Sermon: “A Ransom for You” October 18, 2015

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Ransom for You” (Mark 10:45)
October 18, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If you could ask Jesus for anything you wanted, what would you ask for?

In today’s gospel passage Mark recounts an episode in which James and John approach Jesus with a rather brazen request, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus patiently replies, “What is it you want me to do for you?” James and John respond, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” to which Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking.” Mark understatedly notes “when the ten heard this, they began to get angry with James and John.”

Lest we join the ten in getting angry at James and John and their request for power, think about the things we want. Like James and John it may be power and glory, recognition, credit, or however you want to phrase it. It is tempting to think that if we get what we want we will be happier and more fulfilled. We may become skilled in being manipulative, even in a friendly way, able to negotiate things to work out the way we want them to in order to get what we want. Along these lines in December 2013 Forbes published an online article entitled “Six Effective Ways to Get What You Want Now.” In order to get what you want now you need to 1) Ask and be specific, 2) Stop apologizing, 3) Make your gain their gain, 4) Make yourself invaluable, 5) Be prepared for your want to be fulfilled, and 6) Be persistent (12/9/13).

What if you apply these six steps and you get what you want? What then? Over the years I have listened to many people in my office who have in one way or another gotten exactly what they wanted—admission to the college of their dreams or an attractive spouse or a promotion or financial wealth or some kind of status symbol—you fill in the blank—only to come to the realization that what they thought they wanted was not what they actually wanted at all. And this is nothing new. In the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes, often attributed to King Solomon, listen to how the writer describes getting everything he could possibly want:

I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:4-10).

The writer of Ecclesiastes had gotten everything he could possibly want—in today’s terms multiple degrees from elite universities, a massive and lucrative investment portfolio, a house band that could play him any song he wanted, a hi-tech audio system with Bose speakers, millions of followers on Twitter, a nanny and butler and personal trainer and life coach, and all the sex he could want. But what does the writer of Ecclesiastes then write? “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

Maybe some of you have applied various steps to get what you want now—or maybe some of you, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, have gotten what you wanted only to find yourself disillusioned by it all—or as Bill Mallonee of the band Vigilantes of Love puts it, “With all that you’ve swallowed you’re starving like before, the entrance to your dream home looks like a prison door” (from the song “Only a Scratch” on their 1997 album Slow Dark Train).

“You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus told James and John—and perhaps in your life, as has been the case in mine, often you do not know what you are asking either. But fortunately, as Mick Jagger observes in the final track of the Rolling Stones’ gritty 1969 album, Let It Bleed, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need” (from the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”).

In responding to James and John’s asking him to share in his glory, Jesus pointed in the exact opposite direction, and speaking of himself said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In other words, Jesus tells the disciples that life is not about getting what you think you want, but about giving your life away for others.

But more than that, Jesus is pointing to the cross, where he indeed would give his life as “a ransom for many,” including you. Why? Because what Jesus really wanted was not the glory James and John wanted, not the things the writer of Ecclesiastes wanted. What Jesus wanted, and still wants, is a relationship with you. And on the cross Jesus paid the ransom on your behalf.

In his first letter Peter describes how Jesus ransomed us from the dangers of getting what we want—“You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Similarly, in his Letter to Titus, Paul wrote, “(Jesus) it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us (ransom us) from all iniquity” (Titus 2:14).

Time for a baseball illustration…last week the Chicago Cubs won their first playoff series clinching game in their 101 seasons of playing at historic Wrigley Field. There is a story that in 1945 Billy Sianis, owner of the famous Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, was at a World Series game at Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs play the Detroit Tigers. He had his pet goat with him (nothing odd about that), and nearby fans complained about the odor of the goat and so Billy Sianis was asked to leave. In response he supposedly placed a curse on the Cubs who went on to lose that World Series four games to three. The Cubs have not been to the World Series since and have not won a World Series since 1908.

In 2003 the Cubs were only five outs from going back to the World Series, and were leading the Florida Marlins in the 8th inning when lifelong Cubs fan Steve Bartman deflected a fly ball that Cubs leftfielder Moises Alou was trying to catch. The Marlins went on to score eight runs and win that game and the seventh and deciding game the next day. Steve Bartman had to be escorted by police after the game amid fellow fans screaming insults and obscenities at him and hurling debris and drinks at him and blaming him for the Cubs loss.

Bartman was held under police protection for a time, and later released an apologetic statement in which he said, “I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou much less that he may have had a play.” In spite of several Cubs’ players defending Bartman and taking the responsibility of the loss on the team, he endured unbelievable amounts of disdain and even death threats.

While Cubs fans are hoping that this year the Cubs will return to the World Series for the first time in seventy years, that the curse of the goat will be reversed and that they will win their first World Series in over a century, preferably at Wrigley Field, Steve Bartman has never returned to Wrigley Field. Steve Bartman really wanted that fly ball—as he admitted, his eyes were glued on it—and what baseball fan wouldn’t want that? But you could say Steve Bartman did not know what he was asking for, and he ended up getting in return what no one would ever want.

The truth is we are all Steve Bartman’s. The truth is we are all like James and John. We think we know what we want but we do not know what we are asking. Fortunately the good news of the gospel is that Jesus does not always give us what we think we want—and more than that, Jesus gave his life as a ransom for us all.

As Jesus carried his cross to Calvary crowds screamed insults and obscenities at him—and as we read in today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Isaiah described Jesus’ paying our ransom and reversing the curse of our sins:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

The moving 1998 film Saving Private Ryan paints a stirring picture of what it looks like for someone to give their life as a ransom for someone else. During World War II three of the four brothers of the Ryan family had been killed in action and orders sent to Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, to find the one surviving Ryan brother, James, played by Matt Damon, so that he could return home.

At the beginning of the film James Ryan, now in his seventies, is walking with his family at Normandy American Cemetery. When he arrives at the grave of Captain John Miller, he collapses to his knees and begins weeping softly. Then he flashes back to the events of D-Day, June 6, 1944, and the subsequent events in which Captain John Miller found him. In the course of finding Private Ryan and protecting him John Miller is mortally wounded. Slumped on the side of the road, he gently pulls James Ryan close and speaks his last words, “James, earn this…earn it.” A letter from General George C. Marshall is pulled from John Miller’s inside coat pocket, and as James Ryan gazes upon the deceased John Miller, the one who had given his life for him, the letter is read in a voice over:

My Dear Mrs. Ryan, It’s with the most profound sense of joy that I write to inform you that your son, Private James Ryan, is well and at this very moment, is on his way home from European battlefields…I take great pleasure in joining the Secretary of War and the men and women of the United States Army and the citizens of a grateful nation in wishing you good health and many years of happiness with James at your side.

At the very end of Saving Private Ryan the elderly James Ryan stands up and salutes the grave of Captain John Miller. A moment later his wife walks up next to him. He looks at her earnestly, “Tell me I have led a good life.” “What?” she says. “Tell me I am a good man.” She looks at John Miller’s grave and then back at her husband, touches his face with her hand and tenderly responds, “You are.”

So if you could ask Jesus for anything you wanted, what would you ask for?

Regardless of all the things you think you want, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus gave his life as a ransom for you—something perhaps you never knew you wanted; something you most certainly could never earn—because Jesus wants a relationship with you. Jesus gave his life as a ransom for you in order to bring you safely home, in order to spend many years of happiness with you at his side.

In response, like James Ryan, perhaps we could all consider living a life that is less about getting what we want, and more about honoring the One who gave his life as a ransom for us, Jesus Christ, the Captain of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10, KJV).

Amen.