Matthew 20:17-28 – On Being a Servant

Jesus bronze sculpture washing feet
Bronze statue of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, Pittsburgh, Texas

Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling, asked a favor 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.”

 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, 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 by my Father.”

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 become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 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.” (NIV)

Today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew is the very description of not being on the same page. There were two variant responses from Jesus and from everyone else because there were two different agendas.

Jesus was quite clear about how things were going to shake out. Torture, insults, crucifixion, and death was ahead for him. The disciples and the mother of James and John missed the memo on this. Christ’s words went way over their heads. It could be the disciples simply did not hear what Jesus was saying to them (repeatedly!). It is more likely that the message of Jesus got filtered through an existing agenda of how they believed things ought to go.

The disciples, along with a lot of other Jewish folk in the first century, were looking for a Messiah in the mold of King David – a strong leader who would come and beat up the Romans, exert all kinds of power and influence, and establish an earthly rule over all the people they don’t like. Submission to torture, humility before the very people they detested, and being killed by them were not factors into the disciples understanding of leadership and government.

Much like the powerful Aslan who had a thorough understanding of the world’s deep magic and submitted himself to the White Witch and death in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Jesus knew what he was doing while everyone else seemed clueless about the true power which exists in the universe.

So, let us be perfectly clear about what that power really is: Grace. Yes, grace. Powerful, resplendent, subversive, scandalous, and radical grace. Mercy was the missing factor in the disciples’ agenda. Jesus is not like other rulers. He does not operate by throwing his weight around to forcefully impose a crushing my-way-or-the-highway kind of rule (even though, ironically, he is The Way). No, Jesus freely and unabashedly uses grace with its merciful tools of humility, gentleness, kindness, goodness, and love to introduce and establish a new kind of rule which is not posturing for selfish power.

Power, authority, and the positions which go with them are to be used for the common good of all persons. To be in any kind of leadership is to be a servant of grace for the benefit of humanity and the world. And, if Christ’s disciples had looked a bit closer into their Old Testament, they might have noticed, for all his power and authority, King David trafficked in grace. When David was at the pinnacle of power his first act as King was to look over the kingdom and see who from the family of his enemy, the former King Saul (who was into the power thing for himself) was around so he could show grace (2 Samuel 9). It was typical of ancient kings to secure their rule and power through killing-off rivals and former family members of previous kings. Not so with David. And not so with Jesus.

Wherever there is posturing for position, preening for power, and a pestering for privilege – there you will find everything grace is not: reliance on making and calling-in favors; overinflated egos; unrealistic expectations; suspicion; judgment, arrogance; an insistence on recognition; compulsive control over everything and everyone; unilateral decision-making; shaming of others; hoarding of resources; coups; in-fighting; hatred; and, a demand of rights. We in the western world may not be in the habit of offing leaders and killing others to consolidate power, yet, we still too often rely on violent speech and language, partisan policies, and good-old-boy systems which are foreign to the way of Christ. In contrast to this, grace exists.

Grace is the deep magic which resides within the universe.

Wherever grace operates, there you will find the heart of a servant: attending to the needs of all persons; freely consulting and collaborating with others; focusing on responsibility; loving discipline; embracing accountability; pursuing truth; sharing power and resources; encouraging others; giving generously; and, looking for ways to show mercy.

In this Christian season of Eastertide, the Church focuses on exploring new life, and new ways of being with one another and the world. The old life is consumed with unmerciful uses of position and power. New life brings a shift to a gracious means of wielding such authority. Yes, it will likely bring some short-term suffering. It will hurt. Grace, however, results in a longevity of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. True service is being a servant of grace.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Click Make Me a Servant by the Maranatha Singers and allow it to be our prayer today and everyday.

Grace is the Word

            One of my all-time favorite stories in the entire Bible is one that many people are not familiar with.  As far as I’m concerned, this story deserves to be up there as a hall-of-fame kind of story.  It is tucked away in the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel, almost as a parenthetical aside to the great victories and kingdom of David.  Within this one story we get to know the true heart of ministry, and the shape of what our Christian calling can look like in a world gone mad.
            David was at the pinnacle of his success.  For years, he roved all over the place hiding from King Saul.  David’s only crime was that he made the king jealous – envious enough for Saul to put out a hit on him.  Saul eventually was killed in battle, and David ascended the throne with a series of great military victories on every side of Israel.
            It is important to keep in mind that in the ancient world, kings who ascend the throne typically begin their reign by killing any-and-all potential rivals to the throne.  It was so common as to be expected.  So, if you are reading 2 Samuel 9 for the very first time and David begins by saying, “I wonder if any of Saul’s family are still alive,” you expect the hammer to come down.  David is going to secure his throne with eliminating Saul’s family.
            But David, in a twist that befits the heart of a man of God, gives his reason for wondering: “If they are, I will be kind to them, because I made a promise to Jonathan.”  Rather than find relatives of Saul to kill, David wanted to find family members, so that he could show kindness.
            This is how it is supposed to work in the kingdom of God, and in the Body of Christ – kindness to someone who does not deserve it.  Turns out Mephibosheth was still alive, and David graciously plucked him from his life as a disabled person and brought him to the palace to care for him.
            “Kindness” is a beautiful word.  It is translated as such from the Hebrew word “chesed.”Chesed [pronounced “hes-ed”] is God’s steadfast love, his infinite mercy, his loyal commitment to always watch over and care for his people.  And that is exactly what David did for Mephibosheth.
            Oftentimes, church leaders and parishioners wonder how to attract solid upper middle-class people.  Or, at least people who are much like themselves.  Those put-together-people would be able to help support the church, sustain the budget, and provide fresh volunteers for getting things done.  It is the standard operating procedure for many places.
            But what if we took a lesson from David and turned this on its head.  Instead, we scan the horizon and wonder if there are any broken people out there in our sphere of influence for whom we can show God’s steadfast love, mercy, grace, and kindness.  And then do it. Without forming a committee.
            David made a space at his table for Mephibosheth.  One practical way we can show grace is by opening our dinner table to another.  Anyone can do it.  My wife and I, back in our early years, didn’t even have a kitchen table.  But that didn’t stop us.  We invited people to share peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with us on the floor of our tiny apartment.
            We can create space and loving mercy at church by opening the Table to the spiritually disabled.  Broken and hurting people need the healing of communion with God and the Body of Christ more than anyone.  In some sense, this is all of us.  Everyone needs the healing which can result from participating in the Lord’s Supper.
            Like David, inquire about the people in your neighborhood and community.  The first step is to find out who they are.  Then, second, find a way to meet them.  And, third, just say “hi” to them.  Let an invitation to share food together arise organically and naturally, without being forced and having an agenda other than the curiosity to discover another person.

            This can be done at church, as well.  Scanning the building for lost and lonely people, you will see them if you look.  Walk across the room and engage them in a merciful conversation worthy of your spiritual ancestor, David.  Pay attention to how the Spirit leads, and follow.  Let us know how it goes.

 

            All of God’s Word is about God’s merciful wooing of wayward people back to himself.  The Lord specializes in unfocused, fuzzy lives; and, gives grace.  Truly, grace is the Word.

Psalm 35:1-10

            Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is.  There is a time to do your best in putting up a good face and dealing with people who don’t ever stop gossiping, slandering, and trying to get their way.  But there is also a time to call such behavior “evil” and cry out to God for help.
            Psalm 35 is a classic prayer in the category called “imprecatory psalms.”  The term “imprecatory” means to call down a curse on a person or group of people.  Maybe this surprises you that there is such language in the Bible.  In fact, there are 18 such imprecatory psalms which make a clear petition to God for him to turn the evil back on themselves that they inflict (or try to inflict) on others.
            I’m a believer in making simple observations about the biblical text.  Let’s observe a few things about such psalms:
1.      David asks God to deal with the evil behavior of powerful people.
Unlike most of us, David went through a time in is life where there were powerful people who were literally trying to hunt him down and take his life.  As much as we might speculate whether David wanted to take matters into his own hands, the fact remains that he didn’t.  David relied on God to execute judgment.
2.     David did not hold his feelings back in describing exactly what he wanted God to do.
There is nothing sanitized here in the psalm.  David was understandably upset.  He did nothing wrong, yet he was being chased like an animal.  David said it plainly to God: “attack my attackers;” “aim your spear at everyone who hunts me down;” “send your angel after them;” “surprise them with disaster;” and, “let them fall and rot in the pits they have dug.”  Whatever you might think about how a proper Christian ought to say and pray, imprecatory curses might not be your first thought.  But here they are, out there for us to read in the Holy Bible.
3.     The psalms are the prayer book of the church.
That includes the imprecatory psalms.  Yes, they ought to be prayed by us right along with psalms of praise, thanksgiving, and song.  I want you to think what might be a radical thought for you: We ought to include imprecatory prayers in our regular rhythms, routines, and rituals of prayer.
 
            Evil will not have the last word.  God opposes the proud and the arrogant who step on others to get their way.  But he gives grace to the humble, that is, those who look to him for justice and righteousness; are open about their feelings of hurt and upsetedness; and, lift-up imprecatory prayers which are biblically consistent.

 

Saving God, you protect the helpless from those in power and save the poor and needy who cry out to you.  Mighty God, turn back on those with slanderous tongues, gossiping words, and sinful actions the evil they intend to inflict on others.  Let them fall into a deep black hole for which they cannot get out and harm anyone again; through King Jesus, our Savior, in the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

2 Samuel 1:4-27

            In the evangelical church today it is sometimes looked down upon to grieve since we know the reality of heaven.  This is both wrongheaded and unbiblical.  Bereavement in Scripture is a reality and recognized as an important part of coming to grips with death.  Far from stuffing his feelings, David personally expressed his grief and agony over the death of his best friend.
 
            Here are a few observations about David’s lament:  it was not only personal, but was voiced publically, meaning that others were invited to grieve along with him; it affirmed the tragedy of death and its deep impact upon us; it focused on remembering the positive characteristics of the deceased; and, it was verbalized with heartfelt thoughts and emotions.
 
            Grief and lament is as individual as a fingerprint; there is not fixed process to a person’s bereavement.  Therefore we cannot pigeon-hole ourselves or someone else to fit a certain way of grieving.  But no matter how we grieve, we must do it so that we come to a point of making sense how to live without the person’s presence and relationship.  David was close to the Lord, and God’s presence was the most decisive factor in helping him move on to the demands of serving others as their new king.
 

 

            Compassionate God, you are present with all who grieve and lament this day.  Let your Holy Spirit come alongside and encourage those in bereavement, and enable me to be a conduit of blessing to them.  May your grace be sufficient for us all; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Psalm 31:9-16


            David of old knew first-hand about suffering through hard circumstances.  There were times when he felt completely overwhelmed by evil people who were trying to take his life.  If we could put ourselves in David’s sandals we might totally understand why he was worn-out to the point of not sleeping, not eating well, even with a hint of paranoia.  David entrusted himself to God, and truly believed he was in the Lord’s hands – and that fact was his go-to truth.
             There are times when we all struggle with why afflictions happen to us, in whatever form they might take in us.  Yet, it is in the times of being forgotten by others that we are most remembered by God; it is in the situations of trouble that God is the expert in deliverance; it is when people revile us, say terrible things about us, and talk behind our backs that God comes alongside and whispers his grace and steadfast love to us.  In other words, it is only when life is downright hard that we can see a soft-hearted God standing to help us and hold us.
             So, the psalms are the consummate place to run when we are most in need.  They provide the means to lift up heartfelt prayers when our own words fail us.  The psalms give us structure and meaning when the world around us makes no sense.  The psalms do not always give us answers to our most vexing questions, but they do point us to the God who can do something about the sin of this fallen world – Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
             Sovereign God, life can often treat me poorly, yet you are always good to me.  Work in me a heart of faith and devotion to the point where my anxieties melt away, and trust takes over through the power of the Spirit.  Amen.

1 Kings 1:1-30

            A person’s impending death can bring out a lot of different behaviors in the people around the dying.  Death really ought to teach us how to live, how to face our limitations, and how to accept the inevitable.  Notice some of the responses of various people in today’s Old Testament lesson concerning the last days of the aged King David.
 
            The servants of David treat the king’s declining health as some sort of problem to be solved in order to avoid or put off his death.  Maybe David would be aroused through giving him a beautiful virgin, and he would get back to his old kingly self.  David’s son, Adonijah, on the other hand, has just the opposite response; he is impatient to see his father die so that he can pursue his own kingly aspirations.  Bathsheba, one of David’s wives and the mother of Solomon, wants to make sure her son becomes king.  It seems David is just a pawn who can help her negotiate a difficult situation.  Finally, there is Abishag, the young woman who was with David in his final days.  It is interesting that we do not have recorded a single word of what she said.  She merely serves as a witness to David’s deteriorating health. 
 
            Out of these different people, it is Abishag that perhaps teaches us more about death than anyone else.  She was simply present and served the king; Abishag was like the ancient version of a hospice volunteer.  When faced with the eventual death of a friend or family member, to be present, to listen, and to serve are likely the best forms of dealing with the situation.
 
            The Lord Jesus faced death.  He didn’t try to avoid it; he wasn’t impatient to get it over with; and, it was not a difficulty to stoically endure.  His death is our life.  Christ’s death has brought meaning to both life and to our eventual death.
 

 

            Gracious Lord Jesus, you faced the agony of death so that I could have life.  Thank you for your sacrifice, and for giving my life meaning and purpose.  May I live for you in life and in death.  Amen.

2 Samuel 2:1-7

            “David inquired of the LORD.”  This is a wonderful commentary that characterized the life of King David.  Saul had pursued David, seeking his life.  But now Saul had been killed in battle.  Any other person in the sandals of David would have immediately set about to do away with any rival factions, any people who had been loyal to the previous ruler.  But David was not just any other run-of-the-mill kind of king.  He did not presume to act on his own accord, or know exactly what he should do.  Instead, he inquired of the Lord.
 
            David not only did an astounding thing by not wiping out those loyal to Saul, but he did one better:  he showed steadfast love to the men of Jabesh-Gilead who had been devoted to Saul.  David blessed instead of cursed; he acted kindly instead of coldly; he honored the memory of Saul instead of stamping out any vestige of him from the land.  David did not venture to immediately consolidate his power and rule over Israel and Judah.  Rather, he sought God, and his actions reflected the nature and character of God.
 
            Perhaps our words and actions do not always reflect the character of God because we dare to speak and act apart from inquiry of the Lord.  Maybe we only seek the Lord if we have enough discretionary time at the end of the day, or if we are in a pickle we want to get out of.  What if we began each day with seeking the Lord?  What if our default disposition and immediate knee-jerk reaction to everything was to ask God what we should do?  If we carve plenty of time to do so each morning, maybe we will be known as people who show steadfast love, and people who are after God’s own heart.
 

 

            Loving God, you are attentive to all I say and do.  Let my words reflect your gracious character, and my actions work in accord with your good purposes to the glory of Jesus.  Amen.