Summary: This sermon focuses on Jesus’ challenge for an "Upside Down Kingdom" challenging us to be first by being last. This is a call to except that challenge and become first place in the things God wants us to be excellent in.
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask." 36 "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. 37 They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." 38 "You don’t know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" 39 "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared." 41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 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."
“A Servant People”
I had some friends with a three-year-old son. For family fun, they liked to play the game Memory. It consisted of a bunch of cards arranged on the floor face down. Those playing took turns, trying to turn over matching pairs of cards. If you got a match, you kept them and went again. The person with the most matches was the winner. As the family played, the dad remarked, "My strategy is that I focus on two or three specific pairs that I’m trying to get, and after I get them, I pick out two or three more." The mother said, "My strategy is that I start on the cards in the corners, and each turn I work my way towards the center, trying to remember all the cards." Their three-year-old son replied, "My strategy is that when y’all aren’t looking I peak under the cards."
How many people here want to be losers? How many of you like coming in last place? How many of you desire to be the worst at something? Are you kidding? The last time I came in last place for something I think I moped about all day. It’s awful! We don’t like losing, and we hate coming in last. It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating. It makes us feel… freakish… less than human… abnormal… or worst yet – common.
We want to be winners. We yearn to be first. We desire to be the best at something. We will train all our lives for a gold medal, work year round for a championship ring, go to great lengths… to be the best. We want to be winners!
The desire to be a winner is not unique to us today. We can see it in the Bible: as in today’s Gospel lesson, when James and John sidle up to Jesus and ask him a question. “Teacher,” they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask."
Now, Jesus must be in a good mood, because he asks them this question in return: “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Oh boy,” say James and John to one another, rubbing their hands together in anticipation. “Brother, this is our lucky day! (Now quick, before he changes his mind…) Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Those Zebedee boys are aiming high. They’re asking to be executive vice-president and chief operating officer of heaven… respectively.
Now, here is where I’m going to steal a page from the playbook of Martin Luther King Jr. because I love what he has to say about Jesus’ response. What was the answer that Jesus gave James and John? It’s very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, “You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you even ask such a thing?”
But that isn’t what Jesus did. He did something different. He said, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well who doesn’t… it’s only natural. In fact… if you’re going to be my disciple, you must be great... you must be important… you must be significant. Wanting to be first is a good instinct, I don’t want you to give it up. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. I want you to be first… in service.