Whose Hands do you want the Ball in?
Are you watching any of college basketball's March Madness? When the game is close the discussion among the commentators is in whose hands will, should, can the ball be for that all important last shot. At the end of the day, at the end of your life, whose hands do you want the ball in?
Stars want the ball in their own hands. They say that in interviews. Most of the time it's not bragging, just fact. They are the best on the team: best shot, best under pressure, best ball handler. This is James and John in our text. I know our text prominently features their mother, but Mark has James and John alone coming to make the request that they be tops in Jesus' kingdom. This shows they took mom along because she was Mary's sister, Jesus' aunt. She was the Little League parent with an inside track to the coach needling him to do the right thing and put the ball in her son's hands.
Jesus Himself had in some sense shown James and John to be stars. They were cousins of His, among the first called, and singled out with Peter to be the only witnesses to the raising of Jairus' daughter and the Transfiguration. Of course, the ball should be in their hands in Jesus' kingdom, but Jesus says they didn't know what they were really asking.
This can be true even in athletes, especially young ones. They think the ball should be in their hands for that last shot, but when that moment arrives so does the pressure, the fear, and the responsibly. And it can be crushing. Jesus asks these two would be ball handlers, "Are you able to drink the cup which I am about to drink?" The "I" here is emphatic. And note Jesus doesn't ask if they are able to drink from the cup or a part of the cup but if they are able to drink the cup I am about to.
Cup in the majority of Old Testament is negative. It's the cup of judgment, of suffering, of God's wrath. And this is the cup that will be offered to Jesus in Gethsemane. This is the cup that even God in flesh and blood will ask the Father if it can pass Him by so that He not have to drink it. Not so star athletes James and John. They're drop dead certain they can drink it.
How about you? Do you want the ball of your life in your hands? Are you able to know what shot to take, take the shot, and make it? Come on. Answer. This is big deal. Do you want the ball of your salvation in your sweaty hands? Do you want the ball of what is going to happen tomorrow or even the next hour in your hands? Are you able to do what only God can do? That's the issue.
Okay, okay. I can't do what God can do, so I want the ball in God's hands. That's what players not stars want. They want the ball in the coach's hands. They don't want the prima donna to decide who gets the ball. They want the coach making that decision. This is how it should be in basketball, and in life there is no argument that God knows what's best; God should have the ball of life in His hands, but this can lead to an improper understanding of our text: i.e. God's got the ball, and Jesus outlines at the end of the text how you can be sure He decides to give it to you.
Isn't that what Jesus told the rest of the team when they got mad at star players, James and John, asking for the ball? Didn't Jesus tell them that the one who gets the ball in His kingdom is the one who is servant of all and if you really want to be first choice for getting it you have to be slave of all?
How's that working out for you? Are you on the road to greatness in Jesus' kingdom based on how much you've changed your bad behaviors or grown in the Christian faith? Do you think you have served others and slaved enough to be Jesus' number one go-to-guy in the clutch?
First off, do you really think Jesus is encouraging you to have the goal to be great among fellow Christians? Do you think Jesus really wants you to want to be first in line with all other Christians behind you? When you put it that starkly it's shocking. Jesus sounds like motivational guru Tony Robbins. "You can be the greatest! You can be number one in your field! You can be sure you always get the ball in the clutch." Actually, he sounds more like Dr. Wayne Dyer on PBS. He's soft spoken, genteel, giving off an air of superiority under the guise of humility. "No, no you're not like the rulers of the world; you don't lord your authority over others, you're a servant leader on your way to first place and greatness."
Both offer what James, John, and the others are looking for. A sure fire way for a great place, even first place in Jesus' kingdom that has nothing to do with His suffering, death, and resurrection. Remember that's where this text starts. Jesus gives the final prediction of His Passion. It's the most detailed. The first one had 22 words; the second 17; this one 35. Let the words sink in; the 12 sure didn't. Jesus will be betrayed to the rulers of the church who will condemn Him to death. Then the church will betray him to the Romans for the purpose of ridiculing, whipping, and crucifying. Oh, and on the 3rd day He will be raised.
This is like a coach before the big game telling his team he is about to be betrayed by the NCAA, condemned as a criminal, turned over to the state for torture and humiliation, and be put to death in a cruel way, but ultimately it would turn out alright. Could you only think about the last part? Could you blow by the majority about how your coach would suffer at the hands of authorities? Wouldn't you want to know details, want to know why? What would you think of 2 players stepping up after that and saying, "Can you be sure the ball is in our hands?" And what would you think of the rest of the team being more upset at those players' request than at what the coach had just said about his suffering and death?
The issue is in whose hands is the ball of your salvation, the ball of your life going to be. People, who consider themselves stars, capable and deserving, want it in theirs. More pious Christians want it in God's hands, but by nature they don't want it there God's way: by way of the cross, through Christ, as gift and grace. No, they want a way to be sure that God will give what they want. So Jesus tells them. "You want to ignore My betrayal, My humiliation, My whipping, and My crucifying. Fine, you can be great and first in My kingdom if you serve and be a slave to others."
If based on these requirements, you know there's no way the ball is ever getting into your hands, then you're ready to see that sinners need the ball of their eternal salvation or even their daily lives in the nail-pierced hands of God. That's the only safe place for the ball to be. God is the only one who knows when, where, and how the shots in the game of life should be taken.
Jesus tried to tell them this 3 times before His Passion happened, but They would not listen; they're not listening still and that's why Jesus preaches the Law. And then gives them the answer to the question they should have been asking. Not will You give us the ball? Or how come You just told those two they will drink from Your cup? But why is their coach about to be betrayed, rejected, ridiculed, whipped, and crucified? "To give His life as a ransom for many," Jesus answers.
It's Jesus' hands, and His alone that will take the cup of suffering, the cup of wrath filled to the brim because of the sins of humanity. It's filled with God's hot wrath against our sin of wanting to be first; it's filled with God's judgment against our sin of wanting to be great; and most of all it's filled with the suffering called for by your thinking you know who should get the ball of your life, when it should be shot, when it should be passed, and when it should be knocked out of bounds.
Stop! What on earth are you doing? You're about to put that cup to your lips. Are you crazy? That's not your cup; that's Jesus' cup. And He drank it all in your place. Yes, you deserve to drink it, but don't you dare. Jesus already drained it. That's why He can declare your sins of wanting to be first and great covered by baptismal waters. That's why Jesus has authority to send your sins away. Away He sends your sin of wanting to run your own life; away He sends your sin of trying to run your own life; away He sends your sin of thinking you're doing a pretty good job running your own life even when you're making a hash out of it. Jesus downing the cup of God's wrath means He has the authority to send those sins so far away from you that you never, ever have to think of them again.
That's what Jesus wants you to do, and I can prove it. He tells prideful James and John who are so spiritually ignorant, at least as ignorant as me, as to ask about their exaltation right after Jesus talks about His humiliation, He tells them while they won't drink His cup they will drink from His cup. The next cup mentioned in Matthew is the cup of the Lord's Supper. These two sinners and we sinners too hear Jesus say, "Drink of it all You. This cup is the Blood of My Promise to forgive your sins." They don't have to drink, and neither do you, from God's cup of suffering, wrath, and judgment. They may drink from the cup of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Though Jesus drinks the cup of wrath for all and offers the cup of salvation to all many not all benefit. Some insist on getting the ball in their own hands thinking that's the only way they can win the game of life. Sinners who know they have such sin-stained hands that the ball will surely squirt from them want the ball in the hands of the God whose hands were pierced through for them and bled into a cup for them so that they might drink from it and score. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (20140330); Matthew 20: 17-28