There’s something thrilling about stepping into a corn maze. Maybe it is the excitement about the unknown twists and turns that will await us along the way, or the rustling of the cornstalks in the gentle fall breeze, or the squeals of children as they eagerly run through the entry of the maze to begin the journey.
I’m always most excited about corn mazes at the very beginning, and at the moment when I spot the exit. But, every corn maze brings with it – at least for me – a moment of claustrophobia and nervousness where I wonder I will ever find my way out. In that moment, I come to the realization that I’m so far from the entrance that I couldn’t possibly retrace my steps, but also so far from the exit that I cannot yet see or hear my way out. Have you ever had a feeling like that before?
It reminds me of little Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when she first enters the land of Narnia. Behind her is the light of the room where the wardrobe stands, and in front of her she sees a light glowing faintly in the distance. She follows after the light in the distance, with the assurance that she can always turn around and head back toward the light on the other side of the wardrobe when it was time to return home.
She journeyed on some distance through the coats, and then through a snowy forest, until she reached a lamp-post in the middle of the wood. The lamp-post stood there, out of place, as a beacon marking the intersection of Lucy’s world and Narnia.
In Mark 10, as we look at James and John and their request of Jesus, I first had the feeling that I had read this same passage just weeks ago. It seems all too familiar. Jesus foretells his death, and the disciples react in a way that makes you wonder if they’ve listened to anything Jesus has ever said to them. But, Mark isn’t telling us the same old story. He’s describing to us a journey, a journey of faith that leaves what’s familiar in search of home. He is walking with the disciples as they grapple with what it means to belong to a kingdom that looks very little like the world in which they live. Mark is telling us both about the journey of the disciples, but also about our own journeys as we seek to follow Jesus.
If you remember, back in Mark 8, Jesus foretells his death for the first time. His difficult words about needing to undergo suffering and rejection and being killed come right after Peter’s triumphant proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah. But would the Messiah need to die? Would he have to suffer? That hardly looks like victory and conquest.
And so, Peter rebukes Jesus. I wonder if, as he rebuked Jesus, he reminded Jesus about what leadership in those days looked like. It looked like swords and armies and might. Jesus rebukes Peter soundly, and continues to teach. He tells the crowd and his disciples that not only would he suffer and die, but that they were called to take up their cross and follow in his footsteps. Finding life would look like losing life. Finding themselves would look like denying themselves. The way down is the way up.
In chapter 9, Jesus again talks about his coming death and resurrection. But, the disciples were too afraid to ask him about it. Instead, they argued about who among them was the greatest. You see, even though they heard Jesus’ teaching back in chapter 8, they were still listening to the voices all around them that said, “Show your strength! Prove yourself! If you want to win, you have to take what’s yours!”
The voice of Jesus is like the sound of a soft whisper – a still small voice – on Mount Horeb as God appeared to Elijah. But, before that soft voice were the ruckus of a great wind, and an earthquake, and a fire. If Elijah had not been listening closely, he would have missed the soft whisper of God.
Immediately before our Scripture passage – Mark 10:35-45 – Jesus foretells his death for a third time. Perhaps you are thinking, “Third time’s a charm!” We should hope so. Instead, we get the outlandish request from James and John that Jesus do something for them. In the Greek, the account of James’ and John’s request of Jesus begins with the little word και, which can simply mean “and” or more particularly in this instance “and so.” Jesus talked about his suffering and death, and so James and John asked him to grant them to sit at his right and left hands in his glory.
Perhaps those two sections of Mark seem disconnected at first glance, but I think they are far more connected than we may first think. For the third time, Jesus sucks the wind out of his disciples’ sails. They imagine him overthrowing an oppressive empire. They longed for freedom from the very real struggles that they faced. And, though it seems backwards, the disciples expected that Jesus would accomplish those things through the means that were most prevalent at the time: through power, military advancement, and domination.
Jesus says, “Yes, you will be baptized with the baptism I’m baptized with. Yes, you will drink from my cup. Yes, you will share in my benefits and all that it means to be sons and daughters of God.” And, because the disciples have tuned their ears to the voices of power around them, they expect that Jesus will give them these things in the way that the powerful gave those things out to special people around them.
I wonder if James and John – and the other ten disciples – could relate to Henri Nouwen’s understanding of the prodigal son’s journey. Nouwen writes: “What happened to the son in the distant country? Aside from all the material and physical consequences, what were the inner consequences of the son’s leaving home? The sequence of events is quite predictable. The farther I run away from the place where God dwells, the less I am able to hear the voice that calls me the Beloved, and the less I hear that voice, the more entangled I become in the manipulations and power games of the world” (The Return of the Prodigal Son, 46-47).
The disciples could hear Jesus’ words, but I don’t think they were listening to his voice. They were still attuned to other, competing voices. They were still thinking in terms that were most comfortable to them.
Back in Mark 6, we see a little glimpse of what power and influence looked like. King Herod had married his sister-in-law Herodias, but John the Baptizer had told Herod that his marriage was not lawful. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well, and so Herodias had it out for John the Baptizer. When Herod’s daughter – also called Herodias – danced for Herod on his birthday, he was so pleased that he posed to her an amazing, open-ended offer: “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.”
And, lest we think it an empty offer, Mark adds, “And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” Herod’s wife sees this as her opportunity to get John the Baptizer to stop condemning her marriage, and so she tells Herod’s daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptizer. She asks, and she gets what she asked for, even though Herod was deeply grieved and didn’t want to comply.
James and John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” Jesus said, “What is it that you want me to do for you?”
Herod is pleased by his daughter’s dance, and rashly offers to give her anything she asks for.
James and John are perplexed – terrified even – by what Jesus is saying, and so they rashly ask him to give them anything they ask for. And what do they ask for? Positions of honor in Jesus’ glory. What is it that they are truly after? Are they seeking greatness? Perhaps. The disciples have argued about that before. Are they after power? Glory? Prestige? I suppose it is possible.
But, I wonder if what they were really after was love and belonging. “See, Jesus! See all these things we’ve done for you! We’ve given up everything. We’ve followed you even when it was hard. Will you do something for us? Even Herod’s daughter was rewarded when she pleased her father.”
Jesus responded, “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?”
James and John replied, “We are able.” I have often found it strange that James and John seem to miss out on two clear references to Jesus’ death, and they respond with bold confidence that of course they can share in what Jesus is doing. But, Jesus responds to them with, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 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.” Is Jesus saying that James and John will taste death just as he will? Yes, and there’s more.
Jesus chooses to speak of baptism and the cup, not just as references to his death, but also as symbols of community and belonging, as promises of his love for the disciples – and for us. Yes, there will be hardships, difficulties, and confusion along the journey. Yes, there will be struggles, and at times we will hardly be able to hear the voice of God calling out to us as beloved children, but our identity as God’s children will not change.
Baptism – we belong to God. The cup – that we share together as the body of Christ. Though the journey be perilous, and though we forget how beloved we are, we will never cease to be God’s beloved children.
Perhaps the disciples had become so like the Pevensie children in Narnia – so used to the world where they were living – that they had forgotten about the world that was their home. After many years had passed, the Pevensies passed by that lamp-post again, only this time they could not quite remember what it was for. Lucy, upon seeing the lamp-post remarked, “I know not how it is, but this lamp on the post worketh upon me strangely. It runs in my mind that I have seen the like before; as it were in a dream, or in the dream of a dream…And more…for it will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern either we shall find strange adventures or else some great change of our fortunes.”
Though we have wandered far from home, and though our journey is difficult, let’s strain our ears to listen over the noise for the voice of Jesus that calls us “Beloved.”