The passage that we're thinking about is Mark 10.35-45. We'll get into that in a minute. My title is: What Is It You Want? And that’s what I’d like you to think about first. What do you want out of life? That’s important for all of us but especially so if you’re on the point of graduating. Just imagine you had access to someone who had the power to make it happen. Imagine they were asking you the question. What would you ask them for?
No doubt you want the best. But I'd like you to be rather more specific than that please. What do you think the best is? When it first came out I was very taken with that TV advert with the slogan: 'The Best A Man Can Get'. Though I must admit it was a bit of a let down when I realised that the best a man can get in life is a close shave.
You probably set your sights a bit higher than that. But what are you aiming for? I'm not going to ask you to tell the person sitting next to you, so you don't have to think up something modest and unassuming that actually bears no relation to what your real ambitions are. You can be honest. What’s your ambition for life? What are you after?
A good marriage? Enough money for a lovely large home in a smart area, two costly cars with impressive badges on the bonnet, at least two foreign holidays a year and plenty left over so your children can be lavishly generous to mum and dad in their old age? Maybe you want to become Sir Alan’s Apprentice. Maybe you want to be a star. Can you admit that to yourself? Or at least do you want to discover that you have massive untapped talent? Or would plain good health satisfy you? Or a job that gives a sense of importance and status that'll impress people?
Well in the incident that's described in this passage, Jesus faces people with just these issues. First, he challenges the ambitions of two brothers. And secondly, he confronts the anger of ten disciples.
Both of those sharp encounters is very revealing about Jesus himself. And what is revealed about Jesus should smash to smithereens all our usual comfortable assumptions about what is the best that life can offer. What Jesus puts in the place of those shattered ambitions may not be at all comfortable but it’s infinitely better. And what is more, it's not a pipe dream like so many of our hopes. It's available to any who are ready to accept it. So:
First, JESUS CHALLENGES THE AMBITIONS OF TWO BROTHERS
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to [Jesus], “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
Now before we go any further let me just back track for a moment and explain what’s been going on 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 Jesus 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 the twelve 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. As far as they were concerned, 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.
Two of the twelve on Jesus' team were brothers – the sons the Zebedee - James and John. Their nickname was ‘Sons of Thunder’. Sounds like they were a handful. And now they see their big chance. Opportunities like this don't come along very often in a man’s life and they have to be seized with both hands. No point in beating about the bush. Not that the Sons of Thunder were very likely to do that.
As far as they were 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 at what Jesus has told them just before this – verse 33:
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” [Jesus] said, “and the Son of Man [that's Jesus' way of referring to himself] will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
So what was up ahead? First of all, a horrible death for Jesus. And his team were coming with him. Only then – resurrection. So they’d been warned. But it seems that they didn’t want to hear what Jesus was saying. It went in one ear and out the other. They just wanted the glory – pain-free. Hence their demand. Back to verse 35:
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to [Jesus], “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
What a question – “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus is the Son of God. He has absolute power. What are they going to ask for? And the truth is Jesus faces us with the same question. What are we going to ask for? “What do you want me to do for you?” Verse 37:
They replied: “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
And of course they’re not just talking about seating plans at dinner. They’re talking about getting the top jobs – maximum power, maximum glory, maximum status.
So that’s their request out on the table. Their ambition is exposed for all to see. You can keep yours secret. From us that is. Not from 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. Look how the conversation develops. Verses 38-40:
38“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” 39“We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, 40but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
Now there's one crucial thing that these brothers have got right. Their ambition is centred on Jesus. What they've understood is that the best a man can get is to be got from being near Jesus. 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’s demonstrated that. His resurrection from the dead proves it. These guys hadn’t yet understood the significance of the resurrection. Jesus had told them he would rise from the dead. But they weren't really listening. They couldn't take it in.
We’re one up on them. We have the advantage of hindsight. We can read to the end. We know that Jesus was raised from the dead. Their understanding was very imperfect. But let me ask you this. Have you even got as far as them in taking on board that Jesus is the key to your future?
They knew that if they ignored Jesus, they’d be giving up the only real long term hope for their future. And they were right about that. And yet what’s so frightening and so tragic about our own society is that in life after life after life Jesus is being ignored. Jesus is being left out of the reckoning completely. 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.
It's almost as if people think that if they let Jesus have a look in, there's no knowing what will happen. He's bound to mess things up. What a terrible lie that is. It's certainly true that he'll change things. If you stop fending Jesus off and if you get stuck in to this church or some other where Jesus is central and the Bible is taught, and if you put your trust in Jesus – then, yes, Jesus will change your life. Maybe he will take you in directions you never imagined. He will call the shots, not you. But with him your future will be secure in an insecure and uncertain world. With him your life will be the best it can be.
So, please, don’t leave Jesus out of the reckoning. He’s the key to our future. The sons of Zebedee had at least understood that. They went to the right person. They asked him.
But for all that, they were clueless about what was in store for Jesus. "You don't know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink?" Jesus says to them. What does he mean by that? Well it's a way of talking about the suffering that’s up ahead for him. It's a familiar image from the Old Testament. The prophets – God's spokesmen – talk of what Jeremiah, for instance, calls in Jeremiah 25.15:
this cup filled with the wine of [God's] wrath.
It's a picture of the suffering that comes when God's judgement falls on a rebellious world – a world that’s turned its back on him.
Because God makes it quite clear that if we do shut him out of our lives, it’ll 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’s 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 doesn’t 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’s going to take it instead. Why? That's the measure of his love for us. He doesn’t want us to be destroyed. He wants us to have life. Eternal life.
Jesus is on a costly rescue mission. That's what the sons of Zebedee fail to understand. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” says Jesus. “We can,” they answer. Not so. We have to let Jesus take our punishment. That’s God's amazing grace. He takes the punishment. We receive the eternal life that we don’t deserve. Trusting Jesus for that is what being a Christian is all about. Never forget it. 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’s 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 the cup I drink," Jesus warns the sons of Zebedee. Jesus is the one who drinks it down to the dregs. Believers get just a 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’s glory at his side – but we shouldn’t 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 challenges the ambitions of two brothers. Then:
Secondly, 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 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 41-45:
41When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come 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, our ambitions 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’s 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’s wonderfully liberating. What’s Jesus looking for in our lives? What does he think is important? It’s not whether we’ve got the Porsche, or get top marks, or outshine all comers with our dazzling talents, or have a sparkling social life, or have more friends then anyone else, or become the boss. It’s not that we impress in any of the ways we all too easily worry about. What he’s looking for is a life that’s in line with his – a life of service, verses 43-44:
“43…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
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’s 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. A new life is Jesus' free gift to us. He’s 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 me to do for you?” That’s the question Jesus asks us this evening. What do we think is the best? The best is to have Jesus at the centre of our lives. That’s the only way to have a secure and purposeful future – secure and purposeful even in the face of recession; even in the face of death itself.
What do you want Jesus to do for you? A forgiven life, a life with Christ Jesus at the heart of it, a useful life, a life of service, 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. Whatever your circumstances – graduating or not - make living that life your deepest ambition. In comparison with that, nothing else matters.