Sermon, 5th Lent B, March 29, 2009, John 12:20-33

it's black and white
it's black and white

Jeremiah 31:31–34
John 12:20–33

Finding Life: Lights On

I have a love-hate relationship with the gospel of John.  I love all those stories and teachings that John  gives us that  the other gospels don’t have: the woman at the well, the water changed to wine at the wedding, the huge teaching on the Holy Spirit as the comforter, the help, and much more.  But John was written a long time after Jesus’ earthly life – time to do a lot of thinking about the meaning of Jesus’ life and teachings, time to distill the essence, see the implications, and time to draw conclusions – all of which make his story-telling awkward:  everything is black or white, and the chronology seems whimsical.

In John’s gospel, odd things happen; people ask questions that seem legitimate and direct, like “who is the son of man?”, but get cryptic answers like “The light is with you for a little longer.”    People come to see Jesus – like these Greeks – and John tells us, in an oddly detailed way, to whom they ask first, which is Philip.  Then John lets us see to whom he reports, Andrew, and we see both of them telling Jesus about the Greeks.  Then the Greeks disappear from the page.  In fact, Jesus’ following comments do not have any obvious connection with those Greeks.  It’s irritating.  So, my love-hate relationship with the gospel of John.

Did you notice what I just did?  I did what the gospel of John does: I characterized my relationship with John’s gospel as black or white, love or hate; surely it’s more complex than that.  And when I gave examples of stories I love in John, I did not list them in chronological order.  So I should be easier on John for arranging his gospel as he did; he knew what he was doing, and we are meant to understand.

So, instead of thinking of this text as a documentary film, let’s think of it as a collage – very carefully constructed, but not according to a linear sequence in time or space.

We are going to see that John made this elaborate collage because he was passionate about issues of vital importance: life and death, meaning versus meaninglessness.  These are exactly the same issues which are critical for every one of us here today.

Nearly all of us here have fewer days ahead of us than the number of days we have already lived.  We do not have time to loose.  It is of vital importance that we can say, “my life had meaning; I was put on this earth for a purpose, and I am fulfilling that purpose.”

The gospel of John presents us with only two options; find or lose your life.  Walk around in the darkness, lost, or go to where the light is and live in it.  Love your life or hate it.  John’s collage of Jesus’ teaching uses mostly black and whites; vivid contrasts; either-or with no middle ground.

Maybe that seems naive; simple-minded, but we live that kind of life all the time.  We make choices – and every choice in favor of one option forecloses another.  We decide to marry – and suddenly the single life is over.  We become home-owners, suddenly responsible for everything about the house.  We move, we become parents, we vote – and each time we decide for one option the alternative ceases to be a choice.  There are many either-or choices.

Find life or lose it; love your life or hate it; be in darkness or light; one or the other; both is not an option.  The difference is not a secret mystery: it is summed up in Jesus.  Follow Jesus, or don’t; it makes all the difference.  Following Jesus, in this black and white collage, involves exactly one choice:

26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

Where I am”  may initially sound peaceful and calm – but if so, all that is shattered quickly.  Where is Jesus?  Where will following lead?

24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

This whole picture, from the Greeks who want to see Jesus to the crowds who are confused, is about one thing: the meaning of life is lost if it is consumed with self; the meaning of life is found if it is given away.  We are not here for ourselves; we are here to lose our lives on behalf of others.  This is the great paradox.  Hang on to that single grain of wheat, keep it in the closed fist, guard it against all risk – and it remains alone.  But let it go, let it fall to the ground and get buried – and suddenly you have it back, only multiplied.

This is exactly the path Jesus showed us.  He poured out his life – to the point of being lifted up on a cross – and considered the hour of his crucifixion as the hour in which he, the Son of Man, was most glorified.  He was the seed that was buried, and look at the fruit that has sprung up – a huge harvest.

Where Jesus is, we follow; yes, even to the cross.  Whenever Christians lay down their claims to living for themselves, it is an act of judgment on the selfish, materialistic values of the world.

31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

This is not a future event: “now” right here, today, in the middle of a global recession – (or worse), the perspective that says, “life consists in having; in accumulating;  possessing” is judged as false.  The world’s idea that the goal of life is to maximize comfort – our comfort, that is – and minimize our pain is simply false.  The world that operates by those values is indeed a dark one; a directionless one.

But the life that is lived embracing the darkness and pain of others, the life that dives in to the soil like a seed and buries itself in the ground on behalf of a dark and suffering world “bears much fruit.”

The ultimate test of meaning for our lives is not what the world says about us.  The ultimate test is what God says about our lives.  That’s why John brings into this collage the picture of the thundering voice of God from the heavens.  The people hear it and know that this path – the path that led Jesus to the cross, is the very purpose Jesus lived for – and the voice of God affirms: this is the life that glorifies God!

The crowd still needs more convincing:

34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?”

Their perspective is so typical; “Isn’t the goal to hang on to life forever; to escape from mortality itself so that we can keep forever what we have managed to acquire?

No; the path to meaning is to follow the one going to the cross, to give his life away on behalf of others.

We are followers of Jesus: we are disciples; we are learning more and more everyday what it means to give our lives away for others.

This is not a fantasy.  What happens when you feel upset and depressed about your 401k and then do some volunteer time at the Christian Service Center or with a homeless person in Family Promise?  What happens when you knit a prayer shawl or pick up the phone, write a card, or spend time in prayer for people in need?  How to you feel after you have delivered a meal or provided transportation for someone else?  Do you feel more depressed and empty, or do you feel that you have contributed some of your life for someone else?

The great pay-back of a life given away is that it is a found-life, not a lost one.  Give a cup of water in Jesus’ name, and your thirst is quenched.  Cloth the naked, and suddenly your closet feels full.  Visit the prisoners, and suddenly you don’t feel so lonely.

It is hard to capture the significance in words – I’m aware that the examples I have given of return on investment are pathetically psychological – it is so much deeper than that!  It goes to the heart of a meaningful life itself.  Look back on your life: do you regret one dollar or one minute you have spent on behalf of other people’s pain?  No, in fact it is just those dollars and those hours that we think of most when we try to answer the question, “what has my life meant?”

The answer is not that I lived with the Greek ideal of the golden mean – never anything in excess; but rather that I dove headlong into the earth, into the soil of humanity, got dirty, spent myself recklessly; and heard God say, “Your life has glorified me! You are a child of light.”

27…what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.

For this reason we are here: not to glorify ourselves, not to watch more hours of television, not to obsess about the economy, but to live meaningful lives that bear fruit.

36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”


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