The mission of the Son - Matthew 20:17-28
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
"The greatest programme ever seen,' is how Richard Curtis, the creator of Blackadder, described The Office. High praise indeed for an odd little comedy series set on a Slough industrial estate produced by two previously unheard of writers, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Yet The Office has become a soaring success, from an initial cult following of 1.5 million for its first summer showing on BBC2, to BAFTA award winning critical acclaim, a record breaking 80,000 DVD sales and a 5 million audience for the start of the second series. There can be no doubt about it: many people in Britain think The Office is extremely funny. And yet at the same time most reviewers have noticed that alongside the humour there is also a great deal of pain. Because what they have realized is that the laughter inspired by the programme comes from an easy identification. You see The Office captures to perfection the boredom, the sniping and the pettiness that are so much a part of everyday life. And so when many people tune in, as well as laughing, they are disturbed by just how painfully real all this is. The Office, then, is truly a comedy of our times. It reflects the importance of work in the lives of many. It examines human relationships through all their messy developments. It harshly exposes the shallowness and selfishness of so much everyday behaviour. And if that wasnít enough it also introduces us to the complex character of David Brent.
David Brent is a self-obsessed leader. He is the regional manger of Wernham Hogg Paper Mills and he regards himself as a bit of a leadership guru. So in episode after episode we hear his wise words about life in general and leadership in particular. Let me give you some examples of what he has to say. According to David, "If at first you don't succeed, remove all evidence you ever tried." Or what about this? "Know your limitations and be content with them. Too much ambition results in promotion to a job you can't do."
He continues "If you can keep your head when all around you have lost theirs, then you probably haven't understood the seriousness of the situation." And then my personal favourite "Eagles may soar high, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines."
What do you think is the most important quality for a leader to possess? Vision? Charisma? Authority? Passion? Charm? Communication? Ruthlessness? Sensitivity? Or something else? Because of the recent Tory leadership election, last week BBC News Online published an article with the title "The best boss isÖ" and then throughout the article it provided various suggestions about the crucial x-factor of leadership. And yet do you know what they never mentioned? Yes there was discussion of passion and communication and quite a large amount of space dedicated to sensitivity but the one quality that never even reached the page was the quality that is the central focus of Matthew 20:17-28.
If we are to understand the mission of Godís Son in general and if we are to understand Matthew 20:17-28 in particular then we must grasp the most important quality for a leader to possess. What is that quality? Servant hood. The passage that we are looking at tonight is all about the identity of Jesus as the servant-king. So yes Jesus, as we have been reminded over these last few weeks is the eternal Son of God. Christians do not believe that Jesus came into existence 2000 years. He may have been born 2000 years ago but the claim of the bible is massive. If there is a line separating the creatures from the creator, a line separating the human from the divine, then Jesus would be at this side of the line. He is the eternal Son of God, fully divine, just like his Father. And yet this eternal member of the trinity, this eternal member of the divine family left the security of heaven to live on this planet and to ultimately die an agonizing death on a Roman cross. Why? Thatís the big question isnít it? Why do this? Have a look at verse 28.
"The Son of Man (which as we will see is a particular title for Jesus from the Old Testament) did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." As the eternal Son of God, Jesusí life on earth could have been very different. Can you imagine what the expression on the faces of those who worked at 1st century Israeli passport control would have been if Jesusí papers had read something like this. Name: God the Son. Age: You donít want to ask. The answer would blow your mind! Job Description: Eternal sustainer of the world, the giver of every breath and the one who deserves the worship of everyone on this planet. Can you imagine the scene that would have caused at passport control?
And yet although Jesus was and is everything I have just described, when he left the security of heaven 2000 years ago his mission was not to be served by others, although this is what he deserved because of who he was, but his mission was to serve others and he did this ultimately by giving his life as a ransom for many. Now here is the big truth that God wants us to hear tonight. Whether you are a Christian or whether you are still exploring the relevance of Jesus Christ for your life, God says to us all: if you want to understand the mission of my Son then you must grasp that he is the servant king. So if we want to understand the reason for the outrageous finale described in verses 17-19, or the outrageous request presented in verses 20-23, or the outrageous demand communicated in verses 24-28, then God says to us, you must understand the mission of my Son and you will only understand the mission of my Son when you grasp that he is the servant king.
So with that conviction in mind letís turn to verses 17-19 and focus on the outrageous finale. Weíre told that Jesus was going up to Jerusalem and as he was going he took the 12 disciples aside and said to them "We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of the Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!"
Now if we know what the Old Testament says about the Son of Man then what Jesus has just explained to his disciples is completely outrageous. Because according to the book of Daniel, chapter 7, the mission of the Son of Man shouldnít end like this. It should not end in betrayal, flogging and agonizing death. No it should end in a wonderful coronation service when the figure of the Son of Man is given authority to rule all the nations. This is what we read in Daniel chapter 7 (words written hundreds of years before Jesus was born): "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days (which is another way of talking about God the Father) and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed." Now compare this to what Jesus says to his disciples on their final approach to Jerusalem. "We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified." Surely something is not right about that picture? Yes I know we have a resurrection on the third day but what is all this about a betrayal and torture and death?
How many Hollywood films have a happy ending? How many would you say? Most of them. You can be fairly certain, canít you, that if you are feeling down in the dumps and need some cheering up then go and watch a Hollywood Blockbuster at the cinema. Because most of the time, in the end, the girl gets the guy, the guy gets the girl, the music plays and the film ends. But just occasionally Hollywood produces a surprise and it makes you feel completely numb. So I remember watching the first series of 24 when it was shown the TV and I was hooked for weeks. Every Sunday night when I got home from church the next episode would be starting on the screen and I sat down transfixed, wondering what would happen next.
I was like a little boy sitting on the edge of his seat full of excitement and anticipation. But it was great. I loved it. Fast moving, action packed and full of surprises. And then we had the final episode and I was left feeling completely numb. Now I wonít ruin the story for you but the ending is a complete surprise. It is not a Hollywood happy ending. The girl doesnít get the guy and the guy doesnít get the girl. Yes the music plays but as it plays you are not left with a warm fuzzy glow but a surprising sadness inside. Now apparently this ending was too much for some people and so on the DVD version you can actually choose an alternative ending. If you donít want surprising sadness then you simply click the menu button that says Ďalternative endingí and everything ends with a warm fuzzy glow.
But we do not have that option in Matthew 20. We are supposed to feel numb as we listen to Jesusí explanation to his disciples in verses 17-19. Based on Daniel chapter 7 the ending that Jesus describes is completely unexpected. So if you were a 1st century student of the Bible and for months and months you had been attending the local SOCM classes and then one day you were asked by your teacher to complete the following sentence "we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will beÖ" you would not have answered in the same way as Jesus. Because Jesusí answer against the background of Daniel 7 is totally outrageous.
Why then did he say what he said? Because he thought of himself as the servant-king. Yes he knew that he was the king described in Daniel 7 and yes he knew that one day he would rule the entire universe visibly and with great splendor. He knew that one day his kingdom would last forever. And yet such was his love for human beings that he left the security of heaven to carry out an action that would enable sinful rebels to be citizens of his kingdom.
There is a figure that we meet in the Old Testament book of Isaiah called the servant and in your own time you can read about his work, particularly in Isaiah chapter 53. But for the moment let me read to you just some of his job description. Isaiah 53:4 "Surely he took up our infirmities and he carried our sorrowsÖhe was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed."
So who is Jesus? Is he the all-conquering, all-glorious Son of Man whose kingdom will never end? Or is he the servant, the one who serves humanity by dying in their place to take the punishment that they deserve so that they can be forgiven and so that they can enter into the presence of God without fear? Matthew chapter 20 says he is both. Jesus is the servant-king and this explains the outrageous finale that we have described for us in verses 17-19. Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many. A ransom is a costly price that is paid to rescue someone from a helpless situation, a situation that they can do nothing about. This is our natural condition before God. We are not good people on the road to heaven but rebellious subjects who are counting the hours until we die and face Godís judgment for how we have treated him in this life. And yet here is the great news. The Son of Man came first time round not to be served but to serve and he did this as the servant figure of Isaiah 53. He did this by paying the costly price of his own life to rescue us from our condition of imminent judgment. He stood in the dock and received our punishment so that we can come to him now and receive his forgiveness.
So as we think about the outrageous finale let us be thankful as we consider the future. One day the Bible promises that Jesus will return to this earth as the glorious Son of Man described in Daniel 7. But wonderfully because he came first time round as the servant-king when we meet him as the glorious-king we will have nothing to fear. Or let me be more accurate.
If we meet him as his forgiven subjects, as those who in this life have handed over control of their life to him, then we will have nothing to fear but if we meet the glorious-king as the natural rebels that we are then that day will be the worst experience of our lives. So if you are not a Christian here tonight then let me encourage you as strongly as I can to find out as much as you can about the person of Jesus Christ. And if you ask me at the end I can point you in the right direction where you can find out everything you need to know.
Secondly, the outrageous request. Have a look at verse 20. "Then the mother of Zebedeeís sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him. "What is it you want" he asked. She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom."
Whatever you say about Mrs Zebedee you cannot say that she doesnít have any nerve. Picture the scene. The disciples are continuing their journey up to Jerusalem and at some point along the way Mrs Zebedee grabs her two boys and brings them to Jesus to make their private request. Now that takes some nerve doesnít it? But here is the question that we need to answer: Why is their request outrageous? It may have been brave but why was it outrageous? Did you spot the fascinating four letter word at the beginning of verse 20? Then. "Then the mother of Zebedeeís sons came to Jesus with her sons and asked a favour of him." Now do you see the link between the two sections? The action of Mrs Zebedee is a result of listening to the words of Jesus. In many ways this is a request based on faith. She believes that Jesus is the Son of Man and so she believes that he will have a kingdom. And when we remember that Jesus said in Matthew 19:28 that "when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" perhaps the request of the Zebedee family isnít quite as outrageous as we might first imagine.
So what is wrong with it? Two problems. First of all, it misunderstands the timing of Jesusí mission and, secondly, it misunderstand the uniqueness of Jesusí mission. First of all, the timing of Jesus mission. Have a look at verse 22. Jesus says to them, and I say to them because the you in verse 22 is plural, "You donít know what you are asking." Just about think about it. Given the timing of Jesusí mission as the servant-king what would it mean to sit at his left or his right at this particular moment in human history? Jesus will be recognized as King when he arrives in Jerusalem and there will even be a sign above his head which says "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." But his throne in Jerusalem, although made of wood, was in the shape of a cross. Because remember Jesus is the servant-king. So to ask at this particular moment to sit at Jesusí left or right in his kingdom was simply another way of asking to be crucified alongside him. And so Jesus says to the Zebedee family "You donít know what you are asking." They have misunderstood the timing of Jesus mission.
Secondly, they have misunderstood the uniqueness of Jesusí mission. In verse 22, Jesus says to them "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" And then with all the bravado of youth the Zebedee boys reply together "Yeah of course we can." But could they? Really? Could these young lads possibly drink the cup that Jesus was going to drink? Absolutely not! The cup that Jesus is talking about is the cup of Godís anger that is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. So, for example, in Jeremiah 25, the prophet Jeremiah is told by God "Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. When they drink it they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them." Or listen to this example from the prophet Isaiah, 51:17 "Awake, awake! Rise up O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord, the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger." So what is the cup that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to drink? What is the cup that the eternal Son of God left the security of heaven to drink to its dregs?
The cup of his own anger. So yes it is true that James and John, and every other Christian for that matter, would drink from Jesusí cup. That is, the pattern of Jesusí life and death, suffering first and glory later, would be their pattern. It should be our pattern. And this is what it means for Christians today to drink from Jesusí cup. But let us be clear about this: the cup of suffering that we are expected to drink is not the unique cup of Godís anger that Jesus drank for us, that Jesus drank instead of us, as he died on the cross. Letís never forget his mission was unique.
And as we think about this outrageous request from the Zebedee family can I encourage us to remember the honour of the cross. Islam is ashamed of the cross and if you read the Qurían you will discover that according to the teachings of this book Jesus never died the cross. How could he if he was a prophet from God? But according to this book (hold up bible) the crucifixion of Jesus is not an embarrassing footnote to an otherwise exemplary life. No, according to this book, it is because Jesus died that he will be given even more praise and honour in heaven. So he deserves our praise and honour anyway because he is the eternal Son of God, but as we read in Revelation chapter 5 he gets even more praise and honour because he is the eternal Son of God who has drank the cup of Godís anger, who has died to rescue other people from great danger. Do you remember what they sing in Revelation chapter 5? "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!" Did you know that when we see Jesus face to face in the future he will still carry the marks of his crucifixion? They are not an embarrassment to him, rather they are his marks of honour. So let us resolve never be ashamed of the message of the cross.
Thirdly, and lastly, the outrageous demand. Have a look at verse 24. Not surprisingly, "When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave Ė just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
The ten are angered not because they have a different attitude to greatness but no doubt because they have been slow off the mark. And so indignant are they that Jesus has to call them together. Itís almost as if they have come to blows and Jesus has to say "calm down lads and gather round. Let me tell you about true greatness. Let me tell you how to be leaders." First of all, donít take your models of leadership from the world around you. Because what will you see? Rulers who lord it over people and high officials who love exercising their authority. Is that not the way it is in business? Is that not what you experience day by day in the office? But Jesus demands that this is not to be the case in the kingdom of heaven. This is not to be how Godís redeemed community functions. Rather we are to be servants of each other. We are to people who take our cue not from the world but from the greatest leader of all. His mission may have been unique but his example is one we are to follow. So listen to Jesusí outrageous demand: "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave." These words are completely outrageous arenít they? Against the backdrop of our self-obsessed culture, with its self-centeredness, its self-indulgence, its self-love, its self-pity, its self-seeking and its self-sufficiency, the words of Jesus are completely outrageous and yet at the same time they are completely necessary. Because we are not designed to function on our own. God says at the beginning of the Bible "It is not good for the man to be alone." It is not good for us to be so self-obsessed. And in the long run our self-centeredness will completely destroy us. Jesus says, "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for me will save it."
Giving up control of our life to Jesus is not the end of existence, it is merely the beginning. Because when we join the kingdom of heaven, when we give our lives to the King, when we become a Christian, we become part of Godís new community. A community that is commanded to function in a way that is radically different from the rest of humanity that is still in rebellion against its creator. We are commanded to show them how the human race should behave. We are commanded to show them that life doesnít have to be so cruel. We are commanded to be servants of each other.
We are commanded to be obsessed with the question of verse 32: What do you want me to do for you? Not the question, what can I expect you to do for me? But much more outrageously, much more radically, what do you want me to do for you?
Do we want to show the world that the painful reality depicted in The Office isnít the only way of human interaction? Do we want to offer the people of Hull a radical alternative? Perhaps there are even some people in church tonight who are seeking for this very thing. How do we achieve it? We keep on asking each other the question: What do you want me to do for you? Letís pray.