March 18, 2018

Lent 5   March 18, 2018   Psalm 29, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10,

John 12:20-36a   We want to see Jesus

***************************************************************

People come saying, “we want to see Jesus.”

And Jesus tells us what life looks like…. When we look to him – and see him – as he is.

We never actually get to hear the reactions of these seekers from afar who come to see Jesus. So we’re left wondering – did they turn their lives around and follow Jesus? Or did they turn tail and hurry home – as soon as they got a glimpse of Jesus – and heard him telling what it’s like to follow him?

We’re left to wonder.

And I admire the way John’s gospel leaves the story open-ended – like get-your-picture-taken-here-with-Jesus – if you want to know how the story ends. The end of the story in fact depend somewhat on us… And our willingness to see… what God is doing in Jesus Christ.

***

As we rejoin our story in progress – here’s Jesus – who up to now has been saying  many times “my hour has not yet come” (my time’s not up) – now saying “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” The words glorify and glorified (each word heard twice) play key harmonic roles in the melody of the story.

And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what Jesus means by glorify… as he says – unless a grain of wheat falls to earth and dies its just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit – and –

Those who love their life in this world will lose their life – while those who love God more than life will keep their life for eternal life – and –

Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am my servants will be also. Now it’s not so hard to see where Jesus is heading… And – do we still want to see Jesus?

***

We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Author Cornel West says at the time of his death 78% of Americans, including 50% of Black Americans, did not approve of Dr King. Many regarded Rev King favorably when he was just preaching non-violent integration and reconciliation. As long as he was preaching just the first part of our Thought for the Week: “The Christian gospel… seeks to change the souls of men and thereby unite them with God” – many were willing to say amen.

Not so many looked favorably on Rev King when he began advocating radical change in the American economy – preaching the second part of our Thought for the Week – “(the Christian gospel also) seeks to change the environmental conditions of man so the soul will have a chance after it is changed…” Reverend, now you’ve gone from preaching to meddling.

Many were glad to follow Jesus when he was multiplying loaves and fishes, feeding the multitudes and healing the sick. Not so many kept following…. when he began letting it be known he is the Son of God as well as the Son of Man… Not so many were eager to follow when Jesus turned over tables and drove merchants out of the temple… And let it be known he’s heading straight for a cross on a hill…

So we know what Jesus means – when he’s talking again, now for the third time in John’s gospel, about being lifted up…

Which is enough to keep me wondering… how much I really mean it – when I say… I want to see Jesus…

Do I? Do we really want to see Jesus lifted up on the cross? The cross has been such a common symbol in our culture for so many centuries – it can be easy to love that old rugged cross on a hill far away… Much easier than loving the image Jesus gave us last week of himself lifted up – as Moses lifted up the bronze image of a poisonous snake on a pole… The image Israelites had to gaze upon to be healed of snake bite in the desert. The image of the cross Jesus himself lifts up is not a beautiful image…

There is nothing remotely beautiful… about the pain of hanging all day or several days…very slowly dying on the beam of a Roman cross… The cross was designed to prevent insurrection through intimidation – designed to bring about slow, laborious painful death – extracting maximum pain and humiliation…in order to discourage resistance… to the powers-that-be.

***

Yet – especially in St John’s telling of the gospel – there is a deeper sense in which the cross actually does become strangely beautiful…

And in John there’s also a sense in which seeing – if not the same as believing – is a necessary part of belief…

In the beginning God said let there be light – and there was light. God separates the light from the darkness, and God sees that it is good.

In John’s gospel, Jesus says– “I am the light of the world.” Now he elaborates, saying walk in the light while you have the light – believe in the light so you may become children of light… John’s gospel identifies Jesus with the light of God in the beginning, saying the Word, meaning Jesus, was with God from the beginning and the Word was God. What has come into being in him was life – and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

We need to be in the light of God to see… Jesus, the world, and ourselves as we really are. The darkness around us is very dark. Without Jesus we can’t see what God is doing… And because we have become accustomed to living in the dark, Jesus has to take extraordinary measures to reveal the truth of God… So, now…

Jesus – knowing his hour has come – lets us know his soul is troubled. In the other gospels Jesus asks God to take away the cup of suffering he’s about to drink. In John, Jesus merely lets us know his soul is troubled. He briefly considers the option of asking God to save him from this hour – then immediately discards that option – saying “Father glorify your name.” And the voice of God that calls forth creation in the beginning… speaks to Jesus now in the dawn of new creation…

And in Christ’s accepting of the cross – the world is already judged. The ruler of this world, the devil is already over-thrown. Even before Jesus gets to the cross physically – he has accomplished his mission. He is assured of victory – God’s victory – over death… The moment he says – no turning back.

The dragon of demonic power is dead. But the dead dragon’s twitching tail can still do damage. Full completion of Christ’s victory requires the patient cooperation of all Christ’s people… till God the Father says fullness of time has come. Meanwhile…

Truly God is glorified in mysterious ways. Nobody in their right mind by human ways of thinking would ever come up with the cross as the solution to the worst of humanity’s calamitous dilemmas… The cross is a message that’s always utterly foolish for the rational mind. Yet the soul somehow can understand – God did this for me, for us, and for all. Our minds can scarcely take it in. But our souls can begin to understand.

I remember in seminary, our Dean of the BU School of Theology, a prominent liberal theologian, preaching in our weekly chapel service a sermon that touched on the worst problems of the nation and the world – concluding with the question – “what is it about the human condition – that requires the blood of God’s Son for our salvation?” Nearly all of us were quite surprised to hear our Dean saying this. We wondered at this apparent radical shift in theology.

I remember asking a friend, who had worked with Dean Neville, what’s going on? He said a Buddhist theologian whom Dean Neville respected had recently told him – “If I was a Christian I would be very curious about the atonement” – curious about our admittedly mysterious belief in Christ’s blood on the cross and Christ’s resurrection from the dead as sign and seal of our salvation. Something apparently shifted for our Dean. And for me too. Ever since I’ve shared in wondering – what is it about our human condition – that requires the extreme solution of Christ and his cross?

***

This week the Bourne Enterprise’s Poetry column had a quote from the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (from my hometown of Concord), who wrote: “There is no object so foul – that intense light will not make beautiful.

There is no object so foul – that intense light will not make beautiful. I still don’t believe this with my rational mind. I know of far too many things I can’t imagine as beautiful – even with extreme exposure to light. Broken bodies. Broken lives. Willful cruelty… So… I still find it very difficult to see beauty in the cross.

Except as – I think I may now hear Jesus… agreeing with Emerson. And begin to see – in the light of God’s light-embodied-in-Jesus – begin to see even this deranged, broken world – this world which God so loves – transformed – and made strangely beautiful… in Christ.

Looking to Jesus, the light of the world, I begin to see… even the terrifying ugliness of the cross – and through the cross, even the world – becoming beautiful.

Because in the light of God’s presence… there is a transformation too deep for human minds to comprehend and words to express. In the light of Christ’s presence… there is light and life that transforms even our darkest guilt, shame and misery… Into life – true and abundant life – full of grace and peace, truth and joy…

And having read the rest of the story, we know – when he speaks of himself lifted up on the cross, drawing all people to himself – Jesus also means – lifted up from the tomb – lifted up from the world – lifted up to God –

Lifting us – all of us – up with him into the arms of God, our gracious God, in God’s perfect light of eternal loving embrace.

          Thanks be to God. Amen.