Texts: Mark 10:35-45
At some point early on in my career, I stumbled across a saying that I try to take to heart every week when preparing sermons. It is a real caution, and a reminder of the responsibility that comes with this pulpit every week. The saying is quite simple, really… but its implications are far reaching. It goes something like this: “Beware of finding a Jesus that is entirely congenial to you.” In other words, be careful because there is a human tendency to want to see Jesus in a way that is entirely friendly to us. Although it’s far more than just a nice, safe Jesus who seems agree that everything we do is okay in God’s eyes… that somehow Jesus fits our image, our ideas, our thoughts as to what should be, and not the other way around. Perhaps it’s better to say, beware of finding the Jesus you want to find.
It has been a struggle for a very long time… humanity has always been tempted to create or shape God in our image, instead of the other way around. One of the most frequent challenges launched by atheists against religion is that we create a god or gods to fit or justify our way of thinking or being. All too often they are right. Sometimes as people of faith, we try to make God fit what we think rather than letting God transform and change us. Perhaps we need a reminder every so often that we need to be careful about finding the Jesus we want to find, rather than discovering the Jesus we need.
The story from Mark’s Gospel continues to be as challenging as ever. James and John touch off a small firestorm amongst the disciples. They ask Jesus for what seems to be special treatment, for personal gain, although they seem to do so out of naïve wishing. In so doing, they seem to alienate the other disciples, and leave Jesus simply shaking his head. Like the disciples so often do in this gospel, they don’t get it. Somehow, they are witness to the high-water mark of God’s activity in history, and they just don’t get it.
Yet at the same time, I have to wonder… if the disciples actually did get it, then maybe we would never have heard this story. Maybe we would never have at least had a second-chance to understand what Jesus was getting at. If anything, their slow-witted questions actually help Mark to tell the story… and teach us something about God.
This story about James and John seems to interrupt the overall flow of the story. As Mark is telling it, we just finish with Jesus forecasting his death and resurrection. Whether or not the story is directly connected or not, the way it appears is after this that James and John come forward with their question.
“Um… Teacher?” They ask, shuffling their feet…
“Yes?” Jesus replies. The cautious tone in his voice nearly betrays his own thoughts.
“Could you do us a favour?” They asked.
“What?” He replies, letting out a small sigh, he thinks here it comes. “What do you want?”
“Um… well… um… When you come into your glory, can we sit beside you? One on each side?”
Jesus sighs again. What James and John were asking sounds very much like teenagers calling “shotgun!” when vying for the front passenger seat in the car. Perhaps the analogy isn’t all that far off, but it’s even a bit more than that. In essence, they’re asking Jesus for a privileged position in what they imagine to be some sort of divine kingdom on earth. They’re asking Jesus to basically be advisers, or part of his personal royal court… holding positions of wealth and privilege.
Like with the Rich young man of last week, Jesus rubs his forehead in exasperation.
“You guys don’t have a clue do you? Are you ready drink from the same cup as me? Are you to suffer the same fate as me?”
Not even phased by Jesus rolling his eyes, they naively blurt out “sure!”
Jesus shakes his head.
Of course, the other disciples are put out by this preferential treatment that James and John are asking for, but none of them seem to get what Jesus is saying. They have their own set ideas as to what should be, and they’re trying to get Jesus to fit those expectations. In essence, they’re trying to create the kingdom in their own image, and placing themselves in key parts of it.
Jesus reminds them, “That’s not for you to decide, that’s God’s business. If any of you want to be great, you must serve others!”
If any of you want to be great, you must serve others!
We really don’t know if the disciples every really understood what Jesus was talking about here… yet this story is more a cautionary one. It reminds us that we need to be very careful of either assuming we know what God wants, or worse yet, trying to get God to fit our own image. We forget exactly who made who.
It’s a warning to the real dangers of creating God in our own image. Why? Because it actually closes off and shuts down those times and moments where God is actually trying to say to us, yet because of our own ideas, our own personal wishes, we start putting limits on how God will act. We start putting limits on God… something that we neither have the ability nor the authority to do ourselves.
Oddly enough, the disciples are trying to get Jesus to fit their own expectations… in some ways, so is Job with God. It seems so much that the disciples just don’t get what Jesus is saying. They’re expecting or wanting an earthly, triumphant Messiah… They don’t seem to get what God is saying… or maybe it’s something else?
United Methodist Bishop William Willimon remarked that maybe it’s not that the disciples don’t get what Jesus is saying, maybe they don’t like what Jesus is saying, so they try to change it to fit their own views. As Willimon observes, this seems to be the case in American, and by extension, North American culture.
He points out a widespread movement out there called the Prosperity Gospel. Want to be successful, if not rich, at least happy and content? How do you get there? Jesus.
In the prosperity gospel, Jesus is transformed into a technique for getting what we want. This movement changes the stories and facts to fit ones own ideas… it genuinely undermines the entire message of the gospel… and they conveniently skip over passages like this, and completely ignore the counter-cultural wisdom that yells out from the pages of Job.
In this teaching from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is attempting to transform his disciples into what he calls them to be. With Job, God reminds him exactly who is in charge, and it ain’t Job! We have to ask the real question, who made who anyway? It may be a rhetorical question, but sometimes we really need to hear it, and we really need to ask it… especially in challenging stories like this.
Sometimes we come to church expecting to be comforted, to be affirmed in who we are and what we do… but it can’t happen all the time. There are particular stories and texts, like the ones we hear this morning that are challenging, that seem to be out-of-tune with our hearing. We don’t always get it… but maybe that isn’t the point. Maybe the point is for these challenging texts to get us… to get under our skin, to turn over our expectations, to remind us not to create God in our own image, but let it be the other way around! I’d say thank God for that, because we really get the chance to actually learn something new, and have a wonderful opportunity to grow in faith.