A Sermon Preached at a Pastor’s Conference
on Matthew 20:20-28 by Peter M. Berg
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Were they listening? Were James and John listening at all? Did they hear the Savior speak about the horrific death that the Father would lay upon him? Had they heard him when he told them that the Son of Man would be betrayed to the chief priests, condemned to death and delivered to the Gentiles to be mocked, scourged and crucified? If they had been listening they would’ve seen their petty, self-serving request for the best seats in the house for what it was. Had they heard Jesus when he said that on the third day he would rise again? If they had been listening they would not have run away in fear, but would’ve waited at the tomb for the Glory. But they were not listening. Just as you often don’t listen; waiting impatiently for someone to finish talking about himself so that you can talk about yourself. Not listening.
The sons of Zebedee made their request to sit at Jesus’ right and the left because they were not listening. Yet, they were ahead of the game. They had scooped the Ten, and they would have plenty of time to fight it out among themselves for the seat at the right. Be that as it was, they still had not listened. St. Mark in his account goes easy on them. He states that they had made the request. True enough. Yet it is Matthew who spills the beans. They had their mother make the request. Momma’s boys. A mother’s ambition for her sons. Two ambitious boys, as forthright as their partner Simon. Momma’s boys. Jesus had another name for them: The Sons of Thunder. They earned that name on the occasion when a certain Samaritan village refused to receive the Lord. “Shall we call fire from heaven upon them, Lord?” Calm down, lads, calm down.
Jesus answers their request with a question. “Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized?” “Yeah, sure,” they answered, neither listening nor thinking again. The Lord told them that the seating arrangements were the purview of another, and in spite of their awful behavior they would be privileged later to help extend the invitations to the feast. But something more pressing was at hand. “You will indeed drink my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with…” Lads, you will drink and you will be cast into the drink and you will not be able to endure. Your arms and legs will flail and thrash about. One hand with a sword swung about inflicting harm. Twenty-two legs churning as you all run away. Two legs twitching at the end of a rope in the throes of death. The survivors will spew out the bitter contents of the cup and out will come lies and denial. Jesus? Never met the man!
Only Jesus could be baptized into this baptism, only Jesus could drink this cup. Only Jesus could give his life as a ransom for many. He was plunged into the baptism of the death of James and John, into your death, your deathly wish to be great, your deathly notion that it’s all about you, and your petty self-pity when it’s not about you. Only Jesus could drink the cup of your damnation. And he drank that cup and drained it of divine wrath, so that there is no longer any poison in the cup he gives you, whether the cup upon the altar or any other cup the Lord gives you to drink in life. They all ran away, and yet the Lord did not invalidate their baptisms, nor has he invalidated your baptism. They all denied their Lord, and yet they were not refused his Table, and you too are still welcome, in spite of it all.
They would all run away. But Peter and John would slink back: Peter to hear the roster crow and John to stand at the foot of the cross. There we see John standing at the cross with a mother, but not his mother with all her motherly ambition, rather Jesus’ mother. Now was being fulfilled what old Simeon had said of Mary years before, “…a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” Now before her very eyes the old prophet’s other prophecy was being fulfilled, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel..” A rising and falling before John’s very eyes also. There before his eyes were the two seats which he and his brother had coveted, occupied by two thieves. One plummeting into the hell he feared would be his and the other ascending to the heaven he thought could never be.
But all of this was yet to come. James and John had a matter of immediate concern – the Ten had found out about their request and they were hot. How dare these Momma’s boys! Which, being translated means, Why didn’t we think of that? Calm down, lads, calm down. Such behavior is for kings and such. Such behavior is for the upwardly mobile. Politicians, rock stars, sports and entertainment celebrities climb to the top so that they might be served. Not so with you. Indeed, you will sit on twelve thrones judging the Twelve Tribes of Israel, but that means that you will be slaves of all. Everything in my kingdom, you see, is upside down. The highest becomes the lowest. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.” Why, so that they might abuse you? No, so that they might raise you right. So that they might lead you to the Lord. So that they might sit up with you all night when you are sick. So that they might serve you even when you don’t appreciate it. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Why? So that you might be their slaves? So that you might be just one of many compartments in their all too busy lives? No, so that they might place you and your children with Christ at the center of their universe and serve you. People of God, “obey your leaders” in the church for this is good for you and them. Why? So that they might lord it over you? No, so that they might bathe you in Baptism, absolve you of your awful sins, and serve as host at the best of all meals. Submit to their care so that they might hear your complaints, both valid and not, so that they might weep with you and rejoice with you.
There was an elderly woman in my first parish who told a story about the selfless service of which Jesus spoke. She grew up in South Dakota. Her parents were that vanishing breed for whom the church was their whole life and who had a great reverence for pastors. This woman remembered a supper that her mother served to a preacher from a neighboring parish. He had served that church for fifty years. For fifty years he had lisped out his sermons through a speech impediment. On account of this disability, which disfigured his face, no woman found him a suitable catch. He served all alone. In an effort to be nice this woman’s mother said to the man, “Pastor, your people must love you dearly to have held on to you for all these years!” The man’s matter-of-fact reply did not have a tinge of self pity. He said, “I never had another call.” As no woman saw him as a catch, so no prestigious downtown church nor burgeoning suburban congregation saw him as suiting their needs either. He served his only parish because Christ wanted him to serve there, not necessarily because he always wanted to.
I speak to my brothers: You serve where Christ wants you to serve. There are people in your church who love you and dearly appreciate your ministry. But there are probably others for whom the back-up warning beeper on a moving truck would be sweetest music of all. Yet they are both your people, given to you for your care. You are to bathe them, bathe them in the Holy Bath. You are to absolve them of all their sins, even those against you. You are to resurrect them with the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, after you have slain them with the Holy Law, which they will not always appreciate. You are to serve them as maitre d’ at the best of meal, even when they would yearn for another course. You are to preserve sound doctrine and sound liturgical practice, even when the latest fad is more appealing to your people. In short, you are to baptize them into the Faith, hear their nuptials, and lay them to rest. Baptize, marry and bury, a pejorative which is actually a good description of faithfulness in the Holy Ministry.
The pastor I told you about is long gone. There are probably few if any who know his name now. He is nothing to the world. The time will come when the same will be said about you, gone and forgotten. But that’s perfectly fine, after all it’s never been about you. Right? Of course not. And for that we thank our merciful God.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Reverend Peter M. Berg is a rostered pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and resides in Chicago, Illinois.