One of my abiding memories from my childhood is going on family walks, with my father leading the way. My Dad has always loved a walk in the countryside, and at 6 foot 2 inches tall he has very long strides. My mother, sister and I sometimes struggled to keep pace!
A similar scene was taking place at the start of our Gospel reading today. Jesus, his twelve disciples and other followers were on their way to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way. Jesus was walking with purpose and determination towards the nation’s capital. He really was ‘a man on a mission’.
By setting his face towards Jerusalem, Jesus was heading into the very heart of opposition territory. He was journeying towards the Temple and the seat of the Jewish religious hierarchy. And he was heading towards a capital city under tight Roman rule. In Jerusalem, Jesus would come face-to-face with his fiercest opponents.
Imagine if I said that I wanted to walk onto the Kop at Anfield, whilst wearing my Crystal Palace football shirt and scarf! You would probably be anxious and afraid for my safety (and sanity), and strongly advise against it! And that’s the same reaction that Jesus’ friends had on the road to Jerusalem. Mark’s Gospel tells us that the disciples were “astonished and afraid ” when they heard about Jesus’ determination to go to Jerusalem.
Their worst fears must have been confirmed when Jesus took them to one side and predicted what would happen to him when they reached their destination.
Listen again to Jesus’ words in verses 33 and 34 of Mark 10: “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him.”
In other words, Jesus was telling his closest friends that he was going to Jerusalem to die. He was deliberately walking straight into the hands of the religious and political authorities, who would then finish him off. Surely this was madness? Was Jesus experiencing some kind of death-wish, like lemming jumping off a cliff or a turkey voting for Christmas?
1. Jesus: A ransom for many
Obviously the answer is ‘no’. Because Jesus’ behaviour wasn’t suicidal, but salvational. Jesus wasn’t insane by journeying into Jerusalem – he was going there to be our Perfect Priest, he was going there to offer the Supreme Sacrifice.
As Jesus himself puts it in verse 45: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus willingly headed towards the cross to pay the penalty for our sin. Jesus took there the guilt of the world on his shoulders, so that we might be forgiven. That’s why Good Friday really is ‘good’ for every Christian believer. It’s the day when our ransom – our release fee from guilt – was paid in full.
As our reading in Hebrews 5 puts it, its the day when Jesus became our perfect High Priest. A perfect High Priest who offered the supreme sacrifice – his own life – to secure our salvation.
The author of Hebrews tells us that when Jesus died on the cross, he did what no other High Priest had ever done. When Jesus laid down his life at Calvary, he achieved what no imperfect human priest had ever achieved before. He offered a full, final and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.
You see, when Jesus died in Jerusalem he opened a floodgate of forgiveness from heaven that keeps flowing to this very day – a tidal wave of grace that anyone can receive if they put their faith and trust in him. If you are not yet a Christian, please be assured that that gracious invitation extends to you.
And for those of us here who are already Christians, the challenge for us is to keep trusting in Jesus’ supreme sacrifice for our salvation. It can be very tempting to think that it is our good deeds, our charitable giving or even our service at Church that puts us in God’s good books.
But the truth is that only faith in Christ crucified makes us members of God’s people. Good deeds, generous giving and joyful service should be our response to God’s grace – they are not the way we earn it.
As Christians we also need to avoid words that draw attention away from what Jesus did once and for all at the Cross. For example, we should avoid calling the table at the end of church an “altar”. Because an altar is where a sacrifice for sin is offered – and since Jesus’s death no further sin sacrifices are necessary. We need a table for the Lord’s Supper, but not an altar for a sacrifice. Quite rightly, the laws and liturgy of the Church of England never describe the Lord’s Table as an altar, and nor should we!
Because Jesus is our perfect priest, we also need to be careful about the language we use to describe church leaders like myself. In particular, its rather misleading to call Christian leaders “priests”. Church leaders are never called priests in the New Testament. You see, Jesus is our great High Priest who lives forever, so no further priests are necessary. The New Testament calls church leaders Presbyters, Elders, or Pastor-Teachers – not Priests. (And if that means you’re wondering what to call me – “Phil” is fine!)
2. James and John: An unreasonable request
On the subject of names, its not just Jesus who is named in our Gospel reading this morning. The disciples James and John get a mention too.
Because as they were walking along the road to Jerusalem, James and John sidled up to Jesus and made a rather reckless, rather unreasonable request. As we read in verse 35: “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask….Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
James and John clearly didn’t believe that Jesus was really going to Jerusalem to die. They thought he was going there to become king. It seems they believed Jesus was going to Jerusalem to lead a revolution, throw out the Roman occupying forces and assume the throne. And James and John wanted some of the spoils! They wanted to sit at Jesus’ side, sharing in his power and getting some of the glory.
Jesus proceeds to correct James and John on two fronts. They were wrong on two counts!
For a start, James and John needed to understand that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, rather than start a revolution. Jesus was heading towards a Cross, not towards a throne. That’s what he means in verse 38 by the “cup” he will drink and the “baptism” he will receive. In Jerusalem he will drink a cup of suffering and be baptised by his death and burial. If James and John really want to stick close to him, they should expect to suffer.
The second lesson that James and John needed to learn is about the nature of true greatness. To be great in God’s eyes doesn’t require you to occupy a position of power. To be great in God’s eyes we simply need to be willing to serve.
For God to call us ‘great’ we must be willing to serve him and serve other people. As Jesus says in verse 43: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
Jesus, of course, is the supreme example of service. He was willing to surrender his life on the cross for our salvation. His service was total, his self-sacrifice was complete. If our lives have been touched by Jesus, we too will be willing to serve. Christ challenges us to live lives characterised by self-sacrifice, rather than the pursuit of personal comfort, status and security.
As a church family here at St.John’s we have countless opportunities to serve one another and minister to our community. Many of you already give up time to serve here on Sunday mornings, and I’m grateful for all the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep things ticking over week by week – much of which I’m only starting to discover!
And as we look to the future, I wonder what new sacrifices Christ is calling us to make for him:
• For example, I do wonder whether he might be calling us to give more generously and systematically to St. John’s, not least so we can make a reality of our exciting church reordering plans. I personally set up a Standing Order to St.John’s last week, and do speak to me, Ron or Keith if you’d like to do the same (it was a surprisingly straightforward and painless thing to do!).
• Secondly, Christ may also be calling some of us to give time to help with children’s work, so we can offer activities for children here every Sunday morning, not just a couple of times a month.
• And thirdly, I do wonder whether Christ might be asking us to adopt a more accessible and contemporary form of worship at some of our services? Are we willing to sacrifice some of our cherished traditions to attract younger generations and grow our congregation?
You see, Jesus set the standard for humble self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Like James and John, we need to think and pray about our appropriate response.
So, to finish, I hope we’ve seen this morning that Jesus is our perfect priest. A perfect priest who travelled to Jerusalem to offer the supreme sacrifice for sin. As a result, every one of us can have first-hand access to God the Father through him. Anyone can have their guilt removed and their conscience cleansed if they come to Christ in repentance and faith.
And by laying down his life, Jesus has also given us a great example to imitate. He has given us the ideal illustration of humility, self-sacrifice and service. It’s a lesson James and John must have taken to heart, and may we all do the same.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, thank you that we can draw near to you through Christ, our great High Priest. Thank you that his perfect sacrifice on the cross has taken away our sin and washed away our guilt. Help us to respond to your grace with grateful thanks and lives of humble service. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
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