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Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever had something that someone was trying to teach you, but you just couldn’t get it? No matter how many times you heard the presentation, how many times you read the material, it simply wouldn’t sink in? I’m sure most of us have some memory of struggling with a topic in school or a teacher who just didn’t quite reach us. It seems, when you’re going through that, such a frustrating thing, especially when it’s not our fault.
But sometimes, it *is* our fault. Sometimes we are willfully ignorant or stubborn and unwilling to learn. Sometimes we just get so stuck on what we are sure of, or what we think we know that we simply make ourselves incapable of learning, or incapable of hearing. It’s a real obstacle, and it’s a problem we share with people from all across history - including Jesus’ disciples.
When we read the Gospel lesson from Mark today, the evangelist tells us that “taking the twelve AGAIN, [Jesus] began to tell them what was to happen to him...” (verse 32). A quick glance through Mark’s Gospel account tells us that this is the third time that Jesus has told them this - that he must suffer and die and rise again on the third day. He has definitely told them this several times before.
When Jesus tells them this in chapter 8, the only reaction we hear is from Peter, who “rebukes” Jesus. So Peter is basically “verbally correcting” Jesus. Peter is saying that Jesus is wrong about his own future…not only did Peter not understand, he was in complete and total denial of what Jesus came to do. In chapter 9 when Jesus tells them this same thing, that he must be “delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (verse 31), Mark says “But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.” (verse 32)
They’re just not getting it. Yes, this applies to the crowds who hear Jesus preach and teach, but what we’re talking about is THE TWELVE, Jesus’ inner circle of friends and pupils, who sit at his feet every single day, and eat meals with him, and follow him from town to town, hearing the message he shares with different people in different places. They get to hear it presented frequently and probably with some level of repetition. Key points would have been reinforced. So, you would THINK, after all that, these twelve who were closest to Jesus of Nazareth, would actually be the first to “get” it.
But it’s clear in today’s Gospel reading that they don’t. And it appears to be a case of being willingly or deliberately ignorant. He just said - if you will allow me some liberty with the translation - “Friends, I’m about to be arrested, and probably beaten, and they’re going to sentence me to death. I’m going to be killed. That’s why we’re going to Jerusalem. I’m going to die at the hands of the authorities. But after I’m dead for three days, I will rise from the dead.”
If you heard someone close to you say this, what would your reaction be? If it was me, I’d be more than a little upset. At the very least, I would think “are you sure? Does that have to happen?” Or if I had accepted that this prophecy was reliable, I might ask “how soon?” or “what should we do?” I’ll bet if we were to each write a list of possible questions, we could come up with at least a hundred different things we might say other than what we read in this morning’s Gospel lesson.
With that in mind, look again at the response to this announcement of Jesus’ approaching condemnation and death. “Teacher, we want to ask something of you, and we want you to just do it, no matter what it is.” Right away, I have an issue with how they asked the question. As though they can simply issue a demand to Jesus and expect him to comply, just because they asked him to. What sort of mindset do you have to have to even ask that kind of question? At the very least, there is an air of entitlement to that demand.
To his credit, Jesus entertains their “want”. So they want to enjoy Jesus’ “glory”, sitting on either side of him in what they presume to be heaven. So what’s going on here? By this time in Jesus’ ministry, the twelve have acknowledged openly - at least among themselves - that Jesus is the Messiah. They believe that he is the one foretold by the prophets, who will free them from oppression. And they have witnessed his signs of casting out demons and evil spirits, healing, walking on water, feeding crowds of thousands. They know a lot about what he is capable of. And so James and John come to him with their request.
They know that the Messiah will achieve the salvation of God’s people. And that’s good that they know that. The problem is what they’re expecting because of that. They only see the end - that there’s glory after the Messiah has saved God’s children, and these brothers want to enjoy it as best they can. They want what Jesus can give to them. They feel “entitled”, so they make their demand. I don’t see this as a request. Frankly, they didn’t even say “please”. There’s no humility in what they ask of him.
Jesus’ first response is probably the best: “You do not know what you are asking.” They really don’t. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” “Sure Jesus, we’re able to do all that.” They don’t have a clue. The “cup” is the same cup that Jesus himself will soon ask the Father: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.” [The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mk 14:36.]
Even Jesus didn’t actually want to drink from that cup…because he knew exactly what that cup was. It was not the cup of salvation. It was not the cup of peace or comfort or anything good. This was the cup of suffering and pain and death. This was a cup that no one wants to taste. And Jesus knew full well what it meant. The brothers had no idea.
Now, like all the twelve, Jesus gives them a little foretaste of their own futures: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized...” [The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mk 10:39.]
So James and John will eventually get their wish, and they will be martyred for the Body of Christ. But not just yet. First Jesus has to finish his response to them: “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.” So they are not going to get their wish after all. Well, maybe not. Jesus doesn’t really say who it’s prepared for.
Then he throws the real curveball at them: “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mk 10:43–45.]
So they’ve been asking for “glory”. They want to sit in what they think is a place of honor. Now Jesus is redefining honor. He is telling them that glory is not what they think it is. “If you want to be great, you must be a servant of the others. If you want to be first, your must be a slave of everyone.” This is not the honor and glory that James and John were thinking of. And there’s that little comment in verse 41: “And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.” Now I ask you: do you think the ten knew better than James and John? Do you think they were indignant because they knew you shouldn’t ask Jesus for that? Or do you think they were just jealous because James and John thought to ask first? Let’s not forget, it was just in the last chapter that the twelve were all arguing over who was the greatest among them. I am inclined to believe they were just mad because the Zebedee boys thought to ask this before anyone else.
So it still appears that none of them actually understands what the Messiah has to go through. Not one of the twelve seems to have accepted that THE MESSIAH, God’s Anointed, the Son of God, will be arrested, tortured, and killed. They just can’t picture that in their minds. And what do the twelve do when it all starts to happen? Well, as soon as Jesus is arrested, all of them scatter and run in fear. So much for faith, huh? It’s easy for me to stand here, with 20 centuries of study and analysis and commentary at my disposal to make it seem like I would know better than the twelve if I were in their shoes. I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m sure I wouldn’t have.
Just like Jesus said to Peter, “you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8:33) We don’t think like God. And it’s incredibly difficult for us to do so. It’s hard for us to imagine our Lord having nails driven through his hands and his feet and call that “victory”. It’s terribly hard for us to envision the Son of God being arrested and led away by a few men armed with nothing but spears and swords and then beaten with whips and tools of torture. It just doesn’t make sense to our worldly minds. So, if you’re anything like me, you just kind of gloss over it and accept it because we’re told we should. We don’t really understand it. And that’s sort of where I think the twelve were. They didn’t understand it either. Of course, they didn’t even accept it, but then they didn’t know how it turned out. At least not at this point in Mark’s Gospel.
How much do we understand? Do we accept what God tells us? We’re obviously in a much better position to understand than James & John and Peter were…because we have the whole narrative. We know the story from beginning to end. We read it academically; we didn’t have to live it, to watch our Messiah, our teacher, our friend... be arrested and taken from us, and be killed. And if your Sunday school was anything like mine, you heard about Jesus’ resurrection before you heard about his crucifixion. I was taught about the victory before I ever learned about the conflict that came before it. What I know now is that you can’t have Easter without Good Friday. And it’s that Good Friday that Jesus is trying to tell them about…but they just can’t seem to get it.
But in all this misunderstanding…in all this “why don’t they get it” that seems to dominate the Gospel story…there’s some really good news. Did you hear it? It’s there. We heard about it in the first lesson this morning, when the Lord spoke through His prophet and said, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.” What are the people doing in this New Covenant? Nothing. God is the One Who is doing something. Why do you suppose that is?
In the other covenants, the people broke it. That’s what God says in verse 32: “…my covenant that they broke...” When the covenant with God depends in part on the people, that covenant is going to be broken. So this New Covenant is ALL GOD. How’s that for good news? We can’t mess it up! The passage from Hebrews tells us about this New Covenant and how God would save His people through His Son: “[Christ] learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:8-9)
Notice that the author here acknowledges that the Messiah does have to suffer…just as Jesus explains in the Gospel. And where it says “being made perfect” - that actually means “being brought to completion” or “having accomplished what he set out to do”. It was done. Or, as Jesus said on the cross “it is finished”, and eternal salvation was achieved. Again, not anything any of us did achieved that. This was God’s action, the Father sending the Son, and the Son paying the price for sin.
Martin Luther instructs pastors to preach the Gospel over and over again. He says that as Christians we just can’t hear this good news enough, for we either forget it or we doubt it. So, my sermons might seem repetitive. It might seem like the message always boils down to the same thing: Jesus died for your sins. Jesus paid the price so you wouldn’t have to. And I hope - I pray - that you hear that message every time I stand in front of you. I want to be sure that every one of us hears it. Because if we’re anything like the 12 men who spent every day for 3 years at the very feet of the Messiah himself and still didn’t get it when Jesus himself had to repeat the message more than a few times to them…then I think we can stand to hear it repeated ourselves.
When Bishop Selbo left his parish after 25 years to take his new office as Bishop of the NALC, he told them that of all the sermons he’d preached in that time, he hoped they heard the message that we all need Jesus. That’s what it boils down to. Jesus did this for us. Throughout Lent we have been following his journey to the cross, watching how he has prepared for it, and what he has encountered along the way. Let us never forget that we need him, and why we need him: because He is the one who saved us, and who keeps on saving us every day.
I pray that we will always remember that, and that our lives will be a statement of thanksgiving in response.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.