"You can’t tell me what to do!"
I think that’ phrase is universal. I think at one point and time, every person that I know has probably uttered that phrase to someone who they deem is taking freedom away from them.
Tell your teenager they can’t go out at a particular time: You can’t tell me what to do!
Have the government pass an unpopular law: You can’t tell me what to do!
Tell a child who is not your own to follow the rules of a playground or to act in a certain manner: You can’t tell me what to do!
At some point and time, most of us feel exactly that way. Most of us do not like it when we feel like we are forced to do something. There is something within us that rebels against authority. We want to make our own decisions; pave our own way; make our own paths, and we really don’t want anyone else telling us what direction we have to take or what decision to make. We want to make that choice ourselves.
Unfortunately, this can get us into trouble. Big trouble. Back in the Garden of Eden, it led to the fall of humankind. Do you remember the story? Man and woman were created as the pinnacle of creation. God was most proud of the creature He had made in His likeness. God gave man and woman almost complete freedom–almost. There was one rule. There was one place where God exercised authority and placed a boundary, "You shall not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil for on the day you eat of it, you shall die." That was it. It should have been easy enough. There was plenty of other food; plenty of other fruit.
Man and woman could live forever eating all the other stuff, but there is something within us that rebels
against the rules. There is something within us that says, "You can’t tell me what to do."
And that something was given a nudge by the serpent. Warping God’s words just enough to suit its purpose and get man and woman to cross that boundary, the serpent said, "Don’t worry. If you eat of that fruit, you will not die. However, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing the difference between good and evil."
That little nudge; that little push, was just enough to do it. Woman ate. Man ate, and the rest is history. A covenant was broken. A boundary was crossed, and there are consequences to crossing boundaries. There are always consequences. In this circumstance, the consequence was paradise lost. The Garden of Eden was closed off. Humankind could no longer eat from the tree of life. They would die.
But there were even more consequences. God didn’t want to see His creation come to a total end. He loved what He created, so He began to work with humankind to help them out. He began to try and help them understand what it meant to get along with Him and with one another. He began to try to teach them exactly how to do this, and so began a love/hate relationship with the Almighty.
That might sound strange to say that, but if you read scripture, you will find it’s true. Humankind has generally had a love/hate relationship with God. Of course, God’s love has been consistent. He’s been angry enough to want to destroy the people of Israel from time to time, but He never did. He kept His end of the bargain. It’s us who has the problem. We love it when God provides for us. We love it when we receive His blessings. We love it when He rains down goodness upon us. But we’re not so happy when He asks us to follow the rules. We’re not so happy when He limits what we should and shouldn’t do. We’re not so happy when He indicates that we should keep certain feelings and actions in check because they are not helpful in loving Him and loving one another. At these times, we rebel and say, "You can’t tell me what to do!"
Well, first off, yes, He can. He’s God after all. And second, we can reject His instructions. We have the free will to do so, but we must be aware that there are consequences to our actions. In the Old Testament, those consequences were quite severe at times. For you see, in the Older Testament, God had a way of disciplining His people Himself. After fleeing Egypt, the Israelites oftentimes complained against God and rebelled against Him. One time, God had the earth open up and swallow thousands. Another time, God sent poisonous snakes to bite the people. Another time, He forced them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until a generation had passed away. Later, as the people entered the Promised Land, He would allow other tribes to conquer the Israelites if they worshiped other gods. When Israel became a kingdom and had a king, God allowed foreign armies to conquer them because the people had sinned. A predictable pattern arose time and again: the people would disobey God; God would punish; the people would repent, and then it would start all over again.
Now, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. God saw this endless cycle. God saw the futility of keeping it going throughout eternity–or at least until He returned to restore the world to its full goodness. Knowing that we as humankind could not change in what we did; God changed His tact. God acted differently, and it focused on Jesus.
We see in our Gospel lesson this morning one of those ways God began operating differently. We see that God wanted to teach us a different way of exercising authority and power and honor.
James and John approached Jesus and said, "Teacher, give us what we ask."
Some might claim that this is pure hubris on their parts–they have the audacity to ask Jesus for whatever they want. Perhaps there is a bit of hubris involved, but remember in the Gospel of John, Jesus clearly states to his disciples that they can ask for anything in His name, and it will be granted. James and John might very well know this, so they are being very, very bold.
They ask to sit one on Jesus’ right and the other on Jesus’ left when Jesus arrives in glory. Their request is a request for power and honor and status. Those who sat on the right and left of the ruling authority were thought to have the second and third most power in that kingdom. James and John wanted it, and they were bold to ask for it. Jesus tells them it is not within His power to grant this request. And then the conflict starts.
The rest of the disciples get angry at James and John for making this request. Of course, it’s motivated by their own desires for power. Each of them would like to sit at Jesus’ right and left. Each of them would like to be seen as having that power and prestige and honor.
But Jesus stops them in their tracks. In the Kingdom of God, status and power and honor come in a different fashion. In the Kingdom of God, authority comes not in sitting in certain seats, but in service to one another. Jesus puts it this way, " ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Jesus is clear. Authority comes in service instead of through power. God is acting differently. Instead of pontificating and punishing when orders are not followed; God, in the flesh of Jesus, is serving and dying for humanity so that, when humanity sees God’s great love, they are motivated to follow Him in willing obedience instead of in threat of punishment.
This is why I don’t try to tell you what to do. As a pastor, it is my job to point the way to Jesus and how He calls us to be. It is my job to be an imitator of Him as poor of a job as I do at that. It is not my job to pontificate up here and tell you what you do and don’t have to do as a church or as people. Instead, it is my job to be a servant–to proclaim His Word and allow that Word to lead and guide you as individuals and as a congregation. In a few short moments, we will be having our congregational meeting on the budget and making a major decision regarding staffing in our congregation. You might wonder what I think you should do. I will be quiet. It’s not my job to tell you what to do. It is my job to say, "What do you think Jesus would have us do?" Let those words guide you. Amen.