Text: Mark 10:35-45 Judica (5th Sunday in Lent)
The Vicarious Life
In the name of him who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, dear friends in Christ: I wonder, have you ever asked for something thinking you were going to get one thing; but then when you got exactly what you ordered, it wasn’t at all what you had in mind? I remember once many years ago I was in an Italian restaurant in Germany. I was thinking seafood might hit the spot. Trouble was the menu was mostly in Italian. For some dishes there were explanations, but they were in German. And neither my Italian nor German was very good. Anyway, I correctly identified the right part of the menu because it was labeled “Frutti di Mare”, which means “fruit of the sea” or seafood. The name of none of the dishes was familiar; but in one of the German explanations it said “Tintenfisch”. And since I could recognize the word for “fish” in there, I figured it was probably some kind of whole fish or fillet – pretty much what I had in mind. So I ordered it. After a while the waiter brings me a plate full of what looked exactly like onion rings. I’m thinking, “That’s weird: order fish and get onion rings”. But then, I don’t know, the Brits like fish and chips; maybe the Italians like onion rings with their fish, and it’s just part of the meal and the fish comes later. So I’m sitting there eating my “onion rings” – which I admit had kind of a funny taste and texture – while I’m waiting for the rest of the meal; but it never comes. I would have complained about it, but the waiter didn’t speak any English and the last thing I wanted was to get in an argument with an Italian guy. You never know, he might have been from Sicily and you don’t want to make those guys mad. Later I asked my German landlord about it, and he just about fell over laughing. Turns out the “Tinten” in “Tintenfisch” means “ink”. I had ordered a plate of “ink-fish”, or as we would say it, “squid” – something I would never have dreamed of asking for at the time. My little mistake cost me some embarrassment. On the other hand, it taught me that squid, though ugly little critters with an unappealing name, aren’t that bad.
Sometimes however, when someone asks for something without really knowing what it is they’re asking for the consequences can be a bit more grave. Which brings me to this morning’s Gospel reading and the request of the disciples James and John to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus when he entered into his glory. It seemed like a good and logical request at the time. After all, in the great scheme of life everyone would much rather be at the top of the pyramid of power, fame, and fortune rather than at the bottom. And if that’s what people want for their short lives in this world, how much more important will it be in that kingdom that lasts forever? And too, this pair of Zebedee’s sons had reason to believe that they were high on the list of hopefuls for the top slots. Had they not been called by Jesus very early in his ministry? And were they not both part of that inner circle of three disciples that Jesus confided in more than the others? Had they not been with him on the Mount of Transfiguration to receive that very special revelation of Jesus in his glory? Why would Jesus be granting them these extras if he didn’t have something really tremendous in mind for them later? Sure, Peter, the other member of the inner circle had been getting all the extras too; but hey, James and John were brothers, and blood’s thicker than water. And there can only two top spots. Apparently they thought that by asking first, they might be able to preempt Peter and edge him out of the running.
In response, Jesus tells them that they don’t have the faintest idea what they were asking for. And they really should have known better. On at least three occasions Jesus had told them that he was now headed to Jerusalem. There, he said, he would be rejected by the religious authorities, and then arrested, condemned, beaten, abused, and finally crucified. And after three days, he would rise again. In fact, Jesus had just finished telling them this for the third time immediately before James and John approached him with their request. But despite what Jesus kept telling them, they couldn’t get their former misconceptions out of their heads.
They firmly believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, Savior, and King of the Jews; and they were right. The trouble is that they thought about these things in purely worldly terms. They thought Jesus would arrive in Jerusalem, be recognized and accepted as the messianic king, and then lead a war of rebellion against the hated Romans, no doubt using his supernatural powers to defeat them. He would then reestablish the independent nation of Israel and the throne of David, and reign over vast empire which would be blessed by God with endless peace and prosperity. Jerusalem, not Rome, would be the capital of the world; and the wealth of the nations would come pouring in as tribute. It was going to be huge. And an administration like that was going to need powerful government officials to help run things – officials who were well rewarded for their services with great wealth and lavish villas for homes and many, many servants to tend their every need. Yeah. A job like that would be pretty cushy; just sit back and tell everyone else what to do. And if you had one of the places at the king’s right and left hand, well, then the only person higher up the ladder would be the king himself. That’s what James and John thought they were asking for.
Jesus, of course, knew better. He knew that the guys who would be on his right and left hands when he was crowned king and entered into his glory would also be nailed to crosses. So he asks the two ambitious brothers, “Are you able to drink the cup I am drinking and be baptized as I am being baptized?” He’s referring to the cup of God’s wrath poured out against the sin of mankind, and his baptism of suffering, blood, and pain on the cross. But James and John don’t get it. No doubt they have in mind a cup of wine from a royal banquet table and a nice hot bath in a marble tub. “Sure. Sounds good. We can handle that.”
So utterly clueless. It must have amazed Jesus that anyone could be so out of touch after all the things he’d told them. But looking ahead to the destinies of both men, and understanding how the early church would suffer persecution and violence at the hands of its enemies, Jesus told them, “Yes, you will drink from the cup I drink, and you will be baptized with the baptism I am undergoing; but the places on my right and left hand are not mine to give. They belong to the ones for whom they have been prepared.” I’m sure that later James and John were glad that those places weren’t prepared for them; but at least for the moment, they must have been disappointed.
The other ten disciples weren’t disappointed. They were mad. “How dare these two guys try to secure for themselves a place closer to the top than the rest of us?” And of course what they’re angry about is that James and John wanted to be in a place where they’d be giving orders to the rest them. From what we know about the disciples, each one wanted a place like that for himself. Every one of them was in his own way just as ambitious and hopeful that he’d be selected for the highest position in the coming kingdom. It was a constant source of friction among them. They were always arguing about which of them would be called the greatest.
Seeing this rivalry and struggle for power among his disciples breaking forth in another round of open hostility, Jesus pulls them together for a reorientation session. The kingdom of God, he tells them, is not like the kingdoms of this world. In earthly kingdoms people strive for positions of authority. They want to have people serving under them. And they want all the perks that come with it: the respect, the wealth, the fame, and the glory. The more the better. Not so in God’s kingdom. In it greatness is not defined by how many people serve under you; but rather by how many people you are able to serve. In God’s kingdom the lowest of slaves is the greatest of all.
He then sets himself forth as the foremost example of this principle. “Here I am, the Son of Man (it’s both a divine and messianic title), and I am here as your servant. I have come to give my life as a ransom for many.” He’s speaking of being the sacrificial Lamb of God, the offering that will redeem people from God’s wrath and condemnation due to sin. It’s what we call the “vicarious atonement” made by Christ; but vicarious is a word we don’t use very often. It’s too bad, because it’s a great word. A vicar is a substitute, someone who stands in for someone else and represents him or her. And so to do something vicariously, means to do it in place of someone else. That’s what Jesus does on the cross. He stands in for all of sinful mankind and receives to himself the judgment of God that we deserve. And so this is how he serves us: in the lowest and most humiliating and degrading way possible. He who is King and Lord of all takes our shame and disgrace on himself. He says to his Father, “Take every charge you have against them and blame me for it.” And then he suffers damnation for us, absorbing in himself the infinite burning hatred the Lord has for every form of evil in the heart, mind, and hand of man. And though he has since risen to life again, he continues to serve as the slave of us all by continuously washing away our guilt and shame and by interceding for us before his Father as our vicar and great high priest. So it remains true even today that he who serves as the lowest slave is the greatest in the Kingdom of God.
The disciples didn’t get it at the time. It wasn’t until after his resurrection that they understood what Jesus meant. But once they did, he sent them into the world to be his vicars – to represent him and declare the forgiveness he had achieved for all. And they did it – and while they were at it they learned what it means first hand to drink from his cup of suffering and undergo his baptism of cross and trial.
To this we too have been called: to live vicariously for the one who suffered and died vicariously for us. Just as he represented us on the cross and represents us now before God’s throne in glory, we are to represent him to each other and before the world. How? By serving, of course, not as anyone’s sacrifice for sin; that lowest and dirtiest of all jobs has been done completely by Jesus. No, we are to serve in other ways according to the gifts we’ve been given. And here’s where we must be on guard, because like the disciples the sin nature in each of us balks at the idea of being a servant to anyone. We’d rather have people serving us. We want to be “great” in the kingdom of God. So, we think of some tasks as being beneath our dignity. Or, if we do them, we want to make sure everyone knows it so they’ll be aware of how humble we are. We crave the positions of leadership and authority – or we avoid them because we don’t want to do the work that’s involved and subject ourselves to the criticism of others. Besides, it’s easier to sit on the sidelines and take shots at the people who have them, while telling ourselves how much better we’d do if we had the job. There are all kinds of games we play to avoid truly serving one another; but can you imagine Jesus acting in any of these ways? And yet we are called to represent him. How far short of the mark we fall.
But in mercy he doesn’t give up on us. No, he continues to serve us. And to equip us to be more like him he baptizes us vicariously into his baptism. We get water and his word of forgiveness, rebirth, and renewal; and he gets the cross, death, and burial we deserve. He lets us drink vicariously of his cup. We get the blessing of redemption from his shed blood in the wine, and he gets the wrath and punishment we deserve. And he gives us his Spirit to lead and guide us in his way, precisely so that we can live vicariously for him. That is our goal. So, recognizing exactly what it is we’re asking for, let’s ask him to give us his Spirit in abundance so that we may live vicariously for him as servants and so become truly great in the kingdom of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!