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The more I study the Bible and look at the realities of the way we contemporary Christians are inclined to live our lives, the more I am convinced that we have forced our secular way of living onto Scripture instead of allowing Scripture to radically transform the way we live. The more I study the life and teachings of Jesus, the more I am convinced that He is in the business of radically disrupting the patterns of how we do our business. As the Sovereign God of the universe, His is an upside-down kingdom, the ground rules of which are different from the ground rules by which you and I are inclined to function.
Do yourself a favor. Open yourself to hearing a Word from God as perhaps you have never quite opened yourself before. Listen to hear if God has something to say to you through this passage of Scripture in which Jesus sets His face toward Jerusalem.
First, we just don’t seem to get the message of the upside-down kingdom in which Jesus is not the conquering hero but a Suffering Servant (Mark 10:32-34).
Do you see the picture? In some ways, there is nothing unusual about the scene. Jesus often walks ahead of the crowd, and He has already alerted His disciples that He is going to go to Jerusalem. Mark, though, declares that the disciples were “astonished” and the other followers were “afraid.” Apparently the air was heavy with the weight of an impending doom. Does it come from a kind of heaviness with which Jesus strides forward, beginning the last fifteen miles of his foot-plodding journey to Jerusalem? Perhaps He throws His shoulders back and His chin forward in an act of high resolve. Whatever it is, something strikes those around Him with emotional impact.
Perhaps you’ve seen the musical drama Man of La Mancha. If so, you’ll remember how Cervantes’ Don Quixote mounts the ladder leading from the dungeon to his death. In the scene he stretches to his full stature and lifts upward his eyes to a goal beyond the guillotine.
Lagging behind him is Sancho Panza, his dim-witted and hunched-back squire. Cowardice spreads across Sancho’s face as he measures the consequences of following his master. Then Sancho sees the courage, the resolute spine, the vision, the uplifted eyes of the man with the “impossible dream.” This triggers something within him. His cowardice disappears. He begins to imitate his master. Suddenly his back is straight; his eyes are clear; his joy is full as he steps on the first rung of the ladder on the way to death and glory.
Mark’s picture of this resolute Jesus, leading the way to Jerusalem in order to fulfill God’s will, packs the same emotion. Jesus has a way of grabbing hold of you and me, His followers, and transforming our cowardice into amazement. This enables us to handle our self-protective, common-place existences with a sense of expendability as we associate with Him in His work on our behalf. His courage becomes our courage when we are willing to expose ourselves to Him as our Leader.
Jesus was willing to share with His disciples precisely what was coming. This was not the first time He had done it; it’s the third time that He predicts His passion. This time He gives the full sequence of details, declaring: that He would be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law; that He would be condemned to death; that He would be handed over to the Romans; that they would mock Him and spit on Him and flog Him and then kill Him; and that three days later He would rise from the dead.
In this third prophecy of His passion, He adds two new elements. One is the transfer to the Roman court of the Gentiles. The other is the ridicule, the contempt, the beating that will follow. For a Jew, this was the ultimate disgrace. Imagine the impact of this. Not only was He going to be rejected by His own people, the Jews, He would also be humiliated by the Gentiles. This wasn’t what His followers had in mind.
What kind of “king” is this?
This is an upside-down economy, isn’t it? This is a kingdom that works in reverse of the kingdoms of this world.
James McGregor Burns divides leaders into two types: “transactional” leaders and “transformational” leaders. A transactional leader is one who searches for the goals of the group and negotiates a program to achieve them. A transformational leader is one who has an all-consuming vision to which he calls his followers and has a charismatic personality by which he leads them.
According to Burns, neither leadership style is right for all situations. In periods of calm, people want a transactional type of leader. However, in crisis circumstances, they want someone who is a transformational leader. As such a leader, Jesus sets His face steadfast toward Jerusalem. He shares with His disciples that He is not going there to be a king like the Herods or an emperor like the Caesars; He is going there to be a Suffering Servant. He is going to Jerusalem to die and, in the process, this would demand something of His true followers that would extend beyond what is wanted from other leaders.
Let me ask you a very personal question. Have you allowed Jesus Christ to transform your life? Is He your Savior? Is He your Lord? I know you’ve referred to Jesus many times as your “Lord and Savior.” I am not asking if you can mouth those words in a very pious way. I am asking you if you have come to a point in life where you are willing to follow Him in that radical aspect of who He is, as the One who is in the process of turning your life upside-down, rather than as the sweet, comforting, caring Jesus, who is going to solve all your problems in this life and in the life to come.
Jesus is enlisting you to live in that economy that doesn’t function the way this world functions. His kingdom is not of this world. It is the kingdom of God in which the stranglehold of sin is broken by His death and resurrection. Once you repent of sin and put your trust in Him, He enlists you to be His agent of reconciliation, to live in daily relationship with the Father, and to be a participant with Him in His suffering.
Several close friends in my age bracket have lost children in their 20s to death. Two of these friends are in full-time, Christian ministry. As the three of us compared notes, I discovered something very interesting. One of them told me, “I used to teach and preach what the Bible said about heaven. I believed every word of it. But it wasn’t until my son died that I came to an existential realization of what Jesus came to do, and that was to destroy the stranglehold of sin and death and to make heaven and the life to come available to us all. I am getting now so that some days I yearn for heaven and look forward so much to being reunited with my son. And, frankly, my grasp on this life is much lighter as a result.”
I have found the same to be true. I don’t think it’s a “death wish.” It’s not that I don’t like this world. I enjoy the privileges of being alive as much as anyone else. But what’s happening to me is that I am increasingly overwhelmed with the reality that this life is very fragile and quite short at its longest. Yet most of us live this life as if it is all there is.
If this is all there is, you and I are might well be accused of wasting our time talking about faith in Jesus. If this is all there is, we might well be accused of participating in a bland, ethical humanism and following a dead, martyred, first-century rabbi who had some fascinating ethical notions. Sure, it’s regrettable that the poor fellow was awfully naive, got in trouble with the authorities and was crucified before he had a chance to come into His prime at age 33, just three years into His public ministry.
Yes, with such a person we can be at ease about the whole thing, following His teachings when we feel like it and living with the ground rules of the kingdom of this world instead of the principles of His upside-down economy.
I challenge you to get with it. Jesus knew precisely what He was doing. And He did it for you and for me. He challenges us to be His ambassadors in this new kingdom. He challenges you and me to take up our crosses and follow Him. He challenges us to realize that what’s beyond this life is so much greater than what’s here. We are able to be expendable, suffering servants along with Him.
Second, we just don’t seem to get the message of an upside-down kingdom in which the person who wants to be great must be a servant and the person who wants to be first must be a slave to all (Mark 10:35-41).
If we track each of the three passion prophecies in which Jesus revealed in a progressive way what was going to happen to Him at Jerusalem, we will find that each prophecy was followed by an inappropriate rebuke or request from the disciples who made up Jesus’ inner circle. At the first announcement by Jesus, Peter took it upon himself to rebuke Jesus for talking about His forthcoming suffering. At the time of the second prediction, John contested with Jesus about an exorcist who was not a disciple but had been casting out demons in the name of Jesus.
In the third passion prophecy, James and John come together, in what is the ultimate statement of personal ambition, and presumptuously request nothing less than the highest rank in Christ’s kingdom. Jesus listens as they ask to be seated on the right hand and on the left hand, next to Christ’s throne, when He reigns in glory. Matthew adds an interesting footnote; he tells us that Salome, the mother of James and John, came along with them and actually spoke for them, trying to use her maternal clout to get the two highest positions for her sons.
There is nothing more disgusting than when we apply the protocol game of this world’s power, status and position, jockeying for the kingdom of God. What does this ambition do? It breeds jealousy; we begin to compare ourselves to others. Just imagine if Jesus had granted them their desire. Based on their approach to Him, one would be on the left side and the other on the right side. But which one? There could have been a bloody, fratricidal battle between these two. In the Jewish standard of rank, the right-hand seat is the place of highest honor. These two chaps had not worked it out between themselves as to who would get what. I imagine each fantasized himself as being on the right hand.
Those who spend time around kings, queens, or presidents have a personal understanding of protocol. No one walks ahead of Queen Elizabeth; in Britain, she leads the way. In the halls of Washington, no one leaves the room until the President is escorted out. At a board of directors meeting in any major corporation, it doesn’t take long to figure out who is sitting in the “power” seat.
Our text says that James and John’s power play leaked out to the other ten disciples. They don’t like it. All the work that Jesus had done — to bring together a band of followers who would bring spiritual revolution here on earth — is threatened by this crass power play. Jesus doesn’t deny there’s a standard of rank in His kingdom; He points out the measure of greatness in the kingdom of God.
But He bases greatness not on worldly protocol as to who has the biggest office, or who has the key to the executive washroom, or who has a parking space with his name on it, or how big one’s expense account is. He articulates greatness in terms of whether or not those of us who are His disciples are sharing in the cup of His suffering, whether we are being submerged in the very baptism of His death.
To cut off their bickering power plays, Jesus calls these disciples together:
“You know that those who are regarded as 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 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” (Mark 10:42-45).
That ended their discussion fast. But frankly, power plays destroy our churches; power plays destroy our human spirituality; those of us who would make power plays for greatness in God’s kingdom are in trouble.
Nothing will faster destroy your personal joy than to deny your own spiritual gifts and covet those of another. God has created you unique and special. There is only one you. In over half a century of living and in over thirty years of ministering and watching my own tendencies toward jealousy, I have observed that discontentment with what God has given us and the desire for what God has given someone else subjects us to the spiritual malignancy of jealousy. Every one of us has enough wonderful God-given gifts.
The apostle Paul uses the metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12, declaring that all of us are parts of Christ’s Body. We dare not disparage what parts we are and what roles we have to accomplish. If I’m a hand of the Body, I’d better be the best hand I can be and not want to be an eye. If I’m an eye of the Body, I’d better be the best eye I can be and not try to be a foot.
For over thirty years I have been part of a fellowship of men and women who follow Jesus Christ and share their faith with other men and women working in business, in government, in the arts and sports. This group is a very low-key fellowship. It works to put men and women who are in government in touch with brothers and sisters in Christ in other governments around the world.
When the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Japan came to the United States, you saw how carefully the protocol was observed. You know also of trade problems and tensions yet to be resolved. What most do not know is — as a simple example of this networking of brothers and sisters who follow Jesus — there were other conversations occurring in Washington during the after-hours of the official, protocol observances. Brothers and sisters, both in office and out of office, met in the horizontal level of human need and personal relationship in the Name of Jesus, rather than in the vertical pecking order of diplomatic protocol. Brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ were reaching out to give, not get; serve, not rule. Frankly, it’s only at that level that the problems of this world will ever be solved. It is only at that horizontal level that we forget this “right-hand-of-Jesus” and “left-hand-of-Jesus” stuff and strive to be what Christ intends for us to be.
Third, we don’t get the message of an upside-down kingdom in which a blind person sees better than a person with 20-20 vision (Mark 10:46-52)!
There is such a thing as “blind sight.” We have to put ourselves in the setting to understand what’s happening here. Jesus has predicted His death in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Suffering Servant. Jesus has dealt with the petty jealousies that threatened to divide His band of disciples who He has called to servant leadership. Now He is on the last leg of His journey, leaving the tropical town of Jericho, snuggled in the southern-most neck of the Jordan River where it dumps into the Dead Sea. Jesus is ready to begin the 15-mile climb to Jerusalem, from 1,300 feet below sea level to 3,000 feet above sea level.
The Passover is approaching. The road to Jerusalem is jammed with pilgrims who are chanting their way to the holy city. Alongside the road is another crowd. These are the people who love a parade. Some of them are curiosity seekers. Some of them are those who are too poor, handicapped, diseased, or sinful to make the journey to Jerusalem. The crowd following after Jesus has become large. A festive atmosphere is the initial setting for what ultimately will be the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday.
The young Rabbi from Nazareth, who has challenged the religious establishment, is on His way. Suddenly a voice cries out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Whose voice is that? Jesus, His disciples, many in the crowd turn to the source of the call. It’s that old blind beggar, Bartimaeus, making a fool out of himself. Those around him try to shut him up. Again he cries out to Jesus. We see that Jesus, the Suffering Servant who came to die, the Suffering Servant who came to serve, is also the Suffering Servant who came to heal. He does just that.
On other occasions I’ve preached about blind Bartimaeus and how Jesus is interested in touching you and me with His healing. What strikes me in the context of this message is not so much what Jesus did for Bartimaeus but how it is possible to have blind sight. It is possible for someone with so little to be much more aware of what’s important, what’s real. Some of us have so much that we don’t know how to set priorities and see what’s important.
I am stunned by Bartimaeus’ blind sight. There are two aspects to this blind sight that impress me.
First, he was aware of his pitiful condition. From his mother’s womb he had been blind. He knew what his problem was. Do you and I know ours? Some of us have allowed a veneer of respectable religiosity to get in the way of our awareness. The depth of our sin, the dark side of our nature, needs Christ’s forgiveness.
Bartimaeus, in his blindness, with a brilliance of insight, cries out for “mercy.” That’s the bottom line for each of us. You and I will never be whole until we become aware of the depth of our need, the pitifulness of our condition, and call out to Jesus for help.
Second, Bartimaeus, in his blind sight, displayed penetrating insight into the person of Jesus Christ. Although Matthew twice records that Jesus was called “Son of David” during his Galilean ministry, this is the only place in Mark that He is called that; Jesus later refers to Himself as the Son of David in Mark 12:35. Bartimaeus had never studied theology. He probably didn’t know too much about the implications of what he was saying. But he had come to a great spiritual insight about Jesus.
Someone bluntly asked blind and deaf Helen Keller, “Isn’t it terrible to be blind?” You know what her response was? She responded, “Better to be blind and see with your heart than to have two good eyes and see nothing.” That pretty well describes blind Bartimaeus, whose blindness gave way to benefits. He had a lot of time to think; he wasn’t distracted by other sights; he was able to develop an interior life; he had a contemplative spirit; he could see with his heart. He hooked up his own need with that spiritual insight which came by his physical blindness. He cried out to Jesus for help, and would not let anyone shut him up.
Whatever your need is, cry out to Jesus. He is passing your way now. He is interested in you now. No need you now have is so great that He cannot touch it. It is in the very overwhelming nature of our needs that we become aware of our helplessness and are able to reach out humbly to touch the One who came not only to die, not only to serve, but also to give His healing transformation, both for this life and the life to come.
I don’t know what your need is this morning, but I invite you to be part of this upside-down kingdom, this upside-down economy, this radically different way of doing business. I invite you to become an energetic participant in the sufferings of Jesus. I invite you to become willing to serve. I invite you to be willing to see your need to be healed. And I invite you to help in His Name others who need His touch of wholeness.