Mark 10:35-45

Sun, 18/10/2009 - 09:30 -- James Oakley

One of the things that causes many people to dismiss the Christian faith is the perception that the church is hypocritical.

Here’s an example of the kind of thing that makes people feel less enthusiastic about the church. We’ve been through the annual conference season for the political parties. It increasingly feels that these conferences are highly stage-managed affairs that are more about media publicity than about offering party members the chance to debate. It seems that many party leaders are on a power trip. How many of them want to be in power so that they can serve the country, and how many of them want the flashlights of the conference season to last all year as they get the keys to Number 10? We can’t know, and we mustn’t be too cynical to dismiss them, but we don’t always like what we see.

Then here comes the rub: People look at the church. They see the leaders wearing fancy robes. They see expensive buildings that need to be maintained. They see power struggles – both in the national church and in the local church. And it seems that the church is no better off than the petty squabbling and the desire to be important that you hear about in the news each Autumn. If the church is just another outdated institution that is as factious and self-obsessed as Westminster, why should we bother with it?

The key, of course, is to remember that Christianity is about Jesus. It is him we need to assess. His followers may reflect well or badly on him, but we must judge Jesus on his own merits and on how he says we should live. If his followers don’t live up to his example, and don’t live out his teaching, that is not a reason to dismiss him.

So, then, let’s ask the question: What is Jesus about? And what does he say we should be like?

Jesus came to serve us by dying as a ransom

Let’s start with Jesus: Jesus came to serve us by dying as a ransom. Jesus came to serve us by dying as a ransom.

You see, Jesus is a person. When we say the name Jesus Christ, we are not talking about a swear-word. We are not talking about a philosophy or a set of ideas. We are talking about a person. He really lived. Which means we need to ask: What was his purpose in life? Why did he live? Why was he born? Why did he come?

Jesus answers that question explicitly in the last verse of our reading: “For even the Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Son of Man is one of Jesus’ favourite ways of talking about himself. So why did Jesus come? The Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He came to die. I told a joke about that a few weeks back.

It’s a strange thought, though, to say that he was born… to die! But that is what Jesus himself says. The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.

So why did he die? What makes his death so important that it is the very reason he came? It seems to us that his death was futile, not the purpose of his life? Well he tells us that his death was a ransom.

We’re used to the idea of a ransom from the unpleasant situations where ransoms crop up today. Hostage situations. Or the ships that get attacked by pirates off the horn of Africa, then held in a Somali port until the ship’s owner pays a huge sum of money to have the ship, its crew and its cargo freed. The amounts paid reach into millions of dollars.

That’s paying a ransom to make up for criminal activity. The Old Testament envisages other more normal situations when a ransom might be needed. If someone’s debts ran up to the point of bankruptcy, they may have had to sell themselves into slavery to pay the debt. But a relative could come at that point and pay off the debt instead. The ransom is paid, so that the person can go free. It’s as if you can’t keep up the mortgage payments, so to stave of repossession a relative clears the mortgage.

Well Jesus tells us that his death is to pay a ransom. The question is: What did he come to free people from? Jesus has already talked about why he came in Mark chapter 2. There he talked about his life being so that people can be saved from their sin. Sin is an old-fashioned word that just means our rebellion against God. Because we all live our lives without giving God the place he is due, we deserve to die. But Jesus’ death paid the ransom. He died in our place. He took the judgement of God so that we never have to.

And who did he do this for? Verse 45 tells us that he paid the ransom “for many”. Not just a few. For many. For all who will trust him.

So why did Jesus come? What’s Jesus all about? He came to serve. And this is how he served us – by dying in our place, paying the ransom that we sinners needed if we were to be set free. Jesus came to serve us by dying as a ransom.

We must serve others, and not want to be important.

So how do we respond to Jesus? If we are to be the kind of followers he wants, what should it look like. The answer that Mark 10 points us to is this: We must serve others, and not want to be important. We must serve others, and not want to be important.

But let’s start at the beginning. Jesus came to serve us. He doesn’t want us to serve him; he wants to serve us. So the first thing we must do, if we are to be a follower of his, is to let him serve us. The only thing that stands in the way of this is our pride. Most of us don’t like to ask people to do things for us. We would like to think we were self-sufficient, and could look after ourselves. So it feels humiliating to have to ask for help.

But it’s why Jesus came. Our sin won’t just go away. It needs to be paid for, and unless we will let Jesus pay for it for us, we must pay for it ourselves. He died so that we might go free. If we would follow him, we must let him pay that ransom and set us free. Speak to me later if you want to know more about that.

Having allowed Jesus to serve us in this way, what next? Jesus’ answer is that how we relate to other people changes totally once we become his followers.

The incident in our Bible reading occurred as Jesus was approaching Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the royal city, the city of the great King David. He’s just been talking of himself as “Son of Man”, a royal title. So James and John see the royal Jesus approaching the royal city, and they want prime place. They want pole position. They want to be top dog. “Can we have the most noble place in the palace, flanking the king on his throne”. That’s what they ask.

And Jesus replies to show them just how inappropriate their request is. It is stunningly inappropriate, in fact, given Jesus is on his way to his death.

So Jesus talks about how the rulers around them live. He wants to talk about power, so he talks about the Roman occupying forces. “You know how they use their authority” says Jesus. And indeed people would know. They flaunted it. They domineered. The Bible they’re using in Junior Church this morning translated this in a wonderfully colourful way: “You know that those foreigners who call themselves kings like to order their people around. And their great leaders have full power over the people they rule.”

To give you some examples from back then, the coin used to pay tax was the Denarius. It depicted the emperor Tiberius as the half-divine son of the god Augustus and the goddess Livia. Herod Philip made some copper coins at the Roman colony of Philippi that showed the head of the reigning emperor at the time and had these words on: “He who deserve adoration.”

The disciples would have despised these Roman rulers with their showy ways, their opulence, and their abuse of power. And yet Jesus is telling them that they are no better.

During the Conservative Party Conference, I remember that people were wondering what David Cameron’s sound bite would be. What phrase would he work into his speech that would be designed to be memorable, that would symbolise what the party is all about.

Well verse 43 gives us one of Jesus’ sound bites. What’s he all about? How would you sum up some of his teaching in a pithy and memorable way? How about this: “It shall not be so among you.” That’s at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. “It shall not be so among you.” The attitudes we see in society around us are not to become ours. We are not to take our cue from what they do. The Roman leaders may flaunt their authority and domineer their subjects. But we are not to look to the world around us for our attitudes, our priorities and our relationships.

Jesus is saying to James and John: Just because you see the Romans rulers use their authority in this way, it doesn’t mean you have to copy. Instead, Jesus tells us to see greatness in terms of service. Don’t copy the world around us. Copy him. His example shows us that you can tell a real great-one by the way they put themselves out for others. Don’t seek to be important. The world is full of people who are important, who think they are important or who wish they were important. Instead, be a servant.

After all, it’s what Jesus did for us. He served us by dying as a ransom. Once we’ve let Jesus do that for us, that should be enough being served for us for a lifetime. We don’t need anybody else to do anything else for us. Having accepted what he did, we can do likewise.


So are you tired of a hypocritical church? Does it seem to you that the church is on as much of a power trip as the political establishment? If so, please look at Jesus.

If you are weary of hypocrites, you don’t get more sincere than Jesus. If you’re weary of power-hungry people, you don’t get more wonderful than the Jesus who used his power to serve us.

It’s easy to pick fault with the Christian church. It is, after all, full of sinners. But the failures of the church are no reason to jettison the Christian faith. The death of Jesus draws that sting entirely.

If we would be followers of the real Jesus, and not bring his name into disrepute as a church, we need to do two things. First, we need to allow Jesus to serve us by paying our ransom. And then, second, we need to do as he did, and to give ourselves in the service of others.

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