So this Sunday, I decided to do something a little bit different. Every once in a while, I encounter a story in the Bible that seems so interesting that, instead of writing a sermon about that story, I invite the congregations to inhabit the story with me. Using the Scriptural text, I exercise some artistic license and expand on the story. What were the people hearing? Seeing? Thinking? Feeling? This is one of those stories. The text comes from John 12:20-36. We paired it with Psalm 51.
Incidentally, when I approach a sermon from this angle, this is the only time I end up preaching from a manuscript. So come … inhabit the story with us!
Do you know what the best part about festivals is? Some people will tell you it’s the theater – all those performers up on stage acting out the stories of the gods and the tragedies and reciting epic poems. These performances certainly can be entertaining … but they’re not the best part. Now, my husband would probably tell you that the best part is the feast – all that food! He’s a laborer, a simple builder, so we don’t get a whole lot of fancy food around our house. The food certainly is good … but it’s not the best part.
The best part – my absolute favorite part – is the music and the dancing. They play song after song after song all night long and you can dance as long as your feet will hold you up. It’s inspiring and exhilarating and … oh, man. Trust me, it really is the best part!
At least, it was the best part … until this past festival. You see, I was taking a short break from dancing and listening to the music, and my husband was off buying a hunk of spiced roast lamb. Then all of a sudden, the crowd started whispering and pointing at something across the square. Everyone seemed really excited, so I started to move in that direction. And when the crowd parted, do you know who was standing there? It was that Jesus guy. You know, for the past few years I’d been hearing all sorts of stories about him. My husband heard from some of the other builders that this Jesus guy has performed miracles – turned water into wine at some wedding party and healed a paralyzed man and a blind man. And my sister told me that he fed a crowd of 5000 people with only 5 loaves and 2 fish, and that he actually walked on water. And that’s only a few of the amazing things I’ve heard. There are things … well, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. (They say that Jesus even raised some guy named Lazarus from the dead! I know!)
For a while now, I’d been wanting to check out whether or not the rumors were true. You know, see the man behind the myth. So you can understand why I was excited to see him in person at that festival. I didn’t remember anybody saying that Jesus was going to be there, but there he was! He’s a little bit of a celebrity, you know – kind of like the gladiators, though of course, not nearly on that grand scale. He’s actually a bit of an oddity because even those of us who are Greek citizens have heard about the kind of trouble he’s been stirring up with his own authorities – with the Jewish leaders. At first, everyone else at the festival was really excited to see Jesus, too, but after that first glimpse, most of them wandered off – back to their theater and dancing and spiced roast lamb.
But not me. I stayed.
You see, there was something special about Jesus, something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but whatever it was it made me want to know more. And I must not have been the only one that felt that way because there was a group of us that stuck around after everyone else left. One of the men in the group went up to a couple of Jesus’ disciples to see if we could maybe speak to Jesus ourselves. “Sir,” he said, “we wish to see Jesus.” And we watched as that disciple – I think his name was Philip – went and told another disciple, and then that disciple went right up and spoke to Jesus. Before we knew it, we were right there in front of the man himself. We were right there with Jesus!
We all gathered around him, some sitting, some standing, some leaning against pillars, and then Jesus began to speak. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Admittedly, this had us all a little confused, but Jesus continued. “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. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
Okay, truth be told, he lost me there. Actually, most of us looked a little confused, but there were a few people around me that were nodding their heads. I could tell that they were Jews, so I decided to ask one of them what he thought Jesus was talking about.
He told me about something he called … what was it again? … a psalm – a poem that the Jews use in worship sometimes or in their own private prayers to their god. This made me smile a bit because I like poetry, but when he started reciting it for me, this psalm didn’t sound like any poetry I’d ever heard before. I’m used to poetry full of heroes and monsters, ill-fated love and epic battles. But the psalm was all about confession and atonement. It was full of words like “sin” and “guilt” and “transgression.” It mentioned a purification ritual involving the hyssop plant, and it asked this god for cleansing and restoration and a healing presence. It sounded so … so … humble. I couldn’t help but cringe as he spoke these words. I mean, come on. I am a Greek citizen. I’m part of the greatest culture in the world – a culture that fosters incredible beauty in its art and sculpting, a culture that fosters staggering intelligence in its thinkers and logicians, a culture that fosters crushing strength in its military and its politicians. We don’t really do humility very well. To be honest, we don’t really do humility at all. What use could we possibly have for such poems of humility?
That Jewish man must’ve seen something of my thoughts on my face because he stopped for a moment and just looked at me. “You know that’s what he’s talking about, don’t you?” he said. “Jesus. When he’s talking about grains of wheat and losing your life, when he’s talking about following and serving Almighty God. If that grain was too proud to let itself be changed and shaped by something other than itself, it wouldn’t do much good, would it? It would just sit there and rot. That single seed has the potential to become something special – something beautiful and wholly different than what it is, but only if it lets itself die. Only when it lets go can it enhance the lives of many. Only then can it nourish. Only then can it shelter. Only then can it provide others with enjoyment or livelihood or healing. Only then can it live a new life. If it stays a simple seed, it can do nothing, but if it has the courage to admit that it isn’t perfect exactly as it is, if it has the humility to recognize the power and necessity of change, it can do anything.
“Likewise, it is only when we humble ourselves before Adonai, when we acknowledge our sins and imperfections and request that the Most High God transform us with the Holy Spirit – only when we have done these things are we truly open to becoming the beautiful creations that Adonai intended for us to be. When we are growing and working for God, when we are following the Word of God and serving God, our faith can nourish and enhance, shelter and encourage us as well as those around us. But in order to do that, we must die to the demands and desires imposed on us by our culture. Like a seed shedding its hull, we must slough off the strains and stresses and pressures of our own sinfulness and allow God to help us grow.”
He started to say more, but just then, Jesus began speaking again. He said, “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. Father, glorify your name.” That caught me off guard. The way he said it was so serious, so final. Like I said, I knew that things between Jesus and the Jewish authorities were tense, but this sounded more than tense. Jesus sounded resigned, almost like a man condemned. There was something about the way Jesus said these words that made me anxious and sad and scared all at the same time. What was this “hour” that he was talking about? Why did he need to be saved from it? And what could it possibly have to do with glorifying the name of his god?
Everyone else seemed to be stirred up, too. I mean, the crowd was just buzzing. It was as if a spark had shot through us all. There were whispered questions and conversations flying back and forth like insects. It was intense and exciting and inspiring and mystifying all at the same time! And just when I was starting to think I couldn’t get any more rattled, this… voice … came out of nowhere. It was loud and powerful, and it resonated deep inside me – not just in my ears but deep, deep down. The voice said, “I have glorified [my name], and I will glorify it again.” There was a split second of utter silence, then the whole crowd started talking again. Some people immediately dismissed it, saying that what we heard must’ve been thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” But there were other theories being tossed around, too. Some of the Jews in the crowd were claiming that one of their prophets had spoken while others actually attributed the voice to their god!
The crowd just kept getting louder and louder, everyone trying to talk over each other. Then Jesus spoke again. “This voice,” he said, and we all immediately fell silent again. “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
After he said this, Jesus continued speaking, but at that point, I had to take a step back. I had so many things swirling around in my mind. I kept thinking about the things that the Jewish man had said to me. Could humility and service really be more fulfilling than the life I was already living? I thought my life was fine. My husband’s a good man. He works a good job, and we do alright. We aren’t the wealthiest people around, but we have food and a house that’s stable and comfortable. And when the weather is acting funny or the crops aren’t growing right or the earth is shaking or someone’s health takes a bad turn, we offer the appropriate sacrifices to a handful of major and minor gods and goddesses. Like I said, my life was fine. Or was it?
I’d never thought about more … until that day. There just seemed to be something in Jesus’ face that made me suddenly feel like there could be more. Like there should be more. Like I wanted there to be more! You know, there’s a line from that poem – that psalm – that I just couldn’t let go of. Or maybe it couldn’t let go of me. The Jewish man said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” I’ve seen hyssop, of course. The Jews aren’t the only one who use it for purification rituals, and it grows all over the place. All you have to do is open your eyes, and there it is. Could it really be so easy to find God – as easy as it is to find a branch of hyssop? And is it really possible that this god is willing to be the one participating in the sacrifice – the one using the hyssop for purification? You know, I’ve spent my whole life performing the “right” sacrifices in the “right” way to the “right” god or goddess for the situation – gods and goddesses who, according to the stories, really only concern themselves with each other and couldn’t seem to care less about human beings, anyway. Could this god that Jesus was talking about really be so interested in our well-being that God is willing to cleanse us?
And what about the snow? I’ve only seen snow once in my whole life. It was clean and cool, pure and refreshing and beautiful! There’s nothing else like it … nothing. “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Can God really do this for us? Can God make us that special, that rare and that precious? If I were to follow and serve this God – what had the Jewish man said his name was? Adonai? – if I were to follow and serve this Adonai, could God truly forgive all the mistakes I’ve made in the past and make me even more pure and clean in God’s own eyes than snow is in mine?
With all these questions running circles in my head, I was starting to feel overwhelmed and a bit dizzy. Then Jesus’ voice broke through all that inner turmoil and confusion. “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”
With all these new questions and uncertainties that I was suddenly struggling with, I definitely felt like I didn’t know what was going on – what I was doing, where I was going, or how I was getting there. But then Jesus looked at me. Just for a second, he looked straight into my eyes, and I felt something in my soul brighten. I was filled with warmth and light like nothing I had never known before. And I made a decision – a crazy, impulsive, completely unexpected decision. I would follow this Jesus. I wanted to sit at his feet, to listen to him and learn from him for as long as I could. And as soon as I made this decision, I could almost swear that I saw Jesus nod his head and smile.
 Jn 2:1-12.
 Jn 5:1-15.
 Jn 9:1-12.
 Jn 6:1-21.
 Jn 11:38-44.
 Jn 12:23-26.
 Ps 51.
 Jn 12:27-28.
 Jn 12:28.
 Jn 12:29.
 Jn 12:30-32.
 Jn 12:35-36.