Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Call to Serve: Amazed and Afraid

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God, our Father, and from Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Amazed and afraid. This is how our text opens today. The disciples are amazed and afraid.

Since we moved into the New Testament and into the Gospel of Mark, we have heard a number of stories, which we’re going to take a moment to review. I’d like you to put yourself in the place of the disciples and others following Jesus. How would you have felt if you had experienced each of these things? We’re going to add a little movement to this. So, if you would have felt amazed, throw your hands up in the air in amazement. If you would have been afraid, put your hands over your head and duck down, as if you are hiding. If you’re a combination of the two, I’ll leave it up to you what you do.

So, how would you have felt if you were there when:

  • Jesus is baptized and Spirit descends on him?
  • Jesus heals the man lowered through the roof on a mat?
  • Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed?
  • Jesus casts out demons from a man?
  • Jesus predicts his own suffering and death?
  • Jesus is transfigured on the mountain?

All of these stories are about the power of God’s kingdom, which was our focus before Lent began. As we have been learning since Ash Wednesday, today Jesus teaches us what it means to be a part of God's kingdom - what it means to serve. I invite you to follow along as I read from Mark, chapter 10, beginning with verse 32.

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and 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 handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward 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 is it 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.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then 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.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. --Mark 10:32-52 (NRSV)

This chapter in Mark is, as one theologian puts it, “the third revolution of a tripartite.” Tripartite is a really fancy word for three-part. Here in Mark 10 is the third time we have seen this three-part cycle. Once in Mark 8. Again in Mark 9. And now in Mark chapter 10.

Each cycle begins with Jesus attempting to teach the disciples what will happen to him once they reach Jerusalem. Then, the disciples show in some way that they have not understood. (One theologian characterizes this as “If the disciples don’t at first perceive, fail, fail again!) Then, after each misunderstanding, Jesus teaches them about discipleship and shows them what it is to be one of his disciples. 

In today’s story, we have this very same pattern. Jesus and the disciples have begun the walk up to Jerusalem. We read, as I mentioned before, that the disciples were both amazed and afraid. One wonders what was driving these feelings. The disciples were not unaware of the hostility Jesus would meet in Jerusalem. They’d already had a taste of it in the countryside. Perhaps they were afraid for Jesus. Or, perhaps (and more likely) they were afraid for themselves. Then, perhaps, they were amazed because of those mind-blowing, awe-filled miracles of Jesus. Miracles that they had had difficulty performing themselves. One wonders why. Was it a lack of faith on their part? 

Whatever it was, we know that they did not yet fully get the “why” of Jesus. Like the healing of the blind man preceding this entire three-part series, the first time doesn’t stick. It seems as though this is a metaphor for the disciples and their own understanding. That as much as Jesus teaches them about his upcoming passion, as much detail as Jesus goes into this third time - how he will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, then condemned to death, then handed over the Romans who will mock him, who will spit on him, who will flog him, who will kill him - as much as Jesus teaches them, they don’t get it.  They don’t get that his sacrifice, that his humility and service is to be their example. 

We see this in part two of today’s story.

James and John. Just like when your children or grandchildren come up to you and say, “Promise me you’ll give me what I ask for,” James and John are no different. They approach Jesus in the same way. When they ask Jesus for the favor, Jesus says to them,” What do you want me to do for you?” Their answer is our clue to knowing that they don’t get it. That they think that, even if they are good disciples here on this earth, they are going to make sure that in the next life they will be at the seat of power. On either side of the triumphant Jesus. 

And, if we thought that maybe it was only these two who didn’t get it, soon we hear that the other disciples are angry at them. Likely because James and John beat them to it. They all fail to perceive. To understand that the Son of Man, this Messiah, has come, not to be served, but to serve. And to give his life for them. 

Interestingly, the close of this three-part series is a healing of the blind man. Sound familiar? It's how the entire tripartite began. This time it's Bartimaeus. The only subject of Jesus’ healing who is named throughout all of Mark. It is Bartimaeus who will show the disciples what discipleship is.

Let’s contrast him with the Twelve. He immediately calls Jesus the Son of Man. A Messianic title. (Remember the promise to David that the Messiah, his descendent, would remain forever on the throne?) Bartimaeus knows who Jesus is. And Jesus asks him as he had just asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Then, look at what he asks for. Not power or prestige. But a basic need. His sight. And, then, after Jesus calls to him, in his exuberance to run to Jesus, he casts off his outer cloak. That thing that is keeping him from Jesus. Because he sees the life-giving power of Jesus. And, after he is healed, he immediately begins to follow Jesus.

Bartimaeus is a direct contrast to the disciples. The disciples seek status. They are so blind, but don’t even see their own blindness. Bartimaeus simply seeks mercy. And, although he is physically blind, he is the one who has 20/20 spiritual vision. He sees Jesus. And he is willing to follow Jesus on the way. On the path of sacrifice.

Friends, what do you want Jesus to do for you? Is it all about you? Is your focus internal and on getting those things you want for yourself? Or is it about sacrifice, about serving others? With a focus that is external, that is about showing mercy and grace to others in the very same way Jesus shows it to us?

We are in frightening times, in this time of a possible world-wide pandemic. How will we respond? Will our focus be on ourselves? On hoarding food and supplies - hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and masks, as examples - for ourselves? Or will our focus be on living as the disciples Jesus desires us to be? Serving others. Being a non-anxious presence in a very fearful world. 

“Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” This is who Jesus calls us to be. To not be afraid and focused on self. But, to turn to our neighbor and to those who are the most vulnerable, to serve in our community. Then, to simply be amazed at the healing and life-giving power of Christ in our midst.  

May God grant this. Amen.

Preached March 8, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church.
Lent 2
Readings: Mark 10:32-52; Isaiah 53:3-6; Psalm 34:11-22

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