First Congregational Church
March 21, 2021
Fifth Sunday in Lent
“When Up Is Down and Down Is Up”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Pastor Nelson and Pastor Olson were fishing on the side of the road. They thoughtfully made a sign saying "De End is Near! Turn yourself around now before it's too late!," and showed it to each passing car. There was one car that passed didn't appreciate the sign and began shouting at them: "Leave us alone you religious nuts!" All of a sudden they heard a big splash, looked at each other, and Pastor Nelson said....."You tink ve should yust put up a sign dat says: 'bridge out' instead ?”
Surviving a birth in 1567 that brought him into the world two months early to both noble parents, St. Francis de Sales is said to have said, “Some men become proud and insolent because they ride a fine horse, wear a feather in their hat or are dressed in a fine suit of clothes. Who does not see the folly of this? If there be any glory in such things, the glory belongs to the horse, the bird and the tailor.”
That list of prescribed scripture passages called the lectionary has sure been jumping around this year. The season of Lent has brought us Mark 1, Mark 8, Mark 9, John 2, John 3 and today, John 12. I’m sure that the composers of the lectionary were rubbing their hands as they created next Sunday’s list - which contains, not one, but four gospel passages - 2 for the palm and two for the passion sides of the day- one of which is the section of John right before the one that will soon be read. One really needs a score card.
That being said, 21st century Christians, and certainly Congregationalists, are able to roll with the punches, and so we get to John 12:20. This passage occurs after the Palm Sunday parade, probably taking place on the Tuesday of Jesus’ last week, so before his last supper and arrest. And remember, Jerusalem was in full holiday mode as it was Pentecost - the festival celebrating God saving the Jewish people while in Egypt. In fact, think Frankfort, Fourth of July, pre-covid, on a weekend.
Scripture John 12:20-33
Jesus Predicts His Death
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up[a] from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
Thank you, Robin. If you were asked to name an instance in the Bible where God actually spoke, I have a feeling that this instance would not make the list, even especially so as we aren’t told that it was specifically God speaking. When one thinks about God speaking - there’s Jesus’ baptism and God speaking to Moses at the burning bush and lots of notable instances like those. But this one doesn’t seem to get the same air time as some of the others.
Retired Methodist minister, William Willimon refers to this passage as Jesus’ last will and testament. Willimon and various other preachers sited that they have often seen a plaque or carving in or on pulpits, visible to the preacher alone, that quote verse 21: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Willimon went on to say that it may be one of the major reasons people come to church on Sundays. “They want to get a clearer picture of Jesus: who he is and what he means. And yet when we see Jesus, looking through the lens that the Gospel of John provides us, what we see may not be immediately self-evident. What we see may be confusing, hard to describe, beyond what words can say.” So true, Rev. Willimon!
A couple weeks ago, when the scripture passage was from the first chapter of John, I presented the case that John, setting the scene of Jesus clearing the temple in the front end of his gospel - rather than the chronological backend placement of the other gospel writers - was to present the thesis of the whole book - of Christ as Messiah and Redeemer. In the mark of a good writer, John carries that theme into Christ’s last will and testament. Last wills and testaments are usually rather intentional.
So there is that interesting bit about the kernel of wheat falling to the ground and dying - that it’s a “life” to emulate because of the greater harvest that will be produced. Which of course brings us to Death on the cross as the sign of Jesus’s fruitful work. Those who lose their lives “will keep them forever”? Thanks, God, Christ, John, but seriously, I’ve had plenty of life being upside down lately, and I’ve not lost my home or business or friend or family member like so many others have this past year.
Except, maybe that may be exactly the point? If we all can put aside our political and lifestyle persuasions for a moment, this past year of refraining and isolating has been a sort of falling into the earth, metaphorically, individually and collectively. And like the crocuses and daffodils poking their heads up, we are are beginning to raise our faces to the sun - stretching and unfurling ourselves to this new season before us. Unlike the bulbs, we have the opportunity to determine that into which we will grow. And how interesting, that this moment comes as we journey closer to the foot of the empty cross and tomb.
Right before the words about the kernel falling to the ground, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus goes on - not to save his own life - but telling God to glorify God’s own name. Then the words from heaven: ““I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” Glory. Glorified. It isn’t explicit, so it could be the glorification of God. But it could also certainly be understood that Christ’s birth was the first glorification and that his resurrection would be the second. We get the glory idea well enough around Advent and Christmas, and around Easter. But right before the crucifixion?
Martin Luther once said that we have the cross to keep rebuking anybody who claims fully to understand God. The cross is that inexplicable wonder that shows the depth and the mystery of God, and the lengths to which God will go to reconcile us to God. That marvelous pastor over there at Frankfort Congregational Church says Christ tells us to take up that inexplicable wonder, depth and mystery of God.
German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard. Scottish Presbyterian pastor, theologian and author, Samuel Rutherford: Christ's cross is such a burden as sails are to a ship or wings to a bird. American Methodist theologian and philosopher, Georgia Harkness. The cross: God's way of uniting suffering with love.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Senior, was a doctor. As such he was very interested in the use of ether. In order to know how his patients felt under its influence, he once had a dose administered to himself.
As he was going under, in a dreamy state, a profound thought came to him. He believed that he had suddenly grasped the key to all the mysteries of the universe. When he regained consciousness, however, he was unable to remember what the insight was.
Because of the great importance this thought would be to mankind, Holmes arranged to have himself given ether again. This time he had a stenographer present to take down the great thought. The either was administered, and sure enough, just before passing out the insight reappeared. He mumbled the words, the stenographer took them down, and he went to sleep confident in the knowledge that he had succeeded.
Upon awakening, he turned eagerly to the stenographer and asked her to read what he had uttered. This is what she read: "The entire universe is permeated with a strong odor of turpentine."
William Phelps taught English literature at Yale for forty-one years until his retirement in 1933. Marking an examination paper shortly before Christmas one year, Phelps came across the answer: "God only knows the answer to this question. Merry Christmas." Phelps returned the paper with this note: "God gets an A. You get an F. Happy New Year."
Maybe the early Congregationalists had the right idea of not decorating their sanctuaries with crosses - or any other signs, symbols and art - so that the mind might be freer to see past the cross to the glory that awaits in eternal life. But maybe the wisdom of having crosses and art in so many places is to remind us that that which is worth a great deal is worth the difficulty of getting to the end.
Not knowing personally, maybe babies are worth the agony of pregnancy and birth. Highways may well be worth the occasional roadwork and detours to make them better. Planting bulbs in cold dirt in October and November are definitely worth the trouble come spring. Holy Week is worth the time of intentional worship to more fully embrace the glory that is resurrection.
I read that when the Betty Crocker Company first began selling their cake mixes, they offered a product which only needed water. All you had to do was add water to the mix which came in the box, and you would get a perfect, delicious cake every time.
It bombed. No one bought it and the company couldn’t understand why, so they commissioned a study which brought back a surprising answer. It seemed that people weren’t buying the cake mix because it was too easy. They didn’t want to be totally excluded from the work of preparing a cake; they wanted to feel that they were contributing something to it. So, Betty Crocker changed the formula and required the customer to add an egg in addition to water. Immediately, the new cake mix was a huge success.
A lot of people make the same mistake when it comes to "packaging" or presenting Christianity. We try to make the call of Christ as easy as possible because they’re afraid people won’t "buy it" if it seems too hard. But we all have hard times in our lives. We all have times when we’d do most anything for a cake mix that requires just water. And while we’re at it, forget making the cake. Just pick one up at the store already.
Except that we all know the difference with a homemade cake or handmade cards. We appreciate the work that goes behind so many things that make them so unique and special. So it is with faith. If it were easy, it would be called easy. But it’s called faith, so we determine to do the best that we can with what we’ve been given that it may bring glory as much to God and Christ and the Spirit as it does to those around us and to our very own hearts. So we pray.
God of all eras, we can appreciate your concept of time being but the blink of an eye in your world. And we realize you can appreciate how long the road of time can seem in this world. For those times we whine and make excuses to shirk what we know we should do, forgive us and redeem our failures. For those opportunities we’ve missed that would have brought you and so many others - glory - we ask that your Spirit make silk purses from missed opportunities. When intimidation or laziness tempts us, remind us of the mystery that is called the cross and give us added impetus to do what you have need of us. For the gift of your Son, his journey to death and new life, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.