Scripture – John 12:20-33 – Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 18, 2018
We take frequent journeys on Route 95, both north and south, and have, on a somewhat regular basis, for close to 20 years. We began with transporting college students to New Haven and Maryland and now visit grandchildren in New York and Massachusetts. The traffic and concurrent emotional experiences on Route 95 have ranged from the mundane to the frustrating to the completely infuriating. But that’s all over now. We have a new way to manage our travel expectations. We now have a solid predictor of the mood swings we will endure along the way. Because we now have the miles and minutes signs!
You know those miles and minutes signs. Thanks to GPS technology and recently installed digital signage, we can now look up as we drive along and see how many miles it is to Route 7 or Route 8 or Route 91 or TF Green or Providence and instantly know how many minutes it will take from our current location based on current traffic conditions and an assumed cruising speed of 65 mph. Sometimes it’s really good news: twenty miles to Route 8 and 19 minutes. Sometimes it’s not so bad: twenty miles to Route 8 and 25 minutes. Sometimes it’s disastrous: 20 miles to Route 8 and 45 minutes. And because of the location of Route 95, it practically never makes sense to exit the highway and seek an alternate route – those are usually worse!
This makes for a rather exciting ride, almost akin to a good movie you can’t turn off, as we reach the emotional heights gained by efficient smooth sailing and the sorrowful lows of slow-downs due to construction or fender-benders or, my personal favorite, the mysteries of high volume. All because we are privy to and co-dependent on these signs of our traffic future and fate.
Who knew that Greeks showing up in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival would be a sign? A remarkable, unusual and important sign according to author James Ernest. Understood by most scholars as Gentiles rather than Hellenistic Jews, these Greeks seeking Jesus signal two things. To the readers of the gospel, they signal a broadening of the group of believers beyond just the Jewish community. To Jesus, “their appearing is a sign that ‘the hour’ has come.” Ernest says “Jesus sees the Greeks as an advance scouting party of the ‘all’ [people] who will be drawn to him when he is ‘lifted up’.” The Greeks’ miles-long journey to Jerusalem now sets the countdown of minutes into motion. And you will notice that Jesus never does speak to them: “the revelation to them will be made from the cross.”
Yet, the news of the Greeks’ seeking and arriving which comes through Jesus’ disciples Phillip and Andrew, initiates Jesus’ discourse to his disciples and to those who surround them and to us, the readers of this gospel. It begins with what Mr. Ernest terms the “Johannine attention signal”: “very truly”. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus asks us to pay special attention to what he is about to say by beginning with “very truly”. Very truly, I tell you, here comes something which will cause you to consider whether or not to get off at the next exit.
If we want to serve Jesus, we must follow Jesus. Jesus is headed to the cross, to death by crucifixion, and we are asked to die to the way we are in this world, die to this worldly life. And “the world” as described by Jesus is not God’s good and abundant creation but, as homiletics professor Charles Campbell writes, the world is “the fallen realm that exists in estrangement from God and is organized in opposition to God’s purposes.” We must die to this world, this “System” as Campbell describes it, this System we can still all recognize as being ruled by the ways of domination, violence and death. We must die to this world in order to live for eternal life. “One must hate one’s own and the world’s alienation from God.”
The Greeks provide the sign, Jesus’ words the signal and now a direction from no less than the mouth of God. Scripture says: “A voice came from heaven” – the only voice of its kind, by the way, in the Gospel of John – “a rare form of direct revelation.” The voice of the “father himself, [which] audibly confirms Jesus’ prayer and by implication his whole mission and message.” “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
Yet some in the crowd say it’s thunder; “Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.'” But Jesus is quite clear: “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.” Yes, the hour has come and my soul is troubled, but my whole life and ministry has led me to this hour; and, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will not bear fruit. Death must precede new life; death must precede the glorification of the Son of Man. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”: lifted up on the cross and lifted up in glorious exaltation for all time.
There have been times, while slowly crawling in horrible traffic for literally hours on Route 95, that I have imagined our car like a helicopter, sprouting the whirling mechanism which will lift us up and out and over the traffic and set us down gently in our driveway in Mystic. Likewise, how tempting for Jesus to want to bypass the suffering and death part and go right to the glory. How hard it is for us to crawl through life and all the suffering it brings and to keep our eyes fixed on the one up ahead we are called to follow. How easy it would be to just take the next exit and go off on our own to fill ourselves up with the diversions of greedy shopping or gluttonous eating or gawdy entertainment, to give up and take the “back roads” and separate ourselves altogether from caring for anything but our own welfare. Why should we have to endure this slow and heavy and boring ride?
Californian priest and author Michael Battle says it well: “The authenticity of God on the cross removes our righteous indignation, because God does not bypass the death we too must endure….God, by taking human nature upon God’s self – living in poverty and dying in shame and torment – has earned the right to ask us to hold on a little longer…”
And hold on we must, my friends. As we watch a world stalled to a dead stop in paralyzing division, blaring horns of selfishness, incessantly switching lanes to gain advantage, we must watch and depend on the signs of hope and encouragement along the way. We must listen to the voice of God for direction and stay true to the route we have chosen, following Jesus to the cross and through death to the Resurrection and eternal life. No matter how many minutes it takes to traverse those miles, we will get home and we will find him waiting. May God grant us patience and perseverance. Amen.