They Just Don't Get It (March 22, 2020)
Mark 10: 32-45
They Just Don’t Get It
This is the third time Jesus predicted his death. The third time. He knows the disciples are not quite understanding what he’s saying. Every single time they challenge him, and they don’t accept what’s going to happen. The most famous one would be the first time Jesus predicts his death, and then Peter says they won’t let that happen. That’s the time where Jesus says “get behind me Satan” to Peter. Here we’re going to see that same thing: Jesus is going to predict his death, and James and John respond with “so Jesus, when we get to Jerusalem and you enter your glory, are you going to put us at your right and left?” And Jesus keeps repeating that he’s going to die; he’s not going to become the king they expect him to become when we get to Jerusalem.
The repeating of the prediction of Jesus’s death serves to confirm it’s importance: that this is something that the disciples need to understand and that they can’t mess up when we get to Jerusalem. But also, it serves to confirm it’s inevitability: that there’s no other way this can go down, that this has to happen. Within the narrative of the Gospel, repeating this prediction three times serves to say this is inevitable and this is important.
And Jesus tells the disciples exactly what’s going to happen. He’s not exactly subtle about this. He literally just says this is exactly what’s going to happen: “we’re going to go to Jerusalem, I’m going to have some people dislike what I say, I’m going to get arrested, I’m going to get tortured, I’m going to get killed. But don’t worry, on the third day I’m going to rise from the dead.” Point by point, this is exactly what’s going to happen. And the disciples still don’t get it.
Have you ever had that feeling that Jesus is having here? I have a four-year-old son. He makes me feel that way a fair number of times. I am trying to say something and he’s just not understanding it. I think that’s pretty normal for four-year-olds. I suspect that everyone here that’s ever had a four-year-old probably understands the way that Jesus is feeling right now.
I wonder also if perhaps we actually know the way that the disciples might be feeling too. Where we wind up in situations like we are in right now: massive, life altering situations. Sometimes what happens is that everything about you changes, and everything you do changes. And it can throw you off a little bit. But it also can be a point of massive insight. I picked out what I was going to read this week at the beginning of Lent. I looked forward and said, “OK, we’re going to tell the story of the New Testament. So what stories am I actually going to tell? What verses am I going to read as I go through and in what order in order to tell the story of what is happening?” So I knew I was going to preach on this passage on this week for almost a month now. And I knew what I was going to say on this passage. We were going to focusing on James and John not getting it, and the other disciples not getting it, and Jesus‘s instruction on what it meant to be great.
That’s what we focus on in this passage, and that’s what I was going to get to as quickly as I could in the sermon. Because that’s what always happens when I preach the sermon. And not just me, every single commentary I’ve ever read was talking about the same idea. It’s almost bordering on being judgemental of James and John, a couple of the articles going over that line.
And there was a line that was read today that is in this Scripture that I know I’ve never focused on before, in fact I’m wondering if I’ve ever even read the line before or if I just skipped over it to get through to the part of the verse that is why I turn to the verse in the first place: the stuff about James and John. But this week I’ve focused on this line. It jumped out at me and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. This is what God was wanting to talk about to me, and I think what God wanted to talk to you all about as well. It’s very early in the passage. Jesus was walking ahead of them on the way to Jerusalem, “and those who followed were afraid.”
I had to ask myself: who is it who’s afraid in this passage? Who is the Scripture talking about? Is the Scripture talking about the 12 being afraid? Because if the 12 are afraid, then why do they not get what Jesus was saying? Why would they be afraid if they don’t understand what Jesus is talking about with him dying in Jerusalem? If we’re not talking about the 12, are the Scriptures talking about the rest of these 500 or so followers? We know that 500 gather together to hear instructions from Jesus between Easter in the Ascension. If the Scriptures are talking about those 500 people or so, then why are they scared but the 12 are confident? I’ll really had to wrestle with that question this week as I meditated on the Scripture.
I settled on this idea that it might at least be possible that the 12 are actually afraid. Maybe James and John actually do understand the information ,in spite of what all of the theologians since the age of the Internet began have said including myself, maybe they did understand but they just couldn’t process what they were hearing. That the scope of what Jesus was saying was beyond what they could comprehend, and so they began acting in distress. They begin doing things that didn’t make sense for the situation and made it appear like they don’t understand. They simply can’t process the information. It is too big for them.
I am watching this right now with my son. It was going to happen anyway this week; he doesn’t process Spring Break well, he doesn’t process the break in his routine very well. He’s four; that’s understandable. But he is beginning to try and figure out what’s going on, and he begins to act out in ways that he doesn’t normally do. He jumps extra times on furniture, he’s running around; he’s doing several of the things that we keep telling him not to do, things we’ve yelled at him for multiple times before. And what he’s really wanting is for mom and dad to bring him in and say it’s going to be OK. Things are changing, but we are still here and we’ve gotcha. One of the funniest ways I saw that this week was we went to Walmart for some groceries and we decided to take a lap around Walmart. We were in the toy department by some mistake of calculation, when he began to go up to each and every toy on the shelf; every Paw Patrol toy, every PJ Masks toy, every play doh toy; then ask for it. And we were trying to say “let’s go, let’s go!” And he’d put it back and walk over to the next toy, and pull it off the shelf, and try to put it in the cart. He was stress-shopping, in the way a four-year-old does. And I recognized the way I stress shop sometimes. I’m not in the toy department, but we know what that looks like. It's why Oak Park Mall is still in business.
This feeling is not something that’s limited to a four-year-old. We know what this feeling it looks like. It just normally takes the form of someone being diagnosed with an illness we can’t explain, or a death from someone far too young. It’s an old problem. It’s the question of how evil and pain exist in a world where a God who is all powerful and all loving is supposed to be in control. This is a 2000+-year-old question. And it’s lasted for 2000 years because no one so far has been able to provide an answer that of been universally accepted as comforting.
Obviously I’m not going to try and answer the question of why this kind of thing happens. But I want you to understand that we are in a moment that is probably beyond our comprehension, a moment that is correctly identified as a moment of wanting to yell out to God a cry of lament. And what I do want to encourage you to do in this moment is to recognize that this is a moment that we need to grieve. Yes, we will get through it. Yes, we will be doing wonderful things. But first, we need to grieve. And the biggest part of grieving is forgiving yourself. This week, every night when you go to bed, I want you to tell yourself that you forgive yourself for everything you screwed up that day. And when you wake up in the morning I want you to pray, “God help me to forgive myself the way you have forgiven me.” That’s been the prayer I’ve said the most over the last month. And one way you might think of doing that is potentially changing your Lenten Fast if you feel you need to. Guess what, you’re giving up quite a lot. And if you need a chocolate bar to get through that, forgive yourself. We’re in plenty of wilderness. It'll be OK. And we will come to know God.
For the first time in reading this I sympathized with James and John. The usual reading is to criticize them for not understanding. But this time I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe they did actually understand exactly what Jesus was saying. It was just distressing them so badly that they couldn’t react normally. I began to wonder if maybe when James and John are coming up and asking Jesus “when you get into your glory, will we be on your right and your left?” The answer they were looking for wasn’t necessarily that they would be on Jesus' right and left, but rather “yes, there will still be a glory when we’re all through with this, when we've gotten done with the cross and the tomb.” Maybe all James and John are doing is trying to ask Jesus if everything will still be OK in their own kind of way, without trying to look weak or scared. They’re just asking if we’re going to get through this. I mean, yes, Jesus was saying that there was going to be a resurrection of the dead, but who could possibly have known what that was going to look like before Easter?
Jesus isn’t overly comforting to them in response. Basically, he says that they think they understand how bad things are going to be, but their life is going to be completely turned upside down. This church thing, this Jesus thing, this disciple thing is not easy. The first are last. You have to completely change how you’re thinking. You have to think about trying to be the last, the servant; only then can you really be great. Only then can you sit on my right and my left.
But we have the benefit of not having to stay in this passage. We know what Jesus says after the resurrection, after everyone can understand what this post resurrection Jesus is going to look like. We have Matthew 28 where Jesus says that he will be with you, even to the end of the age. We have Acts 2 where we see the Spirit descend upon Christians, and God himself dwell with the church. We have all the experiences from over 2000 years of God working in coincidences in the life of the church.
These moments where God comes through before we even know what is going on happen often if we look. For a year and a half I sat there saying “I need to make a church website, but I don’t know how to do it. So I’m going to do something else this week.” For a year and a half. And about three or four weeks ago I said “you know what, I’m never going to have enough time. I need to sit down and do it.” And two weeks later we’re having virtual church on that website. To me, that was God hitting me over the head with a big neon sign saying “Michael you need to get this done. It’s going to be needed.”
We are going through the Bible’s story, so I’m not following the Revised Common Lectionary this three-year rotation of Scriptures where if you read each of these for scriptures every week for three years you can read about 90% of the Bible. It’s what a lot of pastors used to guide their Scriptures to preach on. But this thing was made decades ago. So the Scripture that preachers who are following this are preaching on this week was decided decades ago. And one of those passages for this week is Psalm 23: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” God is working in our world to comfort us even today.
That’s why we can still be the church wherever we are. Even if we’re not all together, even when we’re not in the building like right now when we’re in several buildings; we can still be the church. Because the church isn’t the building, the church is the people. This building, these beautiful windows, serve to help people hear God speaking. But this isn’t the church, you are the church. And we can continue to be the church, even in this time. So let us go and serve one another in whatever ways we can. I want you to keep thinking of ways you can serve. Contact me through whatever means you have at your disposal. Keep listening here for new ways that we can be the church as we respond to this ever-changing life right now. When we’re all through this, and I’m confident we will all get through this one way or another, I want to be looking back and saying we were the church in that moment and this was one of our finest hours. Amen.