Theme: Perfect religion is not the one where we get whatever we want; it is the one where God works out in us whatever He wants!
This continues the sermon series “The Passion,” leading us through Lent and preparing our hearts and minds for the Easter celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. The scripture texts match those of this year’s Lenten study groups, and is based upon “Journey to the Cross” written by Debbie Schmidt.
This series also helps us explore some of the issues brought up by the recent movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”
What is the perfect religion? Think about that for a moment. What is your definition? What would it look like? Got that clear in your mind? I want to go to the Gospel of Mark and just look at one verse and see a definition of a perfect religion. It comes from verse 35 of the 10th chapter of the Book of Mark.
“Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
Whatever we ask. How’s that for a definition of religion? God we want you to do for us whatever we ask. Not a bad definition for religion. This is a definition that I think that we might carry around with us sometimes. Isn’t it true that somewhere in your heart at some point or another you really wanted that kind of relationship with God? God I want you to do whatever I ask. In a relationship like this God doesn’t make any demands on us. He’s there to do what we want. In this sort of relationship, we have a relationship with a servant God or a slave God. In this sort of situation it would be just perfect if God would have a relationship with us that he be like a waiter at a really good restaurant, invisible until you needed him. And then efficient and polite besides. It sounds far fetched, but I think sometimes we live out parts of our spiritual life on this level; where what we pray about, what we want are all things that revolve around us and revolves around our needs.
And so, when we are in danger, we call for help. When it’s midterms or finals, we pray for help on the tests. We pray for a wife or a husband. We pray for money or success. And all of these things are good, but if we just live on this level then everything in our relationship with God becomes God I want this, God I want that, do this for me, do that. And if God doesn’t do it for us, then I think that there is a sense that God is being mean or worse than that, we start to believe that God doesn’t even exist at all. So sometimes it might be easier for us to fall into that kind of thinking, to want a God that slavishly responds to every request, but is the real God like that? Is God’s plan for us so open ended that he will do anything we ask? Are we so objective? Are we so loving that that would even be safe?
I think one of the reasons that God doesn’t do whatever we ask is so that we won’t be zapping each other out of existence in traffic jams. When we come to God with our needs, I think we will discover that God takes our needs very seriously, but at the same time we will discover that God has plans and concerns and desires of his own for our lives. So we come to God to change our situation and we find God ready instead to use the situation to change us. So I would like to propose that the perfect religion is not the religion where we get whatever we want from God, but the one where God works out in us what He wants.
James and John found this out. This passage comes in the second half of the Book of Mark and Jesus has already taught that He is going to face suffering and death. They are on their way to Jerusalem, and then James and John, who are brothers, seem to come to Jesus at a time when nobody else was around. And so I would like us to look now at verses 35 to 37. They are on their way up to Jerusalem then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come up to Jesus.
“Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, ” Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
Let’s stop there for a moment. I love this request. Think about it. They are following this Jewish rabbi. They have watched him pray. They have watched him do miracles and they are now convinced that he is the Messiah of God, and that Jesus actually has the power to answer this sort of request. It’s an amazing amount of faith. They are saying I believe you will come to the point that you are sitting in a position of power, not only of this nation, but over all the nations, and when that time comes I want to be on your left and my brother wants to be on your right. No small plans for these guys. We are friends of the King, watch out world! They had great faith and we can commend them for that. So far so good, but the problem is that they had faith, but the request they made was a selfish request. They are asking to have power and authority and prestige in the new kingdom, but it’s their power, their glory, their agenda that they are talking about.
Are we ever like that? God I want you to do whatever I ask? That’s what I really want at heart. Now, we are right to have faith in God and in the incredible power that God has, and the incredible love that He has for us as well and Jesus himself told us to ask. So if we need healing it’s right to ask. If we want a new car, it’s right to ask. Nothing wrong with those things. Nothing wrong that if we are feeling down to ask God for joy. These things are good, but if we think that the whole nature of our relationship with God ends up being that the Christian life is just a matter of getting God to do what we want Him to do, we are inevitably going to be disappointed. Christ will meet all of our needs and this is true as far as it goes, but is there more that God is doing in the world and in us than just that, meeting all of our needs.
James and John believed that Jesus could answer their request. They had seen him do miracles. They had seen something strange happen on a mountain top where they saw God’s power displayed in his life, but their thinking had a fatal flaw in it. They expected God to do something for them before God did something in them. They wanted God to work for them, before He worked on them. Now notice Jesus’ answer to this request. I want you to look at verse 40.
“To sit at my right or my left is not for me to grant, these places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
They make this incredible request of Jesus and his answer is no. He doesn’t even say he will pray about it. He hears their request and he looks at them, and he says no. There are bigger fish to fry than this. God has bigger plans and this is not even something that I am going to make a decision on. The decision has already been made. And so that means that there are some times we come to God with a request, with a need, and we get no for an answer. But look at verse 38.
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” And they say, “We can” and Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with.”
Let’s think about that for a moment. When He says no to them, he doesn’t say that was a stupid request. That’s one of the most selfish things I have had to deal with in months. Instead he hears their request and he makes a challenge back to them and he uses this image of water, baptism and the image of a cup. In the image of baptism, we proclaim as a church that because of faith in Jesus Christ we have a new life, but the image behind it is an image of judgment, of going under the judgment of God in the water and coming out again, because in the Old Testament there is the story about God’s judgment on the world in Noah’s time where water is used to wipe out a sinful human race. There is a water of judgment again when God liberates Israel from Egypt and the water of the Red Sea closes over Pharaoh’s army and kills them. The water picture is a picture of judgment.
And the same is true for the cup. Because again in the Old Testament there is a picture there of God mixing together wine and spices and then he offers that cup to the nations and he makes the nations drink of the cup, and it’s the cup of his anger. It’s the cup of judgment. Jesus had that same image in his mind when he is in the Garden of Gethsemane and he says “God if you can take this cup from me, please do it, but nevertheless not my will, but yours be done.” It’s a picture of judgment. And so Jesus says to them using these two pictures he says, “You want to be with me in glory. What I ask you back is will you stay with me in suffering.” And they reply, “Oh yeah, sure. Yeah.” I don’t think they had a clue what they were saying. But the thing is Jesus agrees and he says, “Yes you will. You will be with me in suffering.”
The same is true today for us who decide to follow Jesus. If we seriously want to follow Christ, if we want to stay close to Him, if we ask God for the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we will come at some point or another to the same challenge from Him, can you stay with me? Will you stick with me in suffering too? The Apostle Paul understood this whole dynamic that we are heading towards a glorious conclusion, but right now they are times that we face suffering when Paul said this, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings becoming like him in his death and so somehow to attain the resurrection of the dead.” Paul understood this, but James and John didn’t and I think that sometimes we don’t understand it either.
David Watson, an Anglican who was involved in the renewal of Anglican Church, a fine pastor said it this way.
“When we seek the Holy Spirit, it’s because we want to be more like God,
but when God gives the Holy Spirit it’s to make us more like Christ.”
What does he mean by that? We pray, we seek God’s answers. We seek the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives and its because we want to be more like God. This is “Bruce Almighty” religion. We want to be in control. We want to eliminate the suffering and the pain. We want to change things to be the way we would like them to be, to be impervious to the ups and downs of life. We want to understand it all. We want to control it all and that’s why we pray. But when God answers those prayers he gives the spirit and he gives power to make us more like Christ, to give us power not to escape suffering but to go through it, to give us power to serve other people, to give without hope of repayment, to be abused by people who should be grateful and to forgive those people who don’t even ask for it. That’s what he gives the power to do in our lives. We want God to protect us even from normal problems. Golly God, now that I am a Christian I don’t even want to have an aching back. But instead God says, “You don’t know me. You won’t come to know me. In escaping all of this and seeing my power to keep you away from it all, you will come to know me by sensing my presence as you go through it.”
James and John heard this challenge and maybe some of us are hearing that right now. There is something in our lives that just is really important, and it just won’t budge and we have been praying about it and we want God to change it and what we are starting to discover is that instead God is changing us by not changing the situation and by drawing us closer to himself in the middle of it. And the only thing that I can say about that is that it is hard. It’s hard. But if God is at work in us and changing us and using very difficult times like this to shape us, what is the pattern? What is the goal that God is doing in our lives? There has got to be something worth it all that He is doing in us. I want to go back to this passage to verses 42 to 45. This is God’s pattern. This is where we are going.
“When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 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. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 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.”
I want to take a look at particularly these verses where is says, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to become first must be slave of all. This is in the style of a Hebrew or Aramaic poem and there are two phrases here and they mean the same thing, its just that the second phrase makes the point clear by hammering it a little bit more. So whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant. And then he restates it again and whoever wants to be first, that is the greatest, must be slave of all. So what’s the pattern? He goes on to even say that even the Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The pattern is Jesus Christ himself. This is not something we have to outgrow. It’s only something we grow deeper in to. The measure of greatness is service. God considers us great. We are great in God’s eyes when we serve the poor, the weak, the friendless, when we love unlovable people and give that extra time to them, when we do those invisible things of service, when we visit the hospitals and the shut-ins, when we set tables for a receptions after funerals, when we cook food for alpha, when we do all the things that are in the background of the church, the people who are working up there and back there and not the ones who come up here and at least get visibility and get credit. These are the things that are great in Gods eyes. When we do something, we don’t get the credit, when we live with being misunderstood. These are the things that are like Christ.
Now I would like to spring a surprise on a few of the leaders of the church. Anyone who has been a deacon last year or this coming year or anyone who is an elder, last year or this coming year, please stand up for a moment. Okay. Take a look around. Now please be seated. These people aren’t the most powerful people. They are not the richest people. And they might not even be the smartest people, but they are smart. If they were the smartest they would have found some way to not do all of this. But they are our leaders because we seek Christ in them and how do we seek Christ? We saw it in their willingness to serve. These are people that I have seen serve without thanks. These are people who lead, some of them four small groups a week. These are some of them who are by bedsides at inconvenient times and who are always there at the end of the telephone and what really brings joy to my heart is that it is not just them.
As I look out over at you, I know that the same serving heart is in you as well. I have seen it. And it is one of the biggest privileges that I have of being your pastor, is to see Christ in you as you serve each other and serve this world outside. This is where God’s plans for all of us end up, to be like Christ, to be servants of a sinful, needy and often thankless world. James and John started out with selfish concerns, but they were challenged to be like Christ to follow him no matter what the cost would be, maybe even suffer in that service and that’s what perfect religion is. Not when we get whatever we want from God, but when God works out in us what he wants, which is the image of Jesus Christ. Like James and John we often come with our own agendas, but the same challenge will inevitably come to us. Be like Christ no matter what that means, no matter where that takes you, be like Christ. And are we willing to follow?
Let’s pray. Gracious God we thank you. We thank you that Jesus went ahead of us, and that He lived, and that He served, and that He suffered for us. And so now as his people we enjoy the incredible gift that He has given us. And we pray that we might become more like Him. For we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.