25 March 2012

God's Good Time

A Sermon for Lent 5B

There was an expression back when I was growing up in South Texas that you would hear sometimes when deadlines or due dates came up, especially ones that folks thought were unreasonable, whether too soon or too inflexible. It was: "It'll get done in God's good time." People already being suspicious and cynical even in those days, this was often met with skepticism, as if it were a way of saying that whatever it was would never get finished, instead of taken as it was meant, as a friendly correction. It's actually a good way of referring to kairos-time, the New Testament time that Anne Jervis spoke about back in Epiphany, the time that is measured not by a clock or the passage of the seasons, but by the outworking of God's purpose.

Our readings for this Sunday are full of allusions to this kind of time. This seems appropriate after all: this is the fifth Sunday of Lent and next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, when we enter fully into kairos-time through the liturgy, which with the deliberate omission of the dismissal at the end of the Eucharist becomes one complex week-long liturgical act, culminating in the great vigil of Easter.

The Old Testament lesson sets the tone with its beginning: "The days are coming," Jeremiah says. What days are these? Not days on a calendar, but days of God's action, the days in which God will establish a new covenant with God's people; "I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts". Furthermore in those days, God says, "I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more." But in this reading the recipients of the new covenant are restricted to the house of Israel and the house of Judah, the two nations into which David and Solomon's united kingdom dissolved. Why then would we read it in our worship and apply it to ourselves?

In the gospel reading Jesus offers the key. This passage from John's Gospel is part of the conclusion of the first section of the gospel, called 'The Book of Signs' which also acts as a transition to the second section, 'The Book of Glory,' which speaks of the glorious divine life of love which Jesus the Word will re-enter through his saving work, his crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension to his Father. In the Book of Signs, the evangelist chooses seven signs, or miracles, that Jesus performed during his ministry and intersperses them with discourses and controversies that bring out the meaning and significance of those signs. The final sign in the series is the raising of Lazarus, after which John relates three events of importance that help to bring out the meaning of that sign: Jesus' annointing by Mary, his entry into Jerusalem, and this encounter.

The story begins innocuously enough with a group of Greeks, that is, Greek-speaking Gentile proselytes that, like Jesus and his followers, had come to Jerusalem for the Passover. Not speaking Aramaic, when they want to see Jesus, they seek out someone that they are sure they can talk with, Philip, one of Jesus' Galilean disciples and one of the few with a Greek name. Philip discusses the matter with another Galilean with a Greek name, Andrew, and they go together to Jesus, who has an extraordinary reaction to finding out that a group of Gentiles want to see him.

Upon hearing what Philip and Andrew have to say, Jesus answers, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." "The hour has come" -- it's as if this event is a signal for which Jesus has been waiting. The time is right -- the kairos-time has begun as God's purpose in the Incarnation is about to be fulfilled. In characteristic language John expresses this by talking about Jesus being glorified. For John the glory of Jesus' God-ness is indisolubly connected with Jesus' humanity and the terrible death by which his life will come to an unjust end. And it is obvious that Jesus clearly recognises that this hour is also the hour of his imminent death.

We can see this in the teaching that follows -- it is inspired by Jesus's sense of his impending death, his sense of the meaning and purpose of his death and his life up to that point, his sense of the deep significance of his death for his followers. All this is woven together in the nine short verses that follow. Although comparatively short, this passage is dense and difficult. It begins with a series of sayings that open up one another. First, the grain of wheat, so reminiscent of Paul's words in Corinthians that Paul must surely have been aware of the tradition John records. When a seed falls in to the earth it dies as a seed but in doing so it bears much fruit, being born anew as a fruitful plant. After making this easy to understand analogy, Jesus goes on to demonstrate that those who try to hang on to their earthly lives will lose them, but those that let go of their earthly lives will gain them for eternity, just as the transformed seed bears fruit that surpasses its own existence This letting go of his life is what Jesus must do -- like the seed, he must let go of his life -- that is why, as he says, he has come to this hour. Just as he has just defeated death in the raising of Lazarus, he must now open life to the Gentiles, and to do so he must be like the grain of wheat falling into the earth. We who follow him must be willing to do the same -- Jesus says, 'where I am' -- buried in the tomb in death, buried like the seed in the soil, ready to burst forth with the life that comes from the Father alone -- 'there will my servant be also.'

He reaches back to an earlier discourse, which we heard as the gospel reading last week, for another analogy -- in last week's gospel, we heard Jesus speak of the story of Moses lifting up a bronze serpent in the wilderness as a powerful sign of God's forgiveness to heal the people and compare it to the Son of Man being lifted up: 'And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.' And here Jesus alludes to the same story in concluding his discourse: 'I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.'

The lifting up, of course, refers to Jesus's death by crucifixion, in which he will be physically lifted up from the earth to die. In the Old Testament story, Moses is told to lift up the bronze serpent so that it can be more easily seen by the people in need. But here in John's Gospel the Son is not lifted up passively, like the metal snake. Instead this is a voluntary lifting up, which will allow him room and scope to draw all people to himself and to draw them thereby into the divine life that he shares with the Father. It is because of this drawing in that Jesus has such an extraordinary reaction to learning that a group of Gentiles want to see him. He know that it represents the beginning of the fulfilment of God's purpose: now, in this appointed time, in the kairos-time of the gospel, Jesus has begun to draw all people to himself, prefiguring his crucifixion. And this is also why we can claim the promise of our Old Testament reading -- by being drawn in to the everlasting arms of our Lord we are also made part of God's covenant people. As the author of Hebrews puts it, Jesus through his obedient ordeal became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

How then do we become part of this new covenant community and share the work of service that comes by following Jesus into the death of self-concern? Only through the transforming love of God. We cannot transform ourselves, anymore than the seed can transform itself from a single grain to a head of grain heavy with many kernels. It is God's power that transforms the seed in the earth to a fruitful crop growing in the sun and air and God's power that glorifies Jesus, making his death the gateway to the restored divine life with the Father in the Spirit for him and to new life with God for us.

What we can do is what the Gentile proselytes that inadvertently triggered this reaction did. We can seek as they did to see Jesus. All of us here are, like them, at some point of a journey to see Jesus -- that is why we've sought the company of other searchers here in this place. By taking part in the journey, we open ourselves to the transforming power of God's love. In that love we can learn to let go of ourselves and our lives in serving and following Jesus. This is the our Lenten journey, that ends in the same place that Jesus's journey with his disciples to Jerusalem ended. For us, as for the disciples, it will end at the foot of the cross on Good Friday and the entrance of the Empty Tomb on Easter Morning, if we are willing, like the grain of wheat, to lose our lives in the rich soil of God's love to grow a crop of loving service for God in God's good time. Amen.