True Greatness

Published: Monday, 22 October 2018

true greatness
This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound at the Ashburton Baptist Church on 21 October 2018. The sermon manuscript concludes with some ‘Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study’.

Scripture Reading: Mark 10:35-45

In the last few years there’s been some striking changes in the rebranding of international companies.

For example, Kentucky Fried Chicken is now known as KFC, probably so we don’t think their product is an unhealthy bucket of greasy, ‘finger lickin’ good’ cholesterol.[1]

Dunkin’ Donuts is dropping the word ‘Donuts’ and now they’re just known as ‘Dunkin’.[2] When I first saw this new brand, I thought it was the new name of a Baptist Church. The company made the change because 58% of their sales come from beverages.

Starbucks Coffee became Starbucks because they sell more than coffee.[3]

Weight Watchers is becoming WW because they’re focusing less on dieting and more on health and wellness.[4]

These changes made me wonder the extent to which the church rebrands itself.

Sometimes churches drop the hard call to take up our cross or the call to sell our possessions and give to the poor. Many churches promote ourselves as centres of entertaining worship that look and sound everything like a religious franchise.

In the late 1800s, it was boom time for trains. But when cars came along, leaders in the railways thought they were in the train business not in the transportation business. They couldn’t see their real purpose.

Remember the brand Kodak and how after capturing our ‘Kodak Moments’, we used to take our rolls of film to the pharmacy to get our photos developed and printed?

When digital cameras came along, Kodak poo pooed the new technology. They clung to their rolls of film thinking digital was a fad. It would never produce high quality photos. Kodak thought they were in the film business. They hadn’t developed enough to see with clear resolution, that they were in the picture business.[5]

So, if we’re followers of Jesus, what business are we in?

Jesus tells us first of all what business we’re not in.

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.”

Mark 10: 35

How brash and brazen can you get? They’re so self-seeking. Just as well the others weren’t around. But then I thought of some of my prayers. They can be so demanding. So selfish. Just as well nobody else hears them. Jesus gets them to be more specific.

And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 

Mark 10: 36

Over recent weeks in our study of Mark’s Gospel, we’ve been admiring the way Jesus asks questions and here comes another one: “What is it you want me to do for you?” Take this question home with you and in your quiet, private moments, tell Christ your answer.

And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 

Mark 10: 37

Yes, Jesus, when you have gloriously kicked out the Romans, and set up your Kingdom, and hoisted your flag, and settled in to the Lodge, we’d like to have the top positions in your cabinet. We’re not asking to be number one, just number two and number three and, as we are brothers, we can figure out our portfolios.

Tri reminded us last week of the theme of blindness in Mark’s Gospel. He pointed out that the two men who were physically blind like Bartimaeus could see the truth about who Jesus was but the Pharisees and the disciples who had physical sight were as blind as a bat towards Jesus and everything he was on about.

These two disciples thought Jesus and his church were in the business of power and exercising control, about rank and position, prestige and visibility.

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.”

Mark 10:38a

I wonder, to how many of our prayers, Jesus makes this same response: “You don’t know what you’re asking.” But then Jesus plies them with another question to help them to see what it means to really follow him:

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”[6]

Mark 10: 38b

He’s not talking about the cup of celebration, when at a wedding you charge your glasses and drink a toast to the happy couple.

He’s not talking about the cup of victory, when at the Melbourne Cup, you drink to success.

He’s talking about drinking the cup of suffering every day, downing the bitter taste of sorrow, the dregs of rejection. We can never accuse Jesus of false advertising.

To help them to really see the business that they’re in, Jesus switches the image and he asks:

Are you able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? (Another question!)

Mark 10: 38c

He’s not talking about the time when he was submerged in the River Jordan, although that was the symbol. He means that when we take the plunge to follow Jesus, when we are fully immersed in the Jesus business, we will be baptized into his death. Death to our lust for power. Death to always trying to make a splash. Death to exercising control. Death to bettering our position. Death to upward mobility.

Are you able to drink this cup and be baptized with this baptism?

They replied, “We are able.”[7]

Mark 10: 39

This response is laughable. They are still clueless.

I wonder whether this truth dawned a few days later when James and John heard a different prayer echoing in the garden of Gethsemane. With struggle and agony Jesus cried out: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” (Mark 14:36)

And on that next day, I wonder whether James and John saw the irony on the hill outside the city wall. These two brothers who’d asked to sit one on the left and one on the right. Whatever were they thinking when they saw Jesus hanging there on the cross with one criminal on his left and another criminal on his right.

But Jesus continues with foresight and prophetic truth:

“The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

Mark 10: 39

It looks like Jesus knows that the Zebedee boys will one day get it. There’s hope for us yet. These two brothers with the fiery temper, nicknamed ‘Sons of Thunder’, they will enter fully into Jesus’ business, undergo transformation and drink the cup of suffering.

For instance, James is the first to be martyred.[8] (He does become number one!) His is the only death of the apostles to be recorded. He went on to be the much-loved patron saint of Spain. He’s honored in the city and cathedral that bears his name: ‘St James: Santiago de Compostela’.[9] From these Gospel passages there’s little that is commendable about his life. Who’d want to follow James?

Since the ninth century and even in recent years, there are thousands and thousands whose pilgrim tracks follow ‘the Way of St James’: the Camino de Santiago.

It’s hard to be definite about authorship but his younger brother, John, writes a Gospel, the letters of John and the book of Revelation and he ends up exiled on the island of Patmos during the persecutions of the Emperor, Domitian.[10] What a transformation!

Then Jesus responds to their request:

“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: 40

Here we get a glimpse into the reality and mystery of unanswered prayer. Here we learn why so many of our prayers go straight into God’s large spam folder.

Meanwhile on the road, on their camino, the others eavesdrop on the Zebedee boys:

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 

Mark 10: 41

Angry because these former fishermen were angling for the top jobs.

Angry at James and John because they were seeking to net a pole position.

Angry because Jesus may have thought: First come, first served.

Adopting effective anger management principles

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. 43 But it is not so among you;

Mark 10: 42-43a

He’s drawing such a clear distinction between the typical way that leadership is conducted and Jesus’ way.

“But it is not so among you.”

In other words, the way we do our business is to be absolutely countercultural to the way others lead and lord it over.

Then Jesus tells them clearly the business they are in:

but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 

Mark 10: 43b-44

Isn’t it fascinating to see how Jesus doesn’t try to curb their ambitions? Instead he harnesses their ambitions in saying: If you want to be the greatest, be the greatest in serving others. If you want to be the first, be number one in being a slave to all.

If you think such a calling is hard, boring and painful, think again. Numerous studies show that those who serve, those who volunteer for example, in rescuing food from being wasted, in prison ministry, in tutoring programmes—they have better health and a greater sense of well-being. The service we do for others redounds to our own benefit. If you’re still not convinced, give it a go!

If we want to know the business to which we’re called, to which the church is called, look to its founder.

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mark 10: 45.

Our business has got nothing to do with sitting. Especially sitting on the left or the right or in the top spot while waiting for everybody to bow and scape. It’s got everything to do with serving and giving one’s life purposefully, so that many might be freed.

Martin Luther, whose surname interestingly was ‘King’, reminds us that serving others is what each one of us can do. Two months before he drank the cup, the Baptist preacher said:

“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.

You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.

You don’t have to have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…

You don’t have to know the Second Theory of Thermodynamics in Physics to serve.

You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”[11]

So, may it be, Amen.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

Scripture Reading: Mark 10:35-45

35 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 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?” 39 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; 40 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.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Breaking the Ice

Mention was made of businesses that have changed their name (e.g. Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts to Dunkin’, Starbucks Coffee to Starbucks and Weight Watchers to WW). Share any other examples and make a stab at explaining why they’ve made the change.

Discuss any ways you think the church (locally and internationally) is rebranding (positively and negatively) and why it is doing this.

The Business We Are Not In

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.”

Mark 10: 35

How would you describe these brothers and the request they made to Jesus?

To what extent do you see yourself (or not see yourself) in their attitude and request? Give some examples.

And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 

Mark 10: 36

Any new insights into the way Jesus asks questions, especially the way he asks a question in the face of the bold request of these brothers?

Have you had any ideas as to how we can cultivate the art of asking and actively inviting questions in our small group or our church generally?

And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 

Mark 10: 37

What do these brothers envisage when Jesus comes in his glory?

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.”

Mark 10:38a

Have you had any experiences when you later realized that in making a request or prayer you didn’t know what you were asking? Give an example.

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 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; 40 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.”

Explain more what you think Jesus was saying about ‘his cup’ and ‘his baptism’.

What other insights do you have from these statements of Jesus?

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 

Where is the anger of the others coming from?

Where and when do you see yourself as part of this angry group?

The Business We Are In

42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Got any contemporary examples to show the difference between business and leadership as usual and leadership as Jesus advocates?

What lessons can we learn from the way Jesus is harnessing the ambitious spirit? (43)

How is true service properly motivated?

When ‘the Son of Man’ is the paradigm, the model or the exemplar of the business to which we are called, what act by Jesus or word of Jesus do you look to and listen to which best epitomizes his servant leadership?

Pray for One Another

Confess the ways, we are like the Zebedee brothers.

Seek God’s blessing on each other in the specific work and roles we exercise.

Ask God for ‘the strength to love’.

 

[1] ‘KFC: A Case Study in Marketing and Rebranding’, JUMP, September 15, 2017.

[2] Vanessa Romo, “’Dunkin’ Deletes Donuts from Its Name,” NPR, September 26, 2018.

[3] Renee Montagne, ‘Beyond Beans: Starbucks Seeks to branch Out From Coffee’, NPR, March 20, 2014.

[4] Allyson Chiu, “The New Weight Watchers is all about ‘wellness.’ Critics say it’s ‘diet culture’ in disguise,” The Washington Post, September 25, 2018.

[5] Thom Schultz, ‘The Church’s Frightful Kodak Moment,’ Holy Soup, January 15, 2014.

[6] There are several cups mentioned in Mark’s Gospel: the cup of cold water (Mark 9:41), this cup of suffering (Mark 10:38), the communion cup (Mark 14:23) and Jesus’ prayer asking for the removal of the cup of suffering (Mark 14:36).

[7] What a good text for the International Day of People with Disability.

[8] ‘James, son of Zebedee’, Wikipedia.

[9] ‘Santiago de Compostela’, Wikipedia.

[10] Adela Collins. "Patmos." Harper's Bible Dictionary. Paul J. Achtemeier, gen. ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985. p755; Colin G. Kruse, The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary, Eerdmans, 2004, p. 28; ‘John the Apostle’, Wikipedia.

[11] Martin Luther King, Jnr., ‘The Drum Major Instinct’, Sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, 4 February 1968, King Papers, Stanford University.