Foolish Questions – Sermon on John 12:20-33 for Lent 5B

By now, if you’ve been following this Foolishness series through Lent, you’ve probably figured out that being a fool for Christ isn’t really foolish at all. But it does require turning our expectations and assumptions around. It requires becoming vulnerable, having enough humility to accept ridicule, even. That can make us seem foolish to those who don’t know Christ.

But Jesus submitted himself to that kind of humiliation, and if we are to be his followers, we have to accept that it is only in dying we can experience resurrection. It is only in humility that we can be exalted with Christ, and it is only in asking the seemingly foolish question that we can find the answer that leads to eternal life.

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  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 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.
“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.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this 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.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” (John 12:20-33)

During the middle of the 20th century in America, churches across America posted John 12:20 in the pulpit where the preacher could see it. “Sir, we would see Jesus” encouraged a whole generation of preachers to remember their primary task: showing Jesus to people who need a Savior.

In fact, the entire Gospel of John was written with this very purpose in mind. Near the end of the book, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

If seeing is believing, we can imagine that these Greeks who came to Philip were hoping for more than a glimpse of a celebrity. They were hoping for more than an autograph. They not only wanted to see Jesus, they wanted to believe.

The literal translation of the phrase “we would see Jesus” or “we wish to see Jesus” sounds awkward to our ears. It sounds awkward, but to get a better understanding of what these Greeks meant, the literal translation might be helpful. Here’s what they were saying: “Mister, we are willing to be perceiving Jesus.”

Not just “we’d kinda like to see this Jesus guy” or “we want to see him so we can tell our friends back home that we did.”

We are willing. Our desire includes the understanding that this encounter is going to change us in some way, and we are willing to take the risk.

We are willing to be perceiving. We want more than the opportunity to lay eyes on Jesus. We want to perceive him, to know him, to understand him, to recognize him as the Son of God. And we realize this isn’t a one-time-and-we’re-done sort of thing. It’s an ongoing relationship. We are willing to be perceiving Jesus now and indefinitely into the future. Mister Philip, sir, we want more than a backstage pass. We are willing to know Jesus personally, whatever that means.

John’s account doesn’t tell us if they get a face-to-face meeting with Jesus, but it does describe the way such an encounter usually happens. The Greeks approach Philip, and he goes to Andrew, and together they go to Jesus. It’s sort of the reverse of what happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he called his first disciples. You may remember that Andrew and his brother Simon were the first two fishermen Jesus called to follow him. The next day, he found Philip, who was from the same town as Simon and Andrew. Now the progression is reversed – the Greeks go to Philip first, and then Philip goes to Andrew. But why?

Their hometown was Bethsaida, a place that had a history of sometimes being Jewish and sometimes being Gentile. Philip and Andrew both have Greek-sounding names, so that might have something to do with it. It’s possible that these Gentiles came to Philip first simply because they were more comfortable approaching someone who seemed a little bit more like themselves.

That’s often how evangelism works. It’s a chain reaction. One person experiences God’s love, and shares that good news with a friend or family member. They share their experience with people they know and trust, people who are a lot like themselves. And when those people experience the same life-changing love of God, they tell their family and friends. And those people’s lives are changed, and they tell more people…

Every marketing expert will tell you that word of mouth is the best form of advertising. People trust the opinions of their friends, their neighbors, their family members – before they trust the word of a stranger. So it’s no wonder that these Greek worshipers approach the disciples who look and sound most like them, when they try to get an audience with Jesus. But the very fact that Gentiles are looking for Jesus is a signal, and Jesus recognizes his cue.

The “very truly” (amen, amen) that opens verse 24 tells us that Jesus is about to say something really important. But what follows is not comforting news. He announces that his hour has now come, and the seed must die if it is to bear fruit.

Jesus knows he has come to save more than the Jews – he has come for everyone, Jew or Gentile. Now that the Gentiles desire to “perceive” him, he recognizes that the time has come for him to die, like a seed planted in the ground, so that new life can begin.

This is hard news for us, too. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” Only by embracing death, denouncing life, and following Jesus through death to life can we be true disciples.

We might not like the idea of dying to self, or “hating” ourselves – it doesn’t sit well with our culture’s emphasis on building self-esteem. After all, even Jesus said “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

But that isn’t what he’s talking about here. Jesus is referring to the life we live in this broken world, where self-centeredness prevents us from being God-centered. That life is doomed to death, and by dying to it, Christ offers us eternal life.

John uses two different words here for the word we see as “life.” When Jesus says, “Those who love their life” and “those who hate their life in this world,” the word for ‘life’ refers to our inward being, our sinful soul. But when Jesus talks about eternal life, he uses the word “zoe” – which means a way of living. So giving up our inward selfishness, dying to sin, as a seed planted in the ground must die, makes it possible for us to experience new life, an eternal way of living.

And this is what brings glory to God. Throughout the Old Testament, “glory” is used to describe the evidence of God’s presence among his people. God’s glory was the pillar of cloud or smoke that stayed with the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. This same cloud of smoke filled the temple to indicate God had moved into his home among the people of Israel. In the psalms, when David speaks of his own ‘glory’ he means “all my being.’

Likewise, a name embodied all of a person’s being. A name’s meaning described that person’s deepest identity. To be named is to be recognized for who we are at our very core. When Jesus says, “Glorify your name,” Jesus is asking his Father to make himself completely known to all humanity, to show that he is present among all people, and to reveal his core identity to everyone.

And a voice from heaven answers him. The other gospel writers describe this voice being heard at Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration, but in John’s account, this is the only time “the voice from heaven” is heard. What does that voice say? “I have already done it, and I’m going to keep on doing it. I have revealed the deepest core of my identity to everyone, and I will continue to do so.”

And what, exactly, is God’s identity? Love. God is love (1 John 4:8). God’s love has been poured out for us so that, “while we were still sinners” who didn’t deserve it, “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

“Mister, we are willing to be perceiving Jesus,” the guests from out of town said to Philip. “This is a sign that my hour has come,” answered Jesus. “Father, glorify your name. … And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 

John writes, He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” But John means more than the crucifixion. He means the kind of death that also includes resurrection and ascension. It’s a three-way “being lifted up” – on the cross, from the grave, and into heaven. The kind of death Jesus was to die was the kind of death that leads to life and eternal victory over death. And Jesus invites us to that same kind of death that defeats death.

As we identify ourselves with Jesus Christ, he calls us to do what he did. He calls us to die to ourselves, so we can bear fruit, like that seed planted in the ground. He calls us to hate our life in this finite, broken world, so we can gain a way of living that is eternal.

That way of living, dying to self, hating our earthly limitations, is just the opposite of what the world values. But when we open ourselves to others, when we put their needs ahead of our own, when we inconvenience ourselves for their benefit, and make sacrifices for their sake, we are demonstrating the most radically foolish thing there is. We are demonstrating love.

Isn’t that what love is? Putting another’s needs ahead of your own? And isn’t it a sign of being loved to know that someone has done that for you?

There’s one more thing you need to know about the Greek in this passage, and I’m talking about the Greek language, not necessarily those Greeks who first approached Philip. It has to do with punctuation. You see, in Koine Greek, there isn’t any. No periods, no commas, no … question marks. So translators have had to decide where to put the question mark, and where the punctuation lands can change the meaning of the sentence.

There are two possibilities in this passage, and we don’t really know which one is “correct.” Jesus might have said, “What shall I say – Father, save me from this hour?” as we have in the NRSV. But it’s just as likely he said it this way: “What shall I say? Father, save me from this hour!” and then countered himself with, “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Where you put the question mark matters. It makes all the difference between a question being merely rhetorical, or a deeply troubled plea for help. Jesus starts off by saying that he is troubled, so the second interpretation has some validity. It seems like a foolish question the first way, as if Jesus is laughing off the possibility of asking God for help.

But doesn’t it make more sense that, in his own human vulnerability, Jesus faced the same desire to escape pain that you and I face every day? And doesn’t it make sense that, in his own divine knowledge of our need for a Savior, he would accept the pain that he knew in advance he would suffer, so that we might be able to live forever with him in glory?

That’s love. That’s the love Christ calls us to receive, It’s the love Christ calls us to give. It will mean pain. It might mean facing ridicule. It very likely will mean placing ourselves at risk, as we offer Christ to people who might not eagerly receive him. But for those who are willing to be perceiving Jesus, where we put the question mark can make all the difference.

The hour has come. What shall we say, “Father, save us from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that we have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. Help us to offer Christ to everyone who is willing to be perceiving you.

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