SERMON – Give Us the Glory

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it might look something like this.

SERMON Lectionary 28 / 20th Sunday After Pentecost 2015 (Year B)

  • Isaiah 53:4–12
  • Psalm 91:9–16
  • Hebrews 5:1–10
  • Mark 10:35–45

The disciples of Jesus didn’t get it. They didn’t get Jesus. They didn’t really understand who he was or why he had come or what he had come for. I’m not sure, half the time, they were really listening.

And so, in a bit that should have been part of our reading today, left out of both last week’s and this week’s gospel passages, is Jesus, telling his disciples what they are actually going to Jerusalem for:

32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:32–34 ESV)

Mark is the shortest of our gospels, but this little bit has some fascinating details. Jesus walked ahead of his disciples, they were amazed, and following Jesus, they were afraid. All this before Jesus describes the awful things that are about to happen to him — betrayal, arrest, condemnation, humiliation, death.

Yes, three days later, Jesus tells his amazed and frightened disciples he will rise again. Not dead. Very, very, not dead.

And how do James and John respond to this?

Give us a place of honor at your side, in your glory.

Glory. They want glory. Literally, here, they want the attention, the honor, they want the eyes of all the world upon them, thinking those eyes are on Jesus. They want to share in the light that shines upon Jesus, their teacher and friend. They want to be part of it.

Now, maybe they think this walk to Jerusalem is about a kingdom that will look and smell and taste and be like Rome. Power that can do what it wants, when it wants, where it wants, how it wants. Power that knows little restraint upon passion or desire or avarice. Perhaps they think this kingdom is like that, and whatever power is coming to Jesus, they want a share of that.

Well, who wouldn’t?

There’s nothing in the passage, though, that suggests they think that way. I like to think sometimes that the disciples were good, earnest revolutionaries on their way to Jerusalem to seize power, ends the Roman occupation, and create what they truly believed was the kingdom of God, but honestly, we don’t know what was in their minds. Perhaps all that is happening here is callow ignorance and boasting, like Peter, who will later swear that he will never leave Jesus when the Lord described how he will be abandoned by all who follow him. Maybe they are humoring the boss, or sucking up, or maybe they think that whatever is coming, they really, truly, honestly want part of it too.

But they don’t really understand Jesus. They have no idea what they are asking for. They will know, eventually, after Jesus is dead, and risen, and ascended. They will know. But not that day. Not on that road.

Can you drink the cup that I drink? Jesus asks.

A cup. Jesus will later gather with his disciples, in what must have struck them as a weird and terrifying meal, break bread with them, and pass it around. “This is my body,” he tells them. He then takes a cup, he gives thanks, and he passes it around. “This is my blood,” he says.

Later that evening, as Jesus struggles with what is about to happen, what he has time and again told his disciples will come to pass, he will pray in the garden of Gethsemane to the Father to “remove this cup from me.”

This cup. The cup that Jesus drinks. That he shares. The cup he asks — no, he pleads — with the father to take away.

[Pause]

Jeremiah speaks, in chapter 25, of something called “the cup of the wine of wrath.” God tells the prophet to give this cup to all of the nations I am sending you — beginning with the Kingdom of Judah — and make them drink of this cup. And when they drink, God tells Jeremiah, all of these nations shall “stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.”

The sword. War. War without mercy, without limit, without pity is coming, and it will begin with Jerusalem, which will become a desolation and wasteland. And then it will seep outward, to Egypt, to Moab, to Edom, to the Philistines, to the rest of Israel’s neighbors, and eventually, to the north and the south, far and near, and all of the kings of the earth shall drink of this cup, ending with the King of Babylon — the Rome of Jeremiah’s time.

Then Jeremiah writes:

“Then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Drink, be drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more, because of the sword that I am sending among you.” (Jeremiah 25:27 ESV)

The cup of the wrath of God, full to overflowing, filled with war and violence and fear and death. No one with any sense would take that cup and drink it. Not gladly. Not happily. Only in fear and trembling. And even then, not if you absolutely had to. I’d refuse it if I could.

And God knows this. Which is why he tells Jeremiah:

28 “And if they refuse to accept the cup from your hand to drink, then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: You must drink! 29 For behold, I begin to work disaster at the city that is called by my name, and shall you go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished, for I am summoning a sword against all the inhabitants of the earth, declares the Lord of hosts.” (Jeremiah 25:28–29 ESV)

What if this is the cup Jesus passes around the table, the cup Jesus begs the Father to take from him, so that he doesn’t have to drink it?

[Pause]

On that night when Jesus was betrayed, he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.

All of them.

All of us.

When we gather at this table, when we celebrate this supper, when we eat bread and drink wine, we think of reconciliation and forgiveness, of belonging and unity, of the grace and mercy and God, a self-sacrificing gift of salvation made in fear and trembling. But what if this bread, and this cup, is also the wrath of God, poured out upon the world, swords loosed against all who dwell on earth, a judgement upon us, for our sin, our violence, our desire for wealth, and power, and glory?

I have a confession to make. I’ve never been comfortable with saying that Jesus somehow takes the wrath of God for me, so I don’t have to. That Jesus dies for me. I don’t buy it. I don’t believe it. My eyes tell me a different story, one of sin and suffering and death. Everywhere. So much. If Jesus is busy dying for us, taking wrath in our place, drinking a cup that we cannot drink because it is too much to bear, then honestly, I don’t know what to do. Because we all still suffer. We all die.

We all drink that cup. Without even thinking about it.

I think it’s better — and a great deal more correct — to say Jesus lives and suffers and dies with us, drinks this cup with us. Does it first. Is out in the lead, amazing and terrifying us at the same time. And then he rises, defeating sin and death and showing us that the wrath of God looks more like resurrection than it does a rain of fiery stones from heaven.

Or a Babylonian army besieging the city. Or Roman legions laying waste.

In taking the wrath with us, and then rising on the third day, Jesus shows us that the wrath of God is not something to fear. It will not make us fall so that we will rise no more. We are free to live without fear of that wrath. Because it cannot leave us dead and desolate.

Jesus tells John and James, “That cup that I drink you will drink and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” They will drink — oh, will they drink. They will preach and teach and heal and raise from the dead. And like Jesus, they will suffer. And they will die.

And like Jesus, they will rise.

We will rise.

So as we gather at this table, take this cup, each and every one of you, and drink. Drink of the wrath of God, poured out upon the world. Drink also of the mercy of God, the promise of God, poured out for many. Drink of the life of God, given, so that we may live.

The Lectionary This Week: Tell Your Children

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Lectionary 22, the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

  • Deuteronomy 4:1-9
  • Psalm 15
  • James 1:17-27
  • Mark 7:1–23

Be doers of the word. For the sake of the world. That’s what both Deuteronomy and James are telling us this week.

The reading in Deuteronomy has God reminding Israel through Moses to remember what they had witnessed when some Israelites took to cavorting with Midianites and worshiping the Baal (lord) of Peor, and that those who are alive to hear Moses speak the words of God this day are those who held fast to their faith in Israel’s God. (This is all of Numbers 25, though it gets mentioned in Psalm 106 and Hosea 9, where it becomes part of the prophet’s general indictment of the northern kingdom.) God then tells Israel that this teaching has a value. Not just that Israel will prosper and inherit the land that God has promised, but that Israel will show the world what it means to have a teaching תורה torah, and have the Lord God as their God.

6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. ’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:6-8 ESV)

Here, we see what makes Israel a “great nation” (גוי גדול, or goy gidol) — it is not wealth, or military might, or the conquest and control of great territories and many subject peoples. It is the torah, this teaching, that makes Israel great. That makes Israel stand out from the peoples around it.

In fact, God goes so far to say that this teaching makes the peoples around Israel stand up and pay attention. This is true wisdom, they will say. These are a wise and understanding people, they will say. This teaching will inspire. It may even, as Isaiah 55 says, draw some to Israel, to become part of this covenant, to share in this teaching. This wisdom. This understanding.

But God is clear to Israel — don’t just teach these things, but remember them. Because Israel has witnessed them. “Your eyes have seen,” God tells Israel. So teach these things to your children, and their children, that you may not forget them. That you may not forget them.

I try not to watch video or even look at pictures of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Because I was there, and I want to remember what I saw — what I tasted and heard and felt. I don’t want those images, those memories, contaminated with media pictures, with the CNN feed, with what the world saw mediated on its television screens.

I was there. I saw and experienced that day with my own eyes.

But in order to remember that day, I need to bear witness to it — to tell my story. Again and again. In the telling, I remember what I saw. What I felt.

The same applies here. We are witnesses to the teaching of God, to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not because we were there, but because we have been told by people who have been told by people who have been told by people who were there. Who knew that that bear witness to a truth that they made real again in the telling. That’s what it means to witness. It’s not just watching, it’s telling. It’s both things. In telling the story, we make it real.

When I heard those words in my head on 9/11, “My love is all that matters,” I had no idea who spoke to me. I didn’t get an introduction like Saul did on the way to Damascus. I didn’t know quite who this was. It took meeting Jesus in the pages of the Gospel of John, meeting Jesus in the love of the people of Peace Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia, to know who it was who spoke to me. I am a witness to the risen Christ, but only because I speak of what I experienced. And what I experienced makes sense only in the light of what others — in this case, the Gospel writers — have witnessed.

James approaches this from another angle. While God says we will impress the neighbors as a people of wisdom and understanding thanks to the teaching, James tells us that we will love the most vulnerable in our midst and around us because of this teaching.

James also says there is no real hearing without doing. There is no watching without speaking. There is no bearing witness to the love of God without loving.

And that, I believe, is why Jesus tells us that what defiles (makes common in the Greek) is what comes out of us. His list of things — evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness — dovetails nicely with the things James warns against as well.

Now, it’s easy to take these as matters of personal piety, things one avoids in order to be right and stay right with God. But that’s not what’s at work here. This isn’t about piety. It’s about showing the world what wisdom and understanding look like, what real religion (ceremonial or ritual observance here in the Greek) looks like. It is concern for the most vulnerable. This is a constant theme, especially once the prophets began to call Israel out for its sin and faithlessness as the armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians loomed. It is part of the constant reminder that we don’t use or abuse others, or ourselves. We don’t treat each other, or ourselves, as objects for pleasure or profit.

Because we are not objects. We are not things.

This is a tough task. The world is all about things. We are in the world (κοσμος, the thing God so loves in John 3:16) but are to be untainted by it, by its wisdom and understanding, by its way of doing business. This means, at least here, visiting those most wounded by the world, those most at risk at being objectified and exploited, those least capable of succeeding in the world according to the world’s terms. For James, that was widows and orphans. (And in many ways, it is still true, especially for orphans.) For us, it is likely to be the poor, the broken, the cast off and discarded people, refugees, anyone subject to violence simply because they draw breath.

And we treat them not as objects, but as human beings, children of a living God who has created them, formed them, shaped them, made them. As beloved sisters and brothers.

In this strange way, we are to show the “great nations” around us what understanding and wisdom looks like. Whether the peoples around us will be impressed or not hardly matters. (We have God’s assurance some will be, and the evidence of our eyes that some aren’t.) And what it is to have a God who is so near to us that he became one of us, lived and breathed and ate and slept and laughed and cried with us. Suffered with us. Died with us.

And rose so we might rise.