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Apr 06, 2014

Cross-Road Humility

Passage: Matthew 20:17-34

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Road to the Cross

Category: Road to the Cross

Keywords: humility, cross, serve, service, humble


The second in this series On the Road to the Cross, this message looks at the humility of God in Christ and how God desires for that same humility to fill our lives with actions that truly demonstrate to others the humility of God.


Cross Road Humility

Matthew 20:17-34

April 6, 2014

Mix-it-up: In today’s text Jesus asks several different people pretty much the same question: “What would you like me to do for you?” So, if Jesus stopped by your house/apartment, business or school this week and said, “I was just in the neighborhood for a little bit. What would you like me to do for you right now?” what would you say? [Share together.]

We’re in an Easter series on the CROSS. Last week Eric did a masterful (and Spirit-led) job of pointing us to the cross during the end of this Lenten season. The whole premise of his message was that the cross Jesus took up for us was freely chosen, not forced upon him. The application of that is that the cross Christ asks each of us to “take up” every day of our lives is to be freely chosen suffering and sacrifice for the sake of others, not ourselves.

This is why Jesus, nearing the end of his ministry on earth, “steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,” says Luke (Luke 9:51). He was bound and determined to embrace the worst imaginable death possible in Jerusalem because God is bound and determined to reconcile us to God. He wasn’t coerced to do it. He wasn’t forced by some cosmic powers. He freely chose the cross for us! And now he asks us to do the same…every day of our lives…to “take up our cross and follow Him” in sacrifice, suffering and even death if need be so that others might know him.

For me, that message came on the heels of a week in which I was spending more time with more people needing Christ than I have in years. It was, honestly, one of the most uncomfortable, comfort-zone-stretching weeks I’ve had in a while. It was also one of the most fun, faith-invigorating weeks I’ve had in a long time. We stayed out until 2:00a.m. Sunday morning partying with people whose “church” has been Ham on Regal Parent’s Production year after year. And last week God kept kicking me with Eric’s question, “So what am I willing to let go of…die to…suffer…so that these great people can find life in Christ through my friendship with them?” Needless to say, I’m still wrestling with the implications of that and the lifestyle changes that will require.

If we are going to be a people who draw closer to Christ day by day, our vision of the cross and what that means for our lives is going to be growing ever larger. When Jesus “steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,” it wasn’t his excitement about the Triumphal Entry that filled his vision. It wasn’t the grandeur of the Temple that had Him stirred up. It wasn’t how stupid he was going to make the religious leaders look or the great food at the Passover meal he was going to enjoy that had his attention. Those experiences didn’t need any “steadfast face-setting.” But the cross did. It was the cross that filled Christ’s vision fuller with each passing day.

That’s my prayer for all of us this Lenten season—that the cross will fill our vision of life more and more. It’s not a morbid thing; it’s a life-rearranging thing. It’s a grace-filled and gratitude-producing thing. It’s a realism and recalibrating thing.

So today we pick up the story with Jesus and his disciples on their way up to Jerusalem from Jericho. The elevation change is about 3,000-3,400 ft, no small hike if you’re doing it in a day or a few hours.

We pick up the story in Matthew 20:17ff.

Notice that in Matthew’s narrative, the Holy Spirit led him to put the story of the workers in the vineyard just before this story. In the vineyard story, God is giving an equal pay for unequal work. The landowner paid servants the same to work a whole day as he did to work just a couple of hours.

It’s probably a story for Jews to show them that God would grant salvation to Gentiles who came to faith much later in human history just as equally as He had granted it to Jews much earlier. But it could equally apply to us today when we’re tempted to think, “Well, I’ve lived for Christ my whole life and along comes this reckless, wild, party-animal person who didn’t come to Jesus until later in life…and they get the same wonderful blessings of eternal salvation in Christ that I do but without living for Jesus their whole life! Where’s the fairness in that?” you might be thinking. Jesus isn’t that interested in fairness; he’s interested in GRACE…and giving salvation away rather than people falsely thinking they can earn it somehow.

            Anyway, the last words of this parable are found in the verse just before our passage. Vs. 16 says, So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Then Matthew tells us what Jesus did next. He tried to tell his disciples what they were in for when they went to Jerusalem this time. He tried to warn them. He tried to prepare them. And this is what he said.

Matthew 20:17-19

Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”

Now there’s a happy future...sort of!

The disciples response is totally amazing…in a horrible sort of way. They start talking about the various cabinet posts they would like when Jesus sets up his administration in Jerusalem. It’s like they never even heard him say anything about suffering let alone death. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they are thinking that Jesus was speaking in some metaphorical way like he often did…or that he was using hyperbole to overstate the challenge he would face in Jerusalem? Maybe they were all fixated on their smart phones and didn’t hear a word Jesus said.

It’s amazing how our perception and our prized dreams can so fill our heads with cotton candy that they make us tone deaf to the realities God is trying to show us. The only way the next event makes any sense is if the disciples’ plans and dreams about the future were something totally different from Jesus’. He’s telling them that Jerusalem holds betrayal, accusations, a death sentence, mocking, floggings and crucifixion…and this is probably what they heard.

“He guys, we’re go’en to…Jerusalem! Are you ready to P..A..R...T..Y!!! The people are going to LOVE us. The whole city is going to turn out for a parade when we get there. They’re going to proclaim me as King. The Davidic Kingdom is going to rise from the ashes of Rome as we shake off these Roman dogs. We’re going to take back not just Jerusalem but all Israel! I’m going to be heralded king, crowned, given a palace, raise an army of thousands…and then on the third day I’m going to rise up as a world ruler. Are you ready???”

What happened next would make sense if that was Jesus’ speech. (Vs. 20ff)

20)Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

21)“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

22)You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

23)Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from the cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

24)When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25)Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. [They are probably thinking to themselves, “Yah, isn’t that going to be GREAT when you come to power? I can hardly wait to see those Roman faces when we take charge!] Then comes the two-by-four. J

26) Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27)and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28)just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

They hadn’t heard a word Jesus had said, had they?

The combination of Gospel accounts both here and at the crucifixion of Jesus leads us to believe that Zebedee’s wife, the mother of James and John mentioned here, was Salome. And it is very possible that Salome was Jesus’ mother (Mary’s) sister. In essence that would make her Jesus’ aunt. Talk about the challenge of going home to family dynamics!

            You can almost hear them saying, “Remember Jesus, blood is thicker than water. Don’t forget we’re family. We stick together…especially when the chips are falling in our favor.”

            What’s ironic is that, according to Mark’s account in Mark 10, Jesus had just recently been talking about leaving family—brothers, sisters, mothers, children…and property—for Jesus’ sake and the Gospel. And here are his cousins and aunt asking for special favors in what they imagine is going to be a massive political takeover of Israel.

It’s amazing how selfish our supposed spiritual humility can be. Vs. 20 tells us that James’ and John’s mother even knelt down in front of Jesus to ask a favor of him.

            Just because our knees are in the dirt doesn’t mean our heart is really humble. Just because we kneel in prayer doesn’t mean we’re submitted in spirit.

            Jesus’ response to Salome and Sons (vs. 22) is probably one the angels in heaven hear Jesus mutter over and over again: You don’t know what you are asking.” We’re looking at the glory we think being with Jesus should be…and He’s seeing the suffering and sacrifice that come before glory.

            And when he questions us with, “Do you really know what you’re asking,” we boldly proclaim our true ignorance and overstate our level of perseverance and commitment.

            “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered.

WOW, talk about missing the mark! What cup did they have in mind? Certainly not the one Jesus would agonize with the Father about in the Garden of Gethsemane. The metaphor in the O.T. of drinking a cup was most frequently used of God’s judgment over evil people. Jesus was talking about his cup of suffering under God’s wrath against our sin. They were thinking about a cup of power and authority to judge wicked pagans like the Romans…or power-hungry pompous priests in the Temple.

This whole story gives me real ‘cause for pause.’ If the men who had lived with Jesus day and night for some 3 years were so utterly confused about the purposes of Christ on this earth, then certainly I may be very confused, very self-absorbed, very blinded by my own desires and ambitions. And all the while I may be thinking that I am asking God to do something he must certainly want to do.

You see, the cross will often be at cross purposes to our purposes. If we are to embrace the cross of Christ as He calls us to, we must be willing to let go of our dreams and ideas about what we think God should be doing and be willing to embrace His road of what may be deep suffering and sacrifice.

This is the paradox of discipleship. The cross precedes the crown. The glory we see in Jesus comes after the groaning we must share on the way to the cross. The “power of the resurrection” only comes with the “fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10).

Nobody likes suffering. Our world has NO place for suffering and will do all it can to avoid it. But God knows that suffering can have unparalleled consequences for good, especially when it is done for the good of other people.

Which is precisely where Jesus takes this request from Salome & Sons. Instead of encouraging our natural bent to climb the ladder of leadership by getting a leg up on those around us, Jesus points his followers down the slide of service and slavery. Tragically, we’ve become some accustomed to this term “servant leadership” that we don’t recognize the real thing when we see it. Real servant leaders don’t lecture on the subject; they live it! They are found far more often kneeling with a towel in their hand than standing with a microphone behind a podium. They know that the road to the cross they are called to take up isn’t just called a highway of humility; it IS humility.  

It’s interesting that Jesus never once uses the wordhumility” in this discussion. Instead he chooses roles and occupations and jobs—things and images that people of his day could get their arms around. He calls the greatest people in His service to understand their greatness only through the lenses of the people they think of when they hear the words “servant” and “slave.”

In our culture, we’ve been trained to avoid those terms like the plague when referring to anyone, at least anyone we actually know.

ILL: My mother grew up in a different world than I did. Her family actually had “hired help” who lived in their house during her growing-up years in Chicago. Her parents were well to do and had a full-time cook and coiffeur, kind of like you see in Jimmy Stewart’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Unlike servants or slaves, they were paid. Unlike servants or slaves they were treated well and with respect. But they didn’t give the instructions or directions; they took them. They didn’t set the schedule; they adjusted to it. And they certainly didn’t fight for a better place at the table…or more power in the household decision-making…or demand that the roles be reversed and that my grandparents do their laundry, their cooking, their cleaning, their gardening or wait on them.

It takes one particular quality to be able to serve others from the heart. It’s a quality the Apostle Paul points us to in Philippians 2:3ff—“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider other better than yourselves. 4)Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Then the Holy Spirit points Paul to THE BEST human illustration of humility in action.

5)Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

6)Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

7)but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

8)And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!

If we’re going to be Jesus-followers, we must talk about humility.

If we’re going to be serious about humility, we must embrace being servants.

If we’re going to embrace being servants, we must figure out how to be occupied with the interests and concerns of other people without personal ambition.

It is this attitude of humility working itself out through our loving concern for others that is the key to the cross-life. So let’s spend a few minutes figuring out really what humility IS and what it actually DOES.

There’s a lot of confusion about humility. We tend to think of it merely as an attitude or state of mind. In fact, we’ve been told that if we think we’re humble, then we’re obviously not. We laugh at the old line about writing the book titled, Humility & How I Attained It. Sort of a contradiction in terms, right?

ILL: Winston Churchill was once asked, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?”

“It’s quite flattering,” replied Sir Winston. “But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.” [Norman McGowan, My Years With Winston Churchill, Souvenir Press, London.]

            But biblical humility, while certainly having its roots in what we think about ourselves and others encompasses far more than just attitudes. That’s why God can be both THE greatest and THE most humble Being in the universe…and know that He is.

ILL: Henry Augustus Rowland, professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, was once called as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, “What are your qualifications as an expert witness in this case?”

The normally modest and retiring professor replied quietly, “I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion.” Later a friend well acquainted with Rowland’s disposition expressed surprise at the professor’s uncharacteristic answer. Rowland answered, “Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath.” [Today in the Word, August 5, 1993]

Something C.S. Lewis said about humility is spot-on. He wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” [Mere Christianity]

            God thinks honestly about himself…and thus knows He is all things perfect and good. By most people’s modern ideas of humility, God would be guilty of arrogance. But He’s not. What he is is the universe’s greatest and at the same time most humble Being because he is always think of you and me and the billions of other humans he has created to enjoy Him and glorify God forever.

            This fits what Paul tells us true humility of heart DOES. It moves the truly humble person (or God, in His case) to set aside one’s own position and power and honor and a host of other things we tend to get so addicted to in order to “feel good about ourselves” and to DO that which will enable others to be reconciled to God. Genuine humility says in both word and deed, “What really matters to me is you—your progress, your reconciliation to God, your present and future relationship with God. YOU matter more than ME—more than my comfort, my security, my survival.” That’s humility in action.

I like what Madeleine L'Engle, American author of over 60 books, said about humility: “Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.” This is action. This is what Jesus did…for us…for our world…for those who hate him and those who come to love Him.

ILL: It had been a long day on Capitol Hill for Democratic Senator John Stennis. He was looking forward to a bit of relaxation when he got home. After parking the car, he began to walk toward his front door. Then it happened. Two people came out of the darkness, robbed him, and shot him twice. News of the shooting of Senator Stennis, the chairman of the powerful Armed Forces Committee, shocked Washington and the nation. For nearly seven hours, Senator Stennis was on the operating table at Walter Reed Hospital.

Less than two hours later, a fellow Senator was driving home when he heard about the shooting. He turned his car around and drove directly to the hospital. In the hospital, he noticed that the staff was swamped and could not keep up with the incoming calls about the Senator’s condition. He spotted an unattended switchboard, sat down, and voluntarily went to work. He continued taking calls until daylight. Sometime during that next day, he stood up, stretched, put on his overcoat, and just before leaving, he introduced himself quietly to the other operator, “I’m Mark Hatfield. Happy to help out.” Then Republican Senator Mark Hatfield (who by the way was a Christian from Oregon) unobtrusively walked out.

The press could hardly handle that story. There seemed to be no way for a conservative Republican to give a liberal Democrat a tip of the hat, let alone spend hours doing a menial task and be “happy to help out.” [Heaven Bound Living, Knofel Stanton, Standard, 1989, p. 35]

So, since humility is letting go of one’s own life with a willing, sacrificial heart to do what brings life to others, WHAT MIGHT HUMILITY LOOK LIKE in the following areas of our lives?

(Ask people to share specific situations in the following 4 arenas of life where humility-in-action is needed.)

1.)    Where we live (family, neighborhood, roommates)?

2.)    Where we work/go to school (coworkers, classmates, clients, subordinates, employers)

3.)    Where we serve (volunteer, give time without pay, etc.)—Share about volunteering at City Gate & Cup THIS WEEK…and future weeks. How is that humility-in-action?

4.)    Where we worship (being more interested and concerned about someone else in the Body of Christ on a regular basis (weekly, daily)—in home groups, in Men’s/Women’s groups, in Bible studies, in larger church gatherings like this). What did someone DO today for you that demonstrated you were of more concern to them than themselves today???

This is really what Mosaic is all about. Mosaic exists to experience God where we live, work, serve and worship. And if we are going to experience the humble Christ who embraced the cross for us, we will need to die to ourselves over and over again through humble and sometimes humiliating service to others.

This chapter 20 of Matthew ends with a story that seems not to be very connected to Jesus discussion about humility and greatness. Let’s read it.

29 As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

31 The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

32 Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

33 “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”

34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.

Where was Jesus going after Jericho? To Jerusalem. And WHY had he “steadfastly set his face” to go there? To embrace that horrible cross of Calvary with all its shame, all its humiliation, all its degrading suffering…so that those very disciples and blind men could be reconciled to God.

There is one virtually identical question that Jesus asks both the blind beggars and Salome and her boys (James & John) in this passage. What is it?

What do you want me to do for you?”

Salome and her boys’ response was pretty much, “Make us great.”

The blind men’s response was, “Make us see.”

            The men who had been with Jesus longest, the disciples, totally missed the point of being with Jesus. They thought it was so they could become more important, more powerful and more well known.

            The blind men, the men who had never been with Jesus, understood that getting close to Jesus was all about being healed, about seeing Jesus himself and about following after him.

When the Cross of Christ looms large in our vision, doing whatever it takes to bring others closer to God become our priority. With the blind men of Jericho, we will be found praying, “Lord, we want to see…to see You, to see your humility, to see the cross, to see that life is really found in humbly serving others rather than selfishly helping ourselves to all the glory we can grab in life.  

May we be found often experiencing what Abraham Lincoln confessed. “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”

If we are following Jesus to the cross, it will be a road where we often cry out to God for help and just as often reach out to others to serve.

  • Where is God asking you to humble yourself by serving someone needing to get closer to God?
  • Communion: how is the death of Christ calling you into a life of humility?