Grant, we beseech you, merciful Lord, to your faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins and serve you with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Almighty God, in whose service lies perfect freedom: teach us to obey you with loving hearts and steadfast wills; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
and say to you, “Here we are”?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
or given understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cling together?
‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?
Job 38:1-7, 34–41
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul. •
O Lord my God, how excellent is your greatness!
2 You are clothed with majesty and honour, •
wrapped in light as in a garment.
3 You spread out the heavens like a curtain •
and lay the beams of your dwelling place in the waters above.
4 You make the clouds your chariot •
and ride on the wings of the wind.
5 You make the winds your messengers •
and flames of fire your servants.
6 You laid the foundations of the earth, •
that it never should move at any time.
7 You covered it with the deep like a garment; •
the waters stood high above the hills.
8 At your rebuke they fled; •
at the voice of your thunder they hastened away.
9 They rose up to the hills and flowed down to the valleys beneath, •
to the place which you had appointed for them.
10 You have set them their bounds that they should not pass, •
nor turn again to cover the earth.
26 O Lord, how manifold are your works! •
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
35 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; •
I will make music to my God while I have my being.
Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you’;
as he says also in another place,
‘You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.’
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
James 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.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But 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?’ They 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; but 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.’ When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So 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. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Sermon on Sunday, Trinity 21
I wonder if our prayers are the sort of thing the disciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asked of Jesus. Do we call upon God with, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you”? I wonder whether our prayers are so self-centred that we fail to ask God for what is right and good?
This reminds me of the story of the poor widow who pesters the unjust judge to do what is right. His exasperation with the constant reminders the widow bombards him about her cause, provokes a final “To get rid of her, I will do what I should have done all that time ago.” This story is about prayer, how we should be constant and insistent in our addressing God. But what is our “cause” with which we pester God? Why do we keep calling out to God?
But let us return to the story of the sons of Zebedee. They are asking for prestige and power. “Who will sit at your right hand? Who will sit at your left?” We expect our contemporaries to ask these questions – we do not expect any of the disciples to do so. How could the original followers of Jesus be so cras, so un–spiritual? Just to be in that band of disciples should have been enough, don’t you think?
Jesus upbraids these thunderous petitioners. He tells them they don’t know what they are asking. – Do they really want to drink the cup of sorrow that Jesus must drink? Do they understand the baptism through which he is about to pass? The obvious answer is – No. The disciples are surely just like us: the disciples really don’t understand the how of Jesus’ leadership into the Kingdom of God. But their assurance that they are willing to follow, allows Jesus to confirm that they will experience the same baptism and that the same cup will be presented to them to drink to the dregs.
However, Jesus tells them in no uncertain terms that who will sit where is not in his power to announce. Those places will be prepared for those who will have them. Isn’t that enigmatic? Isn’t this the sort of remark one of those mysterious eastern sages would make to his naive pupil before he sends him out on the quest for enlightenment?
At this point, I think we have to pause. We have to ask ourselves, are these questions of power and status the sort of things we should be pursuing? Jesus gives us the answer, doesn’t he? Jesus tells us the lowest place in the kingdom is where the greatest will be found. In other words, don’t struggle to go to the head table, rather just slip in through the door and find a seat somewhere at the back. It doesn’t matter where, because, wherever you are, you will be a comforter to those around you. There is the best place in the kingdom. There is where we find our proper place as servants.
If this is to be likened to prayer, we must examine the “cause” which we pursue. The sons of Zebedee say, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Isn’t that what we do with our prayers? We want this or that. But are they really the sort of things we should pray for?
Are we praying to undergo the baptism which Jesus anticipated in the gospel? Are we prepared for the cross? Are we prepared to drink deeply of that cup of sorrow? I think the story of the widow and the unjust judge should guide us to what we should pray for. The this and that of our scattered thoughts and desires should be ‘the right’.
The widow pursued the judge to grant the right resolution of her case. They both know what would be good. but the judge did not want to do it – he had his own agenda, as we would say. He was pursuing his own ends, and they had nothing to do with righteousness. The widow, however, was relentless in her quest for justice. She would not stop. Neither should we.
Prayer is what distinguishes the religious person, for the religious is in a constant dialogue with God, like that widow chasing justice. The story of this widow reflects the great prophets, like Amos’ “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.”
But these petitions are an internal dialogue, aren’t they? When we pray for justice privately and publicly, aren’t we pricking our conscience individually and collectively? When we pray aren’t we hoping for conversion experiences so that we can let righteousness flow in the world as that ever-flowing stream?
Our prayers are not just wishing for something to happen. Our prayers are ways of concentrating on the object of our desires. They impel us to action. So our private prayers should become a question about our morality. Our public prayers should be a collective call to the Good, to God. We are not arguing about the power of prayer. Prayer raises the question – Is it ethical that we ask anything of anyone, or as the sons of Zebedee put it – “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” I wonder, is that a righteous request?
We disciples today are asking the same question as John and James. We want to sit high above the crowd, but that is not a place of ease, power and authority. No, Jesus understood that even before he was lifted high on the cross in ignoble death.
Asking for positions of power as the gentiles, those benighted people who have no moral code, to commandments to obey – when we ask to sit on the raised throne of secular power, we are failing to grasp that cup of sorrow. We fail to see the world as it is.
It is the moral imperative that drives Jesus. “Whatever we want” does not satisfy the ethical demands of being a servant, of eschewing power for its own sake. In our care for the other, when we love our neighbour, we understand the sorrow and baptism Jesus leads us through.
I keep seeing religion as tied up with the how of our behaviour. If we are religious, then how can we be “like the gentiles”? I am using this phrase to distinguish anyone who professes religion to those who do not. The gentiles live a life so very different to the religious – at the heart of it is the morality shown in true love, that love of God and neighbour.
So, how can we ask anything of anyone else? Rather, shouldn’t we be offering everything to the other as we meet them in their needs? From that position of service, we understand what is right. We understand the cup and the baptism Jesus offers, even if we don’t know where we stand with him.