October 21, 2018 Ecumen
I looked up the meaning of my title today, and I think you will see it reflected in the gospel lesson today. High flying: “marked by extravagance, pretension, or excessive ambition.” James and John certainly seem to be marked in this story by excessive ambition and pretension. Jesus was bringing the Kingdom of God to pass, and they were busy seeking to be the highest ranking disciples there, even though they didn't understand what that would look like. But as we have been reading in the gospel of Mark this year, Jesus has continually stressed that personal ambition for greatness has no place in God's kingdom. Twice Jesus has told his followers, “The first shall be last.” He told them that to save their lives, they must lose their lives. And that, in order to enter the kingdom, they must become like children. And three times he has told them that he is to suffer and die, including the prelude to today's reading. The trouble was, as Jesus declared to Peter back in chapter 8, their minds were set on human things rather than divine things. (Mark 8:33). So our question today is, what does it mean to be honorably ambitious in divine things and when can ambition lead us astray? How do we fly high as followers of Jesus?
Meanwhile, Ma and Pa Hicks were sitting on the porch swing when Ma points up and tells Pa, “There's the biggest bird I've ever seen!” Pa took a good look and called to one of the kids to bring him his shotgun. He took careful aim. Bang, bang, bang. Three shots and yet the giant bird continued to soar over the trees.
Ma said, “You missed him, Pa.”
Pa replied, “Yeah, but at least I got him to let go of Ol' Zeke.”
That must have been quite a surprise to Ol' Zeke. But for a short time at least, he was high flying.
James and John had been high fliers before joining Jesus. If you recall, Jesus called them from their fishing boats. They were the sons of the fisherman Zebedee. We can imagine that they were successful, let's say they called their company the Zebedee and Sons Fishing Co. They caught and sold the fish they caught in the Sea of Galilee. And you can figure that James and John would have been in line to inherit this successful business. But they left all that when they followed Jesus. Commendable, but we see today that a certain level of personal ambition, the desire to be a high flier, remained in them.
And it seems this desire came naturally. You may recall this story from Matthew's gospel where he tells of their mother's ambition on their behalf. Matthew 20: 20-21 “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” The apples did not fall far from the tree.
Ambition is not inherently bad. We need ambitious, successful people for the world to advance in science and medicine and technology. Ambition is bad when it gets in the way of God's calling in our lives.
Most of us gathered here this morning have more years behind us than ahead of us. Whatever our youthful ambitions were, they are mostly in the past. They may have been achieved, maybe not. But what I want to focus on is what our ambitions in the kingdom of God should look like today. When James and John made their request, Jesus, as he often did, answered with his own question, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” To their credit, they answered they were, although I am not sure they understood what it meant. As I mentioned, Jesus had forewarned them about his suffering and death three times and they didn't get it. But they did drink the cup of suffering, they were baptized into his death. James was beheaded at the order of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2) and John was exiled to Patmos where he died at hard labor. For each of them, their ambition was redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. From that point on, they no longer lived for their own glory or even their future glory; they lived for others.
We are born with a certain, natural desire to live for ourselves, for our glory, our advancement...what James and John had sought. Another word for that could be pride. That is pursuing what we can get for ourselves...even in the church. The positions with more power and prestige. Making sure people see what we are doing... when we are doing good at least. From Christians Century: “glory in the kingdom of God doesn't look like glory in the kingdom of people.” Our selfish desire for glory, this pride, becomes cyclical. The more you get, the greater your need. The key is to end this cycle is to make sure our ambition is directed toward the proper goals. And Jesus gives us the keys to proper ambition. “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” And then Jesus points out that even he, the Messiah, had an ambition far from his own needs. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
See, the world's view of greatness is too often selfish. The kingdom calls us to greatness, but by directing our ambitions toward service. It took the death and resurrection of Jesus for James and John to come around. We've known the truth about Jesus for 2 thousand years and still we struggle to get it right. Ambition isn't wrong, but misplaced ambition is. As sons and daughters of God, our ambitions should be tempered by having a servant's heart. Or perhaps it is better said, we can become more ambitious, but our ambition should be focused on something greater than ourselves. Our ambition is to be for the kingdom of God and that means serving others
Author J. Oswald Chambers addressed this in a couple of his books. In Spiritual Leadership he wrote, “Jesus knew that the idea of leader as 'loving servant of all' would not appeal to most people. Securing our own creature comforts is a much more common mission. But "servant" is His requirement for those who want to lead in His kingdom.” This is the truth that James and John found. Have we found it? Or do we see success differently than Jesus defined it?
A poem from Chambers in his book, Robust in Faith, has a little different twist on success, or lack of it:
“I asked of God that He should give success
to the high task I sought for Him to do;
I asked that every hindrance might grow less
and that my hours of weakness might be few;
I asked that far and lofty heights might be scaled--
and now I humbly thank him that I failed.
For with the pain and sorrow came to me
a dower of tenderness in act and thought;
and with the failure came a sympathy,
an insight which success had never brought.
Father, I had been foolish and unblest
if thou hadst granted me my blind request.”
Chambers pointed out that suffering various failures in his life had served to make him more sympathetic, more tender in act and thought. James and John discovered in their suffering a heart for others. Can it be that as we look at our lives today, we can take the disappointments, the sorrows, the aches and pains and let God redeem them? As God works in our trials, our hearts are softened and we become kinder and gentler.
In our Tuesday bible studies, we've come back a couple times to a quote from the Apostle Paul in Romans. He wrote about how his suffering, and our suffering, can change our lives and make us more compassionate towards others. From 2 Corinthians 1: 5-7 “5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort..”
If our ambitions lead to all success and glory, we will miss out on learning to comfort and encourage one another in our shared sufferings. And so we can, like Chambers and Paul, give thanks to God for our failures, our suffering, our pains. For God redeems all things. God redeems sufferings, bringing blessings where we might see only trouble. God Redeems our pain into understanding. Redeems suffering into comfort. Redeems our failure to sympathy for others. Redeems selfish ambition into servanthood. Let us open our eyes to see God's redemption. “For whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” If you can learn to serve first, then you will be flying high in the kingdom of God! Amen.
Hymn: Trust and Obey pg 220