Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (6 April 2014) by the Very reverend David Ison, Dean

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (6 April 2014) by the Very reverend David Ison, Dean

How well do you get on with your family, friends and neighbours?

Lamentations 3. 19-33, Matthew 20. 17-end

How well do you get on with your family, friends and neighbours? One of the reasons why the book of Genesis says, it’s not good for human beings to be alone, is that it’s through our relationships and interaction with other people that we discover who we really are. We can feel full of goodwill towards our fellow human beings, but it’s not until we’re faced with the reality of a difficult person that we will discover just how loving, or not, we’re really are.

And as parents will know, this can be found at its most acute when dealing with children who reflect back to us the reality of ourselves, good and bad. For example: the first words of our third child were not ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’, but ‘Oh, No!’ – reflecting the words that he heard most often, as he toddled off towards another set of steep stairs or threw his food on the floor again. It made us think very carefully about how we could react more positively towards him, and see how to love him rather than see him as a problem.

I wonder whether Jesus felt like responding with the words ‘Oh No!’ to the mother of James and John, when as the New Testament reading this afternoon says, she came to ask a favour on their behalf. Jesus has just been telling the disciples that they were going to Jerusalem where he would be betrayed, tortured and killed, and rise again: they were expecting glory, he is expecting suffering.

And then along comes Mrs Zebedee with her two boys. Not to say how concerned they were about what awaited Jesus in Jerusalem, not even to express their unconditional support and commitment, but to ask a favour: that they, James and John, would have the most glorious places at the top table in the kingdom of God, as the most important right-hand men for Jesus.

What’s remarkable here is the way in which Jesus responds to them so graciously. He doesn’t bite their heads off, or indulge in self-pity because his closest companions don’t understand him. Instead, he tries getting his message across in a different way. Jesus uses this demand for power and status to confront his disciples with the reality of who they are, and invite them to change. In their interaction with Jesus and with one another, James and John and their companions have their ambitions and expectations overturned.

So Jesus says to James and John and their mother that they don’t know what they’re asking for. They think they will get the places of honour by being alongside Jesus. But he tells them that being with him, in his kingdom, means that they will share in the glory of his sufferings and death – because the kingdom of God isn’t about power over others, but about the opportunity to serve them, and even give your life for them.

When the other disciples are angry because James and John have pushed with their mother to the front of the queue, Jesus calls the attention of all of them to what being great in the sight of God truly means: it’s about greatness of service and caring for others. And Jesus goes on to act out that ministry of service in his encounter with the two blind men sitting by the roadside, even as he demonstrates to the angry people around them that having compassion on the poor who cry out is more important than the social expectations of the crowd.

To meet Jesus in the gospels is to have your expectations challenged, your ambitions reshaped, your life turned around. Whether you were – or are – a follower of Jesus, a religious conservative, or a curious member of the crowd. 

It’s through our relationships and interactions with others that we discover more about who we really are. And how much more is that true of how we interact with God in Jesus Christ.

Here at St Paul’s we give the opportunity in St Dunstan’s Chapel for people to write down their prayer requests, and we then put them on the altar as part of our weekday Eucharist service in the morning. When I’m presiding at the service I try to read through the prayers that people have left, and use them when I can to offer their intercessions to God.

Many of those prayers are about the needs and sorrows of others, and most of those I can pray aloud. But a lot of them are asking for a happy life, or for a wonderful partner, or a good job: and although I can pray for the people making those requests, I can’t pray that what they want, or indeed what I want, will be given to us. And this story about James and John and the disciples is one of the reasons why I can’t pray like that: because here as elsewhere, Jesus shows us that God is not a powerful patron who will fix things for us and give us the kind of good and happy life which we might want.

I had an approach last week asking me to help someone get permission from another church institution to do something for which they’ve already received the answer ‘no’. It’s not unusual: people do contact those they perceive as having influence or power, to get the answer which they want. You and I may well have done it ourselves. James and John were following that time-honoured pattern of finding and using a patron, whether a living man (for it usually is men with power) or a patron saint. And we try and do the patronage thing with God as well – using God’s power to make us happy.

But this story from the gospels warns us that what God sees as good and happy may be a long way from what we and our families and friends might regard as a good outcome for our life. A job description which involves long hours of suffering and service, poverty and imprisonment and brokenness, as our own patron saint St Paul went through, fits much better with following Jesus than sitting in heaven wearing a golden crown.

The two blind men sitting by the roadside cry out to Jesus to be able to see: and when they receive the gift of sight, then what do they do? They don’t go off to have a happy life, hold a party or get a job: they follow Jesus on the road to the cross.

So let us bring our hopes and prayers to God in Jesus: and be ready to discover more of the reality of who we ourselves actually are, to be reshaped and changed, by that encounter of our prayers with the reality of God in Jesus Christ.