Sermon March 21
Can you feel the change in mood of the Gospel readings we hear each week? We have heard of Jesus’ baptism, his ministry to the crowds who came to him, and of him cleansing the temple. We have heard why he came to earth, and of God’s great love for all of us in His son. But there seems to be something different in today’s account.
It starts off like a continuation of the story of Jesus’ ministry – some Greeks from out of town have heard about him, and want to see him. The disciples seem a bit hesitant to just take them to see Jesus, but confer with one another about what to do. When they tell Jesus, he seems to be focussed somewhere completely different. No longer is he looking at the people who come to him for teaching or for healing – he starts to talk cryptically about the time coming to be glorified, and about a grain of wheat dying. I think the Greeks would have been very confused, and the disciples worried. Things were changing, getting darker, and they were concerned.
Jesus talks about the grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying. This is a parable about growth, about losing life for the sake of life. Just as one seed when it is buried in the ground will bring forth many more seeds, so the death of one man will bring many others to life.
This 5th Sunday in Lent is known as Passion Sunday – it is the beginning of the great march to the cross, the beginning of the final chapter in Jesus’ earthly life. Passion means great feeling and great suffering, rather than the more modern meaning. Lent becomes darker and more sombre.
There have been many works of art depicting this part of the gospel story, this last few weeks before the cross. Have any of you seen Jesus Christ Superstar? It took the world by storm in the 1970s with its gutsy portrayal of the emotions of this time, the tortured soul of Judas Iscariot, and the agony that Jesus faced. As part of your journeying with Jesus I recommend you watch it.
In our reading Jesus asks God his father, ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’?’
You can see him looking at what he knows is ahead of him, and faltering, wondering if he should say to God, no, it’s all too much. Let me off this assignment. But he steadies himself – “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour,” he says. Later, in the garden of Gethsemane he prays the same prayer, even more intensely – “let this cup pass from me Lord. But if not, strengthen me.”
When Jesus prays, Father, glorify your name, I wonder what was going through his mind. Maybe he needed the reassurance of God’s great power and glory. Hang on, you may be saying, Jesus is fully divine and perfect, surly he wouldn’t have felt insecure and nervous? That sounds very human! Remember too that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, and he put his divine nature aside for this journey to the cross. He would have felt really scared, as if all his courage and more was being demanded of him. When we are facing the unthinkable, remember that Jesus too has faced it, and knows how it feels. He can walk with you through that journey and share your burden.
How about the people around Jesus? When he asked God, “glorify your name” he heard the voice of God, and those around him heard it too. Some said it was thunder, others said an angel had spoken to him. They heard something. It reminds us of when the angels sang at his birth – ordinary people had a glimpse of the heavenly realm.
Jesus tells them that this is for their sake, so that they would see the divine power of God in the situation. I can imagine that many more came to believe in Jesus at this point, and the crowds following him would have swelled. Next week we will hear about the huge crowds as he enters Jerusalem, and the witnesses to the final journey.
Can you feel the pace picking up some more? If we had background music, the strings would be bowing fast, the brass blaring – it’s no wonder so many artists have responded to Jesus’ passion and death.
Jesus tells the people that he would draw many to himself when he is lifted up – this refers to the cross. Last week we had the image of Moses lifting up a snake, and the Son of Man being lifted up. That was back in chapter 3 of John’s gospel, now we are in chapter 12. The theme is still here, but getting ever clearer.
The Jews following Jesus at this point would have been aware of the scriptures about the Messiah. Many already believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and I can imagine that they would have been talking about what they saw and heard, and comparing the accounts from the prophets. Our reading from Jeremiah is one they might have talked about – a new covenant with the house of Israel and Judah, because they broke the old one.
‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be
their God, and they shall be my people.No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.’
Many of us when we come to Christ have an experience like this, of the law being written on our hearts – it goes from being head knowledge about how we should conduct ourself, to heart knowledge, that we want to live in this way because we know that it fells right and joyful. I have had experiences like this – it was only when the Holy Spirit came into my heart that I was able to joyfully follow God’s word, out of love rather than out of duty.
We can see in this scripture the total inclusivity of God’s love – ‘ they shall all know me, from the greatest to the least.” It saddens me when people claiming to be Christian seek to exclude people from this list. Everyone can know God, from the drug addict to the billionaire. God’s grace is for all – “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more,” God assures us.
Our world is full of sinful people, those who take more than their fair share and leave others in poverty. But we know that God can forgive and accept even the robber barons. First, they have to come to accept Christ into their hearts.
Dear friends, this week as we journey with Jesus on the road to the cross, let’s remind ourselves of his humanity, that he understands us, all of us. And let’s have that same understanding and love for those we encounter, and those we hear about, holding them up in prayer to God.