Rejoice in Greatness
The Sundays in Lent take their names from the first word in their Latin Introits. Today it's Laetare "rejoice." Rejoice seems a funny theme for the penitential season of Lent, but this Sunday is mid-Lent. Historically, the rigors of Lent were relaxed today. In the 1500s the purple paraments for repentance gave way to rose colored ones to show this. Even so, our theme "Rejoice in Greatness" seems way out of place even on Laetare Sunday or any other Sunday, Lent or no Lent.
Really? Don't you know you're great already? Our text says so. It starts with Jesus' final, most detailed prediction of His impending Passion. Notice how Jesus takes the 12 aside to tell them it. He wants this to settle into their hearts and minds. The Son of Man will be, not might be, betrayed to the Church who will condemn Him to death. The Church will turn Him over to the Romans in order for them to mock, to flog, to crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised.
Luke in his account says the disciples "understood none of these things." You should. Listen carefully. Jesus begins by speaking of Himself in the third person, "The Son of Man will be" Now jump to the end of our text. Once more Jesus says, "The Son of Man came to give His life as a ransom for many." Jesus begins by telling them He is going to Jerusalem to give up His life; He ends by telling them what for as a ransom for many.
"For" is the Greek Word "in place of." Jesus will be betrayed to the Church and condemned to death by the Church "in place of" you. The State will mock, flog, and crucify Jesus "in place of" you. His life, all of it, the holy living, the cruel dying, the painful suffering is a ransom for your life. Hasn't that simple statement from Isaiah always gotten to you? "By His stripes we are healed." That's a summary statement for Isaiah. It's preceded by: "He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; on Him was the chastisement that brought us peace."
You see the Him-in place-of-you character? The holy Jesus, meek and mild is led up to Jerusalem by His Father, as a Lamb for slaughtering. He opens not His mouth in protest. Every insult He bears pays for an insult you gave. Every lash across His holy back wipes one sin off yours. Every tear that runs down His cheek, every drop of blood that flows from His veins helps to put out God's white hot wrath against you. Jesus is left bloody, beaten, and dead in place of you. He succeeds in ransoming you, buying you back from the sin that enslaved you, the death that stalked you, the Devil who tormented you.
Isn't that great? Aren't you great? Don't you have to be, or maybe I failed to make clear the Him-for-you nature of this? Then again you may be like the disciples unable, unwilling to understand any of these things. You have to be great to the Fathe because He gives up His Son instead of you. He can send you to the mocking, flogging, and crucifying or His Son. The Father chooses the Son to go. I wouldn't choose one of my kids in place of any of you, would you for me? But the Father gives up His one and only Son to ransom many. Why many? Because not all are saved. Some, many, most reject the payment. Though John says Jesus is the sacrifice for the sins of the world, not all the world thinks this is great.
You do. You're great already. You rejoice in this greatness until your religion gets in the way. Right after hearing how the Son of Man will suffer and die, the Mother of James and John comes worshipping Jesus. The insert says "kneeling down." It can mean that but it can also mean worshipping. Being one of the many isn't enough for her boys. Now remember this wasn't written for her or her sons. It was written for us. Is being one of the many enough greatness for you? Is the Father choosing you over His own Son enough? Or don't you get anything out of it? It doesn't interest you. It's "boring." Your worship, your religion has got to be something more than a suffering, dying, rising Jesus. Let's get practical here. Let's get useful here. Give me something that makes a difference in my day to day life.
If the bleeding, crying, dying, rising Jesus doesn't make a difference nothing ever will. If being eternally bought back from the sin that oppresses you, the Death that haunts you, and the Devil that torments you isn't enough, what on earth can be? But your religion tells you that there is a greatness beyond forgiveness, life, and salvation. What would be great is if Jesus going to the cross meant I never got sick and my problems were solved. What would be great is if it meant I reigned over my own life. How many self-help books one way or another have as their theme: How to Sit by Jesus' Side and Reign with Him.
Forgiveness, life, and salvation, being ransomed from the grave, from hell, from sin's dominion, aren't great enough. Neither is being in the kingdom. For 3 years now Jesus has told the disciples, the kingdom had come, but that's not enough greatness. There has got to be something more than this. Theres got to be something more than going with Jesus to Jerusalem and Him being betrayed, condemned, mocked, flogged, crucified, and raised. This can't be kingdom. It's got to be still coming. It can't have arrived yet. "Please Jesus, please, there's got be something greater than being given your Body for Bread and your Blood for Wine. There's got to be more to the kingdom than Word and Sacraments. There's got to be something more than your going to the cross, suffering, dying, and rising. Please give me that something more," we say with the mother of Zebedee's sons.
To slouch is to move slowly or reluctantly. Slouching toward Gomorrah is the title of a 1996 book by a former appeals court Judge, Robert Bork. He says the decadence of society "sends us slouching towards our new home, not Bethlehem but Gomorrah." Our text sends us slouching toward greatness in spite of ourselves.
Not being content with the eternal greatness of being disciples of the crucified Jesus, James and John are willing to do anything for more greatness. They confidently say they can drink the cup Jesus will drink. They are going to be in Gethsemane when Jesus will see the cup of God's wrath coming and beg Him to remove it. Just think if the path to greatness really did lay in drinking that cup? If Jesus didn't want to drink it and barely did, what chance would you or I have?
These two say they can and Jesus says they will drink from His cup, but it's not the cup of wrath they'll share with Jesus. No, that cup passes them by and us too. Jesus alone drinks the heavy, sickening, bitter cup of God's wrath, and what cup do we get? What cup did James and John get? The "cup of blessing." The cup containing the Blood of Jesus that He tells us is shed for the forgiveness of our sins. Here's the path of greatness: drinking deeply and frequently from the cup of blessing Jesus offers you.
Despite ourselves, despite our misunderstanding greatness, despite our not being content with the greatness we have in Jesus, Jesus doesn't deal with us according to our sins. Even though Jesus had just told them somberly and graphically of His approaching suffering and death, when they ask for more greatness than that, Jesus doesn't smack them. He tells them they don't know what they are asking. You think you do? When the greatness of being bodied and blooded to Jesus is not enough for you, when you're pleading for just one more thing, a different thing, a better thing, do you really think you know what you're asking for? James and John didn't and we don't either. Thankfully, therefore, God the Father, for Jesus' sake, answers better than we pray, and in doing so He sends us slouching toward greatness.
I know; I know; you can't see this in your case. Perhaps you can see it in James and John. Their request is to sit on the right and on the left in Jesus' kingdom. Aside from missing the fact that the kingdom isn't future but here and now, their request is quite natural. Their mother is Jesus' aunt. James and John are His cousins. He has already twice singled them out, along with Peter, for special duty. So if Jesus' is going to be king, wouldn't it be great to keep the rule in the family?
Skip ahead with me to Good Friday. Matthew reports this: "There were two thieves crucified with Jesus, one on the right hand, and another on the left." Here are the right and left hand places in the kingdom of a crucified King. Imagine if the Father hadn't planed this all out for them. John was at the cross, but James couldn't bear to be. Their mom was. Imagine if Jesus was like some demented Genie who gives you precisely what you asked for. There would be her two sons nailed to crosses, writhing in agony: one on the right and one on the left of Jesus. That would not be great.
Greatness is being at the foot of the cross where from the crucified Jesus water and blood flow mingled down washing away sins. Greatness is realizing that God put His Son on that cross, so I might stand here forgiven of my sins, free of the Devil, and far beyond Death.
We miss the greatness we have in, with, and under the crucified Jesus when we take this text as instructions for being great rather than about the greatness of being saved by Jesus. We slouch to this greatness because we're reluctant to go to the cross and receive all that is there for us. We're reluctant to go there and confess that we can't be the servant of all but Jesus certainly is as He hangs there serving Himself up for the sins of the world. We're reluctant to stand beneath the cross and confess that we can't be slaves of all but Jesus certainly is as He bears the punishment for everyone's enslavement to sin, Death and the Devil.
There in that font; here in these Words, and there on that altar is the One who tells you plainly that He came not to be served by you but to serve you. In the font He washes you; in the Absolution He forgives you; and at the altar He feeds you with Food not even angels dare eat. Isn't that great? And it certainly is humbling! Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (20080302); Matthew 20: 17-28