A sermon on Mark 10: 35-45 by Dr Elie Haddad
President of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon
A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon and the brief interview
with Dr Haddad that preceded it, is available here.
James and John come to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” A request that seems to be innocent. We all come to Jesus asking for things. After all, isn’t he the lord of our lives, the one responsible for our well-being? Whenever we have a difficulty, a situation, challenging circumstances, tense relationships, problems at work, problems at home, uncertain future, whatever our situation is. It is natural for us to come to Jesus with this request: “we want you to do something for us.”
We are currently going through very tough times in Lebanon. Political upheaval, economic meltdown, corrupt government, and more recently gunfire and clashes on the streets of Beirut. Instinctively, we go to Jesus with this same request several times a day. We need Jesus to protect us and to make things better for us.
In response to the request of James and John, Jesus probes further and responds with a question: “What is it you want me to do for you?”.
The question that Jesus asks seems to be a common response for him. In the passage right after the one we read from Mark 10, we read the story of Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus. Jesus comes into Jericho. Bartimaeus hears the crowd and knows that it’s Jesus coming in. He starts shouting and the crowd try to silence him. But Jesus seeks him out and asks him that same question: “what do you want me to do for you?”
“What do you want me to do for you?” Why does Jesus repeatedly ask this question? He must know the answer. He knows everything. I believe that by Jesus asking this question, he wants us to really think about what we want, and to think of our motives. Answering Jesus’s question reveals what we believe about him, about our condition, and about our relationship to him.
The answer of Bartimaeus reveals that he merely wants to see. A very legitimate request. Jesus came to give sight to the blind, he is blind, he wants Jesus to give him sight. He got his wish and a lot more.
The answer of James and John, on the other hand, reveals something different. They want to sit at Jesus’s right and left in glory. A seemingly innocent request, but behind it is the natural human desire for a place of honor, power, and prestige. Although Jesus does not rebuke them, he challenges them. Simply, Jesus did not come to earth seeking a place of honor, power, and prestige. He came to serve. This means that following Jesus is a journey of service and sacrifice, not a journey of honor and power.
If Jesus asks us the same question today: “what do you want me to do for you?” What will our answer be? Why do we come to Jesus? Why do we follow him?
Peter had to contend with what it means to follow Jesus. We read in Luke 5:1-11 about Jesus entering the boat that belongs to Peter. After teaching the crowds from the boat, Jesus made a request to Peter: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter answered: “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” They did, and they caught so many fish that their nets started to break. They got help from the other boat with them, and the catch filled both boats.
When Peter saw that: “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’” This is a strange response. Peter is asking Jesus to get out of his boat. Why? We usually interpret this as a spiritual awakening for Peter. He suddenly realized who Jesus was.
I don’t think so. In the previous chapter, Luke chapter 4, Luke tells us that people were already astounded by the teachings of Jesus because he spoke with authority, and we saw Jesus healing the sick (including Peter’s mother-in-law) and casting out demons. Peter already knew what Jesus is capable of. I don’t think that two boat-loads of fish were more spectacular than the teaching, healing, and casting out of demons that Peter had already witnessed.
I think that there’s something else at play here. Peter was a fisherman. Jesus helped him in his enterprise that night. This is what happens when we ask God to bless our work and he does. We want him to follow us to keep blessing us. Peter may have had the same thoughts. Maybe he was thinking: “I wish Jesus can follow me to help me succeed.” But one look from Jesus was enough. It became clear to Peter that either Jesus leaves his boat, or he will have to leave everything behind. And that is precisely what happened. Jesus asked Peter to leave everything and follow him. Peter did.
This happens to us all the time. Jesus comes into our lives with a special blessing. We want the blessing, but we want Jesus to step aside afterward. We will call him again when we need a new blessing. We know that if Jesus sticks around then he may expect us to do something different with the blessing, maybe give it away and bless others?
Peter may not have learned this lesson the first time around because we see the same fishing scene repeated after the resurrection of Jesus (John 21). That’s when Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loved him or not. The first question was “do you love me more than these?” I believe that the “these” referred to the fish, the boat, and the tools of the trade. Jesus was asking Peter: do you love me more than you love the work that ensures your livelihood? Jesus made it clear to Peter that following him will lead to suffering, then asked him, again, to follow him. Peter did, this time knowing full well what the cost of following Jesus will be.
Why do we follow Jesus? What do we want from him? Do we want him because of the blessings, then want him to step aside until we need the next blessing? Or are we prepared to pay the cost of following Jesus and sharing in the fellowship of his suffering? What is our motivation for following Jesus?
At our seminary, we bring in students from all over the Arab world (Middle East, North Africa, and the diaspora) to teach them. We end up learning a lot from them. It is humbling to see the cost of following Jesus for many of them. We have the privilege of training students from a relatively safe place, and we love what we do. It’s our students and graduates who have to pay a high price for their faith and their ministry. They know that if they preach Jesus they will likely face hardship and may end up in prison, and they still preach Jesus.
We have become accustomed to our comfortable lives. We have Jesus in our lives to make it better, but are we willing to sacrifice or suffer for Jesus? We have embraced elements of a prosperity gospel without even recognizing it. We think that by following Jesus, he is obligated to spare us from any suffering. Our life choices become the paths of least resistance. When we face hardship, we make corrections in our lives to escape the hardship and smooth out our life. We are always ready to “serve” within a safe and comfortable boundaries, but are we ready to serve when that comes at a cost?
Our students also teach us to read our Bible differently. For example, in Acts 12 we read about Peter in prison and the church praying for him to be delivered from prison. God did deliver him at night. Peter comes to the house where the church is gathered to pray. He knocks at the door, but they hesitate to open the door, not quite believing that it’s Peter. We interpret this as lack of faith. They were praying for the release of Peter, he was released, but they were surprised that he was released.
However, if we go back to the text in Acts 12 and read it carefully, the text does not say that the church was praying for Peter to be delivered from prison. They were praying for Peter in prison. I don’t think that they had the expectation that God was obligated to deliver him. Their expectation was, if they preach Jesus, they end up in prison. Even when the apostles were delivered, they went back to the streets preaching Jesus, until they got arrested again. Sometimes God intervened and he delivered them from prison, and he was glorified. Other times, God did not deliver them, and he was glorified nevertheless. The apostles preached Jesus in the streets, and they preached Jesus inside the prison. It didn’t matter much to them. They understood their role and knew their priorities and loyalties.
Our expectation today is that God will deliver us from difficult circumstances and will spare us from any kind of pain and suffering. We learn differently from our students. Their experience resembles that of the New Testament church. They expect that their faith and ministry will be costly to them, and they are willing to bear that cost. They are not looking for an easy way out.
This is a big lesson for us today in Lebanon. As life gets a lot more difficult and complicated, with increasing instability and volatility, what do we do? We know that in the midst of all our crises, God is opening up new opportunities to proclaim the Gospel, to proclaim a message of hope in a place full of despair. The Gospel message is indeed penetrating new people groups that we had not thought possible, at least not in our lifetime. What do we do? Do we pick up and leave in pursuit of a more comfortable and stable life? Do we pursue God’s calling no matter what the circumstances are? These are big questions that we face every day.
Yes, life in Lebanon is very challenging these days. But not only in Lebanon. Our whole region is marked by instability, volatility, and many times extremism and even persecution. There is violence and division all over the world. But what we are currently experiencing in Lebanon is truly amazing. The situation is very bad. Yet, God is doing what he does best, redeeming the situation so that life springs out it. Out of darkness, the light of God is shining. Out of despair, God is giving hope. Out of violence, we are experiencing God’s shalom. And all of that through his church, through the remnant whom God has called to faithful perseverance.
What we are experiencing in Lebanon is nothing short of remarkable. God transforming his church so that we can reach our neighbors with the love of God, regardless of whether our neighbors are friendly or hostile, or whether they love us back or not. What an incredible journey that God is taking us on. What precious lessons we are learning as a Lebanese church.
Jesus said in Luke 9:23, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” It’s very simple. We either deny ourselves or deny Jesus. We cannot live for Jesus and live for ourselves at the same time. We cannot follow Jesus while we’re holding a strong grip on our way of life. We cannot follow Jesus and stay where we are.
The call of Jesus to us tonight is: follow me. The big questions for each of us are, do I want to follow him, or do I want him to follow me? Why do I want to follow him? If Jesus asks me right now: “What do you want me to do for you?”, what will my answer be? Will my answer be: “I want you to give me a comfortable life and a place of honor?”, or will it be “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)?
I believe that these are important questions to ponder on as we partake in the Lord’s table in a few minutes.
What a privilege it was to have Dr Elie Haddad with us in the Cyber Chapel, and what a powerful message he brought us. Don’t be fooled by his gentle understated style – the message really packs a punch. It is easy for us to laugh at the apparent foolishness of the request that the disciples James and John make to Jesus, but by the end of this sermon, Dr Haddad had most of us recognising ourselves in them and seeing that we too can often come to Jesus more for what we hope to get out of him than anything else. There were a couple of images that really struck me; perhaps convicted me, if I’m honest about it. One was the idea that rather than following Jesus, we of really want Jesus to follow us, to follow us round and bless whatever we are doing. The second was the related idea that when Jesus does bless us, we often then wish he disappear until we next need to call on him for another blessing. Ouch! So true, and so important for us to hear. Thank you so much, Elie.
Dr Elie Haddad has certainly delivered a powerful sermon that is both biblically based and socially challenging. The Australian newspaper today reprinted an article outlining the perilous nature of life in Lebanon today under its headline: ” A country on the brink of destruction”. Despite the litany of contradictory pressures affecting life in that country, the article finishes with a quote from a local cafe owner who says: “…we are all brothers here..”. Since 2019, 300,000 Lebanese people have left the country per the report. This article just reinforces what Dr Elie told us in his sermon. His reference to Acts Chapter 12 and Peter’s deliverance from jail is also where we find that Herod killed James, brother of John, with a short sword. Mark’s Gospel was written at a time when this killing was a well known fact and hence we find on Jesus’ lips in today’s Gospel the re-telling of the event as if it is a “prediction” of Jesus. This collapsing of time in biblical stories also appears in an other reference of Dr Elie to John’s Gospel Chapter 21. In that scene of the triple “do you love me” questions, John’s gospel has Jesus once again invite Peter ” to follow me”. Dr Elie took us from scenes in Jesus early public ministry in Galilee ( Luke Chapters 4/5), through Mark Chapter 10 as a prelude to entering Jerusalem for the final time; and finally to this scene post-Resurrection beside the lake at John Chapter 21. All of them have the theme of invitation “follow me” but in quite ambiguous historical detail. Just what is it that Jesus is intending – to what is it that he wants us to follow? The Cross? But what does that mean in each of those three quite different historical accounts from three different Gospels? What does it mean for people in Lebanon? For us in Australia? This i think is the core point of the crisis of affiliation for Christianity today? Dr Elie pointed out – what is it that we are asking of Jesus? I could – and do quite often- ask Jesus just what it is that he is asking of me? To sell all my possessions and follow Him? Am I just like the rich man of last week? I think not! Today is the feast day of St Luke the Evangelist in the liturgical calendar of my catholic tradition. While Matthew and Mark use a Greek verb for catching fish that is the usual word, Luke uses a verb (zogros) that refers to catching animals alive – it refers to ensnaring,trapping, making prisoners. So Luke sees the invitation to follow Jesus as a life enhancing project and not simply a power game. But still what does this mean in histroical circumstances today? What do Christians have to offer by accepting the invitation to follow Jesus and forsake all else – to a Western world that is scientifically driven and sociologically apathetic to Jesus. The Bible is quite incomplete for modern times to put substance to the invitation even if we are of good courage and want to accept it? I grew up at a time where catechisms told us that the gospels are plain literal histories that prove all we need to know to use Christianity to ensnare the hearts, minds and bodies of all creation. We now find that such is not so clealy the case. We now find, as Dr elie has so ably demonstrated, that the Gospels exist as open ended invitations to imitate Jesus in whatever historical situations exist today. So the Gospels are not so much about history 200 years ago as insights into histroy today. This is a scary project. And so we have the key point of Dr Elie’s sermon- desire. As he said, Jesus in Mark, asks what it is that James and John desire? jesus in Hohn asks peter at the lake what it is that Peters desires the most? In Acts Chpater 12, dr Elie pointed out the absence of desire in the prayers to emphasise the need of our prayers to be also an “open-ended” dependence on the God of Jesus Christ. In fact the John’s Gospel begins much like Mark Chapter 10. In John Chapter 1 Jesus asks: “..what do you seek?”… In reply jesus is asked – “… where are you staying?…”. It seems that contemporary Christians are gifted not so much with biblical gospel certainty as gifted with an invitation – follow me but don’t expect the usual guideposts along the way. At least people in Lebanon know that. We in Australia enjoy much more privilege from such threats and so the challenge is a lot more undefined – the character of church life for us Aussies per Jesus’ invitation is so much more beyond our Grasp. the Lebanese have had so much already taken from them. We as a country retain control over our possessions and hence in one sense the challenge of being an authentic christian for Australians is so much more dire – it is so easy to remain simply “the Rich Man (sic)”. What does “follow me” mean for an Australian Christian? The Bible is the Invite, but it does not seem to be a description of what the Main event called Life should be. How can I form and satisfy an authentic Desire in my life?
Thank you for this this simple but not simplistic word from the heart of a man who has followed the “Jesus call” from a land that knows what that call means, from a people that know the cost of that call.
It reminds me of the Galilee Song by Frank Anderson particularly these words
So I leave my boats behind
Leave them on familiar shores
Set my heart upon the deep
Follow you again, my Lord
As I gaze into the night- down the future of my years
I’m not sure I want to walk – past horizons that I know,
But I feel my spirit called – like a stirring deep within
Restless till I live again – beyond the fears that close me in
May I set my heart upon the deep