5TH IN LENT — 29 March 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:15 a.m.
Jer 31:31-34 Ps 51:1-13 Heb 5:5-10 John 12:20-33
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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The people of Jesus’ time, and for many generations before, had been waiting for deliverance. With great longing they yearned for the coming of the Messiah (the “Anointed One”), or The Prophet (like Moses, or Elijah returned), or the heavenly Son of Man. (The titles varied somewhat.) But they had their own ideas of how God ought to act, and what the Messiah, or Whoever, should do, and what deliverance and salvation meant. They assumed that they knew what the nature of reality was, and how the universe worked, and what they had a right to expect from God. Their ideas of deliverance were in terms of power, of glory in the sense of grandeur. They expected God to come and fix everything for them. They wanted the Messiah to come swooping in like Superman and make everything all right again. They wanted the Messiah to drive out the Roman occupation army and re-establish the kingdom of Israel like it had been in the good old days of David and Solomon. They thought that God’s Messiah would make them all righteous and prosperous and free, and so on and so on.
And how unlike all that Jesus is! “If you try to save your life you will lose it; you will only save your life if you lose it for my sake.” This saying recurs over and over in the Gospels—we heard it in Mark’s Gospel three Sundays ago—and it is right at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps this above all is the scandal of Christ. And let’s be honest: If, upon reflection, in our heart of hearts, if we aren’t offended, scandalized, “tripped up” by Christ—at least sometimes—then we just aren’t paying serious attention. Jesus really means it when he says the first shall be last and the last first. In the Reign of God, everything really is (by our standards) topsy-turvy.
“Quit trying to accumulate things for yourselves,” Jesus says, “riches, or position, or security, or even honor, or even virtue. Stop trying to save your own lives! You can’t do it. If you want to live really, live fully, live eternally beginning right now, then you have to give your life away. Don’t try to run away from death—it is only through dying that you can begin to live. All those things in which you put your trust to find your security and happiness will betray you in the end and rob you of that which you seek.”
And that’s not what we were expecting! That isn’t what we had in mind at all! That’s an attack on everything we have ever held dear, all our traditional values! If these are God’s ways, they are strange indeed! Think about it! What an absurd Messiah! There he stands, not in Rome, the capital of the Empire, or in Alexandria, the Mediterranean world’s second city, but in the middle of Jerusalem, a backwater provincial not-much-more-than-a-county-seat-town, surrounded by a rag-tag mob of ne’er-do-wells who obviously have nothing better to do, proclaiming: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
We thought we knew, in those days, how God ought to operate in God’s world. We still think we know how God ought to operate in the world. We think in terms like “merit” and “virtue” and “earning” and “deserving” and “worthiness” and “security” and “self-fulfillment” and “self-preservation.” We think that’s being Realistic. The scandal, the offense, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that the Gospel claims that God does not operate in the world the way we think God ought to. The Gospel claims that what we assume is “realistic” isn’t realistic at all, isn’t real at all. God does not bring salvation and deliverance by power and the glory of grandeur, by lightning and thunder and armies of angels. God does not send us a king, as this world understands kings. God does not take us out of the world of pain and suffering and death—God leads us into pain and suffering and death, and through pain and suffering and death God brings us out into true and genuine life. God does not manipulate us, or compel us, or coerce us. God draws us—draws us by the divine love, draws us by the divine truth, draws us to the Cross.
And this is the mystery of the Cross, the mystery into which we enter more and more deeply as Holy Week approaches:
– The power and glory of God are known to us through suffering love;
– What our human lives are really all about is seen in the Crucified One;
– Only in letting go of everything can we really have anything at all;
– Love—unreserved, unconditional, unrestricted, unbounded love, love that holds back nothing, seeks nothing for itself, but gives all—this love is the most powerful reality, the only truly powerful reality, ultimately the only reality of all that is.
Only by being lifted up on the Cross does Jesus draw all of us to himself by his power and glory.
We heard Jeremiah speak today of a new covenant that God is making with us, written on our hearts. This new covenant is a covenant which calls us to die: to die to ourselves and our own ways, our self-assurance, our self-sufficiency, our false and illusory “realism,” our security, our “worthiness”—to die to all of this, so that we may be re-born, re-created, re-enlivened with the real life, the true life, the eternal life of the Crucified and Risen One.