TUESDAY IN HOLY WEEK
Verses: John 12:20-36
John 12:20-36 [NRSV Text from BibleWorks]
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 "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. 28 Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." 30 Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" 35 Jesus said to them, "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. 36 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.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On Sunday, April 2, we heard most of this text Ė from verses 20 through 33. And on that day we thought about the tremendous drawing power of the cross of Jesus. You will remember that the text begins by setting the scene for the comments that follow. Some God-fearing Gentiles ask for an audience with Jesus. It is then that Jesus begins to ponder the meaning of His pending death. He will be like a grain of wheat that, when buried, bears much fruit. The image is of an ever-widening field of grain, of new life, that comes from one original seed. When Jesus is lifted up, He says, all people will be drawn to Him Ė not drawn against their will into endless life but drawn to the point of decision. Is He or is He not the beloved Son of God Ė the Way, the Truth, and the Life?
In the hearing about Jesus being lifted up, we cannot help but think back to March 26, when the Gospel lesson was Jesusí conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. We also heard that lessonís counterpart from Numbers 21, the story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness lifted up to save from death the rebellious Israelites upon whom the Lord God had sent a swarm of poisonous snakes. The Lord Jesus tells Nicodemus that when He is lifted up on the cross it will be like the raising of the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Those that look upon the Crucified One with trust will be delivered from biological death by the power of Godís endless life. Again in John 3, Jesus makes clear that His crucifixion cannot save the person that does not wish to trust her or his living and dying to the Crucified Son of God. Those that remain obstinate in their unbelief finally cannot have what they donít want. It is not that God is cruel. It is that humans can choose as our final epitaph: ďmy will be done.Ē
Yet, as we think about the decision to which His lifting up brings us, we dare not think that our being saved from death is about what we do. We do not begin in some safe place where deciding for or against Jesus is like deciding if we want chocolate or vanilla. We are already condemned to biological death before we draw our first breath, and so it is like asking a drowning person if she wants to be saved. If you could know for certain that death itself would not be the end of you, would you not want to have eternal life with God? If you could have your present anxiety about this life to be taken away by the promise of eternal life with God, would you not want to have the peace Godís promise gives? The death of Jesus means getting in on the eternal life and love that God Ė Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Ė enjoys within Himself. In love for His fallen world, God sends His only Son to deliver the world from sin, death, and evil.
I suppose the childish question cannot be avoided: Why wouldnít God give everyone eternal life anyway? And, of course, the answer is that in love for this fallen world the Father already has. He has already sent His Son to suffer and to die with us and for us. The question is why anyone would not want what God gives freely!
It is the age-old story of unrequited love. Perhaps you know something about that. I think I do. At times in my life, I have gotten just a glimpse into the wounded heart of God through my own heartache. At one of those times, I wrote a song that said:
ďYou canít make somebody love you.
You canít make somebody care.
You canít make her eyes light up when she sees you.
Ah, but you can say it just ainít fair.
You canít make her think about you.
You canít make her feel sheís there.
You canít make her say sheís sorry that she hurts you.
But you can say Iím out of here.
You canít change somebodyís history.
You canít change someone at all.
You canít change the fact she just doesnít want you.
But you can smile and say thatís all.Ē
There does come a time in every unrequited loverís life when he or she has to move on. In my case, it was a gift beyond my wildest imagining. Just when I had grown most despairing and had decided that I would grow old alone, it was then that my dearest came into my life as such a wonder, such a gracious surprise.
Before I could get there I had to go through the pain of letting go of what would not be in order to be ready for what was coming. The refrain of my song says something about that:
ďWell, Iím here to say I donít want to see your face.
And Iím here to say I donít want to hear your voice.
And I just donít want to think about you,
Because I want to hurt like this no more.Ē
The third time through on the refrain I changed the last line and concluded with the bitter words I felt in my rejection:
ďGirl, youíre not welcome any more.Ē
Our God is not like a bitter rejected lover. We are welcome. There is a place for everyone in Godís heart and Godís home. Thatís the wonder and the surprise of the cross of Jesus. But God cannot make us love Him, and God cannot make us care. If we wish to go to our graves endlessly chasing after other loves and other stories and other lives, the Lord God will not cease to love us. But there is finally that time when God must sadly let the persons that do not want His love to have it their way.
This is what Jesus was trying to tell those who were listening when he said: "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."
When we look again this Friday at Godís Son Jesus lifted up on His cross, we will be given a glimpse into the heart of the God who loves us more than He loves His own life. Yes, His death on the cross is the hour of decision. Those who cannot see Jesus as the window into the heart of God are like lovers who just canít see themselves with those who love and will never have them.
In the ways of love in this life, unrequited love is not always a bad thing Ė for the lover or for the beloved. Sometimes there are much better lives for both waiting beyond that awkward and painful chapter of being unable to connect.
But if we refuse the gift of Godís love and of His endless life, there is not a better offer on the table. And that is what Jesus is desperately trying to tell us listeners today!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel D. Zumwalt
St. Matthewís Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina
[An mp3 version of this sermon will be available Tuesday afternoon at www.stmatthewsch.org]