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Apr 02, 2017

True North | Dying & Following

True North | Dying & Following

Passage: John 12:20-33

Speaker: Jerry Deck

Series: True North

Category: Weekend Message

We are just one week away from Palm Sunday and then we have Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and, of course Easter Sunday. In other words, we are in the closing couple of weeks of this Lenten season. We are in a transition Sunday between the 2nd and 3rd part of our True North series and as I thought about our series and about the soon to be over season of Lent I was drawn to this particular passage for us today. I’ll tell you why in a bit, but let’s begin by looking at our text.

In John 12 Jesus is coming towards the end of his ministry, towards the end of his journey on earth. Passover is upon them and Jesus’ understanding of what is to come is growing stronger. And it is at this point in Jesus’ life when John begins to describe this, somewhat strange, scene. There were some Greeks, we are told, who want to see Jesus and so they go to Philip. And then Philip goes and tells Andrew. And then Philip and Andrew go to tell Jesus. It’s a bit of an odd way to go about it, quite honestly, almost like Philip and Andrew are two children teaming up before going to ask their parents a difficult question. So, Philip and Andrew go to Jesus and say, “Some Greeks want to see you.” Now there are a lot of ways for Jesus to answer that question. “Sure, I’ll be happy to see them,” or “No, I don’t think this is the right time,” or “Hmmm, let me think about that.” You know, like a normal way to answer a simple question.

Jesus’ answer though makes you wonder if Philip and Andrew weren’t correct in not wanting to ask him this question. “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.” Can’t you imagine Philip and Andrew looking at themselves somewhat strangely and being like, “Soooo, was that a “yes” or a “no”? It certainly seems that Jesus didn’t answer their question.

Of course, the thing to keep in mind about the Greeks is that in their culture they were cultivated to be a people who were always asking philosophical and theological questions about things. It wouldn’t have been surprising at all that they wanted to see Jesus. It’s been pointed out that Greeks could easily move from one deep subject to another, from one philosophy to another, from one religion to another. They were seekers, if you will. As David Lose says, they are what we would call today, “spiritual, but not religious.” They loved to ponder things, but (and perhaps this is critical to keep in mind) they liked to do it from a comfortable distance. They wanted to understand Jesus, but Jesus (especially at this point in his ministry) knew that if they really wanted to see him, if they genuinely wanted to understand him (which is what they really desired) they had to be willing to do more than just think about Jesus or see him from a safe place. They had to be willing to wrestle with death. They had to be willing to wrestle with death.

I’ve been thinking about death a fair amount of late. I know it’s not the most uplifting of subjects, but dealing with the deaths of 3 people forty-one or younger in six months time will do that to you. It forces you to pause, to wonder, to reflect, to wrestle. Truth be told our society doesn’t really wrestle with death all that much, doesn’t reflect on it too much. It’s too sad, too depressing, too uncomfortable. We’d prefer to not think about it, to ignore it. We’re not sure exactly what to say about death or what to say to those who are grieving it. So, we avoid folks who are grieving in this way or we try and tell them everything will be okay or we tell folks that he or she is in a better place. I get it, I really do, and it’s not even like those things are altogether inaccurate. I mean as Christians we certainly believe that those who die are in a better place, but sometimes it seems like we say these things not to be honest, but as a way of just trying to smooth everything over, to make people feel better, to avoid the pain and suffering. 

That may be why I was so struck this week with this passage in John, especially with that one line from Jesus. It’s kind of arresting really, coming from the mouth of the Son of God. Perhaps not something we’d expect to hear. As Jesus tells his disciples that his time has come, as he stands in the increasingly dark shadow of death, he succintly says, “Now my soul is troubled.” Dale Bruner translates it, “Right now, I am so depressed.” Or as The Message puts it, “…I am storm-tossed.” Here is Jesus, a part of the triune God, the Almighty, and yet here he is in all of his humanity naming the pain of death so clearly, so vulnerably, so honestly. This is Jesus not running from death or its pain, but honestly describing the toll that it will take on him, the toll that it is already taking on him. It is much like we will see him in the Garden of Gethsemane when we’re told that Jesus is deeply grieved and asks whether the cup can be taken from him. And while, yes, he eventually says that he knows he must drink of the cup and that even in today’s passage he says he will not flee from death, before we get there it’s critical to sit with Jesus in his pain and wrestling and grief. 

This past Wednesday at our staff meeting we were talking about this passage and about death and Scott mentioned how he’s noticed that in the funeral sermons I’ve preached how I spend a fair amount of time talking about the pain of death, about its’ struggle, rather than moving on quickly to the joy of the resurrection. I hadn’t really thought about it that much, but he’s probably right. There is something troubling to me when we gather together at funerals and leap to Easter Sunday rather than reflecting on the Garden of Gethsemane or Jesus’ own wrestling with his death. I take to heart what David Bartlett says which is that, “For many Christians who face suffering and loss, there is more comfort in this suffering and pondering Jesus (like we see in our passage today) than in a superhero programmed for perfection.” As the body of Christ we believe in all of Jesus, not just parts of him and if we really want to know him, to see him then we must also see the one whose soul is troubled, who was depressed at times, who felt storm-tossed. Because it is in those emotions, in that part of Jesus, that we so often find our own lives. We acknowledge these struggle and this pain, not because we think we must confess them, but because we know that Jesus meets us in those places, just as he meets us on our resurrection days when the sun is shining and all of life seems to be blossoming. We gather together on difficult days as a community of faith because we refuse to avoid or ignore the pain of death.

Of course, what Jesus understood is that it is out of this willingness to endure the pain of death, rather than avoiding it, where opportunity for new growth and life begins. First and foremost, we believe this to be the case with Jesus death and resurrection. Echoing the natural world, where the seed dies so that more fruit can be produced, we believe that in his death he took upon himself our sin, our brokenness, our pain, so that we might have new life. As Paul says, the old life is gone and a new life has begun. However, we cannot forget that new life comes at a cost to Jesus, it took his willingness to take upon him our pain, our struggle, our sin. Grace, as we have said so many times in our sermon series, is a gift to us, but it came at a cost for him. A cost that we see and experience in our passage today. He has carried our burden.

In a few minutes we will gather around this table to celebrate communion. We do this for a few reasons. First, well, because Jesus told us to. Secondly, in order to remember with joy that because of Jesus we have been made whole, that we have new life, that we are a new creation. But we also gather around the table as a reminder that this new life did not come free of pain or struggle or sacrifice. We are a resurrection people, but one of the things that a resurrection people understand, by very definition, is that we were once dead and needed to be resurrected. So, gathering around this table is a celebration on the one hand, but it is also a recognition of the pain that allowed for this new life.

I’m not sure how much we think about this, but when we gather monthly around this table we are not only shaped to grow in our gratitude of Jesus, but we are also shaped into a people who can honestly wrestle and engage in the difficulty of death. Otherwise, think about it, Jesus would have just told us to stare up and meditate on an empty cross for 10 minutes. But he doesn’t. He wants us to take hold of broken bread which signifies his broken body and to crush and drink grapes as a symbol of spilled blood, because it helps form us into a people who know that death is not without pain or struggle. This helps us to be a people who not only celebrate the resurrection, but also to be a people who know better how to weep with those who weep, how to mourn with those who mourn and how to carry one another’s burdens. In other words, in taking communion and practicing brokenness and death we become better at being with others who are broken or are experiencing death. What we do at this table every month helps us to become a more compassionate people who don’t ignore death, but who willingly come alongside those who are suffering and in pain because we don’t ignore death, but we wrestle with it each and every month that we gather around this table.

Jesus doesn’t just say that his soul is troubled, that he is storm-tossed, but he also says that troubling line to all those who follow him that, “Whoever serves me must follow me.” In other words, this pattern of death and resurrection is not limited to Jesus, but that he desires our lives to look like that as well. I’m not sure I’d really thought about it quite like that during the 2nd part of our True North series, but the reality is that so many of those things that we talked about are not just the result of doing something new, but are also the result of dying to something old. Or to use the language of Jesus, in order for new fruit to be produced an old seed has to die.

In order to worship, we are praising God and saying that he is in control, but we are also dying to those parts of us that say that we are in control. If we are to worship God, then we must also die to ourselves.

Or what about chewing on scripture? It’s been great to hear about the many ZPC’ers who have discovered the time to read through the gospels this season of Lent and I am deeply appreciative of Scott for working on that. Of course, it’s not as if those who have done it have just “discovered” that time, but that they had to die to spending that time doing something else that they might have wanted to have done. But then, there is also making the decision to actually follow what the Bible has to say to us. And what that means is that we have to die to our own narrative, our own lens through which we see the world, if we want to live according to the biblical narrative, if we want to live with scripture as our lens through which we understand God, one another, our neighbors, our enemies, our world. Death is a requirement.

Or what about becoming a generous people? I have a good feeling that if you asked most folks, “Would you like to be more generous, to give more to ZPC or to others,” they would say, “Yes, absolutely!” Most of us are desirous of that. That’s the easy part. The difficult part, the painful part, the costly part, the dying part is coming up with what you are going to give up in order to be more generous. To give more away, means to give less to yourself (whether that’s in the number of Starbucks you have, the types of vacations you take, the size of the home in which you live or whatever). We can’t expect giving up any of those things to be easy, to be done without a struggle, to occur without being willing to die.

Or think about our conversation last week about being a biblical community. We talked about how beautiful it was to see the early church come together in this wonderful community and grow closer to God, closer to one another while also reaching out to those around them in remarkable ways. Most folks, my guess is, would say that they would love to be a part of this kind of community and what keeps them from doing it is not a lack of desire to be together in community. More often than not what keeps them from doing it, what makes it so difficult, is that in order for that beautiful community to occur we have to die to some of our individualism, to always getting things the way we want them. My daughters love being together and playing together. But as soon as two of them want to play with the same toy or wear the same costume in a moment they’re love for their little community takes a back seat. The only way for that to be restored is when they decide that they’re willing to die to their own desire for that toy or costume in order to remain close. Unfortunately, while our toys or costumes may get more expensive or look different, the reality is that we as adults wrestle with the same thing and would prefer to avoid the reality that new life in community requires death. 

Sometimes we think that worshipping or chewing on scripture or being generous or living in community should be easy or natural, but that is only because we would prefer to avoid death. Death, however, does not come easily or naturally. This is why we have to become comfortable with talking about death, with being around death, with wrestling with death. Because the only way for there to be new life is to be willing to experience death. This is what we experience in the death of Jesus, it is what we will experience in our physical death and it is what we discover in the many other deaths that we experience each day as we die to the old that we might live anew for Christ. We fool only ourselves if we believe that we can flourish in our faith and in our lives without being willing to suffer death. As Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

As I was reflecting on this sermon I began to wonder whether or not people would be concerned that all of this talking of death reveals that the difficult funerals I have had to officiate have, in some way, begun to take a toll on me. I sometimes hear it in the way people ask how I am doing in the midst of those difficult times, which to be clear I genuinely appreciate. When I hear that concern my first inclination, if I can be so honest, is to say that the struggle of those times for me is nothing compared to what it is for the family who is grieving, suffering, the loss of their one. And that’s certainly true.

But as I’ve thought about it some more I’ve realized that truth be told those deaths have taken a toll on me and for that I am growing increasingly thankful. My hope is that these deaths and other deaths that we may have experienced have actually taken a toll on all of us. That, no matter how difficult they may have been, that they have in some way shaped us. That we haven’t just ignored them or sloughed them up with a couple of niceties, but that we have, in one way or another, grieved them, wrestled with them, been troubled by them. Because, in so doing we have walked the road that Jesus has led us on. Death is a part of a life and it is a critical step if we want to live a new life.

“We want to see Jesus” the Greeks said to Philip. And Jesus responded then come and experience what it means to die, because only then will you truly see me. Only then will you experience new life. Perhaps Jesus’ answer is not as strange as it first sounded. The question is, will we follow him there?