Monday of Holy Week

A Sermon preached by Rev Ivo Morshead at St George's Church on Monday of Holy Week 2015
 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. John 12 v 10

This address is the first of three evening Holy Week sermons, the aim of which are to help us in the final week of our Lenten journey with Jesus in his 40 days in the Wilderness. The Gospel readings the first of which we have just heard are those set in the lectionary recording events relating to Jesus during the week of the Passover Festival. This evening the event is the dinner at Martha and Mary’s house in Bethany at which Lazarus is present and at which Mary anoints the feet of Jesus, tomorrow a Greek pilgrim to the festival says to Philip ‘we wish to see Jesus’ and tells of Jesus replying to Philip with the words ‘behold the hour has come’, on Wednesday the reading is account of the betrayal by Judas at the last Supper.

Lazarus is a key figure in the narrative leading to Holy week for it is his raising from the dead by Jesus that triggers off the decision by the High Priests to put both Lazarus and Jesus to death because they are a threat to the many hundreds of pilgrims assembling for the festival . The threat is as today’s Gospel puts it so clearly   So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus  to death as well, since it was on account of him that many Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. John 12 v 10.

It was not only the Pharisees and Chief Priests who set in motion the pattern that culminated in Jesus’ arrest. In the chapter preceding tonight’s gospel Jesus is shown by the writer of John prefiguring his own lying in the tomb and his resurrection to a new life. Jesus visits the tomb with Martha and Mary. He cried out with a loud voice Lazarus Come out. John relates how Lazarus emerged with his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, Jesus says to the onlookers unbind him and let him go (Jn 11 v44). Many of the Jews who came with Mary, when they saw what Jesus did believed in him but, as John tells us in his Gospel, Some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. It was this that prompted Caiaphas the High Priest for that year to warn the Council that any disruption at the time of the festival might have dire consequences leading to the Romans taking drastic punitive steps to restore order. Better, said Caiaphas, for one man to die than have the whole nation destroyed (Jn 11 v 51). From that day on they planned to put him to death. The sequence of events leading to the Cross now began.

Our readings tonight began with a passage from Isaiah. It was the first of what are known as the 4 Servants Songs of Isaiah the others of which will be read on Tuesday and Wednesday. Those who betrayed Jesus to the authorities, and the authorities themselves, would have been familiar with them. The word servant can be applied to one person or, as many scholars prefer to as a community, thus in Isaiah chapter 41 v 8 appears You, Israel, my servant’.  This evening, the first Servant Song emphasises the words justice, righteousness and a light to the nations, the latter, a light to the nations, very much a New Testament phrase now part of the Nunc Dimittis said or sung daily at Anglican evensong over the centuries.

In the centuries following the first Holy week many have strived as individuals to adhere to what is required of the true servant of God. As was the case in the New Testament so many, like the members of the Council of Jerusalem  under the High Priest Caiaphas, have  failed.  Such range from  the cruelty of the Christian Crusaders sacking Byzantine  and stealing the treasures, to the present day individual and corporate failings to practice Justice, to be righteous and to set an example of Christian virtue.

Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus, on the contrary, were enveloped in their love and gratitude to Jesus. Lazarus because of his miraculous healing and restoration to life, his sisters for the restoration of their brother to a new life. It was at that celebratory meal, at which, by Mary anointing Jesus’s feet with her hair dipped in a perfume that was so expensive, stirred Judas Iscariot to complain at the waste of money that could have better been given to the poor to which Jesus replied you always have the poor with you  but you do not always have me.

Throughout the ages the poor have been ever present, not least in our own time now when, as Bishop Tutu reminds us in his Lent Book In God’s hands, if all the money spent on armament were to be spent on aid there would be no poor. The poor have a patron saint. He is the figure in the small reproduction which I hope we all have. It is a copy of a portrait painted in 1450 in the workshop of Rogier van der Weydon and now hanging in room 56 of the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery. The figure is of a young man reading what is supposed to be a legal document with his back to an open window depicting a bustling countryside. The significance is his turning away from the temptations of the world and devoting himself to his Christian work. The caption under the portrait reads This painting was perhaps the left-hand part of a small devotional painting. It once bore a later inscription identifying the subject as Saint Ivo (1253-1303), the patron saint of lawyers and the advocate of the poor. His saints day is celebrated in May, it so happens to be my birthday too although I doubt that my parents 87 years ago knew that.

All of us when we were baptised were given our Christian Names. As we know, unlike surnames which can change on marriage, these names are our own for ever. Perhaps as part of our preparation for Easter if we were given a biblical name we might remind ourselves of whose names we bear and try to emulate their characters and holiness. We might, as I do, have more than one such name, my other is Francis. Francis is not a biblical name but originates as depicting a man from France the most famous of which is Francis of Assisi with his love and care for the poor and his life of devotion. Some of us may have parents who preferred names other than biblical or names attached to acknowledged saintly persons, no matter, such folk can choose from bible or book of saints.

 The path to holiness is not easy as is evidenced by the lives of saints many of whom were imprisoned or martyred. As we ponder on how best we can serve our Lord at this time may we give thanks for all that we have been granted and pray that we as church and individuals may seek righteousness , establish justice and be a light to the nations in the tradition of the Servants Songs fulfilled in the life and death of Jesus Christ and be inspired in our lives by the names of the saints whose lives are known and now, as we have just confirmed in our saying of the Nicene Creed,  part of the Communion of Saints.
Holland Park Benefice