Let us pray: Word of God, come among us today. Speak to us your Word, and make our hearts and our souls new. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
You may have heard of Harry Potter. Maybe. 🙂 It is the story of Harry Potter, a young boy who lives with his aunt and uncle and cousin, the Dursleys. They’re unimaginative and gossipy and judgmental about everything. They spoil Harry’s cousin terribly: the first book of the series opens with him outright sobbing because his 36 birthday presents was less than he got the year before. They treat Harry terribly: he lives in the cupboard under the stairs, which he remembers later was always full of spiders. He wears his cousin’s cast-off clothes, and steals food from the fridge at night because he’s always hungry.
When the wizarding world comes at last to bring Harry to the magic school called Hogwarts, the best part of it is the Dursley’s comeuppance: the adults are shouted at and proven wrong, Harry is given gifts while they can only watch, and Harry’s cousin is partly transformed into a pig (the tail has to be surgically removed in London).
That sweet a-ha! feeling of justice being served may be one of the most enjoyable parts of literature and movies and TV: everything is right with the world, at least the world of the story, because at last those who are good are being rewarded and those who are selfish and cruel and lazy and whatever else are being punished.
We all know that isn’t how life really works, of course, or it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying in our movies and books and TV series. In real life, you work as hard as you can and it isn’t enough, or your boss just really likes the laziest person in the office, or you did the right thing and now everyone hates you. The sweetest and healthiest person you know dies of a heart attack at 54, and the meanest, unhappiest person lives to be 103.
Sometimes churches tell us the opposite–tell us that life does work like it does in movies, that only good things happen to good people, that all the terrible things that happen are our faults. Sometimes we open the Bible and it seems to say the same thing–like our psalm for today, which seems to be very insistent that worshipping God means life will always be very, very good. There’s no other way to read it: “no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:10-12). Like, come on! I’m never even going to stub my toe?? Me from this morning, who tripped on my pants coming down the stairs would like to know what’s going on, then! And the psalmist goes on and on about this!
But it’s not fair to take one line, or even one chapter, of Scripture and take it as utterly true without taking the rest of the Bible into account. It’s not faithfulness so much as it is making the Bible say what we want it to say–because let’s be real, it would be great if this were true and we were all going to live out the rest of our days utterly untroubled. So let’s turn to our gospel passage, where, unsurprisingly, the disciples are fighting. James and John have convinced Jesus to promise them that they will have a part in His cup and His baptism, and He did so because He took their request to be in the seats of honor next to Him very seriously–and the other disciples are angry with them. This is when Jesus begins to preach to them: If you look at the peoples around us, the Romans and everyone else, the place of honor is the place where everything looks great, where you’re served amazing food every meal, and there are people to wait on you hand and foot, and you have the power to order others killed at your whim. That is what makes a great person in those places. But with me it’s the opposite. Those who are great are the people who serve others; whoever wants to be the absolute greatest must be a total slave for others. That’s why I came: not so I could be waited on hand and foot, but so that I could serve you, and so that I could give my life away to save everyone.
We’ve probably all heard this passage before. I know I have, and it still rubs me the wrong way. It is so utterly opposed to how we think things should be: God, who is unutterably, unimaginably good, shouldn’t be inconvenienced by serving us, let alone painfully and horribly killed to save us. To utterly, irrevocably save us.
I think it’s fair to say that if it didn’t work out for Jesus–if His goodness and total lack of sin didn’t guarantee Him a life free of pain and suffering–then it certainly isn’t going to work out for any of us. God promises to always be with us, to guide us–but not to keep us from pain or suffering or unfairness. God promises to shelter us, but not from hate or enemies. We can go to God and be restored; we cannot go to God to leave the world, with all its troubles and joys, behind.
We cannot look forward to a perfect life, but we can look to God. God will always be with us, no matter what happens.