St Stephen/year B/29th Sunday/October 20th 1991
Do you remember the old saying "God is easy to please but hard to satisfy"?
Because that truth is so important, yet so little understood by those who seldom or never set foot inside a church; and because even some of those who do come to church often have failed to grasp the truth for themselves or understand what it means in practical terms, I thought it would be an idea to look at it more closely today
"God is easy to please but hard to satisfy"
Jesus' apostles, the brothers James and John were what you might call "ambitious young men". In the gospel according to St Mark we hear of them going to Jesus and brazenly asking him to give them the Top Places in his Kingdom. And if that isn't being ambitious, I don't know what is. "Please God, I want to be top dog" But Jesus reply to these two enterprising young men was neither a flat refusal (he didn't just say NO!) nor yet a telling-off for being ambitious; it was the other disciples you may remember who were indignant about the whole thing.
Jesus' reply was in two parts. "I don't think you understand what you're asking for", he said; and then he added "are you really prepared to go through with the sort of suffering which being my disciples may entail? And even if you are prepared to suffer alongside me, you can't expect my heavenly Father to make all his ideas turn around your own personal ambitions. The Kingdom of Heaven just doesn't work like that. There's a good many surprises in store for you about who will really be at the top." Jesus, I think, was really rather pleased with the ambitiousness of James and John. For ambition is no more to be regretted in a young person than the fact that they have grown up. As those of you who are parents will know, to have a child who seems to have no ambitions, no will to achieve anything in life can be a great distress; and by the same token a child whose parents have no ambitious or hopes or expectation for him is for that child to get off to a very bad start in life, so bad indeed that some people never recover from it. They remain what psychologists call "habitual under-achievers" and are, in fact, quite seriously damaged people emotionally.
So ambition in itself is a good thing, and to be a child of God and have ambitions is, in the eyes of our heavenly Father, some thing with which he is "well pleased"
But ambition on its own is not enough. No father, earthly or heavenly is going to be satisfied with the fact that his son merely "has ambitions". He needs to know that these ambitions are both worthwhile and achievable
If his child sets their sights too low then any satisfaction the achievement of them may give will be pretty short-lived
if they set their sight too unrealistically high, then they may give up trying when they find it's beyond them
A wise parent will seek to guide their child between the levels of the unworthy and the unattainable ambitions: between what is altogether too easy and altogether too difficult, bearing in mind of course that the occasional setback or disappointment over the failure to achieve a goal which was slightly unrealistically high never did anyone permanent harm. Indeed such an experience can act as a spur to "having another go" and getting it right next time. Always to be successful first time in life is to miss out on one of its most important lessons, namely "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again"
Being a disciple means, literally, being a "learner". In other words, as disciples of Jesus we never quite get rid of our L plates. The Christian who thinks he's got nothing left to learn is sooner or later going to be in for a rude shock. The disciples were always at first forgetting what Jesus had taught them
For the path which god the Father had mapped out for God the Son, Jesus Christ, was the road of the Suffering Servant, foreseen many years before the Incarnation by the prophet Isaiah. "By his sufferings shall my righteous servant put many people on the right road to salvation, taking their faults on himself"
The whole scheme of God's redemptive purpose takes in the process of suffering: suffering himself in Jesus Christ, and inviting his disciples to share his cup of suffering themselves
That, if you like, is the nearest we ever get to an answer to the question so many people ask "Why does God allow suffering?" The answer of course is that we don't know; but we do know that he willingly took it upon himself, because it was both his and his Father's ambition for him that he should do so. All suffering accepted in the course of serving the Living God is a sacrifice acceptable to him
And in Jesus, as the writer to the Hebrews said, we have a high priest who is capable of feeling our weaknesses with us, tempted at all points like us though without sin; someone who learnt obedience through what he had to suffer
Our ambition as the adopted sons and daughter of the heavenly Father must be, in the end, to fulfil his will for us in the way in which Jesus Christ does and did. That process is almost bound to involve hardship and suffering somewhere down the line
The particular form that sonship or discipleship will take will be different for each one of us, and the suffering which we are asked to bear will be different, too. But then we are all different, and it is only to be expected that an all-wise, all loving Father will have different ambitions for each one of his children
As those who have, like Jesus, James, and John did, embraced the Father's ambitions for us we shall be able, as the writer to the Hebrews says, to be "confident in approaching the throne of grace that we shall have mercy from him and find grace when we are in need of help
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