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The Mercy of Unanswered Prayer

Matthew 20:17-28

Pastor James F. Wright

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Series A
St John Lutheran Church  
Champaign, IL

Sun, Mar 14, 1999 

The mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

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." Matthew 20:17-28

This sermon is about two unlikely servants of Jesus and their ambitions of glory. It shows us what kind of servants God would have us be and teaches us the mercy of unanswered prayer.

The mother of James and John asked Jesus for positions of glory in the kingdom. The Bible says she knelt down to ask this in the posture of prayer. So, her request, even though she put it in the form of a spoken question, is really a prayer offered to God. She wants her two sons to be successful and famous like Jesus appears to be.

Although Jesus has said we can always pray to him and that whatever we ask, great or small, if it is in accordance with his will, he will give it to us, it is good that he does not grant us everything we ask for. We often lack the wisdom of what to ask for. God is merciful when he does not answer all our prayers in the way we would like.

For instance, what is the glory that this mother seeks for her children? Is it really to share in Jesus' glory? Is it the glory of Christ, the suffering servant, who lays down his life like a lamb to be slaughtered? Does she want for them the glory of the right and left, the honored place at the crucifixion given to a thief and to a criminal? For it was here, James and John, that Jesus was glorified. It was here that he entered into his true kingdom. At his death he gave a loud cry, breathed his last breath, and gave up his spirit. Here his glory was the reunion of God the Father and His children made complete. Does she really want James and John want to die with Jesus? Is this the glory she seeks for her children?

Glory is not universally understood. What brings glory to people does not bring glory to God. When we choose leaders for our country, it is because they appear capable to do the job at the time they are elected. They have our support and backing. We vote for them, and they are elected to rule over us.

When God chooses people to be his, he chooses those who, on their own, can't do the job. People like James and John, simple fishermen who he transforms into apostles, are the vehicles through which God turns the world upside-down. He takes you and me, chooses us, and then gives us the place we don't deserve or have any right to, a place in heaven, all for Jesus' sake.

The mother of these two men wants a different kind of glory for her sons. She wants them to have power over people rather than service to other people. Jesus says that they will be glorified by their service. For the rest of their lives they will be hounded, pursued, threatened, imprisoned and exiled. Instead of being glorified as their mother wanted them to be, they are despised by the world. Finally they will serve by giving their lives. A strange kind of glory? Perhaps, but it is the glory Christ shares with all his people.

The church of Jesus Christ is counter cultural. The world gets glory from authority. The church gets its glory from service and submission.

Mothers, what kind of glory do you want for your children? Think about all the diapers you changed, all the long nights rocking the crying child. You want to give the best for your children, so you take them to the doctor, get them their shots, enroll them in the best schools, buy them nice clothing and shoes, drive them to all those activities, pay all the fees, take them on vacation. Like the mother in the story, we do all this for our children because we love them and we want them to succeed. When we pray to God for them, what is it that we ask for them most of all?

Our children need something more than success. They need eternal life. They need a rescue from the dreaded death that is coming to this world. They need the forgiveness of sins. They need a deep and personal commitment to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They need to be guided in a life that is faithful to their baptism into Jesus Christ.

It is unfortunate that so many of our young Lutherans drift away from the church after confirmation. We would do better to change our thinking from church being a place where we bring our children to be educated into the kingdom of God, to understanding that we, the parents, are the greatest teachers of the faith our children will ever know.

We move our children in the direction of eternal success when we, as their parents and spiritual caregivers, pray with them, read the Bible and Catechism to them, teach them the worship of God in our homes, and lead them by our example. We are not to delegate this responsibility to the church to do for us. Perhaps that is part of the problem. The church is not to take our place, but it will help impress the word of God on them through worship, Sunday school, Christian day school, youth group, and other activities. But the teaching of the faith and spiritual formation of our children it has to come from parents first and foremost.

The goal of raising children in a Christian home is not merely to show them where the church door is and make sure they get a competitive academic education with all the trimmings. Instead, we teach our children the difference between worldly glory and the glory of God. Like James and John, our children must learn to love God and serve others. "You will indeed drink from my cup," said the Lord. That means in following Christ we will learn to give of ourselves for other people as he did. Our glory is to be imitators of Christ.

The other disciples were angry when they learned of the mother's request. False glory was catching. They were thinking of rights and privileges before God. Jesus was preparing them to serve by giving their lives.

What is God preparing us for? We do not teach or believe that we shall be honored for following him, that we will always have happy feelings, or even that our family and friends will understand us when we serve the Lord God.

God does promise that he will glorify us as he glorified His Son, by making us servants of mercy.

How does he do this? Remember when we were baptized, the old selfish person died, and a new person, a servant, is raised up every day inside us.

As we listen to others count off their accomplishments in life and bolster their popularity, let us always humbly follow Christ, our example and servant.

Copyright 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.

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