This does not reflect well on the sons of Zebedee. Nor surprisingly, the other disciples are irritated at this attempt to reserve the best seats in the kingdom of God. But that is not all. Jesus has just been warning the disciples, for the third time(!), that he will suffer and die (Mark 10:33-34). Clearly James and John have not been listening very attentively.
I always have two reactions when I read passages like this one, and there are lots of them. My first reaction is to think how stupid the disciples must have been to misunderstand Jesus so routinely. My second reaction is to realize how similar I am to them. That is true once again this morning.
It is worth remembering that the disciples were young, probably not yet twenty. They were mature enough to leave home, but young enough that they were unmarried. That means probably about the age of my children.
More even than some young people, the disciples were adventurous and ambitious. They were the kind of young men who would drop everything, on the spur of the moment, to follow a teacher who called them to a better and fuller life.
We do not know exactly why they followed Jesus in the first place or exactly what they expected. But it looks a lot like they were pursuing the first century equivalent of the American dream. They were getting a little education in order to make a better life for themselves. So they followed the most exciting teacher they had ever seen. And they wanted to share their teacher’s glory.
Who can blame them for that? Most of us want a little glory, for ourselves or for the people we love.
When I was a young adult about the same age as James and John, I was definitely like them. I left home to go to school a thousand miles away. I did not know exactly what I wanted to do with my life. But I knew it was going to be great. I knew I was going to change the world somehow. I had big plans, and my plans involved a lot of glory.
If Jesus had said to me, thirty years ago, “Harvey, all your plans may come to nothing,” I would not have been able to hear it. If Jesus had said, “Harvey, you may have to suffer disappointments,” I would have thought to myself, “That may be true for other people. But not for me.”
Thirty years have taught me more humility. But I can still identify with James and John. I still make plans, and I still like the idea of a little glory.
But Jesus’ plan is different than James’ and John’s plan. And that reminds us, in case we need it, that life does not always turn out the way we plan, that we do not always get the glory we want.
And that raises the question, how should we respond to our inevitable disappointments and failures?
Our passage does not tell us how James and John responded when Jesus rejected their request, when Jesus told them that their lives would not unfold the way they were planning.
But the entire book of Job is all about precisely that question.
We have been hearing Job for the last several weeks, and we have one week to go. You probably know the basic story. As the story begins, Job has a big family, lots of servants, large flocks. Job has been blessed, and he knows it. Life is good.
To make sure life stays good, Job is careful to do the right thing. Job does what he is supposed to do. And Job assumes that, as long as he stays faithful, God will protect him and preserve his good life. That is Job’s plan.
But God’s response to Job is a little bit like Jesus’ response to James and John. God says, in effect, your plan is not my plan. And Job loses everything. Job is baptized with the baptism that Jesus is baptized with.
That takes us through chapter two. The next forty chapters are Job’s response. Job goes through the various common stages of mourning for all that he has lost. At first, Job is in denial. Job gets depressed. Job tries to bargain with God. Mostly Job is angry.
So Job demands an answer from God. “God,” Job says, “you have messed up my plans in a big way. I want to know why.” Job should be careful what he asks for.
At last, in our passage for this morning, God answers. God is not warm and fuzzy. God does not explain exactly why things have unfolded in the way they have unfolded. God does not make everything right.
Indeed God’s response to Job is almost mean. God says, in effect, “I created the heavens and the earth. Who are you to question me?”
This is a blunter version of what Jesus says to James and John. You do not know what you ask. What you will get is not glory, but suffering.
It seems harsh. But, of course, that is how life can be. For virtually all of us, there is a gap between what we hope to get out of life and what we actually get. We all want glory. And we all get pain, at least some of the time. We are all James and John. We are all Job.
But there is good news in our readings. The good news is not that we can somehow escape the human condition, that we can somehow experience glory without pain. We all have to carry a cross at some point.
The good news is that we can encounter the living and true God. Job really meets God only after his plans collapse, after he suffers. James and John are truly united with Christ only after they let go of their desire for glory.
For us, too, disappointment and suffering are inevitable. AND for us, too, disappointment and suffering can be the road to a deeper knowledge of God, a deeper relationship with the creator of all things, the redeemer of the world, and the sanctifying Spirit.
As I say, the gospels do not tell us how James and John responded in the long run to what Jesus tells them in our reading this morning.
But we will hear Job’s response next week. Job acknowledges the glory of God. Job celebrates his encounter with the God of all creation. Job comes to know God with an intimacy that probably would have been impossible if he had continued to prosper.
The same must have been true of James and John. As of our passage, they had not yet understood Jesus’ mission. But they come to understand. And James will ultimately be the first of the apostles to die for his faith (Acts 12:2)
And how about us? I continue to make plans. I continue to hope for glory. Maybe it will come.
But our readings for this morning remind us that our plans do not always work out, that glory is not always an option. Our readings for this morning warn us that disappointment and suffering are part of the human deal. But most of all, our readings for this morning promise that we can come to know God better, no matter what happens. And that promise makes all the difference.
Thanks be to God, in the name of our crucified Lord. Amen.