Sermon 11-14-21: “Whoever Would Be Great Among You”

November 22, 2021

Scripture: Mark 10:32-45

I’ve been to Israel on two “Holy Land” tours over the years. One item on the itinerary each time, which isn’t, strictly speaking, related to the Bible, was a tour of the ruins of Masada. Masada was a mountain fortress on the southern coast of the Dead Sea, which Herod the Great built about 30 years before Jesus was born. After Rome invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in the year 70, Jewish rebels fled to Masada… where they fought the Romans off—bravely, valiantly—from atop that mountain perch, for many months. 

But they couldn’t hold them off forever. And the Romans slowly but surely advanced up the mountain. Until literally, the night before the Romans reached them, nearly all one-thousand men, women, children committed suicide… Almost like Jonestown, if you remember that from the ’70s!

And why did they do this? According to the few survivors who lived to tell the story, because they’d rather die in freedom than live in slavery…

And to this day, as part of basic training, Israeli soldiers go to the top of this mountain and recite this motto: “No more Masadas!” In other words, Israel never wants to be put in a position again in which they have to choose between death or slavery.

And if that stirs your heart—as it stirs the hearts of all of us tourists who’ve been to Masada—then we can probably relate far more easily to James and John in today’s scripture… and their lust for glory, and their sinful pride, than we can relate to Jesus. Two weeks ago, in my last sermon, I talked a lot about glory. Today I want to focus on the sin that motivates us to desire glory, the sin of pride.

Look at verse 35. They tell Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” That’s rather bold, wouldn’t you say? If Jesus were like us, he might shoot back, “You want to try that again?” But not Jesus. He doesn’t even tell them no. Instead, he says, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they say to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” There’s a Yiddish word that perfectly describes the boldness of their request… chutzpah. The classic example of chutzpah is the child who murders his parents and, before the judge pronounces the sentence, the child says, “Your honor, please have mercy on me. After all, I’m an orphan!”

That’s chutzpah… What James and John are asking Jesus takes chutzpah. It’s audacious… It’s shameless… It’s completely inappropriate… especially considering what Jesus has just been talking about! He’s been talking about going to Jerusalem, being arrested, put on trial, mocked, spit upon, flogged, crucified, and resurrected. But James and John weren’t listening… Or as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, what they heard Jesus say was something like this: “It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to come out on top.”1 In other words, they believed that Jesus the Messiah, like some great military leader, was going to wage some kind of earthly war against the Romans, and he was going to win. And after he won and sat on his throne, James and John wanted to sit on his right and left—to be his number two and number three… like, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense… Not, you know, Secretary of the Interior or Secretary of Labor…

They wanted earthly glory—like I talked about a couple of weeks ago. 

And you can hear the sinful pride in their request. The other ten disciples are angry with James and John, but let’s not kid ourselves: they’re mostly angry, not because of the brothers’ audacious and sinful pride, but because James and John thought of asking Jesus first. No fair! 

Maybe we’re not so different? Or at least I’m not!

In my first job out of college, I worked in large-system sales with AT&T. I was assigned a mentor, named Alec, a very successful salesman. Alec had won all kinds of awards in his career; he had been flown all over the world on exotic vacations at the company’s expense. He told me more than once that he wasn’t motivated by money, although he had plenty of it. “I’m motivated by recognition,” he said. “That’s what I crave more than anything. That’s what fills up my tank.”

And I came close to saying to him, “Well, in that case, I’ll be happy to tell you how great you are, if you’ll sign over to me your commission checks! Because I’m really in this for the money!”

But who was I kidding? I wasn’t in it for the money, either… not any more than Alec was! As I now see so clearly, I desperately wanted to be liked and respected and thought well of. People like us—like Alec and me—want to be praised and affirmed and recognized. We look for our self-worth in something or someone other than God and his Son Jesus. The problem is, whatever satisfaction we find in those things will be fleeting and temporary. We’ll never get enough romantic love or attention, or money or success, or praise, or recognition—or anything else—to make us feel good about ourselves! Not as long as what gets us out of bed in the morning are things like romantic love, attention, money, success, praise, and recognition!

See what I mean? It’s like each one of us has a tank that needs to be filled up with fuel—and our tank is meant for gasoline, but we put diesel in it instead. Our car won’t run that way! I saw a team do this on the Amazing Race, by the way, when they were racing across Europe.

But here’s a great example of this sin of pride that I’m talking about… Isaiah chapter 39 describes Judah’s King Hezekiah. He was considered a “righteous” king, even though he’s badly flawed. He’s the king who stood up to the mighty army of the Assyrian empire. And then, when some ambassadors from Babylon pay him a visit and shower him with praise, he gives away state secrets to them—intelligence that will later motivate the Babylonians to conquer Judah. 

So do you get the picture? This man who stood firm in the face of the world’s superpower, with their large, intimidating army, melted in the face of mere words… in the face of flattery.

Why? Because of pride.

To make matters even worse, when the prophet Isaiah comes to him to pronounce judgment on the king for his foolishness—to tell him that in the distant future God was going to punish him and take away the kingdom from his descendants and conquer Judah and send his people into exile in Babylon, He tells Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” Why is it good? Because he thought, ‘At least there will be peace and security for the rest of my life.’”2 Just so long as it doesn’t happen during my reign, I’m okay! At least no one’s going to blame me. No one will judge me for this terrible mistake. It won’t make me look bad! It won’t diminish my glory! As far as everyone else is concerned, I’ll still be the hero!

That’s what Hezekiah was thinking! Because of his pride!

Because the fuel that filled up his tank every day—what got him out of bed in the morning—wasn’t his sincere desire to love and obey the Lord; it was his desire to achieve glory… which is the same thing that James and John wanted. It’s the same thing I wanted when I worked at AT&T!

To say the least, Jesus wants something else for himself… for James and John… and for us disciples today. Let’s look at those in order.

First, what did Jesus want for himself? 

Well, the answer has something to do with what Jesus says in verse 38. After James and John ask to sit at his right and left hand, Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 

What is Jesus talking about? 

First, 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.3 Here, Jesus says, he’s going to drink of God’s wrath instead of these nations. This is what Jesus himself refers to in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asks his Father, if possible, to “remove this cup from me. But not my will but yours be done.” 

When he talks about his “baptism,” he means the baptism as in his death and burial. 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.”4

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!

Jesus refers to paying this debt in verse 45 when he says he came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” Today we only think of “ransom” when someone gets kidnapped. In Jesus day, however, it referred to the price you had to pay in order to set a slave free. “This ransom payment represents the total value of the debt that the slave owes.” 

In the same way, on the cross, Jesus, who is God, God the Son, paid the total value of the debt that we owed to God the Father because of our sins. This is called the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and it has always been the primary way that Christians have understood what God did for us on the cross. Because of our sins, we owe a debt to God that only God can pay. So God, because he loves us, becomes human and pays that debt for us!

Only in our day and age have many people, including many Christians, had a hard time with this doctrine of substitutionary atonement. 

Not long ago, for instance, 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 the hymn, 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 what Jesus says in today’s scripture about the “cup” and the “ransom.” 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 been perfectly true, as well: because in the cross God’s perfect love and God’s perfect justice meet. And both love and justice are demonstrated perfectly.

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! 

But I don’t mean offense to Presbyterians… In general, we contemporary Americans mostly don’t like the idea of God having wrath, or anger, toward sin. But what’s the alternative? As pastor Tim Keller says,

When you see people who are harmed or abused, you get mad. If you see people abusing themselves, you get mad at them out of love… If you see people destroying themselves or destroying other people and you don’t get mad, it’s because you don’t care… The more loving you are, the more ferociously angry you will be at whatever harms your beloved.5

So yes, God has justifiable anger toward sin, but this anger is not in spite of God’s love; it’s because of his love!

Because God loves us, God must punish sin. And… because God loves us, God comes to us in the flesh, in the person of his Son Jesus, to suffer that punishment for us—so that we will be spared that punishment and be forgiven, and have eternal life, and be adopted into God’s family through faith in Christ.

That’s the heart of the gospel… and it’s what Jesus refers to when he says that he’s giving his life as a ransom for many! That “many” includes me and you—if we’ve believed in Christ as our Savior and Lord! Amen?

Needless to say, of course, James and John didn’t understand any of this yet. They didn’t understand yet that when Jesus dies on the cross, that will be the moment of his greatest glory.

So when they ask Jesus to sit on his right and left when he comes in his glory, they don’t understand yet that the positions on his right and left are already occupied—by a couple of criminals, whoare being crucified on either side of him!

But notice verse 39: Jesus says that James and John will ultimately drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism! Baptism here doesn’t refer to a Christian believer’s baptism. He’s using a figure of speech to refer to a complete “immersion” into an experience of suffering. So James’s “cup and baptism” are described in Acts 12 when he King Herod has him executed… when James become the very first of Jesus’ twelve apostles to be martyred for the faith. 

John, by contrast, is likely the only apostle who doesn’t get martyred. Instead, John’s “cup and baptism” refer to John’s being persecuted, tortured, and eventually exiled to the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation late in his long life.

But they still had learn how to live their lives with the kind of humility that Jesus describes here.

Remember how I began this sermon? “No more Masadas”… “I’d rather die than be a slave.” 

Imagine how strange it must have sounded to James and John when Jesus said, in verses 43 and 44, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”

We have to be slaves, Lord? But we want glory, not slavery!

I’m sure James and John were thinking something like that when Jesus first spoke these words! 

But later in their life, by the time they drank this cup and experienced this baptism—by the time that happened they had learned… they had learned—however imperfectly and not without sin—but they had learned to lay down their pride, to lay down their selfish ambition, to lay down their lust for glory… they had learned to become great by becoming a servant… they had learned to finish first by being a slave to all.

Be honest: When I talked about the brothers’ “cup and baptism” a moment ago—when I said that one was martyred and the other was exiled—did you think, “Oh, that’s so sad… that’s so tragic!”

I’m tempted to think that every time I read this…

But if you’ve heard me preach long enough, you know that I don’t think this is sad and tragic! What would have been sad and tragic for James and John is if Jesus would have answered their original prayer by actually giving them the earthly glory they so badly wanted… It would have been sad and tragic if Jesus had let them settle for something as paltry and cheap and unsatisfying as earthly glory… 

No, Jesus answered their prayer by giving them something far, far better, infinitely better, than mere earthly glory or any other earthly treasure!

Because in between today’s scripture and the end of their lives—through the many years of sanctifying them, even through the trials and suffering that they experienced—Christ was putting to death all those sins that prevented them from doing what Jesus says his disciples must do… in verses 43 and 44.

See, the world, the flesh, and the devil present us with a false choice when it comes to being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ… 

They tell us something like this: “You have a choice… You can do one of two things. You can go out and live for yourself, and enjoy life, and enjoy personal glory, and enjoy personal freedom… and enjoy money and earthly possessions… and enjoy the American Dream… Have fun! Be happy! And there’s probably not a ‘hell,’ right? There probably aren’t eternal consequences for what we do here on earth, are there? God doesn’t care that much about sin, does he? He loves you, after all. So why don’t go ahead and make the right choice. 

Otherwise… by all means, you can follow Jesus instead… you can do what he says here and… live like a servant… live like a slave… and suffer a lot… and sacrifice a lot… maybe even sacrifice your life, if he calls you to… but even if he doesn’t, you’ll still be miserable most of the time… you’ll still be unhappy most of the time… Is that what you want? And you say, ‘But when I die I’ll go to heaven,’ but come one… you’ll probably get heaven anyway! Because God doesn’t care about sin. So isn’t it worth the gamble?”

So the choice is, “Be happy!” or “Be a faithful follower of Jesus!” And the world, the flesh, and the devil say you can’t do both! 

But that’s a false choice! Don’t believe it for a moment!

Jesus is not telling us to put our happiness on hold for 50 years or so while we do all these difficult things Jesus tells us to do… Instead, he’s telling us that there’s simply no other way to find lasting happiness in life… to find contentment in life… to find satisfaction in life… to find joy in life… at least until we learn to live in the way he describes in verses 33 and 34! And when we become Christians we don’t start out with the ability to live that way, but he gives us his Holy Spirit to change us into the kinds of people who are able to live that way… so long as we continue to trust in him, and seek his will, and submit to him, and surrender to him!

You want to be happy… Here’s the only way, Jesus says.

But I get it! Earlier I mentioned my experience at AT&T chasing after personal glory… chasing after recognition… awards… trophies… accolades… money… I wasn’t happy doing that! And even if I had achieved whatever ambitious dreams I had for myself back then—a big if—I wouldn’t be happy now! Not in a way that lasts!

Now please don’t misunderstand… We don’t follow Jesus in order to be happy… But let’s be clear: the Bible says being happy in a lasting way apart from Christ is impossible…

Which is precisely what Ole Anthony discovered. 

You probably don’t know the name. Ole Anthony was the pastor of a church of about 50 people who lived together in a slum in East Dallas. Anthony died at age 82 last April. His obituary in the New York Times said that he was a lapsed Lutheran before having what he called his “Road to Damascus” moment on January 17, 1972—after a British missionary talked to him about self-denial—“death to self”— as the only way to God. “I was an atheist one day and a sold-out believer the next,” he said in a 2013 interview.6 He immediately gave up a highly lucrative career as a hard-nosed political consultant. He started a church—which was a combination soup kitchen, homeless shelter, halfway house, rehab center, and monastery. 

Oddly enough, his church even kept a few private investigators on the payroll, too. 

You see, another part of the church’s ministry was to investigate and expose greedy and corrupt televangelism ministries, many of which were, for some reason, based out of Dallas. Back in the ’80s, Anthony’s ministry was responsible for bringing down the $80 million empire of Robert Tilton, among others. 

But that was just a small part of Ole Anthony’s ministry—he was mostly all about Jesus!

But I first heard of Anthony when the New Yorker magazine profiled him back in 2004… and I love this quote: “I own nothing, I have nothing, and I make fifty-five dollars a week. I’m sixty-six years old, and I have no privacy and no retirement plan. I am a blithering idiot by my own definition… The mystery is, this place satisfies every desire of my heart.”7

“I’m a blithering idiot by own definition… The mystery is, this place satisfies every desire of my heart.”

That’s what I want, don’t you? To find in Jesus Christ that he can satisfy every desire of my heart. 

The good news is, that’s what our Lord wants for you and me, too. And he’s showing us the way… 

  1. Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 140.
  2. Paraphrase of Isaiah 39:8
  3. Jeremiah 25:15-17
  4. Isaiah 53:5, 6b
  5. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 71.
  6. Clay Risen, “Ole Anthony, Scourge of Televangelists, Dies at 82,” nytimes.com, 27 April 2021. Accessed 12 November 2021.
  7. Burkhard Bilger, “God Doesn’t Need Ole Anthony,” New Yorker, 28 November 2004.

2 Responses to “Sermon 11-14-21: “Whoever Would Be Great Among You””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Generally speaking I am in agreement. I note, though, that we SHOULD be seeking glory from God (as opposed to from men). “To those who by persistence in doing good seek GLORY, HONOR and immortality, he will give eternal life.” Romans 2:7 (also v. 10). We long to hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”! See also Matthew 6:4, 6, & 18. So, seeking glory is not inherently wrong–it’s just that we want it from God for our faithful obedience rather than some earthly crown or fame.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I mostly meant that we ENJOY God’s glory, not that he’d glorify us but that we’d enjoy glorifying us.


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