(32) And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him,
Like a grim-faced sheriff from an old Western, Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem. There’s going to be a show-down and nothing in this world can stop it now. Everyone can see it in the steel of His eyes and the determination in His every step. And they are amazed – for the know this will be a glorious battle unlike anything they have ever seen before. And they are afraid – for they also know that someone – either the Chief priests or Jesus himself – won’t be coming back. It is both a great and terrifying moment.
The very air is thick with tension as Jesus calls His disciples to His side. Without missing a step He lays out the dire scenario. (33-34) saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
Heavy and ominous words, but words that Jesus has spoken to them before. This is the third and last prediction Jesus will make concerning the passion. And with each new telling it grows in shocking detail. In a gruesome litany He tells one and all exactly how this will happen. He leaves not one thing out so that when the time comes there can be no doubts that this is what was meant to be! But there are additional words that Jesus utters on this occasion. This last prediction of His coming death and resurrection is now also the first time Jesus will also explain why it must happen. The disciples, the crowds that follow in awe, you and me … we need it to happen this way! If He will not willingly march up there to His gruesome fate at the hands of sin death and the devil we who follow would be left defenseless.
The reason Jesus must steady himself to face what is coming shows itself in the words of two of His closest disciples only moments later. It is a bitter irony that we read: (35-37, 41) And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
How those words must have torn at Jesus’ soul, biting deeply into his heart. Caught up in the gravity and greatness of the moment, His words had simply slid off deaf ears. Not one had sunk in. They saw an opportunity to share in glory. Sure it would be tough, but when Jesus won, they wanted to be there, standing on either side. And they were not alone, just the quickest out of the gate. (41) And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. “Why didn’t we think of that?” you can hear them complain to one another. Better get in there before I completely miss out on my share.
And not one of us here could blame any of them one bit. Not one of us would have done any differently in their place. For everyone has within them an insatiable desire for glory. A desire that has been in every heart ever since we threw away the glory of God’s image in the garden of Eden. Missing that God-given glory, we now seek to claim some small glory in our own image and likeness. And any kind of glory will do, any amount will be fine – just so long as we are not left out of our share. Fame, wealth, recognition, power, if not in the community, then among friends. If not among friends then at least at home. Something – anything that’s at least a little better than others is glory enough.
Congregations fall into this too. Getting jealous, feeling inadequate, seeking some small measure of recognition. We may not be as big as them, or have as many youth as those, but we defend pure doctrine! We may not be as wealthy as them, or have as nice a building as some, but we have real heart. We may not be as successful as them, have as many programs as some others, but we are strong in adversity, overcoming obstacles that would have done in other congregations long before now. There is always some small measure of glory being sought and found. Some small glimmer of greatness to be held up. But always glory and greatness that seeks to hold up ourselves at the expense of someone else, even if that someone else is only hypothetical. And that is why Jesus must go up to Jerusalem.
(42-45) And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But 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.”
Full of ambition and pride, everyone wants to be first in line. Everyone wants to be recognized for something. But true greatness and glory are not found there. True greatness is seldom recognized. And true glory is rarely sought. For greatness is found in service, and glory in sacrifice. And that is why Jesus has come. To serve this world by giving His great life as a ransom for those of us so busy seeking personal glory that we can’t see any different.
Perhaps that is why Jesus answers James and John as kindly as He does. There is no recrimination, no anger. The words, though firm, are fair and kind. (38-40) Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And 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, 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.”
Notice something very important here, dear friends. Although the request is soundly denied, Jesus’ answer shows that such glory is a reality. To share in Jesus’ glory and honour is an actuality that God the Father has indeed prepared and fully intends to give! But He will do so on His terms, and for His reasons. Two thieves have already been singled out to share in Jesus’ glory of the cross. When Jesus won, they would be there, hanging on either side of Him. Both will have been brought there by pride and the pursuit of personal glory. One will stubbornly die for it. The other … the other will submit to God’s terms and seek the glory that is found in looking only to Christ. Two will share in Jesus’ death that day. One is sharing in His glory even now.
And he is not alone. James and John had their share in Jesus glory too. Each in his own way would drink the cup of suffering to its bitter dregs in service to their Lord. James would be the very first of the apostles to die for his faith. And long after all the others were gone, John would live out his last lonely years in exile for his faith. Even though they did not understand what they asked, God answered and made them able. Just as He will do for each of us.
For all who belong to Christ, must suffer for Christ. All who follow Jesus will one day die for Jesus. That means you and me, it means this congregation and all we have done here. And worse yet, the world may never even know – or care. But God knows, and God cares, and so He strengthens us to face our calling as Jesus once did the same.
And He steels our eyes, and sets our steps by giving us the cup of salvation in Jesus blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. He purifies us for the task ahead by washing us in Baptismal waters and in the blood of Christ once awash on the cross. And neither of these appears great or glorious, to the world that sees them, but such is the way it has always been. And it doesn’t make them any less so. No greater gifts could be given us as we struggle through this life of suffering and service. No greater glory could be ours, than to share in the cross of Jesus – the glory of God, and serve one another, and the world around us, with this wonderful news.