(painting: St. James the Elder by Rembrandt)
"But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all" (Mark 10:35-45).
James and John, the Sons of Zebedee were quite bold to ask Jesus what they wanted. “Jesus, Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory!” They had heard before from their Lord that through him the poor would be exalted and the rich sent empty away. They had been with Jesus for some time now and were ready to get their due reward.
Jesus tells James and John they do not know what they are asking. When we read the scriptures we are apt to laugh at or scoff at James and John for their foolishness. We find them presumptuous and arrogant for their request. Their competitive demand seems childish and greedy to us. That they should sit at God’s right and left hand in his glory. Oh, that silly James and John, we say to ourselves. How could they be so stupid.
But what glory seekers we all are. And we usually go about it without asking Jesus for anything, which is at least what James and John did. We love the glory of self-service. We love the glory of being right. We love the glory of refusing to forgive others when they have wronged us.
We love the glory of a good reputation. We love the glory of power at the work place and despise those who rightly have it. We vie with a spirit of competitiveness even in our own families. We fantasize about our own dominion and bringing people under our control. We fantasize about building our own kingdom and exercising our power and dominion over our subjects. Like James and John we tell our Lord, “We want you to do whatever we ask of you!” What is the harm in a little glory and dominion for us?
The problem is that the world does not know what true glory is. And neither do we by our own strength.
James and John were not wrong in asking to sit at the right and left hand in His glory. They simply did not know what that glory meant.
Jesus is slow to correct his disciples James and John. He loves them. And God by his infinite mercy is moved by compassion to correct and teach us.
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles, lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave to all.
That is to say if you seek good things – if you want glory don’t look up to heaven, or follow your vain spiritual ambition. Look below. Look to the manger of Jesus where God was born in the form of a slave, next to pigs in a feed trough. Look to the maker of the heavens and the earth who knelt down to wash the dusty feet of his disciples.
That means if we want to serve God and seek his glory, we don’t reach up, we must reach down, bend down, and lower ourselves. The place of honor is not above but below. The place of glory is not in self-service, but in self-sacrifice, in giving yourself away to others in the name of Christ.
If you want good things and glory. Husbands love your wives as Christ knelt down to serve his church even onto death. Wives submit to your husbands, as this is truly pleasing to the Lord. Children, honor and love your parents no matter how eccentric or imperfect they may be. Fathers and mothers, love your children, guide them to holy baptism and bring them up in the instruction and fear of the Lord.
You do not have to search far and wide for the glory of God. Someone very close in your own family is suffering. You may find the glory of God there. If you have the missionary zeal of St. James visit your neighbor and tell them of the riches of Christ. And bring them here that they may know the joy you have found here. In the forgiveness of sins and the new life in Christ.
It is only by the mercy of God that we do not hang to his left and to his right as his glory shone on the cross. Though we deserve the death of a criminal, it was He whom died the death of a criminal in our place. It was He who drank the bitter wine that we would wet our tongue with the sweetest of all wine – the very blood of Christ.
For Christ descended into the sin and muck in His baptism that we would be cleansed in our baptism. In the waters of holy baptism you are forgiven and you are justified. The cup that he hands you is a cup of blessing. He has drunk the cup of wrath to the very dregs.
Dear Christian. You have a reason to rejoice and to be glad. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve you, and to give his life as a ransom for you. And to you his gives with joy. And he gives abundantly. To buy you back from the slavery of sin. The slavery of vain self serving glory. The false glory of personal power and a competitive selfish spirit.
He gives you good things here. You are baptized with His baptism. He comes to you in marvelous ways here. Right here at Bethlehem Lutheran. At the corner of 24 and McKinley. Such good things that you could never imagine them or even hope for them. Here you are highly favored. Here the Lord teaches us how to love our spouse and children. In this place the Lord gives us eternal life and strength for the journey there.
James and John were not stupid or arrogant for asking to sit at Jesus’ left and right hand. They loved Jesus and trusted him and they wanted a piece of what He had. And that is the very desire of faith. To receive from Christ what he freely gives.
The Lord soon enough showed them the glory of God. As his hands were stretched out to his right and to his left – he blessed and forgave his own executioners. As he gave up his last breath, in victory he cried out, “It is finished!” The night of sin has ended. I am the light that that covers the darkness of your sin. I am seated in heaven to the right hand of the father. And where I am there you shall be also.
And the Lord bids that you do not merely sit at his left or his right. He invites you to come to him like a true child comes to a true father. To crawl up into his lap like an infant child. To simply hear those words of comfort that he has for you, no matter how sinful or naughty you may have been.
But you must know this. Sharing in the glory of God and becoming his child does not give us our best life now. We are not placed on a floating fluffy white cloud next to rainbows and unicorns. We are called to a life of suffering. To be made in the image of God is to be made in the image of the crucified son. And your sufferings are not insignificant. They are not just a medical condition or a chemical imbalance. They actually mean something. They are sent your way that you may know God for who he truly is.
Suffering in a marriage that is less than happy. Suffering the loss of a child who has abandoned the faith. Suffering the anxieties of loneliness and depression. Suffering the worry of unemployment and the humility of trying to find work. Suffering the betrayal of friends or family. Suffering the onslaught of old age, and new pains and aches that come along with it. These are good things.
Through all these things you are being conformed to the image of God’s Son – the suffering servant. And there is no suffering on earth that he does not know. It is not as though his sufferings were similar to yours or like yours. He rather made each and every human suffering His. He took every sin of humanity, each egregious sin of yours and bore it and made it his.
But through all these things, “the suffering of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…for the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now…and not only creation but we ourselves have been groaning as we await the redemption of our bodies.”
But for you here – gathered today – it is finished. That is what Jesus said. Christ has risen. And your sins are scattered as far as the east is from the west. You may hear the final judgment today – ahead of time. You are innocent. Forgiven. Cleansed and made whiter than snow.
Not a single charge can be laid against you. Satan and all his angels cannot accuse you of anything. For you have been richly adorned with the righteousness of Christ – and his forgiveness, love, and mercy is more than sufficient to cover you.
For all you who love God – who woke up this morning to hear his voice – all things work together for your good. Nothing in all of creation will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.