Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW):
Psalm 91:9–16 You have made the LORD your refuge, and the Most High your habitation. (Ps. 91:9)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem. Under most circumstances this should have been a happy pilgrimage to the Holy City where Jesus and his disciples would celebrate the covenant relationship between God and the chosen people of Israel.
The whole scene, however, is filled not with joy and celebration. There is a foreboding that hangs over this journey. Jesus has warned the disciples three times with portents of the fate that awaits him in the capital city. Jesus is undeterred in his path toward glory, but that is the problem in the gospel story. Jesus understands his march to Jerusalem as one of suffering and death passing into life. Jesus’ obedience to the will of God will result in God’s revelation of his glory.
The disciples are filled with fantasies of the glory that awaits them when they arrive in Jerusalem. They believe Jesus is a messiah, anointed by God to bring glory to God by restoring Israel to its former greatness. They are excited by the prospect of a political victory in Jerusalem. They believe that Jesus will cast Rome out of their land and with Rome will go all the Jewish collaborators.
Still we detect the anxiety that besets the disciples. They are amazed at Jesus’ predictions of suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus foretells his impending suffering and death while they argue over who is the greatest among them. The disciples are also afraid. They anticipate a great conflagration with the Roman army, and Jesus keeps talking not about his glory but, rather, about his death.
It is no wonder that they are insecure. They expect God’s glory to appear among them in the form of a warrior king, like David who consolidated power and built a great nation on his ability as a commander in the field. David was the model of power. Jesus, on the other hand, is not on the road to Jerusalem to accumulate power. To the contrary, Jesus has explained three times that his life will be poured out into such powerlessness that only God will be able to do something with his weakness, vulnerability, and suffering.
Now James and John in their false understanding of glory and power, ask Jesus to grant them a great share in his power.
Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory. (Mark 10:37)
They not only expect Jesus to ascend to the throne of power. Now they want to have two little thrones added at Jesus’ right-hand and left side.
Jesus’ response is a picture of frightful beauty. He asks James and John if they are really up to the task assigned to Jesus.
You do not know what you are asking.
Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,
or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? (Mark 10:38)
By this question Jesus’ entire ministry is framed by two great symbols of human travail: baptism as a succumbing to the overwhelming waters that threaten creation and even our individual selves. We have only to remember the psalmist’ cry:
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God. (Psalm 69:1-3)
In Mark baptism is a sign of submission to the rule of God that is coming. Baptism is also a commission to take the path set before us by God who has given us Jesus. He does not transcend the temptations and terror of human life but takes it on. In this way we are able to see ourselves not in a glory remote from the injustice and cruelty in this world. But we see ourselves in Jesus who represents both God through his faithful obedience and humanity in our misery as Jesus submits to the humiliation.
The early church found Jesus in Hebrew scripture, especially in Isaiah who prophesies:
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death.
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:11-12)
Jesus also asks the disciples if they are able to drink from the cup from which he drinks. To which they foolishly answer, “We are able.” But at the end of Mark’s story Jesus prays to God that if it be God’s will the cup of suffering be removed. It will not be removed. But the disciples, who claimed that they were able to drink from the cup, have long abandoned the scene and their master as well.
Jesus does predict that James and John will be baptized with Jesus’ baptism, and they will drink from the cup. But this will happen years later as they discovered themselves held fast in God’s grip even though they were unable at first to submit to the discipline of Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s will.
Jesus tells James and John that he cannot assign them first-class seats in the kingdom. Thank God that it was so, for those seats were assigned to two insurrectionists who were crucified with Jesus. Above his head was a sign proclaiming Jesus “the King.”
Dear brothers and sisters, this is the way of God who has come among us in our time to show through human folly what is the wisdom of God. When we are baptized, we pray these words at the font:
At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship)
The Gospel of Mark portrays Jesus as walking ahead of us whether it be on the path to Jerusalem or from Jerusalem. In the very last scene of the Gospel the disciples are informed that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that he is going before them to Galilee. The disciples are invited to join their master, whom they deserted, for a reunion in Galilee where God invites all people, Jew and Gentile, Men and Women, Slave and Free to a life of service. Only now are they able to recognize Jesus as the living one.
In Galilee they will see him, and through their witness we have come to see Jesus as well in all his glory, power, beauty, wisdom, and life.