There is an old saying that goes, “Be Careful What You Wish For; you might get it”. The adage implies that should our wish come true, it may come with unanticipated consequences. Literature is filled with many stories of wishes gone awry. The ancient Greeks had King Midas; the Germanic people tell stories of wasted wishes, including one about a sausage sticking to someone’s nose. Middle Eastern culture has Aladdin and the genie in the lamp. While Aladdin’s wishes didn’t always go to plan; the three wishes ultimately became the greedy villain’s downfall.
Aesop warned of how the wishes can backfire on us. He tells the story of a tortoise who wanted to learn to fly. One day, while lazily basking in the sun, she made her complaint to the sea-birds, lamenting the fact that no one would teach her. An Eagle, hovering near, heard her complaint and offered to take her aloft and float her in the air in return for a great reward. The bargain was struck and the eagle grasped her in his talons he carried her almost to the clouds - where he suddenly let her go, where she fell on the rocks and dashed her shell to pieces; hence making a nice meal for himself. Aesop’s moral: If men had all they wished, they would be often ruined.
While we may not wish for the impossible, sometimes our wishes come true in ways we do not expect. We wish for rain, and what do we get? Rain, but accompanied by flooding and mudslides. How often do make a wish and you actually get what you wished for, only to find that the reality does not live up to the fantasy. Sometimes the wish comes true, but at the cost of something that is of more value. How many people wish to win the lottery, only to find their lives changed for the worse? Someone may get a dream job with the dream salary, only to find it comes with a loss of cherished relationships. We have heard stories of individuals wishing for a certain man or woman of their dreams only to find the relationship has become a nightmare. Yes, one needs to be careful of what one wishes for, as it may be granted with unexpected and dismal consequences.
“Be careful what you wish for, you might get it” could be Jesus’ message to his disciples in Mark’s gospel this morning. Our reading this morning takes place on the road to Jerusalem, the road that will ultimately lead to the crucifixion. It opens with brothers James and John confronting Jesus with a request: “Do for us whatever we ask for you”. This exchange comes on the heels of Jesus' third (count ‘em) – the third passion prediction in Mark. They have already argued with the other disciples about who among them was the greatest, when Jesus shut them down by bringing a child into their midst. Yet this newest request reveals the disciples' ongoing inability to understand what the glory of Jesus entails. And we find ourselves asking, how can they possibly not get it? Jesus has already taken them aside and has told them yet again what will happen to him, and tells them in stomach-turning detail: They will mock, spit, flog and kill. And he asks the hard question: can you handle the cup that is filled with that sour wine?
Apparently, James and John do not realize what they are asking for, but they ask it anyway. Beg, really. The word for "ask" is more like "demand." James and John are insistent. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus finally threw his hands up in the air, like a parent who has tired of their toddler’s or teenager’s pleading and gives in. Jesus basically says, "so be it" … He can promise them they will be treated as he will be treated. But…there is a part of this request that even Jesus can't grant. But to be the right-hand men in the kingdom – Jesus can’t make that call. Only those for whom it is prepared, by the Father, may sit at Jesus' right and left hand, and it might not be James or John or any of the disciples. So, we are left wondering who those elect are he that talks about are.
But if we read on in Mark, we find he reveals some clues about for whom those coveted positions have been prepared. If the cup and the baptism and the glory find fulfillment on the cross, then the ones on Jesus' right and left are a pair of thieves. It makes sense if we recall that one of the main themes of Mark is the grand reversal narrative. Remember he said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it” and “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. Also, he taught them that “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all”. So maybe it’s not so surprising that those who were found at the right and left hands of Jesus were a pair of bandits!
Jesus came to save sinners, call tax collectors, restore those chained to a living death among the tombs and touch lepers. What exactly were James and John expecting when they yearned to be Jesus' right- and left-hand men? Perhaps they have yet to make the distinction between Gentile glory and Jesus' glory. Maybe they are still hoping to lord it over others. It could be that the passion predictions, dire and repeated as they are, are overshadowed by the transfiguration experience James and John witnessed a few chapters back. But before we point fingers at them, consider for a moment. If we are honest with ourselves, don't we all want to go from glory to glory? Palm Sunday to Easter with no Good Friday in between? The birth of Jesus with no talk of judgment and the Second Coming? Building booths on the mountain rather than returning to the mess in the valley?
Truth be told, we often go with cheap grace over the cost of discipleship, and in our culture, it is easy to get away with such a trade. I am amazed at the number of politicians who embrace the cross to earn civil power. There are many who talk the talk, but never walk the walk. Rather, we have to be intentional about living out our servant identity and welcome whatever that costs. It’s not that we seek out suffering – we don’t have to, but if we genuinely live out our baptism, we do so with the anticipation that our faithful lifestyle will make us different, conspicuous and likely to run afoul of those who benefit from accepting our culture’s focus on “bigger is better”.
Our scriptures this morning remind us that the way to greatness is the way of suffering. Redemption and salvation come through the way of suffering. In the words of Father Henry Nowen, the one who can heal and set things right is the one who has been wounded himself. Strength and might come not through worldly privilege, but through suffering. Christ did not come to lord his position over humanity, but to bring us to God by his compassion and suffering and ultimate victory. Perhaps we are being called to do the same.
Therefore, as we come up out the waters of baptism and drink from the cup of salvation we are marked as God's own, children of the covenant, participants in Christ's life, death and resurrection, servants loyal to the One who came to serve. We become part of God's great reversal where slaves have the highest status and death has lost its sting and worth is conferred - not earned, the meek inherit the earth and Jesus is the one and only Lord of us and of all.
Oh, all those stories about wishes gone awry, and being careful what you wish for…well, in many of those stories, after going through struggles and reversal of fortune, the protagonist finds they do get what they wanted, but maybe not in the way they had planned. And sometimes it is even better than imagined. Know that following Jesus may not be easy, but those stay on the path of faithfulness will find ultimate peace and glory. May God bless you on your journey in service and faithfulness. Thanks be to God. Amen.