Into the Gathering Storm

John 12:20-33
March 25, 2012
Mary Hammond

When it comes to end-of-life realities, time itself seems altered. It deepens, weighs more, and moves more slowly. There is enhanced significance attached to every moment on either side of a death. Afterwards, both re-framing and reflection continue for a long time.

John’s Gospel is dated the latest of the Gospels, assumed to be written around 90-100 A.D. The writer is not as concerned with historical chronology as the other Gospel writers are. He organizes his material theologically with the goal that others may see and believe as he has seen and believed.

Much of this Gospel takes place during the last days of Jesus’ life, that heavy-laden week of cataclysmic proportions. The story before us today occurs six days before Jesus’ execution. We have already witnessed the cleansing of the Temple early in John’s narrative, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and the anointing of Jesus by his dear friend, Mary. If we read through the Gospel of John to this point in Chapter 12, we have even heard the story we will be retelling next Sunday–Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem when the crowds hail him as King.

Some Greeks have arrived in Jerusalem to participate in the Passover Festival. Jerry Goebel offers an interesting theory in his on-line Lenten reflections from April 2, 2006 (onefamilyoutreach.com, “The Hour Comes”). He suggests that these Gentiles might have witnessed the ruckus Jesus raised on the Temple grounds when he overturned the tables of the money-changers, driving out both merchants and animals. That incident took place in the vast Courtyard of the Gentiles, the only part of the Temple area where these Greeks would have been welcome. Had they been there themselves, or might they have heard tales of this confrontation from others? These are interesting possibilities to consider…

So the Greeks approach Philip, one of Jesus’ Jewish disciples with a Greek name. Their request is simple: “We want to see Jesus.” Philip could take them to Jesus, but he doesn’t. Why the hesitation in granting these foreigners an audience with Jesus? Do old prejudices rear their ugly head? It is not uncommon for the disciples and Jesus to disagree on what people merit an audience with Jesus.

So Philip speaks to Andrew about this request. Andrew is the other Jewish disciple with a Greek name. Still, no action. Finally, the two of them inform Jesus that some Greek pilgrims want to see him.

Their question is simple, although it is only implied in the text. “Should we bring these people to you, or not?” It basically begs a “yes,” “no,” or “later” kind of answer.

However, if you look closely at Jesus’ response, that’s not what they get. Instead, Jesus shares what seems to me a montage of rather coded reflections on the realities before him. Six days before his death, he has a lot on his mind. He considers both his inner struggle and deep resolve about facing the circumstances to come. He affirms the cosmic impact of the decisions he weighs.

Jesus acknowledges the paradoxes of his story. Surrender is the pathway to freedom, death the pathway to life, losing the pathway to finding. Suffering love vanquishes the prince of darkness. Being “lifted up” draws all people to himself.

It helps me to look at the Gospel of John more as a painting than as a narrative–a painting which juxtaposes colors both muted and bold in an abstract but compelling way…a painting splashed in darkness and light, evoking contrasting images of both mystery and clarity.

The miracle at the wedding of Cana, retold early in John’s Gospel, is a sign that Jesus begins his public ministry. Now the Greeks are asking for him. Jesus declares that the time is come for him to be glorified. Is this moment a sign that the ‘Jesus story’ is about to bust out of its seams and expand beyond anything anyone but Jesus could imagine?

A voice from heaven speaks, reminiscent of a moment during Jesus’ baptism. Some bystanders hear thunder; others assume it is the voice of an angel. Jesus counters that the voice speaks not for him, but for them. He is prepared to face what comes, as hard as it will be. They are not. Another sign of an important turning point in the ministry of Jesus.

The reversals of the Reign of God are in full, but muted view. They are much easier to “read into” the story after the death and resurrection of Jesus than beforehand. John is writing to an audience who has the death and resurrection of Jesus in the rear view mirror. “What does the ‘Jesus story’ mean?” John’s narratives ask throughout the Gospel. “What does it mean for you?” they echo again and again.

As Steve said last week in his sermon, it is not just the death of Jesus that is redemptive—it is his whole story. It is the way Jesus lived, the words he taught, the courage he exhibited. While the powers he challenged executed him, they could not defeat him. The ignominy and shame of a criminal’s death gave way to dazzling light and new life in resurrected glory.

I have been leaving for my morning walks before dawn so that I can spend the last half-hour home walking straight into the sunrise. It has been spectacular and unrepeatable every day, varied by the mist and cloud cover, or lack thereof. Through the dark silhouettes of barren, wintry tree limbs at Westwood Cemetery peeks the dazzling morning light–a red and yellow fireball, seething with energy and life. As the sun rises, the sky is sprayed with combinations of pink, purple, gray, white, blue, red, and yellow. The barren tree branches of late March reveal the light behind them more clearly than hordes of leafy springtime greenery ever could. This becomes a metaphor for the wintry, exposed seasons of our lives, where, paradoxically, we can often see the light more clearly if we gaze deeply into the dawning.

“Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried,” Jesus says, “it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over” (John 12:34).

As we continue this season of Lent, Jesus calls us to both mystery and paradox, but he also calls us to come and see for ourselves, reflect on his story, make it our own, and live into it day by day. Amen.