Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, you came to serve, not to be served, and to give away your very life. Help us as we follow you on the way of the cross, to serve and not be served, to give away our very lives for the sake of those around us. In your holy and everlasting name we pray. Amen.
Most of you know that Kristin and I love movies. One of my favorite movie moments is in the Mel Brooks film Robin Hood: Men In Tights. The scene is the mythical archery contest at which Robin is revealed and sentenced to hang. But in the Mel Brooks version, things go a little haywire, as they often do.
The craziness starts when Robin Hood, disguised as an old man, loses an archery contest. This is never, EVER supposed to happen. But one of the characters comes to his senses and shouts, “Wait: he gets another shot!” An argument follows, during which one of the other characters says, “Let’s check the script!” So the entire cast – villains, the Merry Men, and all the extras – pull out their scripts and find the scene presently playing out on the screen. They all find that yes, indeed, the old man gets another shot. So the old man wins the archery contest, is revealed as Robin Hood, and the movie carries on from that point forward.
This is a great movie moment for a post-modernist like myself. The idea that yes, you could step out of your life and consult the script? That’s a beautiful concept. I think every one of you has probably had a moment or two in your life when you thought, this is NOT how things are supposed to be going – who’s in charge of this mess?
James and John and the other ten disciples must have felt the same way. The 8th, 9th and 10th chapters of the Gospel of Mark include some of Jesus’ most concentrated, dedicated and clear teachings – and the disciples didn’t seem to understand a word of it. Jesus predicted his suffering, death and resurrection three times in these three chapters, and the disciples’ response to each prediction was completely inappropriate.
1. The first time Jesus predicted his suffering and death, Peter pulled Jesus off to the side and began to rebuke him.
2. The second time Jesus predicted his suffering and death, he listened for the rest of the day as the disciples argued with each other about who was greatest among themselves.
3. The third time Jesus predicted his suffering and death, James and John approached Jesus to request places beside him in his most glorious moment – as if they hadn’t heard anything he had just said to them.
Poor James and John – they must have felt completely disoriented when they realized that following Jesus was not going to lead to the reward they anticipated. When they asked to share in Jesus’ glory, they had no idea that the glory of Christ would be theirs in an entirely different manner than they ever could have imagined. To drink the cup of Christ is to drink the cup of suffering and death for the world; to share in Christ’s baptism is to share in a baptism of death and rebirth. Paul writes
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6.3-4)
The disciples obviously had some idea that there was a script to the coming of the Messiah, and that their good fortune in meeting Jesus would result in their being found among the powerful and the privileged. The idea that there is a script or master plan to our lives and to God’s creation is a tempting, attractive idea – which makes learning the opposite even harder. Jesus could only tell James and John about their cup of suffering and their baptism into the family of God; even Jesus couldn’t tell James and John who would receive places at his right and left hand. He couldn’t do that because he wasn’t following a script: Jesus was living a life, just like you and me.
What if there isn’t a script? How does that change things for Jesus? How does that change things for us? We talk about our lives as if they are planned, beginning to end, from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death. One recent television show involves a number of people discovering they are heroes – and two of the characters are using a comic book that shows them their steps as they go. They are following the script. But what if there isn’t a script? What if the future depends upon our actions now? What if God is depending on our actions now? How does that change things?
Isaiah 53, our Old Testament reading for today, tells about God’s suffering servant, one who gives his life away as a sacrifice for others. The imaginary scriptwriters in our heads tell us that because one suffered for us, the equation has been balanced and suffering is at an end. But what if we’re wrong? What if it was never about balancing equations and satisfying a bloodthirsty God of vengeance and sacrifice? What if the suffering servant was a teacher and not a sacrifice? If it was “the will of the Lord to crush Him with pain,” as Isaiah 53.10 says, what if that will was focused on giving an example to follow? What if the Creator crushed the suffering servant with pain to teach the people what God feels when they walk away from God? What if God’s will is bent on giving our lives meaning, sacred value and deep joy: the kind of things that can only come from living the cross as Jesus teaches?
Hebrews 5, our epistle reading for today, tells about Jesus our great high priest, who learned obedience through suffering. Did you catch that? Jesus LEARNED obedience – it wasn’t something with which he was created. Jesus says in Mark 10 that he can’t tell James and John who will sit on his right and his left in glory, because it isn’t Jesus’ place to make those decisions. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Messiah of God, the Anointed One – Jesus is not making the decisions here. Jesus is not in control of the situation. Jesus is not writing the script. What were the limits of Jesus’ foreknowledge? Did Jesus know from the moment He was born that He would die on a Passover 33 years later? Did Jesus know that Judas would be His betrayer from the moment they met? Did Jesus know that James and John would be the gloryhounds and Peter would be the loudmouth with the quick temper?
Here there are questions beyond number – more than a life following a script could ever answer. If there were a script, one would imagine that the Author’s Son would have some idea of how things would turn out. But there is no script – and there never will be one. Jesus never had a script – and neither do you. God has not written a play starring Jesus of Nazareth as its hero: God the Creator is creating, working a world where choice and chance play a part, even in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only Son.
How can we say this? We can say this because we know that God wishes for us to live by faith, not by sight. If you believe that there is a script somewhere, that the hero will come to save the day, you will put your trust in the script, not the world around you and its Creator. Living by faith means hanging in there; living by faith means living in trust and obedience, even when every brain cell in your head is screaming that this is not right – this is not how my life was supposed to work out – this is not what the script says should happen. Living by faith means following Jesus on the way of the cross and trusting in the relationship we have with Him – a relationship that can be surprising, shocking, painful, even destructive at times.
Douglas John Hall, who might be America’s foremost authority on the theology of the cross, once said that America is “the officially optimistic society in which pastors serve as chaplains.” Have we taken more comfort from a God who rewards good behavior than from a God who would sacrifice His Son to save our lives? I think so. A God who rewards good behavior would probably write a script that’s easier to follow. But the Jesus we are coming to know is a loving friend who speaks truth into our lives, even when that truth is painful. We are not following a script: we are following a Savior, learning to have faith and to obey even as we follow Him along the way of the Cross. The writer of Hebrews talked about Jesus “in the days of His flesh,” how Jesus offered up prayers and supplications; today, in the days of Christ’s body, the church, we offer up prayers and supplications in His name, that we might be given the strength to serve and follow where Jesus leads, though the way be dark and the path treacherous. Jesus is the One we follow on this Way of the Cross – all the way to Golgotha, the tomb, and finally Easter Sunday. The disciples thought that their script ended on Friday – but then, we aren’t following a script, are we? Thanks be to God. Amen.