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The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Least are the Greatest
Mark 10:35 - 10:45
August 22, 2021
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
Oftentimes in life we seek our own paths and our own ways of glory. In this sermon, Where the Least are the Greatest, we explore the problems that arise from our desires for false glory and how Jesus gently and lovingly shows us our need for the cross and the path to true glory.
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We are spending these three weeks together looking at Mark 10. This is the account of the transitional time between Jesus' transfiguration, and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It's specifically in chapter 10 where Jesus begins to tell even more fully and clearly to his disciples what it means to be his follower, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and what all of that is going to require. This journey off the mountain where Peter wanted to stay—this journey towards Jerusalem—which will take Jesus eventually to his death, is the background for these teachings by Jesus on the true nature of discipleship. Jesus starts talking about his kingdom—the kingdom of God that runs contrary, and opposed to so many of the perspectives and beliefs and priorities of this world. So in a very real sense, it's the values of the kingdom of God that seek to turn the world that we live in, the world that we experience, upside down.
Last week, this week, and next week in Mark 10, we're looking at different ways that God turns the world on its head and invites us to follow him. Last week, we looked at the kingdom Where the Children are Blessed. Next week, we're going to look at Where the Blind Can See. This week, we're going to look at the kingdom of God, Where the Least are the Greatest. So let's give our attention to God's word. We're going to look at Mark 10, starting in v.35:
“And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up 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 do 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.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And 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.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 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. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This is the word of the Lord. It's absolutely true, and it's given to us in love.
Our great God and Heavenly Father, we ask now as we turn to your word, that you would stir our hearts. Lord, you know how easy it is for us to want to go our own way and our own path and be on our own journey, trying to make our own future. Just as you call James and John and all the disciples, you call us back to yourself to be renewed and transformed, to give our lives away for the sake of your kingdom. But God, that task is impossible on our own. So we pray that you would fill us with your spirit. Give us a vision, not only for our lives as individuals, but for us as a community here at Central, where we will learn and continue to serve one another, and our city. We pray this all in Jesus' name. Amen.
There are many things I expected as I was getting settled into this new position, being a pastor here at Central. I am grateful for working for this great staff, getting to be your pastor, meeting so many wonderful people. One of the things I didn't expect, which has been a really pleasant surprise, is my commute to and from work each day. My family for now is settled on the Upper West Side, we're subletting an apartment on the West Side, which means I traverse Central Park each day in the morning and the evening. Sometimes on a bike, but mostly, I walk. I realize I probably have one of the greatest commutes in the world. Getting to walk across Central Park is pretty amazing each day. One of the things I'm learning and figuring out about myself is, already I'm trying to optimize each step, and trying to find the shortest, most efficient way to get across Central Park, both in the morning and in the evening. So oftentimes, if it's at Sheep Meadow or some other places, there's the path that I'm supposed to be on, but I can see a straighter path so I begin to make my own way according to exactly where I want to get out of the park on either the West Side or the East Side.
As it turns out, I'm not the only one that does that. I wonder if many of you do that in your own commutes even if you're not in the park, but making your way around the city. There's actually a name for this—it's called desire lines, desire paths. If you're a landscape architect, if you think about public spaces in any way, you probably are well aware of this phenomenon and maybe even know the term. You’ve probably seen them, especially in parks. They're the well worn routes, chosen oftentimes by visitors that are opposed to the actual path that has been made and created for those who are using the park.
Here's an article from the “New Yorker” in 2018, which had a whole article about this. I want to read this a little bit to you. It says this:
“Desire lines also known as cow paths, pirate paths, social trails, donkey paths, or elephant trails can be found all over the city and all over the world. Scarring pristine lawns and worming through forests undergrowth, they appear anywhere people want to walk, where no formal paths have been provided. Sometimes they even appear despite the existence of formal paths of what seems to be sheer, malicious or perhaps callousness. Some view them as evidence of pedestrians' inability, or unwillingness to do what they're told. In the words of one academic journal, they record a collective disobedience. Others believe that they reveal the inherent flaws in a city's design—the places where paths ought to have been built, rather than where they were built. For this reason, desire lines infuriate some landscape architects and enrapture others. They also fascinate scholars, inspire artists, and enchant poets. There is a 55,000 members strong Reddit thread dedicated to them, in which new posts appear daily with impassioned titles like Desire Never Ends and Don't Tell Me Where to Go. People seem to relish discovering odd new desire lines, the more illogical the better, and theorizing about what desires they express.”
The reason I'm talking about desire lines and reading that article from the “New Yorker” is because this account I read of James and John and their desire, and request of Jesus, is revealing their desire lines. It's revealing the paths they want to take. Very literally and very figuratively as well, Jesus is taking his disciples on a path. The second thing we hear Jesus say, in Mark’s Gospel, in chapter one, right after he says, “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe,” the second thing he says is follow me. They’re following him.
Listen to this passage right before the verses I previously read: This is v.32-34 in Mark 10:
“And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus 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 will condemn 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.”
Here, James and John reveal their path of desire, and it's not the path that Jesus is taking them on. They don't quite understand what lies ahead for them, and what lies ahead for Jesus as they follow him. I think this text that we're looking at is meant to confront us because we all have desire lines. We have paths we want to take for ourselves that we hope will lead to our own visions of greatness and glory. There is a part of all of us that says, Don't tell me where to go. Don't tell me how to live. I know how to do this. I know the path to glory. I know the way to life. I'm going to take my own path. I'm going to get there on my own.
Mark, in recounting this account of James and John, and this question, is really asking us, are you going to stay on the path that you're on or are you going to take the path of Jesus? Will you trust in Jesus' promise of glory? He does promise glory. Will you trust in his promise of glory that only comes from service or are you going to trust in your own vision of glory? This text for us is very much a confrontation. It's meant to reveal in all of us the desires we carry to make our name for ourselves and to find our glory, but this passage also stands as an invitation. It is an invitation to true glory. It's in this account of James and John vying for their false glory that we see just how Jesus intends to make us glorious—the glory that we actually longed for, and it's not how we usually go about it. We're gonna look at two things in this passage. We're gonna look at how Jesus confronts our desire for false glory, and then how Jesus invites us to true glory.
How Jesus Confronts Us
First, how does Jesus confront our desire for false glory? The first way he does it is by bearing our constant desire for our own glory. He bears our constant desire for our own glory. Here's what I mean by this. He receives our constant assaults for our glory over his. This is what he's doing here with James and John. Look how patient he is with their requests. It's a bit absurd. Teacher, we want you to do for us, whatever we ask of you. You know, the parent equivalent of this is, in my house when my kids go dad, we're asking a question, just say yes. I'm like, no, the answer is no. Whatever you're about to ask me, I'm telling you, it's no. In fact, they know not to ask a question like that because of course, I'm gonna say no. But Jesus says—look at his response—what do you want me to do for you? It's an amazing response. That response itself is filled with grace and patience. The patience of a Savior and a king who is willing to do whatever is needed for his people, and to grow them into faithful followers. What do you want me to do for you? What will you do for them? They can't even imagine at this point because they're blinded by their own desire. They’re blinded by their own desire for glory, so they asked to sit at his right and his left in glory—that's the request.
Now, that question is a bit absurd, but it's not the worst thing in the world. I mean, they're not asking for special powers. They're not asking for material wealth. What they want to do is they want to rule with Jesus. They want to rule and reign alongside him. Jesus will say, later on, especially in Matthew's Gospel, that in the New World, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will sit on 12 thrones, so it's not a completely outlandish request. It's not outrageous. The problem lies in the fact that Jesus has been teaching a lot about his kingdom and what it looks like and how it will come about. They are blind to all that he has been saying about suffering, and about serving. They're only focused on the victory. They're hoping in some way his suffering will mean their victory, and not their defeat. They hope it means that they're going to be made great, and be brought up out of obscurity. In other words, James and John are looking for the crown without the cross. They're looking for the crown without the cross. See, this is an opportunity for James and John to be on the winning team, and if Jesus is going to defeat the Roman Empire, if he's going to be king, and usher in a new kingdom, then they want a piece of that glory. What you see is that Jesus bears this constant assault by his disciples for a piece of that glory because Jesus is focused on the cross, and not the crown. They're focused on the crown and not the cross.
In order to really understand this passage, you have to see yourself in James and John. You have to see how Jesus bears with our constant assault for our own glory. You and I desire glory because we are made in God's image—you are made for glory. The Bible teaches from the very beginning that God is the center of all things—that he is the source of all of all beauty. He's the source of all reality, all goodness and beauty and everything is about him. It points to him. You see this in the creation account in Genesis, but also that God made human beings in the glory of his image. The crowning achievement of God's creation is humanity. It’s Adam and Eve in the garden—humanity made to bear the image and glory of God. They were given the glorious task of caring for and ruling the creation on God's behalf. This was their calling. It was their vocation. Now all of humanity has been given this glorious calling, to care for and rule over creation. But with all this glory that Adam and Eve were given, there's still this distinction between God who is truly glorious, and his image bearers, his creatures. They were given all of the garden, but they couldn’t eat of this one tree—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—because God was God and they were not. He was on his throne, and Adam and Eve, and now all of us, were given this vocation for ordering things for his glory.
The Bible tells us that very early on Adam and Eve grew tired of this arrangement. They had different desires. They wanted to go on a different path. Even though they were made to dwell with God and bear his image and glory, they weren't satisfied with the glory that was bestowed upon them, so they grasped for glory that was not theirs. They ate from the tree that was not theirs to eat. From that moment, you see it all throughout the Bible, you see all throughout human history, we have grasped and longed for a glory that has never belonged to us. We put ourselves in the center of the world and the center of all reality, the center of our own story and tried to take for ourselves what belongs to God—what God has actually promised to freely give us.
Therefore, we like James and John often find ourselves making paths of our own desire, paths that lead to our own glory, and avoiding this call to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Rather, at every turn, we're longing to dethrone God from his place and put ourselves in that position because we think we know a better way. We think there must be an easier way and a better way to glory. Jesus in his grace and mercy, he bears that constant assault. He is the one who is worthy of all glory. He is the one in whom all things exist, and who holds all things together. All things have their hope and their meaning and him and yet, he is the one that bears the constant assault of the world, and the people who want nothing more than to rob him of his glory.
Jesus Resists Our Desire For False Glory
So Jesus confronts the constant assault of our own glory, but also, he resists it. He resists our constant desire for our own false glory. Notice, of course, that Jesus doesn't say, sure, James, John. Whatever you ask, it's yours. He doesn't say that. Since you asked for it, you got it. No, he actually resists their requests. He does so by keeping the reality of the cross in front of them. That is what he's doing here when he starts talking about the cup that he will drink, and the baptism with which he is going to be baptized. Now they respond, yeah, yeah, we're ready. We got this, we can handle it. But his reference to the cup and baptism are references to his suffering. This cup is imagery that the Old Testament prophets used when they spoke of one's destiny—there's the couple blessing and then there's the cup of wrath. Here, it's referring to God's wrath. God's holy anger on those who have oppressed, the weak. The arrogant, who stand against God's salvation for the world. All of God's anger was depicted in the sour cup of wine that would be poured out on the oppressors. Now Jesus is telling them that that's the cup that he is going to drink, I'm going to drink the bitter wine. I'm going to drink the cup of God's wrath. That's what he's telling them. Jesus tells them that they too will drink of the same cup. Jesus is inviting them into his suffering, but he did this the moment he called them to be his disciples. The moment he met them, and he said, follow me, he began the resistance movement against their own plans and their own schemes and their own desires for their own glory because he's enlisting them to partake in his glory.
This is one of the realities that if you're a follower of Jesus, we have to come to terms with. Jesus is going to resist your constant desire for your own glory. He does it not because he hates you, not because he's against you, not because he doesn't want you to have true glory. He resists you, because he loves you. Jesus resists you because he loves you, and if you're going to follow Jesus you have to come to terms with this. Because so often, we come into Christianity hoping or expecting to find a God who's gonna agree with our every thought, who might follow us on our path to our own glory, who will offer us no resistance, and in him, we find validation for all that we think and all that we believe in. This is why we struggle so much with the Bible, because it so often confronts us. This is why we struggle so often with community because we find others who might think differently, who might see things a different way, so it's a confrontation. It's a resistance. All of us have been given limits in our lives that keep us from the glory that we see, that keep us from achieving more and producing more and gaining some greater level of glory for ourselves. For some of you, it's physical limits. For others of you, it's financial limits. For some it's family responsibilities. For some, it might be a difficult marriage, or a singleness you would rather not have. So often we view these things as though it's something we have to try and overcome in order to get to a greater level of greatness. It just might be that Jesus is gently and lovingly resisting you so that in these limits, you see your need for the cross. You begin to see the way to true glory, the way that Jesus offers us. That is the path that is not our own.
Jesus resists our desire and our paths to false glory, but he invites us into the ways of true glory. First way he invites us is by offering forgiveness. The culminating verse of this passage is v.45, where Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” See all of this talk of the cross, the Son of Man giving his life for a ransom—it's Jesus himself not only resisting our desire for our own glory, but taking the full weight of the destruction, of our relentless pursuit that our glory brings. Our pursuit of our own glory, our ambition, our pride, it brings destruction. It destroys us. It destroys our relationships. Do you notice what happens here? What's the reaction of the other disciples when they hear James and John asking to sit at the right and the left hand of Jesus? The other disciples are infuriated. They become indignant by this request. Why should it be them? Why not us? See the pursuit of glory, the pursuit of false glory destroys us. Now there's division among the disciples. Now there's mistrust. Now the factions are taking place within the disciples because to pursue glory through any other way than the cross, through any other way than serving others, means we necessarily must gain our glory at the cost of others. The pursuit of glory always brings destruction.
This is why the church ought to be completely countercultural in our relationships. Imagine a community where the least actually are the greatest. Imagine a community that resists the normal path to glory, which treats everything from our relationship with God to our relationships with others, as some sort of zero sum game, where if someone's winning, then that means I'm losing. Or if I'm winning, someone else has to lose. Imagine a community where the least are the greatest. Jesus in going to the cross is bearing the full weight of that destruction, so that we can be made free to live as we were intended, so that we are forgiven and freed. So that we are no longer slaves to our own desires for glory, but free to love and to serve. Free to be the least. Free to lose ourselves in the far more beautiful glory that Jesus brings. Son of Man, he came not to be served, but to serve. This is the invitation to true glory: To find life in the one who is worthy of all glory, and yet comes to lay his glory aside, in order that we might have the glory that we actually long for.
Jesus Models The Way To True Glory
Jesus forgives our desire for our own glory, but then he also models the way to true glory. Remember this entire journey that the disciples find themselves on, it started with that simple command, follow me. Now they find themselves on this road, and they're scared. They are uncertain about their future. They don't get it. They're obsessed with their own power and their own glory. Now they're fighting. Yet, here's Jesus. He's never wavering, constantly putting before them the path that they will go. The path that he will go and the path that they will go. First, the cross, then the glory. Whoever's great among you must be your servant. Whoever must be first among you must be a slave of all. This is exactly what Jesus does. This is exactly what he does for us. Jesus does not call us to take up the cross and follow him without first going to the cross himself. You and I will never be able to have the courage and the hope to be the least unless we first see and experience that this is what Jesus has done for us. He comes to serve to give his life as a ransom for your sake, for your glory.
What do we do with this practically speaking? First, we have to at all times and always constantly be looking to Jesus in our daily rhythms and our habits, finding time to regularly pray, to read Scripture, to locate ourselves in this upside-down kingdom, where glory is found through the cross. This will never come naturally to you. Seeking to be the least will never come naturally to us. It only comes when we situate ourselves in the promise that Jesus is going to bring glory—so giving ourselves to the Scriptures and to and to prayer. It also means living this out within our community. You can't be the least in isolation. The least only comes when it is situated in our community. This is why our Community Groups are so important because when we are left to ourselves, we will strive for our own glory, and it will never satisfy us. When we embrace Jesus, he becomes our glory. Friends, you were made for glory. You were made to have God as your glory. All of your beauty and goodness, it is to be found and located in him. We will never find glory on our own. So we're called to seek after Jesus both as individuals and as a community, but then we're also called to serve. The community that is the church is the place where we are called to live this out to become the least and find ways to serve. To follow Jesus and give ourselves away for the sake of this beautiful kingdom that Jesus has ushered in. There are many ways that you can do that, but it starts right after the service. Come, stick around, learn and listen to the ways that you can in large ways and in small ways begin to take up this call. To find yourself as the least and to find the way of the cross, the way of service, as the way to true glory.
One of the great concerns that we have when all this talk about becoming the least, and giving up ourselves for the greater story is this fear that somehow we are going to be lost. Because if we give up our own quest for glory, then our own story, our own selves are going to get lost, and no one is going to see the ways in which we serve. No one is going to see the ways in which we’re taking up this call. But as we gather at this table, the promise before us is that Jesus sees. He knows. Jesus sees the way that you are hustling home after a long day of work to clean your apartment because you have a Community Group coming over. Jesus sees the ways that no one else sees the ways you're serving your neighbors and keeping doors of conversation open so perhaps at some point down the road, you can tell them the hope that you have. Jesus sees the ways that you serve your neighbors when no one else sees. This table is proof of that because Jesus offers us this bread and this cup, to nourish us and sustain us and remind us that the true glory comes first through the cross. It's here at this table that we celebrate this bread and this cup. It’s a guarantee in our sharing Jesus' death and in his resurrection. It starts with the cross. We're eating and we're drinking, broken bread and blood that is poured out. Yet, it’s a foretaste to the glory we longed for—the new Heavens and the new Earth. Jesus sees. He knows. He offers us this cup, so that we would be strengthened to give our lives away and to serve for his glory and for the sake of his kingdom.
Our great God and Heavenly Father, we confess to you that so oftentimes we seek our own paths—our own paths of desire, our own ways of glory. Yet you in your grace and your mercy, in your love of us, you resist us. You are patient with us, and you call us to follow after you and even as you call us to follow you, you're not calling to do something you haven't already done for us on the cross. God I pray that you would transform us, sustain us and nourish us as we gather at this table and seek to be the people that you have called us to be. We pray this all in Jesus' mighty name. Amen.