A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 25, 2012.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 119:9-16; John 12:20-33
There are those who say that new Christians, when they are initially introduced to scriptures, should first read the Gospel of John. If they will do so, so goes the conventional wisdom, all other scriptures will make more sense; that because John is more theological in tone than the others – the ones we call the synoptics because that is the Greek word for “same” – then it will provide the new believer with a more solid base for the continued study of other scriptures found elsewhere in the Bible.
Have you ever heard that? It is why a number of Bible publishers print the fourth gospel separately, kind of as a handbook to new believers.
Is it all right if I confess that I don’t count myself as one who believes that this is such a good idea? Is it all right if I confess that John’s gospel often confuses me at many points, and leaves me wondering what in the world it is all about, and did Jesus really say these things in the exact manner in which the gospel presents them? Is that all right?
I won’t ask for a show of hands of those who either agree or do not agree with me on this issue, if for no other reason than I don’t want to divide our little gathering here today into camps. So, if it’s all right with you, I’ll just go ahead, stick my neck out, and climb out on this limb all by myself.
Our reading this morning is a perfect example. A group of Greeks, in Jerusalem to attend Passover, come to have an audience with Jesus. Evidently, while in town for the festival, there’s been a buzz about the Nazarene and what is going on around him. He’s been upsetting the religious apple cart by what he’s been saying and doing, and this has created quite a stir. The Greeks, certainly not having anything to lose by investing a bit of time in the carpenter from Galilee, decide to see for themselves what the excitement is all about.
Knowing they are gentiles, and being sensitive to Jesus, who is a Jew, they first approach Philip… presumably because the name Philip has Greek origins, leading us to conjecture that perhaps one of his parents, either his father or his mother, may have been a Greek who married a Jew. Regardless, they find in Philip a connection to the Nazarene, as well as to themselves, and they really want to talk to this one everybody is talking about. “Sir,” they address Philip, “we wish to see Jesus.”
And that’s where the questions begin…
Does Philip take them directly to Jesus? No, he introduces them to Andrew and together they go and tell Jesus that the Greeks want to speak with him. Why does Philip go to Andrew and not directly to Jesus? After all, isn’t he a disciple too? Is there a hierarchy in Jesus’ little merry band of followers, that only a certain few have the authority to bother him when something like this comes up, and Philip is at the lower end of the chain of command? Is he an enlisted man while Andrew is an officer?
Why is everybody being so sensitive about all this? Why the tip-toeing, the walking on egg shells? Is Jesus so volatile that foreigners, not to mention his very own people, are afraid to approach him directly? Or is that simply the way it was done in that time and in that culture, that when you wanted to get anything done you had to wade through all the different and various levels of bureaucracy and red tape, even in a group as small and simple as the one Jesus has put together?
You see, the gospel doesn’t tell us any of this. And my question is, why not?
I’m not through with the questions either. Follow the thread of the story and you will find that when Jesus is told that a group of Greeks want to see him, he enters immediately into this rather long discourse about how the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, an obvious reference to his death on the cross. He talks about the grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying, another reference to his impending crucifixion. He makes this strange statement about how only those who hate their life will find eternal life… and on and on.
Who does he say this to, just to Philip and Andrew? The Greeks are simply dropped from the story at that point, as far as we can tell. There is no more mention of them. They want to see Jesus, but evidently Jesus doesn’t want to see them! His discourse seems to prevent them from having conversation with him, and by the way the story is framed it appears that Jesus is talking only to Philip and Andrew… which implies that the Greeks not only don’t get to see Jesus, but they don’t have the opportunity to listen in to what he has to say either. And we’re never told why they wanted to see him, apparently because they get dumped from the story so quickly and without explanation.
Or did they? Were they there all along, hearing every word Jesus said? We don’t know! The gospel doesn’t tell us!
And the statements of Jesus seem to be so disjointed that we have one analogy or theme running up on another, so that by the time we get through we’re exhausted from trying to keep up with where Jesus is going with all this. It makes you wonder if Jesus really said all this in the manner in which it is recorded, or perhaps that John, the author of the gospel, puts it all together himself in order to make his point and not necessarily Jesus’ point.
Don’t you just hate it when scripture leaves you with more questions than it provides answers?
Still, you would expect me – wouldn’t you? – to give an attempt at fleshing this out. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have even brought all this up. Well, I’ll give it my best shot. I’m not sure you’ll be surprised by what we find, but still, I’ll give it my best shot.
The chances are these are Greeks who have been converted to the ways of the Jewish faith, or are, at least, believers to some extent. After all, they’ve gone to the trouble and expense of coming to Jerusalem for the feast. That implies some level of devotion to the God of Israel.
You will, perhaps, recall the story from the Book of Acts of Philip as he journeys on the wilderness road. He encounters an Ethiopian eunuch who has been to Jerusalem to worship. The eunuch has been reading from the prophet Isaiah as he travels, but he doesn’t have a clue as the meaning of the prophet’s words. They have to do with a suffering servant, but he doesn’t know who that might be. And do you know why? Because Isaiah doesn’t tell him, that’s why. Evidently, John isn’t the only book in the Bible that doesn’t provide all the answers.
Philip interprets for the Ethiopian, telling him that Isaiah’s words point to Jesus of Nazareth who died on a Roman cross and was restored to life three days later. When the man from Ethiopia is convinced of what Philip is telling him – and it appears it doesn’t take him long to do so – he is then baptized.
His story tells us that it would not be surprising for these Greeks to be believers of the Jewish faith. If an Ethiopian can believe, then surely so can a Greek. A lot of gentiles responded to the push and pull of Judaism, even though they were not allowed, when coming to Jerusalem, to get beyond the outer courtyard of the temple. The main area of the temple was reserved for those who were born in the faith.
But now that these Greeks have heard of Jesus of Nazareth, they want to see if there is any validity to what he has been saying, or what is being said about him. After all, if they have been converted to the ways of Judaism, this would obviously mean they are seekers. And if they are seekers, why not investigate as to whether Jesus’ words and ministry have the kind of substance to them that they themselves should believe in him?
So why wouldn’t Jesus talk to them? He’s had these prospective church members just laid in his lap. Any pastor would salivate at the idea of baptizing this bunch. But Jesus won’t even give them the time of day? Why? Because – and this is where the water really hits the wheel – the time for talking is over. It is now time to do something, and for Jesus that something is to be found on the cross.
“The hour has come,” Jesus says, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And then, the gospel employs a favorite attention getter, something that lets us know that what Jesus says is highly, highly important. In other words, you can go to the bank on what he is about to say. “Amen, amen,” Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I tell you…” Then he talks about seeds dying and those who love or hate this life, and those who would serve him. Jesus is ready to take on the forces that oppose him. In order to have the kind of life that has any meaning, one must be willing, as he so obviously is, to die to this life.
The Greeks were known for their philosophical thinking. You will recall Paul’s visit to Athens where he encounters the altar to the unknown God. The Greeks were always trying to find the deeper meaning of life through their philosophical discourses and meanderings, were trying to cover all the religious bases. The Greeks were big on talk. Jesus was not.
“You want a philosophical thought?” Jesus is saying. “I’ll give you a philosophical thought. A seed of grain must die to itself in the ground before it can bear fruit. Otherwise, it remains just that… a lifeless seed. How’s that for a philosophical thought?
“You want a philosophical thought? I’ll give you a philosophical thought. Only the person who hates his or her life will gain eternal life. We are like that seed. We have to literally fall to the ground in order to rise toward that which God has prepared for us.
“You want a philosophical thought? I’ll give you a philosophical thought. Whoever serves me serves my Father also. And now it is time for me to serve him by doing what I must do.”
And guess what? The Greeks, the ones who “wish to see Jesus,” never get to talk with him at all. Why? Because the time for talk is over. Jesus must confront the cross, and there’s nothing philosophical about that. It is God willing to do what God must do to redeem his wayward world.
The last thing Jesus has time for – or an inclination to give any time to – is a bunch of Greeks who want to sit around the campfire talking about this religious notion or that religious notion. The time had come for Jesus to give his attention to the work of the cross. The time had come for Jesus to do what he had come to do, not spend time philosophizing with these Greeks or anyone else about it.
And that is where we are in this season of Lent. So far, we’ve given attention to our need to repent of our sins and gain perspective on what it means to be people of God. But in that journey there always comes that time when talk is over. It is time to determine just how far we will go to give our lives to him. And according to the One who is about to yield his life, we must we willing to do our cross-work as well. Either we cling to this life and lose it, or we willingly give it up and gain that which is life eternal.
In order words, it is time to make a choice. Are you at that point in your life and journey where a choice needs to be made? If so, now is the time, and in making the decision to follow Jesus, you might just have to turn your back to the world you have come to love so much. But think of all you will gain in doing so.
Lord, we wish to see you too, not to talk but to do the work of your kingdom. Find us faithful in doing so, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.