Be careful what you ask for

S.LUKE’S QUEEN’S PARK Brighton 21st October 2018

I pay a small fortune to Sky every month for the privilege of watching ball-by-ball test cricket and this gives me unwanted access to another hundred or more channels which are mostly complete rubbish. Quiz shows, house hunting, bargain hunting. And no new comedies that I find remotely funny.

Which makes me remember all the more fondly the surreal days of Ricky Gervais as the ghastly manager David Brent in THE OFFICE and then as the equally appalling actor Andy Millman in EXTRAS, which (I can hardly believe it) was screened over ten years ago. This character was insecure and vain and shared the curiously desperate ambition of so many to become a “celebrity”.

There he was, in an episode I’ll never forget, going to a trendy nightclub and being consumed by a need to be seated in the cordoned-off v.i.p.area.

To achieve this, instead of being recognised and waved deferentially through, he had submit to the indignity of bribing the bouncer £60 to let him past.

Once inside the coveted v.i.p space, he found himself, separated only by a token rope, sitting on what was actually the same bench as the friends he was trying to impress by segregating himself from. “What a waste of 60 quid” he moaned to himself “For that money there should be a brick wall.”

But there was worse in store. Already inside the v.i.p. space was a real-life past-his-sell-by-date “celebrity”, the late lamented David Bowie, who proceeded to sit down at the piano and make up a song ridiculing and humiliating Andy Millman.

All this is no less than a timeless and hilarious morality play about the stupidity and emptiness of ambition, of wanting to “be somebody”.

 The script, as you may have guessed by now, could have been written by the evangelist Mark:  Teacher, we want you to grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

 Or by Matthew, who in his version of the same gospel incident adds a lovely touch: the stage-struck mother: “Let my boys James and John sit next to you in your glory”.

 And how does Our Lord respond to this pathetic request which betrays a total failure to grasp the nature of discipleship?

He doesn’t cruelly ridicule them like David Bowie.

 No. He is very gentle and patient in His disappointment with their status-seeking.  You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?

 None of the disciples get a very good press in Mark’s gospel. They are always getting the wrong end of the stick. They seem incapable of understanding the cost of salvation, that the path to fulfilment and happiness is through self-sacrifice and service.

 With the benefit of hindsight, we now see there can be no Easter without Good Friday. But even after 2000 years of Christian history, we still need to be on our guard against making the same mistakes as the original disciples.

 In another gospel passage, Our Lord says to them and to us: “Ask anything in my name and it will be granted to you.”

 But what exactly does He mean?  Think carefully.

 “Please  God, let me have that doggy in the window, the one with the waggly tail, in Jesus’ name of course.” No, that can’t be what He meant.

 But try another one – because this is less childish and I suspect is seriously prayed by many drivers:  “All powerful heavenly Father, please grant me a miraculous parking space when I arrive at my double-yellow-line clogged destination, in Jesus’ name Amen.” An Anglo-Catholic variant of this would be “Hail Mary, full of grace.Please give me a parking space!”

 Yes but unfortunately this raises the question whether God (or Mary) is supposed to care about all the other poor, harrassed blighters behind the wheel who would be glad of the same parking space.

 When Jesus says “ask in my name”, He is not inviting us to take His name in vain with a shopping list of frivolous requests. He means that God will respond in love to prayer made in the spirit of Christ’s life and teaching. Respond in love. Not necessarily in the way we wanted or expected.

Whenever we pray for someone who is sick, it is easy automatically to hope and expect that God’s reply will be a magic wand to make them physically better. But He doesn’t usually.

Now step back and just think for a moment what this morning’s gospel teaches us about the unreasonableness of many prayers.

Suppose all our wishes were automatically granted, whether they were in our best interests or not. You know what? WE WOULDN’T DARE TO PRAY. Because otherwise we would pray ourselves into hell. I wonder how many prayers, if we are honest, in my past or your past it is a blessing were not answered.

So perhaps we need help or guidance. Protestants object to the practice of asking the saints to pray for us. But surely it is a very good and wise thing to do. Both humble and sensible. Because “up there” they can see things as they really are and they will pray well. “Down here”, we sinners should restrict ourselves to “Give us, Lord, what YOU think best for us. Give us  our daily bread. THY will be done.”

And then again, before daring to ask for the fulfilment of some ambition, for a seat at the top table, or for promotion, or for more power and responsibility, should we not stop and think for a moment about our ignorance and our weakness?

How can we know that we would be worthy, that we would be up to the job? Should we not restrain ourselves from getting carried away in a rush of confidence by remembering our weakness?

You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I must drink?

SURE WE CAN! boast James and John. Whistling in the dark. Pure bravado. But Our Lord makes an ominous prediction – the cup that I must drink you WILL drink………..

And indeed the tradition is that James was later martyred for his faith -  but that was after his eyes had been opened by the crucifixion and the resurrection.

 On the hot, dusty road back on the day recalled in today’s gospel,  James and John are dreaming about a glorious new earthly regime they imagine is going to be established and they are anxious to book their places of honour. In the V.I.P area beyond the all-important rope.

You do not know what you are asking.What a supremely powerful irony there is in those words.

 Firstly because according to John’s gospel, the gospel later written under the name of this very same John, the moment of triumph of the Lord was not sitting on a golden throne but when He was hanging in agony on the cross. When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people to myself.

And the second irony is that, if you remember, there was not one cross on Calvary but three. Two places had been reserved, one on His right hand and one on His left. Two companions to share in His agonising death, in His moment of real triumph.

Not ambitious disciples (not even just faithful disciples – they had all fled according to Mark) but two common criminals. Of these we know one was saved by his own penitence and by God’s overwhelming compassion and forgiveness.

 Ah yes, God’s compassion and forgiveness are always worth praying for. Whereas it is an utter waste of time to ask for v.i.p status. But you know it’s hardly necessary to ask for more worthy things either since our loving God already knows what each of us really needs even before we ask for it.

All in al, I reckon we could do worse that confine our routine of private prayer to reciting as a sort of Mantra the ancient and hallowed formula used for centuries in the Eastern Orthodox church. It’s known simply as the “Jesus prayer”:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. (repeat ad lib)

Spike Wells