Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent, 2nd April 2017
Lamentations 3:19-33, Matthew 20:17-34 

Do you sometimes do things more in hope than expectation? You know, “Well, I might as well carry on with that subscription, but I don’t know whether it will do any good.” Or even worse, sometimes, when you really feel stuck: “I don’t know how I will be able to fix that. Whichever way I turn, something gets in the way.” 

The author of Lamentations, where our Old Testament lesson came from, was lamenting the fall of Jerusalem, after it had been seized by the Babylonians and many of the Jews had been taken off in captivity to Babylon: you will remember Psalm 137, 

“By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept”. 

The book of Lamentations is all about how and why Jerusalem has fallen. As always when something goes wrong in the Old Testament, it has a lot to do with the way that the Jews had strayed away from their faith in the one true God and followed false prophets.

Psalm 137 is the song of the exiled Jews, and Lamentations was written by a Jew who was left behind, in the ruins of Jerusalem. Despite all this defeat and disaster, in the third chapter of Lamentations is this famous passage, this song of hope, ‘Great is thy faithfulness’.

‘Great is thy faithfulness! 

Great is thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see’

as the hymn puts it. Lamentations recommends a humble approach in the face of catastrophe. 

He putteth his mouth in the dust; if so be there may be hope.

He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him.

But then

The Lord will not cast off forever; … though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion … for he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.

God is not the source of the suffering and disaster. But it’s difficult to see how it works. There does seem to be a sense in which the prophet is recommending that religious people should effectively become rather irrational, and just simply pin their hopes on some kind of divine get-out-of-jail-free card. 

It doesn’t really look very sensible: not the sort of thing that we would usually place much reliance on these days, I think. But there is a similar sort of blind faith or hope, which again doesn’t appear to be particularly rational, shown by the disciples, when Jesus sets out on his last journey towards Jerusalem. It was not a good lookout: 

Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death,

And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him:

and Jesus says

and the third day he shall rise again.

What? You have heard that so many times; if you’ve been around at the time listening to Jesus, you would surely at least have raised an eyebrow. ‘… and the third day he shall rise again.’ Because it can’t have looked very likely, can it? 

The funny thing is that there wasn’t any sense of surprise. The mother of the sons of Zebedee, James and John, ‘Boanerges’, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, just ignored what Jesus had said; she bowed down before Jesus and asked for a favour. That in itself is a bit strange. You would have thought that, as sons of thunder, they could speak for themselves. But they needed Mum to do it, it would appear. Perhaps she was one of those pushy mums.

She went straight into what the arrangements in heaven were going to be like and who was going to be on the top table. Would Jesus please sort out a place for her boys next to him? There was no question whether there would be a heaven, or anything like that; but she was taking the resurrection for granted, which is quite remarkable, coming after the terrifying description from Jesus’ own mouth of what he expected to happen shortly.

In this passage in St Matthew’s Gospel there is also a contrast between two requests to Jesus, the first one being from James and John’s Mum and the second one from the two blind men: they said

Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.

Have pity on us; Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy. And Jesus gave them what they wanted; he had compassion on them. ‘Have mercy on us miserable offenders’, we say in the general confession. ‘Miserable’ does not mean sad. It means ‘deserving of pity’, in its Latin origin – ‘miserere’, to pity, transliterated as ‘miserable’ into the older English of our Prayer Book. The moral of the tale, as Jesus points out, is that in the kingdom there isn’t a top table. Everything is turned upside down, and if you want to be a top dog, you have to be willing to serve, and to be at the bottom of the heap. 

It’s a bit like what Lamentations says. Be willing to turn the other cheek. Because after all, the rather unlikely hope in Lamentations did turn out for the best: the exile in Babylon lasted only 10 years, because the Jews were all set free when Babylon was invaded by King Cyrus of Persia.

You will recall in the funeral service that we pray for the eternal soul of the person departed, ‘in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. The ‘sure and certain hope’. We are like those disciples and the pushy mum, because we have a sure and certain hope. If you actually think about it, it’s almost a contradiction in terms. If it was ‘sure and certain’, surely it wouldn’t be a hope; it would be an expectation.

But that’s how the prophets and Jesus have told us that it works. It’s not totally rational. It’s not an expectation: it’s not a deduction, or an inference, it is a hope. It is a ‘pious hope’, perhaps. But no: it is better than that – it is a sure and certain hope.

Another set of words that we often have in funerals comes from 1 Corinthians chapter 15, in which St Paul explains how he understands the resurrection to eternal life. ‘Thou fool’, he says, to anyone who doubts the process, and goes on to give the well-known illustration of the dead person being like a seed that is sown coming up in a different form; drawing a distinction between physical bodies and spiritual bodies, earthly and heavenly.

I went to a very interesting talk at Guildford Cathedral on Thursday, given by Canon Nick Whitehead, the vicar of Shere, who is also a very good art historian who has been a great guide to exhibitions at the Tate and the Courtauld in the past. He was talking about heaven. Our father who art in heaven … and those heavenly bodies that St Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians. What is heaven like? 

If we are hoping for it, with this special kind of hope, how does it work? Canon Nick thought that the ‘before and after’ of the dead person was a sort of refining process; so the person went on into the afterlife, and went on with their body, but with all the bad bits removed. I wondered whether a fat chap like me might therefore end up in heaven as a bronzed Adonis! Well, I wondered.

I’m not trying to denigrate what Canon Nick was saying, but I think he would agree that this is an area where no-one actually knows very much. I’ve always understood St Paul’s image of the dead person as a seed being planted in the ground leading to something growing up which might not be like their original self at all. I wondered whether the reference to spiritual bodies and St Paul’s distinction between ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ reflected an idea derived from Plato’s theory of Forms: what it is to be a table, the essence of ‘tableness’; what it is to be me, or you – the essential you. But does this have some physical side too? Canon Nick thought that when we die, if the spirit survives, so must the body, in some way – as otherwise no resurrection could take place. 

But look: just because it’s beyond human understanding, it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just going back to where I started, remember the unlikely thing that Jesus said, that they all seem to have just swallowed without any comment – (or at least we haven’t been told what they said). 

Jesus said,
‘… and the third day he shall rise again.’

And He did. So let’s keep on, hoping, hoping that sure and certain hope.