Favored Seats in the Kingdom

Mark 10:35-45 / Lent 5B / 25 March 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

“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.”

This is what Jesus said to His disciples on the road to Jerusalem just prior to our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus predicted His death and resurrection, and James and John start angling over who is going to get the honored seats at the heavenly banquet. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Imagine that!

We wouldn’t do something like that, would we? Pull strings for the good seats while the Lord is contemplating His own crucifixion? Worry about our own status and position in the kingdom while Jesus goes to His kingly sacrifice? Or not even hearing what Jesus just said because we were too busy looking out for number one and looking over our shoulder for number two? No, not us! Perish the thought! We would never miss out on Jesus’ word because we weren’t listening. Or skip out on the meal of His sacrifice for something “more important.” And we would never try to bargain for the favored seats in the kingdom, we’ll be content with the bleachers and the back row. We poor, miserable sinners certainly don’t deserve any more than that, right?

Church history is littered with attempts to take over the kingdom of God, or at least co-opt the good seats. Whenever you see politics taking over from prayer, and programs taking over from Word and Supper, and kingdom building instead of kingdom proclamation, you can know with all certainty that the ego of the old Adam is asserting itself again. What’s in it for me? What will I gain from all this? Surely I deserve a seat in the luxury boxes!

The self-serving old Adam wants nothing to do with the cross but everything to do with glory and looking out for old number one. “Give us the best seats in the house in your glory,” the Zebedee brothers ask, putting in the bold power move. Forget about Peter, Andrew, and the rest of those losers. We’re your A-team, Jesus, and we’d look great in the beatific vision, one on your right, the other on your left. We’re not going to quibble over which is which. We’ll let you decide, Jesus. You’re the man in charge, after all.

They are thinking earthly kingdom stuff, here. The way the Gentiles and rulers and lords think. The way we think in our world of politics and power. James and John want the power positions in the kingdom, to the right and to the left of the King. That’s where his most trusted advisors sat. James and John are thinking kingdom of God on earth and see themselves with key positions in the new administration when Jesus takes up residence in Jerusalem and sets up the throne of David again. Chief of staff and Vice-president. And why not? They were among the first of the disciples, after all. They had left their father’s fishing business and faithfully followed Jesus for three years. They deserved this. They earned it. Who could argue, except perhaps Peter and Andrew, but hey, they got to Jesus first.

Jesus does not come to establish the kingdom of God on the earth. His kingdom is not of this world, and His power is made perfect in weakness. The glory of His kingdom is a cross and a death. That is all of the kingdom of God the world will get to see short of the Last Day. Think about it. The world did not see Jesus rise from the dead. It saw Him crucified, but only a select group of followers saw Jesus risen from the dead. Yes, over 500, but not the world. And only for forty days. And then Jesus disappeared to take His throne at the right hand of the Father in glory. But from the earthly point of view, the glory of the kingdom looks like a cross and a crucified Messiah. Not quite what James and John had in mind.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized,” Jesus asks them. “We are,” they said, having no idea what they were saying or what Jesus was talking about. Jesus’ cup and His baptism are His death, where He drinks the poisoned cup of Sin and Death, the cup of God’s wrath ;poured out against sinful humanity. It is where He is baptized into Death for us, washed with our Sin, drowned in the Flood of God’s wrath poured out on the world reduced to this one Man from heaven. His death on a cross is a cup and a baptism, His alone to drink and be baptized with. Only He can drink this cup, only He can endure this baptism which immerses Him in the depths of our sin and suffering and misery.

“You will drink, and you will be baptized.” They will have a share in His suffering and death. They will drink from His cup at His table, when He gives it to them and says, “Take and drink. This is my blood of the covenant shed for you.” He drinks the cup of wrath so that they, and you, may drink His cup of forgiveness. He drinks the accursed cup so that you might drink the cup of blessing. With the cup and the bread of His Supper, Jesus gives you a share in His death and life, in His suffering and sacrifice. And in His glory.

So also with baptism. Jesus is baptized into our death so that we might be baptized into His death. His baptism puts Him on a cross where He dies for our sins. Your Baptism joins you with Jesus into His death and life so that you may live in Him now by faith and in the age to come by the resurrection of the dead.

But the reality of both Baptism and Cup is that the glory is hidden, buried deeply beneath the weakness of humble elements, revealed only by the Word. There is no glory to be seen with the eye. What infected James and John was what Luther would call a “theology of glory.” Wanting it all now. By-passing the cross and going straight for the glory of the kingdom. But the glory of the kingdom of God always looks weak and defeated to this world. It always looks like dead Jesus on a cross. That Cup and Baptism that bring life and salvation look so weak, so insignificant, so unimportant, so irrelevant that were it not for the Word which tells us otherwise, we wouldn’t see the point of it.

We constantly need to be reminded of this. Our perspective is not the same as God’s perspective. What we perceive is the underside of things, the view “from below.” God’s view is “from above” and He reveals to us what we need to know of that “from above” point of view by His Word. From below, Jesus appears as nothing more than a religious figure among many. A man who does the works of God. From above, He is revealed to be the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity enfleshed in our humanity. From below, the kingdom of God looks crucified; from above it is glorified. From below we see ourselves as sinners; from above God sees us as saints in Christ. From below we see bread, wine and water. From above God reveals to us that this bread is Christ Body, this wine is His blood, this water is His Baptism, and that here all that He died on a cross to win for all become yours.

James and John wanted to sit at the power positions, at Jesus’ right and left. And yet Jesus says, “To sit at my right and my left is not mine to grant, but it s for those for whom it has been prepared.” It is for the Father to grant, and for the Son to do His Father’s will. We have no idea who is to sit at Jesus’ right and left in the heavenly kingdom. We do know who was on HIs right and left when He came into His glory on earth. Not James and John. Not Peter and Andrew. But two nameless thieves. Too convicted terrorists. One who turned to Him in faith. And one who mocked Him to His death. That’s who was at His right and left when Jesus came into His glory.

What a picture that is of the kingdom! It isn’t about power or achievement but forgiveness and mercy. It isn’t about getting a good word in with Jesus, but hearing God’s good Word to us in Jesus. It isn’t about prestige and who gets the honored seat, but about trust in the One who came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

The kingdom of God is not about power to control and the exertion of authority. That’s how the kingdoms of this world work. We call it “politics.” Power politics. The Gentiles and their rulers lording their authority over others. The power to control and get others to conform by sheer force. You see it on the news and in the headlines every day. And Jesus has a stern warning to His ambitious disciples and to His church and ministers today. “Not so among you.” Whether it’s clergy domineering over laity or vice versa or majorities tyrannizing minorities or whatever other exercise of power we can cook up, Jesus simply says, “not so among you.”

He comes as a suffering Servant to serve. His followers, His disciples, His baptized believers who share His cup are here to serve, to lay down their lives. Greatness in His kingdom is not about power but about sacrifice. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant; whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” That’s how the kingdom of God looks in this world. Humble, self-giving servants of the Servant of all, who endured the baptism of His cross and drank the cup of God’s wrath in order to save you, me and the world.

There’s a handy rule to test whether what you are asking is in line with the kingdom that Christ brings. Try to say it before a picture or image of Christ on the cross. “Jesus, grant us the favored seats in your kingdom, one on your right, the other on your left.” Do you think that James and John would have said these things while standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross? Would you?

Do you want to be great in the kingdom of God? Be a servant of all. Do you want to be first? Then be last and be a slave of all. Do you want a seat near Jesus? Then go sit among the least and the lost and the lowly and the losers of this world and you will find the Savior of all. He has a cup for you, drink it. He has a Baptism for you, be baptized into it. He has forgiveness, life and salvation for you. Believe it.

In the name of Jesus,