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“Grabby – or Great?”

Nov.18/12 Mk.10:35-45


The human heart is full of wants and ambitions, purposes and plans. But there’s a big difference between our plans and God’s plans: His plans are backed by His sovereignty and steadfast purpose. Ps.33(10f) says, “The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”
    There is a Yiddish proverb that says, “Man plans; God laughs.” Our plans depend on many factors over which we have no control. James (4:13-16) cautions,  “Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.”
    But the Lord’s plans and purpose are supported by His almighty power. Would you be surprised to find out that He harnesses His plans to serve you, to save you? His purpose steered across the centuries aims to benefit you!
    For an example of faulty human planning, take our trip to Alberta last week. Our 3 daughters who live there had been inviting us out for Christmas; but I in my wisdom deemed it best to go earlier because I have bad memories of snowstorms when driving long distances at Christmas. So we made a plan to fly from Kitchener to Calgary Nov.8. Meredith and Allison would join us and we’d drive up to Emily’s at Neerlandia in time for Aiden’s 3rd birthday party. However when after taking off at Kitchener the plane landed at Edmonton instead. They were having such a blizzard in Calgary that they were having to clear the runways every 15 minutes. Of course, many other flights had likewise been diverted to Edmonton so all the hotels were booked up. Our flight was continuing to Vancouver; Westjet kindly offered to put us up free overnight in Vancouver and fly us back to Calgary the next day. But that would effectively take a day out of our visit and they were forecasting another 25 cm of snow for Calgary the next day. So Yvonne and I debarked at Edmonton and rented a car (at midnight our time) to drive the 173 km to Neerlandia, northwest of Edmonton. By the way, our luggage had to stay on the plane because Westjet didn’t have any ground crew to take it off.
    The driving was terrible: visibility was OK, but roads were snow-packed, choppy, and icy. The four-lane west of Edmonton that’s normally a 110 km speed limit had numerous vehicles in the ditch, including transports. We muddled along about 60 km/hour, lurching from side to side, losing traction with the steering sporadically. We arrived at Emily’s about 4 in the morning our time. Trenton had kindly put both heaters going in the guest-room-converted-from-a-garage, but although he’d checked on them half an hour later, they tripped the breaker before we got there, so the room was icy with the -23 degrees Celsius temperature outside. I prowled about in the basement and was able to find the electrical panel.
    That was Thursday (or rather, very early Friday morning). Our luggage arrived about 7 pm Saturday evening – just in time to give Aiden his VeggieTales birthday present. Why I’d packed his present in the checked luggage and Allison’s care parcel in the carry-on was beyond me!
    One other hitch in our plans – Monday evening I went online to check-in for our Tuesday noon flight back from Calgary to Kitchener. But online, the reservation said “cancelled”. Apparently we were no longer flying home as originally booked! When the company had added the Vancouver-Calgary shuttle, they had eliminated the Calgary-Kitchener leg. I phoned Westjet. After waiting on “hold” for two hours (with the phone on loudspeaker while trying to watch a movie with Meredith), the call suddenly disconnected. What to do? I drove to the airport and thankfully the Westjet agent was able to recover our original flight - even offering us a hotel room and meal vouchers for the night, which we declined.
    So much for my sage and expert planning! Have you had similar experiences? Such fiascoes remind us there are so many factors BEYOND our control – we’re pretty minuscule in the grand scheme of things.
    “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” (Ps 33:11) Mark 8, 9, and 10 contain three predictions by Jesus of His coming death and resurrection. In Caesarea Philippi, then Galilee, then on the way from the Jordan up to Jerusalem, they were zeroing in on the fulfilment of a plan which would fulfill God’s purpose from long ages past to redeem fallen sinners. Seven centuries earlier Isaiah had prophesied,  “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted...After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” (Isa 52:6; 53:11) Likewise Daniel had predicted,  “"Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.” (Da 9:24) God’s plan from ages past was about to reach its fulfilment, despite all the variables and forces that might have resisted it. The amazing thing? God’s purpose is harnessed to achieve our salvation, our rescue from sin and just condemnation. In 10:45 Jesus describes the purpose of His coming:  “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” John MacArthur comments, “Christ’s substitutionary death on behalf of those who would put their faith in Him is the most blessed, glorious truth in all of Scripture.” That’s the core of the divine plan that spans the aeons, God’s purpose that stands firm.


Despite the fact this was the third time Jesus had predicted His upcoming death and resurrection, the disciples don’t seem to “get it”. They sensed something big was about to happen at Jerusalem. Jesus was a “wanted” man by the authorities so a showdown was inevitable. The disciples probably shared the prevalent Jewish notion that the Messiah would be a political deliverer, conquering the Roman occupiers and restoring the Jewish nation to its earthly glory such as it enjoyed during the time of David and Solomon. They didn’t get the “suffering” aspect Jesus was predicting. Instead they were jockeying for position.
    V35 reveals James and John coming to Jesus with a request we might call a “blank cheque”: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” How nervy! It may be that their mother Salome was the sister of Mary Jesus’ mother, which would have made them “first cousins”, so maybe they were hopeful of pulling family strings. What exactly did they want? V37,  “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” In Jewish etiquette, these were the positions of highest honour. The seats of power.
    V38, Jesus cautions that they don’t understand what they’re asking, how this works: to be with Jesus, one must drink His cup (of suffering), be baptized / submerged / immersed in His experience – which in light of v34 includes mocking, spitting, flogging, and being killed. The 2 sons of Zebedee were picturing being seated beside Jesus in heavenly glory; did they have a more accurate picture when they beheld Him suffering on a cross with a dying thief on His right and His left? Did that scene at Golgotha make them stop and think what they’d really been asking for?
    In vv39f Jesus answers them, but it’s not really what they were wanting to hear:  “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” James was one of the first apostles to be martyred, killed by King Herod Agrippa with the sword in Acts 12(2). John suffered much with other believers in the early church and was exiled to the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). But by then they understood more about the kind of discipleship Jesus calls us to – not earthly dominion, but faithful spiritual witness.
    When Jesus says the positions on His right and left are “not for Me to grant”, it shows that He Himself is submitting to His Father’s authority; the Almighty wise Judge whose omniscience (all-knowing) assigns heavenly rank justly. The assignment has already taken place as the tense of the words “have been prepared” indicates.


Ambition leads to jealousy, discord, and conflict. V41 shows that the other ten disciples became indignant, “very displeased, vexed” with James and John when they found out they’d tried to “jump the queue”, “call shotgun”, steal the best seats. Not that any of them were immune to the virus of ambition: back in 9:34 Jesus confronted them after they’d been arguing on the road about who was the greatest. It’s so natural to compare ourselves to our peers, to try and figure out where we stand in the pecking order. But the Lord challenges us to not be conformed to this world’s conventions; v43, “Not so with you.” We’re called to a different order than this world’s fallen system of standards and values. This world often gets it backwards!
    V42,  “Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” NLT, “flaunt their authority.” On the flight home Yvonne and I watched a BBC documentary about the Roman emperor Nero who reigned about 60 AD. It was ghastly. For instance, he assassinated many wealthy people in order to get their wealth for his expensive building projects. Nero lived a debauched lifestyle and even had a male slave neutered so Nero could pretend this was an attractive female.
    Tyrants and dictators continue in our day. Syria currently has a leader who seems determined to destroy his own people rather than concede power. In the recent scandal in Washington involving Petraeus, Broadwell, and Allen, careers and decades-long marriages are going down the tubes because people in powerful positions thought they could take liberties. Unfortunately in politics those at the top figure they can “milk the system”. The New Living Translation puts Ecclesiastes 5:8f realistically, “Don’t be surprised if you see a poor person being oppressed by the powerful and if justice is being miscarried throughout the land.For every official is under orders from higher up, and matters of justice get lost in red tape and bureaucracy.Even the king milks the land for his own profit!”
    That may be how the world works – but Jesus points to a better way. Vv43f,  “Not so with you.Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” What? The greatest a SERVANT, not “lording it over”? Those who want to be first should try to be SLAVES of all, rather than wielding authority like a club?
    The apostles caught on to this. Paul wrote to the Corinthians,  “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” (1Cor 9:19) Peter exhorted church leaders,  “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers— not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1Pe 5:2-3) Hear the emphasis on serving?
    Paul commanded the Philippians (2:3),  “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” “Nothing out of selfish ambition” - but isn’t that what had brought James and John asking Jesus to do for them whatever they asked? Isn’t selfish ambition at the root of so many of our wants and desires? How can we ever live up to such a lofty standard?
    Look closely at the language in vv43-45: must - must - for; “whoever wants to become great among you MUST be your servant, and whoever wants to be first MUST be slave of all.FOR even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” In our own strength, the “musts” would be impossible; but in view of what the Son of Man has done, they become possible. “FOR” or BECAUSE Jesus gave Himself for us, the Holy Spirit empowers us to do the same for others. He led by example and enables us to follow. Luke 22:27,  “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” John 13:14,  “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”
    The challenging command of Php 2:3, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” comes in the context of the famous “emptying” passage of Php 2:5-8:  “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!” Christ served our greatest need by taking human form, and as a servant humbly dying for our sins at the cross, that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God. 2Cor 5:21,  “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Now His self-giving bolsters our giving our lives in serving others with God’s Good News in various forms.
    Those who are truly “great” have learned to serve. David McKenna writes, “Greatness is not to be sought; if it comes, it comes through giving.Life magazine carried an editorial comparing the lives of great people, such as Winston Churchill, Pope John XXIII, and Albert Schweitzer. None of them aspired to greatness as his primary goal. Each of them sacrificed himself in order to be a servant of the people. According to the conclusion of the editorial, they were GREAT because they chose first to be GOOD.”
    During my “Continuing Education” time last week I read two books, The Imperfect Board Member and Radical Together. In the latter, David Platt, pastor at a church in Birmingham Alabama, studied James 1:27 with his congregation. That verse says,  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” He concluded with an unusual invitation: “If Christ in you is compelling you to be a part of serving children in our county in this way, then please come to a meeting 2 weeks from today.” Platt had queried the social services director about how many families it would take to look after all the foster and adoption needs in their county; first she laughed, then after collecting herself she had replied, “It would be a miracle if we had 150 more families.” At that meeting two weeks after the sermon, more than 160 families signed up to help with foster care and adoption in the county. Platt concludes, “As a result, our faith family is now filled with children from all over our city as well as from countries all around the world.The immense joy of foster and adoptive care has invaded our church, and our families will never be the same.” For many in that church, “greatness in serving” translated into serving children, doing all they can to ensure that every child in the county had loving arms around him or her at night.
    Jesus served you well by suffering and dying for your sin, and preparing an eternal home for you in righteousness. How is He calling you to become great by serving? Have you made Him “first” in your life – He who gave His life as a ransom for many? Then, what’s it look like for YOU with your particular gifts and abilities to be “slave of all”? Let’s pray.