In today’s scripture, Jesus sheds light on the meaning of his death when he says he came not to serve, but to serve and to “give his life as a ransom for many.” What does it mean that Christ was our ransom for sin? The answer gets to the heart of what we mean when we talk about atonement: how the cross reconciles us to God. My prayer is that this sermon will help us fall in love with Jesus all over again.
Sermon Text: Mark 10:32-45
The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.
Tonight is Oscar night, which means all the biggest stars of Hollywood will turn out to walk the red carpet, and one of them will surely be actor Will Smith, one of the most successful leading men of all time. In an interview this month, Smith was talking about his biggest box office flop, a 2013 science fiction film called After Earth. No, I didn’t see it, either. The weekend after it opened—and he got word how disappointing the box office returns were—he was crushed. He had never failed like that before. But, after a 90-minute workout on his treadmill, he said he had an epiphany: He realized that he was trying to fill a hole in his life with worldly success. He said that for years he had strived to be a bigger star than anyone, and if he achieved that, then and only then would he would have the love his heart yearned for. But after this movie flopped, he realized how shallow this goal was.
So he realized something. He said, “Only love is going to fill that hole. You can’t win enough, you can’t have enough money, you can’t succeed enough. There is not enough. The only thing that will ever satiate that existential thirst is love.” On that day, he said, “I made the shift from wanting to be a winner to wanting to have the most powerful, deep, and beautiful relationships I could possibly have.”
In today’s scripture, James and John aren’t so different from Will Smith. They want glory and power and worldly success. They want to be on top. They want to be winners. And they thought that once Jesus became king—which they knew would happen soon—he could give them all that!
But Jesus said, in so many words, the rules of my kingdom don’t operate like other kingdoms. “I came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”
To give his life as a ransom for many. This gets at the heart of what the cross of Jesus Christ means. The Greek word translated as for, as in “ransom for others,” literally means “in place of,” “instead of,” “as a substitute for.” These days we only use the word “ransom” in relation to kidnapping. In Jesus’ day, someone paid a ransom to set a slave free. It was very expensive for the person paying the ransom—because you’d have to pay the value of that slave’s worth to the slaveholder. For the person paying the ransom, it was a huge sacrifice.
So in this verse, Christ speaks of his death as a substitutionary sacrifice for us and our sins. How will he pay for us to be set free? He says in v. 38: By drinking the cup and being baptized with his baptism. What is he talking about? The cup looks back to Jeremiah 25, where God tells Jeremiah that Israel and the other nations will be made to drink the cup of God’s wrath for their sin and be destroyed. Here, Jesus says, he’s going to drink of God’s wrath instead of these nations. When he talks about his “baptism,” he means baptism as in his burial and death. He’s going to die in our place. His words also look back to Isaiah 53: “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed… the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
We learned a camp song in youth group when I was a teenager that was so simple and yet so true. It went like this: “He paid a debt he did not owe/ I owed a debt I could not pay/ I needed someone to wash my sins away/ And now I sing a brighter song/ Amazing grace all day along/ Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.” Do you believe it? I do!
In our day and age, many people, including many Christians, have a hard time with the cross. Just a couple of years ago, the Presbyterian Church USA was updating its hymnal. And the committee in charge of updating it wanted to include the great contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone,” which, like the old hymns of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, is filled with rich, deep theological truth. So the Presbyterians were going to include it, except… They didn’t like one particular line: “’Til on that cross as Jesus died/ The wrath of God was satisfied.”
But these Presbyterians didn’t like the idea of God’s wrath being satisfied on the cross—even though it fits perfectly with Jesus’ words in today’s scripture—so they asked the songwriters if they could change the line from “the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified.” In fairness, that revision would be true, as well: because in the cross God’s perfect love and God’s perfect justice meet. But the songwriters wouldn’t budge on the issue—and neither would the Presbyterians. So this popular and theologically rich hymn is not in the new Presbyterian hymnal. Which is a shame! Not that I expect it will be in the next Methodist hymnal, either.
We contemporary Americans don’t like the idea of God having wrath, or anger, over sin. We want a God to not care about sin so much. We want a God who is tolerant toward it. But tolerance is another word for indifference. We can afford to tolerate people so long as their lives don’t affect our lives; so long as their lives don’t make any difference to our lives; so long as they don’t give us any reason to care about them. We want a God, in other words, who is indifferent toward sin—which is just another way of saying we want a God who is indifferent toward us.
If you don’t believe me, think about how you felt this week when you got word about those 21 Egyptian Christians who were beheaded by ISIS terrorists on a beach in Libya. Didn’t it make you angry? If it didn’t—if you just shrugged your shoulders and said, “This kind of evil is no big deal”—you would be the opposite of loving. You would be indifferent.
Fortunately, we have a God who has wrath toward our sin, which is another way of saying that God loves us. God’s wrath and God’s love belong together.
Not only that… While plenty of other ancient people understood “the gods” getting angry at us because of our sins and wanting to punish us, the major difference in Christianity is that in this case, God takes the punishment himself! God, remember, is a Trinity: three in one. It’s not that God sent this human victim named Jesus to pay the price for our sins: it’s that God came in the flesh, in Jesus, who is God, and received the punishment that our sins deserved. God the Son, Jesus Christ, takes our place… becomes our substitute. Suffers the punishment for us! What amazing love! That’s unheard of! It’s unthinkable!
But love—true, life-changing love—always requires substitutionary sacrifice.
Have you noticed how happy Keith and Susan McBrayer are these days? They have an extra spring in their step. Do you know why? It’s because Tracy and Laura are out of the house… all grown up… successful, productive members of society. Tracy’s got a great job in criminal justice—she just keeps getting promoted. Meanwhile, Laura’s got all these kids. Laura called me last week. I’m going to be baptizing the latest grandchild soon. Grandchildren are parents’ reward for not killing their teenagers!
The point is, you young people without kids don’t understand the sacrifice it takes to raise children! We parents have to basically put our lives on hold for 20 years in order to raise children. My kids are at the age where they all need to be different places—and none of them is old enough for a driver’s license. And sometimes I’ll complain out loud about having to haul my kids to school or sports or after-school programs or tae-kwon-do, and one of them, who’s very sarcastic, “Sorry you chose to have kids, Dad!”
But it’s a sacrifice. Early on, we parents sacrifice sleep. The baby wakes up in the middle of the night. Who’s going to get up and feed and change the baby? My strategy was to pretend like I was just a really heavy sleeper and didn’t hear the child… but still! It’s a sacrifice. For my birthday last week, Lisa got me a new stereo system for the first time in years. For the first time since… well, since we started having kids! Because financial priorities change when you have kids, and you can’t just go and buy a new stereo system anymore because you have to pay for diapers, for piano lessons, for braces, for Little League, for smartphones, for prom dresses…
Then there’s the time, the energy, the worry you invest in your children… We exchange our interests for our children’s interests… for a while that meant Lisa and I became very interested in American Girl, or Power Rangers, or Harry Potter. And we also talk on our children’s illnesses and problems and burdens upon ourselves… Someone said a parent can never be happier than their least happy child. Isn’t that true? We suffer when our children suffer. But we do so gladly, if doing so means their health and welfare and happiness. I’ve said this before, but when my first child was born, I knew immediately what it meant to want to lay down my life for someone—to step in front of a bullet, jump in front of a speeding locomotive, to fight off a hungry lion if necessary. What wouldn’t we do to save our kids?
The point is, all real, life-changing love is substitutionary sacrifice. If that’s true for us human parents, it’s also true for God our Father, who isn’t less loving than us human parents; only more so!
But you don’t even have to have kids to know this kind of sacrificial love. Once I was talking to a friend who told me how much he paid the veterinarian to perform a life-saving procedure on his dog—it was, like, thousands of dollars. We were at our house when he said it, and I looked over at our dog Neko and said, “You just better not get sick!”
You know how much you’re worth to God? Well, since it cost him his very life on the cross to save you, then you’re worth an infinite amount!
When I got saved, I was 14. The Lord took hold of my life in a powerful way: Like Wesley, I found my heart “strangely warmed.” I felt loved by God—because I had this powerful sense that Christ died for my sins, that my sins were forgiven, that I was a beloved child of God. So I felt loved by God, and and I felt in love with God. I was excited. I wanted to tell people about it. And I did… For a while. Then that enthusiasm began to fade. I knew God loved me, and forgave me, and saved me, but it was mostly up here, and not so much in here.
Then in church we would sometimes hear testimonies. From people who used to be drug addicts, or in prison, or on the streets, or alcoholics. And Jesus got hold of them—healed them in some dramatic way of their addictions and problems. And a part of me envied them because I thought, “Man, if I had a past like that… well, I would never forget for a moment how much the Lord had to do in order to forgive me, save me, heal me… I would never stop feeling grateful to God. I would never stop feeling in love with God for what he did for me.”
I love that God can rescue, save, and heal really messed up lives, but my life was just kind of normal. I was just a normal sinner who got saved. And so I easily forget about the cross, and I easily take for granted God’s saving grace. I easily forget that Jesus paid my ransom every bit as he paid the ransom for the junkie, the wino, the ex-con, the prostitute. What do I do to recover the “love I had at first,” as Jesus says in Revelation 2:4?
About 20 years ago, a psychologist named Dr. Aron conducted an experiment in which he made two complete strangers fall in love with one another—in a laboratory of all places. The experiment consisted of these two strangers asking one another a series of 36 questions. Questions of varying degrees of intimacy ranging from “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” to “When was the last time you cried?” to “Name five things you like about the person you’re talking to.” Then the experiment concluded with the two staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Six months later, the couple were married. I’m not kidding.
Maybe you’re skeptical? In an article that appeared last month in the New York Times, a writer named Mandy Len Catron duplicated Dr. Aron’s experiment with a total stranger and wrote about the results. She writes, “You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love. Well, we did. Although it’s hard to credit the study entirely (it may have happened anyway), the study did give us a way into a relationship that feels deliberate. We spent weeks in the intimate space we created that night, waiting to see what it could become. Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.”
My point in sharing this is that we usually think that love, especially romantic love, just happens and no one has any control over it. This writer is saying that even falling in love is a choice. It’s a choice we make by deliberately spending time with one another, creating an intimate space for one another.
Brothers and sisters, I believe we can choose to fall in love with the Lord in a similar way—by deliberately spending time with him. In prayer, every day. In reading and studying his Word. In worshiping and staying active in church. In receiving the gift of his grace in in the Lord’s Supper. In getting out there and serving in Jesus’ name. In witnessing for him.
That’s what the season of Lent should be about: learning to fall in love with Jesus more and more and more.
Are you choosing to fall in love with Jesus? If so, what wouldn’t you do for the One you love?
Would you be willing to follow in the footsteps of those 21 Egyptian Christians did who were beheaded by ISIS terrorists last weekend? What a powerful witness! While it’s unlikely that Jesus will ever call any of us to literally lay down our lives, he is calling us to take up our cross and follow him—wherever he leads. Will we follow?
The brother of two of those Christians was on an Arabic Christian TV station last week. He thanked his brothers’ killers for not editing out the last words they spoke before they died, which were to proclaim Jesus as Lord. Then the brother did something remarkable on this TV show… He prayed for his brothers’ killers: “Dear God, please open their eyes to be saved and to quit their ignorance and the wrong teachings they were taught.”
So, here we have a Christian praying that the men murdered two of his brothers would be saved.
What does it mean that this man is willing to work for the salvation for his enemies, when, too often, we’re not willing to work for the salvation of our friends… our neighbors… our co-workers… our family members? It doesn’t seem right, does it?
May the Holy Spirit give us the power to fall in love with Jesus all over again!
 Isaiah 53:5, 6b
 This insight comes by way of Timothy Keller, Jesus the King (New York: Riverhead Books, 2011), 154-8.
 Revelation 2:4