Lent 5 March 29, 2009

Jeremiah 31:31-34                                                             

Hebrews 5:5-10                                                                  

John 12:20-33


Each of us here this morning has something we must give up, surrender, sacrifice, in order that we might truly live. It’s something very precious to you, something you’ve held onto fiercely in your deepest soul, for years, maybe all your life. And you don’t want to let go of it. But you must, if you are to be truly free and whole and alive in Jesus Christ.


Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. – John 12:24


Those words from this morning’s gospel reading, in the old King James translation, marked a turning point in my own life—the critical one. I read them as a freshman in college, the inscription at the beginning of the great Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov. And somehow I knew that they were spoken to me, that they would shape my entire life. As they have. They led me to become a Christian, to become a priest, to endure and make sense out of suffering and loss of various sorts along the way. I want them inscribed on the tombstone marking my grave, so that perhaps they may speak to others.


In the gospel this morning, Jesus has come to Jerusalem, the end of his life’s journey. Jews spoke of “going up to” Jerusalem. They understood it as the summit and center of the world. So here he was, Jesus, with his ragtag group of disciples from the country. They have come to celebrate the Passover, the greatest festival in the Jewish religion, marking the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. It is the day we will celebrate next week on what we Christians call Palm Sunday. Jesus has just been welcomed to Jerusalem as Messiah, with the spreading of palms and the shouts of hosanna!


Among those who had come up for this festival, St. John tells us, were “some Greeks,” who wished to “see Jesus.” It seems an incidental detail, but it is not. These Greeks, you see, represented the greater world, the world beyond Judea, beyond the community among whom Jesus had been moving all his life. This was his moment, his breakthrough moment. We can imagine the excitement as Philip went to tell Andrew the news, and together they went to tell Jesus. This is it! You’re going to be Messiah not only in Jerusalem and Judea, but in the great world beyond.


Now in one way or another I’m betting that this moment has something to do with the thing in your soul that you need to give up. It did for me, back in college, though it’s taken all my life for me to really understand it. We all harbor dreams of greatness, of significance, of perfect happiness. Maybe they have to do with popularity, with making a pile of money, with being a celebrity, with living forever—or even just winning the lottery, finding the perfect mate. We may be only half conscious of these dreams of glory, but they drive us. They are, deep down, what we live for.


So Philip and Andrew come to Jesus and tell him this wonderful news about the Greeks. And how does Jesus reply? “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” he says, and then launches into that speech about the need for the grain of wheat to fall into the ground and die in order to bring forth fruit. He’s talking, of course, about his crucifixion. It is by this, this death on the cross, that God’s name will be “glorified.” And at the end of his words comes that voice from heaven—the voice that has spoken at all the critical points in Jesus’ life: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”


When I was a lawyer, I had a client in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On my first visit to that city, the man who picked me up at the airport to drive me to the client’s office pointed out Tulsa landmarks as we drove into the city. “Here is where Oral Roberts started out,” he said, pointing to a modest building where the then famous evangelist had begun his career. “And here is where he moved next,” as we passed a much larger building. “And over there is his headquarters now,” indicating a huge skyscraper. “And there’s where he’s going to build his 777 bed hospital.” Something like that must have been on Philip and Andrew’s mind. That kind of glory. Something like that lurks in the back of my soul—and yours.


But here is the Mystery we have come up to Jerusalem to celebrate, as we move next week into the great festivals of Christianity—Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Easter: true glory is found in surrender, in sacrifice, in the giving up or dying of those false goals and idols that drive our lives. Only if we “fall into the ground and die” can we be available for Jesus. Only if we give ourselves up can we bring forth the great fruit of God’s kingdom.


What does this mean for you? You may not know. Certainly you don’t know fully. I don’t know for myself. We discover more and more as we go along. Something will happen—the loss of something important to me, the job at the big church, the crash of my retirement portfolio, the advance of aging—and I will think, O, this is another piece of my falling into Jesus. Let it go, let it die. Look to the fruit it can bear. And so, too, for you.


For at the center of these coming celebrations, as at the center of our whole lives and the center of history, is not a gigantic monument to human achievement, but a lonely body hanging on a cross—a monument to the invincible and eternal love of God. God is the ground into which we fall. God is the ground that brings forth greater fruit from our self sacrifice.






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