Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sermon for March 29th: John 12:20-33

‘Sir, We Wish to See Jesus’

I think if Jesus had been running for political office and we had been on his campaign team, there would probably have been times when we would have taken him aside and said, “Lord, you need to be careful what you say to people who are showing an interest in voting for you. No, we’re not suggesting that you stop telling the truth, but do you have to be so up front about it? I mean, that rich young man who showed an interest in following you – he would have made a very useful member of our team – especially with all his wealth! But why did you have to challenge him right from the beginning to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, and then come and follow you? Why couldn’t you have introduced the subject gradually to him? And what about the man who came up and told you that he wanted to follow you, and you told him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but I haven’t got anywhere to lay my head?’ Why couldn’t you have kept that information from him for a while? If you had, he might still be with us! If you keep shooting yourself in the foot like this, Jesus, you’re never going to get elected, and then what good are you going to be able to accomplish?”

Today’s gospel reading is another example of this sort of straight talk from Jesus. In the Gospel of John it comes right after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He and his disciples have come to Jerusalem on pilgrimage for the Passover festival; outside the city, Jesus has climbed on the back of a donkey and ridden in procession through the gates like a king coming into his capital, with his disciples waving palm branches and the crowd cheering and shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). It must have been an impressive sight, and the enemies of Jesus found it really discouraging; they said to each other, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” (12:19).

And so we come to today’s gospel, which begins with these words: ‘Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (12:20). What were Greeks doing there? Passover was a Jewish festival, celebrating the ancient story of how God had set the people free from slavery in Egypt, led them through the Red Sea under Moses, and defeated the Egyptians who tried to follow them. It was the most nationalistic of all Jewish festivals; in this story, Gentiles were the enemy, and you wouldn’t expect Gentiles to come as pilgrims to participate in it.

But in fact, all over the Mediterranean world in New Testament times, there were little pockets of Gentiles – Greeks and Romans – who had been attracted to the religion of Israel. Presumably they had become disillusioned with the traditional worship of the Greek and Roman gods; what they were experiencing in those religions was no longer satisfying them, and they hungered for something more. In the religion of Israel they found the story of one great Creator God who wanted his people not only to worship him but also to live a moral and ethical life, and many of them were attracted to this story. And so they adopted the Jewish religion, joined in the worship of the synagogues, and tried to follow the commandments – without going all the way and being circumcised, which for obvious reasons was a bit of a challenge to them! These people were known in New Testament times as ‘God-fearers’, and they were fertile ground for the Christian message as the missionaries took it out into the Gentile world.

I think we live in similar times today. For generations now, our society has been offering traditional idols for our worship and satisfaction. Advertisers have been telling us that if we just buy their products, we will be happy and healthy and young forever. Politicians have been promising that if we just elect them they will build the new Jerusalem in our country and we’ll all be happy together. National leaders have demanded our allegiance and support and told us that we’re either for them or for their enemies. We’ve been sold a bill of goods, which tells us that if we just worship the idols of money and possessions or fame or success or beauty or youth or popularity, we’ll find the satisfaction we’re looking for. But we haven’t found it, and more and more people are beginning to question the materialistic assumptions of our society. More and more people are looking for a spiritual dimension to their lives. More and more people are looking for God. They may not be ready to join an organised church or go forward to receive communion, but they are coming to believe, deep down inside, that without God there are no ultimate answers to the questions they are struggling with.

So in today’s Gospel reading, these Greek God-fearers are in Jerusalem to worship at the Passover festival, and no doubt they’ve seen Jesus’ procession into the city and the great crowd around him. They are impressed; perhaps they’ve already heard of Jesus, and now they want to know more. So they come to one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip of Bethsaida. ‘Philip’ is a Greek name, and Bethsaida is an area of Galilee where a lot of Gentiles live, so perhaps these Greeks feel a sense of connection with Philip. They go to him and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21). But Philip isn’t sure what to do with their request, so he takes it to Andrew, who has developed a reputation in the Gospel of John for introducing people to Jesus. In fact, the first person he introduced to Jesus, his brother Simon Peter, has already become the leader of Jesus’ band of followers.

We need help, don’t we, when we want to get to know God better? We need someone who will introduce us, someone who will help us take the first step. Michael Peers was a student in Ottawa and Heidelberg in the late 1950s, studying languages and intending to go into a career in diplomacy. But it was not to be. Although he had been raised in a totally non-Christian household he was conscious of a growing interest in God. A student friend invited him along to a service at an Anglican church; Michael was attracted to what he saw there, and eventually he decided to become a Christian. He went on to be ordained as an Anglican priest, and in 1986, like Simon Peter, he became the leader of the band of Anglican followers of Jesus in Canada – the ‘Primate’, as we call it – a position he held until his retirement. But it would never have happened if his student friend had not invited him to church. Michael had his ‘Philip’ or ‘Andrew’, and he often told that story in gratitude for what his friend had done for him.

Well, it’s all going swimmingly, as they say, and if Jesus had been an earthly politician it might even have gone to his head! ‘The people of Jerusalem are welcoming me with open arms, and even the Greeks have started to follow me! If I just play my cards right and say the right things, I’ll have this election in the bag!” If Jesus had been a fisherman and we were giving him advice about reeling in a fish, we might have said to him, “Go gently, now, Jesus – don’t jerk the line too fast, or you’re going to lose your fish”. In other words, “Don’t hit these Greeks with a bunch of demands right off the top. Tell them about the benefits they’ll receive from following you; talk about how you’re going to enhance their lives. Keep the issue of the cost until later, when they’re already on the hook and just about landed!”

But Jesus is incapable of doing that; he’s fundamentally honest and straight in his expectations of those who are interested in following him. You can never accuse him of hiding the cost or making the small print too small to read. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945, once said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”. That’s exactly right. Follow Jesus’ reasoning with me here:

He starts by telling the crowd what’s ahead for him. It sounds good: he says in verse 22, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”. But then as he goes on, we become uncomfortably aware that he has a different definition of glory than we do; his glory is all bound up with his suffering. He uses the illustration of a grain of wheat falling into the ground. It looks as if the farmer is throwing it away; it falls into the soil and is buried there, which is a kind of death; you think that’s the end of it. But a few days later a shoot springs up, and then a plant, and the plant begins to bear fruit, and suddenly the grain of wheat that died has multiplied.

Jesus is taking about himself and his death on the Cross. He’s going to be rejected by the very people he came to save, and it looks like the end of his story. The world has thrown him away and buried him. But three days later a new resurrection shoot will begin to appear, and then the message will go out, and people will begin to turn to him. In verses 32-33 Jesus says, ‘“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. He said this’, says John, ‘to indicate the kind of death he was to die’.

For Jesus, there could be no ducking the Cross. The Cross was not a tragedy, and it wasn’t a derailment of God’s plan; rather, the whole story from the very beginning had been leading up to this moment. As God has been rejected by people all over the world, so Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, would be rejected and nailed to the Cross. The sins of the world put him there, and as he says in verse 31, ‘Now is the judgement of this world’. The best the world had to offer – the mighty Roman empire that brought peace and civilization to the Mediterranean, the exemplary Pharisees who worked so hard at being holy and good, the skilled politicians of the high priests and Sadducees, the revolutionary fervour of the Jerusalem crowd – all combined together to reject Jesus and kill him. But the very act by which the world tried to get rid of Jesus turned out to be the act by which salvation would be offered to all people. Just as, in wartime, brave soldiers will give their lives in some sacrificial action which eventually brings victory at the cost of their deaths, so Jesus offered his life willingly, as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, so that God’s mercy and forgiveness and grace could be poured out on all people. And so the moment of his defeat became the moment of God’s victory. Since then, Jesus has been drawing burdened souls to himself and bringing them forgiveness and relief through the message of his Cross.

So there is good news in the Cross, but there’s also challenge, and Jesus wants to be up front with this challenge to the Greek God-fearers who are contemplating the possibility of following him. And so in verses 25-26 he says, “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour”.

You see, the way of the Cross is not for Jesus only; it is for his followers too. Those who choose to give their first loyalty to King Jesus will always be an offence to earthly leaders who demand absolute obedience. The early Christians experienced this when they refused to offer incense to Caesar as a god; this was not just a harmless religious ceremony in those days, but a political duty, a pledge of allegiance if you like. To say, “Jesus is Lord” always carries the corollary, “and Caesar is not” – and Caesar is not pleased! Whether Caesar is our political leaders, or our employers, or the media, or the global economy that demands our absolute servitude – whatever it is, people who want to follow Jesus need to be warned, right from the start, that not everyone will be jumping for joy about this, and there will be a price to pay.

Throughout Christian history there have been those who have willingly paid the ultimate price for their allegiance to Jesus. But those of us who aren’t asked to do this are not thereby let ‘off the hook’. We’re all called to ‘die to self’ – in other words, to be willing to let go of our desire for recognition, for honour, for popularity – our desire to have everything that we want, to have a comfortable and easy life with ourselves at centre stage. It’s a happy coincidence that in the English language the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ at the centre of it; when I am at the centre of my own life, that is the epitome of sin, because the throne at the centre of my life rightfully belongs to someone else – God. Those who want to follow Jesus must be prepared to face this challenge – the call to let go of selfishness and self-centredness and to rebuild our lives around God and his will.

So Jesus is calling his followers to a different kind of glory. Today, all over the world, crosses are emblazoned on church buildings, which is a bit weird, if you think about it – imagine if we all started wearing little silver electric chairs on chains around our necks? And yet, it is true that the Cross is Jesus’ moment of glory. The one who called people to love their enemies and do good to those who hated them did just that himself, accepting the worst that the world could do to him and responding with forgiveness and grace, not anger and vengeance. The one who called people to trust God did just that himself, trusting that if he allowed himself to fall into the ground like a grain of wheat, the Father would not allow him to be trodden underfoot and forgotten. And so it was; the Father raised him from the dead, an act that galvanized his followers to spread the good news of his victory all over the world. Today, two thousand years later, we are still telling the story – glory indeed.

Are you a spiritual seeker, like those Greeks who wanted to see Jesus? Are you looking for something more than what the materialistic world has to offer, and are you beginning to think Jesus might have some answers? Indeed he does, but he will not insult you by hiding the cost in the small print at the bottom of the page. Yes, it is gloriously possible to know him, even today, and to know God through him, but it won’t be an easy road. It’s not just about discussing a book of self-help wisdom over a comfortable latté at Starbucks! There will come a point in our spiritual search when action is called for – and unless we are willing to accept that challenge and act on it, no further progress will be possible. And the action means a willingness to die to self – to take self out of the centre of our lives and put God in his rightful place, and then to humbly live for him and his will, embracing the suffering that comes our way as a result. Jesus says that those who are willing to do that will find life in the midst of death. They will gradually find a new light dawning in their lives – the light of Christ himself. As we follow him, we will indeed discover that he is with us on the journey, and as he says in verse 36, we will indeed become ‘children of the light’.