Fourth Sunday in Lent
“Jesus Calls Us from Sinful Selfishness to Selfless Service”
SERMON TEXT: Matthew 20:17-28
Pastor Philip Bigelow
How our world has changed in a few weeks. Travel plans morphed into travel bans in some cases. Businesses are closing by the day and we don’t know when they will reopen. “When will life return to normal?” might be a question on our minds now. My wife went to the store on Thursday and she texted me pictures of some of the aisles. They were completely bare. Not a piece of chicken to be checked out. Not a pound of ground beef to be grabbed. You may have seen pictures online of people with a mountain of toilet paper stacked so high in their cart they can’t see where they are going. Why are people buying a year’s supply of chicken, beef, and toilet paper? Are they scared? Are they worried? Are they afraid of being without so they are going to get as much as they can while they can and if that means someone else has to go without, well, I was here first?
This kind of reminds me of a popular game played at birthday parties called balloon stomp. Balloon stomp is a game that is just as it sounds. Each child ties a balloon to one of their legs. The object of balloon stomp is to exterminate everyone else’s balloons while protecting your own balloon and doing everything you can make sure your balloon is not popped. When the command “ready, set, go” was given you can imagine the flurry of little legs hunting balloons and balloons fluttering as children run. Some children immediately set out to destroy the competition by squashing the balloons under foot and hearing the glorious pop sound. Others try to lay low around the edges and hope their balloons will go unnoticed by everyone else hoping to be one of the last left, but their balloons meet the same fate as all the others: as scraps of rubber scattered on the ground as the air that once gave them life escapes. The game continues until there is only one balloon still leashed to the leg of a child and they are declared the victor.
Now, let’s take a look at balloon stomp. What are the skills needed to win the game? It helps to be fast so that you can get to all of the other kid’s balloons before they get to your balloon. And if you have ever watched this game played you will notice something else. It’s an aggressive game and in order to win the game you need to be even a little pushy and rude to stomp their balloons and make sure it doesn’t happen to you. You need to do what you need to do in order to come out on top. But, after all, it’s just a cute kid’s game. There is not harm in stomping on a few balloons because we certainly don’t act that way in life. We would never treat others like that in life if they didn’t have a balloon tied to their ankle. Well, let’s see today.
A rich, young man came to Jesus and told him he followed God’s commands in every aspect in his life. He kept all of the laws. What else did he need to do? Jesus told him, “There is one thing that you are missing. Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.” Jesus hit the bull’s eye in the man’s life. He just couldn’t bring himself to be divorced from his first love; possessions and money. So, the rich young man walks away with his head hung low. That exchange got Peter and the other disciples’ wheels turning. “We have given up everything to follow Jesus for the last three years.” When Jesus said come follow me, they fell into formation behind him. So that got them thinking, “What will there be for us? What would we get in God’s kingdom because of the sacrifices we made to come and follow Jesus?”
Maybe Peter and the disciples were curious or maybe they were getting excited about the answer to the self-centered, self-involved question, “What’s in it for me–what am I going to gain from this?” Jesus already told them that he was on his way to Jerusalem and that the disciples themselves would sit on twelve thrones in God’s kingdom. What could be greater than that? They didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in Jerusalem, but maybe it was going to be really big and glorious and they were going to be a part of it because they were the inner circle of Jesus. They were like a kid on Christmas morning waiting to tear into the first present. Oh, this was going to be great. “What’s in it for me?” They couldn’t wait to find out the answer. Maybe it was beyond what they could imagine.
Directly after Jesus encounter with the rich young man Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard. That’s the parable where men are hired at different times of the day and at the end of the day, they all receive the same pay. And Jesus ends with this point, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). You get the feeling that the disciples didn’t really want to hear that though. “Yeah, yeah, Jesus that’s all fine and good. But let’s get to the important stuff. Let’s answer the important question, ‘What’s in it for me?’” “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom’ (Matthew 20:20, 21). “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers” (Matthew 20:24). If you have a carload of kids on a road trip and say, “Who wants to stop for ice cream?” you hear shouts of a resounding yes. When you pull into the ice cream shop parking lot what do the kids do? They all run in to be at the front of the line in order to get their ice cream first.
That’s what the disciples are doing in our lesson. There was no way they were going to let James and John be first to get their ice cream in Jesus’ kingdom. They all wanted to be first in line and when it looked like they were not they became furious because there was no way they were going to let the other disciples get ahead of them. They were too focused on all of the great things they were going to get in God’s kingdom and what was in it for them.
What about that question, “What’s in it for me? What am I going to get out of it?” We get so caught up in our sinful selfishness that we completely miss the point Jesus is making today. We get so caught up in the question, “What’s in it for me?” that we fail to realize that never does Jesus ask or answer that question. We get so focused on ourselves and all of the great things that we would like to have for ourselves. Then we work hard to get them. We run around like children with balloons tied to our ankles trying to stomp out everyone else’s balloons while protecting our own. And when we have popped everyone else’s balloons then we proudly stand and say, “I won. Now what’s in it for me?” We are so focused on our sinful selfishness that we pushed others out of the way so that we can be first in line.
Let’s ask ourselves some tough questions today? How bruised are your elbows? Are they skinned up? Are they cut? Do your elbows bear battle wounds because you elbowed your way to the front of the line of serving yourself? Who did those elbows hurt along the way? Your spouse? Your children? Your parents? Your friends? Your co-workers? Your fellow brother’s and sister’s in Christ? Your Savior? Are we feeling a little bit uncomfortable right now? Does Jesus hit a little too close for comfort today? That’s good. Because we need to be called out on our sinful selfishness when we act that way. Jesus spends the last half of chapter 19 and all of chapter 20 driving this point home: sinful selfishness has no place in his kingdom.
Let’s focus our attention on two statements of Jesus. They are the book ends of our lesson today. His first statement comes at the beginning. “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matthew 20:18, 19) Where is Jesus focus? His focus is on how he would serve his disciples. His focus is on how he would serve you and me. Then right after that comes the disciples fighting over who gets to be at the front of the line in God’s kingdom. And then Jesus says this, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
Look at the contrast of sinful selfishness and selfless service in these verses. All one group could think about was that they were not going to take a back seat to anyone else, not even to each other. All Jesus was focused on was laying down his life for them. While we are busy tripping over ourselves to be first in line Jesus stumbled under the weight of the cross. While we are busy focusing on all that we can get at the expense of friends and family, at the expense of others we see Jesus in sweat drenched prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was betrayed because he knew what he would have to give. While we should be lost in the depth of our sinful selfishness for eternity in hell Jesus selflessly served us to give us true greatness.
We think greatness means we get what we want, when we want it, how we want it. We tend to view someone else’s success as our failure. We tend to think that if I lend a helping hand to you that means a missed opportunity of greatness for me. Ask a hunter or fisherman why they don’t tell too many people about their favorite tree stand or the “honey hole” fishing spot. They don’t want someone else shooting the ten-point buck or catching the ten-pound walleye in their spot. We look at the success of others as missed opportunities of greatness for us. Is that the selfless attitude Jesus calls me to have or is it selfishly sinful attitude Jesus warns against today?
Listen to Jesus words one more time, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must by your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28). Jesus uses a very big and difficult word, “must”. This isn’t a suggestion by Jesus. This isn’t do it if you feel like it or don’t if you don’t feel like it. Jesus calls us from sinful selfishness to selfless service. Jesus calls us to be a servant to our neighbor. Jesus calls us to be a servant to our family, friends, and co-workers. Jesus calls us to be a servant to brothers and sisters in Christ.
What an opportunity we have to serve one another in our communities right now as the coronavirus spreads. As we see the needs of our neighbors instead of elbowing our way to the front of the line to make sure we get served we turn to our neighbor and say, “How can I serve you?” Can you get groceries and basic supplies for someone that can’t get out themselves? Do you have an abundance of blessings that you can share with someone who doesn’t? People are saying that this virus will change our world. Maybe it can change us to look for more opportunities to selflessly serve. Just as Jesus didn’t come to be served, just as he didn’t come to be waited on, just as he didn’t come to demand what he wants and it better happen, just as he didn’t come to be the greatest. Instead, he came to be the least. Listen to Paul’s encouragement in Philippians, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
Where do we find that selfless service? The ultimate place we find it is on the cross of Christ. Is there any greater service than our Lord who laid aside his crown and put on a crown of thorns to pierce his brow for you and me? Is there any greater service than our Lord who laid aside the glory of heaven to be counted among sinners for you and me? Is there any greater service than our Lord who said, “Give me all of the punishment for every single one of our sins so that we can walk free in the joy of heaven forever?
As I see what Jesus did for me, I can put him first and myself last. As I see what Jesus did for me, I can put others first and myself last. I can love my spouse unconditionally. I can love my children and treat them as the blessings they are from the Lord. I can love the people that I come across every single day and put their needs above my own. I can serve because through the gospel Jesus has called me from sinful selfishness to selfless service. And as I serve selflessly the question is never, “What’s in it for me?”, but the question is “Through Christ what can I give to others?” Amen.