Sermon by Pastor Chris Nelson

There is a story from the Revolutionary War about a corporal who had been given a detachment of men to build a defensive battlement at Valley Forge, outside of Philadelphia. The project was not going well: the corporal stood and railed at his men to “do this,” and “do that,” and “move these rocks over here,” and “clear that brush from over there…” The whole time, though, he did nothing to help besides yell…

A man in civilian clothes rode by on a horse, heard the corporal swearing and shouting and stopped to ask “What’s going on?” And the young man in charge told the older man about his assignment, and how tough it was, and how he thought it would never be completed. Without batting an eye, the man dismounted, and began working along side of the others, quietly encouraging them in their work. The corporal continued his harangue, but didn’t lift a finger to help in the actual work…

We are in Week 2 of our Lenten Journey, asking the questions “To what end did Jesus go to the cross? And to what end do we follow him there?” Why would Jesus do such a thing; what do we learn about him- and about our lives as we follow him?

While our text today is very helpful as we continue this journey, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to have you look up and say, “wait a minute- this sounds familiar…” and it should be- we heard something very similar to this text on Ash Wednesday, and last Sunday, too. And if you read the Gospels, you will see parallels to this text in Matthew and Luke, too.

So here is a good lesson in reading the Bible- particularly the Gospels: when Jesus says something repeatedly, he wants us to pay attention! There is a reason, for example, that Jesus talks often and openly about our relationship to our money and our possessions. He knows that there is always the temptation to let our money get in the way of our relationship with God!

We saw that last week, as just one example, when Jesus told the devout young man that what he needed to do was to sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor. The man couldn’t do it! He walked away from Jesus because he valued his things- his stuff- more than a relationship with the Son of God…

There is a reason why Jesus talks about the poor, the outcast, the sick just about more than anything else- or why he lived with those people: because He- that is, God become a human being- CARED and cares for them- considers them valuable to him, and to his kingdom. In God’s Kingdom, all people- even the ones who we would ignore- or simply not even see- are important. He loves them- and his intention is for us to love them, too…

So it is with our Gospel reading today. Three times in the last two chapters, we have seen variants on this conversation. First, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest- and Jesus tells them that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all…

Then, following the conversation with the wealthy young man, the disciples are perplexed- they had understood wealth to be a sign of God’s blessing and favor, and Jesus has just turned that upside down by letting the man walk away because he couldn’t let go… And he finishes the conversation by saying “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first…”

Now you might think this would begin to sink in to the disciples- if I were Jesus, I would hope it would, but obviously not… (and as I have said to you before, I take great comfort in the behavior of the disciples- they so don’t get it- and if Jesus can use them, maybe Jesus can use me- and you, too!)

James and John approach Jesus, and slyly ask Jesus for a favor: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…” Whenever I hear this, I think, “oh, these guys…” Jesus asks them “what?” before agreeing, and they tell him: Grant us to sit one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory…”

Make us the most important- the ones right next to you… is what they are asking, and Jesus asks them, “Can you drink from my cup? Or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” “Oh, yes, Lord, we’re right there with that…”

And Jesus tells them they will in fact, share in all that Jesus will endure- but that what they ask is not for him to give away… I wonder if they had the slightest idea what Jesus had told them…

The rest of the disciples get wind of James’ and John’s request, they’re angry, and Jesus gathers them all together… When I read these stories together, I get the sense of a very tired, disappointed and somewhat impatient Jesus… And he simply lays it out:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their leaders lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all…”

There it is again, for the third time, in two chapters- greatness is in serving- first in God’s Kingdom is the one who serves- the last, not the great one, who is entitled and expects others to serve him or her!

And then, in the last verse of this passage, we see that Jesus’ call to serve is rooted in his own understanding of himself as the Son of Man- as God’s Son: for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many…”

Jesus isn’t simply spouting platitudes about the Kingdom of God- he’s not simply exhorting his followers to do his words, Jesus is living those words! Jesus’ whole life is about serving- about caring- about loving- even when it means rejection on the part of the rich and powerful- even when it means his death on a cross for you and for me!

Jesus, who by a perversion of justice, was taken away, condemned unjustly, and nailed to a that cross, and took on himself everything that separates you and me- and every human being who has ever lived or will live- from God and each other…

And Jesus, who is his resurrection from the dead, was allotted a portion with the great, says Isaiah- whose name is exalted above every name, says Paul, promises you that there is nothing in heaven and on earth, or in life or in death that can separate you from his love.

Follow me, says Jesus, and know my presence forever. Follow me, says Jesus, and there is no place where you can go- in good times or in bad, in life or in death, where I have not already been…

Follow me, says Jesus, in a life of service, and I will make you great…I will use you to change the world!

Now you might be thinking “I could never be great,” but you would be wrong- and you would be making Jesus a liar… Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way: “Everyone can be great, because every one can serve!”

The defensive position in Valley Forge was finally completed. The corporal, who had raised his voice but not lifted a finger went over to the man in civilian clothes, who had worked hard for several hours with the rest of the men to say thanks. Almost as an afterthought, he asked his name. The man straightened up, smiled, and said, “Washington. George Washington. And if you need anymore help, you can find me at headquarters…” We remember him today as Father of our Country- and he was great because he saw his whole life as one of service- service to his Lord- he was one of the Founders who was a devout Christian, and service to his country…

“Everyone can be great, because every one can serve…” and that would be true of each and every person in this room- in this community- who bears the name of Christ…

I believe that Bethlehem is a great congregation- filled with great people. But I believe even more strongly that God is not done with us yet and that God is calling us to be even greater.

Just so there’s no confusion, I am using Jesus’ definition of greatness: God is calling us to serve in ever growing and new ways around our cities, our nation and the world. It’s not about us, as a swell group of people; it’s not about our stunning room- and campus, it’s not about our seating capacity, it’s about our sending capacity- and our serving capacity…

That’s why I am so excited about the new church we have just formed with Minnetonka Lutheran! This is not about Bethlehem being the biggest, most impressive congregation.

There are thousands of people in Minnetonka who have no church home. First, our work together will help hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of new people to know the same Jesus we know- to trust in his presence, his forgiveness, and his gift to abundant and eternal life!

And then we will see the Holy Spirit work through us all, new followers of Jesus, and those who have followed him throughout our lives to share in the call to service each of us has been given. Can you imagine the impact of hundreds of new Christ followers hard at work, serving in our communities in Jesus’ Name?

I want you to begin praying: every day, I want you to pray first, “God, what is it you want me to do for the ministry of this new church?” and follow it up with the most dangerous prayer in the world: Use me, Lord, in your service, as your servant…”

Those prayers will be answered in ways that will be unexpected- that will challenge you and stretch you in ways that you might not imagine.

But the promise of Jesus is that he will inspire you- and equip you to be his servant. To what end, you ask? He promises his presence, he promises you will grow- and that you will be used to change the world for the better, in Jesus’ Name and for his sake! Amen.