John 12.20-33

Have you ever had that experience in life when you ask someone a question and you have a sneaking feeling that the reply was just what happened to be on their mind at the time. It doesn't seem to be connected with what you asked. Some people are particularly good at it. Politicians, of course, are famous for it. And I've known a few witnesses in court do the same. But by far the greatest experts, must be small boys. It's so transparent. You ask what they'd like for breakfast and they tell you something about dragons, or dinosaurs or the Harry Potter book they're buried in. And I also (being nothing more than a grown boy) find it very difficult to break out of my chain of thoughts to answer someone's unrelated question.

Well, quite often, reading the gospels, Jesus seems to be doing just this: he is asked one question and he seems to answer a totally different one. Take today, for example: There are some Greeks in town who want to see him, so the disciples go to ask him if he's willing to see them. And his answer?

"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified."

and then he launches into a parable about seeds having to die in order to spring to life and bear fruit. "Right. So, is that a yes or a no then Jesus?" And infuriatingly, we never do discover whether the Greeks ever saw him - or even got an answer!

And yet, as so often with Jesus, it was an answer - a very deep and complete answer to the question the disciples didn't even realise they were asking.

And of course, exactly the same thing happens with Jesus today - in prayer. We ask a simple question and we get a totally different answer. So different that it can seem as though we haven't had the answer. But if we keep with him, we discover that we have had an answer - a truly profound answer to the underlying question we didn't even realise we were asking.

So in what way is Jesus' reply an answer to the underlying question here? Well, to answer that, we need to join up a lot of our previous thinking.

The first point to make is that Jesus clearly sees the Greeks coming to Passover and wanting to see him as a sign. Why do we know that? Because John's gospel is full of signs. It's like a gigantic treasure hunt with clue after clue pointing towards the treasure at its heart. And this is the clue that we've found the treasure. How? Because Jesus says his time has come. Remember back to Epiphany and the wedding at Cana? John called that a sign too. But then Jesus said to his mother "my time has not yet come." Now, the arrival of these Greeks is a sign that his time has come. How?

Well, it all goes back to the Jewish understanding of what they were all about - and that's important because that's the foundation of Christian identity too, because of the way Jesus adopts it and interprets it in a new way.

The foundation for Jewish self-understanding was, of course, the covenant between God and Abraham (see sermon of 4th March 2012). They were to walk before God all their days and he would make them his chosen people (and with that were the gifts of the Promised Land and innumerable descendants). But the key to it was an active faith - walking before God, not simply being content with being a member of the right club.

Then, in their Exile in Babylon, when this identity was in complete crisis (apparently dead in fact) the prophet Isaiah had unfolded for them what it really meant to be God's chosen people - they were to be a "Light to the nations" (as we saw in session 4 of our Lent course). But what did that mean?

In their mind, it meant rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem and enticing God back to it as their king (remember this from Candlemas?). And when he returned (and the Shekinah light that signified his presence burst back into flame), God would judge the world so that:

  • Israel's enemies would be destroyed; and
  • "All nations (at least those that hadn't been destroyed in Judgment) will come to your light" They would stream to Jerusalem, to the Temple, to worship Israel's God.

Thus Israel would be vindicated and all the world would be saved from the error of their ways. That would then be the start of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So these Greeks, coming to the Jewish Passover and asking to see Jesus (who had come to usher in that kingdom) is a sign. All nations are beginning to come to your light. But for Jesus, it's not the Shekinah light in the temple. It's the real presence of God in him. Not a hidden flame in a building, but a human being, this "son of man" aflame with the Holy Spirit of God.

So, Jesus is say, now is his time:

  • Now is the judgment of this world (v31).
  • Now the real king is to be established in place of the usurper.

Somehow,this is going to be the result of what Jesus is now beginning. And what is that? He is about to be raised up - not in glory, but on a Cross! How completely unexpected. Not for the first time we see that we have got our perspective and expectations so far awry that Jesus has to turn everything on its head in order for it to make sense again: to be glorified, he has to face shame; to lead the world to his light, he has to be rejected; to live, he has to die.

And here is the sobering thing about it all: "whoever serves me must follow me" he says. This isn't like the gentle invitation to the fishermen - follow me around Galilee for a while and see where it takes us. This is an invitation to follow him to death. If we want to serve Jesus, we too must follow him to the Cross. That is what lies at the heart of the Christian faith - it is not primarily about enjoyment (though undoubtedly it brings a joy this world can never know). It is about following Jesus to the Cross - and beyond.

And if that troubles us, it's good (in a strange kind of way) to know that it troubled Jesus deeply too, but he was still convinced it was at the very heart of his mission, the reason why he had been born into this world: (v27 ff): "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."

But why was it necessary? Because, for the real king to be established the usurper has to die: (v31) "now the ruler of this world will be driven out". No king can ever exist while his rivals contend for the throne. And who is the usurper? We are. Adam is the one who usurped God right back at the beginning of Genesis. And who is Adam? I am. We are. We humans are the ones who turned our backs on God and went "every one to his own way" (to quote Handel's Messiah).

And we're not exactly keen to give up power are we? Not without a fight - a fight (as Jesus was about to discover) to the death. And yet, paradoxically, it is our grasping of power that is enslaving us. It's true in so many ways. Take on any position of responsibility and it becomes a constant battle to keep on top of it (just take a look at my diary to see what I mean!). Wealth and power need constant attention if we are to hold on to them - and that is true however much or little we have of it. And worst of all, it enslaves us because ultimately it is destined to fail. There is one function of God we cannot perform, however hard we try - we cannot give ourselves life. And so, by usurping God's kingship, we are enslaved to death.

The usurper has to die in order for us to live again. This rebellious, usurping humanity has to die in order for the true humanity to live. And so this "son of man" will die. By his death, the war against God will finally be over and peace with God will be established. And a new covenant will be established - the one Jeremiah talked about. Where it will no longer be necessary to go to extraordinary lengths to draw near to God, because he will be in our hearts. We shall know him intimately and be at peace with him.

And that peace will be available to all nations. We may all stream to the light of the world. By Jesus' death, all people may share in the Passover that sets us free and leads us to the Promised Land.

But all who want to be free must share Jesus' death. We must put our sins to death on his Cross. Our rebellion against God must be turned to true allegiance before the throne of his Cross. We must accept his kingship once more - at the core of our being. And, however, uncomfortable, we must follow him. Our discipleship must become the active, living "walking before God" that it was intended to be.

And however much that troubles our souls, as it troubled Jesus', there are so many wonderful promises to be grasped: life free from the things that trouble us most deeply, life free from the sentence of death and the threat of worthless existence. Life free of the burden of self-justification and endless care of self. Freedom to be with Jesus in his new life - the life of the real humanity, the life we were intended to live, because:

"where I am, there will my servant be also."

Preached: Cliburn, Gt Strickland, Bolton, Sunday 25th March 2012