Fifth Sunday in Lent
The Annunciation of Our Lord
March 25, 2012
For those of you who struggle through Lent with its somberness and solemnity, you can take heart because it’s nearing the end. The Fifth Sunday in Lent today will give way to Palm Sunday next week and along with it Holy Week. That, as we know, is the prelude to Easter, and most people who have a difficult time with Lent have a sort of relief in the celebration of Easter. This isn’t a denigration of any of this, simply an observation. It’s what some people experience and it’s good to understand where we’re coming from as we make our way through the Church Year.
Having made our way through almost the entire season of Lent it might be tempting just to treat this Sunday as one more Sunday in Lent and the last one before the big day of Palm Sunday. But the Church Year is much more powerful than simply a bunch of Sundays in a particular season that simply fade away when a new season in the Church Year takes its place. Each Sunday is designed to grab a hold of us and impact us in a meaningful way.
The real beauty and genius of the Church Year is that it takes us in the way of our Lord. When we observe the Church Year we are being brought along in a way in which we’d otherwise not go. Our way is so often the way that skips the cross, going right to the glory. Glory here, though, is a relative term. Glory is something we don’t see rightly or clearly because we just want glory, period. Jesus is all about granting glory, and glory beyond what we can imagine, but His way of granting it to us is through the cross.
And so we see that James and John were ordinary Christians showing up to church on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, wondering if this penitential season was ever going to end and wanting to get straight to the Alleluias of Easter and the glory that that magnificent celebration brings. And so we see that the other ten disciples were equally ready to get through the Lenten season, a little put off with the two Zebedee brothers, but mostly ticked at themselves that they didn’t bring up this alteration of the Church Year with Jesus before the Zebedee boys had.
Jesus being the liturgical guy He was was not going to let them get away with this. He did, however, entertain their notion of dispensing with the Church Year observance of Lent and wanting to go directly to the Easter season. You say you want glory, but are you able to undergo the suffering necessary to attain glory? They didn’t hesitate. Of course we are. When you have your sights set on glory everything else pales and the worst of things seems not so bad. Perhaps they were sincere. No matter, they weren’t seeking the true glory Jesus was offering because they were preempting the giving of it; much like the prodigal son: Dad, just give me the inheritance I have coming to me now.
Nevertheless, Jesus maintained His liturgical purity even as He continued down this path James and John were traversing. You will. You’re right. You will suffer the suffering that comes from being a follower of Christ. They were looking ahead where they had no business looking. Jesus was looking ahead because He knew what was ahead. Jesus knew that they would grow and mature, that they would come to appreciate being humble enough to observe the liturgical year and walk the path that He Himself walked. He knew that though it wasn’t for Him to grant to them being placed on His right and left they would indeed come into glory with Him.
The reason He knew this is that His sights were set not on glory but on the cross. Yet, that’s not quite right. His sights were set on glory. You see, it was His glory, and His Father’s glory, that He go to the cross. It was glorious in His eyes that He would be handed over. That He would suffer. That He would die for the sins of the world. That He would rise from the grave. Of course He knew the joys and glory of heaven that James and John would share in. He knew that eternal salvation was the ultimate goal of all of this.
But thank God that He knew that the true glory of all of this is the cross. It is the servant heart of God. It is the love that drove Him to the cross.
If Lent ever seems dreary to us it’s not the fault of Lent or of observing the Church Year. It’s our own fault. It’s our sinful nature rising up to rebel against the Lord of all coming in humble willingness to lay down His life for sinners. It’s in us mistaking solemnity for dreariness. It’s in us setting our eyes on glory when they ought to be set on the cross. It’s astonishing, really, how dense these disciples were. Mark, inspired by the Holy Spirit, does not give us a glowing portrayal of these men. And not just James and John, but the whole bunch of them.
Just in chapter 10 alone, in the verses before today’s Gospel reading, we have Jesus exhorting that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And here they are arrogating to themselves the highest places of honor—Lord, when You come in Your glory, grant to us that we may sit at Your right and Your left. Children are naturally humble in their being in submission to those over them. James and John and their fellow disciple buddies could have used a few lessons from children.
Not long after that Jesus repeated one of His patented lines: “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” So, of course, what did J & J want? To be first, what else? What do we want? We want what’s best for us. And what’s best for us is the best. So why would they and we ask for anything less? Were they daydreaming when Jesus talked about the last being first, and the first last? I doubt it. Probably just that were very much like we are. We hear the Word of God. We know who we are in Christ. We know what we should do. And what do we do? The opposite, of course. We go against everything we know, everything our Lord has taught us, everything He has called us to.
The First Commandment easily lays waste to any notions we have of being pretty good, or at least not so bad. No, we have no regard whatsoever for God and His holy will. We should fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. Sadly, and shamefully, we seek our own will. We seek our own glory. We seek what is best for ourselves apart from God’s will. We skip right past the cross in order to gain glory.
But perhaps the most striking thing about their request was it being in the context of Jesus’ first words in today’s Gospel reading: “he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.’” At the very least they could have shown some deference to Him by bringing their outrageous request to Him at a time when perhaps He was talking about the Padres or the Chargers, or something clearly not on the scale of His suffering and dying for everyone.
It’s not necessarily that Jesus said this and then they immediately dropped the bomb of their arrogant request, they of all people being granted being placed at His right and His left. The Holy Spirit has given us what He has given us in His Word so that we may learn of Christ, so that we may receive Him, so that we be shown His servant heart, His love that drove Him to the cross. So whether the events played out exactly as they’re written in the Gospel reading or there was some discussion after Jesus’ sobering announcement, or perhaps some silence, or perhaps some talk about something else, what we have here is what we need to know. It’s what the Holy Spirit has given us to know so that we can see how utterly dense we are, how supremely arrogant we are, how pathetic it is when we Christians seek glory apart from the cross.
And if that’s sobering, it also is at how patient Jesus is with them and with us. He knows us. He knows we’re dense. He knows our sinful nature is always recoiling against all that talk of the cross, of suffering, of dying, of repentance, of Lenten solemnity and somberness. He knows. And that’s why He came. That’s why He went to the cross. To deliver us from all of that. To deliver us from our seeking of glory apart from Him and His cross. Of our pathetic arrogance that thinks there is something better for us apart from Him and His cross. He loves us. He knows us. He is compassionate. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. He came to give His life as a ransom. His heart is a servant heart, not of an arrogant lord or ruler. The rulers of this world lord it over others.
It is not to be so among us. It is to be the way of Christ. It is to be the servant way. It is to be the way of the cross; and yes, that means suffering. It means that glory comes only through the cross. It means that we ask our Lord to give us a calm heart as we make our way through Lent. A repentant heart. Even a somber heart and one that is content in solemnity. Where we are tempted to be despondent, we ask our Lord to bring our focus back on Him and His cross. Where we see that there is no despair there at all. Where there is no defeat, but rather victory. Where, in an astonishing switch, there is glory. It is the glory of the Lord who is the servant. The God who is the Savior. Amen.