In these next three weeks up to Easter Day, we're taking a look at the account in Matthew's Gospel of the events leading up to and including the death and resurrection of Jesus. We're beginning with the passage that we heard read earlier - Matthew 20.17-28. Please have that open in front of you. We're starting here because here is Jesus teaching his disciples radical lessons as he heads towards Jerusalem, fully aware of what awaits him there, and also fully aware that the disciples had no idea what was about to hit them, and what kind of life he was calling them to. Verse 17:
"And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside…"
And as we'll see, Jesus asks this blunt question: "What do you want?" Jesus asks that of us: "What do you want?" What do you answer him? What do you want for yourself and for those you love?
Well in the incident that's described in this passage, Jesus faces three different individuals or groups with that question in varying ways. First, he questions the ambitions of a mother. Secondly, he challenges the arrogance of two sons. And thirdly, he confronts the anger of ten disciples. And what Jesus does here is to smash to smithereens all our usual comfortable assumptions about what we want out of life. So:
1. Jesus Questions the Ambitions of a Mother
"Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons,"
Now before we go any further let me just backtrack for a moment so we can remind ourselves where we've got to here. By this stage of his life Jesus is on all the front pages and at the top of all the news bulletins. In fact he's been making headlines for three years. How? By teaching as if he's God. By forgiving people as only God has the right to do. By stilling storms with a word. By healing the chronically sick and the severely disabled in an instant. By raising the dead by a command as only one with God's authority could. By laying into the religious authorities for their hypocrisy and their complete failure to realise who he is (and that didn't go down well so they've got a campaign going to destroy him.)
And he's gathered a team of twelve men around him who he's training up. Only they don't seem up to the job, because a lot of the time they just don't seem to get what he's telling them. But what they have got is that this is the all-powerful leader sent by God who the Jews have been waiting for for centuries. Why were they expecting such a ruler? Because again and again God had promised to send him. He would be the One who would sort things out for them once and for all.
As far as that goes they were spot on. Jesus did come to put things right in the world. What they didn't get was how he was going to sort things out. From their point of view, the Romans had given them a hard time for too long. Now the Roman empire was going to get it. Jesus was going to head up a new, God-backed, permanent administration. And they were getting excited because they had it made. They had the ear of this up and coming boss of the new world order that God was about to make happen.
What is more, mum was getting excited too. Whose mum? Well, two of the twelve on Jesus' team were brothers – the sons the Zebedee - James and John. Nickname: Sons of Thunder. Sounds like they were a handful. But no doubt they were the apple of their mum's eye – and now she sees her big chance. Opportunities like this don't come along very often in a boy's life and they have to be seized with both hands. As far as their mum was concerned things could only get better. But in fact Jesus has been warning them that things were going to get much, much worse before they got better. Look back at what Jesus has told them just before this – verses 17-19:
"And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.""
So what was up ahead? First of all, a horrible death for Jesus. And his team were coming with him. Only then – resurrection. Mum doesn't seem to know about the death part. In fact none of them wanted to hear what Jesus was saying. It went in one ear and out the other. They just wanted the glory – pain-free. So mum speaks up on their behalf, with the boys at her shoulder. Back to verses 20-21:
"Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?""
There's that question. Jesus is the Son of God. He has absolute power. What's she going to ask for? What are we going to ask for? Because Jesus does face us with the same question. What is it you want? Verse 21:
"She said to him, "Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.""
And of course she's not just talking about seating plans at dinner. She's talking about them getting the top jobs – maximum power, maximum glory, maximum status. So there's her request out on the table. Her ambition for her children is exposed for all to see. Maybe your ambitions are secret. But they're not secret to Jesus. All the secrets of our hearts are exposed before him. And like a surgeon exposing disease with a scalpel, he intends to go to work on those ambitions – keep what's right; cut out what's rotten. First, then, Jesus questions the ambitions of a mother. Then:
2. Jesus Challenges the Arrogance of Two Sons
Look how the conversation develops. Verses 22-23:
"Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.""
Now there's one crucial thing that this particular mother and her boys have got right. Their ambition is centred on Jesus. What they've understood is that he is the key. Before we go any further, that's the first thing we need to take on board. Jesus is God in the flesh. He has demonstrated that. His resurrection from the dead proves it. This mother knew that if she ignored Jesus, she would be giving up the only real long-term hope for her sons' future and for her own. And she was right about that.
Yet today everywhere people are trying to construct their own future and make their dreams a reality while at the same time shutting the door on Jesus as if he is utterly irrelevant or even a hindrance to their hopes. We must not leave Jesus out of the reckoning in our lives. He is the key to our future. The mother of the sons of Zebedee had at least understood that. She went to the right person. She went to Jesus. She kneeled down before him. She asked him.
But for all that, she and her sons were clueless about what was in store for Jesus. "You don't know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" he says to them. What does he mean by that? Well it's a way of talking about the suffering that is up ahead for him. It's a familiar image from the Old Testament. The prophet Jeremiah, for instance (in Jeremiah 25.15), speaks of "this cup of the wine of wrath." It's a picture of the suffering that comes when God's judgement falls on a rebellious world – a world that has turned its back on him. Because God makes it quite clear that if we do shut him out of our lives, it will bring disaster. There is a day of reckoning. There is a day of judgement. And the judgement that will fall on the world is described as the cup of God's anger.
So the implication of what Jesus is saying here is something astonishing and wonderful. He is saying that he is going to drink this cup to the dregs. God's judgement is going to fall on him – even though he is the one person who does not deserve it. That's what the crucifixion of Jesus is all about. That's why Jesus has to die. That's why he's heading for Jerusalem, knowing full well what's going to happen there. He is going to take this poisoned chalice of suffering. If we drank it to the dregs, it would destroy us. He is going to take it instead. Why? That's the measure of his love for us. He does not want us to die. He wants us to have eternal life.
Jesus is on a costly rescue mission. That's what the sons of Zebedee fail to understand. "Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" says Jesus. "We are able," they answer. Not so. We have to let Jesus take our punishment. That is God's amazing grace. He takes the punishment. So the Christian life is a life of thanksgiving for all that Jesus has done for us.
Not that following Jesus is all plain sailing. Far from it. The world is hostile to Jesus, because at heart it is in rebellion against him. Believers are publicly identified with Jesus. So believers inevitably have to face the rough edge of the world's tongue. "You will drink my cup," Jesus warns the sons of Zebedee. Not all of it. Jesus is the one who drinks it down to the dregs. Believers get just the tiniest taste of the suffering that Jesus went through. But we have to face the fact that if we want to be close associates of Jesus, then it's going to be rough. There is glory at his side. But we should not expect an easy ride.
The sons of Zebedee, in their youthful arrogance, thought they could handle anything that Jesus could handle. But Jesus cuts them down to size. They need to learn that all they can do is cling to Jesus and depend on his strength to see them through. We need to learn that too. Jesus questions the ambitions of a mother. Jesus challenges the arrogance of two sons. Then finally:
3. Jesus Confronts the Anger of Ten Disciples
Take a look at what happens next. The rest of Jesus' team get to hear that James and John and their mum have been angling for the top spots behind their backs. And they're not too chuffed about it. Why? Because they want a slice of the action for themselves. They, too, know that Jesus is the key to their hopes. But they too have ambitions for their lives that are still fundamentally self-centred. And they, too, need to be taught a lesson by Jesus. Here it comes. Verses 24-28:
"And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 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 your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.""
When we do start trusting Jesus, then the whole shape of our ambitions must change. Instead of being self-centred, they become centred on Jesus. Instead of being all about feathering our own nests, our ambitions need to be all about being useful to others.
When Jesus becomes the centre of our lives, then the pattern of his life becomes the pattern for ours. He becomes our role model. That is deeply challenging. Because what he models is self-sacrificial service. And generally that's not the first thing that springs to our minds when we think about our hopes for our lives. We don't tend to think, "What I really want in life is the opportunity to give other people a leg up. Never mind me, other people matter more." But that, says Jesus, is the way to greatness in his kingdom. Things work differently there.
Mind you, that is wonderfully liberating. What is Jesus looking for in our lives? It's not the Ferrari, or getting top marks, or outshining all comers with our dazzling talents, or having a sparkling social life that lights up Facebook, or becoming the boss. What Jesus is looking for is a life that's in line with his – a life of service. Verses 26-27 again:
"…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave..."
The trouble is we don't find it easy to let go of all those old ambitions. The good news is we have help in making the change. We have a servant. And our servant is Jesus himself. He is not just an example to us, though he is that. It's all very well wanting to be different, but we find ourselves powerless to change ourselves.
That's why Jesus has stepped in. That's why he's on his way to Jerusalem – on his way to the cross. A new life is Jesus's free gift to us. He has paid the price. He "gave his life as a ransom for many." He freely forgives us and wipes clean our debt to God. He gives us a free place in his kingdom, near to him.
"What do you want?" That is the question Jesus asks us this morning. The very best is simply to have Jesus at the centre of our lives. That is the only way to have a secure future – secure even in the face of death itself. A forgiven life, a life with Christ Jesus at the heart of it, a useful life, a life full of a hope stronger than death itself – this is the life that Jesus gives to those who ask. It's free, because he's paid for it with his own life. Accept the gift, by trusting Jesus for it. What do you want? In comparison with that gift of grace, nothing else matters.