A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
October 21, 2012
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Most people want first place, but at youth camp, the desired award was “I’m Third,” given to the most Christ-like camper. I coveted one, but it was a tricky thing to get. It required that you put Christ first, neighbor second, yourself third, BUT you had to do so discreetly so not to seem like you were trying to win an award, because that would not be putting yourself last at all. You also had to be ever so slightly obvious, because in a sea full of teenagers, you were bound to be overlooked if your service was too quiet.
It was quite the challenge. You may not know, but I’m secretly and fiercely competitive. You thought winning first was hard? Ha! Trying winning third on purpose. The Lord blesses those with the bronze—at least, that’s the message I got. Be compassionate enough to put others first, but be good enough at compassion and you’ll earn a prize. Looking back, it was a terrible trick, offering to reward your behavior, but the only way to win the reward was to pretend like you were not trying to earn it.
So how do we win “I’m Third” without conniving to win it, without even wanting to win it? To win it would be right, but to want to win it would be wrong, which is quite dizzying to my inner drive. The competitors among us are hard pressed to come to terms with this “Christian” path of success.
Of course, I realize not everyone is a youth camp nerd and a religious geek like me. Some of you just don’t care if you win the t-shirt or make straight A’s or get stickers for your good behavior. I don’t understand that, but I acknowledge you relaxed people do exist.
I would be ashamed to admit my competitive nature if it weren’t for the fact that today I am in good company. James and John are my kind of men; I get them. I am them. They make sense to me. Which might explain my desire to use this sermon to defend their reputation.
You see, this week I was struck by a sort-of mock prayer composed by W.H. Auden, where he was trying to depict how religious longing plays out in the average human household. The prayer goes like this:
“O God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our Uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his home-work, introduce Muriel to a handsome navel officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves.”
I wondered, when it comes to religion, how many people would prefer the comfort of a doting Uncle to the disruption of a Heavenly Being, and how often do we pray as if a Divine Uncle is exactly what we have?
James and John are not nearly so trivial, and perhaps that should be commended. Their sights are set on heaven and their ambition runs high. Their request is serious and intense and quite religious: “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in glory.”
We are so used to faulting James and John for their selfishness, but which prayer is worse, the petty request or the pushy one? I mean, at least they aren’t asking Jesus for parking spaces at the mall or tickets to the game. They are onto to something bigger, more eternal, and more significant, that’s for sure. Are James and John prideful or merely passionate? It’s hard to say.
Jesus wants to cut right to the heart of their desire too, so he asks them point-blank, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with baptism I am baptized with?” In other words, can you put in the work, bear the suffering, live a life and die a death like mine?
James and John don’t even seem to hesitate. “We can,” they reply in unison, and I don’t know if it was an enthusiastic reply or a solemn one. Often James and John are cast as a bit idiotic and out of touch with reality here. I mean, they wouldn’t reply so readily if they knew what Jesus was really asking, right? If they knew he was referring to the cup of suffering and the baptism of the tomb, they would have balked, at least hesitated, right?
Maybe they were thinking of Jesus’ propensity for a glass of wine and his dunk in the Jordan with his cousin John. Sure thing! Sign us up! But I doubt that.
John, at least, is a sensitive guy and the both of them just heard Jesus talk about how he is going to be mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed. V. 32 is explicit that the disciples were astonished and many were afraid, and it is in this very context that James and John ask for a place of privilege in heaven.
Jesus tells them, “You don’t know what you are asking for,” and that’s the truth. They don’t. But I don’t think they were clueless buffoons either. They had heard Jesus talk about death, even if they didn’t quite understand, even if they were still convinced it couldn’t really end like that. Surely they had a sense of foreboding, whether because Jesus kept talking morbid talk or because they kept catching wind of threats from the religious leaders. They might not be clear about the coming crucifixion, but they definitely knew they were not safe.
So I imagine their answer, “We can!” to Jesus was a little like a rooky soldier who has yet to see the battlefield. His zeal is real, and he has heard stories of courage he’s desperate to emulate, but he’s got no idea what horror he is getting himself into. That’s doesn’t mean he’s a flake or fraud. It just means he is a novice, teetering on the brink of what-is-to-come, ready as he can be when he can never ever ever be ready enough.
In my mind, James and John weren’t exactly wrong for asking. They just weren’t exactly right either. A tad misinformed, a bit greedy for prestige, perhaps. But at least they asked. I recently heard Sue Monk Kidd say, “If you err, may it be for too much audacity, and not too little.”
Desire is good. The desire to excel is good. The desire for closeness with God is good. Without those desires, you’re likely to chill on the sidelines, content with an average life, half-asleep to what matters.
So it’s not about shutting down desire, but living into it and being purged. The only way to go is through the fire. If you dowse the fire instead—replacing ambition with false modesty, or settling in with apathy rather than wrestling with your longing, cowering in timidity rather than plunging in over your head—well, if you do that, you’re much worse off. Choose a blazing fire you can’t contain over embers that do nothing every time.
Jesus really never condemns the desire itself. He just warns them it will be costly, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with . . .Whoever wants to be great must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” This isn’t a youth camp trick. It’s more like a posted notice as you turn down the Jesus path:
Son of Man Trail:
WARNING: Follow this man with heart and with sincerity and you will turn into a servant.
You don’t try to mimic servanthood in order to follow him, in order to win discipleship points. You follow after him, and the road will change you. Doesn’t matter if your motives are mixed when you take the first steps, because you will absolutely paralyze yourself if you wait for everything to get put in order. Take the self you have and start walking. Listen to your spiritual urges. Be open to spiritual longing; feel the hunger and act on it. Don’t waste another good day waiting for perfect conditions, hoping to get your junk together enough to be a worthy disciple. James and John wanted to be told ahead of time they were going to end up worthy, but Jesus said, “Just come on,” and that was all they needed to hear. “Okay, we can.”
James and John will drink Jesus’ cup and they will share his baptism, and it won’t be something they had to go looking for. It will happen to them as they go. It won’t be quite as glorious as they imagined. It will hurt, it will burn, it will scar them for good. Even still, I bet that not for a second will they regret that they followed him with passion. By the time they are dying for this Gospel rather than being crowned with glory, they won’t be looking back on life as if they’d missed out. They’ll know instead, “I am one who has truly lived.”