Not to Be Served but to Serve (Isa. 53:4-12; Heb. 5:1-10; Mk. 10:35-45)
I think I’ve told you of the small pieces of note paper that my father had on his office desk. It was one of the first things I remember learning to read. At the top was the legend “From the desk of Pastor John Herschel Ashley,” and, at the bottom was a part of our Gospel lesson: “…Not to be served, but to serve…” Even as a boy, I knew that my dad thought this saying was about him as a minister, and I thought that somebody ought to serve him at least once in a while. “…Not to be served, but to serve…” When I became more mature I learned that these were words of Jesus about his own ministry, but I have not forgotten that little notepad, and that my dad thought the words were about his ministry, too.
Each of this morning’s readings were interpreted by the early church as to be about Jesus: Jesus the Suffering Servant, Jesus the High Priest, Jesus the Son of Man. There is considerable evidence in the New Testament that Jesus used at least the first and third of these to refer to himself. The picture of Jesus as priest or high priest was a natural one, given the basic culture of the earliest followers of Jesus as Jews, deeply impacted by the priestly and sacrificial imagery of their scriptures. To apply the title of Priest to Jesus was a natural thing to do, especially to make sense of his death.
Contained in the Book of Isaiah chapters 40-55 (usually called Deutero- or Second Isaiah) are a number of references to a figure known as the Servant of the Lord. At least eight rather long passages clearly identify this servant as the People of God (in a historical sense, Israel in exile). In a three other passages, the identity of this Servant is not clear. One of these three is the long passage found in 52:13-53:12, part of which we read this morning. (The other two are 42:1-4 and 50:4-9.) The early church, and probably Jesus himself, found a clue to Jesus’ own life and ministry in these passages and quickly identified Jesus as this Servant of the Lord. Let us take for an example, 53:7:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he did not open his mouth.
The New Testament refers this verse to Jesus no fewer than ten times (Mt. 26:63; 27:12; Mk. 14:60-61; 15:4-5; 1 Cor. 5:7; 1 Pet. 2:23; Rev. 5:6,12; 13:8). And this is but an example using one verse of this passage. The New Testament overwhelmingly identifies Jesus as the Servant, and his ministry is of this kind. Jesus did not come with an army to silence all opposition, but to absorb the sin and suffering of the world, and by that, to restore many people to relationship with God.
While there is no harm in agreeing with the massive evidence of the New Testament here, we want to remember that the Old Testament is also clear in referring the title of the Servant of the Lord to God’s people, which in New Testament terms is the Church, the Body of Christ. Also the New Testament in Luke, Colossians, and 1 Peter all recognized that not only was Jesus the Servant, but so is his church. Now, this conclusion could have taken me about three hours of lecture with hand-outs and power point presentations, but I thought you’d appreciate the short version. This conclusion shows that, in reality, my dad wasn’t really out to lunch when he referred “Not to be served, but to serve” to the church (and himself) as well as to Jesus.
Our Epistle lesson comes from Hebrews chapter 5, and talks about the fact that Jesus is the true High Priest. According to chapter 4, verse 15 Jesus is that because he was tempted in every way as we are, and yet was without blemish, flaw, mistake, or as we translate, sin. So, unlike the other High Priests, Jesus did not have to offer sacrifices for himself, nor did he have to repeat the sacrifices, since he offered a sacrifice of himself, once-for-all through his death. This, again, is pretty common New Testament thinking about Jesus that we could find in many places (in John and Paul as well as in Hebrews).
Of course, one of the battle-cries of the Protestant Reformation was about the “priesthood of every believer,” and Baptists have championed this idea with vigour. A priest is one who intercedes with God for the world. Jesus was the true High Priest. But it is clear that every believer is cast into the role of priest by both the New Testament and the teaching of the church. The old Latin word for priest is pontifex, which, literally, means “bridge builder.” In English, our word pontiff (which is mostly only used now only of the Pope) is a derivative from that word. The word describes exactly what any priest does – she builds bridges across which the world comes to God. Many times Baptists get confused into thinking that the priesthood of believers is about being able to go to God for ourselves. That is not what a priest does, most basically. A priest goes to God on behalf of someone else. Every time we gather here and pray for one another, we are acting as priests to one another and demonstrating the priesthood of the believer. So, although, it’s clear that we cannot be the High Priest in the sense that Jesus was, we can certainly do the work of priests in the world. We can be about the work of building structures of reconciliation from people to God, and from people to people. “Not to be served, but to serve” as priests.
The Gospel story has James and John wanting to be big shots in the everlasting reign of God. Jesus says that they don’t really know what it takes to be big shots where God reigns, and asks them if they think they do? They, of course, have the chutzpah to think so. Jesus says that he hasn’t the authority to share that status with them, but that these two will surely share in his baptism (his way of life and death). At this point, the rest of the disciples get miffed at James and John for trying to get the best spots in the kingdom, perhaps because they hadn’t thought of it first. That’s when Jesus says these words:
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. 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.
James and John (and many since their time) have asked for status under the reign of God. And Jesus says that status language is the wrong language completely. What makes for greatness among Jesus followers is not the sitting in places of privilege such as these disciples, and many since, seemed to have. Jesus said that it was common knowledge that the rulers of the Gentiles (and he could have said the Jews, too, but he stuck to Gentiles that day) lord it over them. And their great ones are tyrants over them. Then he categorically states “but it is not so among you.” He didn’t say, “Don’t do it, try not to make it so, or even, it will not be so.” He simply stated the fact that among Christ’s followers leadership and greatness is not exercising power over anyone, whether in evangelism, or political pressure for the advantage of our group in society, or dominating for advantage and privilege within the church – it is simply not so among you. If, perchance, this is our view of greatness, we have failed to get it and Jesus goes on with those words: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” As with the figure of speech of the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah 53, as with the figure of the High Priest from Hebrews 5, so here with the figure of the Son of Man in Mark 10 – the figure is not only about Jesus, it’s about us, as the people of God. If the Son of Man (which in Mark’s Gospel = the Messiah, and is a title derived –through a winding path from the glorious heavenly figure found in Daniel chapter 7 – another longish lecture) if the son of man lived life on earth as a servant, who came not to be served but to serve and give his life, how much more must those who are servants of the Servant of the Lord live their lives? In the end of the day, my father’s stationery held more wisdom that I knew: “Not to be served, but to serve.” It’s about Jesus and all of us.
It is significant for us, as Christians in what is often an alien world, to have these biblical witnesses to testify to us that, as the human Jesus is the Servant of the Lord, the Great High Priest, and the Son of Man, and that the Church of Jesus also lives into these roles as it follows its leader and Lord. These witnesses give us guidance as we look around for a word from God in the bewildering babble of messages about how to be the church, and how to do mission in our communities.
What Jesus’ words mean is that discipleship is not about holding onto what we’ve always been, or our power, or our prestige. Last Sunday, we saw that determining to hang on to these things makes life under Jesus’ values impossible. Discipleship is not even about keeping local churches alive (which means unchanged). Rather, these witnesses teach us that, as Jesus is the Servant who suffers to reconcile, so we his people need to stand side-by side with Jesus, not as aggressors who get into people’s faces and bowl them over with clever marketing. It is our mission to work and witness with Jesus in the world to absorb the hate and self-centredness of the world, so as to be agents of wholeness and peace. As Jesus, the Great Bridge Builder who, through what he said and what he did – and more what God said and did through him – spoke not of a cheap grace, but of costly reconciliation, so the followers of Jesus do not tear down people and things, but build them up, understanding that this world is now too dangerous for anything but grace and love.
As Jesus the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life. So the church of Jesus cannot be busied with lording it over people, and looking only for those who are culturally with-it, strong, elite, beautiful, big, or wealthy, so that the church may prosper as any of these things. When we are tempted to use any status language, we must always hear him saying: It is not so among you.
The marketplace is full of people trying to chart the church’s future. Many of them advise becoming just like our culture, and preaching rather thinly a repentance from the dangers of the sacrificial lifestyle of Jesus. Our call is not to be safe, but to embrace the lifestyle of one who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life. But it is only in doing so that we are truly the church – servants of the Servant of the Lord.
In Philippians chapter 2, the Apostle Paul wrote,
Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who did not count equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
Not to be served, but to serve. Let us pray for strength for the journey.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.