John 12:20-36 (Lent 5B)
A lot has happened in the Gospel of John by the time today’s reading happened. On the First Sunday of Christmas, we heard about how the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. Jesus’ first sign of turning water into wine rolled into signs of healing, feeding the 5,000, and walking on water. In chapter 11 the signs of Jesus climax in raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus has also raised some eyebrows like befuddling poor Nicodemus and openly talking to a woman in Samaria. He caused controversy when he chased out the money exchangers and animal sellers from the Temple, and the Temple authorities have had it out for him since then.
Now we come to the hinge in the Gospel of John. In fiction, we call this the point of no return. In novels that is when the final climax of the book becomes inevitable. Sam and Frodo begin their ascent of Mt. Doom. Meg refuses to leave Camazotz without Charles Wallace. Harry drops the Resurrection Stone and enters the Forbidden Forest. It’s the beginning of the final act.
Last week we heard the familiar verse “For God so loved the world,” and Jesus explained that when he is lifted up all who believe will have eternal life. Now the world comes to Jesus. Greeks—Gentiles, probably proselytes—come to see Jesus. The phrase come and see echoes throughout the Gospel as a call to discipleship and now Gentiles, representing the world have come to be disciples.
When Philip and Andrew tell Jesus about the Greeks, Jesus sees this as the point of no return for God’s plan of reconciliation: “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.” As with the Synoptic Gospels when Jesus predicts his death he then goes on to tell his followers what it means to be his disciple: “Those who love their life 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 honor.”
Then we get John’s version of the Transfiguration and Gethsemane in three sentences:
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
No mountain top experience here. No agonizing prayer in the garden while disciples sleep. Not for John’s Jesus. In John God’s will and the will of Jesus are always in sync. As Jesus said earlier in this Gospel—he is here to do God’s work. This Jesus doesn’t have to wrestle with his destiny because the Word which has always been with God knew what was going to happen when he pitched his tent among us. For John, the Incarnation and the Cross are intimately linked. For the community of John’s Gospel the fact that the Word became flesh always leads to Jesus’ death or in John’s vocabulary: Jesus’ glorification.
What do you think about when you think of the word glorify? Government-sponsored terrorism? State-sanctioned executions? Crucifixions? No? Then why does the author of John and the community that this gospel came out of think that way? Why do they think the Crucifixion is the ultimate act that glorifies God (and by extension glorifies Jesus)?
Throughout John’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that God has much bigger and grander things in store for the human race than how we’re living. Jesus makes clear that there is no end to God’s generosity or grace. The first sign in the gospel isn’t Jesus just turning a little water into a little wine in order to get to the end of the wedding feast. Nope. Jesus turns 120-180 gallons of water into 120-180 gallons of wine. And he doesn’t skimp on the quality either. The steward praises the groom saying: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” The abundance of this first sign is staggering. There isn’t just enough to go around: there’s more than enough of God’s grace and abundance for everyone!
That theme continues in John: Jesus comes not only so the disciples can live—but so they can live abundantly. Jesus doesn’t want his followers to have just enough joy to get through the day—he wants their joy to be complete, which in Greek means literally filled up. In John, Jesus doesn’t just heal any blind man—he heals a man who’s blind from birth, and everyone thinks there’s no hope whatsoever for this sinner or his sinful parents. Jesus not only gives him hope, but he also gives him a new life with endless possibilities ahead of him.
Then we come to the final sign Jesus gives on the absolutely outrageous, abundant love of God. He doesn’t just raise the dead. He raises a guy who’s been dead for four days. In the Middle East at that time, you didn’t get any deader than that. There was hope for three days because that’s how long the soul hung around, but once the soul was gone, that was it. As Miracle Max would say: that’s all dead, and there’s only one thing you can do. So Lazarus wasn’t mostly dead—he was all dead when Jesus finally showed up four days after his death. Jesus doesn’t care. God’s love can handle it. Jesus says three words, and there Lazarus is alive and well, fully restored to life, to his sisters, and to his community.
In John the word glory, and all of its cognates, is the length God will go to reconcile her errant creation back to herself. Glory is what God will do to show us how much she loves us, and how desperately she wants to be in a relationship with us and give us abundant life. The Crucifixion of Jesus glorifies God because it shows us how far God will go to reconcile us. She will not withhold her Son, her only Son, if it means she can give us the abundant life she planned for us from the moment she said, “Let there be light.”
Jesus has performed all of the signs. He has shown through his own life and teachings what God wants for the world. Now the world–both Jews and Greeks–are in Jerusalem. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified….And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” But those weren’t Jesus’ last words in this story in John. These are: “‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.”
This is the turning point in the Gospel of John. This is where Jesus’ public ministry ends in this gospel. From this point until his arrest, he will teach his disciples in private. There will not be another public appearance until his trial. In fact, this story happens on Sunday in the gospel. Chapter 13 will start four days later on Thursday. John’s gospel is silent on what Jesus and the disciples were doing for three days. The time for public teaching and signs has come to an end. Jesus’ hour is at hand, and there is no going back.
There is no going back for us either. This is the Fifth Sunday in Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday. We will cry “Hosanna!” Sunday morning and by Friday night we will be shouting, “Crucify him!” We will be witnesses and participants of the final week before Jesus is lifted up to draw all people to himself. We will betray him like Judas. We will deny him like Peter. And we will stand at his cross and bear witness with his mother, Mary Magdalene, and the Beloved Disciple.
While we participate and bear witness to another Holy Week, we need to remember these words: “Those who love their life 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 honor.” “Whoever serves me must follow me.” We who serve Jesus follow him: to the Upper Room, to the garden, through his trial, and to the cross. Just as Jesus was willing to do whatever it took to show how much God loved the world, so we are called to do the same.
I have to say I’m finding the world hard to love these days. Or I guess I should say I find our country hard to love these days. I’m tired of selfish people who won’t wear masks and get vaccinated because that somehow makes them strong and self-reliant. I’m tired of white supremacy and my own complicity in that atrocious sin. I’m tired of hearing about another mass shooting because of our country’s obsession with the weapons of death. And to be honest with you, I have no idea of how to love this world I’m part of, let alone show them the love God has for them, and follow Jesus where he has already gone.
But I will be thinking about that and praying about that as I follow Jesus where he goes this last week of Lent and entering into Holy Week. And I hope you will be thinking and praying as you follow Jesus to the cross as well. This is what we are called to do as both individual followers of Christ and the church. I am glad we are on this road together. I know I can’t love this world the way God wants me to alone, but I think I can do it with all of you. I think together we can figure out a way to follow Jesus to the cross and show our corner of the world just how much God loves all of us.
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