March 22, 2015 - John 12.20-33

“A Peculiar Glory”

John 12:20-33

March 22, 2015


20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.


In the Gospel of John things are rarely what they first appear to be, and words take on different meanings than they often have in everyday conversation. Jesus speaks of his hour.

I heard that phrase applied to an actress the other day. The commentator said something like, "After years of struggle to make it big in the movies, she has at last achieved fame and fortune. This film has really given her success. This is her hour."  Her hour - her hour of glory.

And yet, Jesus' hour was that time from noon until three when he hung on a cross.

And in today's gospel, Jesus speaks of his glory. What does it mean for Jesus to be in his glory?

As World War II ended in the 1940s, America went through a huge upsurge of piety. Churches were built, church attendance soared, and American Christians, particularly American Protestant Christians, enjoyed an unprecedented season of religious vitality. Those were truly our glory days, our great hour of glory.

There were surely many reasons for this upsurge. But some sociologists of religion thought that one reason was the old “there-are-no-atheists-in-foxholes” syndrome. During the war years, many Americans had been thrown into desperate, difficult circumstances. Some were literally cast on the battlefields of Europe or the Pacific. Others had to cope with difficult circumstances at home. When the going gets rough, our intellectual reservations wilt, faith flames bright, and we believe.

As the 1940s ended, some of the foxhole conversions dissipated. When the crisis was over and the world returned to normal, much of this religious vitality waned. Foxhole conversions to Christ appear to be short-lived.  We saw a little bit of that on 9/11.  The churches were packed – for a while.  Those who turn to God in crisis tend to forget God when the sun shines bright and the weather is fair.

But not always. Sometimes in life, when we are at the end of our rope, when we have hit bottom, it is there that we truly experience the real presence of Christ, the genuine grace of God. There we believe, there we are changed. Though we may experience brighter days, we do not forget the truth that we experienced in the difficult days of darkness.


By the grace of God, our times of difficulty and loss can be transformed into moments of victory and gain.  If we let God, these tough times can be used by God to draw us closer and to transform us into who God wants us to be.  Rather than simply be a time to find ourselves drawn toward tragedy, we find our lives drawn closer to the love and grace of God.  So, thank God for the bad times, too.


Back in the ‘60’s, Leo Kottke was a young man in Minnesota.  He had a faceless job, nothing special.  He played guitar as a hobby, folk music mostly, but had never really spent enough time on it to be any good.  Then one winter, Leo got caught outside and suffered horrible frostbite on his feet.  He almost lost both his feet, but instead he had to spend countless weeks laid up in a hospital bed while his feet were nursed back to health, and then he had to learn to walk again.  To top it off, he lost his faceless job due to his extended rehab.  Instead of bemoaning his existence, he picked up his guitar and began to practice.  He began to discover some different ways of playing, things that were new and creative.  A friend of his brought him a 12-string guitar during that time and the creative juices began to really flow. By the time that he was done with his therapy, Leo had been transformed into one of the most innovative acoustic guitar players in the world.  To listen to him play now, and especially his recordings from the late ‘60’s, you’d think he grew some extra fingers.  His time of suffering had been transformed into a time of rebirth.


God can do that to us spiritually.  If we let God, these tough times can be used by God to draw us closer and to transform us into who God wants us to be.  How many times have you heard a person that has been through a terrible event, such as a car wreck, heart attack, drug overdose, getting arrested, getting fired, or having a near death experience talk about it and say “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”  How does that make sense?  It makes sense because that thing that happened to them caused them to re-evaluate how their lives were being lived.  Instead of mindlessly pursuing some type of material abstraction, like money, wealth, power or the elusive “good life”, the person is forced to face himself as he is, to the immediately personal and very real human limits.  Then, that person is allowed the freedom to begin anew, to begin all over again.


Look at what Jesus says in this scripture: 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Jesus’ soul was troubled.  Just stop to think about the awesome reality about that fact.  Jesus’ soul was troubled.  How often do we just plod on through our lives, wringing our hands with worry, knowing that Jesus had it easy with all his divinity and supernatural resources.  HA!  Jesus’ soul was troubled.  But he did not let that fact overwhelm him or dull his sense of God’s timing.  It was for that moment that God had sent Jesus to earth, and it is exactly those sort of moments where God can shine the brightest through your life.


It is precisely those moments when we are PUSHED closest to God that we find what really matters in life and when God can work best through us.  It is precisely when we are broken that we find out how much we need Jesus, because people who are not broken enough to see that they need fixing are not broken enough to really understand their need for Jesus.  How are you broken?  How were you broken?  Did God meet you at your lowest?


John Trotti, longtime librarian of Union Seminary in Richmond, recalls an old mountain tale in which an old man is fishing the bank of a pond. A little boy suddenly jumps into the pond and panics. The little boy thrashes about in the water, crying out, "Help me! Help me!"  The old man continues to sit on the bank and watch his fishing line bob up and down, undisturbed.

The little boy continues to cry out, "Help me!"  Finally, the old man says, "Boy, put down your feet." The pond is only two or three feet deep. The little boy does so, touches the bottom, and easily walks to the shore.

Sometimes, when we hit bottom, when we sink down or walk through that dark valley of the shadow of death, that is precisely where we learn to fear no evil, where we discover, maybe for the first time in our lives, the grace of God in Christ.


I have had so many people in churches whose lives have been put right through the wise ministrations of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the lore of AA, it is believed that one must usually hit bottom before one can begin to walk the road to recovery. One must sink down, give up all hope, and let go of all self-delusion and alibis. One has to hit bottom.

But I have known recovering alcoholics who can testify that it was down there, at the dismally dark bottom, where they truly saw light. It was there at the bottom where, for the first time in their lives, they had to, in the words of AA, "reach out to a higher power." And it was good. And it was God.

Some days of our lives, we experience smooth sailing. But then there are storms, the sky turns dark, and the sea threatens us. And it is there, according to the testimony of scripture, that Christ comes to us, calls to us, and reassures us, "Don't be afraid, it is I."


I mentioned earlier the boon after WW II that the church experienced.  Well, it is different today.  Church leaders all over the world are struggling with what to do about the church today.  The Post-Modern mindset has destroyed the cultural foundation that made it so easy for the church to flourish in our society.  People no longer assume that they should go to church.  They used to.  What happened?  People used to know, as if by osmosis, that Sunday was the day for church and you didn’t schedule other things like cheerleading trips, or baseball games, or civic events, or anything.  It was the Lord’s Day.  There was room for the church in our culture once upon a time.  But that time is gone and now a new time is upon us. It is a time where the church has to suffer through fighting the culture and providing to the culture a reason for its existence. 

I read an article recently titled “15 Reasons Why I Left the Church,” by Rachel Held Evans.   She gives a lot of personal reasons for her own departure from the church (She later came back, prompting her other article “15 Reasons I Came Back to Church”), but she basically says that 80 million twenty-somethings have left the church because they are looking for a place to belong and a place that is REAL.  For whatever reason, church seems fake to many people.  We are not doing a good job of conveying Jesus’ glory.

We could moan and complain about how times have changed.  Enough people do.  We could sit in our pew and gaze out the window and shake our head about how the world is all going to Hell, if they’d only come to church.  Or we could take this opportunity to step outside and prove to the world WHY the world needs the church around. We could learn the lesson that the world is a thoroughly unreliable place, that neither its hostility nor its adoration can be trusted.  This is not the time for the church to suffer in silence and quietly go the way of the Dodo.  This is the time for the church to reassess itself, find out what its real priorities ought to be, and then to start anew with the commitment to Christ that our former culture did not require us to have, but our current culture does require of us IF we are going to be called Christians.

We must seize this chance, as part of the church and as this particular church, to become more than we are.  The world is suffering.  People are scared.  Many churches like us have been coasting on cultural cruise control for more than one generation and have forgotten how to be used by the engine of the Holy Spirit.  We are not second-class disciples at a distance, born at the wrong time or the wrong place, trying desperately to survive on a thin diet of recorded memories of “what it was like when Jesus was here.”  Christ is here. Jesus is here. There is REAL power to be experienced as a believer.  We can become more than we ever have been if we will allow ourselves to have our illusions shattered about who we want to be and follow Jesus to become who we are supposed to be.

Are these hard times for the church?  Yes.  But these are the times in which we really get to meet God.  It is these hard times that actually help us find God the best.


The one who rules from the cross tells his followers that they must also walk this peculiar path to glory. A grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die in order to live. "Those who love their life lose it" (12:25). "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also" (12:26).  Where is Jesus? He is descending to the worst depths of human degradation, all the way down to death upon a cross. And yet, in the topsey turvey logic of this gospel, his descent is his ascent. His degradation is his greatest glory.


If we let God, these tough times can be used by God to draw us closer and to transform us into who God wants us to be.   The poet/musician Glenn Kaiser writes about the relentless love of God, and how God’s glory is upside down from the way the world expects:

You can beat the heat, He's red hot on your trail
He's the love enforcer an' He's paid your bail
It's much more than emotion, It's not just in your head
You gotta die to get life an' you'll be better off dead

But when you lose, you win, That's the way it is
That's when the love comes down[1]


Perhaps preachers like me tend to speak too negatively about the difficult, tragic, dark, and uncertain times of life that all of us must go through. Maybe it's in these times that the superficialities of life are peeled away. Maybe it is when our false consolations wither that we are able to discover true consolation.

"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified," said Jesus. And then he speaks of giving our lives, of serving others - a peculiar definition of glory. When we are cast down, when we walk through the "valley of the shadow of death," it is there in the depths where we seem far from anything that resembles the world's definitions of glory that Jesus comes to us, reaches out to us, and ministers to us. And that is his true glory.

When the sun goes down, and the sky becomes dark as midnight, we are surprised to see the glory of the stars. When we walk through that valley of the shadow of death, we lift up our eyes, we are comforted, and we go on, but in a different way than we have previously walked.
There, in the darkness, in the despair, we are able to see the peculiar glory of the Christian faith. We look up and see the glory of a God who stoops to us in our need, the Lord who reigns from the cross.  If we let God, these tough times can be used by God to draw us closer and to transform us into who God wants us to be.


[1] “Love Comes Down”, words by Glenn Kaiser, Rez Band, 1985.

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