What would you do if your boss asked you to undertake a big project that would require a lot of effort and travel but she wouldn’t tell you what the project was until you agreed to do it? Would you buy that deal? Or if your very best friend comes to you with a financial crisis, and when you ask what it is or how much he needs – the answer is that he can’t tell you but just needs you to write him a blank check! That’s what James and John seem to be saying to Jesus in this passage from Mark 10. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Why would these two close disciples of Jesus even dare to ask such a brash and bold thing? There is some evidence to support this unseemly behavior if we look elsewhere in the Gospels. At least four times Jesus seems to offer the disciples and us that kind of magic wand. ‘Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith you will receive” (Mt. 21:22). And three times in John’s gospel, “I will do whatever you ask in my name” (John 14:13; 15:7 & 16).
Such a deal! No wonder James and John want to cash in. What would you pray for if you were guaranteed you’d get whatever you asked for? New job? Healing for yourself or a loved one? Straight A’s? A full-ride scholarship to the college of your choice? Browns in the Super Bowl? Hey, it says whatever you ask!!!! How about healing a broken relationship? Or let’s think really big and go for world peace and a healthy environment.
But there’s something wrong with this picture isn’t there? We’ve prayed for most of those things and more, and more times than not, the answer is ‘no’ or ‘not now” or “not yet.” The cancer isn’t cured. The marriage ends in divorce. The perfect job doesn’t appear. Mr. or Ms. Right turns out to be a big Ms-take, and the world seems further from peace than ever.
If God is all powerful and promises to answer our prayers, why is there so much suffering and pain? Why is the world such a mess? We’ll come back to that question later. First let’s look at the second surprising thing in this story about Jesus and his disciples. After the audacity of James and John to ask Jesus to grant them whatever they want, the next surprise is that Jesus doesn’t laugh in their faces for daring to ask such a foolish question. Jesus calmly responds, “What is it you want me to do? “ And when they say they want the seats of honor next to Jesus in his kingdom, then Jesus gets a little more direct with them. He says, “You don’t know what you’re asking.” In other words, “Be careful what you ask for.” And then Jesus goes on to explain for the umpteenth time the cost of discipleship. Following Jesus means being a servant and a slave, the exact opposite of the cushy places of privilege and honor James and John were asking for.
In Isaiah (55:8) God says, “My ways are not your ways.” Jesus makes the same point here in Mark. He says “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 (church); but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant; for the son of man came not to be served but to serve” (10:43). Sometimes our unanswered prayers are the result of asking for the wrong things–like when we pray for athletic victories. I don’t think even Jesus could get the poor Browns to a Super Bowl; or for materialistic things or success in a job or on a test at school when we haven’t taken the responsibility to do the work and the study necessary for success.
Even prayer for peace and the environment can be nothing more than pious platitudes if we don’t live peaceful and environmentally responsible lifestyles. That’s why the letter of James tells us, “Faith without works is dead.” That epistle says it does no good to wish someone well if we don’t lift a finger to help feed them or meet their needs. A friend of mine on Facebook recently posted a few messages about breaking a new bottle of insulin she needs to take every day. Her insurance company refused to replace the expensive medicine, and she didn’t have money in her budget to replace it. After a few days of going without the insulin she posted another message saying she was starting to feel the effects of going without. In response there was a long list of messages from her Facebook friends offering prayers and messages of sympathy, but not one offer of any funds to help her buy her meds. Prayers without works to back them up are dead.
At first glance, it looks like James and John’s request is denied because they are asking for special recognition. Don’t we all like to be appreciated and affirmed? We put our plaques and diplomas and awards on our office walls, but I don’t see many of us displaying pictures of times we really messed up or a headline from the paper when we got a speeding ticket. What if James and John simply asking for assurance that they’re ok? Just a few verses earlier Mark tells us they were afraid as they headed ever closer to Jerusalem and what awaited Jesus there. Maybe James and John just want to be close to Jesus. Don’t we all want to be sure God is walking beside us on our daily journey – to be reassured that the single set of footprints in the tough times are really God’s and not ours?
But there’s a difference between asking for God’s presence and expecting special treatment. We’d all like to be exempt from suffering and pain, and our loved ones too. But we are called with Christ to suffer with those who suffer. Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers of our time describes what we want as “almost Bible” – things that we think are or should be in the Bible but aren’t. He says we want the Bible to say that “when the Messiah comes there will be no more suffering.” But what it says is “Where there is suffering, there the Messiah comes.” And Jesus calls us to be there with the suffering also if we want to be next to him. Yes, God promises a peaceful, pain-free existence for the faithful, but that peace comes only in the spiritual realm of divine healing, beyond the trials and tribulations of this mortal existence.
Some prayers also go unanswered because they are just too small. The scope of our prayer concerns is like an archery target of concentric circles – you know what that looks like with the red bull’s eye in the very center of the target. Our personal concerns and needs are naturally at the bull’s eye. Next to us are those we love and care most about, then come friends and neighbors in the next circle, then friends and acquaintances of others brought to our attention when they are put on the prayer list, etc. The secret to growing in our faith is an ever-expanding sense of who we are connected to in God’s family until our prayers and service reach to the far outer ring of the circles – to those we don’t even know who look different and think differently, even worship differently or not at all – even to those we have labeled as our enemies. All of God’s children and all of God’s creation become part of our prayer vision and circle of compassion. That’s the vision that inspires our giving to missions at home and around the world. It’s the reason dozens of our own Jerome church members are on three mission trips to Kentucky, Haiti and Argentina at this very moment. Praise God for that dedication and service.
The scope of our concern is like flying in a plane. At ground level all we can see are the other planes on the tarmac and the terminal and the control tower, and those people out there losing our luggage. Then as the plane lifts off the ground we can see the parking lots and highways next to the airport, then the skyline of the city we are departing from, and as we get higher we can see for miles – pick out lakes and rivers and other landmarks. And from 30000 feet on a clear day we can see all the way to the horizon miles away. And for an even better view, we’ve all seen pictures of the earth sent back from Apollo astronauts circling the moon and have seen what a beautiful, fragile little planet we live on – one without the artificial borders and boundaries that divide us from one another. From that vantage point we begin to get a God’s eye view and a universal perspective that calls us to pray and act on behalf of all creation and all of God’s children.
Jesus calls us to be servants of that whole creation, and that means making hard choices. We have to put our own desires and wishes on hold to tend to the needs of others. Mothers and fathers and caregivers for the sick or elderly know exactly what that means, and the Scriptures challenge us all to adopt that role of caretaker for God’s world and God’s people – not just out of necessity, but with joyful hearts.
God has entrusted humankind with the care of all creation and we must take that job more seriously. It isn’t easy – none of us want to give up the comfortable lifestyle we enjoy. We can pray for researchers and business leaders to find solutions to difficult environmental problems – but all of us need to also do more to simplify our own consumption of the finite resources God has provided. I know businesses don’t like EPA regulations that limit their freedoms and their profits, none of us do, but without rules and regulations we are not good at environmentally healthy choices and practices – because when our eyes are focused on just the bulls eye of our own well-being and not on the Creator’s perspective, we lose sight of the bigger target.
World peace is an even bigger challenge. We pray for our troops and honor the sacrifices they and their loved ones make every day that we too often take for granted. But Jesus calls all of us to live peacefully too. He says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Mt. 5:39), and stop the cycle of anger and revenge. Yes, I know there are huge questions about how we do that in the face of tyrants and terrorists, and I don’t have any easy answers. But what I do know is that the Scriptures challenge all of us to wrestle with what that means and how we respond to bullies or road rage or a back stabbing colleague at work. Jesus says pray for your enemies and for those who abuse you, but prayer alone is not enough — he also says to love them.
World peace is so big an issue we are tempted to throw up our hands and just give up, but that is not an acceptable response. None of us is likely to go out this week and stop the violence in Afghanistan or Syria or even on the west side of Columbus – but every one of us will have multiple opportunities to respond peaceably to someone who rushes in front of us in the checkout line at Kroger’s, or takes a parking place we were obviously heading for. We will all have chances to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who is unkind or rude, perhaps because they are distracted by problems at home or work or have just gotten terrible news from the Dr. Or a student at school who is a jerk because he or she just flunked a big test or got cut from the squad. And I guarantee you that all of us will have many chances in these final days before the election to resist the temptation to put down those we disagree with politically and choose instead to respectfully disagree .
On the topic of elections and political disagreements – a friend posted some very good advice this week from someone I never expected to see on Facebook–John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist church. Way back in 1774 Wesley wrote these words that are just as relevant today as they were 250 years ago. Wesley wrote in his journal:
“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them,
- To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:
- To speak no evil of the person they voted against:
- To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”
In every situation, I urge all of us to pray and meditate on Jesus as the way and the truth and life as we make daily choices this week. Remember what Jesus says to James and John: “It’s not about you. You don’t need to elbow and shove your way into the spotlight.” God sees acts of servanthood and they may not get recognized or rewarded in the coin of the realm – but God will reward us with the peace that comes when our prayers are in alignment with our actions, and our will is in harmony with God’s.
How do we live peaceful lives of love and forgiveness toward others? The best advice is always to look to Jesus as our example, and when it comes to the question of how to pray faithfully there is one short prayer of Jesus in Mark 14:36 that says it all. That prayer is the exact opposite of what James and John ask of Jesus. They want to play God and expect Jesus to do whatever they want. In contrast, in his greatest hour of need on the night before he was crucified Jesus also prayed to God and asked very clearly for what he wanted. Remember he says, “God, for you all things are possible, remove this cup from me.” In other words, “get me out of this mess.” But unlike James and John, Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, “But not my will but thy will be done.” That is the ultimate test of authentic prayer. Do we give God’s will priority over ours? We can and should voice our deepest fears and requests to God. God wants that kind of personal relationship with us. But the bottom line is to humbly let God be God and submit our desires as faithful servants to God’s will. A sincere prayer for God’s will to be done is prayer that will always be answered.
[Preached at Jerome UMC,Plain City, OH, Oct. 21, 2012]