Another Last Temptation of Christ (ours, too)

John 12:20-36
March 29, 2009
Steve Hammond

Evidently Jesus never talked to those Greeks. You know the ones who came looking for him in that story we just read. I guess they thought since Philip and Andrew had Greek names, they would be able to set something up for them with Jesus. But it didn’t happen.

Some people call this another last temptation of Christ, the traditional last temptation being the one to come off the cross. This one is about not ending up on the cross at all. It seems that the Greeks were there to offer a better deal than Jesus was getting from the Jewish leaders. Israel had become a pretty dangerous place for Jesus and everybody knew where it was headed if somebody didn’t intervene and bring a new dynamic to the situation.

If Jesus went with the Greeks back up to Galilee and those regions around it that were populated by all kinds of Gentiles and Jewish free thinkers, he could be free to preach whatever he wanted without all the opposition he was getting from the Jewish leaders. The Greeks would accept him with open arms. He could heal to his heart’s content, no matter what day of the week it was without all the outrage and accusations. His message of God’s Kingdom would find willing hearts and minds there.

And everybody could save face. The leaders in Jerusalem could say they ran him off to Gentile territory where he belonged. Jesus could say he had to leave them behind and go somewhere where people really cared about the word of God. This looming conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment could be defused. All Jesus had to do was hear the Greeks out and make a graceful exit.

The Greeks, though, never got to make their offer, an offer that Philip, Andrew, Mary and Martha, and all the rest would have liked him accept. So, instead of answering the question about whether he will meet with the Greeks, Jesus looks at his disciples and says, “I’ve got to go ahead with the plan. It’s like a grain of wheat that gets buried in the ground. Out of it comes something a thousand times more than what it was. I could go with the Greeks. We could all be safe. And we could have a good time. There is probably a lot we could accomplish. But something much more important and significant is about to take place. I’ve got to face these guys in Jerusalem head on. They think I am walking into their trap. But it’s going to spring on them. And the whole world is going to change. I need you to believe me about this. I promise you that life is going to be won in the struggle in Jerusalem, against the Jews, our own people, not with the Gentiles even though they are on our side. If we are going to find life, we have to take the risk of death.”

It’s not like Jesus wanted die. He makes that clear in this story. But you see, Jesus did not give into his temptation. The religious leaders did, however, give into theirs. They fell into the temptation that threatens all leaders, the temptation to believe that violence and death and destruction can solve the problem. If nothing else, the people in power believe they can rely on brute force. The innocent may suffer and even be killed along the way, but order is maintained, security is restored. And isn’t that what the people want, anyway? Promise them safety from the enemy and they will let you get away with anything.

Jesus said there was something else people wanted, a way out of the mess we have made of this world. “If you lift me up, if you crucify me I will draw the whole world to myself.” You see, the cross is humanity’s indictment. It shows us at our worst and how we are willing to let the innocent suffer for the sake of power, safety, the promise of security, and obedience to the rulers of this world. We are drawn to the cross because Jesus is the most glaring example of what we do to the innocent. People of other faiths, people of no faith at all, look at the crucifixion of Jesus and realize something has gone wrong with humanity. How could we have done that to him, of all people. It shows us how rampant sin is and what it does to us. We weren’t meant to do this kind of thing to each other. We weren’t meant to live in this way. Hanging a good man like Jesus on a cross, and not only letting them get away with it, but demanding it? “Crucify him, crucify him?” How have we come to this?

Thankfully, Jesus knew he was taking us someplace else. He was about to turn everything upside down so we could live another way. Sin doesn’t have to keep hold of us like this. Do you remember when Jesus cried out from his cross, “It is finished?” It was his victory cry. He had held fast to the end. He did not take the safe route to Galilee, but walked the way of the cross, and everything did change. As one writer put it, it’s not Jesus who was rejected on the cross but, “the ruler of this world who faces the final rejection, loses his sphere of influence, becomes powerless over those who look up in faith to the crucified Jesus and let themselves be drawn to him.”

It’s the ruler of this world and the rulers of this world that were finished that day. They walked into their own trap. When they nailed Jesus’ wrists and ankles to the cross they were driving the stakes into their own evil. The religious and political leaders came together to give Jesus their best shot and he took it, and they were the ones who ended up abandoned. They were unmasked that day when Jesus destroyed the power of sin and death, by facing death head on with the life of God.

Jesus could have only gone to Galilee if he believed that death was stronger than life, that we could not be delivered from the sin. He could have gone if he believed that the only thing you could do about death was run and hide and try to make the best of things until it found you. But he didn’t go to Galilee. He went to Jerusalem. Not to run from death, but to run over it. He knew that with his dying would be his rising, and that God’s promise was sure. He walked away from the temptation of Galilee believing the cross would give way to resurrection.

While Jesus was talking to people about all of this and why he had to go to Jerusalem, rather than Galilee, there was some kind of racket going on. Some said it was an angel speaking to Jesus, others said it was nothing more than thunder.

What are we hearing when we look at Jesus lifted up on the cross? Is it the voice that says it’s just one of those things that happens, like thunder? Did Jesus just get caught up in something and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time? It’s all so sad, the good dying young like that. But it happens all the time. Nothing new here, the voice says. There is no divine significance to it.

Or do we hear the voice of God in what was happening on that cross? Do we walk by shaking our heads at the tragedy of it all, or are we drawn to him?

You know, Galilee is always our temptation, too. We can avoid conflict with the religious authorities and the powers of this world by just going off and not getting in their way. As long as our message doesn’t interfere in what they are trying to do, and we keep it personal we can all find a way to work things out, thank you. We’ll just go off to Galilee.

If we are drawn to that cross of Jesus, however, if we hear God in the midst of all of this dealing a death blow to the ways of this world then Galilee is no longer an option for us. We can no longer justify or sanctify their violence and death, no matter how safe and secure they promise it will make us. The cross, the weapon they used has become a boomerang and is what will defeat them. We are no longer willing to believe their lies. We are no longer willing to believe that this is just the way things are. We can no longer believe that sin has more power in our lives than God does.

That’s why there is no Galilee option. It’s easier, but there’s no cross there. If it’s Jesus we are looking for, if we want to find grace and forgiveness, find the possibility of new life, of a new way of living with God and each other in this world, then Jerusalem is the place we have to go. “If I am lifted up, I will draw all people unto me.”

There’s a reading in the bulletin I would like us to use to finish the sermon.