Sunday October 5th @ St Barnabas and St Michael
Wanting to be first
We all want to be first. Listen to any group of children and they will soon tell you who can run the fastest, or throw the furthest, or jump the longest. Children spend hours and hours working out who’s best at what, often with a few fights and squabbles along the way. And it’s not just children who engage in this sort of activity. Hardly a week seems to go by without some new programme to find Britain’s strongest man, or most talented singer, or most successful entrepreneur. We live in a society where coming first appears to be a national obsession.
And what about us who can’t be the best looking, or the strongest, or the fittest? (No matter how hard we try!) Well, the next best thing, of course, is to find someone who is. The coolest looking kid in class isn’t the one sitting on his own at the back. Nor is the latest singing sensation spending every evening alone in her flat wondering what to do next. No, these kind of people have friends and admirers and hangers-on, people who want to be with them, to share their fame and fortune and glory.
Which brings me on to our reading this morning, and more specifically to James and John. After all, they have no doubt that Jesus is the chosen one of God, and they are looking forward to being part of the tickertape procession that will shortly be making its way through Jerusalem (or they so think). And as the great city comes into view, what could be more natural than having a quiet word in their teacher’s ear and booking the number one and two tickets on the open-top bus?
But the very fact they make this request only goes to show they haven’t worked out who Jesus is or what He has come to do. Not that the other ten disciples are any better, either. For when they hear about James and John’s request they become indignant – not because they feel the brothers’ request is wrong or out of place, but because they themselves want the number one and two slots in Jesus’ victory parade. They just haven’t got who Christ is and what it means to follow Him.
So it’s little surprise that Jesus feels compelled to break up their squabble and give them a team talk to set the record straight. You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. In other words, if you think following me is about privilege and status, then forget it. OK, so my church will one day have bishops and cathedrals, but that’s not really what following me is about. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. You see, I don’t do this glamour and celebrity business, and you certainly shouldn’t be thinking about numbers one and two. People who follow me go where I go, and very soon you’ll understand what I’m talking about. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. That’s my mission statement, that’s who I am. And unless you get it, you won’t have a clue what it means to be my disciple.
And I imagine that as they made their way into Jericho, the 12 were unusually silent as they tried to take in exactly what Jesus had been saying. After all, Jesus had already predicted his suffering and death three times and they hadn’t been able to take on board what He was saying. Would the penny now be finally starting to drop? We can only speculate, although at least according to Luke’s gospel they were still arguing about position when it came to the Lord’s Supper. And while we might find it easy to criticise them and say they should have known better, the question I want to ask this morning is this: do we know who Jesus is and what He has done for us? And if so, what practical difference does knowing Jesus make to our lives today?
So let’s go back and take a closer look at our memory verse this morning, which helps to give us the answer to these questions. Let’s say together Mark 10, verse 45 (which you’ll find printed on your noticesheet) and think what it means: For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus – Son of Man, Son of God
First of all, who is this Son of Man? The answer, of course, is Jesus, but the question is, why does He prefer to call Himself by this name? After all, when folk fall down at His feet and call Him the Son of God, He does not disagree with them. Indeed by this stage of Mark’s gospel He has already driven out evil spirits, healed the sick, calmed the storm, raised the dead and done so much more. Not only that, but He has announced the coming of God’s kingdom, claimed the ability to forgive sins, and at His baptism and transfiguration been revealed as the Only One of the Father. If anyone deserves to call Himself the Son of God, it is Jesus – because that’s who He is. There is no-one before or since who has been or could ever be like Jesus, because Jesus really is the only Son of the Father. And the idea of certain sects and cults that Jesus is just one son of God among many is, quite frankly, ridiculous.
Yet in spite of all this Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man. And the reason He does this is quite simply that the Son of God, the one, who as we shall sing shortly, “Flung stars into space” took it upon Himself to be born as a tiny little baby in a manger to a jobbing carpenter from Nazareth, to grow up into a toddler, then a child, then a man. It really is a most astonishing and most amazing fact. That Jesus, who, in the words of our first reading being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And again, if you take the time to read through Mark’s gospel, as I hope you will, you will see that although the mighty Son of God, Jesus knew hunger and thirst, tiredness, and anger, and all the emotions that are part of being human – yet without sin.
And why did He do this? Well, the simple answer is because of the Father’s overwhelming love for us. Because as we thought last week all of us in one way or another are like the Prodigal Son who have wandered away from the one who has made us and given us everything. And even before the beginning of time, before this world come into being, the Father turned to the Son and said, “You know that the people I am going to create will turn away from me. You know that they will break my commands and go their own way. Will you at the right time go and live among them, serve them and save them?” And the Son replied, “Yes, Father, I will”.
That’s why when Jesus comes into Jerusalem there is no tickertape procession, no victory parade. Oh yes, the crowds who come out to greet Him shout Hosanna and wave the palm fronds in the air. But this king who comes is one who rides on a donkey, not in a chariot, or astride a beast of war. It is the act of a humility by the one who, right from the start of His public ministry, has been devoted to serving the broken, the poor and the outcast, the one who has touched the leper and ministered to Gentiles, and welcomed little children into His arms. And it is this act of humility which will lead to the final and ultimate act of service, the giving of his life upon the cross, as a ransom for many.
Jesus – the ransom for many
Now because it’s so important to understand why Jesus died for us, we’ll be spending all next Sunday looking at this question. But it’s worth pausing for a moment and reflecting why Jesus talked about giving up His life as a ransom for many. And the simple answer is that the ransom is about paying a debt. We’re all very familiar with the idea of debt at the moment, and you only have to turn on the news to see the latest financial crisis that’s sweeping the world. To have a debt you cannot pay is a huge, huge burden and it’s the reason why so many businesses are going under. But of course the debt Jesus is talking about here is a not a financial debt, or one you can measure in pounds and pence. It is the debt that we owe God to love Him as we ought, and the debt we owe our neighbour to love them as ourselves. And unless Jesus had come and died in our place, we would never, ever have been able to pay that debt. His death on a cross was the necessary price to restore our relationship with God that we had broken through our sin and rebellion against Him, and it was the ultimate act of service by one who… made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.
In saying all this, I realise there are many people here this morning who already believe Jesus to be the Son of God, and the Son of Man, and who also accept that Jesus died for their sins. But the whole aim of the course we’re doing is not simply to impart information to the brain, or warm the heart with the wonderful good news of the Christian faith. Building on the rock is about reflecting on that good news and realising the practical difference it should make to our lives.
Jesus – the practical difference
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. If you call yourself a Christian, if you believe Jesus is all that He says He is, then Jesus needs to be your example day by day, hour by hour. That means living a different kind of way, not always striving to be first, not always striving to have the biggest and the best. Following Jesus means treading the sometimes hard and difficult path of service, of loving the poor, the lonely, the outcast and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in both word and action. As I’ve said before, and will no doubt say again, the world is tired of a church which professes the name of Christ and yet is no different from any of group of people around them. And frankly that’s not the type of church with which I want to be associated. I want our churches to be known as places where faith in Jesus Christ makes a visible difference and where more and more lives are impacted by the sacrificial service of its members.
So who do you say that Jesus is? And what practical difference does He make to your life?
And while you are thinking about your answers, I just want to go back for a few moments to James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Because, although at the time they had little idea about being a true follower of Jesus, they did indeed drink deep of the cup of suffering thereafter. So, for example, as you go on and read the book of Acts, you will see it was James who bravely led the early church in Jerusalem until he himself was executed in one of King Herod Agrippa’s great publicity stunts. Or again, if you turn to the back of your Bible, to the book of Revelation, you will see it was John who ended up in exile on Patmos because he refused to compromise on his faith, despite having witnessed the most terrible and acute persecution of the church. In other words, James and John themselves became examples of those who believe in Jesus, and their example has been followed by countless Christians across the world through every generation. There really is no glamour, no glitz in following Jesus, but only the certainty of glory on that day when Jesus Himself says to us Well done, good and faithful servant.
So who do you say that Jesus is? And what practical difference does He make to your life?