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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 21, 2012

 The Why of the Gospel

Job 38:1-7

Mark 10:35-45

             Donald Meichenbaum is listed by American Psychologist’s Journal as one of the ten most influential psychotherapists in our country.  He tells of the evening his car was struck by lightning while he was driving home.  Once he was safe at home, Meichenbaum began to share his ordeal with his teenage son, expecting at least some small degree of sympathy and concern.  Instead, his son interrupted, “Dad, let’s go buy a lottery ticket!  They say the chances of being hit by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.”

             Now I am not suggesting that James and John are every bit as self-absorbed as Meichenbaum’s teenage son when they come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  Jesus responds by asking what they want.  “Grant us to sit one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  After all, James and John are among those who left everything behind to follow Jesus.  And they have come to believe in Jesus enough to see that one day, in this life or in the next, Jesus will come to a place of glory.  To recognize this requires some freedom from self to see what is in another.  So please do not think that I want to throw James and John, the sons of Zebedee, under the bus completely in this message.

             There is much about the two of them that is admirable.  They did leave their lives behind when Jesus summoned them with the words, “Follow me.”  They followed Jesus for three intense, demanding years of their lives.  And behind their question to be granted by Jesus favored places “when He comes into His glory” implies that in spite of what Jesus has just told them, they still believe that one day Jesus will reign in glory.  This is no small amount of faith they express, and I want to commend them for it.

             This is, you may recall, the third time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus explicitly predicts His impending death.  Only Jesus is far more descriptive and detailed this time.  “The Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death … and they will mock Him, and spit upon Him, and scourge Him, and kill Him….”

             So what James and John want from Jesus is the assurance that there is something in it for them.  Jesus has just shared for the third time with His closest followers that He is going up to Jerusalem to die a terrible, violent, humiliating death.  These words had to be devastating ones for His followers to hear.  So James and John want to know if Jesus can give them some assurance that there will be some benefit in it all for them.

             New Testament scholar Don Juel said we all have Zebedee’s DNA in us.  We cannot help it.  We want to know what is in it for us.  We invest ourselves, give ourselves where we believe there will be a return on our investment.

             And here, with James and John, our self-seeking, self-absorbed ways are exposed, like we are looking in a mirror.  We cannot help it.  We always get back to ourselves.  “What is in it for me, Jesus?”

             Fortunately, this is a truth about us the Gospel already knows and affirms.  In the Clint Eastwood movie, Unforgiven, Clint’s young sidekick has just participated in the shooting and painful, prolonged death of another human being.  He is shaken by what he has just done, so he tries to reassure himself by saying, “He had it coming.”  He gets no comfort from Clint!  “We all have it coming,” he growls.

             This is a very Biblical notion of the human condition.  We are all held captive to sin and evil and death.  “If Thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquity, who could stand?” asks the Psalmist.  Paul said in Romans, “The good that I would I do not do, and I do the very thing I ought not to do….”  Paul was speaking for every last one of us.      We are all held captive by our own selfishness, sin and self-absorption.  We are all related to James and John.  And none of us can deliver ourselves from it.

             So Jesus comes “not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”  A ransom is a price paid when someone or some group is held captive and cannot act to free themselves.  Freedom can only be gained by some outside force or power that purchases it.

             In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales, the inhabitants of Narnia are under the power of the wicked Queen of Narnia, and they have no power of their own to free themselves.  They must wait for the mighty lion, the Christ figure, Aslan, to land.  So Lewis put it like this in his Narnia tales: “Aslan has landed.”  Aslan is there to pay a dear price to free the inhabitants of Narnia.

                       This is the idea of the Gospel when Jesus speaks of giving “His life as a ransom for many.”  Paul could say to the Corinthians, “You were bought with a price.”  Vincent Taylor calls this ransom saying by Jesus “a luminous hint” in the Gospel.  Peter picks up on this in the first chapter of his first letter: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ….”

             Jesus died to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.  But Jesus did not die so that we might be forever concerned about our own well-being, our own status and standing, our own security.  Jesus died so we might live, really live.

             Jesus said, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”  Jesus was speaking here of the Romans, who held all power over the Jews, and controlled them.  “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all.  For the Son of Man comes not to be served but to serve….”

             Jesus died so that we might live.  And the life He modeled for us, the only life that gives life, is the life which seeks to serve.  Albert Schweitzer said late in his life, “The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who learn to serve.”  Servant living is Jesus’ way.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.”  What is central to Jesus cannot be peripheral to us. 

             Yesterday we gathered in this place to bid farewell to Guv Pennington. Guv was baptized into this church by James I. Vance in 1929, when First Presbyterian Church was at the corner of Fifth and Church.  All his life he belonged to this church.  More importantly, all his life Guv belonged to Jesus, and sought to serve Jesus.  He was a storied physician … his patients loved him, and so did his colleagues.  There was a kindness and a gentleness in Guv that everyone who knew him experienced.  Guv was never about himself, or at least not in ways that I could see.  He was a servant all his days, and a giver wherever he was.  And that is why I am going to miss him so terribly.

             George MacDonald was one of C.S. Lewis’ mentors.  He wrote, “No indulgence of passion destroys the spiritual nature so much as respectable selfishness.”  He goes on to say, “The man who lives for himself and to himself is apt to be corrupted by the company he keeps.”  So let’s rid ourselves of “respectable selfishness” and allow Jesus’ life and Jesus’ example, Jesus’ words, His way to infect us.  Let’s allow Jesus’ call to service to become a contagion among us!  Let’s be easy, even fun people to live with and to work with for the simple reason that we have come “not to be served, but to serve.”

             I never tire of Saint Frances of Assisi’s prayer: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

                                                                                     Amen.

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