Sunday, October 22, 2006

From ambition to glory

(Today's sermon, based on Mark 10.35-45 and Hebrews 5.1-10)

Have you heard the expression 'be careful what you pray for, in case God grants your request'? That came to mind when I looked at today's Gospel reading concerning the sons of Zebedee, who come to Jesus and say ‘teacher we want…”.

It is a request made from ambition, to sit one at Jesus’ right and the other at his left in the kingdom. This is an image of glory - to sit next to the king in his pomp and circumstance, and bathe in a little reflected light. Of course, the sons don't really know what they are asking for. Jesus asks them 'can you drink the cup I am going to drink?', referring to his crucifixion, his role as Isaiah’s suffering servant, who heals us by his wounds - and the two sons blithely say 'we can', thinking that this will qualify them for the honour they seek. Well, they get what they wanted, and it wasn't what they wanted. In any case, Jesus deftly subverts their request by saying that it is for the Father to bestow honours. Glory belongs only to God, and any glory that we enjoy is a gift that comes from the father.

Teacher we want… Ambition is a common human problem, for it is a desire for social success - to be seen by others at Christ's right and left, and to share in that exaltation. Or to be a successful politician, or a millionaire businessman, or even to score the winning goal in a World Cup final. Or even to have your picture in a national newspaper…. And the deep source of the problem lies not in there being energy turned to achievement, but that the achievement is in the interests of the ego, which craves social approval, and fears death if society does not grant the approval. Christ is quite clear in his teaching, that whoever wants to be great must become like a servant, whoever wants to be first must be a slave. Those who are first shall be last. This is turning the values of the world upside down. Christ is establishing a community in which the values which are esteemed are not those of the world - of power, of wealth, of celebrity - but those of the suffering servant king, who washes his disciples' feet to show how it must be among them; who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. And this is why he continually teaches us not to be afraid. For fear is the voice of the ego, which seeks bodily preservation and bodily comforts - but we must fear the one who has charge of the soul, not the societies who might have temporary charge of the body.

What we must do is allow God room to work his plans in our lives, to allow his grace to be in charge. We cannot fully comprehend God's plans for us. All that we can do, as we walk in faith, is trust that he is in charge, that he loves us, and that, as Julian of Norwich put it, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. What our prayers should be focussed on is not the attainment of particular ends, but that our choices might coincide with God's choices and that we can become channels of His peace. And this means obedience.

It is written in the letter to the Hebrews that Jesus ‘learned obedience through what he suffered, and being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation’. Here we have the idea that following the will of God leads to suffering, and that suffering is something that needs to be endured – but also that, if we do endure, as Christ endured, then we get in touch with ‘the source of eternal salvation’, the amazing grace and glory of God. Jesus shows us what obedience is, as he accepts the situation that he has been given. Think of the agony of Gethsemane: where Jesus can see where things are going, and he doesn’t want to have to endure what lies ahead, but he places himself in God’s hands and says ‘not my will, but thine be done’. As the letter to the Hebrews has it, ‘Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and was heard for his godly fear’. Jesus knows what is likely to happen, he felt that it was unjust, but he allows God to be in charge, and accepts his destiny, whatever God has planned for him. And God has something glorious planned for him.

Some years ago I took a funeral of a man who was greatly estranged from his family. He was 86, and had apparently been incredibly lazy and selfish throughout his life. What caused him to be like that we don’t know, and he has now gone to give an account for his life before God, who knows all things and has mercy on our frailties. But what most struck me was the response of his son, who had doggedly kept in touch with his father, despite a great many reasons why he might not have done, and who had worked phenomenally hard in his own life, to raise and love his own family, to whom he was clearly very close. I am sure that some people, when faced with great suffering, lash out in pain and anguish. But somehow, this man had managed to absorb the suffering he was given, and not pass it on. This son was clearly not a saint, but it was also clear to me that he was living out something essential to a Christian life. Grace was active in him, and it was something glorious.

For we are called to endure the sufferings we are given. This world can be a hard one, a vale of tears. But if we accept that suffering with compassion, and remain open to God, then we too can become vessels of grace. I am aware that I am talking about something heroic here. If I said this to the people of Iraq this morning I would expect to be stoned for my troubles, and that would probably be justified. But to throw the suffering that we receive back onto the world or back onto the people that have caused it merely repeats and increases the suffering for everyone. We have to follow the way of the cross. And this is not stoicism – a stiff upper lip which represses all our emotions, and which ends up stifling the heart. This can only rest on the assurance that we are loved, that deeper than the troubles that we endure lies a mystery that embraces us, feeds us and welcomes us. And if we can obey, and we can endure the suffering, then we receive God’s grace – and finally we become what God is calling us to be: glorious; we share in the glory that belongs only to God, but which we live within as his children.

Ambition turned to obedience; obedience leads to suffering; suffering leads to grace; and grace leads us to glory. We cannot know what God’s plans are, but we can know what God is like. For we have seen Him. And from that we know that we can trust Him. Jesus said ‘I have come that you might have life, and have it in all its fullness’. This is the promise that we have been given. It is not a promise that life will be easy, or that everything will go well. In fact, the way of the cross is closer to being the opposite. But it is the promise of a reward that the world cannot touch. For after the cross comes the resurrection. And that is the glory which is our calling as children of God.

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