A Sermon on John 12:20-33 preached at Preston High Street Uniting Church for Lent 5 Year B
I found this a challenging passage. Perhaps it’s something to do with the preaching course I’m doing resulting in the sermon equivalent of dirty motorcycle parts strewn all over the living room floor. Or perhaps it’s something to do with the text: John’s Gospel is beautiful and often lyrical, but it’s also quite hard to understand. Or perhaps – and I wonder if this is the most likely explanation – I was just not reading it deeply enough. Perhaps I was looking for simple answers, when the only real answers to the mysterious business of living are equally mysterious.
Perhaps the Good News isn’t an easy answer.
But, then again, perhaps it is rather a simple answer.
As simple as trust.
As simple as wheat sown in the ground to bear much fruit.
The passage begins with some Greeks wanting to see Jesus. Who are they? Why do they want to see Jesus? Do they even get to see him? It’s all a bit mysterious. They pop up briefly in the story, and then vanish again. I guess they aren’t the main point
The main point is how Jesus responds.
When Jesus hears about them, rather than speaking with them, or not, the conversation takes an unexpected turn. He says: “the hour is come.”
The whole question of “the hour”, the appropriate time, the right time, runs like a thread through the whole of John’s Gospel. Way back in the beginning, when Mary his mother wants him to turn water into wine to rescue a disastrous wedding banquet, he says “my hour has not yet come.” He says similar things throughout the Gospel: the hour has not yet come. The hour is not yet. All through John’s Gospel, the hour is coming; but it has not arrived.
Now, however, at last, the hour has come. In his anointing for death in Bethany, in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, now that “the world has gone after him” as the Pharisees resentfully note – now is the time.
Like an athlete training for the Olympics, he has done what he needed to do. He is ready. The time of his triumph has arrived. Previously in the temple, he drove out the traders who turned the Temple into a den of robbers. Now it is the “ruler of this world” who is about to be driven out.
And, more prosaically, now is the time for a final public statement of who Jesus is, and what he has come to do, and how it has gone.
You can almost hear the triumphant trumpet blasts in the soundtrack of the Hollywood version of the scene. The time is at hand; the hero has the magic sword Excalibur in his hand, and is about to become rightful king of the Britons, and drive out his enemies! At last the Messiah will reveal himself, and drive out the hated Romans and all their filthy collaborators, and establish the reign of God on earth.
We long for that. There are so many terrible things in the world, and indeed in our own lives, that we dream of seeing evil finally overcome and everything finally being OK.
And that is what is about to happen. “Father, glorify your name” says Jesus, and the voice from heaven responds: “I have glorified it already, and I will glorify it again.”
In our own lives we hope for a resolution as clear as that. We definitely want the Hollywood ending. That’s why there are so many books promising straightforward solutions to our problems: the Barefoot Investor for our finances, Michelle Bridges and her Twelve Week Total Body Transformation for our weight and fitness. And so on.
There’s nothing wrong with these things: well organised finances and a sensible eating and exercise routine are very good things.
But I think this gets to the root of why I struggled to write this sermon. I want to provide some sort of sensible advice, or helpful philosophical insight. I really get why a lot of messages in churches all over the world are on topics such as “twelve Biblical principles for organising your life.” The Bible does indeed have good advice: it is a book of much wisdom, honed over time, and well worth our time.
But, at base, to treat it like that is to still retain control over our own lives. If I choose to follow Biblical advice about, say, my finances, then I might otherwise have chosen another set of instructions.
It would still be down to me and my God-given right to freedom of choice, yes? My endless self-realization, subject to little beyond my own personal preferences, whatever they may be.
After all, what could be more “glorious” than that?
That’s the assumption that lies beneath of all those handy hints for self-improvement. It’s self improvement. It’s essentially the same message that we hear from a hundred other sources. Whether it’s the opportunity to revolutionize one’s finances or diet, or the opportunities for self-discovery offered by a yoga retreat, the emphasis is on self-improvement. The problem isn’t so much that these are part of a system which is always trying to sell you something, regardless of whether it really works or not.
No matter how fit and thin and financially secure I become – I will still be me, with my limited desires and my small circle of concern. With my closed in world. What I long for is transformation – what I long for is the “eternal sort of life.”
Beneath this is the fundamental problem of human life. That, if only I worked harder, then everything would be OK.
That is definitely not the Good News. For a start, it isn’t “news” at all. We all know, or at least think we know, that if only we tried harder, if only we were better stewards of our time and resources, then we could be better people. That not we not only could be better people, but we should be.
And not only is it not news, neither is it “good”. No matter how many “shoulds” we pile up into vast teetering walls of denial and guilt, we are perpetually stuck down here in the land of “is.” That’s not good news: that’s terrible news. I should be better, and I continually fail and apparently there is no way out of it, no course of self-improvement, no book I could read which would solve the problem of my share of the human propensity to mess things up.
I think this is part of what Jesus meant when he talked about those who “hate their lives in this world.” This mode of living – this weight of grief and failure and guilt, this continual emptiness which we seek to fill with accomplishment and self-realization this continual need to prove ourselves worthy, these limited desires unworthy of a child of God – is what it means to live “in this world.”
Luther talked about the “theology of glory”, which tries to get to God by piling up evidence and accomplishment and good works, ascending through the orders of beings and angels to finally get up to God. In our context, we hope we can get to God via yoga retreats and philosophy, and what is obviously and self-evidently good.
We think God’s glory should look shiny and successful and being in a position of authority in society. It should be obvious.
This passage knocks all that into a cocked hat. Instead of a theology of glory, we have the theology of the cross. Which is to say that the Good News doesn’t come through how things superficially seem, but how things actually are. And, specifically, through the cross of Jesus Christ.
In today’s passage, Jesus brings these two things together. He talks about glory, but the glory comes from being raised up. The glory he is talking about is his death. His death, and of course, his resurrection and ascension. All three go together in John’s Gospel. His cross is simultaneously a throne, because that, not the imperial throne of Caesar, that God’s glory is ultimately revealed.
Some Greeks want to see Jesus, but if you want to see Jesus, you won’t do it through success or sophisticated philosophical reasoning or any amount of good works. Jesus is seen through faith: through the worst thing imaginable, which is simultaneously the glory of God.
What looks like humiliation and death is, in fact, the very power of God, destroying the “ruler of this world.”
Even when all human hope is exhausted – even when there doesn’t seem to be any space at all for Good News – God’s redemptive power is at work.
The God of Jesus Christ is utterly faithful.
That is the surprising thing which Jesus has to say. Surprising? That’s a bit light. Astounding, astonishing, unprecedented hardly begin to capture something so far away from what we expect to hear.
Perhaps that’s why God’s words sounded like meaningless thunder to so many who heard. This Good News is so far away from what we want – that eternal life comes through giving our lives away – is challenging to hear.
In the end, it comes down to trust. The Good News is that God is revealed in Jesus Christ – and that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us today. The eternal sort of life – the life that not only reaches into God’s eternity, the life which transforms us and our desires, is available to us right now.
Jesus opened his arms to the whole world. He took on everything. He paid the price for all the sin in the world. He was able to do so because he knew that he was held in the arms of the one he called Abba, Father. His profound sense of existential safety, his ultimate trust God opens the way for us all who respond in faith.
He could accept his own death, knowing that it would bear much fruit because of his trust in God.
And that, I think, is our challenge. How can we take life and death as a gift from the hand of the God who loves us? How can we be transformed into the sort of people who are able to trust in the final and complete love and power of God? Not because of how much we trust God, as though it’s some sort of accomplishment, but because God is faithful?
Rather than some insight which I have reached, rather than some helpful advice about how to live, the Good News isn’t really about us at all. The Good News is that the God who is worthy of our trust our redeems things which are beyond human hope.
It is as simple, and as hard, as a grain of wheat planted in a field to die, which in turn bears much fruit.
 With apologies to Francis Stufford in Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
 Also Luther’s idea. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theology_of_the_Cross
 Romans 3:21-22