Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 119:9-16 | Hebrews 5:5-10 | John 12:20-33
How many of you know that old game called phone tag? Now, this may require a little translation for some of us. You have to understand that this game is from back in the day when phones were actually used to make calls. It helps to know that.
You have a group of people sitting in a circle and the first person whispers something in the ear of the person next to them. Then they whisper what they heard into the ear of the person next to them and so on. The funny and alarming part is to listen for how the message has changed by the time it gets around the circle
And then on the other end: “It’s time for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And then some kind of a lesson on farming and seeds and life. A simple yes or no would have sufficed.
I suspect this is intentional—an attention getting device that invites the hearer to pay attention. We’re going to have to listen a little closer. In the telling, John is asking us to examine our assumptions, and consider that we might be the Greeks who come with a set of expectations that aren’t quite right.
Because while it seems they don’t actually get to see Jesus in the story, we just might. Jesus just may be asking the question, or a deeper one, about where we see him, about where we encounter what gives us life.
But perhaps not where we’ve expected.
You see, here’s another thing about this story that might at first be puzzling. Here we are in chapter 12, hardly half way through the 21 chapters of the book, and Jesus says its time—the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. If we’ve reached the highlight of the story, what are we going to do with all the rest of these chapters? Watch the grass, or better, the grain, grow?
So this might help: for John, Jesus is best seen on the cross. Now we still might not understand what that means, if we ever do fully. But we can get somewhere with this idea, I think.
You see, for John, Jesus is glorified in his death. Admittedly that’s a tough one to get our heads around. If he were a king, his death would be his coronation. If he were an Olympic athlete, his death would be his gold medal. That’s why John doesn’t go where the other gospels do, having the voice speak from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. Instead the voice thunders here, at the cross which is a throne or a medal stand or whatever is the best sign you could imagine of achievement. And it is saying, “there he is Greeks and everyone. Take a look. Here’s Jesus, my son, and here is the glorification of my name, the ultimate sign of the reality of God. It’s there on the cross, it’s in the suffering and the self-giving. This is the moment when everything changes.”
And so we have reached an end of sorts, an end to Book One in John’s gospel—the coronation, the medal ceremony. Some have called it the “Book of Signs.” And then book two begins. Some call what comes next the “Book of Glory.”[i]
And the Book of Glory begins with, of all things, a foot washing.[ii] Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, as we will be given a chance to do in a couple weeks on Maundy Thursday.
So if we didn’t catch that things were a bit non-traditional with the medal round coming by way of a cross, or today we might picture it as an electric chair, the humbling of taking a towel and serving one another in certainly an uncomfortable and disarming way might be a clue that this game of phone tag is leading us away from one thing, but perhaps closer to a message that might be important to hear.
If you want to see Jesus, look on the cross, and understand why he’s there, what he’s doing, what it means. And it may not be what you were told, or at least not I was told for a long time. Jesus’ death doesn’t somehow fix everything with some strange magical calculus. It fixes it by exposing it, by lifting up all that’s wrong and painful and awful to say, “There’s more.”
There’s more to this life. There’s more to you. That pain and that sorrow that you are feeling, that emptiness and despair that you know so deep in your bones, that voice so deep inside you that tells you this just isn’t right. Listen to it. Let it have its voice. Let it tell you a story of something more. This cross, this electric chair on which sits such incredible injustice and tragedy, such goodness being thrown away, this coronation may just be the way to your salvation.
Some years ago Barb and I were driving down the hill toward the Landing on Sunset. We were barreling around that busy corner a little before you get to the turn into Goodwill and Saar’s and Plum Delicious, right about where they’ve just put those new houses in. It is a very busy street, and I was probably going over the speed limit like most people do right there. And I saw a young boy. He couldn’t have been more than four years old. And he was by himself, no adults around, and he was walking on the sidewalk two feet from where I barreled by.
I’m sure I didn’t even think about it. It was a reaction, a reflex. I pulled into the first side street and stopped the car and went to this little boy before he could step into the street and be mowed down by someone speeding by like I had been. I could see it happening in my mind as clear as day.
Barb called 911 and I got him to come away from the edge of the busy street and we waited for no more than a few minutes until the police came and pretty quickly reunited him with his worried mother.
And after everything was done, I got back into the car and I did something that I hardly ever do, something that was as reflexive, as involuntary as my pulling over earlier. I wept. I couldn’t help it. It just came out in waves—sadness and gratitude and despair for a world that could allow a little boy no more than four years old to find himself walking along a busy street like that. I wept for him, and for all the other little boys and girls who experience things a hundred times worse in any given moment. It was like a throbbing pain. It was Jesus on the cross, a coronation of such absolute pain and sorrow, an exposing what is so wrong, that broke open my heart so that I could do nothing but try to do something right.
You see, I can’t speak for that little boy, but that event in some eternal way, saved me. It crucified whatever other self-important gods I might have been serving in that moment, and opened me to a love and compassion that makes for life. It got me out of myself by finding something deep within that had nothing to do with me and yet everything to do with me.
Jeremiah says “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”[iii] That is the height of the new covenant, the height of salvation as Jeremiah envisions it. And in some strange way it is in our being exposed to what is so wrong, hanging up their on a cross, that literally drags us into what is right.
You see that’s really the word for draw when Jesus says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will drag all people to myself,” like I was dragged to that little boy.
I’m sure you must be getting tired by now of me recycling this same old quote from The Color Purple. You can see it again in the box where there is room for your own reflection. But I hope you’ll indulge me one more time because I think it is saying what John and Jeremiah are both saying.
God is inside you. Sometimes you have to go searching for it. That’s what discipleship is about. That’s what our service is about. That’s what taking time intentionally for reflection, for doing nothing is about. And sometimes it just manifests itself even if you are not looking, or don’t know what you are looking for. Trouble does it for most folks—isn’t that the truth!
If you want enlightenment, start here.
If you want truth, start here.
If you want salvation, start here.
If you want to see Jesus, you know where to look.
[i] See, for example, Gordon Lathrop in The Four Gospels on a Sunday (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 134.
[ii] John 13:1ff.
[iii] Jeremiah 31:33.