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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
It’s almost Halloween, and if you have a little one in your household, that means it’s time to pick out a costume. There’s always the classic ghost or witch, but I think the most fun is when kids dress up like someone they dream of being. Heroes from the Comics seem to be in. I’d choose Spiderman. Peter Parker gets this amazing power when his life is transformed by a spider bite. He’s been weak and scrawny, teased and picked on, and now he’s strong and powerful. He’s quick, and with the help of his sticky spiderweb, he can almost fly, soaring above regular people. That transformation into glory is something you don’t have to be a kid to dream about.
What would it be like to have a taste of glory? To have fame and fortune just within your reach? To have what everyone else wants- to be the center of envy.
Is there something in you that makes you aspire to greater things? If so, you find yourself in the company of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples.
James and John, they were fishermen before Jesus called them. Now, maybe they had a good life, and enjoyed fishing with their father. They probably thought their lives were going to be pretty much as expected, staying in the village, working hard on their boats, worshipping and raising a family just as their father and his father and maybe even his father before him. But when Jesus came, and called them, they left that predictable life behind. Now they’ve travelled. They’ve had a taste of something bigger- watching miracles of power right in front of them. They’ve been invited to start doing some of those powerful things themselves- healing and preaching and casting out demons. They’ve come a long way from their days on the water. They know they could be more.
They see that Jesus is gaining in fame. Surely, he’s rising to the top. They might not know quite what that’s going to look like, but they’re picturing something like Jesus crowned, on a throne, above all the rabble, and they’re hoping to be at his side, sharing in his honor, being honored themselves by his looking to them for advice, or raising them to positions over others.
So they ask Jesus if he’ll promise to bring them with him as he rises to the top and enters his glory. Much to their disappointment, Jesus can’t make that promise.
The other disciples hear that James and John have been trying to secure their place in the future, and they are angry. They’re angry because all of them want the same thing: to be honored, to be powerful, to stand out and over everyone else. They all want the same thing, and they can’t all be at the top.
If we’re honest, maybe some of us can admit to those feelings of envy and bitterness- when we aren’t the ones with power, when we can’t control everything, when others seem to be getting what’s rightfully ours. Those feelings are all part of being taken in by our culture’s way of valuing life.
The disciples are living with their goals shaped by the world. They look around them and see everyone else wants to get to the top, have more honor, be treated as special, and have power over other people. So, they figure that’s what they should want, too.
Jesus says that the way the world works is not what the kingdom of God is like. All over the world, people are under the power of some ruler, CEO, or rich person, and in order to feel better about themselves, they squish some other people under them. So you end up suffering under one person’s power and pushing that frustration onto someone you can have power over. It’s like coming home from a bad day at work, when your boss yelled at you, and kicking your dog or screaming at your kid- and feeling better because you’re not at the way bottom- at least there’s someone under you.
Jesus is opening a different way. Jesus is bringing in God’s way. In God’s way of ordering, those who want to be great must be servants. Those who find themselves at the lowest rung, pushed around and pushed under, will be lifted up. Jesus goes ahead of us to establish this as God’s path.
The pinnacle of Jesus’ glory is when he is crowned with thorns and raised up on the cross. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life away as a ransom for many.”
Jesus takes the place of the lowest and most despised. Our most powerful and awesome God shifts the scales of value through Jesus. Jesus chooses not to take the throne of earthly glory, but instead aligns himself with the weakest.
Isaiah gives us language to hear that Jesus has taken our place: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” We may each have our own spheres of worldly power, but we also have our moments when we face the limits of our power. Jesus invites us to recognize not only the limits to our power, but to abandon any attempt to build our power. Instead, we’re invited to embrace our weaknesses and confess our sin. We come together to acknowledge that we are not all powerful, we are not perfect, we are not better than anyone else- and to encourage each other to stop relying on our own power to rise to anything better. Instead, we rely on Jesus. We number ourselves among those who need to be carried, whose struggles are too heavy to manage alone.
When I was little, we lived just a few blocks away from my grandmother. Once in a while, I’d be over at her house while my parents went out. Sometimes, I’d fall asleep there, even though my parents would be picking me up to bring me home to my own bed. My strongest memories of those nights is when it would be time to leave and I’d be half asleep. My dad would scoop me up and they would tuck this fuzzy pink blanket around me, and I would feel safe and warm and utterly loved as I was brought back home.
It is that sense of complete trust and safety that you can have in abandoning your own power and relying on Jesus. Jesus picks us up and carries us, taking the weight of all the burdens we bear.
Jesus does this because he completely and freely loves us. It’s not because our lives are so pretty, and it’s not only for those who have the most potential to turn their lives around. Jesus chooses to enter the experience of the most forsaken among us, to call the cross his place of glory, so that we would know that there is absolutely no one who is so messed up that God would give up on her.
When my own kids are sick, I scoop them up and cuddle them. Now, part of me is always repulsed, my fear of getting sick myself pushing against my love for them. My love is stronger. I can’t make them all better, but I can be sure they don’t feel alone. This is what our God does for us.
I just finished re-reading the Lord of the Rings for something like the 10th time. I’ve been thinking about the ending in relation to Isaiah’s description of Jesus bearing our suffering. Two characters are nearing the end of their journey, Frodo carries the ring of power towards Mount Doom to destroy it and destroy the power of evil, and Sam travels with him as his faithful companion and servant. The weight of the ring, its evil power and the temptation to use it, grows on Frodo. When he can go no further, Sam picks him up and carries him up the mountain. Sam can’t carry the ring itself, but he can carry Frodo. The sin that comes with being in the world, the power of death and sickness weigh us down. Jesus doesn’t wave a hand and make it all disappear, but Jesus carries us, lifts us up under the weight of all we carry, and will bring us into a place of life and healing.
Being freed from the power struggle to appear perfect and to control others, we can acknowledge our own brokenness and the weight of suffering that we carry. Then Jesus can carry us. Jesus carries us through life, never abandoning us, no matter how messy things get. At the end, he will lift us up to the glory of new life.
Jesus shows us the foolishness of our grasping for power over each other and offers a different path, one that is grounded in servanthood. When we serve others, we rise up together. Through the power of God, no one has to be our stepping stool to get to a better place. Jesus brings us up by being with us through suffering, through death, through service and sacrifice, into new life and a new way of being in community. We will not be heroes alone, but in following Jesus’ sacrifice, we will share in his glory.
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