A pastor died and went to heaven. The angels welcomed him and ushered him to his home in heaven. It turned out to be a tiny little hut. With so many mansions surrounding him, he was surprised to see what he had got after a lifetime of faithful service.
Feeling humbled among the spiritual giants, he asked one of the angels, “Whose mansion is that one next door?” The angel replied, “Oh, that’s Mrs. Jones’ mansion. She is from your church, remember? She just came a few months ago.”
“Mrs. Jones from my church? How could that be? Are you talking about the old deaf lady that came to church early to swept the floor and wiped the pews, and then when the service began, she sat in the back pew and slept through the service every week?” the pastor interjected doubtfully.
“Yes, that’s her,” the angel knotted, “but she was not sleeping. Because she was deaf, all she could do was pray for you in the back so that your message would reach the people’s hearts. Without her, your sermons would never have been so effective. Mrs. Jones aced her role.”
End of the story.
Jesus said, “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” It means most of us will be surprised when we get to heaven to see the unexpected. The story implies that life is not about shooting for the stars but playing our roles well.
Life is not a journey but an orchestra. Each of us plays our instrument to join the harmonious piece of music. A journey focuses on the destination. The faster you arrive at the destination, the better. An orchestra, however, focuses on the present moment. You cannot rush, and you cannot delay. We strive for harmony in every moment of the music rather than speed.
In other words, we try to ace our role rather than to race to our goal. If you focus on your goal, it will distract you from acing your role. You cannot play your instrument well if you are thinking about when the music will end.
Jesus has given us many examples of acing our roles. In the Parable of the Richman and Lazarus, Lazarus was a poor bagger who had achieved nothing, but he aced his role. In the Parable of Talents, we also see how God rewards those who ace their roles.
So today, we will explore what Jesus teaches us about acing our roles rather than racing to our goals based on this week’s scripture lesson.
[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper. You are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you, and you are satisfied in God.]
The scripture lesson for today is from the Gospel According to Mark 10:35-45. [Listen to the Word of the Lord!]
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35–45).
The Chinese say, “Waters flow downward; humans climb upward.” It means it’s natural for humans to seek progress and reach higher by climbing the corporate ladder or seeking personal achievements. People without ambition are often looked down on in some societies.
James and John were just two other humans that instinctively wanted to climb to the top. They wanted to become the two prime ministers of Jesus’ kingdom sitting next to the throne. They tried to reserve those seats before anyone else did.
And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (v. 37).
It’s not something to sneer at because their honest declaration of ambition provided an opportunity for Jesus to teach us the ethos of the kingdom of God where God’s people are supposed to be like water that flows downstream and stays at the lowest places. The great philosopher, Laozi, described it succinctly,
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all of creation
without trying to compete with it.
It gathers in the low places unpopular with men.
Thus it is like the Tao (the Word). (Daodejing 8a).
The “Tao” is the equivalent of the Greek word “Logos,” which is often translated as the “Word.” According to John’s Gospel, said Jesus is the Tao in flesh. Laozi’s words depict Jesus’ servant-leadership. The way of Jesus is not climbing up but flowing down like water. It’s an unpopular or counter-cultural way of life.
So, when James and John asked Jesus to let them sit next to his throne, Jesus did not blame them because Jesus treated them like children. His concern was whether they could handle what they asked for.
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (v. 38).
The cup he drinks is the cup of suffering. Jesus called it “a bitter cup,” indicating that it was not a cup that he wanted to drink. On the night of his arrest, he prayed to God in the Garden of Gethsemene, asking God to let him pass the cup.
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Mat 26:29).
Jesus had compassion for James and John. It was not that he did not want them to sit next to his throne, but it was just not an easy place to sit. Jesus is like water flowing to the lowest place on earth where no one wants to be. Could they follow him to drink the cup of the crucifixion and the baptism of hellfire?
They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; (v. 39).
James and John were serious. Even though they did not understand the full extent of the high price they must pay, they already had some ideas because, by this time, Jesus had already told them several times his upcoming suffering.
Maybe they were pumped up by Jesus’ suicide mission like Peter and the rest of the disciples, who later declared their willingness to sacrifice with him.
Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same. (Mat 26:35).
It’s one thing to declare their allegiance, another to fulfill it. After Jesus was arrested, they all disappeared. Peter denied Jesus three times. John was the only one brave enough to witness the crucifixion with Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene.
Jesus saw the commitment of James and John and said that they would surely pay the price. According to the historical records, James was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I around 44 C.E. (Acts 12). John was exiled to Patmos during a time of persecution of Christians under the Roman rule of Domitian around 81 C.E.
In other words, they did ace their roles, but the rewards they desired were not guaranteed. Jesus said,
“but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (v. 40).
If you can understand this verse, you are at a much higher level of spiritual maturity. If you feel disappointed at Jesus’ answer, you need to meditate on this verse over and over again until it enlightens you.
Jesus said those two seats had been predestined for someone. At a glance, Jesus might sound like saying you will pay the price but would not get the rewards you desire. However, Jesus was actually saying, “Don’t dwell on the goal, just play your role well.”
Jesus wants us to see life as an orchestra, not a journey. He does not want us to strive for the crown but play well to harmonize with the orchestra which God is conducting. We are predestined to receive a crown, but it’s for a pleasant surprise as to what kind of crown we will get.
In fact, when you understand the ethos of the kingdom of God, you don’t care about the crown anymore. You just want to play well and enjoy the moment. Even when you are playing a sad or difficult note, you have joy deep inside because you are in harmony with the rest of the orchestra and the music will carry you forward.
Jesus did not guarantee James and John the positions they requested because those were distractions to their performance. I often give an analogy that Christianity is like a classroom where the teacher tells the class at the very beginning that they will all get an “A.”
All they need to do is to work hard to deserve it. Since you don’t have to worry about your report cards, you can enjoy the class and perform your best. Zhuangzi, another great philosopher, said,
When an archer is shooting for nothing,
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind. (Zhuangzi).
Jesus wants you to have fun playing your role instead of worrying about your prize. However, if you want to know what kind of a crown you are getting, there is a clue in the Bible. Paul said,
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. (Rom 8:29).
What it means is that we are predestined to receive the same crown as Jesus Christ. God is laying the way for us to become like his Son. Like him, we will become like water flowing to the lowest place on earth and ace our roles. Paul then said,
And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Ro 8:30).
We will all be glorified and receive an “A” by the end of the class. It is freeing to know that we don’t have to worry about our scores. So, we can play our roles and perform our best.
That is a profound truth that sets us free from all worries. The freedom allows us to be carefree like children and freely flow to the bottom like water. It completely differentiates true Christians from the rest of the world.
So Jesus called them and said to them, “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. (Mark 10:42).
Jesus warns us about the ethos of the gentiles or the secular world. They climb upward so that they can rule over others. I know that not everyone initially intends to be a tyrant, but the secular ethos eventually turns them into tyrants, consciously or unconsciously.
Most politicians went to Washington with good intentions, but few could stand the temptation of power. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. However, the ethos of the Jesus kingdom prevents that from happening. Jesus said,
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. (vs. 43-44).
A slave has no power. There is a difference between the slavery Jesus is talking about here and the actual forced slavery. Jesus is talking about serving freely, again, like water following downward and giving life to everything, the nature, the plants, and the animals.
That freedom comes from realizing that we are called to play a role in this universe of God’s orchestra. We ace our role by our service to help harmonize the music and to maintain its beauty. Jesus said,
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (v. 45).
Jesus aces his role as the slave of all. It was counter-cultural then, and it still is now. Let us reorient our perception of life from a journey to an orchestra so that we can fulfill Jesus’ calling for us to ace our role rather than race to our goals.
That’s it for today, and I hope you find this message illuminating as much as I do. Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest the fruit of profound happiness.