Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"SUCCESS FOR SAINTS IS MEASURED BY SERVICE."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
She’s a mother with whom we can much sympathize. Her family was well-to-do; note that Zebedee had been able to hire servants to work for his fishing company. James and John, as heirs of their father’s business, had a respectable future to look forward to; authority over others and a measure of comfort…. But Jesus of Nazareth had called these two sons to leave behind their father’s fishing enterprise and follow Him…. Money they didn’t earn, comfortable beds they could not use, people under them they did not have….
But listen, Jesus kept speaking about a kingdom He’d set up! Such a kingdom –of course!- requires ministers of the crown. Who should these ministers be? Mrs Zebedee was sure; this was something for her boys! One at the Lord’s right, the other at His left..., the one deputy Prime Minister and the other the national treasurer…; how fitting for the sons of a well-put businessman…. And look at the honor the rest of the family would get out of it.... Yes, we can understand the ambition of this mother. Nothing but the best for my boys....
Financial security, a comfortable home, a good reputation in society: it’s in each of us to desire it for our children. That, brothers and sisters, is why the Lord’s word in our text is so relevant for us, and so hard. Citizens of earthly kingdoms define success in terms of comfort and security, in terms of being served. But Jesus insists: "it shall not be so among you." Citizens of the kingdom of heaven define success in terms not of being served but in terms of service, of emptying oneself for the benefit of others. As Jesus Himself did….
I preach to you the word of God this morning using this theme:
SUCCESS FOR SAINTS IS MEASURED BY SERVICE.
How it’s not to be among Christians
The moment of crucifixion was approaching for the Lord. That is evident from vs 17, 18 & 19. So, while on His way to Jerusalem, Jesus took His disciples aside once more and told them plainly what would happen once they came to Jerusalem. "The Son of man", said He, "will be betrayed to the chief priests and scribes; and they will condemn Him to death." He would in fact be mocked, scourged, crucified.
This was now the third time that Jesus told them that He would die. Yet the disciples still did not understand what Jesus was saying. What to us is so clear –Christ would die on the cross and so, by defeating Satan and paying for sin, set up a heavenly kingdom- what is so clear to us was for these disciples so unclear. But let’s keep in mind, then, that the disciples stood before the cross and we after it. And let’s remember too that the Jews of Jesus’ days expected the Kingdom of heaven to come as an earthly kingdom, with the Messiah setting up his throne in Jerusalem, driving out the hated Romans and giving to Israel a time of peace and prosperity – as in the days of Solomon. That was the popular expectation, and the followers of Jesus accepted that particular understanding. That’s why all Jesus’ words about suffering and death were a riddle to them.
So it was that on the road to Jerusalem, after Jesus spoke again of His coming death by crucifixion, the minds of the disciples and the rest of Jesus’ followers circled again around an earthly kingdom. That is also why, immediately after Jesus made this statement, Mrs Zebedee and her sons James and John approached Jesus to ask for seats of honor in His kingdom. Jesus, so they thought, is on His way to Jerusalem, and so He surely will set up His kingdom soon and drive out the Romans. So there’s no time to waste; to prevent that there be a scramble for various offices in the kingdom once it comes, it is prudent to reserve specific portfolios ahead of time....
"Grant," says the proud mother, "that these two sons of mine may sit, one at Your right hand and the other at Your left, in Your kingdom" (vs 21). We note: from her question it’s evident that this mother has not understood at all what the nature of the kingdom of heaven is. She thinks in strictly earthly terms, she thinks of a hierarchy, with lords and servants, alphas and epsilons. And in that earthly kingdom, she wishes her sons to be lords and not servants. And think about it: we’d do the same….
But here, brothers and sisters, is displayed the selfishness present in every human heart. In the law given to Moses, the Lord had made plain to Israel that God’s people were to have leaders. Moses himself was a case in point. But that law made it equally clear that leaders were not to be lords. Moses is referred to as a man most meek, more humble than all who were on the face of the earth (Num 12:3). That’s to say: Moses did not use his position as leader of God’s people in order to benefit himself from this position; rather, he thought little of himself, he used his position to serve the people. In latter legislation, the Lord opened the way for Israel to have a king. But this king too was not be a despot who enriched himself at the expense of the nation; he was to serve. Hence the explicit command that a king was not to accumulate for himself silver and gold (Dt 17:17). In the same vein, the New Testament elder is to "shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers …, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock" (I Peter 5:2f).
But that no man was to lord it over another for the sake of personal gain was a rule restricted not to Israel’s rulers alone. It was the obligation of each Israelite to see to the welfare of the other. Lev 19 is clear on it. A farmer was not permitted to live for himself and pursue his own well-being; he was to be considerate to the less prosperous and so leave the borders of his field for the poor and the sojourner (vs9f). A businessman was not to keep back the wages he owed to his laborers; he had to pay speedily lest the poor servant end up hungry or cold. Justice was not to favor the more prosperous; the poor should have the same rights as the rest. All of it comes down to that one law: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (vs 18). No person in Israel was to live for himself, to pursue his personal comfort or security; each was to look after the interests of those around him. That structure of higher and lower, of lord and servant, of alphas and epsilons was not to exist in Israel. No Israelite existed for sake of self, but each existed for the sake of the other. Such was the law God gave.
But the human heart is sinful and so inherently selfish. In the course of time this command to Israel to empty the self for the benefit of others was obscured and hollowed out.
Those who ended up richer than others developed the mentality that ‘what I have labored for is mine, and I should be able to enjoy it without having to look to the interest of others.’ Instead of serving others, pride insisted that one be served; the lower class was there for the advantage of the upper....
Parallel to the thought that one was too good to serve others, there developed in Israel also the idea that only the righteous had to be helped. The unrighteous, those who didn’t live such exemplary lives, were not worthy of care and love; they did not rate. By the time of Jesus, that particular thought had developed into a snobbish arrogance on the part of the Pharisees; they treated with disdain the masses that did not know the law. So –you’ll recall- the Pharisee and the priest in the Lord’s parable passed the wounded traveler by.
To make matters worse, God’s instruction to love the neighbor was further buried by the Jews by their doctrine of good works. Help the other one should, OK, but not for the benefit of the other; by helping another one added good works to one’s own account. The result of this thought was that one helped another not out of love for the other but out of love for one self. The net result was, we can understand, that Israel did not really know anymore how to serve, how to empty oneself for the advantage of another. Rather, Israel thought in terms of the self, loved oneself before the neighbor.
These are thoughts and attitudes with which we can relate….
In such an environment James and John had grown up. We find it understandable that they were children of their times. To grow up in a culture of me-ism; no wonder they learned to serve self. And see, even their mother helped to drive the mindset home….
And I should add: the idea of serving the other was made even more offensive to the average Jew of Jesus’ day by the influence of Greek thinking – the dominant culture of the time. To the Greeks it was patently a shame to be a slave; in fact, it was inhuman to have to serve another. The measure of being a man was to be free, was the ability to do what you wanted to do – and to have a duty to those around you formed a limitation to your freedom. In fact, if you can get others to serve you, you were much more of a man…. In truth, in the light of the spirit of the times, the question asked by the mother of James and John is reasonable….
How well we can relate to this attitude! Be on top of the pile, serve no one, let others serve you: it’s a mirror image of the attitude of our culture, the atmosphere in which so many of us have grown up…. It’s imprinted into our minds: I’ve got my rights, I’m free, I can do my own thing…. I’m here for me, myself and I; it’s the me-generation come mature…. And if we’re able to get others to benefit us, that’s better still. O yes, how well we can relate to the individualism and selfishness of the Greeks and Jews, and the Zebedee family….
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself," said God in the Old Testament. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," echoed Jesus in the New – and set His face to go to Jerusalem to lay down His life for the unworthy. But to follow that example is so hard, so hard to do, for we’re all so terribly depraved, selfish….
Through their mother, James and John, true children of their times, asked the Lord for seats of honor, asked for positions of influence and prestige in the Lord’s kingdom. Their thoughts about masters and servants, about higher and lower, were shared by the other ten, for when the ten heard of the request of the two they were indignant at this early political maneuvering; they saw themselves out-flanked, and didn’t appreciate that! But the Lord’s response to the twelve was simple. "The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them." That is: amongst the kingdoms of the earth there are lords and servants, power struggles and ambitions. But "it shall not be so among you." The kingdom of heaven, Jesus insists, is of a totally different nature.
How it is to be among Christians
How, then, it is to be amongst Christians? Says Christ: "whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave."
We respond to this with a measure of derision. Greatness thru serving?! Becoming first by being a slave?! We find the thought revolting. Yet such is what the Lord insisted. Be least. Serve. Empty yourself for the sake of others. The patterns of earthly kingdoms are not the pattern of the heavenly kingdom; the systems of the world are not those of the church.
Note well: Jesus gave this instruction in an environment that was as me-centered as ours. James and John and the other disciples were children of their times, had grown up with me-ism in the air. In that environment, Jesus’ words touched a very raw nerve. Yet His instruction was nothing new. Christ did here nothing else than reach back to the instruction God gave to Israel at Mt Sinai, that instruction to think of the neighbor’s well-being, to be concerned for the poor and the stranger, to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Yet Christ did not simply state in general terms how things were supposed to be in the kingdom of heaven. He also gave the example – for the disciples and all Christians to follow. The example for the church to follow is not the big men of the world; the example is Jesus Christ Himself. Whoever would be great must be your servant, whoever would be first must be your slave, even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve....
The Son of man. From eternity He was with the Father in heaven, crowned with glory and honor. Ever since the creation of the world, angels had served Him, saints had exalted Him. But there came a moment when the Son of God laid aside the glory He had with the Father. He emptied Himself to become a son of man. He who lived in unapproachable splendor chose to live among sinful mortals, became a mortal Himself – a son of a finite, broken, sinful man.
He came into the world, Christmas. He came, not with splendor and might, seeking comfort and honor. He came, caused Himself to be born, not as son of a respected king, but as son of a rejected pauper. He came, not in a palace of warm luxury but in a stable of cold stone. He came, not to be served....
He laid aside His glory and honor, He emptied Himself in order to serve. And how would He serve? By giving His life as a ransom for many. Giving was the theme, the essence of His living. And there was no end to what He would give. Wealth He did not pursue, prestige He did not desire. He wasn’t on this earth to take, to receive; He was here to give, to give everything He had, to give Himself, to give His life.
And what should this gift of His life be? Should He give His life for His superiors, for the worthy, those better than He? The Son of man came, we read, to give His life as a ransom. And a ransom was the price one paid to purchase slaves, to purchase, in other words, not the worthy but the unworthy.
Yet this gift of His life as a ransom for the unworthy would not come easily. A ransom His life would be, an offering for sin. Yet as He would be offered for sin, He would be numbered with the transgressors; He would have to be mocked and scourged and crucified. He would, in other words, have to undergo the worst sufferings possible, would have to experience full rejection by His dear Father. The cup of God’s fury He would have to drink to its dregs, taste all the holy anger of God against cursed sinners.
Nor was it just few that Christ would serve. He gave up His glory, came to earth, gave His life for the benefit of many. His neighbor was not just the man next door, nor was it the worthy or the righteous or the rich or the well-known. But the Son of man came for ‘many’, for people from every tribe and tongue and nation, regardless of status in society, regardless of character and integrity, regardless of what you and I might think of that person.
And what was this effort of the Son of man a display of? "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). That’s it: His labor was a display of love. He came, not to be served but to love. He came, not to receive but to give, to give His life as a ransom for many. That’s love, love for the neighbor. That’s emptying oneself for the benefit of the other, regardless of whether the other deserves it or not. That’s obedience, perfect obedience to that law of Lev 19: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself."
He loved. He gave Himself, came into the world. The result is that sinners have life, we have life, are children of God. How profound, beloved, is the contrast! He gave, that we might receive. He died, that we might live. He emptied Himself, that we might be filled. Sinners we were, but such was His service that saints we became…. Truly, He loved His neighbor as Himself.... He became a servant, and so became great in the kingdom of God; on the day of His ascension He received a throne at God’s right hand.
This, says Christ, is the example for all the saints of the kingdom of heaven. "Whoever would be great must be your servant..., even as the Son of man came ... to serve." From all of us is required not that we be served, but that we serve. And how shall we serve? By giving, giving ourselves to our neighbors. What we seek in life –be it in marriage or the family, be it at work or in church- is not opportunity to receive, to take; what we seek is occasion to give. For the essence of living is still giving. It is not for the Christian to center His life on himself; in his family and his marriage, at work and in church, it is for him to love his neighbor as himself. And yes, such self-sacrificial love for the other implies suffering for the self. It implies denying that inner urge to let nothing come between us and our dreams, between us and our houses, between us and our brothers or sisters or mother or children or land (Mt 19:29). It implies a willingness and a readiness to forgo comfort and honor and prestige –even that last shirt- in order to help the underdogs of society, the needy, the lonely, the destitute. It implies emptying myself –completely- for the benefit of the other. That’s what Christ did; He laid down even His life. Serving, instead of being served. Giving, instead of receiving. Complete serving, willing to give everything: that’s suffering, for it runs so counter to our natural grain. But such is the Lord’s teaching. True, it will bring upon us the scorn of society, for the citizens of this earth do not understand what real love for the neighbor is. They’ll ridicule, mock that self-sacrificing saint who is not so much interested in getting ahead as in helping his neighbor in need, and we don’t like being mocked. It’s suffering…. But such is the Lord’s teaching.
Make no mistake, beloved: the demands of the kingdom of heaven are high; seek not to be served; seek rather to be a slave. Christ gave us the example, and in truth the price is high. Can we do it? It strikes us as too high, so impossible. Can I do what Christ has done?! No, give ourselves as a ransom for others we can’t. Nor do we have to; it’s been done already. But sacrifice ourselves, empty ourselves, serve we must!
And Yes, we can, for we’re not like the world around us. They’re still dead in sin, but we, by the grace of God, have been raised to a new life. Forget it not, beloved, that the Christ who served sinners with His life did not cease to serve sinners after He received glory from His Father. For after His ascension into heaven He poured out His Holy Spirit on His people; of the three Persons of Triune God, one Person is still on earth. And the Spirit is not here in order to be served but to serve. He renews sinners, strengthens, enables us to live for God, equips sinners to follow the example of Jesus Christ. It is for us to work with this gift of grace.
It gives much room for thought. Because of that self-sacrificing work of Jesus Christ, we may be citizens of the kingdom of heaven; what a marvelous gift of God’s grace! But: have we also adopted the mentality of the kingdom of heaven? Or do our ambitions and urges remain earthly? Think on it, my brother, my sister: what do you pursue? The benefit of the neighbor, or your own? Prestige, financial security, comfort for yourself, or happiness, advantage for the other - be he a church member or a contact from work or the man up the street? It’s true that ours is an age of me-ism, and, with the world, we’ve become used to pampering ourselves, thinking of the self first. But this coming week we remember just how much our Lord gave for the unworthy (you, me!), we remember how low the Savior stooped in order to ransom us. Now think: if Christ, though He was rich, made Himself so poor in order that we might be rich (II Cor 8:9), shall we not go out of our way to look after others?
You see, the question comes down to this: Are we prepared to put service before security, compassion before comfort, hardship before ease? Jesus gave up all, had no material security, had only His Father. But that was enough. The result of His labor was that we were made children of God, rich beyond words. That is why pursuing comfort for ourselves, insisting on security for our children, is incompatible with the way of the cross.
So, would you still ask Mrs Zebedee’s question? Amen.