Oct. 18, 2009 Mark 10: 35-45 Prayer: Dear Lord, Go with us into the study of your word. May it bring new creativity and wisdom and vibrancy into our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen. The wrong question Do you know who Edwin McCain is? You can’t turn on contemporary radio stations without hearing his “Solitude” or “I’ll Be” or “I Could Not Ask for More.” He is a singer/songwriter who is enjoying great commercial success. Edwin is a Greenville native and still lives here. And when my son Taylor’s band found out that Edwin McCain’s dad is in my Bible study at First Baptist Greenville, they were all “Oh, Mrs. Moore, you’ve got to get our CD to Edwin McCain!” Fortunately, Edwin’s dad, who is a retired pediatrician, is the nicest man in the world. So being a dutiful mom, I schlepped over last week and gave him Taylor’s CD. But Taylor is not depending on that inroad alone. If he doesn’t hear anything from that foray, he’s found someone else’s mom who lives next door to Edwin McCain, and she is going to give him the CD. Poor Edwin McCain doesn’t know what he’s in for. He’ll probably come out of his house one day and see an airplane message in the sky: Invite Taylor Moore to open your next tour. That is what we moms do. It’s in our job description. One of the great moms in history is the mother of the disciples James and John. We don’t know her name. She is always referred to as the mother of the sons of Zebedee. In the gospel of Matthew, this mom approaches Jesus, with James and John at her side, and insists that Jesus allow her boys to sit next to him in his kingdom. Here’s how Matthew tells it: Jesus “said to her, „What do you want?‟ She said to him, „Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.‟ ” (Mt. 20: 21) I have to admit, that is impressive. That’s my idea of a mom. But the gospel writer Mark doesn’t remember the episode that way. In his version, James and John pull this stunt all by themselves. That’s the Scripture passage we will be looking at today. Please turn with me in your Bibles to Mark 10: 35-45. 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.’ 36And 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.’ 38But 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?’ 39They 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. 42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ There was a very early church bishop named Papias who served in the last years of the first century. So this was someone who lived during the time the gospels were being written. And he is quoted by a historian as saying that the gospel writer Mark was a follower of the disciple Peter. People who heard Peter preach urged Mark to write down the story of Jesus. Here is part of the quote we have from this bishop: “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order of the things said or done by the Lord. For Mark had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter….” This Papias says that Mark wrote accurately but not necessarily in chronological order. That’s why I am so fascinated by the way in which each gospel writer constructs his gospel, literarily. He is making artistic choices about how to present things, and how to position things. And how Mark positions this particular passage is most interesting. Back in chapter 8, he writes about Jesus healing a blind man. And at the end of chapter 10, which we will look at next week, he writes about Jesus healing another blind man. Both of these men are outsiders, strangers. In between these two healing episodes, Mark writes about what we could call the blindness of the disciples, of those insiders closest to him. He writes three stories of Jesus predicting his death, and three responses of the disciples that reveal their total misunderstanding. Our passage today is part of the third response. The disciples and Jesus are on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus is trying to prepare them for what lies ahead. Speaking of himself in the third person, he tells them, “… 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; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him, and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10: 32-34) And then the very next words of Mark’s gospel are: “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. … Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.‟ ” Do you think they might not have been listening? Did they not hear the part about mocking and spitting and flogging and killing? My family hates it when I say, “What did I just say?” But I hate it when they make it necessary – by not listening the first time around. Jesus sounds a little aggravated, too. “You do not know what you are asking,” he tells the brothers. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In the Old Testament, the cup could symbolize joy and salvation or it could symbolize the wrath of God. When Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asks that the cup be removed from him. So the cup is a symbol for what he must do, how he must die. In baptism by immersion, which we think is what Jesus underwent in the Jordan River, there, too, is symbolism of death as one goes down into the water. So these things – cup and baptism – while they can mean very good things for us as shared communion and the rebirth part of baptism – are being used by Jesus as symbols of his upcoming ordeal. “You do not know what you are asking.” In other words, you’re asking the wrong question. The disciples thought things were one way, and they were so far out of the ballpark they didn’t even know the appropriate questions to ask. In the Old Testament book of Job, Job and his friends spend 37 chapters asking and answering questions about why all this misery has befallen Job. Why did an upright man lose his property and his family and his livestock and his health? What did he do or not do to invite the wrath of God? And then in chapter 38, God speaks, and lo and behold, he doesn’t even address the questions that have been asked for the last 37 chapters. Instead, he says: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38: 4) … “Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” In other words, you’ve been asking the wrong questions. It’s not about you. It’s about something much bigger than you can imagine. I think many of us wander into this realm of unintentional self- importance when we sense a call, and we suppose it is a very specific call to a very specific job or vocation. We pray for clarity, and we talk about leaving it up to God, and we truly mean well. But I’m not sure that’s how things work. I’m not sure we’re asking the right question. I think maybe as long as we are taking up our crosses to follow Jesus, as long as we are truly trying to live into discipleship, it doesn’t matter very much what specific job we take to carry it out. We can follow Jesus in whatever vocation we find ourselves. The long poem that is God’s answer to Job is replete with both beautiful language and sarcasm about Job’s place in the universe. God says: “Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? In other words, who are you, Job, to question God? Compared to God’s answer to Job, Jesus showed remarkable restraint when faced with the three clueless responses of his disciples. You may remember a few weeks ago, we talked about the second of these so-called passion predictions. Jesus was trying to tell the disciples about his upcoming betrayal and execution, and the disciples responded by arguing about who of them was the greatest. Jesus placed a little child among them and said whoever wanted to be greatest must a servant of all. With the third passion prediction, Mark is building toward his finale. The responses have gotten worse and worse each time Jesus told about his upcoming ordeal. Now on this third go-round, James and John aren’t just arguing about who is greatest. They’re launching a pre-emptive strike: They are angling for the best seats in Jesus’ kingdom. And according to Mark, they did it without their mother’s help. Their ploy made the other ten disciples mad. And once again, Jesus explained about the topsy-turvy nature of his kingdom: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Then Mark ends the chapter with the second healing of a blind man, effectively bracketing all this misunderstanding, all this blindness, all these wrong questions. What wrong questions might we be hung up on? Is it possible we are operating in a realm that could only evoke God’s response: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” That’s a poetic way of saying, “Get over yourself.” On Sunday evenings, we open with a song called “We Have Come Into this House.” “We have come into this house to gather in his name and worship him.” And one of the verses goes “So forget about yourself, concentrate on him and worship him.” The first time I heard that line, I was startled. It sounded too colloquial for a worship song – “forget about yourself.” But I think it reflects a truth about us – sometimes we need to get out of the way in order to truly worship. In the last verse of today’s passage, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Our question shouldn’t be: “How does following Christ serve my best interests?” A better question is: “How might I best serve the interests of Christ?” Amen.