THE HEART OF IDOLATRY

21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 24B)

TEXT: Mark 10:35-45

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.” (Mark 10:42-45)

James and John, the sons of Zebedee … James and John, the fisherman’s boys … the pair called “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) … They came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Do you notice the elegance of their request? “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Whatever we ask of you.” James and John are shrewd, crafty guys. Let’s say one day they want so much gold they can go swimming in it. Another day, a harem of beautiful women. Or endless buckets of fried chicken …

If they change their minds and decide they want a huge palace, or if they want to replace Tiberius as Emperor of Rome … well, they’d have all of those requests covered. “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

You know, there are all kinds of different paths to the good life. Some people say, “I’m going to earn the good life for myself. I don’t need or want God’s help! When fame, wealth, and power come my way, I will have achieved those goals with my own two handsmy own hard work!

But not James and John. They want a shortcut—a religious shortcut. Their message is, “Hey Jesus, you know how we’ve been helping you out here in your ministry? Well, how about a little favour in return? Give us whatever we ask for.”

Sounds incredibly selfish, doesn’t it? Maybe even childish. But, look: let’s be honest, here. I can identify with James and John. Can’t you?

Jesus asks them: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

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

As I think about that, I realize that, yes—I want to bask in glory one day, sitting at the right hand of Jesus in heaven.

We’ll get to the next life and everyone will be using their heavenly binoculars to look at me from miles away, and they’ll say, “Wow! There’s Grottenberg! Look at that! He’s at the right hand of God!

“I had no idea. I should have sucked up to Gary when I had the chance. Now look at me! Even though I was a fully ordained minister and wore all those priestly garments and had everybody call me “Reverend” … NOW, I’m scrubbing toilets in heaven—for the rest of eternity!”

That’s my dream. If I’m being honest, I want Jesus to give me whatever I ask for. And why not? We’re talking about Jesus, after all! Why not ask?

I think each of us faces this problem. I suspect that—on some level—all of us can identify with James and John. Why? Because this passage reveals to us the heart of idolatry.

Now, what is idolatry, exactly? Is it about literally worshipping images carved out of stone? Well, that counts. If you are bowing down to rock carvings and offering sacrifices to them, that is definitely idolatry. No question about it. But, more generally—and more commonly in our day and age—idolatry is about turning good things into ultimate things. Idolatry is about worshipping something other than God.

Worshipping an idol instead of God means that we replace God with something else—something we think is good … and which … we really, really want! And when idolatry goes unchecked, we can even wind up asking God to help us worship our idols! Think about that: We ask God to help us worship our idols.

We may not go for the unconditional “give me whatever I want” approach. Most of us are more humble about it—and much more specific, as well:

  • “God, I promise I’ll do anything for you, if you’ll just get me an ‘A’ on this exam.”
  • “God, I know I haven’t been to church in a while, but … please, I need a raise at work.”
  • “God, I’ve been sacrificing everything for you. I’ve been at church every week. I’m just asking for a girlfriend in return.”

Can you imagine if you did this in any other context? If I said to my wife, “Iris, I need your help.” And she said, “O.K., how can I help you?” And I said, “Can you find me another wife?” …

Iris would not be amused.

If I am looking for a wife … well, I’m already married. Asking my current wife to find me another wife is illogical and offensive (not to mention dangerous). But that’s what James and John are doing—even though they don’t realize it. They’re saying: “God, can you please give us another god to worship?”

We laugh at them. We shake our heads. laugh at them, and I shake my head. But then, I wonder … What if I am just like them? Do I desire God? Or what I think God can give me? Sometimes, I’m not at all shy about asking God to do my will.

Maybe we think James and John are being too direct. But what about the other disciples? Look at verse 41: When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.”

Was that righteous indignation? Or was it jealousy? Maybe they were upset that they hadn’t thought of it first—to ask Jesus about sitting beside him in glory. Maybe, secretly, they had been thinking: “If we just keep our heads down and work hard, I’ll bet Jesus will give us whatever we want.”

But then James and John cut in front of the line. They made their request in private, trying to elbow their way into first place. According to Matthew’s account of this story, they even had their mother there! The whole family was involved. And all of a sudden, the hearts of the other ten disciples are revealed: they wanted the same thing as James and John, but they were too embarrassed to say so.

So, what about you? Are you the direct type? Do you tell God—straight up—“Here’s what I want you to do for me …?” Or do you go for the indirect route? Outdo others in your religious devotion. Make greater sacrifices. Be more obedient. Be more radical. More socially just, more culturally relevant. And secretly, deep down inside your heart, do you hope that God will notice? Do you hope that God will reward you?

Whatever your strategy, wouldn’t it be great if God would do whatever you asked him to do? If you’re like me, you gotta admit that—like it or not—you’ve got a selfish streak!

Back to our gospel lesson. How does Jesus respond to his selfish disciples? Does he say, “Because you asked for so much, I am not going to give you anything, ever …”?

Does he say, “You’ve gone too far this time. You are no longer my disciples …”?

Does he say, “Your request is outrageous! I am ticked off. You are going straight to hell …”?

No. He doesn’t say anything like that. Instead, he refers to his upcoming crucifixion. He says, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

These are, of course, thinly-veiled references to his impending death. The disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about, but we do. For we have the benefit of hindsight.

Jesus was saying: “I’m not going to be that kind of king. I’m not going to be wealthy. I’m not going to be popular. I’m not who you think I am. I am going to give my life—on a Roman cross—to pay for the sins of the world.”

In verse 45, Jesus gives us his mission statement: For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Isn’t that amazing? Jesus’ closest friends are money-grubbing, power-hungry, “yes-men” who are trying to use Jesus to get what they really, really want. And how does Jesus respond?

Does he say, “O.K,, here’s the deal. You put in three years of blood, sweat and tears, and I guarantee you good positions in my cabinet …”?

Does he say, “Cast out 400 demons in my name and I’ll see to it that you get a lavish pension …”?

No. He says, “I do not want your service. I want to serve you.”

This is like a high-speed collision—like two cars smashing into each other at 100 kilometres an hour! The disciples exhibit all their selfishness. And Jesus exhibits all his selflessness.

The disciples say: “Give us whatever we want.”

Jesus says: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Do you get that? Do you see how much God loves you? We come to God saying, “gimmie, gimmie, gimmie.” And God says, “I love you more than that. Those things you think you want … you need more than that! You need salvation. You need redemption. You need someone to die for your sins. You need someone to rescue you from your selfishness and your idolatry. So here’s the deal: I’m not going to give you these small, petty things; I’m going to give you my very life!

You know that cup Jesus says he’s going to drink? Here’s what Psalm 75 says about it: “In the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs (Psalm 75:8).

And then there’s the Book of Isaiah, chapter 51: Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17).

Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath. He drank it to the dregs, so that we might experience forgiveness and be reconciled to God. Does that not move you? Does that not thrill your heart? Does that not make you fall in love with God? Are you not awestruck by the immensity of what God has done?

Once you encounter Jesus—once your selfishness collides with Jesus’ selflessness—you will be changed. The original disciples were certainly changed. Jesus predicted that. He told James and John that they also would suffer greatly for the gospel—as, in fact, they did.

James became the first apostle to die for the faith, when King Herod had him put to the sword (Acts 12:2).

And—even though he may have been the only one of the Twelve to die a natural death—John endured persecution and exile and the anguish of seeing his dearest friends martyred.

The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized … whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:39, 43).

Our world is run by people who lord their authority over others; but imagine a world where people use their authority—use their power—to serve others like Jesus did.

That is Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven. May it become our vision, too.

 

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