Scripture: John 12:20-33
Intro to Series & Week
As we move from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, we continue to move “From Ashes to Fire” in our worship and reflection.
For these last couple weeks of the Lenten season, we continue wrestle with the question of “What needs to die?” in our lives in order for us to live into our calling and God’s desires. After Easter, we will begin to ask “What needs kindled?” in our lives in order for the Spirit to move and work through us.
This morning, we continue to read scripture and reflect on the question “What needs to die?” This week, the answer we hear back is surrounded by things we say all the time but never do—”turn it over to God,” “let Jesus take the wheel,” and the like. It’s a kind of bumper-sticker theology that sounds easy but isn’t. Within it all though is the realization that our attempts to control our own destiny, need to die.
Doing One Thing
One of the groups from our Christian history that I admire the most are the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These are folks who saw Christianity becoming more mainstream, aligning with politics and nationalism, and (in general) becoming more of a cultural phenomenon. So they did something about it.
What they did was worked as hard as they could at two things. First, they tried to break with their larger culture. This invariably involved making some rather counter-cultural choices about what their life was going to look like, including living on the literal margins of the world: the desert wilderness.
But the second thing that they worked incredibly hard at was actually doing what Jesus said to do. And they were not so naive as we might be today, jumping into the whole of Jesus’ teaching and expecting to be able to do it all. Quite they opposite, they often committed their whole life to learning to live into just one of Jesus’ teachings: such as “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 NRSV).
I mention these spiritual giants because remembering their peculiar way of living out their faith can help us see the magnitude of how Jesus opens up today’s scripture reading:
“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” (v.24).
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v.25)
“Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (v.26 NRSV).
What would it mean to spend our entire life committed to living out just one of these teachings?
How would it change our priorities? our relationships? our spending?
What would be the impact on where we lived? or how we voted? on who we served?
How would it change this congregation? or the way we share the good news of Jesus?
There is a lifetime of learning and growing contained in each one of these seeds of wisdom and life. But woven through all three of them is one of the most fundamental truths of our existence: We find life when God controls our destiny.
Today we arrive are at a pivotal place in John’s gospel. When we read it through, it is hard to keep track of when we are, given the way the gospel writer so frequently jumps both forward into God’s future and back to the Beginning. This place in John 12 is a significant text because this is where—quite literally—everything pivots from.
Think about children, playing on a teeter-totter. No child in their right mind uses the teeter-totter the way it is intended, unless a parent is nearby and attentive. No! They’re going to hold each other up high, or drop them fast, or jump off it…
Or they might do what I remember so often doing myself: trying to walk it (or run it) end to end without falling off. It’s easy enough when you start out, but the closer you get to the center, the less your own weight matters and the more squirrelly it gets. The very center is the most crucial and thrilling place—when what was up goes down and what was down goes up. Only by maintaining balance during these few disorienting seconds does one make a successful crossing.
Our scripture lesson in John 12 is a similar place. Way back in chapter 1 verse 4, the author told us we were going to get to this place, stating that: “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4 NRSV). We find life when God controls our destiny.
There have been hints of this already, of course. But here in chapter 12, it all takes on a particularly real feeling. Just a chapter before, as Jesus’ disciple Lazarus is raised from the dead, the idea of finding life went from the metaphorical to the physical: finding life means finding life. That’s the chapter where the resistance Jesus experiences is transformed into a murderous plot: losing life means losing life. The shift from the theoretical and theological to the real and the physical is as disorienting as the shifting of that teeter-totter. We find life when God controls our destiny.
There’s another shift here too. Notice it is “Greeks” who inquire of Jesus. The gospel doesn’t tell us their motivations—they could have been Gentiles who had come to believe in Jesus; but just as likely they could have been tourists shuttled around (as it were) by a Messiah tour group, having no doubt heard the reports of how this Nazarene Messiah brought about a resurrection.
These non-Jews coming to see Jesus mark a shift for two reasons. First, it fulfilled what the gospel writer saw as prophecy that all nations would come to the Messiah. Back to those opening verses of the gospel, we are reminded that
“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:11–13 NRSV)
Here in John 12, Jesus’ own people are conspiring to kill him. Yet these outsiders represent the ones who “receive him, who believe in his name,” and who “become children of God.”
Jesus himself seems to recognize and respond to this development. That’s the second shift here. After this experience, Jesus himself shifts the program. After saying who knows how many times that “my hour has not yet come” (cf. John 2:4), Jesus now proclaims “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23 NRSV). It’s time for the big reveal.
And what does that look like?
It looks haphazard.
It looks like falling.
Or being wasted.
Or being a slave.
It looks like loving God so much you appear to hate your own life.
Of course, it’s not any of these things—not really. But that is how it looked to the disciples then, and that is how it still looks to followers of Jesus today.
Our perspective is still so rooted in this world.
We continue place supreme value on what our own senses tell us.
We deny any reality or experience of anyone else that does not confirm to our own experience.
And because of these things, the Enemy continues to divide Christ’s Church and isolate believers; knowing that alone they will atrophy and may then be picked off like sick animals by a raging predator.
Here in John 12 (as so many other places) Jesus intends to broaden our horizons. He desires to give us a glimpse of things as they really are. He hopes to help us shed these distorted, funhouse-mirror-like lenses we look through at each other and the world.
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25 NRSV). We find life when God controls our destiny.
But in order for that to happen, we’ve got to learn to let go of the illusion that we control our own destiny.
We have free will, of course; we are free to make decisions and even to reject the love of God. But deciding whether to eat Cheerios or shredded wheat for breakfast, or even deciding to follow Jesus, does not produce life—not without some reciprocal action by God. Our movement in this dance is minute compared to that of our Maker. And so our impact in our lives and world—on our own—will be minuscule.
But if we turn our destiny over to the one who brought all things into being……well, Jesus himself says we could say to the mountains “move” and they would crash into the sea (Matthew 17:20).
We find life when God controls our destiny.
May God give us strength to cease our futile efforts at controlling our future.
And may God fill us with the courage to yield to the unimaginable, abundant-life-filled future of God’s desires.
Sisters and brothers: we were created with purpose; let us live into God’s destiny.