Most of us want to succeed, none of us likes to be seen as a failure.
How do you measure success? Climbing to the top of the social ladder? Keeping up with the Jones’s? Getting promotion at work? Moving to live in the better area of town? Being liked by everyone?
And once you’ve decided what success means – how do you achieve it?
Isaiah, a couple of chapters before the Old Testament reading set for today in the Revised Common Lectionary – in chapter 50 – says these words, words which are often thought, like our reading from Isaiah 53, to point forward to Christ as the suffering servant:
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. (Isaiah 50:6-8)
Isaiah uses the phrase: “I have set my face like a flint.” How might we rephrase that in today’s language if we want to talk about being successful?
“Go for it, no matter the cost.”
“Climbing over dead men’s bodies.”
“The end justifies the means?”
Or what about a picture that I find quite vivid – that of the powerboat moving at such speed towards its destination that its wash overturns everything in its wake.
Ambition, determination, whole-hearted commitment to our goals. Quite good things in themselves. Often, however, when our hopes for ourselves conflict with the interests of others we can produce all sorts of justifications for less than generous attitudes and actions.
Isaiah in that reading talks of whole-hearted commitment, of being determined, even when shamed, made fun of, disgraced. A determination to see things through.
We start Holy Week by marking the events of Palm Sunday as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the donkey. Jesus on Palm Sunday sets his face like a flint towards Jerusalem, nothing is going to stop him fulfilling God’s will – nothing will deflect him from the path of the cross.
The adulation of the crowd – could easily go to his head, but it doesn’t. On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus is lonely, he is alone in the midst of the crowd. No one else understands, no one really knows what is happening. The clues are all there, the donkey ridden through the gates of Jerusalem is one of the biggest. Jesus is no ordinary king, yet people ignore the signs, they want him to be their King, a King in their mould, a real King!
But success for Jesus as King is not measured by the standards of the crowd. Success for Jesus is measured in terms of apparent personal failure. In his weakness, God’s purposes will be fulfilled.
In Isaiah, the Suffering Servant, sets his face like a flint into the suffering that is coming his way – confident of God’s help to endure. There’s no disgrace, no shame, in the torture he faces because he knows that he can trust God for his future, for his ultimate vindication.
How different these attitudes are to our own? We struggle and strive to protect ourselves. We’ve taught ourselves to be self-reliant. “Look after number one – no one else will!”
We’ve learnt to see failure and weakness as shameful. Success in the world’s terms is important to our sense of self-worth. We cannot be seen to fail, even if that means that we need to put others down.
Isn’t this all being a little harsh. …. Perhaps I’m being unfair?
Am I? … I don’t think so. I only need to ask myself a few questions to see how true it is of me. How willing would I be to embrace apparent failure, like Jesus did, for the sake of people I don’t know? … Would I be prepared for you to think bad of me, to reject me – if I only knew that I was doing what God wanted?
In the end, though, it is hardly ever as obvious an issue as that. Things are never that clear-cut. It’s in the smaller things that I need to learn to place the needs of others above my own, in the smaller things that I need to learn to set aside self-protection and look to the interests of others.
It was because Christ was open to others, vulnerably sharing himself with them listening to their needs, that he set his face like a flint to the cross. Because he was aware of others – he chose suffering and death.
Jesus’ actions and his words call us to set aside our well-being, our comfort, so as to meet the needs of others. So, how do we succeed? Jesus answer would be, “By becoming vulnerable. By being willing to die, by being willing to embrace failure.”
By accepting the Palm Sunday’s adulation needs to give way to Good Friday’s rejection. A very different measure of success!
Jesus sought his own honour not in the eyes of those around him but in the eyes of God. Success was measured by faithfulness to God’s plan for him. What seemed to the world to be shameful became his greatest success. Jesus greatest shame in the eyes of his society became his greatest honour in the eyes of God. The shameful cross became the place of glory, the place of salvation.
Take time to think about how we measure success, what is honourable and what is shameful for us. How can we … ? How can I serve God most faithfully?
A Poem by Shashikant Nishant Sharma (an Indian poet)
Success lies in being happy
After losing the game
Success lies in giving credit
And taking the blame
Success lies in doing good
Without thinking for name and fame
Success lies in winning friends
Sharing goods and claim
Success lies in the fair means
Not in anyhow achieving the aim
Success lies in team spirit
Making efforts jointly for the same
Success lies in enjoying the journey
Not in reaching the hall of fame.
These are lovely words. We could aspire to this kind of measure of success. ‘Very Christian,’ we could say. And perhaps they are. Perhaps they are the most pragmatic way we can find to emulate Christ in today’s world.
It is, however, Christ’s shameful death that is meant to be the measure of success for us. We are called to take up our Cross and to follow him. We are called to follow Christ through shameful death to resurrection. And, even if we find that following too difficult, we are called to accept that it is only through that shameful death that salvation is possible.
Salvation can only be won for us by a God who is prepared to take onto himself all that separates us and our world from God, all that divides us as God’s people, all of the pain and hurt that we impose on each other. It is at the cross that God in Christ succeeds, he triumphs, he is enthroned as King, he is glorified, but his triumph, his success, is not a battle won but relationship restored. His success is measured in the depth of his identification with us and in the strength and reality of his divinity. His success comes in the midst of apparent failure.
The cross is the centre of our salvation, the resurrection God’s seal of approval. It is not after his resurrection, but on the cross that Jesus says in triumph, ‘It is finished!’
Almighty Father, look with mercy on this your family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed and given up into the hands of sinners and to suffer death upon the cross; who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.