It’s dangerous to preach on suffering because many of us are in very different places right now. Some of us are in agony, some of us are coming out of a time of suffering and feeling grateful, others are just joyful and aren’t really suffering much. And what will be a word in season for one person is going to be a word out of season for someone else.
Some of you are wanting to say “Amen!” to “No plague will even come NEAR your tent” and others of you are wanting to say “Amen” to “The cup that I drink you will drink.” It’s not easy to say Amen to both.
If you’ve gone through a time of suffering as a Christian, you know how some verses can soothe your soul in the middle of a crisis, in the time of pain and destruction. And you know how some of them, spoken with all good intentions but spoken out of season, can be so unhelpful.
I remember when my brothers and I were growing up and we’d be arguing or fighting, the basic rules were: The person who gets the most mad loses. This is not a good story, by the way. So if you saw that you were winning, and that your brother was getting mad, here was the sure-fire way of winning: Get as obnoxiously happy as you could. That would pretty much guarantee that the other brother would lose it.
The real secret weapon we had was a song that our Mom used to sing: “Happy, happy, happy, happy. Happy are the people whose God is the Lo-ord! Happy, happy, happy, happy. Happy are the people whose God is the Lord. Where does this happy feeling come from? Jesus! That’s where this happy feeling comes fro-o-om! This happy feeling comes from Jesus, he’s the one who always pleases. That’s where this happy feeling comes from.”
Kinda makes you want to punch someone in the face right now, doesn’t it? I mean here’s something that’s the repeated testimony of Scripture, “Happy or blessed are the people whose God is the Lord” occurs several places in the Psalms, though I think the “Jesus pleases” rhyme is, shall we say, extrabiblical. But here’s the testimony of Scripture and in the wrong context, sends me up the wall. (Proverbs 25:20: “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”)
What Story Are You Telling?
So, context is important. And context matters a lot not just in the kind of suffering we might call anguish or affliction. It matters with physical pain too. I’m going to play you a little bit of a segment from NPR’s Radiolab show, a science program. This is from their episode on placebos. The first voice you’ll hear is Robert Krulwich. The other host is Jad Abumrad.
So that’s a little bit about how the brain works, about our subconscious, a little bit of science, but the question this Radiolab segment raises is the same question our texts ask tonight: What story are you telling? What story informs our suffering?
Now, here’s the weird thing. You’d think, from this little radio snippet, that the answer is think positive. The reason the battlefield soldier’s pain was less than the civilian’s pain literally was because he was thinking about the glory that awaited him. Now, that’ll preach. And it sounds a lot like Romans 8: “Our present sufferings are not even worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
It’s true. Our present sufferings are not even worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. But I think sometimes we read that verse and we think it’s saying, “Ah, that pain, that suffering, that thing that happened, it’s nothing! Forget about it! Ignore it!”
That’s not the testimony of Scripture. The Bible never tells us to ignore suffering, or “just get over it” or to rush past it into that future glory. In fact, our passage gives us a warning against trying to skip past the Cross and live in the Resurrection.
(Read Mark 10:32-35)
James and John Are Focused on Glory and Power
James and John’s request, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Comes right after, RIGHT after verse 32, “And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.’” And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said, “Uh, can we be like your two main guys?”
What? James and John, were you not listening? Were you so focused on your own selfish desires that you can’t hear Jesus? Actually, that’s how this story is often interpreted. But I’m not so sure. I think maybe they DID hear Jesus. But they weren’t looking where he was looking.
Let’s go just a little bit further back in the story (Mark 10:17-31). The rich young ruler comes up and says “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus says, “Keep the commandments,” and the guy says “Yeah, been there done that.” Jesus says, “Great. Go sell all you have and give it to the poor,” and the guy “goes away sorrowful for he had great possessions.” Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."
Now, using the parallel passage in Matthew 19:25: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’" Then Peter said in reply, "See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
You catch that? “You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones.”
Ray Stedman points out that James’ and John’s request has three aspects to it—“They ask for preeminence, proximity, and power.” The fact is, Stedman says, “They are asking for what they had been promised. Jesus does not rebuff this ambition to be near him, to have preeminence, and to have power. But he does say to them, in effect, that they are going about it entirely the wrong way. They are ignorant of the cost of this.”
I’ll put it a slightly different way. They probably were ignorant of the cost of this. But I’m not sure they were quite so deaf as to not hear Jesus’ words that “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death” After all, this is the third time Jesus has predicted his death, and while they don’t get the point I think the problem might have been that they focused on the last part: “And after three days he will rise.”
Now, they didn’t know what this meant, either. Scripture is clear that the Cross came as a shock, and the Resurrection REALLY came as a shock. But I think what they probably heard was “Here’s a parable that means we’re heading to Jerusalem. There’s going to be a fight, some pain, some suffering, but shortly thereafter the kingdom will be here and the Messiah will be on the throne.”
So, if you’re James and John and that’s what you think, then yeah, you’re going to be making plans! Okay, 12 thrones, who’s going to be sitting where? First is last and we became disciples after Simon Peter and Andrew—but Simon kind of seems like he thinks he might be running the show here. He’s becoming pretty prominent, so we’d better check to make sure. We came after Simon, so that means we’re first, right?
Jesus Is Focused on the Cross and Suffering
But Jesus says, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?"
Jesus isn’t talking about glory and resurrection. He’s not THINKING primarily about glory and resurrection. He’s thinking about suffering. He’s thinking about the Cross. Bible scholars talk about the cup representing the inward sufferings of Christ, the baptism representing the outward sufferings.
Jesus is saying: I’m going to drink the full wrath of God and I’m going to be waterboarded with suffering and death. You think you can handle being on my left and right during that?
“We are able,” they replied. Of course! They’d already figured that there would be some sort of bloody conflagration in Jerusalem. They’re saying, “Hey look man. We’re ready! We may die or be wounded, but you know! Thrones! Judging the 12 tribes! That’s cool stuff! Of course we’re ready!”
What went through Jesus’ head at that moment? Did he know that when it was time to drink the cup there would be someone on his left and someone on his right: but they were going to be two criminals he hadn’t met who were getting the death penalty, just like him?
Do you think Jesus thought, You know, when the flood of suffering pours over me at Gethsemane, you two guys won’t even be able to stay awake?
I don’t know. But Alexander MacLaren, about 100 years ago, noticed that Jesus never rebuked James and John for saying, “We are able.” He says in their request and in their answer to Jesus, James’ and John’s words were “Gold mingled with clay; selfishness and love delighting in being near Him. … They did not know what they were promising, but they knew that they loved Him so well that to share anything with Him would be blessed. … The swift answer rushed to their lips … in the strength of a love that makes heroes out of cowards. And they nobly redeemed their pledge. We, too, if we are Christ’s, have the same question put to us, and, weak and timid as we are, may venture to give the same answer, trusting to His strength.”
But Jesus answers, “Yes, you will drink the cup of suffering and be overwhelmed by pain. But to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant."
The Bible doesn’t say how James and John responded, but it does say the other 10 disciples heard about it. Maybe James and John went back and said, “We asked to be on his left and right, and guess what. He didn’t say no!” But in any case, “They began to be angry with James and John.”
So as Jesus and his disciples set to enter Jerusalem for the climax of history, Jesus is focused on the Cross. James and John are focused on the future glory, if not their own future glory. And the ten? Well, they’re focused on James and John.
I love how Jesus responds. Scripture uses the same words as when the disciples were arguing on the road about who was the greatest. The NRSV says “he called them.” I like the NIV: “He called them all together.” The ESV says, “Jesus called them to him.”
He solves a big part of the problem instantly. You want to be close to Jesus? He says, come. The Bible doesn’t say who was on his left, or who was on his right. It just says “he called them all together.” Because it doesn’t matter in that moment who was on his left and who was on his right. It mattered that he called them, that he was in relationship with them, and that he had something to say to them.
Lord, help me get that through my head when I start comparing my ministry “impact” with someone else’s, or I compare someone else’s spirituality with my own. When I covet someone else’s closeness with God, or when I feel that spiritual pride and think I’m closer to God than someone else.
The Disciples Are Focused on the Kingdom not the Cross
(Read Mark 10:42-45)
Again, let’s look at that in terms of who’s looking where. What story is going through people’s minds. The disciples are focused on what’s going to happen in the kingdom. They’re focused on what’s going to happen when Jesus exercises his Lordship.
"The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” [blank stare] “No idea what you’re talking about Jesus, but it sounds like we win in the end. Booya!”
The disciples are focused on the Kingdom and Jesus says, “Hey, hey, get your eyes off the Kingdom for a second. You’re jumping way ahead, and it doesn’t work that way. Look where I’m looking right now. The Cross. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. This first.
It’s interesting. The story seems to end there, but it doesn’t. The next story, about the healing of blind Bartimeaus, is probably there to underscore this story here. Jesus’ words are the same to Bartimaeus as they are to James and John: “What do you want me to do for you?” And he heals his blindness. It’s a physical illustration of what he’s doing with the disciples here, helping them to see.
“Look, see what I see. I see the Cross. You’re blind to it right now. You’re not seeing it. You need to look at the Cross. You can’t skip it. You can’t just jump ahead. You can’t see the Kingdom if you don’t see the Cross. You can’t experience Resurrection if you don’t experience the Cross.”
Jesus Learned Obedience Through Suffering
This is a mystery to me. I need that healing. I need Jesus to open my eyes on this. Because, seriously, I keep not getting the Cross.
Here’s how my brain wants to work. Remember the bullet story from the radio piece? Yeah, so here’s the WRONG story of the Cross that keeps playing in my head: Jesus is God and God is perfect, so Jesus goes through life knowing all the answers that I don’t know. And he doesn’t sin or mess up, because God can’t sin. So he has it generally pretty easy until Maundy Thursday, when he’s betrayed (but he knew that was going to happen) and then suddenly he dies this really, really really painful death … but it’s okay because three days later he’s risen from the dead in an uncorruptable body, better than ever, and we’re saved and can be in relationship with him.
There’s so much truth in that story, but it’s not the right story. It’s not the True Story. And I don’t get it.
The Book of Hebrews says: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (7:7-9).”
Oh my gosh. It was all hard. It wasn’t just Gethsemane. He suffered his whole life. That’s how he learned obedience. Though he was a Son—though he was the very Son of God— he had to learn obedience, and the way he learned obedience was the way we all have to learn obedience—through suffering.
He didn’t sin; he suffered but not because he sinned, and that sinlessness is what made him the perfect sacrifice. He’s the only High Priest that could truly offer a sacrifice for the people, since the sacrifice OF himself didn’t have to be a sacrifice FOR himself.
Well that changes things. Maybe it doesn’t for you. But for me, finding out that obedience didn’t come automatically or even easy for Jesus? That it only came through these prayers of loud cries and tears? That puts the Cross in a slightly different focus for me.
Jesus had to work his whole life to be the perfect sacrifice for my sins. I don’t know, for some reason that makes “AND HE DIDN’T HAVE TO DO IT” ring so much louder in my head. God doesn’t need me. He doesn’t NEED this relationship with me. He’s an all-sufficient Trinity. He doesn’t NEED anyone else, let alone someone on his left or right hand. God didn’t say, “Oh, gosh, I miss Ted so much that it’s so going to be worth 33 years of pain, followed by horrific execution and (this thing that I don’t quite understand where the Son calls out to the Father “Why have you rejected me,” whatever that moment IS theologically speaking but is obviously the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of history… But Ted is SO worth it!” I’m so NOT worth it. And if you think you’re worth it, get over yourself. You are so not worth it. And he did it anyway.
I’m a big believer in the kingdom theology that’s gaining in popularity right now. I’m just thrilled that the church is energized with this idea that we’re not just saved, but that we’re saved to do something, and to be witnesses and to be building for the kingdom of God, showing what the kingdom of God looks like.
But don’t get ahead of the Cross. Set your eyes on what Jesus set his eyes on. Now. Once we have the Cross. Now our readings tonight make sense.
We do have God responding to Job’s lament, saying “Who laid the Earth’s cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? I did. My Son is the earth’s cornerstone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him.” This is my plan from all eternity—to RESCUE YOU.
Then we have the Psalmist: “No evil shall befall you, no scourge will come near your tent, you won’t even dash your foot against a stone. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. I will be with them in trouble I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.”
Does that mean there is no more trouble, no more difficulty for those who know my name? No, it means he will be WITH us in trouble. Does it mean nothing that comes from evil will come near us? Eventually. Yes. But now, for those who have made the Lord their refuge, those scourges that come will not be for evil. The Lord will redeem. The Lord will rescue. The Lord will satisfy us.
In our reading from Hebrews, “He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” and he deals gently with the ignorant and wayward.
Then finally we have Mark’s Gospel: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized. But the Son of Man came to ransom you."
You will suffer. You will die. But Jesus’ obedience and suffering transformed suffering. Jesus’ obedience and death transformed death.
That is the story of our pain. That is the story that needs to be in our minds when the bullet hits. It is not “positive thinking.” It’s not just looking ahead to how it’s all going to be okay in the New Jerusalem. Though that is very real and we need to be living that reality. But don’t jump ahead.
The answer is not in the future. It’s that your pain, your suffering, right now is not for evil. The Cross was not for evil. It was for our salvation. It was our salvation. It is our salvation. When you need to look at the Cross, don’t be distracted. Don’t miss it. Look where Jesus looks.
Ted Olsen is Editorial Director for Christianity Today and a member of Church of the Savior, an Anglican congregation in Wheaton, Illinois.