Trinity 20/Proper 24
Questions, Questions and more Questions!
I am going to start this sermon with a question!
Are you the kind of person who asks a lot of questions? There are little questions, big questions, easy, hard, dumb, unanswerable, un-askable, rhetorical, revealing, innocent and embarrassing questions that we all carry around in us and have asked of us. We all ask questions for different reasons: some people are naturally curious, sometimes we need better or clearer information, instruction or directions, some of us might be a busy-body and just want the news.
Questions form the basis of most conversations and communication. If you spend any time with children, you can be asked a multitude of questions on any number of subjects in a very short amount of time! I am sure that many of us have had the experience of being asked a question that we did not have an answer for. That awful feeling when the teacher asks you and you have no earthly idea what the answer is!
In this morning’s Gospel reading we see an exchange of questions between Jesus, James and John. This exchange shows the approachability of Jesus; and although their question was misplaced, Jesus engages seriously and compassionately with them. Previously in Mark 10, Peter put his case forward about the disciples giving up everything (homes, families, jobs) to follow Jesus. Jesus’ response to Peter is that all will receive it all back in this age and eternal life in the age to come.
James and John now seem to be putting their oar in and asking (which is actually a demand) to Jesus. They preface the request with: ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you’. They say this before they actually ask/tell Jesus what it is that they want him to do. There are very few people whose request I would grant before I knew what the request was!
Their question is often dismissed as foolish or arrogant , ‘oh those silly Sons of Thunder!’ and there is some truth to that, but James and John have done a couple of things right.
Jesus does not rebuff or get angry with them as the disciples did; Jesus welcomes the question, invites them to ask it, but has some questions of his own for James and John. Questions that are not easy to answer!
‘What is it that you want me to do for you?’ asks Jesus. The first thing James and John did right was that they have come to Jesus; generally a very good starting point. James and John clearly trust Jesus to come through for them. However it is evident that they may have missed what Jesus was trying to tell them about what was awaiting him: being handed over to the chief priests and scribes, condemned to death, handed over again, mocked, spat on, flogged and killed; and after three days rise again.
James and John believe that Jesus will come through in the end even though they skipped over that tricky middle bit! How is our trust this morning? Do we live like we believe that Jesus will come through in the end? Jesus should be, wants to be, our starting place; the safe place where we can take our questions.
Jesus invites them to ask and what do they want? The reply: ‘Sit at the right and left hand in your glory.’ James and John are not criticised for this request, not at least by Jesus. James and John believe that Jesus will win; Jesus will be in glory and they want to be right there with him. They are ambitious for God! They expect Jesus to be glorified. Jesus redirects these ambitions, wants to reset their priorities and motives.
How ambitious are we for God? The real danger we face as a church, a group of parishes and the Church more widely is: apathy, cynicism and complacency. These are the roadblocks to abundant living and transformation!
Jesus wants us to want more, seek more, hope more and need more of him. This, I think, is why he didn’t get annoyed with James and John as they were doing the right thing: going to him and asking but they needed some redirection.
Now the confident and bold request of James and John is rather tacky, somewhat ignorant and immature, the motives were more selfish than not. But they ask! They engage in a real relationship with Jesus. They want to stay close to him by being with him in his glory! Save us seats Jesus! We want to be with you!
This reminds me of all the times that I don’t ask, don’t engage and don’t lean into what Jesus might be trying to say to me. Sure, we might throw my own questions his way but how often do we stay around for an answer? Am we willing to wait even if it takes a long time?
The answer to the request of James and John does get answered. Jesus tells them that it is not his request to grant but it is for those whom it has been prepared. Sounds a little cryptic but Jesus is completely deferring to God. This is not Jesus’ decision to make. The purpose of God will not be thwarted! But neither can they be fully understood beforehand.
The places are seemingly prepared for those who want to serve. This is what James and John fail to recognise and probably the other upset disciples too. Jesus calls them together for a lesson of ‘supreme importance’ as one commentary put it. Jesus is not going to operate like the world does, ruling with tyranny and a heavy hand.
Jesus came to serve and not be served. You want to sit on my left and on my right? Then you must be the servant. Want to be first, then you have to be the last! Give up your entitlement, move downwards. This isn’t about rules but a way of life.
The real question we need to ask is: ‘What can I do for you?’. This is a question to ask of God but also to each other. Be prepared for more questions than answers; not always what you want to hear but always loving and always true.
Like James and John, we might want God to do something for us. Ask away! Go to the Father in faith, in confidence; He will take your questions, your ambitions and desires in order to line up with His will. If we are willing.
Don’t be embarrassed. James and John certainly were not. Their questions were heard. The answers may have been unexpected, even unwanted but they came away changed from these conversations, hopefully understanding more of how God operates and what Jesus came to do. He came to serve and we should be willing to do the same.
You won’t ever get anything if you don’t ask!
So friends – ask the questions, expect to be heard, be ready for an answer and for change.