“Listening to The True Voice”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 18, 2015
Isaiah 53:4-12 & Mark 10:35-45
There are many voices in the world competing for our attention, and it seems that the number of these voices grows each day. There are the usual voices of advertising and industry, selling everything from paper towels to prescription drugs. They chatter on TV screens every twelve minutes during our favorite shows just to be sure we get the point. There are the voices that speak of improvement—home improvement, professional improvement, physical improvement. These voices make us feel bad about our bodies, our homes, our careers, and luckily for us they have just the product we need. Then there are the voices that try to gain our allegiance, either politically or ideologically or both. Just like the voices of advertising and improvement, these voices present a problem that can be fixed, but this time the fixing is being done by a candidate or set of beliefs instead of a product. Just a few days ago we heard these voices at work in the first debate of the Democratic Party—problems were presented, candidates spoke their peace, ideas and plans were presented. In two weeks we’ll hear again from the Republicans, and with voices from both sides knocking around in our heads, both competing for the nation’s allegiance, we’ll be asked in about a year to vote on the nation’s next leader.
There are also voices competing for our attention that don’t fall into the advertising or self-improvement or political realms. If you’ve ever been a student, you’ve heard voices tell you that education is the key to you dreams—if you study hard enough, read until your eyes fall out, and claw your way to the top of the academic ladder, you’ll have everything you want. If you work, or have ever worked, in manufacturing or production, you’ve heard voices say that you’re value is determined by the amount you produce. A popular voice these days comes from the financial sector—credit cards, payday loans, title loans. These voices scream of low interest rates, free-flowing cash, easy money. And they are so popular because they make us believe that we deserve to have everything we want, even if it means being in debt for years to come. There are voices from family and friends that vie for our attention; voices from spouses and partners that vie for our attention; voices from bosses, coworkers, preachers, Sunday school teachers…the list goes on.
With all these voices bombarding us from every direction, which ones or which one do we listen to? Which one should we be listening to?
In Mark’s gospel today we listen in on a conversation between Jesus and the disciples. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come forward and ask Jesus to grant them anything they ask. Jesus agrees, and the brothers ask to sit on either side of Jesus in his glory. These are places of honor. James and John were among the first disciples Jesus called to follow him, common fishermen who were glad to set their nets on the shore to follow Jesus. The brothers have watched Jesus heal paraplegics and open the eyes of the blind, and they’ve heard him teach about the radical kingdom of God that has come into the world. For two common fishermen, this was unbelievably awesome, a real boost for them on the social ladder. A short while ago they were bringing in fish for the market, and now they are close to a man who is getting a lot of attention. James and John now want to capitalize on their gain by sitting side-by-side with Jesus.
But whether they know it or not, James and John are not asking on their own; their desire to rise up is not one they've come up with on their own. James and John have listened to a powerful voice of their time and brought this into their relationship with Jesus. The influence of this voice has led them to ask Jesus for places of honor by his side. The influence of this voice has prompted the brothers to want more then they already have. The influence of this voice has led them to believe that they deserve more than they have already received.
The voice that James and John have listened to is that of Herod, the egotistical tyrant who reigned over Judea in the time of Jesus. The message that James and John have heard from Herod is that power and popularity and prominence are the true measure of a person’s life. This was the creed by which Herod lived his own life.
Earlier in Mark’s gospel, Herod gives a huge banquet for the leaders of Galilee to celebrate his birthday. Herod’s daughter, Herodias, provided entertainment for the celebration, and Herod and his guests were pleased with her. Herod says to her, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it”. Now at the same time the banquet is raging on, John the Baptist is locked up in the palace prison. Herod had John arrested because John’s message of a coming Messiah struck Herod’s power-loving heart to the core. Herod is also angry with John because Herod’s lady friend, Herodias (just a coincidence of names), is already married and John calls him out on his affair. Herod’s daughter and lover, both named Herodias, want John the Baptist out of the picture probably because is a truth-teller. So when Herod offers to give his daughter anything she wants, she asks for the head of John the Baptist. And Herod delivers. Mark says later that Herod was deeply grieved by his actions, but in front of so many powerful people, how could he risk his power and popularity and prominence by refusing his daughter’s request?
This is just one example of what Herod was willing to do to protect his public image. Remember with me that just after Jesus was born, Herod slaughtered all the infant boys in the kingdom out of fear that one might rise and overthrow him. Herod would do anything to protect his position.
This is the culture of Judea in the time of Jesus. It is a place where a king can execute people for pleasure, a place where banquets and lavish parties are the measure of importance, a place where snuggling up close to the elite makes you one of them in everyone’s opinion. Whether James and John know it or not, Herod is in their heads, and his voice is speaking to them as they are speaking to Jesus. The voice of Herod, speaking about the need and necessity of power and position, is in their heads as they ask for positions of honor. The voice of Herod, speaking about the OK-ness of death if it means personal advancement, is in their heads as they desire to stand above the other disciples. The voice of Herod, cheering them on as they rise up the social ladder, is in their heads as they come to believe that their value is wrapped up in position.
James and John listen to Herod, they have taken his message in, and they can’t imagine anything better than a higher, more prominent position among the followers of Jesus. And why wouldn’t they ask Jesus for more? Herod has lived his whole life like this and he has palaces and women and great wealth to show for it. Historians of the Bible say that Herod was the single greatest architect of the first century, a real power-player, a force to be reckoned with. James and John want this; they want power and honor and to go down in history as the top two of the twelve.
The death and destruction that Herod brought into Judea during his reign is second only to the wicked influence his lifestyle, and his voice, had on the everyday folks around Jesus. James and John are under the impression, from Herod, that the kingdom of Jesus is like the kingdom of Herod—a place where you can rise up, mostly on the backs of others, to a better and more popular place. Aside from the violence this power-playing causes, there is a psychological effect that threatens the unity of any group of people. When the other disciples learn what James and John have asked, Mark says that they are angry. James and John’s request has caused division, separation, disunity to weasel its way into Jesus’ tight band of followers. Anger could easily lead the other disciples in violent outrage against James and John, or it could even cause the collapse of the entire ministry all together. And this is because James and John have listened to the voice of Herod and brought Herod’s message into their relationship with Jesus and the others.
Jesus shuts the whole thing down before his ragged followers tear each other apart. “In my kingdom’, Jesus says, ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” In the kingdom of God, the whole order or greatness and honor and power is turned upside down. Those of his followers who want greatness and power and prominence must put themselves at the bottom. Those of his followers who want the seats of honor, to sit at the head table and be served, must first be the servants of everyone else.
In the kingdom of God, Jesus teaches us that to rise up you must go down, and to be in front you must stand in the background. This is totally opposite of what the voice of Herod is telling James and John. In this way of life there is no favoritism, no chance that those around will get angry with one or another’s sudden rise in the standing. This way of living cuts out the psychology of violence that so many succumb to while climbing to the top. And all of it, the way of life, the truth that greatness comes in humility and servanthood is made real in Jesus, who came to serve and give his life for many.
The voice James and John should have been listening to—the voice we should listen to—is the voice of Jesus. His is the true voice, the one to zero in on in the mess of voices vying for our attention. His is the voice that invites us to lives of service and humility, not consumption and acquisition that is deadly to so many. His is the voice that offers us the cup from which he drinks, the cup of salvation, not the countless other consumables—drugs, ego, fear—that destroy our very lives. His is the voice that beckons us to his baptism, the baptism of death and resurrection that leads to life, not the baptism of conquest so valued in our culture. His is the voice that lovingly tells us to give up our ambitions of power, of prominence, of position, not because he wants us to be powerless or oppressed, but because in his eyes we have those things already by just being who we are. His is the voice that gently rewires our brains from thinking that we are what we have to believing that who God made us to be is enough. His is the voice that says we are enough. His is the voice that says we are valuable. His is the voice that says we are loved.
Listening to the true voice, the voice of Jesus, over the competing voices of our lives is difficult; James and John had trouble with it, and will we too. Many of us here today may have been listening to voices other than his for so long it might seem impossible. But it is possible to listen to Jesus, over and above every other voice pounding in. For some, the practice and routine of prayer is the place where they hear the voice of Jesus the best. For others, practices like music or gardening or cleaning open their ears to hear him. I’ve met people who hear Jesus when they are cooking, when they are doing something to help another, when they simply take a few moments to unplug and step away. I recently met a young man who heard Jesus clearly, and really for the first time in his life, in a conversation with a person of a different faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that he heard the voice of Jesus in the men who guarded his prison cell at the Flossenburg concentration camp, and Martin Luther King, Jr., once spoke of hearing the voice of Jesus in the jeers of his staunch opposition.
The good news of the gospel today is that, in Christ, God has freed us to open our ears to Jesus, the true voice. God has freed us so that no voice other than that of the Lord can tell us who and what we are. This freedom has released us from any obligation we might feel to the voices that tell us we are not enough, that we don’t have enough, that there will never be enough. With our ears open to Jesus we will hear over and over again the message of God’s great love, love that does not puff us up, but love that propels us into the world to share it. With our ears open to Jesus we will hear over and over again that we are created in God’s image, worthy and sufficient, never lacking or in want. With our ears open to Jesus we will hear over and over again that he has taken on our diseases, our illnesses and infirmities, and that he knows our suffering and speaks meaning and redemption into them. With our ears open to Jesus we will hear over and over again how he broke his body and shed his blood so that forgiveness and salvation could be ours each and every day. With our ears open to Jesus we will hear these message over and over and come to believe that they are true. We will be changed and the world around us will be, too.
There are many voices in the world competing for our attention, and it seems that the number of these voices grows each day. But there is only one worth our attention: the voice of Jesus. With God’s help, may we listen to him today and always. Amen.