The Hour Has Come
Scripture - John 12:20-33
The first fall that Sheryl & I were in the parsonage here at Shiloh, we were alarmed to hear loud explosions coming from somewhere toward town. In our modern world, there is always a threat of some sort of terrorism, even if I could not think of anything in Lexington that terrorists would want to blow up. So, we began peeking out the front windows in search of the source.
To our relief, off in the distance we could see a shower of colored stars against the black night sky. It
was a firework display at the fairgrounds. It was county fair time. We could not actually see most of the results of the fireworks, but we could sure hear them. I wondered if anyone else was nervous about the booms. A revolution or a celebration? It all depends on how you interpret the sudden noise.
This passage is one of the few in the New Testament where we are told that there was an actual, audible voice from heaven. And it is interesting to see what some people thought. They heard the noise - & some thought it was thunder. Other people, knowing that Jesus had just prayed, thought that perhaps it was an angel answering him. Nobody seems to have said what John clearly believes was the case: it was not thunder, it was not an angel, it was not a bomb, & it was not a fireworks display. It was God.
Of course, there was no way at the time that anybody could ‘prove’ this, & we certainly cannot do so some 2,000 years later. The more urgent task is to see what (according to John) the voice said, & the direction the whole conversation, if we can call it that, was taking.
Jesus had just said that the time had come. He had waited for this moment, for whatever sign he needed that he should move ahead to the climax of his brief but dramatic public ministry. When the Greeks came to the festival of Passover & asked to see him, this appears to have indicated to him that the time had arrived. And he was…
Proud that he had gotten to this point? No, I do not think so.
Exhilarated? Yes, so it seems, but that is not the first thing John says.
Ready to meet the moment with his head held high? Well, eventually yes, but that again is not what John says.
Troubled, Jesus says, quoting Psalm 6. Yes, you heard me correctly. The Word that had become flesh, the One in whom the Father’s own love & power was truly seen, the One who healed the sick, turned water into wine, opened blind eyes & raised Lazarus to life; he was troubled. Deeply troubled. Troubled right down to his heart.
Is your picture of God big enough for that? Can you handle a God that can be deeply troubled? Or, when God speaks, do you just think it is thundering?
Jesus was, after all, the Word become flesh. Weak flesh, human flesh, flesh that shrank from suffering as we all might. His natural instincts as a flesh-&-blood human being were to say: the time has arrived - & is there some way I can avoid it? The other gospels do not show us this side of Jesus, this internal, troubled discussion he has with himself, until we get to the Garden of Gethsemane. John has brought it forward so that we see it now, in Jerusalem, before his arrest.
The key to it all, as it often is in John, is the glory of the Father, & the way in which Jesus was totally committed to doing whatever was necessary to bring that glory about. He has come all this way, he has prepared the ground, he has spoken of the Father’s will & how the world is to be saved; & he is now going to ask for a change of plans? No, no. His troubled heart knows that there is danger ahead, but also knows that it is through that danger, rather than by sliding safely past it, that the glory will shine out to the whole world. Father, glorify your name!
That is the prayer that gets answered by thunder. God has glorified his name – he has already done so, in Jesus’ extraordinary public ministry, in his mighty & loving works. And he will do so again. Be obedient, follow the way & watch.
He will glorify his name: because those who have usurped God’s rule in the world, those who have laid it waste & trampled on the poor & exalted themselves as kings, lords, & even gods – all of them are now going to be condemned. Now is the time for judgment of this world. Now this world’s ruler will be thrown out. But it will not look like that. This was the language lots of people were expecting. It was the sort of talk you would associate with a would-be Messiah. The next thing you knew, he would be telling you to sharpen your sword & help him attack the Roman garrison beside the Temple.
But Jesus was not that sort of Messiah. He was aiming to overthrow the kingdom of the world, all right, & replace it with the kingdom of God. But the victory was to be of a totally different kind. It was all about being lifted up, exalted – on a pole, like the serpent in the wilderness. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. That is how the world would be rescued. That is how God, the true God, the God of astonishing, generous love, would be glorified. Swords do not glorify the creator-God. Love does. And self-giving love, best of all.
Jesus’ listeners, of course, do not understand him. They hardly ever do, especially in John’s gospel. This must reflect, I think, the memories that the writer, or his sources, had of endless conversations in which Jesus & the Judaeans seemed to be talking at cross purposes. They know from their traditions that the Messiah will reign forever. That is what the Bible says, after all. Listen to what God says in 2 Samuel 7:13-16: He will build a temple for my name, & I will establish his royal throne forever. I will be a father to him, & he will be a son to me. Whenever he does wrong, I will discipline him with a human rod, with blows from human beings. But I will never take my faithful love away from him like I took it away from Saul, whom I set aside in favor of you. Your dynasty & your kingdom will be secured forever before me. Your throne will be established forever. And so, they do not understand Jesus’ obscure hints about his own death, about the strange ‘Son of Man’ figure who would be lifted up. John wants us to feel not only Jesus’ frustration, as in their understanding they seem so close & yet so far away; he wants us to sense the disciples’ puzzlement as well. What was Jesus up to? What did he really mean?
He is resigned, of course, & faithful. But there is still an air of dread hanging over him as he considers the imminent future.
It is good for Christians to feel this dread, too, on this fifth Sunday in Lent, less than 2 weeks from the cross & Good Friday. We remember that part of what weighed so heavily on Jesus was the fact that he was calling his disciples to the same road of suffering that he was now modeling. He is, in fact, calling us there. As Tom Wright explains in his commentary on this passage, “Here we see, more clearly than John has showed us up to now, how it is that God will save the world through the death of Jesus – which has been hinted at in so many ways since the first chapter. Jesus’ death will be like sowing a seed into the ground. It will look like a tragedy. But in fact, it will be a triumph: the triumph of God’s self-giving love, the love that looks death itself in the face & defeats it by meeting it voluntarily, on behalf not just of Israel but of the whole world, [even] the world represented by those Greeks.”
It had to have been confounding to those who watched it all play out. It had to be confounding to Andrew & Philip, & the Greeks, who ask to see Jesus – the Messiah, the revolutionary, the teacher – & are answered with Jesus, the sown seed. Dying in order to live. Losing life to find it. Lifted up – literally, on the cross – as much as figuratively, glorified.
But the only clue Jesus will give them at the moment is to speak again about light & darkness. The light is with them for a little while longer, & they must stick with it, walk in it, & believe in it. And so must we.
Let us pray. May we grow in anticipation of God’s voice – a voice that speaks to us still. Let us hear & respond to the thunderous voice that calls to us. Amen.