The First Goes Last

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I'm sure that most of us would agree that, somewhere inside and to some degree there is a competitive streak in us. That's the human race. You see it constantly in work places and even in friendships. Where qualities are equal there is a race for the top spot. I have a couple of friends and in a game I know exactly which buttons to press to get their competitive nature to the surface – not that I manipulate. My wife is the main exception to this. My wife loves pretty much any game or any sport and hates that there has to be a winner – she just wants everyone to have fun and enjoy it. I don't get that. Why do it if you can't win. I love to boo and taunt, play mind games and win.

We see that same approach in the news too. Much of what we watch or read is about who will be number one. Even over the last seven weeks we have watched that unfold in a rather undignified way amongst our politicians in the General Election.

We hear it all the time, and many of us might have even said it to someone; 'You need to look out for number one". We're in competition with one another for the top spot and when we meet together in school, work, a seminar or with friends we have a clash of the gods, because we are number one. We each hate to be out done whether it is behind the wheel as someone slips out in front of us, in a shop queue and maybe even in church. We want our voice heard louder than the rest and we want more clout than the next person.

It is true of the world in which we live and it's also, sadly, true of many Christians living in the church. Faith in Christ should free us to live against the cultural grain but it creeps in, doesn't it? Whether it is the virtuosity of our prayers or just our public life or our preaching. We can turn our Christian lives into baptised glory hunting in the church and everywhere else we go too. That is what is going on in this passage tonight with James and John. If you haven't done so already it would be great if you could find that passage from Mark's gospel read to us earlier. It is the way of our world and it always was. It was just the same when Jesus came into the world. There is not so much difference, in this circumstance, between 1st Century Israel and 21st Century Britain. None of us need a degree in theology to get this attitude nor a great deal of understanding in the 1st Century world.

No, tonight, what we need are ears to hear and open hearts which are ready to heed the challenge Jesus sets before us. Because it is our hearts under attack here.

Look at Mark 10.31:

"But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

That is to say, 'I have come to turn your human ideas of greatness right upside down – don't follow me if you want human greatness! That is not the package I offer my disciples.' I guess you could say that Mark 10.36 focuses today's issues as well; "What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked them, 'what are your expectations in following me? What is the package you're after?' And that isn't an unimportant question really, it is quite normal. We ask it in so many other walks of life, don't we? What are you offering me? What is the deal here? What will I get in return?

It's a pretty important question if you're not a Christian here tonight or if you're not sure if you are. You might be asking that very question and you might have been asking it for a while. You want to get the package offered by Jesus clear in your mind before you jump in and find that it is all a bit more than you bargained for. If you're one of our young people you might be listening and thinking what kind of life is Jesus offering compared to that my friends are having? Even if you are a Christian here tonight this question is important!

It is very easy to get this wrong. Mark shows us the dullness of James and John to point out how easy it is for disciples, you and me to get this wrong.The first last and the last first.

So, let's jump in.

1. What is the Way of Christ? (Mark 10.32-34)

My first heading for tonight is a bit sneaky because it takes in the couple of verses before our passage. Jesus told and then showed his disciples then and now that suffering is the way of Christ.

Look down with me at Mark 10.32-35:

'And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, andJesus 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,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 willcondemn 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."'

Jesus has told his disciples these things twice before. He has come as the messiah. Yes, God's anointed one, but he has not come in glory as an earthly King or ruler, no. That's what the disciples expected. Jesus tells them he came to die. The suffering servant. Notice that, in Mark 10.32, Jesus is walking ahead of them leading the way into the face of his own death deliberately. He explains, 'we're going to Jerusalem to be killed in a disgraceful death utterly rejected by the leaders of God's people. But he will rise again'. Probably not the package his disciples thought he would be offering.

Back in 2011 I was working as a teacher in the south east of England and it got to Christmas and I was flying home to be with family in Northern Ireland. Now, this particular Christmas I got a colleague to drop me off at Stansted Airport to save the cost of two weeks parking. It was the first time I did this, and the last. I was dropped off, a case full of gifts and everything I would need at home after a long and tough term (including an inspection) at school. As I walked into the airport I watched as my flight on the board changed from 'on time' to 'cancelled'. I was probably 2 hours from my flat by public transport, my colleague was gone and I was stranded without his number.

I joined the queue for the Easyjet desk which was approximately 193 miles long only to find, about 2 hours later, that the earliest flight I could transfer onto was the 26th December. Missing Christmas at home. No way! I got on a flight to Glasgow going that night and dropped into a friend's party there that night. Managed to get a spot on a sailing home from Cairnryan, so jumped on the train and made the boat. I got home to find the road to my parents' town was shut and my family couldn't get to Belfast to pick me up. I got a taxi to take me to a nearby hotel but he assured me he could get me to Bangor. He couldn't. Six miles out, £40 on the meter, 11pm and he tells me that's as far as he'd go. So, out I get, case, rucksack and begin walking the six miles to the town. 2 police cars and a snow plough later I am still walking because none stopped. I got home eventually but 2 days late.

I set out intending for success, so sure of the path which lay before me for a great Christmas, meaning to go for success. I set out for success but found disaster (after disaster, after disaster). So much so that it is hilarious to look back on and I can glory in the utter failure of it all. This is the opposite to Jesus here. He deliberately chose utter failure and nothing about it is funny and nothing in which to be gloried. We can miss that. We are used to the cross on which Jesus died as it is part of our 'cultural wallpaper' per say. So used to the cross that we can miss it.

Suffering was the way for Christ on earth but not only that but the rest of the passage makes it clear that this is the way for those of us who follow him.

2. What is the Way for Christians? (Mark 10.35-40)

If Christ suffered and we followed him then we too should expect that suffering is the way for Christians. Jesus said that himself in John 15.18:

"If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you".

That is the burden we see here. James and John here replace the usual scene of Peter being the disciple closest to Jesus and getting things spectacularly wrong. You can see this if you look down at Mark 10:35-37, they come up to Jesus and they say:

'"…Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you… [Isn't that incredible. Despite the title they give Jesus here they seem to have realised that he can answer prayers but they seem to see him as a genie who is there to be rubbed up to give them what they want]…"What do you want me to do for you?" [Jesus says. Knowing what is coming but allowing them to go on so to teach them, and us tonight, a lesson] And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left,in your glory."

These brothers may have understood that suffering was on the cards but they seem to think that glory is just around the corner. Perhaps they have stuck on his promise of resurrection and not listened to what will happen just before that. Maybe these brothers have been fixated on the glory seen on the mount of transfiguration just a chapter earlier. We don't know how they have come to this point but we know that glory and greatness are important to each of them. There is no doubting that and, after all, 'shy bairns get nought' we might say.

They're mixed up. James and John seem to realise that they are tied to Jesus as it were, they are with him but they still have their own agenda – to be with him in glory. And Jesus goes on and says to them, Mark 10.38:

'"…You do not know what you are asking [you're really confused] Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, [this refers back to the Old Testament language of God's judgement against human sin], or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?"'

Can you go to the cross? You want the glory, you want my glory, but can you take my suffering first? And James and John aren't to lose out here, "We are able" they quickly reply (Mark 10.39). This is incredible. Jesus doesn't come down on them in rage, no, he simply tells them that they will suffer and that glory is not for him to grant.

Look down, mid-way through Mark 10.39,

"…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."' (Mark 10.39-40)

When Jesus says they will drink the same cup he is not saying they are going to bear God's wrath in the same way that he did on the cross. No, Jesus is using picture language here to say that they would suffer for his sake and in a similar way. That is, they would suffer because of their faith in his name. That is the package he is offering. And he swiftly adds that the glory they are after is not the agenda here, that isn't up for grabs right now. You better refocus. You better get ready to suffer.

There is a sense here that Christianity is like a funeral for our desires and aims and our hope of being god ourselves. A funeral for our agenda. Our desire to be number one and to be great in the world. Jesus had already told his disciples in Mark 8.34-35:

'"…If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his lifewill lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."'

James and John needed to call this to mind. They had heard it already but hadn't taken it in. They needed to hear it again to learn it properly. How foolish of them we can kid ourselves and say. How foolish of many of us. How many of us need to hear that lesson again tonight? We are called to put our priorities, our aims and our desire to be number one to death and follow Jesus. What is that going to mean for you? What are you chasing after? What are your priorities?

This takes us into the last part of tonight's passage.

3. Service is the way to Suffer. (Mark 10. 41-45)

This final part is looking at what all of this means and why and we're going to find that service is the way to suffer. You might be thinking, this really sounds like the sort of gift I could do without. Why must the Christian's pattern of life be Christ's death? Why must I walk in the shadow of the cross? And the answer lies in the contrast that Jesus draws in this final section between two ways to live.

Look down at Mark 10.41, we see that the rest of the disciples are outraged by James and John's request here, but don't be fooled. This shows us that the 10 were just as concerned about their own glory as James and John. They were angry that the brothers had got in first. We don't resent people getting ahead of us unless we are in competition with them. So, Jesus calls them all together here and speaks to them, again, about the Gentiles and the way they see life. He speaks to them about the way of the world which is summed up in that little phrase, 'lords it over them'.

"…You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them." (Mark 10:42)

Isn't that something which comes naturally to most of us when we are on top? We need to actively resist the temptation to 'lord it over' those subordinate to us. And when we aren't on top we so easily resent those who are or we want it! Not so with you. Look at Mark 10.43-44:

'"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."'

That is the pattern we are called to. Put everyone else before yourself. Why? Because that is exactly what our saviour did on the cross. Christ hung and died because he put us before himself. Now, I can feel myself almost blushing here because I can think of many occasions this week when I have put myself before others. I know there will be people sitting here tonight who could tell you how I have done that. This is, no doubt, a challenge to all of us! Jesus says here, there are only two ways to live. The way of the crucifiers, the gentiles or the way of Christ, the crucified.

Jesus suffered to serve others. And he calls you and me to go against our natural instincts and do just the same. To cut against the culture. It all sounds very noble and stirring but the question is: how will it change practice in my life and in your life? What is going to change as we walk out these doors tonight? Because we cannot walk in the way of the cross theoretically.

If you aren't a Christian tonight, how are you going to walk after hearing this passage? You may not have decided and think that the way of the world is not so bad and you're quite alright with it. But are you really alright with it? Do you not become sickened by the way we treat each other in the race to the top? Our main parties have sadly illustrated this so perfectly to us in the last number of weeks as they have slung mud at each other. Do you really believe it is best to live for ourselves? Looking back over the last week, year, decade, are there moments where you have lived for yourself that don't bring shame to mind or fear of being found out?

Christ offers a fresh start, that's what we see in Mark 10.45:

"For even the Son of Man [Jesus] came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

He came to pay for our sin, to take the punishment for our wrongdoing, suffer on our behalf for our rebellion against our creator. A fresh start. What about those who are believers tonight? We have most in common with James and John tonight because we believe and follow Jesus. I suspect many of us have a lot in common with this encounter too. Where are you pushing to be first? Is it in the small things? Hating that car slipping out ahead of you or not waiting to be let out yourself? Is it not being able to lose in a game, conversation, argument? Is it having to be the focus of attention? Is it treating every person around you as if that is exactly what they are – around you, orbiting you? Is it missing opportunities to serve? What is it for you?

I suspect we could make quite a list tonight as we each reflect?

A call to follow Christ is a call to put our priorities and aims second and follow in his path. The call of Christ is to serve and suffer in the way of the cross. It is not a call we can follow without obedience.

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