You can say one thing for James and John: they took Jesus at His Word. “Ask and you shall receive,” our Lord promised, so they asked with the full expectation of getting what they wanted. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” No hemming and hawing around. Not even a “Thy will be done,” thrown in to sound pious. Just this: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Simple enough, a straight-to-the-point request to the One they believed is the giver of all good things. It’s easy to wag our fingers at these two brothers. “Just look at ‘em, elbowing their way up to the top. Good grief! Ought to be red-faced, those two, but there they are, not a smidgen of doubt, chests puffed out like they’ve already plopped down on those two seats.” But notice, if you will, who else is wagging their fingers in this story. It’s not Jesus. He has a few words of correction to say, all right, but the only accusatory fingers that are shaking are those belonging to the other disciples. They are the ones all put out by James and John. In fact, Jesus is the essence of patience with them. Correcting? Yes. But chewing out? No. Those indignant are the ones who feel ambushed, who not-so-secretly covet those seats for themselves and who just hadn’t got up the gumption yet to ask.
To their request that day, Jesus replied that they had no idea what they were asking. And, in that, James, John, and all of us are stuck in the same boat. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought. We’re like five-year-olds, begging for Oreo cookies and ice cream at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We want what is sweet; we want comfortable lives, happy families, secure jobs; we want our sports teams to win, to get a close parking spot at Wal-Mart, just enough sunshine and just enough rain. And, if it’s not asking too much, we wouldn’t mind a little more money, a nicer car, college degrees for our kids, and smiles on the faces of our grandchildren. Although we might not voice prayers for such things, if our hearts spoke to heaven, these are some of the things they would say.
And—hear me well—there is nothing wrong with desiring and praying for these things, for they are well and good, in and of themselves. James and John may have been told “no,” but they weren’t chided for making their request. Bold and audacious though it was, it was indeed a prayer of faith. They may not have known what to ask for, but they knew who to ask. And that’s what matters. Knowing exactly what God wants us to ask for isn’t what matters; what matters is that we ask Him. What matters is that we know that God invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that boldly and confidently we may ask Him as children ask their father, even if that request is for Oreos and ice cream for breakfast.
When you make such requests, know that God is going to give you what you ask for, or He’ll give you something better. Something better for you. My three-year-old son might not think oatmeal is better than ice cream, but I, his father, know that it is. So I give him what is best for him, because I love him. Now if I, an evil sinner, know how to give good gifts to my child, how much more will our Father who is in heaven give good things to you who ask Him?
To James and John, our Lord gave the cup from which He Himself would drink and the baptism with which He Himself would be baptized. To their lips would be pressed the chalice of martyrdom; they would receive the baptism of blood. The sword of Herod baptized the body of James. He was the first of the twelve who died as a witness to Him who died and rose again. And in that, James truly is preeminent. He received his crown.
In so doing, James received something of an answer to his request. What James really desired was to be beside his Lord Jesus. He wanted to sit not twelve seats away, not six, but smack-dab beside him. And so it was, yes, even better. For not only was James beside Christ, he was in Him and Christ was in James. He was conformed to the death of Jesus. He died in Him and rose in Him. He was crucified with Christ so that it was no longer James who lived, but Christ who lived in him. James learned what it means to come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a testimony to Him who gave His life as a ransom for many, as a ransom for you. James did not sit down at the right hand or the left hand of Christ; he sat down on the throne with our Lord, as do all those who are baptized into the body of the king of kings and the Lord of lords.
So now James, along with all the heavenly host, prays for you. They enjoy their Sabbath rest, but they also know of you who still labor, who still ask for Oreos and ice cream, who still don’t know what to pray for. So they ask the heavenly Father to give you what is best. And He does. He gives you Himself. He gives you a baptism with which to be baptized. He buries you into His flesh and resurrects you via that same flesh to a new life. He places a cup to your lips and bids you drink of the blood given and shed for you. He has given His life as a ransom for you, so that you are now His own. He has bought you at a price. You are His. Bold and impetuous as James, meek and bashful, young and foolish, old and foolish—it doesn’t matter who you are, but whose you are. You are His, His beloved child. And nothing in heaven or on earth can change that.
**A slightly revised version of this reflection appears in Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, which you can read more about below.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!