Fifth Sunday of Lent, and the Annunciation, March 25th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
God’s Way to Glory - Mark 10:32-45
Glorious things are spoken today, and hearts respond in longing. But what a contrast in the way human hearts respond when confronted with God’s way to glory.
James and John are certainly interested in glory. They know Jesus is the way to glory, but their reaction to the potential of receiving glory through Jesus is crass. James and John are remarkably selfish, arrogant, and foolish. They know Jesus is the source of glory, but they refuse to acknowledge the path He takes to glory, nor do they confess their own part in laying out that path.
Mary is shown glory, at least that portion of glory displayed when the angel Gabriel shows up in your house. She is promised glory, her child will be the Son of God, and reign on the throne of David. Glory will be, by the power of the Holy Spirit, growing inside her, the Holy One taking up residence in her womb. No other mother has ever been honored with such glory. How does Mary respond, by patting herself on the back? No, Mary says, “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be to me as you have said.”
Mary is humble, remarkably so. She knows her place, totally the grace place, the undeserved favor place. Nothing about her has earned this honor, she is simply chosen by God. Mary is humble, thankful, and submissive to the will of God, even though His will is going to cause her considerable trouble. It seems that somehow she knows this is the way for all who are truly on the way to glory, a life of humility, of serving others, of dependence on God, of joyful expectation accompanied by earthly trials.
It’s easy to see why over the centuries so many in the Church have gotten carried away with admiring Mary. We should admire her, and celebrate her, and emulate her. But it’s so easy to go too far, to ascribe achievements, roles, and callings to Mary that belong to Another, that is, to give Mary responsibility and authority that God reserves for Himself. Mary is praiseworthy, but we praise God for her, and for working through her. We do not praise or worship her, nor is she one to whom we should pray. Nowhere in Scripture are we told Mary is to intercede for us to God. Rather, we are taught that all who share her faith have the same direct access to God, through Mary’s Son.
God hasn’t told us to pray to Mary, and besides, I don’t think Mary is listening. When she was just pregnant, just starting out on her special task, headed to a few months in seclusion with her cousin in the hill country, already Mary’s attention was focused on the Lord. When Elizabeth praises Mary, coming to visit her, carrying Jesus in her belly, Mary responds, not by counseling or interceding or comforting Elizabeth, but by singing praise to God, by magnifying the Lord, giving the Church a song which we will sing in a few minutes. So even more today, as her soul rests in the peace of God’s presence, Mary is, like all the saints, focused on the Lamb, singing of His glory, which is now hers, because in this life she knew the true way to glory. Christians pray directly to God, which is good, because Mary is probably too focused on Jesus to hear us.
By God’s grace, Mary understood God’s way to glory, which gave her humility. Jesus tried to explain God’s way to glory to James and John, but they were hard of hearing, or hard of heart. Jesus at the beginning of this morning’s Gospel predicts, for the third time in Mark, His death on the Cross, which is now only a short time away. This is clearly the way of Jesus, which He has been trying to teach the Twelve about for some time, but with little success.
James and John are so lightly impacted by the thought of Jesus being arrested and suffering and dying that they choose this moment to make their bold move of self-promotion, to try to gain the inside track to the best seats in glory. "Teacher,” they say, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." They almost sound like a couple of little kids, trying to trick Jesus into making a blind commitment, as if He didn’t know their hearts already. They almost seem unserious, except that the context seems to say the opposite, they were completely serious. We might easily condemn James and John, if our consciences didn’t remind us that our selfishness and arrogance only lag behind theirs because we lack their boldness.
How does Jesus respond to James and John? “Get behind me Satan,” comes to mind as an appropriate reply, the reply Jesus gave to Peter’s similarly ridiculous demand, not long before. But no, Jesus is patient with these self-promoting glory hounds. "What do you want me to do for you?" He asks. And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."
Wow, they are bold, no doubt. And yet, still not giving the stinging rebuke we might expect, Jesus responds, "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 say to him, "We are able."
No, no you’re not. Jesus is referring to His way to glory, which runs through a Roman Cross, and through the righteous anger of God. Jesus is about to be baptized with the punishment for all the sins of the whole world. He is about to drink the cup of God’s wrath against humanity’s sin, down to the bitter dregs. James and John truly do not know what they are asking.
And who will sit on Jesus’ right hand and His left? It’s kind of a mysterious passage. Jesus doesn’t deny that there are special seats for some in His Kingdom, but finding another reference to help us understand these seats in glory is difficult. In fact, in terms of being on Jesus’ right and left, the passages that do come to mind are just a bit different. As in Jesus’ description of the Final Judgment, when all the faithful sheep will come to His right hand, but all the unbelieving goats are banished to suffering on His left. Which is quite a bit like the two thieves, who hung from crosses, one on each side of Jesus, the repentant thief headed to glory in paradise, the mocking one headed to hell. Both of these examples might serve us well if they get our minds off of how good our seats in heaven will be, and onto how is that we can hope to have any seat in heaven, even a bad one, way off in the corner of paradise. The very worst seat in the House of God’s eternal glory, that’s all we need. That will be just fine. This is our rightful focus.
And also the focus for Jesus. James and John apparently didn’t hear a word He had just said about going to Jerusalem to be condemned and mocked, spit on, flogged and killed. They have no idea of the immensity of the task ahead of Jesus, about to swallow up Death in His own body. But then how could they? Even we, on this side of the story, hearing it and repeating it and having it explained to us over and over, still can only begin to grasp the mystery of His suffering, His abandonment. Jesus was always going to be utterly alone on the Cross, no child of Adam would ever be able to grasp, let alone face, what He faced. This has been the plan, all along, God’s way to glory, through suffering, for mercy’s sake.
And so Jesus predicts that mercy. Overlooking James’ and John’s foolish arrogance, Jesus also passes over the fact that they do not know what they are asking, to receive His Baptism and drink His Cup. They are not able. They are not able, and yet, Jesus promises, “you will drink from the cup that I drink, you will be baptized with the baptism into which I am baptized.” Not today, not in present tense, not in a few weeks on a Roman Cross outside Jerusalem. No, that leg of God’s way to glory is for Jesus alone. But after, in the future, after three, days, then, yes John, yes, James, you will drink, you will be baptized.
This is the great mystery, the great good news, the peace that passes all understanding. All who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into His death. The bread we bless, the cup we drink, is a fellowship, a communion, a participation in His Body and Blood, given and shed on the Cross for the sins of the world. Jesus took all the curse in His cruciform Baptism and Cup, so that now all who believe receive only blessing. It’s the same cross, same body, same blood, but now all the wrath of God is gone, now all the suffering is complete, now only the glory of the new covenant remains, written on our hearts, by the forgiveness of our sins.
Mary starts out humble, and ends up with John at the foot of the Cross. For the followers of Jesus’ it all ends the same. All the drama of James’ and John’s self-glorification comes full circle at the cross, and in the life of the Church that grew from there. From the Cross, Jesus gives earthly charge of His mother to John. In the early years of the Church, James is the first Apostle to be martyred, to die for his confession that Christ crucified and resurrected is the Son of God and Savior of the world. So John, who lives the longest of all the Apostles, lives in service, humbly caring for the aging mother of Jesus. And James dies early, the first of Jesus’ inner circle to go to Him in glory.
As Mary, James and John all learned, God’s way to glory means difficulty and struggle in this life, along with joys and peace for guilty, hurting hearts. God’s way to glory also offers bountiful opportunity for humble service, in which God gives joy. All of this because Jesus gives His own to drink from His Cup and receive His Baptism, delivering the promise of glory and joy, better than we can imagine, a promise as sure as God Himself.
The Annunciation, when God became incarnate, when He took on human flesh. The Nativity, when the Incarnation was revealed. The life of humble service. The suffering of Good Friday. The miraculous joy of the Resurrection. The Baptism of Christ, which now saves you. The Cup that you drink, proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes. All of these are God’s way, Jesus’ way, to glory, for you, Amen.