Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 21, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
It has been both fascinating and, at times, frustrating, to see how different states have established different indicators for when it is time to move into the next phase of pandemic mitigation. In some states, for instance, those indicators resemble a complex algebraic formula involving an always evolving set of metrics, and once you solve for X you get to move into phase 2b to the second power with an asterisk. In other states, the indicator to move into the next phase is when your governor yells “Yee haw!”
In our gospel reading today we find Jesus moving into the next phase of his ministry, and there is a clear indicator to mark this next phase. Jesus has been saying, “My hour has not yet come,” over and over throughout his ministry, going back to the very beginning at the wedding in Cana. Even John, the narrator, tells us when Jesus is almost arrested at the temple that he escaped because “his hour had not yet come.” Well, now we hear Jesus say that his hour has come. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus says to Simon and Andrew. And the indicator for Jesus to move into this next phase is the arrival of some Greeks.
They would have stood out, these Greeks. While Jewish men wore their hair longer and let their beards grow, Greek men wore their hair short and kept their faces clean-shaven. Their clothes were different – they wore togas, not tunics. And while everyone spoke Greek, these actual Greeks would have spoken it with a distinct crisp accent – without any of those throaty, guttural sounds made by native Hebrew speakers. Perhaps these Greeks were proselytes to the Jewish faith. Perhaps they were “monotheism curious.” Perhaps they were simply there to take in the celebratory atmosphere of the festival of Passover, kind of like how people without a drop of Irish blood celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last week. At any rate, they were drawn not just to the temple itself, but specifically to Jesus. These Greeks came seeking Jesus. And this was the indicator that it was time for the next phase in Jesus’ ministry. When Andrew and Philip told Jesus that some Greeks were looking for him, Jesus at last said, “The hour has come.”
What would this next phase in Jesus’ ministry involve? It would involve his death and his resurrection. Jesus used an agricultural metaphor to explain: “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.” Like a grain of wheat that is buried and then bursts forth from the earth to give life, Jesus will die and rise again. Everything in his life has been leading to this. All the miracles, all the parables, all the healings, all the teachings – everything has been pointing to and leading to this phase of his ministry: his death and resurrection.
Jesus goes on to say that those who would follow him are called to join him in this pattern of dying and rising. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” This is a Hebrew way of speaking that is difficult to translate into English. To hate your life does not mean being nihilistic or negative. Life is a precious gift from God to be cherished and preserved! This is a Hebraic idiom, an exaggerated expression which means to die to yourself, to die to your self-centeredness. It isn’t about nihilism or negativity, it is about narcissism. It is about that pervasive human inclination to want to be our own gods, our own saviors, to live in service only to our own appetites and desires. To “hate your life” means to bury that narcissistic impulse in all of us in order to rise to something new. Jesus is calling us to be buried with him in order to rise to a new life of faith in him. This is what sprouts up to eternal life!
This new phase of Jesus ministry involves the judgement of the world. “Now is the judgement of this world,” Jesus says. This self-centered, narcissistic impulse runs through every tribe and nation, every ethnicity and group. Sin is a pervasive, multicultural phenomenon! All human beings, no matter where they come from or who they are, always seek to put themselves above God, and so now, Jesus says, is the judgement of the world. This judgement happens on the cross, where the whole world’s rejection of God is laid bare for all to see.
But this judgement is also the means of the world’s salvation. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,” Jesus says, “will draw all people to myself.” On the cross, Jesus was making atonement for the sin of the whole world. Jesus was lifted up for those bearded Jews and those clean-shaven Greeks alike. He was bearing the sin of people of every tribe and nation, every ethnicity and every group.
We are always dividing people up into categories: red states and blue states, conservatives and liberals. We divide people up by skin color or ethnic background, by income or education level. But that isn’t how God sees humankind. In the cross of Jesus God has declared judgement on the entire world, on all people. And in the cross of Jesus, God has declared his love for the entire world, for all people. On the cross of Jesus, God has established the means of salvation for the entire world, for all people. “When I am lifted up,” Jesus said, “I will draw all people to myself.”
This phase of Jesus’ ministry began with the indicators of the Greeks who were drawn to him. And it continues as Christ Jesus draws us to himself, as he draws us to his cross, where we are simultaneously judged and saved. The only thing that matters now is faith in him, trusting in what he has done for us on the cross, dying to ourselves and receiving his gift of salvation.
The grain of wheat fell into the earth and died so that it would ultimately bear much fruit. Let us then continue to grow into this fruit-bearing phase as our Lord Jesus raises up in us the fruits of faith.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church