The power of obedience to God

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- Our theme this week is surely obedience, such a strong feature throughout the scriptures. We find it expressed especially vividly in Philippians 2:6-11 where Paul speaks of Jesus; who always was divine –God; but who willingly and obediently ‘emptied’ himself to assume the slavery of the fallen human condition for our salvation. This is expressed forcefully in Greek by the use of a very rare word – in Greek harpagmon – here translated as ‘cling’ but rather better understood as ‘grabbed at’, since it was used to describe robbers or muggers, indicating thereby the greater meaning of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Jesus, Paul tells us, became totally compliant with God’s will in humbly submitting to the cross and, as a result of his total commitment to God’s way of salvation, is now exalted, all the powers in creation become subject to him. Malign powers in the underworld; the spirits which hold sway in the heavens and the earth, everything in short which strives to alienate man from God is made to conform to God’s will by his obedient self surrender.

Our picture from Isaiah, 50:4-7, part of the great Servant Songs, gives us an inkling into what perfect obedience and devotion to God would be like. Here, recalling the nation’s abject state through generations of suffering in exodus and exile – the route back to loyalty to God, it speaks of the reviling and humiliation of the race but also of its steadfastness during this time of trial. “So, too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.” Here is a vision of God’s Chosen People, a corporate identity, obedient to the will of God and willingly taking upon itself terrible suffering and thereby promised redemption; restoration; divine favour. Israel chastised and refined, becomes in Isaiah’s vision what it was always meant to be, one with God; wholly at home with its creator after centuries of rebellion.

In Jesus we finally see that haunting prophecy of Isaiah fine honed to perfection in becoming the fate of one man as Isaiah’s words become a vivid reality in the passion of Jesus. Now no longer symbol; methods of speech referring to national humiliation; they are now descriptive of the torture of God’s elect and of Jesus’ willingness to accept his fate for the salvation of all others.

This becomes all the more apparent as we consider the significance of Mark 11:1-10, where Jesus is approaching Jerusalem and its environs for the Passover. First of all there is the incident revealing the plans Jesus had laid for his entry into the city for Passover and his challenge to established Judaism. He had arranged for a colt to be provide which his disciples, obedient to his command, obtained. Having done so, Jesus entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd who recite the great Passover Psalm 118 which traditionally greeted and looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, the one from God who would bring in the full reign of God on earth. Previously of course, Jews recited it in the hope of redemption and the kingdom. Here, at long last, they, unbeknown to themselves, recite it in actual greeting of the Messiah, God’s answer to their longing. It looked as though finally, all would go well and God’s reign on earth would actually become a reality. Sadly we know that, within a few short hours, the fickle loyalty of the crowds would be turned by those anxious to preserve the status quo and Jesus would become their victim. Little however did they realise, that this was precisely God’s way of working, as Jesus becomes the suffering servant of faithless Israel and its redeemer. They looked for a power hungry and powerful man to lead them in their revolt against the Roman occupiers and little realised that God works in an entirely different way. Had they stopped to ponder the message of the prophets of course, they would have realised the truth; but such is human ignorance and frailty that such a turn of events was incomprehensible.

For us too, identifying with faithless Israel and all those of us who constantly make ill-thought-out judgments about things on a daily basis, this story of one unique man’s obedience is very relevant. How often do my hastily made decisions affect others in disastrous ways? How often, indeed, do they affect me and those whom I love? So let us make a resolution to listen to these readings and take their message to heart as we begin Holy Week.

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