Matthew 20:17-28 Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” 20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. 23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 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.”
My dear friends in Christ,
Jesus’ followers didn’t get it. He had just told them that they were on their way to Jerusalem for the last time. There his enemies would arrest, condemn, and kill him. Was this another one of Jesus’ parables? Was he trying to teach them something? They didn’t understand the plan. They still had this idea that Jesus was here to lead a successful revolution and free the Jews from Roman rule. As they walked along, Joses (Matthew 27:56), the mother of James and John, came to Jesus. She treated him with tremendous honor and respect—as if he were a king. She came, bowed down to the ground, and presented her request. “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21 NIV). Mark's gospel adds that this was James and John’s idea. It was a good thought, or at least it seemed to be. If Jesus was going to be king, then someone needed to be his #1 and #2 men. Jesus had told them, “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7 NIV). It couldn't hurt to ask!
James and John believed that greatness in Jesus’ kingdom translated into a position of honor, power and wealth. Jesus was powerful enough to give them a throne, a villa in the countryside, and a private box at the coliseum. They wanted to be first in line for glory and greatness. Are we any different? Do we feel like being part of Jesus’ kingdom entitles us to glory and greatness? Do we crave a position of honor and power? Do we want to make lots of money? My answer to these questions is, "Yes, sometimes I do!" Sometimes I want to tell Jesus, "I've given up so many things for you. Don't I deserve a little more recognition?" I want Jesus’ kingdom to be about money and influence. I want his kingdom to include success at everything I do—sports, school, job, and relationships. Why do so many people who don't believe in Jesus have all these things and more, while it feels like I have so much less?
If that's our attitude, then we are just as guilty as James and John. “Lord, grant that one of us may sit at your right hand!” Our sinful nature says, "Recognize me! Praise me! Do what I say! Pay me!" Me? A servant? No way!
Jesus loved these two men despite their request. He replied, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22 NIV). Jesus knew what was in that cup. In Isaiah's prophecy, God calls the cup “the goblet of my wrath” (Isaiah 51:22 NIV). Ezekiel calls it “a cup large and deep; it will bring scorn and derision, for it holds so much… the cup of ruin and desolation” (23:32-33 NIV). God's wrath and anger over sin had filled this cup to overflowing. No one could drink from and live! Jesus even begged, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42 NIV). Jesus was prepared to drink the entire cup, large and deep. He would drink it to its bitter end if it would rescue us from God's wrath over our sins.
Jesus had already told his disciples what was in the cup. He said, “The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified” (Matthew 20:18-19 NIV). “Can you drink it?” Jesus asked. They answered, “We can!” They would drink from it, but they wouldn’t like it. When soldiers arrested Jesus in Gethsemane, the disciples sipped from that cup and ran away, terrified. Peter took a swig when he stood in the high priest's courtyard. When others called him a follower of Jesus, he stepped back and swore, "I don't know the man!" (Matthew 26:72). The taste of this cup was too bitter for him to swallow! They watched Jesus stagger to Calvary, heard his agony as he suffered and died. Not one of them wanted to drink from that cup, so they hid “with the doors locked for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19 NIV).
How about us? Can we drink from that cup? We can! We tell ourselves that we are better than the disciples. We wouldn’t make the same mistakes. We would follow Jesus no matter what. What about when the kids on the bus are making fun of you for being a “goody two shoes”? Will we follow Jesus when the professor at the front of the room is busy using foul language and making fun of every Christian virtue? What about when the sports schedule fills up over the weekend—are we willing to make Jesus the priority or shove him to the back shelf? Who me? A servant? That means sacrifice. That means putting God and everyone else before ourselves. Do we really want to drink that cup? I have to honestly say, “No, I don’t!”
Jesus knew that none of us could drink from that cup and survive so he willingly drank it for us. He said, “Me? A servant? That’s why I came.” “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NIV). Jesus didn't look for earthly honors. He was mocked and ridiculed throughout his ministry. Jesus didn’t come to have a position of power and authority. He told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV). Jesus didn’t have much money, in fact, he said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Jesus had nothing in the way of worldly power, prestige, or wealth. He made serving us his #1 priority. He gave up his heavenly throne, set aside his almighty power, and became the perfect Servant. God demanded death for our sins. Jesus paid it. He gave his life for every last person in the world. As Peter reflected on our Servant’s sacrifice, he wrote, “You were redeemed … with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19 NIV). Jesus paid for our sinful pride, our mixed-up priorities, and for everything we love instead of him. Jesus has forgiven all of our sins. He rose again, just as he promised his disciples, so we can be sure.
Me? A servant? Jesus teaches us to answer, “Yes!” He said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27 NIV). The first congregation I served was Christ the Lord in Houston, TX. I worked with Pastor Vilas Glaeske. He had founded the congregation and had been there over 30 years. I was assigned as his associate pastor. At our first meeting he told me, “Jon, I am your vicar. You are my bishop—my supervising pastor.” He taught me an important lesson from early on, the same lesson Jesus teaches us today. Being a servant begins with humility. We need to see the person sitting next to us as the greatest, most important person in God’s kingdom!
Being a servant to others also means sacrificing something for another person’s benefit. I think of my friend Avinash, who is now in heaven. Avinash was dying from skin cancer. He could have focused on the time he had left with his family. He could have asked for all his favorite books, or food, or movies. Instead, he asked all of his Hindu friends to come and visit. Avinash used his remaining strength to tell them what Jesus had done for them. His love sacrificed everything else for his friends. Avinash found greatness as a servant, rather than having to be the master.
Do you know what the dictionary definition of servant is? “A person in the service of another.” We aren't here to make Salem the greatest church in the Twin Cities. We aren’t here to churn out scholars who are super-prepared for high school. We aren’t here to make perfect people. We are in the service of our Lord and Savior. He called us to reach out to a world that is dying, desperately in need of Jesus’ love. We are here to bring the good news of forgiveness and eternal life. We are serving when we reach out to our neighbors, looking for someone who hasn’t heard what their Servant has done for them. We are serving when we listen patiently to their troubles and then share how Jesus is able to carry all of their burdens.
Serving includes using all our gifts and talents to benefit our families, our community and our nation. We serve Jesus and others when we faithfully get up each day and go to work. We serve when we help out at the community center or in the classroom. We serve when the house gets cleaned and the lunches get made. We serve when we get our homework done and check everything off our assignment sheets. We serve when we listen to the ideas of others, especially our single women and widows, so that their thoughts can be heard. We can serve wherever we are and whatever our job is. We can serve no matter how young or old we are. Jesus reminds us that we are truly great when we humbly, faithfully serve others and put them first.
We can't accomplish this by ourselves. We need God's help. There's a song that asks God for his help in a beautiful way. Here's how it goes: "Make me a servant, humble and meek; Lord, let me lift up those who are weak. And may the prayer of my heart always be: Make me a servant, make me a servant, Make me a servant today." Amen.
To God alone the glory!