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Sermon Lent 4 “He Puts Us in Our Place”

Pastor Gary Wong March 22, 2020

Matthew 20:17-28

17 As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside; and on the way he said to them, 18 “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and experts in the law, and they will condemn him to death. 19 They will hand him over to the Gentiles to mock, flog, and crucify him. On the third day he will be raised.” 20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to him with her sons, kneeling and asking something of him. 21 He said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Promise that in your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right hand and one on your left hand.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not for me to give; rather these places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard this, they were angry with the two brothers.25 But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It will not be that way among you. Instead whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Do you like to eat out at restaurants (even though we should only be using the drive through or take out for the time being)? Many people would rather have someone serve them a delicious meal than prepare, cook, and clean up at home. So, here’s my question: would you rather be the one serving or the one being served? In our lesson, God’s Word speaks about service. In our text, Matthew talks about two brothers with whom he worked. James and John, grew up in Capernaum, a village located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee Everyone, including these sons of Zebedee, assumed that they would follow in their father’s footsteps and work in the family fishing business; and that’s exactly what they did. According to Matthew, Jesus had been walking beside the Sea of Galilee when he saw Peter and Andrew casting their nets into the lake. Jesus said, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt. 4:19). At once, they left their nets and followed Jesus. Going on, Jesus spotted James and John, who were in their father’s boat. Jesus extended the same invitation to them, and they immediately left the boat and followed Jesus.

If you were James or John, would you have acted as quickly and decisively as they had? Would you have made the same choice? By following Jesus, James and John were exchanging the only life they had ever known with one that was full of unknowns. They knew that the life of a fisherman wasn’t glamorous; it was hard work! Yet, they also knew that fishing was the way the Lord was blessing them with the means to provide for themselves and their family. But when they dropped their nets and followed Jesus, they didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know what they would be doing. They didn’t know where they would be going. They didn’t know how they would be making a living. At that moment, however, they weren’t concerned about those practical details. All they knew was that Jesus was calling them to follow him; and that was more than enough.

Over the course of the next three years, James and John were privileged to sit at the feet of and walk alongside Jesus, the Master Teacher. Jesus taught them about the kingdom of God. Jesus was preparing them for the time when sharing the gospel would be their life’s work. After a period of training, Jesus sent them out and said, “Preach this message: the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt. 10:7). Jesus also gave his disciples the power to heal the sick and cast out demons. The Lord blessed their efforts. When the disciples returned, they reported, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (Lk. 10:17). Jesus put their success in the proper perspective. He put them in their place, saying, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20). As the disciples continued to follow Jesus, they grew in their knowledge about and became more confident in sharing the gospel, particularly James and John. Now, these brothers were bold and impetuous by nature. For good reason, Jesus gave them the nickname “Boanerges”, which means “Sons of Thunder.” St. Luke shares an incident where James and John went over the top with their enthusiasm. Jesus had sent his disciples ahead of him to a Samaritan village to get things ready for him. When the village said they would not welcome Jesus, James and John became indignant and asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” (Lk. 9:54). Jesus responded by rebuking his rather mean-spirited and misguided disciples. Once again, Jesus put them in their place.

Just as children accept godly discipline from their earthly fathers, James and John took Jesus’ rebuke to heart. They knew that Jesus loved them and that he had only their best interests at heart. These brothers basked in the light of Jesus’ love and continued to grow closer to him. While Jesus demonstrated that he loved all of his disciples equally, the gospels make it clear that he paid special attention to the Sons of Thunder. Along with Peter, James and John were part of Jesus’ inner circle. Peter, James and John were the only disciples who witnessed Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Jesus chose only those three men to accompany him to the Mount of Transfiguration where they saw Jesus transformed and glorified before their very eyes.

Yet, today’s lesson shows us that James and John, like the other disciples, did not fully understand Christ’s kingdom or their role in it. Our text describes an incident that took place shortly after Jesus’ Transfiguration. As they were making their way toward Jerusalem, Jesus told his disciples that the time was coming soon when he would be betrayed, condemned and crucified, and that on the third day he would be raised to life. Sometime later, James, John, and their mother came to Jesus and asked him a favor. Kneeling before Jesus, Salome said, “Grant that one of these sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom” (Mt. 20:21). Now, according to Mark’s account of this incident, James and John were the ones who made this request. So who actually asked if these two brothers could sit on either side of Jesus—was it Salome or her sons? It was both! You see, James and John weren’t the only ones who left Capernaum to follow Jesus. Salome, whose heart was filled with love for her Savior, also followed Jesus. She was among a group of women who followed Jesus and ministered to his needs. Salome had a strong faith, and she put that faith into action. She was thrilled when she thought that Jesus would soon establish his kingdom. She was excited for the opportunity to use her gifts to serve the Lord fully in his kingdom. So she made this request on behalf of her sons who shared her excitement, and whom she knew were also fully committed to serving their Savior.

How did James and John feel about their mother making this request? Were they thinking, “Mom! How could you make such a request? We would never ask that of Jesus in a million years!” Or did they agree with their mother but were too shy to personally ask for themselves? Considering their personalities, there’s no way that James and John would ever hide behind their mother’s skirts. After all, these were the Sons of Thunder who had wanted to destroy a Samaritan village with fire from heaven. They didn’t need their mother to speak up for them. At the same time, they weren’t mad at her, thinking that she was butting into their business. Actually, they were all on the same page. All three thought that this was an opportune time to make this request.

How did Jesus respond? Did Jesus consider this request completely out of line and rebuke James and John as he had done earlier? Knowing what was in their heads and hearts, Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking” (20:22). Jesus knew that James and John didn’t fully understand the nature of his kingdom. Rather than rebuking them he told them, “to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father” (20:23). Matthew tells us that when the other ten disciples found out that James and John had made this request, they were indignant. As a result, Jesus called all of his disciples together and proceeded to teach them about his kingdom. The way things work in God’s kingdom is often the opposite of the way things work in the world. The big shots in this world exercise their power and lord their position over those who are under their authority. Those people are considered great. Jesus turns that kind of thinking completely around. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (20:26, 27).

In other words, greatness in God’s eyes is all about serving others and having a servant mentality. To hammer home that point, Jesus pointed to himself: “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (v.28). The Bible teaches that Jesus is God; he is equal to his Father in every way. All power and authority were and are his from eternity. Yet, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Php. 2:6, 7). So, how did Jesus serve us? He gives us the answer in our text. Jesus came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). Why was Jesus willing to serve us this way? Jesus willingly sacrificed his life on the cross simply because he loves us. Jesus knew that we could not satisfy God’s demand for perfection. He knew that only he could save us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. So Jesus paid the price for all our sins, including our selfish pride and arrogance, with his holy, precious blood.

Because of his love, Jesus gave his life as a ransom for all. Through faith in him, we have a whole new life. Because of Jesus, we are now in a great place. We also know that we have a glorious future in heaven awaiting us. But right now, it might not seem that our lives are so great and glorious. We might have problems at work, at school or at home. We may have financial, health or relationship problems. Our world has been turned upside down by the corona virus. From a worldly perspective, it might not seem that our lives are great. However, a great life is not measured in terms of our earthly circumstances. You and I have a great life because we know that God loves us. We are content, knowing that God will give us everything we need for this life and the next. We are at peace, knowing that Jesus is with us every step of the way. We are confident that God will use this virus for our good. In the meantime, we find great joy in serving God and our fellow man. Serving others is rewarding and fulfilling. Our service blesses others, and we are blessed. Our service glorifies God.

Friends, one of the hallmarks of a Christian is willing, cheerful service. Our attitude is that of Jesus, who did not come to be served, but to serve. Because he loves us, Jesus has put us in a great place. We know that one day, he will bring us to an even better place when we will live with him in heaven forever. To God be the glory!

May the peace of God that transcends all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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