How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are.
(1 John 3:1)
Admission is free, just pay at the door. Pull up a chair and sit on the floor. One bright day, in the middle of the night, two dead men went out to fight. Back to back they faced each other, pulled their swords and shot each other. Don’t believe me? Ask the blind man. He saw it all. That is not the text for our consideration this morning. That was a rhyme one of my friends taught me when I was about ten years old. I thought it was catchy, so I committed it to memory. It was funny because everything in it was the opposite of what you’d expect. Everything was backwards. Admission is free, but you have to pay at the door. You can grab a chair, but sit on the floor. Apparently there’s a bright day at midnight and dead people are able to go out to fight. Back to back means face to face, swords can shoot bullets, and the blind are called upon as eyewitnesses to this whole scene. Nothing is what you’d expect. Everything is backwards. It’s kind of fun for a children’s rhyme. But what happens when that’s your life? Could you imagine living in a world like that? In a world where everything seems backwards and nothing makes sense? Could you imagine living in a world where what you know to be wrong is touted as being right, and vice versa? Could you imagine living in a world where the convictions and beliefs you hold so true and dear are viewed as fairy tales and moral slavery? Where the glorified state of Christian service is seen as menial; and submitting to one another is perceived to be slavery? You don’t have to use your imagination to see a world like that, you just have to open your eyes.
Yes, the world can be a backwards place, but Christianity is a backwards religion, and there’s no sense in denying it. In the kingdom of the world, rulers rule and servants serve. In the Kingdom of God, servants rule and the first are last. In the eyes of the world, servant and slave are ugly, repressive words that mean freedom has been lost and personal willpower is negated. In the eyes of God, servant and slave mean greatness and honor. According to the gospel, finding your life in this world means losing it, but losing your life by dying to self in Christ means truly finding your life. Backwards, right? Who wants to live in a world like that? For two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John (the Sons of Thunder) the choice seemed obvious. Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” Have you ever heard someone preface a statement like that? Dad, if I tell you something, promise me you won’t get mad…Honey, we need to talk, but don’t be angry. And before the next sentence is even verbalized, how do you feel? So, the way James and John framed their request shows that, on some level, they knew this wouldn’t be an ask that Jesus would immediately approve of. But still, Jesus hears them out. What do you want me to do for you?...They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “Jesus, we know there’s going to be a coming kingdom you keep talking about, you’ve just promised us twelve disciples that we’d be sitting on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, and we just want to make sure we can ride shotgun when you do finally set up that kingdom.” James and John were thinking straight about the issue of glory, weren’t they? At least the other disciples thought so, because when they found out about James’ and John’s request, they were upset – probably not because of the audacity of James and John’s request, but because they didn’t think to ask first!
Was their request wrong? Jesus had recently promised them that when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). In a sense, James and John were simply grabbing on to what Jesus had just promised them, which is the nature of every prayer we bring before God. But they didn’t really understand what they were asking and they went about it in an entirely self-serving way. They were using worldly definitions of greatness and honor. Jesus didn’t miss the opportunity to step in and, yet again, correct their understanding about God’s definition of greatness and glory. “You don’t know what you’re asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” James and John, do you realize how this kingdom is going to come about? We’re not storming the castle in Jerusalem so that I can prop myself up on the throne. The pains of death are going to wash over me like the flood of a baptism, and the wrath of a holy God against sin has filled the cup of suffering to the very brim. Can you endure it? Can you drink it? “We can,” they answered. Make no mistake, you will be baptized with suffering and drink the cup all for following me, but not like I’m going to. My suffering and death are going to take away sin and bring salvation to the world. For everyone who follows Jesus in faith, there will be a cross to bear – one that constantly reminds me that I need to deny myself and die to myself, and be raised up anew with Christ. But denying myself and dying to self sounds so backwards, doesn’t it?
Jesus said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” In a world where everyone tries to exert influence and power over others; a world where everyone tries to be “over” someone else, Jesus shows us what true greatness is – submitting ourselves under everyone as servant and slave of all. This was a difficult truth for the disciples to grasp. It was backwards. Every other instance of power and greatness they had ever known was the exact opposite of what Jesus just described. They didn’t want things to be so backwards. They wanted to share the glory of the Messiah, not the suffering.
Like the disciples, we don’t like things to be so backwards, and so we want to set backwards things back in the order we think they should go. We drag our feet with assignments and tasks that are given to us, not because they’re so difficult or so bad, but because they’re so beneath me. Everyone else should realize their foolishness for asking such an important person (me) to do such an unimportant thing. We don’t take very seriously the not-so-fun parts of our jobs because we’d rather just enjoy the pay and the perks. We see a brother or sister in need and the first thought that comes to our mind is, “They could probably use some help.” The second thought that comes to our minds is, “Someone else will do it.” We flat out ignore the parts of God’s Word that challenge us to deny self, because, frankly, that’s no fun. But those are just the symptoms of a bigger problem, aren’t they? What are we really saying? I don’t want anything to do with the kind of greatness in service Jesus is talking about because I love my own sense of self-importance too much. We don’t want it to be so backwards, so we try to set it straight, at least according to what my sinful nature wants. We want to live by our own standards of what will bring us honor or ease or glory – but realize when we do that, we’re really elevating ourselves above the servant and slave of all, Jesus. Your ego above your Savior. Now that’s backwards.
So marvel with me. Stand in awe of this Jesus who is determined to save backwards sinners like us. Three times in three consecutive chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus had told his disciples, in no uncertain terms, “The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him, and kill him. Three days later, he will rise.” And where were they all headed as they walked along the way? Where did this request for worldly greatness come and this anger that I’m not going to get to sit in one of those special chairs? On a one way street to Jerusalem. Remember all the horrible stuff that Jesus said would happen to him in Jerusalem? And how the religious leaders hated him and wanted him out of the picture? But he’s going anyways! They were headed to Jerusalem so that Jesus could die. What’s even more remarkable about this is the phrase I’ve glossed over just about every time I’ve read this account. They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way. Jesus knew what was coming, and he didn’t shrink to the back of the crowd. Instead, he led the way. Now was not the time to sit on the hillside and teach the masses. Past is the moment for scooping up the little ones and blessing them. Instead, Jesus blazes the trail straight to unimaginable suffering and the most shameful death. He set his face like flint on that middle cross of Golgatha, knowing what it would cost so that he could make you his own. Jesus’ backwards love for sinners like you and me propelled him forward to a cross and an empty tomb – where he would humble himself to death for every one of your sins and mine – even our sins of selfish ambition.
I said it before, and I’ll say it again - Christianity is a backwards religion. And thank God for that. Every other religion in the world puts the focus on you – what you do and what you can become and the steps you need to take. Christianity flips the switch on that completely. The incomprehensible, unknowable, “completely-other” God takes on human flesh and blood to take your place under the law. The One who is greatness himself, washes feet, feeds the hungry, touches and heals the leprous and sick. Christianity is a backwards religion and it’s more backwards than anything you can imagine – the holy Creator takes on the nature of his creation – so that he can step into our world and save us from our sins against him. When we actively hated God, he loved us. When we persisted in defying him, he brought us to peace through his Son. That’s backwards. It’s like Paul says in Romans, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God didn’t wait for sinners to get their acts together. Jesus didn’t resolve to come and help once you met him halfway. No, he looked down on you in your sinful state and said, “Father, I want this one, too. And I’ll pay whatever the cost.” This is the Savior God who justifies the wicked. That’s backwards!
God has been so blessedly backwards to you. He does not treat us as our sins deserve, instead he forgives us. Through his promise of the gospel, he declares you to be his sinless saint. Through that same gospel, he empowers you so that sin and selfish ambition are no longer your masters. And now he gives you countless opportunities to extend that same backwards love to everyone around you. Make no mistake about it – because of Christ’s righteousness covering you and Christ’s power in you, you can love like that. Reach out to make peace with those who wouldn’t reach out to you. Guys, buy her flowers when she screws up. Workers, respect your boss even when he’s not popular and you want so badly to jump on the bandwagon of critics. Help those who wouldn’t think to lift a finger for you. Live to God’s glory when nobody is watching and you won’t be applauded. Serve humbly even when your sinful nature fights tooth and nail for a sliver of recognition. Give when there’s no promise of reward. Love even when someone is hard to love. Service isn’t about you or me or earning God’s favor. Service is about the other, our neighbor. Service is about thanking our selfless Savior – who did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. In a world driven by competition toward greatness, how refreshing it is to lose ourselves in the backwards love of Christ and win everything.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.