March 18, 2018

Preached by Rev. George Yando on March 18, 2018.

Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Psalm 51
Hebrews 5: 5-10
John 12: 20-33

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We Want To See Jesus

The story from John’s Gospel that we read this morning happened the day after Jesus arrived at Jerusalem and his excitement-filled entry that we remember on Palm Sunday.  John tells us that many of those present when Jesus he raised Lazarus from the dead were with him and continued to spread the word so that great crowds eagerly sought him out.  Among them, John tells us, were some Greeks.  The request we read at the beginning of the passage this morning came from them, addressed to Philip: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”

It’s an interesting detail.  John’s Gospel account is filled with a variety of groups of people who encounter Jesus: Jews, Pharisees, disciples, lots of different folk.  Some of these groups of people appear many times in the gospel, each having a number of interactions with Jesus.  Not these Greeks, however.  This is their one and only mention in John’s account.

Their appearance is surprising in way.  What are Greeks doing in Palestine anyway?  This is the land of the Jews.  Moreover, it is Roman-occupied land.  Some bible scholars have suggested they were converts to Judaism, come to Jerusalem to celebrate the major festival and attend to their duties at the Temple.  Others have suggested that they were on a truth-finding mission.

The ancient Greeks were among the first peoples of the ancient world to wander that known world in search of truth, simply for the sake of finding truth.  It’s possible they had heard of this Jesus and had come wanting to meet Him, to hear Him teach, to discover His insights with regard to the truth.   Not surprisingly, they came to Philip – a disciple who happen to have a Greek name –   saying, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”

This is a kind of turning point in John’s Gospel account.  Jesus had been sent to the Jews, God’s chosen people.  Born into their midst, He had, for the most part, concentrated His teaching and His ministry among those people, His people.  This scene represents a shift in that focus, a kind of watershed in John’s story.  You see, there is a sense in which these Greeks represent all the other peoples of the world, including you and me, people for whom Jesus came that all of us might come to know the truth, the truth that would set us free.  The request made by these Greeks was rather formal and polite: we wish to see Jesus.  They weren’t groupies, hoping for an autograph.  They wanted an in-depth interview, an opportunity to know Jesus.  We have no idea what they expected to see or hear.  Again, not surprising.  People come pursing Jesus for all kinds of reasons.

Some, like Herod, who would later have an interview with Jesus, wanted a magic show, a display of His signs and wonders.  Some people came looking for Jesus to be simply a healer.  Some wanted him to be the perfect psychiatrist or psychologist.  Others wanted him to be a profound moral teacher, sharing great wisdom and insight into the mysteries of life.   Still others wanted him to be a great Reformer, one who would cure society of all its various ills.  Others yet wanted him to be the Chief Executive Officer, the manager who would encourage others to strive for and achieve personal excellence.   Still others wanted in Jesus one who could guarantee wealth, power, life abundantly filled with all manner of good things.  And perhaps overarching all of those various roles, the one most people wanted most was that Jesus become King, one who could form an ideal government, and usher in an era of peace, freedom and prosperity such as their forebears had known under the rule of King David.

I mentioned that this scene was a kind of watershed.  Jesus knew that his mission was to secure salvation for all peoples, and now declares how that would be accomplished.  What follows was a serious, solemn, even shocking announcement.  Those who wanted to see him, to know him, would now learn what he was about, would understand what was involved in following him.  Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Jesus spoke a word of absolute truth, however unpleasant it might have been to receive it.  Jesus was headed for the cross, and he knew it.  It was the moment for which he had been preparing.  It was necessary.  It could not be avoided.  Jesus used the analogy of the grain of wheat that must die in the earth in order to illustrate that he must die and be buried for the sake of humankind.

The point that those who would follow Him needed to hear was that they, too, must be willing to die.  They had to be willing to put to death their own sinful lives, what Jesus called, “the life in this world.”  He meant the life attached to this world,  the life that conceives of the good things in this world as being the essence and the goal of this life.  If we love that life, says Jesus, we will be sure to lose it in death.

When this earthly life is over, all that we valued and cherished that was of this world, or in this world  will surely perish just as surely as we will.   If, however, we are willing to put that life to death in Christ we will have life, and keep it into eternity.  That’s not a contradiction.  It involves turning away from serving ourselves, from seeking only to meet our desires and wants, and to turn to following Jesus Christ.

Ours is a unique and privileged position, relative to that of those who first heard Jesus speak these words.  We who stand on this side of the Easter event know what happened.  We know how Jesus died.  In these days of Lent, we reflect upon the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, One who was crucified.  Dead by crucifixion was no ordinary death, not simply an speedy form of capital punishment.  It was torture, torture honed to a fine art, the most horrific and excruciating death humankind had devised.  It was meant to serve as a deterrent and sent the message, “Don’t even think of messing with Rome.”  It was a death reserved for those guilty of the most terrible crimes.  Jesus stood accused by both the religious  and the civil authorities and died for the crimes of treason and blasphemy, crimes of the highest offence against both church and state.  We know better.  We know that Jesus was guilty of neither.

But that was not what the laws of Rome and the Jewish religion said.  Under the laws of both, Jesus died as accused.  We know –   or have been told and accept by faith – that it was for our sake that he willingly submitted himself to this death.  But what does it mean for us to follow him into just such a death?

We all know that each of us is going to die some day.  But how do we die the kind of death of which Jesus speaks here?  Jesus has made it possible.

In baptism we have already experienced our own death, our own funeral.  In baptism we have been put to death in Christ, and as all our sins were nailed to the cross with Christ, so too, they were buried with Christ.  Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, or hear words of assurance of pardon for sin forgiven, we recall the death of our old nature.  Each time we come to the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, we remember how we have died to sin.  Christ makes it possible to follow him into death through the Gospel and the Sacraments.  In so doing, we can leave behind the old self every day, and with each new day, begin anew in him.  In so doing, we can live as those who live above this world, and at the same time, live in, even as we live in him, by faith, which means to live eternally.

When Jesus spoke of the prospect of his own death, and of the deaths of those who would follow him, the initial reaction of those who heard Him say these things was not positive.  Here come these strangers, who certainly must have appeared to flatter Jesus by their interest in him and his teachings.  Then Jesus comes back with this very sober appraisal of his prospects.  He is going to die, and asks his followers to die with him.  But notice that Jesus also called it his, “hour of glory.”   “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to receive great glory,” he said.

You may remember that way back at the time of the wedding feast at Cana he had told His mother that his hour had not come.  But now, Jesus recognized this hour for what it was.  It was trouble, and he said so publicly, “Now my heart is troubled—and what shall I say? Shall I say, ‘Father, do not let this hour come upon me’? We know that later he would suffer agony in the garden because of his impending trial and crucifixion, and the epistle today speaks of his “prayers and supplication, with loud cries and tears.”  Yet in spite of what was ahead, Jesus would not try to escape.  He declared that this was why he had come, and prayed, Father, glorify your name.”  Jesus had come to personify the very glory of God in what was to happen when he died upon the cross.

It is in that ugly, dark, terrible moment when all the earth trembled and shook at the prospect of God’s own Son dying on the cross that the glory of God would be revealed.  What was revealed was God’s love.  God in the flesh, dying for sinners.  Paul declares in his first letter to the Corinthians in 1:18 that in that pitiful moment of weakness God revealed his power.  It is at the cross of Christ that you touch God’s glory and God’s power.

John records that when Jesus spoke his rather brief prayer, “Father, bring glory to your name!” a voice spoke from heaven, “I have brought glory to it, and I will do so again.”   What the voice meant was that God had revealed his glory in the creation of the first Adam, a glory spoiled by sin.  Now God would glorify it again and restore innocence to the world through Jesus Christ.

John says that when the voice spoke, the people didn’t know what it was.  Some thought it was thunder.  Others thought it to be the voice of an angel.  Jesus said that the voice had spoken for the sake of the people.  Jesus already knew the glory of the Father.  Now, however, through Jesus, the people would be glorified.  In what was happening, the climax of events that would unfold at the cross, Jesus said, “Now is the time for this world to be judged; now the ruler of this world will be overthrown.”

It would be obvious in the death of our Lord just how the unbelief of the world can result in the cruelty of killing the holy and innocent Son of God.  That is the judgment of the world, and in so doing, it had judged and condemned itself.  The death Jesus dies is the death the world deserves.  Because of that, evil is rendered impotent.  That which we degrade in creation and demonize those who live in it are driven out of the world of the people who recognize what God has done in both judging and in saving the world.  Thus, says, Jesus, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” Jesus being lifted up, of course, refers to his being hung upon a cross, but for John it also means His being raised from the dead and ascended to heaven.  That’s why what was spoken by the voice from heaven, and all that Jesus had spoken, was for our sake.  It was for the sake of the world.  What Jesus accomplished was satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, so that everyone could be saved.

One final note concerning what Jesus spoke for the benefit of those Greeks who came to Him.    He said, “Whoever wants to serve me must follow me, so that my servant will be with me where I am.  And my Father will honour anyone who serves me.”

Friends, Jesus wants to have his way with us.  All that Jesus summarised in his statement to his disciples for the benefit of those Greeks was realistic about what was about to happen in His own life.  It was also realistic about what has to happen in our lives as well.  But the benefits are all ours.

If following Jesus appears difficult because we think we have something in ourselves or the world that we simply can’t give up, Jesus says we are bound to lose it anyway.  Following Him to the cross, to the grave, and beyond, however, guarantees that we have eternal life, eternal life lived in the presence of Jesus himself.  For Christ himself is present with us, here and now.  He gives the signs of that in the sacraments and pledges it in his Gospel.  And we also know that when we finally depart this world we will also be with him where He is.  In addition, Jesus says that, “My Father will honour anyone who serves me.”

There is an old saying that if you do something unselfishly for others, you will get “stars in your crown.”  Serving our Lord guarantees something even better: God will honour us right along with God’s own Son.  Moreover we shall be with him and we shall be like him.  Thanks be to God. Amen.