John 12:23-28 narrates Jesus’ thoughts about his journey towards the cross.
Regarding his own death he shares:
Jesus describes his crucifixion as his “glorification”. He recognises that his journey to and through the cross will culminate in his glorification. So he ironically uses these terms interchangeably.
Jesus makes sense of his journey through the metaphor of ‘one for many’: if a single seed refuses to die, it remains one seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds. In other words, through the the death of one man (himself) there is life for many (salvation of humankind).
Jesus is genuinely troubled, disturbed, in dread of this path that he has been called to follow. The journey to the cross is not easy for him. He wishes there could be an easier route. Let us not be glib in our perception of Jesus’ mission.
Yet he resolves himself to his mission, his reason for coming and to the glory of God.
In the midst of this narrative, Jesus calls us to follow this same path:
If we want to serve him, he says, we must follow him and be where he is. And where he is at that moment is on the journey towards the cross. That is where we must follow him.
For sure, when we follow him, there will be glory – just as for him. Our Father will honour us if we serve Christ. But that is in the future. For now, we are called to a present path of suffering.
He cautions us to not hang tightly to this life, to be in love with this life. If we do, we will lose it. Rather, we must almost hate this life, by comparison, and rather invest in the life that is yet to come.
Many churches are teaching that Jesus’ desire for us is for our wealth, happiness, success, possessions and power. But there is no hint of such teaching from Jesus in John 12. Rather, we are to spurn such trappings of this life, and journey with him on his path.
During these last days of Lent, Jesus is calling us to journey alongside him towards the cross. Let us immerse ourselves in his journey. Let us walk close beside him. Let us accept the path of humility, service, laying ourselves down, suffering and dying to self and to this life.
In John 5, Jesus is accused of considering himself “equal with God”. And in his response (in verses 19-23), instead of defending himself, Jesus actually confirms the charge:
Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.
Jesus considers himself one with God – he and his father are one. They are equal, one being, even though he clearly shows that they are not the same person – for example, the Father does not judge; that role is given to the Son. But there is a closeness and alignment of purpose and desire between Father and Son (and also Holy Spirit) that leads us to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Given close unity between Father and Son, we also should strive to be one with God – to act in accordance with God’s will, to align our desires and intentions with God’s, to adopt as our own God’s values and priorities. Jesus is our example for all life. Let us become one with God.
God has always been working for our salvation and continues to do so today. This work culminates the life, death and resurrection of Christ, hence Jesus says we need to be born again. This salvation work is motivated by God’s great love, kindness, mercy and grace towards us (Ephesians 2: 1-10). Even though we were dead in our transgressions and sins – deserving of God’s wrath – God does everything to save us. Jesus himself says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:14-21).
God’s stance towards you is always open armed – always.
God is always open towards you even if you don’t believe in him – always.
God is always moving towards you – always.
God is always turned towards you, even when you turn away from him – always.
God is always turned towards you, even when you sin – always.
God always reorientates himself towards you as you move through life – always.
God is always positively disposed towards you – always.
God always loves you – always.
God is always kind towards you – always.
God is always full of grace and mercy towards you – always.
God is always hoping you will respond to him – always.
Psalm 63 is a wonderful psalm calling us to a deeper dependence and reliance on God, much like thirsting for God.
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.
In this first section, David describes his deep longing for God as a thirsting after God. He was actually out in the desert and was probably actually thirsty. Our need for God needs to be more like a thirst. We think of the opening verses of Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. “
I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
In the midst of his thirst, David remembers a time when he has seen God, encountered God. We have those moments in our lives, sometimes only a handful – moments where we know for sure that God is real, present, engaged. These are touchstones that we take up and hold when we are going through difficult times.
On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.
And then, David lies on his bed and ruminates on God. Often, when we’re stressed, we lie on our bed and ruminate about our worries and problems. But instead, David thinks about God. Notice how every phrase has the word ‘you’ or ‘your’ in it – David immerses his thoughts in God, calling to him from his bed.
Those who want to kill me will be destroyed; they will go down to the depths of the earth. They will be given over to the sword and become food for jackals. But the king will rejoice in God; all who swear by God will glory in him, while the mouths of liars will be silenced.
And finally, relying on his thirst and his previous experiences of God, David reaches a resolution of knowing, for certain, that God is on his side; as God is on your side. God will draw alongside you. God will take care of you. God will protect you. God will lead you through.
This morning, in the midst of whatever difficulties we are facing, we are encouraged to nurture our thirst for God and to recall and hold fast to those moments where we know we have been in God’s presence.
We can liken our relationship with God to a marriage. There are many passages in scripture that do this. God’s covenant with us is much the same as a marriage covenant or contract. When we reflect on this similarity, we can imagine the very best of what a marriage can be as reflecting a good relationship with God.
However, as in marriage, people sometimes commit adultery against God. We go off to other gods to have our needs met. We seek fulfilment outside of the marriage. Indeed, we can think of all of our sin (not only sexual sin) as adultery in our marriage to God. We read about this in Jeremiah 3:6-10:
During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.
Here, both Israel and Judah sought fulfilment from other Gods, which the Lord describes as adultery. And although Judah did return God, it was not whole-hearted, but only in pretence – a charade. God knows the inner working of our hearts. A sham marriage is no marriage at all.
The result of this adultery and half-hearted fakery is that God divorces her. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than to be divorced by God!
But God’s capacity forgive and reach out is infinite. God says in Jeremiah 3:11-14a:
The LORD said to me, “… Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “ ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ ” declares the LORD. “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you…”
We read a similar story in Hosea, in which God instructs Hosea to marry an adulterous and promiscuous wife. Hosea obeys and, of course, it goes badly. But then God instructs Hosea to reconcile with his wife:
The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” (Hosea 3:1-3)
As we continue our journey through Lent, nurturing on our relationship with God and repenting of our sin, let us renew our marriage vows with God and to live as a faithful, monogamous and whole-hearted spouse.
Our Old Testament readings over Lent provide us with highlighted of the long story of God’s salvation of humanity. I thought that today we should look at all of these readings – the five Old Testament Sunday Lent readings, and today’s New Testament reading.
I summarise the development of God’s work for salvation as follows:
God’s unconditional covenant with humanity
Genesis 9 (God’s rainbow covenant)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned seven times
God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood
The rainbow reminds God of this covenant God has made with us
This covenant is entirely God’s doing and initiative, and unconditional for all humanity
God’s everlasting covenant, plus circumcision
Genesis 17 (God’s covenant of circumcision)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned 10 times
In three of these God says the covenant is everlasting
However, now the covenant has conditions:
Abraham must walk before God faithfully and blamelessly (v1), and
Males must be circumcised.
Males who are not circumcised fall outside God’s covenant (v14)
God’s external law, which humanity must obey
Exodus 20 (God’s 10 commandments)
God now sets external laws by which we must abide
Now the responsibility for maintaining a right relationship with God is entirely humanity’s
Paul’s problem with this approach is that we inevitably break the law and thus fall out of favour with God
The solution of the Law alienates us from God
Punishment for sin, but grace for salvation
Numbers 21 (God’s bronze snake)
But now we see a shift in God’s engagement with humanity
Still, law is important, and those who sin were bitten by poisonous snakes
But God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake which is lifted up
Those who look to this snake are saved/healed
This is a sign of grace – we look to God and God saves
The is a foreshadowing of the cross – we look up to Jesus on the cross, who saves
God’s internal law; God’s choice to forgive
Jeremiah 31 (God’s law written on our hearts)
God says he is now setting out a new law that replaces the old – we see God shifting
This new law is written in our hearts – not on tablets or paper
And God chooses to forgive, out of God’s own initiative (v34b)
Christ wins once-for-all salvation through faith
Romans 2-4 (God’s salvation by grace through faith)
Now, after Christ, salvation is by grace – it is won by Christ for us
We can add nothing to the salvation he has made possible
God chooses to forgive us, and indeed has already forgiven us and our descendants already – this is grace (a free gift)
We receive this grace through faith – we simply open our hearts and receive what is already available to us
We don’t earn our salvation – Christ has already done that – we merely receive it
There are three summary messages from today’s teaching:
God has always been working for our salvation, since the creation – and continues to do so today
God’s ways of working with humanity shift over time – God is not a stone – God is a person who adjusts their style of interacting with us
Christ has fully accomplished our salvation – we can and need add nothing to it – we are invited merely to receive it
Jesus tells us that God views the source of our behaviour in our hearts. As a result, God is more interested in what is in our hearts than how we behave. Our motivations, our inner thoughts, our orientation towards God – all of which come forth in our speech and behaviour – is where God’s attention is. We are urged to attend to our inner lives and orientate ourselves towards God.
These are the words of Jesus for us today. In Mark 1:29-39, we read of Jesus healing people and casting out demons. He then withdraws to pray and his disciples follow him, annoyed, saying, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus responds, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” Jesus has a clear sense of calling, of why he is here in this world. It emerges out of his time of prayer with his father. He has come to heal, to restore, to save and to preach. (You may recall last week’s sermon, Acts of love, in which I showed that while Jesus is involved in both knowledge or teaching and healing or acts of love, it is the latter that enjoys more attention.)
Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul writes, “When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Paul does not regard preaching as something he can choose to do or not do. He feels that he was made to preach, and thus has to preach. And so he says, “I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.” God called him to preach, and preach he must.
I resonate with this verse. After many years of feeling called into ministry, and running away as fast and as far as I could, I finally conceded and preached my first sermon in August 2005 (you can read that sermon, based on Romans 12:1, here). Terrified as I was, I knew as I stood, clinging to the lectern, that this is what God had called me for and that I had to continue preaching. I felt compelled to preach! There was a period of a few years when lay ministers were barred from preaching. I remember feeling like a bear with a headache or a woman who was 11-months pregnant. I was irritable, distressed, uncomfortable, in pain, because I felt I was unable to give birth to the sermons growing in me. As Paul wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”
The clear sense of calling or purpose expressed by Jesus and Paul, and indeed most of the characters in the Bible (think of Isaiah’s “Here am I. Send me!” in Isaiah 6:8), is God’s gift to every Christian. It not just some special few who have a calling, a sense of why they are here, as sense of being compelled to do something for God. This is a gift God gives to every believer. 1 Corinthians 12:7 & 27 tells us that “to each one [that is, to every single one] the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” and that “each one of you [that is, every single believer] is a part of” the body of Christ.
God has put you on earth for a purpose.
You are alive for a reason.
You have been sent to do particular work for God.
What is it that God is calling you for? What has God gifted you to do? What is that nagging voice at the back of you mind telling you? What do you know you should be doing for God, but are avoiding? What is it that deeply satisfies you? What is it that, when you do it, tells you that you are in the centre of God’s will for you?
That thing is what you are here for. That is what you are compelled to do. That is why you have come!