Four Motifs from the Gospel Reading for Lent V
2009-03-22 by Paul Janssen
Fourteen verses from any book in the Bible offer ample themes and texts for preaching. The lens of my limited imagination clarifies no less than 12 possible directions; I can hardly guess how many may be discerned by a more creative mind than mine. I will not comment much on any of these, but insofar as this site is intended to raise up possible images that preachers may find useful in their own situations, here is my own list.
1. The Gentiles’ statement “We wish to see Jesus.”
2. “The hour has come.”
3. The theme of glorification
4. The parable of the grain and bearing fruit
5. An expansive use fruit-bearing with the tree dream from Dan. 4:12 and the tree with healing leaves of Rev. 22:2
6. The parable of loving and hating one’s life
7. The matrix of serving and following
8. The passion of the troubled soul
9. The purpose of Jesus’ incarnation
10. The thundering voice of God
11. The casting out of the ruler of this world
12. Drawing all people to myself
In order to provide more useful insight into the passage, I will focus on four directions that may plant seeds into the minds of fellow homileticians.
First, regarding “the hour has come.”
Several times previously in the gospel of John, either Jesus demurs when provoked, saying “the hour has not yet come” (2: 4; 7: 6 and 8); or the gospel writer uses the expression as a device (7:30, 8:20). Apparently the notion of “the hour” is significant in the evangelist’s imagination. What, precisely, is the hour? The expression could be interpreted as narrowly as the (literal) hour of the death of Jesus, as broadly as all of the events surrounding his passion and resurrection (and ascension, by some interpreters), or anywhere in-between. In any case, it appears to refer to the climactic events of the last Passover Jesus spent in Jerusalem. And what, for John, is the sum and content of those events? The gospel of John speaks consistently that the hour is an hour of “glorification.” (Indeed, some commentators argue that v. 23 leads directly to vv. 27-28.) What, then, is the nature of glorification? Raymond Brown’s magisterial work on John finds two elements in the Hebrew scriptures’ portrayal of glory: “it is a visible manifestation of [God’s] majesty in acts of power. While God is invisible, from time to time He manifests Himself to men by a striking action, and this is His kabod or glory.” (Brown, Anchor Commentary #29, p. 503.) Thus Psalm 29 is probably the most dramatic picture of the glory of God descending on the people of God. Here in John 12, the drama is clearly headed toward Calvary and beyond. The ironies become enticing at this point. The crucifixion was an intentionally visible, public act of the Roman government, not God. The Father, as the story goes, becomes somewhat invisible (Jesus’ last words from the cross in John do not even speak to the Father.) On the other side, the resurrection of Jesus is God’s most striking act of God’s power in all of the Scriptures. Yet the resurrection itself is nowhere described. God does indeed glorify God’s own self in the three days, but not in the least in the way one would expect. God’s version of glory and our version of glory do not coincide.
Second, the parables of grain and life. As for the grain, at issue is not whether the grain rots in the storage bin or is planted. The issue is whether the grain remains alone or bears fruit. The grain may bear fruit, but only if it both falls into the earth and dies. The emphasis seems to be on the dying. For Jesus, there is no shortcut to eternal life (not, I would contend, life that goes on for an infinity of days, but life that is lived fully in the presence of God who is beyond time). Thus, while the grain imagery is not at all prominent in the synoptic gospels, the tone of finding life through dying is similar to the familiar sayings of saving and destroying one’s life. The parables (or sayings, if you like) of grain and life belong together. They are stark indeed, and uncompromising. If dying is the non-negotiable means of bearing fruit (unless!), so hating one’s life is the gateway for keeping that life. Luke and Matthew bear witness to Jesus’ use of such apparently harsh choices (Luke 14:26; Mt. 10:37). The sayings re-confirm the matrix of the readings from Lent 4: the way to restoration is by looking at the super-snake lifted up; the way to eternal life is through relationship with the one lifted up on the cross. One does not enhance one’s life by consuming one self-help book after another. The individual-focused therapeutic self-help model by its very nature feeds the heart turned in upon itself. Yet can a preacher imagine entitling a sermon “Your Best Death Now?”
Third, what I’ll call the soul-conversation between Jesus and the Father. (I make no attempt to alter the text, although I recognize that father language is problematic for many.) It comes on rather abruptly; so much so that it is hard to tell whether Jesus is speaking directly to his followers or whether he is simply thinking out loud. (The abruptness bolsters the sense that this entire passage is composed of several strands of earlier narratives.) This is not exactly the same as the Gethsemane moment, but the echoes are clear. At the very least, Jesus ponders the possibility of crying out that he be saved from the momentous “hour” that he senses coming. His soul is troubled, stirred up like troubled water. Perhaps we have here an echo of Psalm 42:5: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” In any case, the evangelist reports a voice coming from heaven, a voice that sounds like either thunder or an angel. Which smells like “glory” – a public manifestation of a mighty act (see above). Curiously, this is the first time that John reports a voice of this type. The gospel reports no such occurrence during Jesus’ baptism, and it includes no narrative of Transfiguration. If first words are as important as last words, then one may take this story as a signal to the meaning of the entire gospel: “I have glorified it [my name], and I will glorify it again.] Not much that’s warm and fuzzy here; no ‘beloved son’ or ‘well pleased’ language. The saying is clearly about God’s glorification of God’s own name. It’s about God’s will being done.
This, then, leads to the last of four motifs: “the judgment of this world.” What is all of this drama of the hour and glorification meant to accomplish? What will be accomplished in the coming death, resurrection, and ascension is the casting out of the ruler of this world. One may rely on one’s own understanding regarding precisely what is being referred to here: Satan, the tempter, the force(s) of evil, the powers and principalities, death. However one construes that power that runs counter to the purposes of God, it is clear enough that what is going on in this drama is the removal of any authority of that power over not only those who look to Jesus and believe, but the removal of any authority at all from evil or the evil one. Many westerners will argue that the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ is found in the notion of substitutionary atonement. I have no interest in arguing against that construal of the three days; however, that is not what is being portrayed in John 12:31. What we encounter here is far closer to the Christus Victor model. Jesus proclaims that the showdown is coming; it is reaching high noon (is this “the hour”?), and the Power Who Is will at last discharge the powers that be from their temporary thrones. There will, in the end, be nothing that can separate the beloved from the love of God as manifested in the One who is victorious over the powers.
The season of Lent grows long, and one is tempted to rush headlong toward Easter. Clearly this passage makes way for such a premature “Alleluia.” Perhaps it is better to simply hint at what’s coming, to offer up, as Bruce Cockburn put it, “rumors of glory”; rumors of God’s glory, planted deep, dying, poking its head through the surface of the soil.
Michael Ruffin's Sermon
2009-03-21 by David von Schlichten
I find profoundly helpful the sermon's reflection on different aspects of the Light that cause us to blink. We can blink because we need to adjust, or we can blink in wonder. I suppose any reaction to the Light is better than no reaction, better than indifference to the Light.
As I mentioned earlier in this week, I need a T-word for my sermon this Sunday as part of a series, and I have decided to go with "Turn To the LighT."
My series is on WAITing for God to act. One thing we do while waiting is continue to turn toward God's light, even when God appears not to be responding to our cries. We do good works, not to earn salvation, but to honor God.
As the reading from John 3 avers, "Those who love truth come to the light, SO THAT it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done IN GOD."
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
First Draft of This Week's Sermon
2009-03-19 by Michael Ruffin
On the Road to the Cross: Blinking in the Light
My promising baseball career ended after my one season in Babe Ruth (ages 13-15) ball, mainly because I decided that I’d rather work after school and on Saturdays at a local grocery store so that I could save money to buy a car, which I did. I had already, though, during that season been confronted with a problematic limitation that made me wonder about my future in the game.
It was a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon and that was the problem. I was one of the youngest players on the team and I didn’t play much, but on that particular afternoon the coach decided to play me in left field and another reserve player in right field. During warm-ups I realized that I had a problem. So I went to one of the coaches and said, “I really think it would be best if you switched Frank and me—left field is the sun field and I don’t think I can handle it.” They made no change. And sure enough, in the top of the first inning, a batter hit a long drive into left field and, when I looked up, all I saw was the sun. Friends, that was thirty-seven years ago and I haven’t seen that ball yet!
Everybody is sensitive to the light but I was hyper-sensitive. When I looked up into that blazing sun, my impulse was to screw my eyes shut or to turn my back on the offending sun. The light revealed one of my shortcomings, which was that I couldn’t stand the light—and so I missed the ball.
How sensitive to the light are you?
Jesus said, according to the Gospel of John, “I am the Light of the World.” In this morning’s text, John says, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (vv. 19-21). Now, we should remember that John offered those words as part of his follow-up to the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews (3:1), had come to Jesus “by night” (3:2), which in John’s symbolic world indicates that he was at least potentially on the move from the darkness into the light. Haltingly, probingly, Nicodemus approached Jesus with a question, a question that indicated some openness, some hope—and some hesitation.
In other words, as Nicodemus came toward the light, he was blinking already. What was he to make of this Jesus? You know how sometimes a person’s eyes will blink when she is nervous or anxious—that’s the kind of blinking that I imagine Nicodemus doing as he first came to Jesus. He wanted to approach Jesus—he did approach Jesus—but as he did the Light made him blink in nervousness, because he knew that this Jesus just might be the real deal and he knew that meeting this Jesus just might make the difference for him but he also knew that the implications for his life were staggering. What was there in this light, in this Jesus, that drew him to Jesus? What was there in him that drew him to this light, to this Jesus? What in his life made it necessary for him to go to Jesus? What was there in his life that kept him from coming whole-heartedly to Jesus?
After Nicodemus asked his question Jesus answered him with words about being born again or born from above and with more words about the Spirit acting like the wind in that it goes where it will all of which led Nicodemus to exclaim, “How can these things be?” (3:9). He’s blinking again, isn’t he? But this time he’s blinking in confusion and consternation because you know how it is with us—we like to be in control or at least to think we’re in control and there was Nicodemus, a smart and important and powerful man, listening to this beguiling rabbi say some very confusing things but things that sure seemed to imply that if he or anyone else was going to be in the kingdom of God it was going to have to be God’s doing and that God’s doing was from beyond him and was mysterious and was gracious. That’s what the light of Jesus revealed—and it’s no surprise that Nicodemus blinked. We blink in consternation and confusion when we realize that a situation is out of our hands, when the light shines on us in such a way that we see ourselves in a situation out of which there is no way unless somebody rescues us.
And that’s when Jesus dared Nicodemus and everybody else who was standing around and everyone who has heard his words ever since to look directly into the light: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life” (vv. 14-15). The reference is to a story in Numbers 11 when, because of the people’s sin, God sent serpents into the camp to bite them and then Moses made a bronze serpent and placed it on a pole so that, when those who had bitten looked upon it, they would be healed. Jesus draws two comparisons in this saying; the first is between the lifting up of the serpent and the lifting up of the Son of Man while the second more implicit one is between the effect of looking upon the serpent (the stricken are healed) and the effect of looking upon the crucified Son of man (the dying receive eternal life). “If you’ll look at the crucified Son of man—if you’ll see him and believe him—then you will have the life with God that God wants you to have,” Jesus said to Nicodemus and others who were listening and so he is saying to us.
Looking into that light is hard and when we do it we will blink again—but we may blink in wonder and amazement or we may blink in denial and stubbornness.
We might blink in wonder and amazement because we are so astounded that such grace and love and mercy, grace and love and mercy that down deep we just knew had to exist, are available to us. We might blink in wonder and amazement because that hope for life with God that had been a flickering ember within us bursts into a wondrous flame. We might blink in wonder and amazement because we have craved forgiveness and in Christ on the cross we see that we can be forgiven. But still—we may also blink in fear and anxiety and confusion and consternation because, well, even though we are so gratified to see Christ on the cross and even though something clicks in us that says “Yes!” there are still those things we’ve done or that doubt we feel or that pride that we have. It’s ok—a little doubtful and fearful and hesitant blinking is always going to be the case for us; we can’t let that stop us from coming to the light.
But we also might blink in denial or stubbornness. We may not like what the light reveals about salvation—that it is free and gracious and not something that we can earn—and such light might probe into the nooks and crannies where our pride is hiding. We may not like what the light reveals about us—that we are sinners who do sinful things—and such light might focus on our failings and our flaws in such a way that causes us to get our backs up and cause us to say, “Who does this Jesus think he is? I’m no worse than anyone else. I can take care of my own problems my own way. Who needs this?” And so we can turn away from the light, our eyes screwed up and our hearts shut down. But still—if you’ll just turn around and look again, if you’ll just let yourself blink—we all know how hard, maybe how impossible, it is to look at such light straight on—then the light just might still get into your life so that you will see that God does in fact love you and that God did in fact give God’s only Son for you and that if you will come to the light—albeit blinkingly and haltingly—you will find grace and forgiveness and life.
More Blinking Nuance
2009-03-19 by Michael Ruffin
This question was submitted via email: "With regards to the light and the blinking, two other considerations are in play in the human eye. How bright the light is and how long one has been in the dark (or how suddenly the light appears.) At least those conditions affect the way I respond to light. Would they add dimensions to your thoughts?"
Indeed, I think they do. They add a helpful take on what I've been thinking about.
When you start playing with this whole light and dark thing that's so important to John, the possible accompanying images seem boundless.
To a T
2009-03-19 by David von Schlichten
I like those suggestions quite a bit. I may use them. Hmmm.
I also appreciate your distinction between humility and timidity. Wise.
Thankful, I am
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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