not been tried,” because “It has been found difficult;” then I can only say that it is the difficult things in this life that are most worth doing. I offer you, as encouragement and exhortation, the testimony of the Apostle Paul:

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers [and sisters], I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 

Philippians 3:7-14

Brothers and sisters, “press on toward the goal” – the promised land of resurrection from the dead in the coming kingdom of the Risen Christ Jesus. Press on, drawing your life from the Rock, who is Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). As you do – abiding in Christ as Christ abides in you, the dry and desperate world will see and know that the Risen and reigning Lord is truly among us.

“Renewing the Covenant” – Ezra

This morning is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, and we’re wrapping up our sermon series “A Priest Forever,” looking at Old Testament priests and how they point forward to Jesus Christ, our High Priest. This morning we consider Ezra, one of the last great priests before Jesus Christ’s arrival.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah might not be too familiar to you. They’re separate books in our Bibles, but in the Hebrew Bible they are placed together. Ezra-Nehemiah tells the story of Israel’s restoration. After the appointed time in exile, God stirred the spirits of the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, to give His people favor with these kings, and He did it through men like Daniel, and women like Esther. These kings allowed the Jews to return, to rebuild the city walls and the temple. As they left, God also stirred the spirits of their Babylonian neighbors, and they gave the Jews gifts of gold and silver to use in the restoration. As God’s people arrived at Jerusalem, they began to rebuild their faith first, celebrating the religious festivals again. The priests who came with them started to offer sacrifices again to restore the people’s covenant relationship with God. They rebuilt the temple together, and dedicated it with worship and sacrifice and celebration. But they needed someone to organize and lead these spiritual reforms:

[Read Nehemiah 7:5-10, 9:1-38, 10:28-29]

The Law of God

Ezra is lifted up to us as a man who loved God’s Law. He desired to study it and to obey it, and to teach others to also study it and obey it. And God’s people are in a spiritual state where they are ready and eager to be led by such a man. Ezra and the other priests are asked by the people to regularly stand in public spaces throughout Jerusalem and spend half the day or more reading from God’s Law, the Hebrew “TORAH,” the first five books of our Bible. Now, if I stood reading the first five books of the Bible, and told everyone to come, you might show up, and you would maybe stay through Genesis and Exodus, but as soon as I got to Leviticus, you’d all go home. But God’s people are so eager to hear again what God requires of them that they all come out and stand listening for hours at a time. and they are so cut to the heart by what is read to them that they spend weeks lamenting their sins, wearing rough clothing made from sackcloth and putting ashes on their heads to physically remind them of their spiritual misery.

As Christians, ones in whom the risen and living Christ dwells and delights, we have a complicated relationship with the Old Testament Law. On the one hand, we believe that the commandments and statutes and stories are God’s Word for us and for our salvation; but on the other hand, we have Christ – the Word of God made flesh – living in us through the Holy Spirit, so God’s Law is written on our hearts. That tension in us Christians living in the 21st century is what makes Ezra’s story so compelling to me. Here is a man who loves God’s Law, what many of us find to be antiquated, confusing, and constrictive. Ezra loves it so much that he desires with all his heart to study it, to do it, and to teach it. Where we find a list of meaningless rules, Ezra finds a record of God’s goodness and faithfulness.

The Love of God

The Law of God read correctly reveals to us God’s covenant faithfulness. It also reflects back to us our own faithlessness: all our sinfulness, our shortcomings, our stumblings. Knowing God is holy reminds us that we are sinful; but remembering God is faithful draws us to Him in repentance. No one loves reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy, because we get lost in the ancientness of it, confused about what it means for us in 2016. But the story that is told in those first five books – creation, covenant, deliverance, provision – shows God’s tender compassion and infinite mercy for His people precisely when we are lost in sin. That is why, when God’s people are weeping for their sins, humbling themselves before their holy God, Ezra tells them the story of God at work in their lives and the lives of their fathers and mothers, all the way back to the beginning.

Ezra simply tells them their story. God, in His love, made all things good, and made us in His image to take care of those good things, and to enjoy them with Him. We rebelled. God, in His love, made a covenant with Abraham to begin building a people for Himself through whom He would someday redeem and restore and reconcile all things to Himself. That family that God chose wasn’t perfect, and they got lost. God, in His love, went and found them – over and over again – to bring them back to Himself, so that He could work His full salvation through them someday. Ezra didn’t know how that story would end. We do! We live after Christmas, after Good Friday, after Easter Sunday! We have seen how God’s Story is fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ, born as a human baby into this broken, stiff-necked, peculiar family, to save the whole world from the crippling, corrupting power of sin.

That story now belongs to all of us. This isn’t just the story of one small tribe of people living in the Middle East thousands of years ago. God’s plan was to redeem, restore, and reconcile all things, so He sent His Son Jesus for all of us. This story now belongs to all of us. God’s love has reached us, here, in 2016, because His new, renewed covenant of love has been opened to include all who receive Christ Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

So when guilt and shame grab hold of you, accusing you of the sin in your lives, you need an Ezra to come and tell you the story again: God is good and faithful and loving, and He has done for you what you could not do for yourselves, so you could receive what you could not earn on your own. Sin has no power here: you are new creations in His Son Jesus Christ. Live like it. And when you see each other, or your neighbors, or your family members, stuck in their sin, be an Ezra, and tell them the story: This is who we are now because of Christ, not that dead, sin-stained shell you were; Be who you are.

The Priest of God

This is the story that Ezra and all the priests tell God’s people, to comfort them and to call them to new obedience and renewed covenant faithfulness. But notice how they tell the story. The priests weren’t talking to the people. They were talking to God. They prayed their story with God to God, to remind themselves and God that this is how the story goes. It is as if the priests are reminding God – when they need Him to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast – that God has promised to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast. They are calling God to be now who He has been before, and who He has promised to be always.

That is a bold prayer. That is a priestly prayer. That is the kind of prayer that Jesus Christ is offering for us all, for you, even now, before the throne of God above. When it feels like God’s not listening, or like He’s far away from you, remember: the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is standing in the throne room of heaven, holding out his nail-pierced hands to His Father, saying, “This is what We do. We save them.” And the Spirit alive in us agrees, praying with groans too deep for words. And God remembers. And we remember: God is faithful, and good, and merciful, and He keeps covenant with us, not for our sake, but because it is His desire that none should perish, but that all might be redeemed, renewed, and reconciled to Him.

Thanks be to God!

“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”