How many of you find that following Jesus is predictable, a clear path, and that Jesus is always exactly as you want him to be? I didn’t think so. Jesus often defies our expectations, and he certainly defies the expectations of the disciples in our gospel today.

James and John come up to Jesus and demand, “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask … Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

Even though they’ve heard Jesus anticipate his suffering and death twice already, they still “imagine a triumphant, regal scene with themselves sitting in positions of honor at King Jesus’ right and left.”[1] They want power and prestige.

But they’ve got it all wrong. Jesus tells them, “You do not know what you are asking.” James and John think that following Jesus will lead to admiration and high status, but that’s not reflective of who Jesus is.

Jesus says,  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant … For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve.” Jesus is still great -- he is still a leader, a king, someone with authority, but in a very different scene than the one James and John have imagined. Jesus is a leader who serves, a king who walks among his people, not one who reclines in some throne far away.

 But then why call him a king at all if he doesn’t act like one? How can Jesus the servant and Jesus the king possibly be the same person?

After all, a king is someone who wields a lot of power, who can even be a tyrant and lord his authority over his subjects. Think about the kings you’ve heard of.

Henry VIII of England divorced and executed wives who didn’t bear him a living son. He executed clergy and other rulers that didn’t do what he wanted. He possessed great power and wealth, and used it for his personal agenda at the expense of people’s lives.

 

Or what about Emperor Nero of Rome? He was a tyrant too. He executed countless people, even his own mother. It was also his mission to ruthlessly torture and execute Christians -- he is considered the first major persecutor. Nero also eliminated those who might rival his throne and was described as being “obsessed with personal popularity”[2] -- which is yet another trait we associate with those in power.

Do any examples of kings who serve or who were willing to die for their people come to mind easily? Although this kind of leader may have existed in history, we do not readily associate “service” or “being willing to die” with the role of a king.

And yet we do have a king who serves and who was willing to die for us. Jesus defies our expectations and redefines the cultural understanding of who a king is.

Jesus uses his authority to teach others about God and God’s kingdom. Jesus uses his power to heal the sick and grant sight to the blind. Jesus uses his position to be an example of how to live in response to God’s love.

Jesus shows us who a king -- or really any kind of leader -- is truly meant to be: one who serves their people and uses their power to benefit others. So it is not Jesus who has this whole king and leader identity wrong -- it’s us.

Likewise, our stereotypes of a servant are not in line with who Jesus is, either.

Let’s take a couple of fictional examples that are representative of how we tend to imagine servants.

First, Cinderella. She is ordered around mercilessly by her stepsisters and stepmother, having to take care of nearly all the domestic duties. She is treated without dignity and respect, overlooked as a human being. Her duties are done quietly, and she must shrink who she is because she has no other choice.

Another example are the servants, the house workers, we see on Downton Abbey. If you’re not familiar, this is a show about an English Lord, his family, and his staff at the turn of the 20th century. The servants at the Downton estate are like a well-oiled machine. They’re always a step ahead of their superiors, and keep the house running without much recognition.

They also know all of the gossip of the house, and share that with one another. Not only do they have the details on their superiors, like Lord Grantham, they also know secrets about one another.

The servants are often caught in their own mix of power struggles, lies, and negotiations. While the servants portrayed on this show are treated better than servants were treated in the real Victorian era, they certainly don’t have much power to affect change or to do anything outside of their employer’s rules.

But Jesus isn’t a timid servant or caught up in local gossip. He isn’t without agency or a full personality. Servanthood doesn’t mean you neglect who you are or hide behind the scenes all the time. It means that you use who you are to benefit others, and that the focus of your life is outward.

Jesus serves by breaking boundaries to be with those on the margins. He serves by teaching what it means to participate in God’s kingdom. He serves, as our text says, by offering his life as a ransom, a deliverance, a redemption of all people.

Jesus might be many things, but he certainly is not meek and mild. Nor does he simply follow rules for the sake of good order. He chooses to be a servant, he has agency, and he uses that way of life to make a difference, to transform lives, to create change.

Again, Jesus does not conform to our expectations. He defies them.

Our Jesus is both servant and king, king and servant. For him, these two identities go hand in hand. He is both a leader who serves and a servant who leads. I hope you are beginning to see that these are not mutually exclusive.

But what does this all mean for us? It is well and good that Jesus is our king who came to serve, but we aren’t kings or rulers, right? This is true, but in some way or another, each of us is a leader, which means we can follow Jesus’ example of servant leadership.

The connecting piece in Jesus between leader and servant is that he uses who he is in each of the roles to benefit others. While you are not the savior of the world like Jesus, there are plenty of ways for you benefit others.

You can embody qualities like compassion, attentive listening, and encouragement. If you are a parent, for instance, you are a leader in your family. It’s up to you to set the example for your children in how to be compassionate, empathetic human beings by interacting with them that way. This both an act of leadership in setting an example and an act of service in treating them well.

Or perhaps you are in a supervisory position at work, and the people you are supervising refuse to collaborate on an important project. Your task could be to use your position to step in and model collaboration. In this way, you are leading them in the direction you want them to go, and you are serving them by being willing to walk alongside them instead of lording your power over them.

Or maybe you are organizing an event to raise awareness of something, like the need to stop stigmatizing mental health and the need to foster a culture where people aren’t afraid to talk about it. In this case, you wouldn’t hide behind the scenes and just print pamphlets about the issue, you would use who you are to speak up, get others involved, and organize a time for education. Here, you are a leader making a difference, and you are servant working for the benefit of those stigmatized by mental health.

You see, in Jesus, we are set free from the cultural expectations of who we are supposed to be, and we are set free to live this life of servant leadership using who we are.

There is no better example in the world than Jesus, our servant-king, to follow. He overturns our definitions of what a leader and a servant are to be, and he leads us by example into a radically different life of servant leadership -- thank God we are to follow Jesus’ standards and not our own.

So get going -- get following Jesus, get leading, get serving. Get to this life of being the servant leader Jesus calls you to be, and don’t worry about the world’s expectations or even your own -- Jesus will lead you and serve you every step of the way. Amen.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          [1] Mark Vitalis Hoffman, Commentary on Mark 10:35-45, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2641.

[2] Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Nero.

 

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