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Pentecost 22B Sermon
Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10: 35-45
21, 2018


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Hebrews 5:1-10

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you’;
as he says also in another place,
‘You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.’
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his risen son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

When I was in Houston this past summer for the ELCA Youth Gathering, I rode past the Lakewood Church on a couple of occasions. Lakewood Church, under the leadership of Joel Osteen, meets in the former Compaq Center in downtown Houston, a 16,800 seat venue where the Houston Rockets used to play before building a new arena. With four English speaking services and two Spanish speaking services, they have about 52,000 people gathering each week.

Osteen’s messages mostly center around positive thinking. Here are a couple of quotes: “Choosing to be positive and having a grateful attitude is going to determine how you’re going to live your life.” “When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance.” It is a wonderfully powerful message, I mean, who doesn’t want to hear that everything can be better if I just start giving more of myself to others and only thinking about good, positive things. It is kind of the magic pill for what seems to be ailing most of society.
But the thing that I hear about the congregation of Lakewood Church and others like it is that they have a tremendous turnover rate. Certainly it sells a lot of books; sure it attracts a lot of people … but when the rubber hits the road and not everyone experiences the positive outcomes promised with positive living and thinking, then they are quick to abandon the one who made the promise and either look for someone else to help them or, more likely, abandon all religion out of desperation and disappointment. It is a great business model – it has made Joel Osteen into a very rich man!! But it is not a very faithful mission statement for a Christian church. There is no mention of the cross or suffering; no focus on the resurrection promise for all of God’s beloved children.

We have three very poignant passages of scripture this morning. From Isaiah we heard the fourth in a series of servant songs depicting some mysterious character who willingly and humbly gives his very life for the sake of others. We are not sure who this passage was describing in its original context – maybe Isaiah himself, maybe an unknown figure, maybe the whole community of Israel who is hoping to return home from Exile any time now - but we Christians certainly see Jesus in these words, and as the perfect fulfillment of this prophecy we have the hope that whenever we suffer innocently, it will not be in vain.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews likens Jesus to a High Priest. Technically Jesus cannot be a High Priest because he is not related to Aaron, Moses’ brother. Only those from Aaron’s line could be High Priests. But he is in the line of this man named Melchizedek. Melchizedek appears very briefly in Genesis 14:18-20. He is both the king of Salem – the earlier name for Jerusalem – and also a priest of the most high God. He blesses Abram and his family and Abram gives him a tithe. Then Melchizedek disappears from the scene. According to the author, Jesus is that very same priest. That is important because he is able to not only offer sacrifice for our sinfulness, but being a human person, we can identify with him in life. He was not a spirit or angel or any other kind of being. He was a man – one who himself suffered and became the sacrifice that gets offered up to God. He exhibited reverent submission through his suffering and death, so that our own sufferings and deaths will not be in vain. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Sounds a lot like that servant from Isaiah 53.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is responding to James and John when they want to sit at his right and left hands in his glory. Just before this interaction Jesus reminded them of the reason they are all going up to Jerusalem – so that he can be handed over to those who will beat him and kill him on a cross before he is raised again after three days. It is ironic that James and John make this request, then. The irony will play out as the story unfolds. It is ironic that the ones at Jesus’ right and left hands are two thieves who get crucified along with him. It is ironic that in the garden Jesus doesn’t want the cup and prays that it may pass from him, but here, James and John claim to be able to drink from that cup. It is ironic that just as Jesus was immersed fully into the water of baptism by John, now he is immersed fully into human life, even and including the bad stuff of life –the sin and death that come with it. This is the life of discipleship into which we are all called to participate – not a life of positive thinking and living so that the cup of suffering might pass us by. It is a life where we live in the tension of a generous, loving God who calls us to respond with prayer, praise and thanksgiving, and it is a life where the cup of suffering will not automatically pass us by. Instead, we have this intimate connection and solidarity with the one who endured it faithfully to the end, the High Priest in the line of Melchizedek, Jesus Christ our Lord.

This past Thursday my daily devotional included a wonderful and timely quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner. In his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Kushner dispels a common myth about suffering and helps us see our way through intense pain: The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because [God] knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. . . . But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. . . . Kushner goes on: Like Jacob in the Bible, like every one of us at one time or another, you faced a scary situation, prayed for help, and found out that you were a lot stronger, and a lot better able to handle it, than you ever would have thought you were. In your desperation, you opened your heart in prayer, and what happened? You didn’t get a miracle to avert a tragedy. But you discovered people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive the tragedy. I offer that as an example of a prayer being answered.

In becoming the human priest, Jesus suffered just as we suffer. The hope that we cling to is not the promise that if I choose to be positive then I can determine how I am going to live my life; rather the hope that we cling to is that living in the peace, love and joy of Jesus, we can live our lives for others just as Christ lived his life for us. And when (not if but when) we suffer pain, disappointment and brokenness because of our sinfulness or the sinfulness of others, that is when we can best identify with our crucified God who still walks with us crucified people.

Jesus is not observing human suffering from a distance; Jesus is somehow at the center of human suffering, with us and for us. That is a gospel message that might not pack arenas, but provides strength for the days ahead. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.