Sunday, October 22, 2006

Twentieth Sunday in Pentecost
Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

For thou, O Jehovah, art my refuge!

The television is filled with so-called “reality shows.” These programs are dedicated to the idea that someone will rise above all the others, someone will be the winner. They want to be the survivor, the idol, the apprentice. They will do whatever it takes to win the prize whether it is a statue, a job or a million dollars. They can build and destroy alliances in a heartbeat and are willing to lie, cheat or steal to get their way. They always want to be in control, because the winner is the one with the power.

There’s nothing different about our generation compared to every other generation of humans – except the manner in which we exercise control. It was the same for Adam and Eve as it is for us today. We all want to be Number One. For some the quest is very obvious – they climb the corporate ladder or audition for the reality television shows. For most people, however, the quest for control is much simpler. We work hard, plan well, establish relationships, gather resources. This is not necessarily a bad thing We prepare for emergencies, we take care of the needs of those we love, we flourish and live according to our basic human expectations. Yet, there is something in all of us that needs to control our circumstances.

For those who participate in the reality television shows, the need to control the circumstances often manifests in a seemingly arrogant attitude. In the confessional they admit that they believe they are the best. They put down others to lift themselves. They volunteer to go first, push to do best, justify their decisions even if they are unjustifiable. They believe that they deserve to be first, that they are the winner.

I’m not sure that is true of most of us, particularly in the Church. Of course there are always those who will push to the front, who will want to rule over others. However, most Christians have a certain sense of humility about their gifts. Though they know they would do well in the choir, they don’t want to volunteer because it might seem like they are trying to be noticed. Though they would make a wonderful Sunday School teacher, they are afraid that volunteering would seem arrogant. Even when asked they are hesitant, uncertain whether their gift is real or just a figment of their imagination.

It is a hard dichotomy in which we exist – our need for control and our certainty that we do not have what it takes to be in control. We stand between success and failure, at one moment seeking after the glory and in the next humbling ourselves as incapable of accomplishing the task. Failure means a sort of death, so we fight with our entire being to win, doing whatever is necessary.

I once trained to be a lifeguard. One of the most important lessons we learned is how to deal with a desperate victim. When someone is drowning, they fight even harder against the water. Unfortunately, they make it more difficult for themselves and for the lifesaver. The fight is exhausting, tiring the muscles much more quickly and causing them to cramp. The fight also affects the natural forces that would keep someone afloat. It is much better to lightly tread water than to try to paddle with all your might toward the shore, but desperation causes a person to work even harder to stay above water. The drowning person will even fight the lifeguard, grabbing on to them for safety but pushing them underwater. They want to be in control, but in the end the battle is lost for both.

Desperation causes us to fight against the things that are out of our control. Yet, we do not win those battles and we often bring down others in the process of trying to affect our circumstances. I’ve heard stories of people who were drowning in debt. A loved one offered a financial loan or gift to help them through the difficulty. When the amount did not seem to be enough to get them out of debt, they decided to make it grow quickly – perhaps by gambling. Instead of creating the necessary solution to the problem, the betting caused an even more difficult situation.

James and John were drowning, along with the other disciples. They saw the wonderful things Jesus was doing and heard the amazing things He was saying. They were there to hear Him command demons out of children and to heal men of their infirmities. They even participated in the healing and preaching and teaching. They were part of this amazing ministry and were looking forward to something even greater. We can almost identify with that desire to be Number One.

Yet at the same time they were afraid. Jesus was telling them something else, something deeper and harder to accept. He was telling them that there would be suffering and death. In the eighth through tenth chapter of Mark – since Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem – He has told them plainly three times that He will die. This did not fit in with their vision of the ministry, of the future for their movement. They were ready to do what was necessary, but they’d seen just enough failure to know they could not do it alone. They needed Jesus. They needed some guarantees. They needed to be in control.

Both the Old Testament and Epistle lessons for today give us a very clear picture of the will and purpose of God for Jesus. He was not to be a king who would sit on a throne in Jerusalem. He was both a suffering servant and a great high priest. He was called to serve others, many others. His service would not be to rule but to die. This is the task to which He was called and sent. He would be beaten and cut down not because of anything He did wrong, but for the sake of the world. He took upon Himself the sins of the world. As priest He presented Himself for sacrifice for the atonement of His people. His rule would not be for a brief moment on a throne, but for all eternity.

As we read today’s Gospel lesson, we see James and John as egotistical and overconfident. Yet, I imagine they were also uncertain and afraid. They were being thrust into a position they were not ready to take, one that they did not know that they could handle. They were being called to something much different than they expected. Jesus rejected their request and addressed their arrogance as well as their fears. He told them that He could not grant them their request because it was not for Him to give. Our calling, our vocation, our role in God’s kingdom comes from God. He will call and He will provide all we need to perform our duties. We simply respond with humility and God will see to the rest.

Sometimes this requires us to go into a situation with boldness and self confidence. All too often we think that if God wants us to do something, He’ll open the door and drag us in, so we withhold our gifts just waiting for that door to open when we should have been knocking. All too often I’ve heard the complaint that no one knew about a talent until it was too late. I did not offer, so they did not even know to ask. We keep silent because we do not want see arrogant and overconfident and yet we never get to use our gifts because they are hidden from those who might be blessed.

While we are torn between those two extremes – too bold or too humble – there is a balance between our desire to rule and our fear to rule. We find that balance by dwelling in God’s presence. The psalmist writes, “For thou, O Jehovah, art my refuge! Thou hast made the Most High thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy tent. For he will give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.” Though we might be afraid of the circumstances we face – of possible failure and possible success – under God’s grace we need not fear. God will make good come out of everything done by those who love Him. He will be there in the midst of it.

We need to take care, however, that we do not become overconfident in our own abilities to do the remarkable. The psalmist writes, “Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: The young lion and the serpent shalt thou trample under foot.” We are not being called to go after the lion and the adder to prove God’s power or the power with which we have been gifted. We have not been called to tempt God to prove Himself for the world. We can know that if the ministry to which we have been sent brings us in contact with snakes and lions, He will be there. However, we shouldn’t go chasing after snakes and lions to raise ourselves above others.

There is a balance between arrogance and uncertainty. It is faith. By faith we dwell in the presence of God living according to the vocation to which we have been called. We don’t have to go chasing after statues or jobs or million dollar prizes. We simply live in faith and know that God is near, keeping His hand upon us to help us do all that He has called us to do. Greatness is not found on a reality television show, but in humble service to the world in God’s name. Thanks be to God.

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