In groups, kids always call, "I'm first!" First to get in the pool; first to go down the slide; first even to wash up for supper. When the boys were young, they would be called in from the backyard to wash. They would all yell "I'm first" and then have a debate over who really said it first. The third son never got to be first. I noticed after a little while that when they came racing in the two older boys would be shouting "I'm first," but the youngest was saying, "I'm second," and you know what? He always was second and never third because the two older boys were focused on first place only. That is the theme of our text: there's benefit and even blessing in being second.
Be second to suffer. I've seen this in the military. If there was something difficult or painful to do in training, it was better to be second. See what happened to the first guy. When it comes to suffering in life see that you are second. Someone has gone before you. It is true St. Paul says, "All that live godly in this life will suffer." "We are like sheep counted for slaughter." And, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of heaven." And our Lord says all of His followers must take up the cross, but remember you're second.
Jesus suffered first. Jesus took up His cross before you, long before you. Revelation says that Jesus was slain before the foundation of the world, so you are second by far. Secondly, Jesus was betrayed by His best friend, handed over by the church, and mocked, flogged, and crucified by the state "to give His life as a ransom for many." Jesus suffering was for sin at the hands of an angry God. You dare not look at your suffering that way no matter how long, how painful, how senseless it is to you. Only Jesus' suffering could've paid for sins because if your second place suffering could, it would mean Jesus' suffering didn't in the first place.
I'm second! To suffer, and to drink. In our text, Jesus predicts His suffering and being raised in glory on the third day. But the disciples hear only the glory, and James and John want to secure their places, one on the right and one on the left. Jesus asks, Can you drink of My cup? They say they can, and Jesus says they will, but as for being on His right and left, that is not for Him to give.
You know how the rest of this plays out. You know that James and John will be in the upper room when Jesus takes His cup and says, "Drink from it all of you. This cup is the New Testament in My blood shed for the remission of your sins." They will drink from it, and they are second to drink because Jesus says He drank first. He says, "I will not drink of the fruit of the vine again until I drink it anew in the kingdom of heaven."
Then these same two, along with Peter, are taken aside by Jesus in Gethsemane to watch Jesus suffer. They hear Jesus praying in such agony that He sweats great drops of blood. They hear Jesus crying and begging. They see Him so overwhelmed by approaching Death that an angel from God comes to strengthen Him. And somewhere in all this they hear Jesus pray and what they heard must've made their blood run cold: "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me." "Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from Me." "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from Me."
The cup, the cup, the cup. The cup of Jesus they were so confident they could drink from not even Jesus wants to drink from. It's the cup of God's wrath against a world's sins. It's every bitter thing you ever thought. It's every ugly word you've ever vomited from your mouth. It's every lewd, disgusting thing you've ever did. It's every black, puss-filled, unbelieving doubt, desire, or despair you've ever known. That's the cup.
That cup smells like curdled milk, rotten eggs, and sewer gas, yet James and John said, "Yeah, we can drink it." No, they couldn't and no they didn't, but Jesus did. He did because it was the will of His Father to do so, and the second part of Jesus' anguished prayer was "not My will but Thy will be done." Did it made any sense right then? Did James and John realize right then that while they drank from Jesus' cup at the Lord's Supper He's not offering them even a sip now?
Who knows? But surely it all came together when Pilate had nailed above Jesus' cross, "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews." Surely they finally realized where Jesus' kingdom was when the dying thief asked to be remembered in it. Surely they shuddered when they realized that the two positions they had boldly asked for in Jesus' kingdom were located on crosses: one on His left and one on His right.
Be second when it comes to the cup of Jesus too. Paul calls the cup of Jesus in the Lord's Supper, "The cup of blessing." This cup isn't filled with the roaches, worms, centipedes and filth of the world's sins. This cup is filled with the blood that came from Jesus body. This cup is not drunk to pay for sins as Jesus' cup was; this cup is drank because Jesus paid for sins and wants you to share His forgiveness.
Jesus doesn't want you to die with your sins on your soul. Jesus wants you to stop clinging to your sins, defending your sins, claiming that you can go on in them and still be a Christian. When you do that, you have in effect taken your sins out of the cup Jesus took in Gethsemane and drained on Calvary. Sins you defend, want to hold on to, want to keep doing aren't Jesus' sins but yours, and you'll have to answer for them. While Jesus finished paying for them on the cross, that has done you no good because you keep your sins in your pocket. You won't put them on the counter.
Don't die that way, and the only chance any of us has of not dying that way is if we die second not first. We all will die. I don't care what you think your life expectancy is it's no longer than God wills it. Jesus called the man a fool who thought that since he had lots of resources to live on he had lots of life to live. James says that those who confidently say they will do this or that tomorrow are boasting, and it is evil. He says, "You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." Moses prayed, "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom."
It is divine wisdom to know our days our but a handbreadth, our lives but breathe on a glass, our bodies no more enduring than dust in the wind. We are that fragile, frail, and finite. So the only way to deal with our death is to go second not first. Jesus went first. Jesus lived the life God requires of us: sin free, lust free, doubt free, guilt free. No individual could convict Him of doing wrong. That's why it was so unbelievable to the disciples that a friend would betray Him. The church couldn't convict Jesus of unbelief or false teaching; that's why it was so unbelievable that the church would hand Jesus over to the hated Romans. And the State couldn't convict Jesus of any crime; that's why it was so unbelievable that they would ridicule, torture, and crucify an innocent man.
Those first disciples didn't believe it but you do because you know that's what you deserve for the sins you call pets, the evil you say is just the way you are, and the unbelief you call opinion. See that Jesus willingly dies the death you deserve, to save you from dying that death yourself. Cast those pets, cast just the way you are, cast your opinions on Jesus. See your sins being mocked, flogged, and crucified on and in Jesus until He dies, so that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt your sins, all your sins, have been paid for and you are free from them. O you will still die but you won't die to pay for your sins. You won't die under the wrath or judgment of God. In dying behind Jesus, you will die well, forgiven, redeemed.
Be second to suffer, to drink, to die, and to serve. Most of the weight of this text is often put on Jesus' words about how the rulers of the Gentiles lord and exercise authority over their subjects and how Jesus says, "It shall not be so among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave." Then the sermon or Bible class devolves into how to serve others first.
First note this whole text is joined immediately to Jesus' prediction of His Passion by the word "then." Jesus ends the Passion prediction and the next words are, "Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus" and asked that her sons be given the best places in Jesus' kingdom. So the primary purpose of this text is not to teach you to be servants and slaves but to teach you what Jesus' Passion and resurrection mean for you.
What they mean is I'm second. Jesus words about serving and slaving others are linked, hitched, joined at the end of the text again to Jesus' Passion and death. "Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be your slave 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."
I don't know about you but I don't want to be great among you and I certainly don't want to be first; I want to be second. I want to be behind Jesus. I want Jesus serving me by washing my sins away in Baptism. I want Jesus serving me by sending my sins away in Absolution. I want Jesus serving me at the Communion table by putting His Body and Blood in me for forgiveness, for life, and for salvation.
And what happens when Jesus is in us? What happened to St. Paul happens to us, "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." And St. Paul also says that Christ in me is my hope of glory. My hope of glory is not my serving others but Jesus serving me. My hope of glory is not anything about me it's Jesus. Specifically it's Jesus suffering and dying for my sins and the Father raising Him from the dead for my forgiveness. We can't glide right over this like James and John did. This needs to be put in first place. Everything else is to be second, and that's fine with me because, "I'm second!" Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fourth Sunday in Lent (20110403); Matthew 20: 17-28