Over twenty years ago, I arrived by train in Agrigento, in Sicily. Just outside this town lies the famous valley of the temples, a valley covered with the remains of ancient Greek temples.
It was night when I arrived and I walked down to the valley, and seeing the moonlight glinting on the remains of the temples, I decided to spend the night there, sleeping among the ruins. I had thoughts of waking up among these solemn remnants of an earlier religion.
Two sleepless hours later, I gave up on this notion and returned to the station to sleep. The next morning I went down to the temple and in the daylight discovered I had been trying to sleep on a building site. It's amazing how like Greek pillars scaffolding looks in the dark. The temples were further down.
It might seem surprising that there should be Greek temples in Sicily but the Greek world stretched from what is now Turkey to the eastern coast of Italy and Sicily. It was a world ancient Israel would have to come to terms with.
In the other direction stretched vast empires, the Assyrian, the Babylonian, and the Persian. Faced with these empires, the Israelites clung to the claim to be the chosen people of God. Granted that other races were richer, more powerful, more numerous and tended to win battles over us, we are still God's people.
Where then is the truth in the promise to Abraham to make him the father of a multitude of nations? One explanation was to hope that the power of the Gentiles would pass, a hope often vindicated by history, but there was always a new power to replace it.
With the song of the suffering servant of the Prophet Isaiah, a new understanding of God's promise came. Israel would triumph, not by conquering but by becoming the servant of the world. In Isaiah, we hear of the righteous servant who will justify many.
It is a triumph to serve if it is done in the right way, but only through the power of God is it possible to serve the whole world, as the servant will do. The servant will justify many. It is only when the Son of God becomes the Son of Abraham that the full meaning of this text is revealed.
The fuller version of the Isaiah passage begins:
Who has believed what we have heard?
The real meaning of service is easily misunderstood. Service can become a sort of tyranny, where the servant is merely subtle in his attempts at domination.
James and John in the Gospel are certainly exempt from the accusation of subtlety. They ask for unambiguous power from the Lord, who it should be stressed, does not rebuke them for this. He merely explains that they are asking for something impossible in their innocence.
Instead he rebukes the other apostles who are angry with them. They know that lordship and authority belong to the nations. They have learned that much from Isaiah.
What they don't understand is how easily service can be corrupted. Gifts can easily become a way of shaping people to our own preconceptions. We can give to people what we think they should have, not what they want or need. Doing things for people can be a way of stopping them acting for themselves, of enfeebling them.
Yet the Son of Man also came to serve. Don't miss that word 'also'. It shows that service is not a temporary state but is a permanent part of human life, always and everywhere. The true servant justifies many, which is to say, he gives them the power to be themselves, to have what is theirs and to be what they are.
In his death, Jesus will show that the greatest service doesn't deprive people of anything, least of all responsibility. His death is a great act of trust. Others will carry on the work that he has begun. They will succeed. We can be sure of that.
But there is always more to be done and others to do it. After all, the Church is much more a building site, than a temple.