(Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/GqD-ujFnO4Q)
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Once upon a time, in the heart of an ancient Kingdom, there was a beautiful garden. And there, in the cool of the day, the Master of the garden would walk. Of all the plants of the garden, the most beautiful and most beloved was gracious and noble bamboo. Year after year, bamboo grew yet more noble and gracious, conscious of his Master’s love and watchful delight, but modest and gentle. And often when the wind came to revel in the garden, Bamboo would dance and play, tossing and swaying and leaping and bowing in joyous abandon, leading the Great Dance of the garden, which most delighted the Master’s heart.
Now, once upon a day, the Master himself drew near to contemplate his Bamboo with eyes of curious expectancy. And Bamboo, in a passion of adoration, bowed his great head to the ground in loving greeting. The Master spoke: “Bamboo, Bamboo, I would use you.” Bamboo flung his head to the sky in utter delight. The day of days had come, the day for which he had been made, the day to which he had been growing hour by hour, the day in which he would find his completion and his destiny. His voice came low: “Master, I’m ready. Use me as you wish.” “Bamboo,” The Master’s voice was grave “I would have to take you and cut you down!”
A trembling of great horror shook Bamboo…”Cut …me… down? Me…whom you, Master, has made the most beautiful in all thy Garden…cut me down! Ah, not that. Not that. Use me for the joy, use me for the glory, oh master, but do not cut me down!” “Beloved Bamboo,” The Master’s voice grew graver still “If I do not cut you down, I cannot use you.” The garden grew still. Wind held his breath. Bamboo slowly bent his proud and glorious head. There was a whisper: “Master, if you cannot use me other than to cut me down…then do your will and cut.” “Bamboo, beloved Bamboo, I would cut your leaves and branches from you also.” “Master, spare me. Cut me down and lay my beauty in the dust; but would you also have to take from me my leaves and branches too?” “Bamboo, if I do not cut them away, I cannot use you.” The Sun hid his face. A listening butterfly glided fearfully away. And Bamboo shivered in terrible expectancy, whispering low: “Master, cut away” “Bamboo, Bamboo, I would yet… split you in two and cut out your heart, for if I cut not so, I cannot use you.” Then Bamboo bowed to the ground: “Master, Master… then cut and split.”
So the Master of the garden took Bamboo…
and cut him down…
and hacked off his branches…
and stripped off his leaves…
and split him in two…
and cut out his heart.
And lifting him gently, the Master carried Bamboo to where there was a spring of fresh sparkling water in the midst of his dry fields. Then putting one end of the broken Bamboo in the spring and the other end into the water channel in the field, the Master gently laid down his beloved Bamboo… And the spring sang welcome, and the clear sparkling waters raced joyously down the channel of bamboo’s torn body into the waiting fields. Then the rice was planted, and the days went by, and the shoots grew and the harvest came. On that day Bamboo, once so glorious in his stately beauty, was yet more glorious in his brokenness and humility. For in his beauty he was life abundant, but in his brokenness he became a channel of abundant life to his Master’s world.
What the story so elegantly illustrates is the power of true service and servanthood. Early in the story, when the Master comes to Bamboo and tells him he is going to put him to use, Bamboo is eager to please his master. Yet as the story goes on and Bamboo finds out the sacrifices he must make to serve his master, he becomes less and less eager to please…especially since he didn’t know the purpose of his sacrifices. Bamboo was never told he was going to be used as a conduit to carry water to the Master’s dry fields. Nevertheless, Bamboo made the sacrifices and came to realize greater service than simply obeying his master. Bamboo’s obedient service led to unexpected life, a reward unlike any reward.
Our readings assigned for this week also lift up the power of true service and servanthood. In our reading from Isaiah, we heard a passage that is traditionally known as the “fourth servant song.” Four times in his book the prophet foretold of a servant who would undergo great suffering for the redemption of others. Four times the prophet foretold of a servant who would be “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Four times (!) the prophet clearly laid the foundation for someone like Jesus to come along and embody the true servant. And Isaiah wrote his prophecy over 500 years before Jesus came on the scene! We can’t help but wonder if Jesus, a learned rabbi himself, was simply taking his cue from the prophet’s words or ministering to the people unprompted. Nonetheless, Isaiah neatly describes what the ideal servant would embody. The ideal servant would be one willing to be afflicted in service to the master. The ideal servant would be one through whom “the will of the Lord shall prosper.” The ideal servant would be like the Bamboo, willing to empty himself in obedience to the Master for the sake of service. The ideal servant simply responds, “Master, cut away,” or with silence “like the lamb that is led to the slaughter.”
Why does Bamboo obediently serve his master? Why must we serve our master, our God? Because, like Bamboo came to realize, there is great reward in serving. Only in hindsight do we come to realize that God has a purpose for our service. God uses our service for the greater purpose of giving greater life than we might expect. And God rewards us for our service. As David sang in today’s psalm, God reassures us by stating, “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.” Make no mistake about it, God rewards those who serve Him.
But are we to only serve God? What does serving God entail? How do we serve God? We, like Bamboo, have wrestled with answering these questions since the beginning of creation. We want to serve God, we want to please God…just tell us, O God, how best to serve you! Blessedly, we serve a good and gracious God who didn’t leave us wrestling with these questions for too long. We serve a God who came to us as a man able to teach us how best to serve Him. So how does God want us to serve Him? By serving each other! By becoming conduits for life to flow to each other like Bamboo had become. Jesus used the incident of his disciples bickering over status to teach us this important lesson about servanthood. If we want to serve our Master…if we want to truly, sacrificially serve our Master…we have to serve each other. What a radical teaching! Who would’ve thought?! God wants us to become conduits of His life-giving love to the world. Like Jesus and Bamboo, God wants us to empty ourselves of whatever it is that prevents us from being conduits of His life-giving love. We are called to die to ourselves and to pride and to sin and to anything that holds us back from serving each other. What a simple yet oh, so complicated teaching! In serving each other, we realize true glory and life. In serving each other, we realize God’s love in the world. In serving each other, we realize God’s will for our own lives.
What is holding you back from truly serving God by serving each other? Are you afraid? Are you jealous? Are you bitter? Are you angry? Are you greedy? What is holding you back from serving the people in your life? God understands our need for serving Him and yet he clearly described how to do it through Christ…Christ, the complete embodiment of service and sacrifice! In the week ahead, ask yourself what is holding you back from truly serving God and work to…serve one another.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.