Posted below is a rough approximation of the sermon I presented at First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Beaver Falls. As before, I was warmly welcomed and received, even with my current follicular situation. May God bless them in their work in this place. The Gospel text for the day was Mark 10:35-45.
In Mark 1:14-15, it says: “Now after John [the Baptist] was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.” For us, the words ‘repent and believe the gospel’ mean some sort of religious conversion: believe that Jesus died for our sins and has a special plan for our lives. While that is certainly part of the Gospel as presented in the Scriptures, it doesn’t make a lot of sense of this early passage in Mark, nor the question of James and John in today’s Gospel reading. It is clear in Mark’s Gospel, and in the others, that Jesus did not regularly talk publically about his own death or its purpose. He did share this with his disciples, as evidenced in his saying that he would “give his life as a ransom for many,” but it does not make up a large part of his public proclamation. Rather, what we see in Mark 1 is Jesus proclaiming the ‘kingdom,’ or reign, of God. Whatever that might mean, it was near ‘at hand’ and seemed to be coming to pass in the very proclamation and actions of Jesus Himself. We see this clearly a couple of verses later in chapter 1, “And he was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.” Part and parcel of this proclamation was the exorcism of the unclean spirits that held people in physical, spiritual, and psychological captivity.
Many of these actions, which included healings and resurrections and the multiplication of loaves, would have served in the eyes of his first-century audience as confirmations of his divine calling as a prophet and his legitimacy as the Davidic king. If He was the ‘king to come,’ the one to exercise God’s rule as the ‘highest of the kings of the earth’ (Psalm 89:27), the one whom the nations would have to kiss to avert His wrath (Psalm 2:12), then James and John’s request to sit at his right and left hands in glory makes much sense. Here is the warrior-king, prophesied over and over again in the Old Testament, who would overthrow the evil powers and establish Mt. Zion as the ‘top of the mountains and…exalted above the hills’ (Micah 4:1). Before this could happen, though, before the great prophecies of Israel becoming the greatest kingdom in the world could come to pass, the Promised Land would have to be reconquered. Before David must come Joshua. However, this time it is not the Canaanites who are squatting in God’s land, but the Roman occupiers. Many Judeans at the time of Christ held forth hope that God’s anointed would rout these filthy pagan overlords and reestablish Israel’s rightful claim to their ancestral land, just as Joshua did. If Jesus was that Messiah, James and John want to be in on the action, to be the men at his right and left hand, ready and willing and able to do the Master’s work of glorious conquest. Yet Jesus will have none of it; he does not outright deny them such a place, but rather says it is not for him to choose. They will share in his cup and his baptism, but he cannot guarantee them pride of place in this kingdom. Rather, as we see in his response to all the disciples, this is a very different kingdom than they, and their contemporaries, had imagined.
Let us look again at the actions that accompanied the proclamation of the ‘kingdom of God.’ “And he was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.” In Deuteronomy 7:1, God promises to “cast out” many nations from the land, so that the Israelites might inhabit it. Joshua fulfills this through his own proclamation of God’s Kingdom, that is, of the God who overthrew Egypt and was now coming to finally make good on the promise that Israel would inherit this land. That meant the squatters had to go. As we saw, there is a short leap from Canaanite to Roman squatters. However, in Mark, as Jesus is making the proclamation of the kingdom, he does not throw out the Romans, but rather casts out the demons. The real squatters, the real malevolent occupiers, are not the physical army of Rome, but rather the invisible army of Satan, which has enslaved not merely the Italian pagans, but the Jews as well – they are the cause behind the sicknesses and the possessions Jesus heals. While James and John may be expecting an earthly battle, Jesus makes clear through his actions that the kingdom’s arrival concerns a much more important battle, one which cannot be prosecuted with weapons made of steel. Rather, the weapons that this Messiah uses, over and over again, are stronger than any swords or bombs or drone-strikes. These weapons burst the bonds that hold the captive in his chains, whether those chains are physical, spiritual, or psychological. These are the weapons of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.
It is here that we are often tempted, in our own way, to misunderstand the mission of Jesus. We see him proclaiming love and peace and reconciliation and we suppose that the Jewish expectations of a warrior-king are wrong altogether. This is Jesus, meek and mild, with a little lamby on his shoulder. We moderns, for our own historical and cultural reasons, do not want a warrior-king, or at least we don’t want Jesus to be one (we must admit that we often ask our earthly political leaders to fill in the vacuum left by our ‘casting out’ of Jesus from this place; Lord, forgive us): Jesus the tame Messiah is a Messiah that cannot truly marshal us to a war that, like all wars, may require our death. Let us pause for one moment, though, and see if this might be wrong after all. First off, we have the exorcisms and the healings: times where Jesus asserts, in very vigorous terms, his authority as rightful king over all God has created. The claims that Death and Satan have exerted over the human race since Adam are shown up for what they are: illusions of grandeur that God Himself has come to disabused them of. Secondly, the cost of discipleship is our own daily death: Jesus says in Mark 8 “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (vs. 34-35). Jesus is the prophesied warrior-king, but James and John, and, alas, we ourselves, have envisioned the wrong battle and the wrong enemy, and therefore the wrong weapons for the waging of this cosmic war.
The weapons, as the Apostle Paul tells us, are not ‘carnal,’ but are “mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). These are the strong weapons of compassion, of mercy, and of forgiveness that we see Christ wielding against the demons’ arsenal of arrogance, of hate, and of disunity. We are the devil’s captives when we do not forgive our brother, or even our enemy; rather, since he or she is a human just as we are, we must have compassion on them and forgive even if they do not seek it. As Jesus says in Mark 11, “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespassed. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (vs. 25-26). Forgiveness demolishes strongholds of the enemy in a way no amount of siege warfare ever could. This art of war, though, would require a new way to imagine and implement the chain of command.
Just like Joshua sent the twelve tribes into Israel to cast out the Canaanites, Jesus sends the twelve apostles. In Mark 6 we read: “He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits. He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bag, no bread, no copper in money belts – but to wear sandals, and not to put on two tunics…So they went out and preached that people should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them” (6:8-9, 12-13). Here we see that they have the same mission as Jesus, war against the demonic oppressors, but they do not go girded as warriors, but rather as those needing hospitality: no food, slight clothing, and no money. These commandoes are not what we, nor what Jesus’ contemporaries, expect. Rather than rough-and-tumble Marines, these are beggars. They would not have been considered to be anything more than the lowest of slaves. This is exactly what Jesus intended, as we see in our Gospel passage today. They already know by experience, even if it hasn’t yet set in cognitively, that the war will be waged in a different manner, with different weapons and different tactics. However, it seems to come as a complete surprise that the upshot of this is that those who would be greatest, the four-star generals, must be the slaves of all. There is no haughty and comfortable command post: rather those in the top ranks must be willing to sacrifice everything for Christ and for the sake of the salvation of the world. Jesus Himself, and this must have been shocking and distressing for the disciples, will take on this role, giving his life “as a ransom for many.”
A very old translation of Psalm 96:10 says, “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns from the tree.’” Justin Martyr and Augustine both understood this to mean that the locus of Jesus’ kingship, where the kingdom of God breaks into the world to judge it and heal it, is the Cross of Jesus Christ. Paul says much the same thing when he says concerning this wisdom of God revealed on the Cross, “none of the rulers of this rulers knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). The chief act of war, by which Christ brings the whole world into judgment so that it might be saved, is the Cross. For the world of Jesus’ day, and indeed ours, this is ultimate foolishness. The Cross is a defeat: Rome and Judea conspired, under the inspiration of the Serpent, to destroy this One who had released so many from oppression. As the mockers said at the crucifixion, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:31-32). Those ways, though, are the ways of the world, the ways of spiritual blindness, the ways that needed judgment, so that Light and Life could break out into the world through the Resurrection. Those are the ways of “those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles” who “lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.”
“Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.” Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, calls us to “take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Him.” We share His throne by sharing His Cross. We do this by confounding the wisdom of our day, which is the same as it was in Jesus’ day, since it springs from the same demonic source that asked our first mother, “Did God really say…?” That wisdom is of individualism, of exceptionalism, of materialism, of hating our neighbor because they are “the 47%” or “the rich” or the “welfare queens” or the “elite.” Rather, Jesus Christ calls us, this day, to follow Him to the Cross, to deny ourselves, to take up the “full armor of God” (Eph. 6), to tear down “every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God,” by showing compassion to all the oppressed, whether they are Jew or Roman, rich or poor, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, for all share the human nature of Jesus Christ, whose body is broken, whose blood is shed, so that we might live: for He is the Life of the World.
Let us, then, attend again to the words of God in Job and in Psalm 104: God is the high King over Creation, the One who ordered it and sets it right, in ways we can hardly comprehend. But it is not done as some raw show of power, nor is it done to “lord it over them” as the Gentile rulers do – the politicians and power-brokers of this world do not reveal the Father. Rather, the Son does, the Son who “gives his life as a ransom for many,” showing that truly, in the words of Psalm 145:8-9, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy. The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.” So, let us, who share in the throne of Christ, seated in the heavenly places, us who are the Body of Christ in the world, go forth in praise of God’s cruciform compassion, taking up our own crosses, denying ourselves, and following Him, so that the world might have life in the Name above all names, that of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has shattered the power of the enemy by His rule as a servant to all. Amen.