We're Being Served, Or Are We?
The expression "you've been served" comes from the legal system. It's what a process server, on TV anyway, says when delivering a subpoena. "Being served" is a slang expression meaning you're losing badly, you're being embarrassed. "Being served" is a bad thing, a humbling thing. You're supposed to be indignant and that takes us right to the text. This is one of the two times the disciples are said to be indignant. Why? Because they're being served by the upstarts James and John.
If we blow by the Passion prediction Jesus makes in this text, like James, John, Mamma Zebedee, and the other disciples did, we too will think we're being served. But how can Jesus being betrayed to the chief priests and scribes, being condemned to death by them, being turned over to the Gentiles for mocking, flogging, and crucifying and His being raised on the third day be blown by? I don't know how but that's what they did because that's what Luke says. "They understood none of these things, and they did not grasp what was said." This leads to James and John wanting to be served and the others indignant about being served.
At predictable times, the argument breaks out among the disciples about which of them is the greatest. After Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the Mount of Transfiguration, the argument breaks out (Luke 9:46). In the upper room, Maundy Thursday where the order of seating says something about relative ranking it happens again (Lk. 22:24). And it happens here. Why here? Because they were going up to Jerusalem. Luke says this about Jesus' final trip to Jerusalem. "He was near Jerusalem, and they supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately."
Jesus is on His way to receive His kingdom and as yet there is no sign of their place in it. They're being served because they're being passed by. You can reach this same conclusion if you don't know why Jesus will be sentenced by the church and handed over to the State for crucifixion. You can only think you're being served if being a follower of Jesus is more about you than about Jesus.
Asking for the special places in Jesus' kingdom right after He has told you of being betrayed, brutalized, and crucified is what children do. Something bad has happened in the family. It could be a death, a bad diagnosis, a tragedy. You tell the kids and one of them says, "Does that mean we can't go to the park on Saturday." You might smile if it's a 5-year-old. You won't if it's a 15-year-old.
The disciples thought they were being served in a bad way because here they were coming to the climax of Jesus' ministry and where was their piece of the pie? Throngs we're travelling with Jesus. He was a Rockstar now. What do you think of Him now chief priests and scribes? And then Jesus drops the bomb that these will betray Him to their hated enemies, the Romans, with a death sentence. This doesn't make sense to them, but never mind about that now. What about us? Where is our place?
You can only hear Jesus' prediction as you being served, owned, bested, humiliated if you think you can do more than you can. You deserve more than Jesus says you're getting. If you think you can drink the cup that Jesus will drink, if you think you should be able to place yourself wherever you want in His kingdom, then Jesus isn't giving you your due. If you live under the law, in the realm of works, just deserts, earning rewards, and merits, then Jesus is dissing you who have followed Him for so many years.
"Getting what you deserve" is the larger context of our text. Right before our text is the Parable of the Workers of the Vineyard where those who worked all day got no more than the those who came to work at the 11th hour. And right before that the Rich Young Man came looking for heaven. Jesus told him the only way for him to enter was to sell all he had, give the money to the poor, and follow Him. The Rich Young Man wouldn't repent of having mammon as his god so went away sad. Right then Peter says, "Behold we have left all and followed you; what then will there be for us?"
Can you believe it? The apostles are focused on what's in it for me, but so do we. Or at least I do. What stands out to me in this text proves it. It's not the betraying, suffering, dying, or even Jesus' rising that stand out in this text. No, the last part does. "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave." Now, Jesus is speaking my language, the language of the Law. I understand this. If I do this, then this will happen. I can deserve to be great and first in His kingdom if I just follow the directions.
You only hear the text this way if you think you're being served in the bad way. But Jesus wants to serve you in a good way. He says that at the end. "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve." But no one is willing to be served by Jesus who thinks they have a right to a certain place in His kingdom or think it's a matter of earning one's place. So, the only way you can be served by this text is if you halt and catch fire.
"Halt and catch fire" is a computer command from the late 70s that when given directed the device to stop and do nothing. The 3rd Passion prediction, and remember it is the third, is meant to stop us in our tracks. It's the most detailed of the 3. It should obliterate our idea of greatness, firstness, service in God's kingdom.
The crowning moment of Jesus' ministry isn't the triumphant ride into Jerusalem where He is hailed as king and messiah. It's not when He lays flat the arresting party with just a word. It's when He suffering and dying miserably under all the things your conscience is afraid of, under all the things the Devil accuses you of, under all the things other people hold you responsible for. All that crushing weight is on Jesus. That's why He came. To give His life as a ransom, as payment for your sins and shame. Jesus reigns and rules over sinners from a cross. That's why Paul says, "We preach Christ and Him crucified," and says that celebrating Communion shows "the Lord's death till He come."
Halt. Stop how you're thinking and processing this text. Jesus tried to do that first with James and John and then with the 10. He asks James and John, "Can you drink the cup I'm going to drink?" You know the whole story. They don't but will. They will be there in the Upper Room when Jesus takes the cup and says, "Drink of it all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood." Jesus' cup is the cup of salvation, and they most certainly are served that cup in the upper room. How they must have rejoiced then.
But what do you suppose James and John thought when they hear Jesus praying 3 times in Gethsemane begging the Father to take a cup from Him? This is the cup of God's wrath, judgment, punishment for not only your many sins but the many sins of the world. Jesus will drink it all by Himself on the cross till He is finished and there is no more wrath, judgment, or punishment of God left to drink. Jesus serves us by drinking that cup dry. Are they glad when that cup doesn't pass from Jesus' lips to theirs? Are you?
What about the places on Jesus' left and right? Obviously, James and John and the other 10 thought those would be the best places in the world to serve and be served in a good way. What does John think when he gets to Calvary and sees as Matthew 27:38 records, "Two thieves were crucified with Jesus, one on His right and one on His left." Gulp. Those are the places the 2 upstart disciples asked for; those are the places the other 10 were indignant about them asking for.
Halt. Stop what you're processing; stop you're worrying, fearing, thinking. You're not being served by Jesus in a bad way when sickness, sorrow, pain, loss, disappointment flood your life. He came into this world to serve you by draining any dregs of punishment, guilt, or sin away from all of these. He came to serve you His cup of salvation, and win you the place His Father has picked out for you in His kingdom. Right where you are is the place Jesus would serve you and have you serve.
"Halt" is the first part of the computer command and "catch fire" is the second. I don't know how that works out in the realm of computers, but I do know how it works out in the realm of theology. Jesus says one of the ways He would serve is to "cast fire on the earth." He is the only One who can do it. He's the lightening rod on Calvary where the fire of God's wrath strikes repeatedly. And because He satisfied God's wrath against the world's sins His being raised from the dead proves that He can serve us by casting the fire of the Spirit on the earth at Pentecost. If we're going to catch fire at all, God must start it.
What throws us all off is where we all go to in this text. The part we hear the loudest. The part where Jesus says "whoever wants to become great among you must be servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave." Do you honestly think Jesus wants you to have the ambition to be great and first? Those are the ambitions that surface if you think you're being served; that you deserve better. But ask yourself: is it even possible for more than one person to be servant and slave of everyone else? If you're my slave and servant, I can't be yours.
Only One person can be servant/slave of all and that is Jesus. And being served by Jesus is a great life; it puts me in first place in His kingdom. Now that certainly makes me free to serve others, but that's not the main point here. The main point is that our greatness and place in the kingdom is secured by Jesus serving us. If you try to serve others without that Gospel burning first and greatest in your heart, you'll end up thinking in an indignant way you're being served. And no one likes that, and it's doubly sad when it's not true. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (20170326); Matthew 20: 17-28 aHalHaALjds;lfkjas