Sermon delivered on the fifth Sunday of Lent, March 25, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 53.1-13; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In this morning’s gospel lesson, John reports that some Greeks come and want to see Jesus. In response, Jesus gives a rather strange answer. He doesn’t say to Andrew and Phillip, “Hey! That’s great! Glad to see that some of the Gentiles are finally getting with the program. Bring them here so I can tell them all about me.” Instead, Jesus starts talking about seeds dying and him being lifted up. What’s that all about?
And despite what the enemies of Christianity might claim, I suspect there are still quite a few folks out there—maybe you are one of them—who would like to see Jesus but just can’t seem to find him. Perhaps they are looking for him in all the wrong places. Perhaps they don’t know what to look for or even where to start. So this morning I want us to look briefly at how we might respond to seekers’ requests to see Jesus. If someone asked you to see Jesus, how would you respond? Where would you tell that person to look? In considering our response to this request to see Jesus, we will have a chance to look at Jesus’ strange response to Andrew and Phillip and see how this ties into both our Lenten disciplines and our mission statement.
As we have seen over the past several weeks, God created his creation and creatures to be good and then created human beings to be his wise stewards over it all by reflecting God’s goodness and glory out into the world. But we humans didn’t get the memo and decided that we would rather play God than let God be God, and that has caused all kinds of problems ever since, not the least of which is our alienation and exile from God, the Source and Author of all life. This separation from our life source must lead to death—if you need to be on life support to live and are disconnected from it, what other outcome can there be? Not only that, as we have seen, our sin has also allowed evil to gain a foothold into God’s good creation to corrupt it and dehumanize us so that we are regularly afflicted by all kinds of nasty things in this life.
Furthermore, we have seen that God in his wise and eternal providence has always planned to redeem his broken and fallen world and its people through human beings. And so he called his people Israel through Abraham to be his agents of healing and redemption. But Israel turned out to be as badly flawed and rebellious as the people she was called to help God redeem, and a good deal of the OT narrative tells us how this drama between God and his people unfolded, most of which is not very pretty.
That is what makes today’s OT lesson so remarkable (and unexpected) because in it God promises to make a new covenant with his badly flawed people, a covenant that at its heart involves radical mercy and forgiveness offered to his people so that they would really know God. Total forgiveness of sins was needed because without that, God’s people, both then and now, would never really have the needed basis for healing and would essentially remain as alienated and hostile toward God as they had always been. After all, you never can really get to know someone if you remain hostile and alienated toward that person, and our relationship with God is no exception. And because we are so profoundly broken, we will need more than radical forgiveness. We also need God’s Spirit in us to transform us and build on the forgiveness offered. What this is pointing to, of course, is God’s promised new creation that Jesus’ death and resurrection launched.
This brings us to today’s gospel lesson and it too is not what we expect. In responding the way he did to Andrew and Phillip, Jesus is essentially telling us that he realizes his hour had finally come to complete his work as Israel’s Messiah (cf. John 2.4, 7.30, 8.20). How does Jesus know that his hour has arrived? Because foreigners had come to see him, apparently a clear sign for Jesus that the time had come for him to launch God’s promised rescue plan for his people and the world by going to the cross for us. Because he did for Israel what Israel could not do for itself, Jesus could fulfill God’s call to Israel to help redeem his world and reestablish his sovereign rule, i.e., the kingdom. Jesus would do that by drawing to himself all those who seek healing and redemption with God, Jews and Gentiles alike, by being lifted up on the cross and bearing the full wrath and fury of sin and evil—and God’s righteous judgment on both. In the process, sin and evil would be defeated and God’s rule would be established on earth as in heaven. And God would be glorified by his healed and redeemed people once again reflecting God’s glory out into his world, the way God always intended. This is not a job for the faint-hearted or a sin-stained people and could only be accomplished by God himself becoming human.
And this is where we have to pay close attention because this is not how we expected God to free us from sin and death and put to rights his good but fallen creation. We didn’t expect God to end our exile and alienation from him by becoming human and allowing himself to be pierced and hung naked on a gibbet to die a criminal’s death so that God’s kingdom could be implemented on earth as it is in heaven and we could finally live as we were created and meant to live. No, if we are honest with ourselves, we expected (and probably really wanted) God to rescue us in a sexier and more spectacular manner, similar to the way he brought his people out of Egypt at the Passover. Most of us really want our God to use shock and awe to defeat evil and all who are opposed to his gracious and sovereign rule. We want the God who is seen in the pillars of cloud and fire to lead us. But a crucified Messiah? A crucified God? Not so much. It was true for the people of Jesus’ day and by and large it remains true for us today.
And if we understand how God’s kingdom comes and that we are rescued from our sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, we are now ready to help people who come to us and ask us to help them see Jesus because we know where to find him. We will resist the temptation to first show them the risen Lord and high priest (although he is) as the writer of Hebrews and Jesus himself remind us. Neither will we tell folks to look for Jesus in spectacular or supernatural acts (although he can be found there too). No, we will point folks to the cross of Jesus and invite them to imitate Jesus in his suffering, just like we do. This means that we will have to take our relationship with Jesus seriously and do what he tells us to do, which is to deny ourselves and take up our cross each day. This will involve us putting to death, by the power of the Spirit living in us, all that is opposed and hostile toward Jesus, and here is where our Lenten disciplines come into play because this is what we are focusing on during the season of Lent. We also learn God’s will for us in Christ by drinking deeply of Scripture and taking our prayer life seriously so that we know how to live as fully human beings in the manner God created us. This will inevitably point us back to Jesus, the only true human ever to live.
It also means we understand that we are part of something much, much bigger than us as individuals. We are part of the Church, Christ’s body. Together we are the folks whom Christ calls to help him advance the new creation that his death and resurrection launched. That means we are called to live as Jesus our head lives, in loving and humble service to one another. Being part of a living body means that we are fully invested in its life and each other through our active participation in that life. Otherwise we become like amputated members and wither and die. And so we worship and participate in the eucharist regularly. We participate in the ministries to which God calls us—being readers or teachers or servers or whatever. And we bear each other’s burdens. An important way we do that is through our intercessory prayers. It is not particularly fun or uplifting to be reminded of the massive suffering that is going on around us (and sometimes in our own lives) to begin our worship. But when we bear each other’s burdens in this way we are denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and bringing the love of Jesus to bear on those who desperately need it.
Following Jesus also means we are ready in the power of the Spirit to bring his values and healing love to bear on others through our actions (and sometimes words) so that Jesus can use us to reflect God’s glory out into the world and help him bring about his kingdom. But what does that look like? Well, as Jesus and the author of Hebrews remind us, it means we give up doing business the way the world demands so that we can be his kingdom-bearers. That means we learn the path of obedience through our suffering and bearing the world’s pain and hostility just as our Lord did. We all know how the world wants us to work. It’s the “every-person-for-himself” model of doing business. We are told to value things like money, prestige, and power over everything else because they can help us get what we want. We are encouraged to be pushy and assertive because, well, it’s a jungle out there and we need to take care of ourselves. We don’t mind running over others if they get in our way because as C.S. Lewis astutely observed 60 years ago in his classic book, Mere Christianity, our self-aggrandizing behavior is really a manifestation of our human pride. We are concerned about having more than the next person or beating him at his own game because we want everybody to see that we are superior to them and nothing irritates us more than when we fail in that endeavor.
But that is not how we help God bring the kingdom on earth as in heaven because those kinds of behavior produce malice and strife and anger and all the other swell works of our fallen nature. Instead, if we have crucified our sinful nature, folks will see us witnessing to our faith in Jesus by our humble and selfless actions and this is where our mission statement comes into play because our actions should always reflect our faith. Consequently, folks will see us forgive others who wrong us, even when that forgiveness is undeserved. They will note how patient we are, especially toward folks who really irritate us or who do not live up to our expectations—Oops! They will see us challenge powerful interests who are exploiting others for their own greedy gain. They will watch us anything that dehumanizes us wherever we encounter it and however we reasonably can. People will observe our tireless service to those who cannot possibly give us anything in return and wonder why we care for the least and the lost. And when they do and ask us to see Jesus, we can point them to ourselves and others like us because we embody the living Lord in our transformed lives. We are not bragging when we tell others that they can see Jesus in us because we are always mindful of our profound brokenness which causes us to be less than perfect and the terrible debt that God has paid on our behalf. No, we behave this way because we have God’s Spirit living in us and enabling us to really know him, in part, because we have put in the required sweat equity that enables us to know that God’s promises are true, just the way Scripture tells us must happen (cf. John 7.16-17; 10.14-16).
And because God has demonstrated that he works in surprising and unexpected ways, we learn to adjust our expectations regarding the results of our labor because as we have seen, sometimes reality doesn’t always match our perception of it. So, for example, we labor tirelessly to feed the poor but hunger still persists. We work to combat poverty and injustice but they continue on, seemingly unabated. We pray for healing and peace, only to see some for whom we pray die and warring madness continue. But because of what Jesus has accomplished on the cross, and because we have his Spirit in us and know God, we do not lose heart or hope because we know that God uses our suffering and anguish to bring in his kingdom. We think of his cross and how those around Jesus looked at it as his ultimate defeat and shame. But out of his death came new life, new hope, new creation. We look at the prophets and how they were beaten and killed. But the kingdom still came and God’s voice was not silenced. And we remember that like so many other things in the kingdom, the criteria of the world are not usually the best way to measure its progress because the first will be last and the poor will be the richest, etc. This will allow us to transcend our apparent failures because we have God’s Spirit in us and we know that in the cross of Christ evil and death have been defeated and that Jesus is using us to bring about his kingdom by following his example of humble and selfless suffering.
All this requires a healthy dose of an informed and Spirit-led faith, and this too will be a sign for others who want to see Jesus. They will wonder how we can face our apparent failures with such confident and hopeful expectation. We will tell them that our hope shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has read Scripture and understands how God is rescuing his fallen world and broken people, a rescue plan that culminated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We believe the promised new creation has been ushered in on earth as in heaven and that its fate is not up to us. Jesus is Lord! Instead, we are simply doing in response to God’s love what he calls us to do and because we know him so intimately, we trust that things are firmly in his hands, despite appearances to the contrary. And when we are able to witness our faith to others in this manner, we will also know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.