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"Blind Ambition "

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          April 4, 2004

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Scripture Reading: 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."  36 And 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."  38 But 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?"  39 They 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.  42 So 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.  43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

The Seats of Honor

Have you ever noticed how much children worry about where they're going to sit at a party? "I want to sit by her." "No, I want to sit by her." "That's not fair. You got to sit be her last time." "No I didn't, you did." And so it goes.

But, if the truth be told, adults can act like this too. For example, suppose you go to a wedding reception where there are assigned seats for the meal. How many of you, if you get there a bit early, check out your seat to see if you're sitting by people you like? And how many of you feel relieved when you discover that you're sitting with your friends? I've actually seen adults who, when assigned to a table they haven't liked, have surreptitiously switched their nameplates with those of people from other tables.

On more than one occasion in my life, I've been granted the "seat of honor" at a banquet. It happens when I'm the main speaker and get to sit at the "head table." But sometimes this isn't as exciting as it seems. One time I was going to speak to a group of people where I knew only a couple of men in the group. I had hoped to be able to sit by my friends around a table of eight people. But, no, I couldn't sit with them because I had to sit at the head table. The only problem was that this placed me between one man, the president of the group, and the lectern. Nobody sat across from me, of course, because I was at the head table. So I had to spend the entire meal with only one person to talk with. And, as it turned out, he was a terrible conversationalist. Never have I tried so hard for so long to get a discussion going but to no avail. By the time I finally got up to speak, I was exhausted! Hardly the seat of honor, you must admit!

The Blind Request of James and John

In our story today from Mark 10, James and John, two brothers among the inner circle of Jesus' disciples, wanted the best seats in the house. But these weren't just seats of honor at a banquet. James and John were looking for glory, to be sure, but also for power. They wanted to be top dogs in the kingdom of God.

This episode begins with a request that sounds almost childish: "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you" (10:35). Doesn't this remind you of the sort of thing kids say to each other? "I want you to promise that you won't tell Mom what I'm going to tell you." Of course James and John are grown men, so their request for a blank check from Jesus doesn't reflect too well upon them. They want Jesus to do for them what they want, even before they tell him what it is.

James and John actually envision Jesus occupying the seat of honor in the kingdom of God. They don't want to be top dog, but they want to be right next to Jesus, basking in his glory and sharing in his power. Thus they ask: "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" (10:37). Not only is this request selfish, but it's also foolish. After all, Jesus has just explained once again that he's going to Jerusalem to suffer and die in a most horrible manner (10:33-34). But James and John don't get it . . . at all. They're so caught up in their own vision of Jesus' glorious kingdom that all they can think of is themselves and what they stand to gain when the kingdom comes.

Thus it's no coincidence that immediately following the episode with James and John we come upon the blind beggar named Bartimaeus. At least he knows he's blind as he cries out to be healed. But James and John are blind in a different sense. They're blind to the truth of who Jesus is and what he has come to do. They're blinded by their ambition to share in Jesus' glory. And, unlike Bartimaeus, they don't even know that they're blind.

Drinking the Cup

Jesus responds to the brothers with a rebuke and a question: "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?" (10:38). They answer "We are able," without even the slightest idea of what they're actually saying. Of course who can blame them? Jesus' point about the cup and baptism isn't exactly obvious.

The more you get to know the Old Testament, however, the more obvious it becomes. In several passages of the Old Testament, the cup is a symbol of God's wrath. In Psalm 75, for example, we read:

For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup
     with foaming wine, well mixed;
he will pour a draught from it,
     and all the wicked of the earth
     shall drain it down to the dregs. (Psalm 75:8)

Or, take the following passage from Isaiah:

Rouse yourself, rouse yourself!
     Stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk at the hand of the LORD
     the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
     the bowl of staggering. . . . (Isa 51:17)

In each of these passages, the "cup" is a symbol of God's wrath. Drinking the cup is equivalent to receiving God's judgment upon sin. When Jesus asks James and John about drinking the cup, therefore, what he means is: "Are you able to take upon yourself divine judgment for sin? Are you able to contain the wrath of God that will be poured out upon me?"

Jesus' cryptic reference to the cup helps us to understand why, in his view, he must suffer and die. Earlier in Mark's gospel he has made this prediction, twice, in fact. But, until this point, Jesus hasn't explained why he must die, only that it's necessary. Now we catch a glimpse of the reason. His death will be God's judgment of sin. By dying on the cross, Jesus will drink the cup of God's wrath, so that others who are guilty may be forgiven.

The Calling of the Son of Man

Once the other disciples hear what James and John are up to, they're angry. This response shows that they have as little understanding of Jesus' mission as the two brash brothers. Each one of the disciples is preoccupied with his own greatness and glory.

Jesus rebukes the whole bunch by telling them to reject pagan values, where greatness is measured according to one's power over others. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Jesus explains: "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (10:43-44). Here we find a classic statement of the upside-down values of the kingdom of God. But Jesus goes on to provide additional rationale for his ethics: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (10:45). The intentions of Jesus, as Son of Man, establish the model to be imitated.

But, as I've mentioned before in this series, what Jesus says about the Son of Man would have come as quite a shock to his disciples. If you go back to Daniel 7, one "like a son of man" appears before the throne of God. Listen to Daniel's description of what happens to this "son of man": "To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away . . ." (Dan 7:14, emphasis added). Jesus would surely agree that this is the ultimate destiny of the Son of Man, and he says so several times throughout the gospels. But the road to glory for the Son of Man is the way of suffering, the way of servanthood the via dolorosa, the way of sadness.

Yet Jesus envisions for himself not just any kind of servanthood, but a very specific act. He has come as Son of Man "to give his life a ransom for many" (10:45). Here Jesus echoes Isaiah's vision of the suffering servant of God, the one who "was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed" (Isa 53:5). This servant was chosen by God to be "an offering for sin," (Isa 53:10). Through his suffering, "he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (Isa 53:12). Thus Jesus takes the formerly disparate threads of Jewish kingdom hopes - the thread of the Suffering Servant of God in Isaiah and the thread of the victorious Son of Man in Daniel 7 - and weaves them together in a whole new tapestry of salvation. Yes, as Son of Man, Jesus will inaugurate the kingdom of God, yet he will do so by fulfilling the role of the Suffering Servant, offering his own life as a ransom for many. He will drink the cup of divine judgment so that others may be forgiven.

Responding to Jesus the Suffering Son of Man

How should we respond to Jesus, the serving, suffering Son of Man?

Part of this answer is obvious because Jesus himself tells us: "Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (10:43-44). This is rather like what we saw last week, where, after explaining his calling to die as Son of Man, Jesus urges his followers to take up their own cross and follow him. But here the emphasis is on how we relate to one another within the community of Jesus. If you want to be great, Jesus says, then be a great servant. It's really that simple.

The daughter of a friend of mine wanted to become a filmmaker, so she applied for and won an internship with an Academy award-winning director. During this internship, the director always treated her honorably and respectfully, without flaunting his power or making her feel like the peon she really was. One time during her internship, this girl lost her purse. She called everyone she could think of, but nobody could locate her purse. Finally she called the director. Sure enough, the purse was in his car. The problem was that she was over an hour away from him and his car, and she needed her purse right away.

"I'll find a way to come get it," she said.

"Don't bother," he explained. "I'll get somebody here to drive it over to you."

"That would be great," she replied. And told the director where she was.

About an hour later the director himself showed up at the front door of the home where she was staying, purse in hand. No hidden agenda. No questionable motives. Just one human being serving another human being. The young woman, as you can imagine, was flabbergasted, and gratefully accepted this favor. The director said "So long" and got back in his car to make the hour drive home.

What an amazing act of servanthood! Especially for someone was successful in Hollywood as that director. As it turns out, he is a follower of Jesus Christ. In fact, his name is Mel Gibson. Heard of him before?

(This, by the way, is a completely true story. I got it straight from my friend, who got it straight from his daughter. No Internet mythology here!)

I've seen acts of servanthood just like this in our church. In fact, one of the things I love about IPC is your willingness to serve one another, without worrying about your own glory. Let me give you one recent example. A couple of months ago I came into the sanctuary early on a Sunday morning. Since it was a communion Sunday, one of our deacons was setting for communion by laying out the throw rugs that help keep our carpets from being stained by spilled grape juice. Now there's nothing unusual about this activity. It happens every month. But I noticed a blessed irony in this scene, because the man who was laying out the rugs, in his professional life, is a top-ranking executive in one of the largest companies in the world. I'd imagine that, in his role at work, he doesn't have to lay out carpets for spillage. Yet here he was at church, thinking nothing of being a servant. (I happen to know, by the way, that one of the reasons he has been so successful in his professional life is that he serves those with whom he works, not to mention his customers.)

Sisters and brothers, this story isn't unusual around here, and for this fact I thank the Lord repeatedly. Now I'm not saying we can't become even more Christ-like in our relationships with each other. Of course we can. But I want to affirm you for your willingness to serve each other in love, with so little concern for your own position and reputation. That's what it means to follow Jesus, the Son of Man.

What you receive from me today is a word, not of admonishment, but of encouragement. Keep up the good work! Keep on serving each other, humbly, faithfully, lovingly. Let the self-giving example of Jesus the Son of Man guide and inspire you.

Let me also suggest that you ask the Lord how you're doing in the whole area of servanthood. Perhaps there are ways for you to serve that you've overlooked. Perhaps you can become more like Christ in your relationships with your spouse, or your children, or your parents, or your employees, or your neighbors, or . . . . Why don't you let the Holy Spirit fill in the blank?


Today we celebrate the Lord's Supper together. In this "meal" we'll drink from the cup of Christ. And what a different cup this is from the one Jesus described in Mark 10. He drank from the cup of wrath; we drink from the cup of grace. Thanks be to God! Because Jesus drank from the cup of judgment, we drink from the cup of salvation. Because Jesus took upon him the judgment associated with the old covenant, we can enjoy the forgiveness of the new covenant.

So as you come today, come to eat the bread, remembering Christ's broken body, and come to drink from the cup, remembering his shed blood. Jesus drank the cup of wrath so you don't have to. Because of what he did as Son of Man, he has ransomed you from sin and death. You can enjoy new life in him, looking forward with confident hope to that day when God's kingdom will have come completely, and you'll share this drink with Jesus himself.

As you remember Jesus and his sacrifice, rejoice and be glad! Through him you are forgiven. And also, commit yourself once again to being like Jesus, to serving those around you with Christ-like humility. May this Supper help you both to receive the grace of God afresh and to give that grace away as you serve others.

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