What is it you want?
by Jack Wald | March 8th, 2020

Matthew 20:20-28

If you are like me, then you want a great many things. When I make a trip to Thailand to see my daughter and her family, I wonder what it would be like to fly in business class or first class and stretch out in comfort without someone’s elbow poking me on my side. I wonder what it would be like to be served an excellent meal, being served what I wanted, when I wanted it.

Annie and I were once upgraded to business class on a flight from Paris to Los Angeles, an eleven hour flight. It was delightful. We arrived without the weariness that normally comes from a trip that long. How much better would flying first class be? I’ll never know.

When I sit in economy, in closer contact with the people next to me than I am with anyone else in the world other than my wife, what I most want is to be able to stretch out on my bed and sleep.

As my stomach begins to grumble I begin to think of what would be good to eat and I want something tasty and satisfying to fill my belly. When it is cold and damp, as it often is in the winters here, I want a jillaba to keep warm. I want a fireplace to sit in front of. I want it to be spring with warmer weather.

There are times when I am lonely and want a friend to talk to. There are times when I have been with a lot of people and I want some time to be alone.

I am a material person living in a material world and so there are a lot of things I want. I want new books to read. I want a computer that does not break down. I want a smartphone. I want new clothes. I want a car that is reliable. In the summer I want a swimming pool in my back yard. I want to go on nice vacations, see places I have never been to before. I want to take an ocean voyage.

I want healing for people who need to be healed. I want money for people who need income. I want people who are trapped in institutions to be set free.

I want a lot of things.

If someone were to come up to you and ask, “What is it you want?” how would you reply?

It depends on who it was. If it was Bill Gates, you might ask for a sum of money or at least a computer or two. If it was a dentist, you might ask for a shot of novocaine. If it was your parent, you might ask for something that belonged to your grandparents.

But if it was Jesus who came up to you, how would you respond? If Jesus were to appear to you tonight and ask you this question: “What is it you want?” How would you answer?

At that point, asking for the computer you have been wanting for a long time does not seem to be the likely response. Asking for a car or clothes or a vacation at the beach would not likely be the request that would immediately pop up in your mind.

If Jesus, God in the flesh, appeared to us, we would not be thinking so trivially about what it is we want. You ask the dentist for a shot of novocaine but you ask God in the flesh for something a bit more substantial.

In the text this morning, Salome, the mother of James and John, came to Jesus with a request. “What is it you want?” Jesus asked her.

James and John had been partners with Peter in the fishing trade when Jesus came and called them to follow him. John, along with Peter and Andrew, had been a disciple of John the Baptist. We don’t know if James was also a disciple of John the Baptist, but he joined his brother, John, when Jesus called them to follow him.

Jesus gave James and John the nickname, Sons of Thunder, probably because of their impetuous and impulsive spirit. When Jesus set out for Jerusalem at the end of his ministry, a Samaritan village refused to welcome him. It was James and John who were eager to use some of the new power they had received as Jesus’ disciples. (Luke 9:54) “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Jesus had a problem and they knew how to fix it. Jesus had to rebuke them.

James and John, along with Peter, were the disciples with whom Jesus spent the most time. Peter, James and John were the three disciples Jesus took with him into the room where he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. These three were present with Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus was revealed in all his heavenly glory. It was these three who Jesus asked to be with him in his agony in the garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested. James, John, and Peter were the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples.

There is a possibility that Salome, the mother of James and John, was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This would have made John and James cousins to Jesus. This would have made Salome the aunt of Jesus – which would explain why she was so bold to come up to him and ask a favor for her sons. As his aunt, she had known him since he was a young boy.

However it was, what we know for sure is that there was an especially close relationship between Peter, James, John, and Jesus. In John’s Gospel, he refers to himself several times as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and is portrayed at the Last Supper as the one who was leaning his head on the breast of Jesus.

Salome saw all this and thought about it. This incident is another example of how the culture of Jesus is much closer to the culture of Morocco than to the western world. Salome conspired for her sons because it was through her sons that she would find power. So Salome approached Jesus. It is clear that she did this after talking with her sons. In Mark it is recorded that James and John asked the question, but given the culture, it does not matter who asked. They were all three in on the discussion and decision to approach Jesus.

Salome saw how Jesus seemed to favor her sons – and Peter, if she were forced to admit it. But Peter was not her son and so she pushed her sons forward to seek a position of power with Jesus.

There were twelve disciples, too many to rule with Jesus. Power would have to belong to a smaller number and Peter was a threat. Already, by personality and age, he was viewed by the other disciples as their leader. So Salome, along with James and John, decided to make a preemptive strike. Solidify the position for her sons now. Push Peter out of the picture. Establish their future – and as their mother, her future.

It might be that Salome and her sons were encouraged to approach Jesus because of his rebuke of Peter. In Matthew 16:21–23 Jesus told his disciples he had to go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

The other disciples heard Jesus rebuke Peter, their leader.

And then, later, Jesus talked to them about how it will be in the coming kingdom. (Matthew 19:28–30)
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Salome, James, and John may have talked together after this saying, “Peter is first now, but what did Jesus mean when he said the first will be last? Peter is the leader now. Will he be last when the kingdom comes?”

Politics is present in all organizations, all groups, all churches, all communities and it was present in the disciples of Jesus as well.

So Salome approached Jesus to ask him a favor.
“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.”

Remember that at this time the disciples were not thinking of a heavenly kingdom. They did not understand at this point that Jesus would die as a sacrifice for all people of all time. They fully expected Jesus to cause an overthrow of the Roman occupiers of their land and to establish a kingdom in Israel like that of King David and King Solomon.

What would have happened if Jesus had granted her this favor? What would have happened to the disciples? What would have happened to the ministry of Jesus?

James, the half-brother of Jesus, mocked Jesus during his life, but became one of his most devoted followers after Jesus resurrected and appeared to him in all his heavenly glory. James wrote in his New Testament letter, (James 4:1–2)
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.

If Jesus had granted them this favor, the disciples would have been split and the ministry shattered with everyone scheming to grab as much of the coming power as they could.

But Jesus’s response indicated there was a test coming that would take their desire for power and transform it.

“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 my cup, 

What did Jesus mean when he talked about the cup? In the garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed the night he was arrested, he prayed this: (Matthew 26:39)
“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

So when Jesus asked James and John, the Sons of Thunder, if they were willing to drink the cup he was going to drink, he was referring to the suffering he would endure on the cross. And he asked them, “Are you willing to suffer as I am going to suffer?”

But James and John didn’t have a clue what he was saying to them and quickly answered, “We can.” What a no-brainer. Sit in luxury on soft cushions while servants come up to bring us the gold cup Jesus, as king, will drink from? Give us a hard question.

But Jesus knew their future. He knew that his throne on earth would be the cross of crucifixion, with a thief on his left and a thief on his right. He knew what John and James did not know and he said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup.”

James was the first of the disciples to be martyred. (Acts 12:1-2)
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.

What is the cup from which John drank? John alone of the twelve disciples died of old age. In what way did John share in the sufferings of Christ? Scripture does not tell us a lot about what happened to him but it is apparent that something transformed this Son of Thunder, who wanted to destroy a Samaritan village with fire, into a man of love and humility, and this does not happen apart from suffering. James and John did indeed drink from the cup and shared with Jesus his suffering.

James and John wanted power. They enjoyed the use of power. But Jesus knew they would be tested and transformed by the testing.

The other disciples heard about this private conversation with Jesus and were not pleased.
When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.

So Jesus told them,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 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.”

Jesus told them that leadership, power, and authority is given to serve others, not self, and he used himself as an example. Although at the time, not knowing who Jesus really was and why he was born on earth, they missed the full implications of what he said to them.

What can we learn from this passage?

First, power, wealth, approval, needing to be valued, comfort, rest – all these things that we want can be good.

In the Genesis creation story God gave us power over the creatures of the world. (Genesis 1:27–28)
God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Jesus told his disciples (Matthew 19:28)
“Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

In a cryptic line in a letter to the Corinthian church Paul writes, (1 Corinthians 6:3)
Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!

Apostles, prophets, and teachers are given their gifts by the Holy Spirit and with these gifts come power and authority. Power is necessary for the proper functioning of the world, and power is good, if it is used properly.

Wealth is not a bad thing.
Paul did not write to Timothy saying, “Money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Paul wrote, (1 Timothy 6:10)
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

The women who followed Jesus and supported Jesus and the disciples with their own money were wealthy. Lydia, who traded in purple cloth, was a wealthy businesswoman in Philippi and provided for Paul when he came to preach the good news of Jesus. The early church met in the home of Mark who came from a wealthy family. Barnabas, who traveled with Paul on his first missionary journey, was a wealthy man.

God wants to bless us. He wants us to prosper. He wants us to have a home and food, family and friends.

Approval and the need to be valued are not signs of weakness.

Jesus received the approval of God the Father. Jesus said in John 6:27
Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

At his baptism, Jesus heard the Father speak to him. (Matthew 3:17)
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

This blessing was received by Jesus at least one other time in his life, at the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus was revealed in all his heavenly glory. God the Father spoke to Peter, James, and John, (Matthew 17:5)
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Jesus was able to deal with pain and rejection in his life on earth because he knew he was loved by God, valued by God, approved by God.

The need for rest is a healthy need. It is partly for this reason that resting on the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments.

Power, wealth, approval, needing to be valued, comfort, rest – all these things that we want can be good. Second, it is when power, wealth, approval, needing to be valued, comfort, and rest serve ourselves, that they are destructive and meaningless.

James and John, and their mother, wanted power to rule over others. When Salome pictured her sons on the throne, she pictured them living a privileged life, being served by others.

Power, most of the time, serves the person who has power.

We all know what it is like to suffer at the hand of someone who has power over us and uses it for their own purposes. It could be a parent who is overly restrictive or abusive, a classmate who uses strength and influence against us, a professor who treats us unfairly, a boss who takes advantage of us.

We read the news and see rulers and politicians who use their power to build personal wealth at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve. We read about people who live extravagant lifestyles without regard for the people who work for them or for the people who live outside the gates of their mansions.

It is not easy to have power and use it well. In fact, it is exceptional to see someone with power who does not abuse their power. This is true in the church as well as in the world.

Jesus was loved, valued, and approved by his father. What makes life so difficult for us is that we suffer from pain and rejection without receiving the love we need, without the approval we seek, without being valued. No matter how hard parents try to love and encourage their child, the child goes out the door to school and meets the world with all its dysfunction. And unfortunately, too many children suffer from the sins of their parents before they ever go out the door into the world. We desperately need to know we are loved, valued, and approved.

People who seek fame think that will give them what they need. They want fame, but what they need is to be loved and valued – and fame does not deliver that.

People pursue pleasure, fame, wealth, influence – and if they are unlucky, they get it. When they don’t have what they want, they comfort themselves saying, “I may not be happy or at peace now, but when I am rich, when I am famous, when I have great influence, then I will be happy and at peace. But when they finally have what they have worked so hard to get, they sit there with everything they dreamed of having and wonder why they are not happy, content, or at peace. The pursuit of these things, that are not bad in themselves, is an empty pursuit and leads to an empty and meaningless life.

There is a better path to follow. Isaiah wrote, (Isaiah 55:1–2)
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.

The wealth and treasures of heaven await us. There is a future for followers of Jesus where we will not receive insults and rejection, a future where we will be loved, valued, and approved. We will not be put down so someone else can rise up. We will live in a world where people will serve us, as we will serve them. Comfort and rest await us.

Until that day comes, how do we move from using what God gives us for the benefit of ourselves to using what God gives us for the benefit of others? How do we move from using power for ourselves to using power to serve others? How do we move from using wealth for ourselves to using wealth to bless others? How do we move from seeking our own self interest to thinking more of others than we do of ourselves.

Elliot talked last week about the man who was paralyzed and was lowered through the roof to where Jesus was teaching. Jesus forgave him his sins, and then to demonstrate that he had the power to forgive sins, he healed the man – who stood, picked up his mat, and walked out of the room.

One of the points that Elliot made is that the deepest need we have is for a transformation of the heart. The man who was paralyzed needed to be healed, but at a deeper level, the most important need in his life was to be forgiven for his sins. His legs and spine needed to be healed, but his heart needed to be transformed.

The teaching of Jesus makes sense only when we understand that there needs to be an internal transformation of the heart before we can live out his teaching about our external behavior. Jesus could have healed the man who was paralyzed without forgiving his sin and that would have been a good thing. But being healed only lasts until we die and then the benefit of the healing is gone.

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. That is an amazing miracle and Mary and Martha and their friends and relatives rejoiced. But there came a time when they gathered again for Lazarus’ funeral. A healing lasts for a brief period of time; the transformation of the heart lasts for an eternity.

What is our sin? We think more of ourselves than others. Who are babies most concerned about? Are they aware that their parents need a good night sleep? No. They cry because their diaper is wet, they are hungry, or they don’t want to stay in their crib.

This is how we start life and how most of us act for much of our lives. When Hezekiah, king of Judah, received a word from the prophet Isaiah that the Babylonians would conquer Jerusalem and take his descendants into captivity, do you remember how he responded? (Isaiah 39:8)
“The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.”

Our human nature does not take us from being focused on ourselves to caring more for others than we do ourselves. Our human nature insists that we come first, before anyone else. We need a spiritual transformation.

Our political leaders need a spiritual transformation that will help them use their power for the benefit of the people they lead. People in every sphere of life need to be transformed so they begin to care about the people they work with. And, if we take an honest look at our own lives, we realize that we too need a spiritual transformation. Anyone who is married knows this. My marriage is harmed by my being more concerned with myself than I am with my wife. My relationships with others are harmed by my self-preoccupation. We all need to be transformed at the heart level.

In the response of Jesus to the request of Salome, James, and John, Jesus told them they needed to walk along the path of transformation which takes us through suffering.

Neither James nor John knew what they were saying when they said they could drink from the cup Jesus was going to drink from. James was beheaded and then John lived a long life and we know that he moved through suffering in his life because of the transformation of his character – moving from being a Son of Thunder to being the Disciple of Love.

Paul moved through the path of suffering and was transformed from being confident in his own abilities to discovering that in his weakness he was strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

There has always been a part of me that loves helping others, encouraging others, doing good things for others. But my selfish preoccupation with myself has always gotten in the way.

This is certainly true in my marriage. It is true in my relationship to the board of the Village of Hope. It is true in my relationship to some of the boards at RIC.

I have grown in my ability to think more of others than myself in my years at RIC, especially the last ten years. How did this happen? Why especially the last ten years?

I walked on the path of transformation in 2010 when 150 foreign followers of Jesus were deported from Morocco. The parents of the children at the Village of Hope were among them. I had close friends who were deported that year. I grieved their loss and was anxious about whether I was going to be next. I tell people that these twenty years at RIC have been the best years of my life, but 2010 was the worst year of my life.

I walked on the path of transformation in 2010 and in the following years as I worked to find ways to care for the Village of Hope children without being permitted to see them.

In the last ten years I walked on the path of transformation as Annie and I struggled in our marriage, talked to counselors, worked to rebuild intimacy and trust. I walked on the path of transformation as I watched my daughters go through their own struggles.

As I continued on the path, the amazing thing that happened is that I began to feel loved by God at a deeper level and that helped me to begin to feel loveable, something I have struggled with most of my life.

I feel that I have finally grown up. At the age of 69 I am finally a grownup. It is not that I am perfect, but because I feel deeply loved, I do not have to push for my rights. I can care for someone even when they reject me. I use the power and authority I have as pastor of RIC in a much healthier way.

If I had not walked on the path of transformation through suffering, I would not be where I am today.

I want to encourage you to walk on the path of transformation. Faithful followers of Jesus will suffer. They do not have to look for suffering, it will come. It will come in many forms but it will come. Marriage is wonderful but suffering is part of marriage. Two wills come together in an intimate relationship and then the battle commences. The will has to be surrendered and you have to choose to love your spouse and serve your spouse, even if your own needs are not being met.

Suffering may come from an authority imposing power over you, taking you where you do not want to go, preventing you from doing what you believe you are called to do. Suffering may come from someone you love being deceived by another person.

When suffering comes, do not be discouraged. Do not be dismayed. The suffering you experience is not without gain. Suffering is not meaningless. When you pass through difficult times, know that good will come out of it. Suffering is the milieu for spiritual growth.

This is why James wrote in the opening of his letter, (James 1:2–4)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

This was written by a man who suffered and experienced the beauty that suffering produces.

“What is it you want?” Jesus asks.
“I want to be with you.”
“Are you willing to follow me?”
“Yes, I will follow you.”
“Do you understand that the path we will walk together takes us through suffering?”
“Yes I understand that, but I am afraid.”
“That’s OK. I will be with you. I will never leave you or forsake you. Beauty and joy await us. Let’s go.”

Romans 8:14–17 (The Message)
God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!
15–17 This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!