Readings: Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 51.1-13; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33 (view all)
One of the most difficult funerals I’ve had to take in my ministry so far, was for a young man in his twenties who had died of a drug overdose. It was one of those situations as a minister where there is just nothing you can say, and even finding any words to express that family’s grief, not just for their son but also for all their dreams and hopes for his life, was impossible.
And yet, as I sat with the family there was a real sense of God’s presence with us. The young man’s father said something that has always stuck with me. He commented, ’It’s strange, I’ve never prayed so much as in the last few days’
It’s a remarkably common phenomenon that when we, as people, experience intense suffering, it’s precisely then that we often find ourselves reaching out desperately for God.
And so I wonder this morning, what can we learn from Jesus’ example in today’s readings about suffering, prayer and God’s will?
In our gospel reading, we find that ‘The hour has come…’ Jesus’ ministry is reaching it’s culmination and he is reaching the point of no return. From this point forward, he is a marked man. There is no turning back.
So his words to the gathered crowd are incredibly poignant:
And what should I say – “Father save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason I have come to this hour.
He knows the brutal death which is awaiting him, the death which will be ultimate fulfilment of his purpose on earth, and he chooses to continue moving towards it.
And just like the young man’s father I mentioned earlier, he will find himself praying, praying at Gethsemane, praying at the cross. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it:
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.
But what is most incredible about Jesus’ prayers, is that he cries out not for himself alone, but for us all.
His prayers at Gethsemane are a deep cry for the holiness and unity of the Church, his cry at the cross is for those around him, ‘Father, forgive them…’
And in doing this, just as the epistle tells us, he fulfils the role of priest, of the one eternal High Priest. Through the breaking of his own body, Jesus becomes a bridge between us and the Father, and between us and one another, and between our broken selves and our true, perfect selves.
It is through his own suffering, and through his constant intercession, that Jesus creates a way for us to find peace and joy in the midst of our own sufferings now, and to ‘eternal salvation’ in the age to come.
As Jesus himself starts and ends his own final words to the gathered crowd:
The hour has come… And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself
I wonder this morning, as we come to his table, how can we allow ourselves to be drawn deeper into the heart of Jesus?
Will we invite him to bridge the gap between us and God, writing on our hearts the Father’s incredible love for us and the incredible hope of salvation? Will we allow him to bridge the gaps between us and those around us, and ask him to help us reconcile differences, and forgive past wrongs?
As Christians, we can find it so easy to explain away the significance of the cross to a single metaphor or theological formula, but in doing so we can sometimes actually inadvertantly inoculate ourselves against it. It can be easy to go through the motions each year, but without really allowing the reality to sink in.
I love this quote from Samuel Wells, the vicar at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, in his book on the cross:
[As Jesus dies] everything’s finished. Everything’s desolate. Everything’s laid waste. Except the heart of God laid bare. And if we’re not seduced by a comforting saviour, if we’re not mesmerised by a merciless hero, if we’re not domesticated by a model citizen, if we’re not obsessed by a mathematical equation, if we’re not alienated by a distant deity, if we haven’t fled from the cross like most of the Church for most of its history, we might just get close enough to glimpse that sacred heart laid bare.
Sam Wells, Hanging by a Thread, p.10
As this Passiontide begins, may we immerse ourselves once again in the story of our salvation, and the intense suffering of Christ, and, in so doing, glimpse just something of the incredible heart of our beautiful Saviour.
Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
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.