Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
March 22, 2015
Bill is a World War II vet from a church I previously served. He had been severely abused in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and suffered schizophrenia. He came to church wearing mismatched clothes covered by buttons for conflicting causes and distributed hand drawn leaflets that resembled the charts of John Forbes Nash Jr. in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Especially during Lent he would draw magic marker stigmata: wounds of crucifixion – nail prints on his hands and crown of thorns on his forehead. Understandably, people avoided Bill. Once when he was not there I told the congregation they could see him as God’s sign of being called to become so identified with Jesus that people might think we were crazy.
Hebrews 5:7 says that Jesus offered up prayers with loud cries and tears. We naturally connect that with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane which the Gospel of John does not report. It does record Jesus’ lengthy high priestly prayer in chapter 17 just before his arrest. But John 12:20-33 does tell us that the way Jesus prayed as he approached the cross illuminates the counterintuitive path of our redemption and discipleship.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever 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.28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
In Isaiah 42:14 God says, “Now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” Lauren Winner, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, sees this image of God as a mother giving birth to redemption in Jesus’ anguished praying as he approached the cross. His prayers that his Father might save him from this hour are like the mother in labor who protests, “I can’t do this anymore,” but does bring a child into the world. So humanly, Jesus recoiled from what he faced, and yet brought the new life of God’s redemption into the world. Christian Century, March 18, 2015, pp. 32 ff
Paradoxically, by being killed on the cross by the powers of evil, Jesus drove out the ruler of this world. The way Jesus prayed as he approached the cross illuminates the counterintuitive path of our redemption and discipleship.
After repeatedly saying his time had not come, when the Greeks want to see Jesus and the voice comes from heaven, he recognized that the time had come. As dreadful as it was, now he fulfilled the reason he came.
Jesus told the analogy of a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying so it can bear much fruit to illustrate not only his crucifixion and resurrection but the whole counterintuitive way God’s spiritual power works. Just as being born as God incarnate and refusing to use force in the temptations at the start of his ministry, being killed on the cross defeated the evil ruler of this world by reversal.
Being lifted up from the earth on the cross would be the way Jesus would die, but it was also the means by which he would draw all people to himself.
Jesus was clear that this counterintuitive reversal was not only the means of our redemption but the essential to what being his disciple and following him was all about. The language Jesus used was hyperbole – an extreme exaggeration to make a dramatic point. Jesus’ culture used such figures of speech, and ours is more literalistic. Still we should squirm to hear Jesus say that by loving our lives we lose them and by hating our lives in this world we keep them for eternal life.
This was not a one-off in this tense situation. Jesus said almost exactly the same thing in every Gospel, each time in a different situation. Mark 8:35-37 which was in my March 1 sermon, as well as Matthew 10:39 and Luke 14:26. It is an inescapable theme of Jesus entire ministry.
Jesus did not limit it to his redemptive death, but said “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (v. 26) If we follow Jesus, we will give ourselves away trusting God to bring fruit.
The way Jesus prayed as he approached the cross illuminates the counterintuitive path of our redemption and discipleship.
When William Willamon, who now teaches at Duke Divinity School, was a Methodist pastor, he asked a woodcarver in the congregation to carve a processional cross to use for Lent. Instead of something simple, modern and clean, what they got was a dramatic heavy cross with a bleeding Jesus on it. Some loved it because they loved the carver, but most objected that it was gory and depressing and didn’t match the décor.
Just as Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears as he approached the cross, I believe we can cry out to God from the depths of our anguish for the misery people suffer in our world. Jesus’ prayers were heard, but not for escape but in reverent submission. Thus to pray “Your will be done,” is not a cop out but courageous faith.
Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday. If all you experience is Triumphal Entry and Resurrection, you miss the stark horror of our redemption from which even Jesus recoiled. In God’s economy, triumph is won only through painful, apparent defeat. We have opportunity to embrace the counterintuitive path of our redemption on Maundy Thursday evening, Good Friday afternoon and evening.
Authentic evangelism works the same way. As we give ourselves away in the name of Jesus, he is lifted up and people are drawn to him.