Have you ever played this game? There are some chairs placed in a circle with the seats facing out and then someone plays some music, and everyone walks around the chairs, do you know what game I’m talking about? Once the music stops the people walking in a circle rush to sit down in one of the chairs except there is always one less chair than persons, so someone inevitably doesn’t have a seat. And the person who can’t sit down loses.
The game is called musical chairs and I have a feeling many if not most of you have played it before. There are strategies to the game if you think it’s a game worth taking seriously. There’s the strategy of walking super slow and holding up everyone else, hoping that in this way there will always be chair open in front of you. Then there is the opposite strategy of going fast, running from chair to chair, half-crouched, ready to drop onto a chair the moment the music stops. Maybe the best strategy is just not to play musical chairs. But have you ever seen this? Have you ever seen someone who just sat in a chair? Never walked in the circle. Never competed for the seat, just claimed it. This is my spot. This is my seat.
This morning we find James and John the two sons of Zebedee claiming a seat, claiming seats next to Jesus. Here is their request. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” These two brothers knew Jesus was special, unique. They were two of the three disciples who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration and so now they decided to take a chance and stake a claim to the seats at the left and right of their Lord.
Now, we can’t look into the hearts of John and James, but if you look at chapter 9 of Mark, you maybe remember a lot of hubbub from the disciples about who was greatest and then you maybe recall Jesus making this statement, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He said that to all 12 disciples we are told, yet it doesn’t seem like Jesus’ words stuck around very long in the minds John and James because here they are thinking only of themselves; claiming seats for themselves. Their request was driven by sinful ambition.
And it’s worth noting how Jesus responds to them. He right away tells them that they don’t know what they are asking. “John, James, you really haven’t thought this through.” Here is why, Jesus says, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “John, James you want these seats, you want to be great? Take a seat. See what those seats contain. A cup of suffering, a baptism, an immersion into the same death that I will experience. These seats come at a price, and ultimately, Jesus says, they are “not for me to grant.” John and James’ request for greatness, for a seat next to Jesus was denied.
But it is maybe what Jesus said about these seats being seats of suffering that pricked our ears. That doesn’t seem right. Why would a seat next to Jesus include pain, include suffering? And so often we struggle with that thought. We wonder what kind of Father would allow suffering and pain for his children who will sit with him in heaven. It makes us hesitate to want a seat next to him. But suffering and pain is, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Those hardships win our attention in a way and to a depth nothing else ever does, humbling us enough to cry out…to him…to Jesus. Because you know, as well as I do, we cannot claim a seat in heaven. So how do we get there? Not by the cup we drink, nor by the suffering we endure; rather, by the cup, by the suffering of our Lord and Savior, is a seat in God’s presence obtained.
And that’s when we finally get it. We want a seat that we can’t claim. We want a seat that we can’t earn, suffer, or die for. So we need him. We need Jesus. We need that suffering servant who we saw in our first lesson “poured out his life unto death and…bore the sin of many.” He bore our sins! Your sins! Jesus is your suffering servant. He was crushed and was made to suffer. His life became a guilt offering for you. No sacrifice compares to the sacrifice our Lord made on that day on that cross. Jesus’ sacrifice, his suffering, was a cup that no one else could bear, but it was a cup he bore willingly. All so that he could lean over to you and say, “Here, here is a seat. I prepared it just for you; it’s yours.” Then he stood up and he gave us his seat and said, “Take it, take a seat.”
This is a seat we can all confidently claim through the suffering and death Jesus. It is a seat we claim while also imitating our Savior in his service. Which brings us back to musical chairs. If you saw someone claim a seat in musical chairs, you’d likely be upset. That person ruined the game for everyone else by being selfish, which was how the disciples felt when they heard that John and James tried to claim a seat at Jesus’ right and left.
The other 10 disciples became “indignant” angry with John and James, but Jesus saw that all of them were being ruled by sinful-selfish ambition. He compared them to Gentile rulers who abused their power and acted only for themselves and then told them that this not how his followers live their lives. “Not so with you. He said, instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
Jesus gives us a reminder today. He reminds us that we are different and the motivation behind everything we do is different. God has given us a seat with him and now he urges us to live looking forward to that seat, which means a life of service. But very quickly we find how easy it is to be like the disciples and fall into selfish and uncaring habits. Even if we do what is right the temptation is still there to do it for selfish, ambitious reasons as our thoughts are turned from “How can I best help this individual,” to “How can helping this person best serve me.” Think about that the next time you seek to serve. What is your motivation? For those of you who are married, why do you make the bed in the morning, why do you vacuum or do the dishes? Is it for selfish reasons, to keep your nagging spouse off your back, or is it because you are eager to serve them and make their life easier? Children, what motivates you to obey your parents and teachers? Love for God and his commands or a desire to make yourself look better in front of your friends or siblings?
You see the issue. So often, we do what is right, but we do it for all the wrong reasons. We do what is right to benefit ourselves, and if it does not benefit us, we either do nothing, or we do it begrudgingly. That is not God-pleasing service, but selfish, sinful ambition. We become those “rulers of the Gentiles” Jesus speaks of, who abuse their authority by failing to serve. This sinful ambition leads us away from the seat that is prepared for us in God’s kingdom and, if we continue on that path to a seat in hell, where we will suffer for all eternity.
Except, recall what Jesus said to his disciples, “Not so with you.” As Christians, our service is to be an imitation of the service of our Savior. A Savior who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus is the perfect example of service, the title “Son of Man” is proof. Jesus is God, yet in humbleness, in service, he left his seat of glory. He put himself on our level, not to be served, but to serve. What was our Lord and Savior’s service?
“He gave his life as a ransom.” Jesus left his throne in heaven to be under the law and to be obedient to death. Jesus left his seat to serve you by dying for you. In this way, he washed away all your sinful, selfish ambition. He didn’t do it for his own glory but for yours. To lift you up and place you in that seat at your Father’s side for all eternity.
One day in his studio, Leonardo da Vinci worked at a painting with his own matchless genius. Suddenly, handing the brush to one of his students, he commanded, “Paint on.” The student protested that he was both unworthy and unable to paint on that which his great master had begun. But da Vinci silenced him with the question, “Will not what I have done inspire you to do your best?” “Paint on,” the Suffering Servant commands us, “wherever I put you, at whatever work I place before you. Let my service inspire you.”
Brothers and sisters, take that seat Jesus won for you by his suffering and his service and “Paint on.” Serve one another, and then consider how you can serve others outside this building so that they too might hear their Savior say to them “Take a seat, come, join me in heaven.” Amen.