Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 21 March 2021.
• First Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34 (The Lord’s new covenant with Israel – to put the law in their minds and write it on their hearts)
• Psalm 119: 9-16
• Epistle: Hebrews 5: 5-10 (Jesus: a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. Offered prayers and petitions – was heard because of His reverent submission. Learned obedience through suffering, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him)
• Gospel: John 12: 20-33 (The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Anyone who loves their life will lose it while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life)
I suppose that the history of the world is more than full of leaders who started off with great promise and then fell into a moral decay of tyranny. Perhaps Henry VIII of England is one, maybe Peter the Great of Russia is another. Louis XIV also?
They may have maintained their overarching vision in ruling but could still end up being vicious and arbitrary. And this thought does not restrict itself to rulers. It applies to leaders in any field, especially when they feel threatened or their heritage is undermined.
But part of the process in exercising power is the pleasure of it – of favouring some but not others, excusing some but not others, it is there in the granting of civic honours and trading privileges.
And somehow the appeal to vanity projects, to lay down a marker for posterity, raise up monuments to oneself, does not go away.
But for Jesus, His status was already secure. The only thing that could undermine it was Himself – and He was sorely tempted to evade the mission entrusted to Him by His Father.
At His temptation in the wilderness, Jesus was pressed to choose a path to the salvation of humanity without going to the cross, and there were beguiling visions and alternatives put before Him by the One who was determined at all costs to frustrate Jesus’ work of atonement on the cross. He knew only too well that for Jesus to go innocently to the cross would be a final and eternal defeat of the powers of darkness and evil.
And so Jesus made a determined effort to tread out the path that God had laid before Him. It would indeed be to go to the cross and to drink the cup of suffering that had been prepared for Him. He would not try to escape it and He would go to the cross at precisely the right time for His work of atonement to be fully effective. And yes, that meant the Passover.
Meanwhile, He would speak out and He would act out the Word and will of God. He would heal the sick, take authority over the powers of darkness and above all He would forgive sins. He would avoid false turns that would otherwise undermine His mission of reconciliation with God.
And this work of proclaiming the Kingdom of God, healing the sick and restoring the lost would overrule His personal interests or needs. He would rest where He could – either in a borrowed bed or in the field. He would eat and drink where He could, and there were plenty to offer Him hospitality – and who would use the occasion to try to trap Him. So even hospitality might come with hidden agendas.
But it was in this very work of self-denial that Jesus was fulfilling Himself. If He had kept His word for the rich and comfortable, it would have had no impact. By opening it to those who could not possibly dream of earning the blessing of God by their works, their standing or their good name, Jesus was demonstrating that the love and the mercy of God was indeed for all of humanity, and not just ‘Those and such as those.’
Maybe today’s despised social and moral rejects should also be those to hear the word of God’s mercy – the sexual obsessives, gamblers, drug-addicts, those whose lives are poisoned by hate of people of different race, sex, sexuality or cultural background and who despise all others.
It is true that there is a certain reluctance in society to see in the church more than a mechanism for relieving social distress, and perhaps a preference for seeing its buildings as picturesque backgrounds for others kinds of narrative in drama or in the meeting of current social concerns.
There always seems to be minister, vicar or rector on hand to condemn the latest social outrage or to endorse the latest social fashion. Somehow the cameras and reporters seem to evaporate once they start speaking of repentance and faith, of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
But the ministry and the priesthood to which Jesus was appointed was one of speaking where it would be more profitable and safer to keep silence.
It was one that would not play fast and loose with the glory and majesty of God by endorsing the latest social trend, but would speak the word of the Kingdom of God in the places where it was not really wanted.
Today we might wonder just how ‘progressive’ our media and opinion-formers are when they serve to silence the gospel message as other dictatorships have done before them.
Maybe we might look sideways at the assumption that wealth and social standing are the same as standing worthily in the presence of God.
Maybe we would also think twice at the notion of life being about self-affirmation when presented with the story of Jesus’ self-giving and self-denial.
Yet this was also a story that attracted to Him a team of disciples whom He taught intimately as well as an entourage of followers who held with Him and supported Him with their personal means even – maybe especially – when He was being deserted by others in the face of opposition and when He refused to dilute His central call to repentance and faith.
Much of the attraction of the church lies in its support for the poor and the marginal – but without the Passion and resurrection of Jesus, none of this would ever have started.