Finding Jesus in Obedience

A sermon on John 12:20-33

Our family has a few sets of questions that are designed to prompt meaningful conversation. You know the kinds of questions. Things like: if you could have any superpower what would it be? Or What would you do on your perfect day.

One question that seems to show up in all of these sets is one that you have probably been asked at some point in your life: If you were given the chance to meet ANYONE in the world, who would it be and why? The answers to that question can spark really interesting conversation, especially because of the second part of the question: the why.

The reasons we would want to meet ... Lin Manuel Miranda, or Malala Yousafzai, or the US Women’s Hockey Team reveal the kinds of achievements and people that interest us. Our reasons also, probably, speak to our expectations about what it would be like. The question excites us, because it lets us imagine being in the reflected glory of our people of interest, and how that experience would feel for us.

Now, I know I probably just distracted everyone here into thinking about who your person would be, and what it would be like to meet them, so I’m gonna try to bring you back, by proposing a “person.” What would your expectations be for meeting Jesus – in the flesh, here on earth?

We all probably have unique, individual expectations about what that would be like, but I imagine we can also resonate with the people in today’s gospel reading, who bring expectations along with their desire to see Jesus.

We hear, from the gospel writer, that there are crowds surrounding Jesus, and if we go back a few verses, we see that these are the same crowds that we will read about next Sunday, on Palm Sunday. These are the crowds that shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” (John 12:13b)

The expectations of these crowds are pretty clear! They are looking to Jesus as their King. The one who will save them from the occupying army and restore life the way it should be.

We may not be an occupied people, but I imagine we have some similar expectations – that meeting Jesus here, in the middle of our problems, would mean relief – miraculous reversals of the things or conditions that occupy and oppress our lives. He’s God, right? Surely, he would FIX things.

And then there’s the Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, and this odd little detail about them approaching Philip to request access to Jesus. As visiting Greeks, they wouldn’t be interested in Jesus’s potential role as the liberating “King of the Jews,” so maybe they were drawn by different expectations. Maybe they had heard about what happened a week or two before, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. John tells us that this resurrection was drawing people like nothing else, so much so that the Pharisees started plotting to kill BOTH Jesus and Lazarus to try to stem the flood.

Maybe the expectations of the Greeks were about healing. Maybe they wanted the miracle worker to heal them, or even to raise someone they loved from the dead.

I imagine WE all have our list of healings that we would like to present to Jesus in a format a little more concrete and definable than prayer. If he walked into the room right now, I would want to grab his hand and ask him to touch the people in this room, and in my life, who need physical healing.

There is nothing wrong with these expectations in themselves. Jesus IS our healer, and our king, and our savior from the things that bind us…

But the thing about expectations, is that they can be a bondage of their own – a script that we aren’t willing to have flipped. And in today’s gospel story, Jesus flips the script.

Jesus says three things in quick succession that dramatically violate the expectations of all the crowds that had been straining to get close to him.

First, he predicts his own glorification, but not as a king. Rather, he says he has to DIE, because that’s the only way for his life to bear fruit.

Second, he says that getting close to him will mean following him… which means following him into death! And also following him in a different understanding of what life is about.

Pastor Mary Hinkle Shore explains, “when Jesus says, ‘Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,’ (John 12:25b), he is encouraging others to follow his lead in hating (or rejecting) this world’s definition of life as a small and isolated existence. He will not -- and his followers should not – grasp and hold the seed and thereby fail to bear much fruit.”[1]

Holding too tightly to our expectations about what life is supposed to give us, will mean losing out on experiencing life with the quality of the eternal – life the way God designed it to be.

The third thing Jesus says is not directed to the crowds, it’s directed to God.

He confesses that he’s troubled and he asks God how to pray.

What should I say – “Father, save me?”

No, I came to say – “Father glorify your name.”

Our reading from Hebrews defines this prayer as one of reverent submission (Heb. 5:7). Jesus does not seek to glorify himself, nor does he ask to be saved. He prays to the One who COULD save him, and his prayer is heard, but it’s not a prayer to be spared. It’s a prayer for God’s will to be done; for God to be glorified.

It’s a prayer that we pray as a community every week when we say “thy will be done…”, but it’s a prayer that I, for one, have a hard time resting in. I have a lot of expectations about what “God’s will” should include.

But Jesus is not terribly interested in accommodating our expectations. I’m sure he knew exactly why the crowds were pressing in on him… what they wanted him to do and say. But that’s NOT why he was there. He was there to glorify God; to seek not his own glory, but only God’s; to obey NOT the demands and expectations of the crowd, but only God.

And he was there to call people to follow him in this obedience, to call us to follow him in this obedience - to let go of our expectations, and of the world’s definition of life as a small and isolated existence.

It’s a hard call to hear. To hear that “what we want from God” is not what sets the agenda. It’s hard to hear even when God’s voice comes audibly from heaven; even when that voice is speaking for our sake!

No one who was there that day with Jesus understood. They looked for safer explanations: it must be thunder… or an angel… NOT God.

NOT a Divine endorsement that Jesus’s words about dying in order to bear fruit, and about hating the life of this world, and of praying for God’s glory instead of praying to be saved from trouble… That rumbling sound could not be a divine affirmation that THIS is what we should expect from Jesus.

Of course, it is God! But that’s not the only thing we can expect from Jesus.

We can also expect him to be lifted up. Lifted up on the cross; and then lifted up in resurrection; and then lifted up in the ascension.

And in that lifting up, he will draw all people to himself. Because there is a GRACE in his self-giving love, and in his defeat of death, and in the glory that is so much higher that earthly glory, that can’t help but draw us.

It’s nothing like what we expect from him, but it is so much more. It’s a promise that life, life here and now, can be so much more than our expectations.

Throughout this season of Lent we have been exploring the unexpected - and maybe the unwanted - places that we find Jesus.

In the wilderness we don’t want to stay in… and in the rebuke we don’t want to hear… and in the disruption that scares us… and in the exposure that won’t let us hide our shame… and in the obedience to a plan that violates all our expectations of how we want Jesus to save us.

There is a danger in this kind of Lenten Journey… because it might make us doubt our destination. Doubt whether we CAN meet Jesus there, given everything we know about our own weakness. We might worry that we can't handle this expectation-violating Jesus.

But the people who brought their expectations with them as they crowded around Jesus, and then who couldn’t hear the voice of God when it spoke for their benefit… THOSE PEOPLE are included in Jesus’ promise to draw ALL PEOPLE to himself. And so are we.

Being drawn to Christ… experiencing the life, and the love, and the grace that he offers does NOT depend on our expectations. That’s the glory of God. The glory of God showing up in all the places and in all the ways that we are NOT looking for God. And drawing us into the life that is so much more than we ever expected.

Thanks be to God.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3581. Accessed March 12, 2018.

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