O Lord, by the power of your Spirit lift us up into your presence to hear the promise of your word and know the joy of your salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Power. It’s kind of intoxicating, isn’t it? I mean even without really defining what ‘power’ is, deep down we know we want it. Deep down we yearn for it. Deep down we have the tendency to strive for it, so much so that we even teach our kids to go for this power.
And we know power comes in different shapes and sizes. There are the obvious powers of the world, like being able to leap tall building or stop speeding bullets. And as cool as that would be, there are other powers that we long for. We long for authority and influence, that people would do our bidding as we are seen as the shot callers, the head honcho, the one in charge. That’s power. Then there is the power of fear and intimidation. When you can look mean enough or tough enough, then you can scare people into doing what you want as well, or at least walk to the other side of the sidewalk and not get in your way. And then there is power of aesthetic. As shallow as it sounds, good looking people get more benefit than not so good looking people. Go ahead, ask me how I know. As much as many people would say that they don’t care how they look, don’t we often buy and wear clothes that make us look taller? Maybe make our shoulders look more board. Or stand with our backs straighter? And maybe get haircuts that make us look younger?
That is all for power.
Again, we might not define it like I just did in our heads, but we do know we want power. Very seldom would be deny a promotion at work, especially if we’re talking more money. When we are driving and someone drives too fast beside us or too slow in front of us, we get antsy a bit because power is taken away from us. We even sometimes feel that the more power we have, the more respected and liked we’ll be, even when we don’t always respect and like those who have power over us. And of course, we shame the privileged, those who have inherent power without even earning it, and we protest and march and try to take a piece of that pie.
Now, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with having power. I’m just saying that we might want that power more than we would care to admit. We might work or try harder or compromise a bit more than we should in order to get that power. We perhaps enjoy it too much when we clearly have power, and perhaps we are upset a bit too much when we don’t.
I think about my own childhood and how my dad was able to, from any room in the house, just say “hey” in that bone-chilling tone and I would stop whatever naughty thing that I was doing right away, and try to blame someone else. And for the last couple years I noticed that I was trying that same thing with my kid, and I had little to no success.
I think about my own marriage, in fact, all the relationships I’ve had in the past (you know there were lots), and how we inevitably would disagree and argue about something. And even when I catch a glimpse of being wrong, I start scrambling and looking for some far-fetched way that could mean that I’m right.
I think about politics, and our municipal election yesterday, and all the tactics and ploys that I saw people use in hopes of being elected. And you know how I feel about the American politics right now.
All of this, in this mad race for power. This game people play for authority and respect. This competition for glory.
I mean that is what the disciples wanted today in our gospel lesson, isn’t it? And yeah, I did say “disciples” as in all of them, not just James and John who were the only ones that had the gall to admit it. Seriously, the nerve of those two, right? It’s almost as though they were rehearsing their proposal, working out what method of approach would yield the highest probability of success.
They boldly walk up to Jesus, and tell him to do what they want, and that they wanted to sit on either side of him in his glory. They wanted a share of the power and authority that they knew Jesus has. Now, I don’t know about any of you, but I don’t think I have the what many languages of the world colourfully describe as courage in the face adversity (I’ll let your imaginations run wild on what words I am thinking about), but I don’t think I have that courage to walk up to my teacher, my superior, my messiah and make demands.
But that’s what they did. They want power so bad that they found it in themselves to go and ask this seemingly very out of line question. And Jesus didn’t scold them like I would have. He didn’t smack them upside the head like I would have wanted to. He didn’t even say no right away like my knee jerk reaction would have been. Rather, in his compassion he tried to explain what true power is. He tried to get them to understand that the power of God’s glory is not the same as the power of the world. He tried to remind them that he literally just told them three dang times that he was going to suffer and die. Three. Times. And they still didn’t get it.
And it’s clear that the other disciples wanted that power too, as they were just arguing among them who was the greatest, and they were angry at James and John for asking first. Of course, they disguised their rebuke as having good intentions, but the way I see it, they were all just running for that power.
And don’t we do that as well? Don’t we put others down to lift ourselves up? Don’t we scoff at the things we don’t agree with, maybe even ridicule them, just to show how much we are more right than they are? Don’t we, and perhaps with all good intention, sometimes label others as “saved” or “not saved” because we somehow think that we have all the answers?
See as much as James and John seem to be crossing the line by making this request, I think we all sort of want that too. We all want that power.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
But what Jesus is saying to his disciples is that don’t think that gaining power in God’s kingdom will be like gaining power in the world. Don’t think that your position in God’s community goes up and down the hierarchy like it does in the world. Don’t think that God’s love for you changes to be stronger or weaker because of how many people will ask “how high” when you tell them to jump.
Because, as Jesus so famously says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Essentially Jesus here is taking the “the first will be last and last will be first” a step further, and reveals to us that humility plays a huge role in our identities as God’s children.
Humility sounds like the opposite of power, doesn’t it? Power is authority, humility is submission. Power is influence, humility is being influenced. Power is intimidation, humility just letting those who want to be intimidating do their thing. You probably thought I was going to say “intimidated” there, but I didn’t, because that really wouldn’t be accurate.
Jesus is saying here that when you want power, when you see that your thirst for power is starting to change you like it’s the only thing on your mind, when you see that your need for power has put you first in every aspect of your life, then you need to check yourself. You need to humble yourself. You need to realise that all that power that you’re working for and gaining really don’t mean a whole lot in the kingdom of God.
Because the first will be last and the last will be first which will be the last that is actually the first and it is all just jumbled up. Jesus is reminding his disciples that we needn’t race for that power because we don’t need it. We needn’t work so hard for that authority because God’s word already gives us the authority that we need. We needn’t strive for respect because in God’s eyes we are all equally regarded, equally loved, equally saved.
That while the disciples didn’t get it, while we see how most people of their time didn’t get it, and while we very probably don’t get it ourselves, Jesus continues to walk to Jerusalem to serve as he says, a ransom for many.
We might think a ransom is a payment to free a hostage, and that pretty much is what it is. And when we think that Jesus had to pay this ransom we immediately think that the ransom is being paid to God, who demands sacrifice and blood for our salvation. But that isn’t what Jesus was talking about, nor is Jesus paying God a ransom. Rather, Jesus acts as a ransom to save us… from us.
We have become our own worst enemy when our thirst for power overshadows our thirst for community. We shoot ourselves in our proverbial feet when ambition and indulgence take place of compassion and service. We get in our own way when abundance of authority takes the place of abundance of life.
And Jesus saves us from that. Jesus reveals to us what true community, compassion, and service looks like. Jesus shows us how to walk that humble life by his own example. Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us into all joy and peace, free of the pressures of the rat race, and saves us from ourselves that we might be able to live lives full of abundant blessing.
Yes, the first becomes last and the last becomes first. Not because God reverses it on its head but because with God, we are all equally powerful, equally regarded, and equally loved. Thanks be to God. Amen.