Sunday’s sermon: The Upside-Down Kingdom: Where the Least Are Greatest


Texts used – Psalm 28; Mark 10:35-45

  • The world is full of epic stories of sibling rivalry.
    • Royal sibling rivalries – e.g.: King Richard vs. Prince John
      • England
      • 1100s
      • Richard = king → Richard went off to fight in the Crusades with his army → John usurped the throne in his absence
      • Immortalized by story Robin Hood
    • Historical – e.g.: John Wilkes Booth vs. Edwin Booth
      • Both actors
      • John (younger brother) = good reviews, Edwin (older brother) = bad reviews
      • Edwin got tired of being upstaged → forbade John from taking part in profitable Northern productions → drove John south → introduced John to extreme secessionist ideology that eventually led him to assassinate Pres. Abraham Lincoln
    • Less grand scale – stories of sibling rivalry[1] that may sound a little bit more like your life (either growing up or life in your house with your own kids right now)
      • “When my little brother was 6 and I was 14, I convinced him that the tornado sirens were alarms letting us know there was an alien invasion under way and that he needed to help defend our home by spraying them with special chemicals that will make them melt. It was really colored water. I told him aliens came down in human form, so any human he encountered, he had to spray. He sprayed Dad and Grandma.”
    • Biblical
      • Cain vs. Abel = didn’t work out quite so well for Abel
      • Jacob vs. Esau = epic twin rivalry from Day One
      • Rachel vs. Leah = competing for Jacob’s affection/attention
      • Joseph vs. all his brothers = coat of many colors
      • The Prodigal Son and his older brother
      • Mary vs. Martha = Jesus, who is doing the “right” thing?
    • Most of the time, sibling rivalries end up being about getting and keeping attention – one parent or another, a grandparent or teacher, maybe even a friend. Sibling A is enjoying the limelight. Sibling B wants some of that attention. And the battle ensues. At its core, sibling rivalry comes down to one thing: pride.
      • Last few weeks – talking about the Upside-Down nature of the Kingdom of God as Jesus presents it in Mk 10
        • 1st week = God’s Kingdom inverts society’s expectations about power (giving power to those not afforded any in society: children)
        • Last week = God’s Kingdom inverts society’s expectations about economic importance (Kingdom is not obtained or earned but given through God’s free gift of grace)
        • This week = God’s Kingdom invert’s society’s expectations about pride
  • Begin with yet another sibling rivalry → James and John, sons of Zebedee
    • James and John = “Sons of Thunder” (probably the coolest nickname in the Bible) → Remember, these are the two disciples that wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy the village that refused Jesus and the disciples hospitality just a few chapters back in Mark’s gospel.
      • Certainly an episode that gave us pretty clear insight into James’ and John’s personalities
      • Today’s passage gives us even more insight – text: James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They said, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.”[2] → Now, before we go any further with this story, let’s place it in context with Mark a little bit.
        • Little chunk of text between last week’s passage and today’s = Jesus predicting his death and resurrection: Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, with Jesus in the lead. The disciples were amazed while the others following behind were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he told them what was about to happen to him. “Look!” he said. “We’re going up to Jerusalem. The Human One will be handed over to the chief priests and the legal experts. They will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles. They will ridicule him, spit on him, torture him, and kill him. After three days, he will rise up.”[3] → In Mark’s gospel, this is the 3rd and final time that Jesus will predict what will happen to him for the disciples, and it is by far the most explicit time. And yet, despite Jesus’ candid speech and unequivocal detail, the disciples still fail to grasp the significance of what Jesus has told them.
          • Immediate context makes James’ and John’s request at the beginning of our passage today even more astounding
    • See effects of the insensitivity of their question later on in our gospel story as well: Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with James and John.[4] → While I doubt this episode ended in an all-out brawl between the disciples right there on the side of the road, you can imagine the bickering and arguing that ensued between them. “Did you hear what James and John just asked Jesus? What makes them think they’re so special? Why would they even ask something like that? Why didn’t I think to ask it first? I wanted that spot! I deserve that spot! I’ve certainly been a better disciple than they have.” And so on and so on.
      • Sibling rivalry between James and John, for sure → “right hand” spot was the most revered and honored – Which one of them was going to get that particular distinction?
      • Also a form of sibling rivalry between the disciples – some brothers by blood (like James and John and Andrew and Simon Peter) but all brothers by choice and circumstance → Sometimes the family we choose is even more powerful, even more supportive, and even more important to us than the family we’re born with, and for these disciples – who had left homes and livelihoods and families behind to follow Jesus – this was most certainly the case.
        • Scholar: Imagine. The disciples were in the presence of Jesus Christ. He had been disclosing to them the mysteries of the kingdom and giving them a glimpse of the future God had in store for the world. But instead of relishing his teaching and hanging on his every word, they were completely fixated on their own agendas. Competing for Jesus’ attention. Debating who would get to be second in command. Trying to one-up each other for greatness in the kingdom. This was sibling rivalry on a cosmic scale.[5] → And I think we can pretty safely guess that what drove them to that place of sibling rivalry was their pride.
          • Pride that they had already been chosen to be part of the Messiah’s inner circle
          • Pride that they were learning from the rock star teacher at the time
          • Pride that they were privy to teachings others weren’t
  • But friends, how different are we from these disciples, really?
    • Ways that we try to one-up those around us
      • At home
      • At work
      • In our social circles
      • In society in general
    • Ways that we try to optimize situations just like James and John in order to get a leg up and secure that special privilege or opportunity
    • Petty arguments that we get in with those around us about …
      • How prepared we are …
      • How capable we are …
      • How qualified we are …
      • How important we are …
      • Compared to everyone else. We want to be noticed. We want to be recognized. We want to be rewarded. Because we are proud.
        • Difference btwn confidence in our abilities and boastfulness
      • Scholar: Are we really that different from these greedy sons of Zebedee? We might not make outlandish requests, but in our hearts we often covet the best of the lot, the top spot, the place of recognition. Indeed, this is part of our human condition. … In any event, this is the way we are. Or, as Jana Childers has said, we have Zebedee DNA in our genes.[6]
  • So how did Jesus handle this tricky situation? How did Jesus navigate these choppy waters of the disciples’ competing pride?
    • In response to James’ and John’s initial request – text: Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said, “You will drink the cup I drink and receive the baptism I receive, but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.”[7]
      • Puts James and John in their place (literally!) → Jesus: “Yes, you have done good things. I recognize your dedication. I recognize your sacrifice. I recognize your desire to be with me. But that place is not for you.” It’s clear. It’s to-the-point. But there’s also a gentleness and a compassion in the way that Jesus response to James and John and their outlandish request.
    • In response to the disciples’ bickering – text: Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”[8] → With this response, Jesus is even more to-the-point and, frankly, blunt.
      • Imagine being the disciples: walking along trying to have those under-your-breath arguments so Jesus doesn’t hear you → Jesus calls you over to the side of the road (first recorded incident of being called to the principal’s office?) → lays out the clearest, most striking comparison he can – comparing the disciples’ bickering and pridefulness to the greatly-despised Roman authorities → finally gives them a directive: “That’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be slave of all.”
        • Reminds them that this whole experience – the coming of the Messiah, following and learning from Jesus, being a disciple – none of it is about them
        • Reminds them that they are not called to power for power’s sake → that they are, instead, called to service
        • Reminder from our psalm this morning, too – text: I cry out to you, LORD. You are my rock; don’t refuse to hear me. If you won’t talk to me, I’ll be just like those going down to the pit. Listen to my request for mercy when I cry out to you, when I lift up my hands to your holy inner sanctuary. … Bless the LORD because he has listened to my request for mercy! The LORD is my strength and my shield. My heart trusts him. I was helped, my heart rejoiced, and I thank him with my song. The LORD is his people’s strength; he is a fortress of protection for his anointed one. Save your people, God! Bless your possession! Shepherd them and carry them for all time![9] → God has done this. God has given mercy and salvation. God has been the strength and the rock. God has offered the blessing. God has done this … not the disciples, not the Roman authorities, not us. God and God alone.
    • Friends, we live in a prideful world. We reward pride, sometime to such levels that it becomes obscene. Think of the amount of money and attention and fame we give to people like professional athletes, actors, and musicians. Think of the number of reality show out there today aimed at rewarding the best singer, the best cook, the best survivor, the best fill-in-the-blank. Think of the number of kids today who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, respond by saying, “I want to be a YouTube star.” Just the fact that that’s a thing – that we have things like kids eating knowingly-toxic things like laundry pods just for their 15 minutes of fame – is kind of mind-boggling! But we reward that in our society. And yet Jesus says, “Nope. That’s not what’s important. You want to be a big deal? You want to be important? You want to be a part of my kingdom – of God’s kingdom? You need to put yourself last. You need to do for those around you before you do for yourself. You need to check your pride at the door.” Jesus makes the point that, contrary to what we might think, humility is not the opposite of pride. Service is the opposite of pride. And that is how we enact our faith … how we live it out before God … how we work for God’s kingdom here on earth. Amen.

[1] Suzee Skwiot. “25 Worst Things Siblings Have Ever Done to Each Other” from The Stir, CafeMom website, Posted Mar. 25, 2015, accessed Oct. 21, 2018.

[2] Mk 10:35-37.

[3] Mk 10:32-34.

[4] Mk 10:41.

[5] Magrey R. DeVega. “Fall Series 2: The Upside-Down Kingdom of God – Proper 24: Where the Least Are Greatest” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 154.

[6] David B. Howell. “Proper 24 (Sunday between October 16 and October 22 inclusive) – Mark 10:35-45, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 190.

[7] Mk 10:38-40.

[8] Mk 10:42-45.

[9] Ps 28:1-2, 6-9.