Have you ever seen those bumper stickers that say “Jesus is the answer”? These were very popular a few years ago and I still see them from time to time. I always want to say—but My question was where’s the ladies room? Or will you please pass the salt? People seem to give Jesus as the answer to every “problem” these days. Problems with your marriage? Jesus. Worrying over a teenager or other family problem? Jesus. Big decision to make at work? Jesus. Need to feel more confident in your life? Want to have success in the future? Jesus has your back! Want a better, stronger community? Jesus is your guy! Want a moral and upstanding citizenry? Jesus is your go-to man! Need more peace and serenity-now? Jesus. It is entirely possible that Jesus is the answer/solution/whatever for some things, but I do not believe he is so in the way we think.
From time to time I get emails and mailers advertising some sort of program for “financial freedom” in the Lord. It is usually all about how Jesus would straighten out my debt problems, help me to increase my savings, invest properly and, most of all, help me get to the financial freedom and success I’d always dreamed of and deserve. You know, it is quite true that Jesus wants to be completely involved in all our finances, but based on the Sermon on the Mount and some other places in scripture like last week’s text about the rich man getting into heaven equated with the camel going through the eye of a needle, it is entirely possible that Jesus’ idea of financial freedom might just be freedom from finances altogether!
I read and study a lot about evangelism and, for several years, I have collected examples of poor, misguided or just plain bad evangelism. Here is one of my favorite quotes in the collection: ‘Find where people itch so that your congregation can scratch it! The church is here to meet the needs of the people.’
Really? Hmmm. So, are we using Jesus to get what we want? Are we using Jesus like the latest self-help program, therapy group or even a church growth system? Are we using Jesus as a pathway to the good life? Truth is, Jesus is not something we use as a path to any place—even a path to God. Jesus is the someone God has as the path to us. These ideas of Jesus as the solution for every problem and the answer for every question are not entirely without merit, it is just that the answer he may give us may not be exactly what we expect.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we hear the disciples have a slightly misguided or misunderstood idea of what Jesus has in store and what he can and will do for them, just like we sometimes misunderstand. James and John approach Jesus and say: Teacher, will you do whatever we ask of you? Let us sit at your right hand and left hand when you come into your glory.
James and John sure were passionate about following Jesus, that is for certain, and we can tell a little bit about their personalities by the nickname Jesus gave them earlier in this Gospel (3:17). He calls the two brothers the “Sons of Thunder”. We can get a pretty vivid image of what these two guys were like from that!
So these Sons of Thunder ask to sit on either side of him as he reigns. I have a feeling that they were expecting a much different kind of throne room than the one in which Jesus would have his coronation. And he says to them, boys, I don’t think you know what you’re asking. ‘Are you able to drink the cup I drink? Can you be baptized as I will be?’ I do not think Jesus is taking about a cup of wine or dip in the Jordan. He means his suffering and death. Before he is arrested, Jesus will pray in the garden of Gethsemane that the Father would take this cup—this cup of suffering—from him. But in the end, he will drink from that cup. Drink deeply from the cup of suffering and pain and he will be baptized into death as well.
But the Sons of Thunder live up to their name. ‘We are able!’ they say. In their minds, Jesus was the great and long awaited Messiah that would be King in the way that David was King. They knew he would be a great military leader who would rally everyone behind him in a revolution and make the Hebrews the great and mighty nation they once were. They, being two of the twelve loyal followers, really felt like it made sense to ask to be Chiefs of Staff in this new order. Jesus has told them all at least twice already that he was going to be killed and then raised up again, but none of them really understood. Jesus responds that, indeed, it is so. They will do these things; drink from his cup and receive the same baptism. They will undergo suffering because of their association with him and they will be united in his death and then to his new life. But those seats on the left and right are for others.
Imagine a great throne room. The coronation of a great king. Maybe you’ve seen something like this in a movie. Coronations were full of splendor and opulence. Royalty in robes and jewels. Crown of gold. Huge ornate thrones. Great majesty and celebration. An amazing sight to behold, I’m sure. In the disciples’ times, it was no less majestic when a king was crowned. Oil would be poured on the head of the king as a sign of his anointment by God to rule the people. Oil would run down the face and hair of the king and a crown placed upon his head. This is the kind of scene in which the disciples pictured Jesus. James and John wanted to secure a good seat in that room.
But as they would come to know and as we know, that is not what Jesus’ throne room looked like. Jesus’ throne room was the top of a hill called the Skull. His throne was a cross. There was no crown of gold for his head. There was a crown twisted from spiky thorns, not placed with reverence for a great king, but shoved on his head with mocking laughs. There was no oil running down his hair and face. There was only blood. There was no splendor, no opulence, no majesty, no celebration. Darkness covered the land. And the ones in the seats beside Jesus were two condemned thieves on their own crosses.
That was the glory of this king. And it was glory indeed, as all would see three days later. But not the glory the disciples expected. Not the glory the Sons of Thunder expected.
When the remaining ten disciples hear that James and John have been asking for a special place in the court of Jesus, they become angry. But Jesus uses this opportunity to make an important point about his kingdom and what the lives of his followers would look like. Whoever wishes to be great must be a servant. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus may indeed be the answer to many of life’s problems, but it may not be the answer we expect. Jesus likely is the solution to family problems and the search for peace and serenity. But that might not look like having things our way but instead, it might look like having things his way. It might look like being truly a servant of everyone else. And I can speak from experience that Jesus does have the answer to issues with jobs and careers, but I can guarantee you THAT answer looked nothing like what I expected. Jesus might really be in favor of financial success, but that success may look a lot less like a new car and more like fewer extras in life so that there would be fewer hungry people in our community. Even that awful piece of misguided evangelism technique—‘the church is here to meet the needs of the people’—could quite likely be completely true. But I suspect that would be less like a cross shaped Wal-Mart and more like a soup kitchen for hungry souls.
Jesus is no more the tip, trick or tool for the good life that we try to make him today than he was the mighty warrior king the disciples thought he would be. He is not our instrument to use, even if it were for the betterment of our lives; at least betterment as we see it. He is the prince of peace and we his instruments in the world. Jesus is not there for us to use even as a method to get to God. Just as James and John learned, when we ask Jesus for something, he may not give us the answer we’re looking for. In fact, it is almost always not what we expect because he isn’t really about answering questions, improving our lives, giving us power or wealth or anything else. Jesus is really about being the one through whom God gets to us.