Are You Threatening me?
OK. We’re five Sundays into Lent and one away from Palm Sunday. It’s time for a pop quiz. Are you ready? In our gospel reading, the Greeks have come asking to see Jesus. What if someone asked you that question today? What would you say? Where have you seen Jesus in the past week? I would say metaphorically, but our theology includes those who follow Jesus in the body of Christ – which is the physical manifestation of Jesus in the world today. So, where and when – outside of these four walls – have you seen Jesus in the world this week?
(Answers are given: in the kindness of strangers, the PDA work team, the beauty of creation)
These are great answers! As for me, just asking myself this question one morning opened me up to all kinds of possibilities. In fact, that same morning I was walking to my car from the gym and I sneezed. Just as I was thinking how nice it is when people say, “Bless you!” and lamenting that there was no one to bless me, a man rolling by in his truck with the window down said, “Bless you!” I turned and waived a thank you, and our days both began with a smile.
Now, I’d love to say that’s all there is to the gospel and to the claim of Jeremiah that the law is written on our hearts, but I think there is a lot more to it than that. Somehow, I have this sneaky suspicion that if all there was to the Jesus message was “be nice and use common sense” then I don’t think there would have been a need for the crucifixion or the resurrection.
No, I’m afraid that even though the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, it is also somewhat threatening news. It’s threatening to the status quo when the status quo is too rigid for faith to matter, and it’s threatening to status quo when the status is too loose to honor God.
Let’s look at it through the lenses of scripture, if you will. Our reading from Jeremiah, for example, is from a section that is about the only happy part of his words of judgement for the faithlessness of God’s people. We often read these words as a promise for the coming of Christ, and in a way, they are. But they were originally written during a time when the temple in Jerusalem had been sacked and most of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel along with it.
What do you do when the old covenant that pointed to God as provider and protector seems null and void? How do you recover? In this instance, Jeremiah proclaims that God is still God and that the current troubles will not last. In fact, it won’t be priests prescribing laws that will save them. It will be the knowledge of God’s love and God’s presence that will be passed down from generation to generation that will save and restore them. Now that was quite liberating to those who were suffering, but it was pretty threatening to those whose entire identity was wrapped up in a system of temple worship and social expectations.
Of course, by Jesus’ time the religious leaders had fallen back into the power structures of temple politics. And yet he knew about the promise of the law written upon human hearts. As the new church formed around his teaching of the law and his promises to those that follow him, they began to see truths that had yet been unknown about the promise of a new covenant that would move through our hands, flow from our hearts, and fill our mouths with words of hope and promise!
For Jesus did not come to abolish the law. He came to fulfill it. In our reading from Hebrews it mentions Jesus being perfected, because he came to complete that which God had promised. For God’s promises are never broken.
And so, here we have this Jesus who has come in and threatened the religious leaders by raising Lazarus from the dead and drawing such a crowd that they have said, “the world has gone after him.” That’s the interesting thing about John’s presentation of the good news about Jesus. Giving life is essentially the tipping point that made the religious leaders plot his death. It makes me wonder if we do that sometimes – if we become so intimidated by the opportunity to make room for life giving changes that we end up working against them. I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of that.
Anyway, these Greeks – as one commentary said – came up to the guy with the most Greek sounding name and ask to see Jesus. Taken literally, the words of the text are “we are willing to perceive Jesus.” You could even push that to, “We want to understand who this guy is, and what all the fuss is about.”
Then Philip forms a committee, and they go to Jesus. Incidentally, this is possibly the worst model for evangelism ever because Jesus never actually talks to them. If anything, he threatens them as much as the religious leaders. But that’s the thing I’m getting at – as comforting as our faith in Christ can be, it constantly threatens our expectations of figuring things out and fixing them for once and for all of time.
We live in seasons of planting and harvest, and if we stop for one season to admire the grain in our hands, then the harvest is lost and so are we.
But Jesus knows that this is the time to plant, because the Greeks have come a calling. So far in John’s gospel he has repeatedly said, “Nope. Not time yet.” But now that those who are outside of the covenant have come to call, it’s time! It’s time for him to be glorified – to be lifted up! It’s time for God to glorify God’s name by submitting to suffering and torment.
Now we know how the story ends, and if they didn’t know before reading it John’s readers knew it soon enough. But what about those poor Greeks. Can you imagine the wide-eyed stares? For that matter, what are we to make of it? Love your life and lose it? Hate your life and keep it for eternity? Why would I want to do that?
Ultimately, we know that this means that if we are too focused on the creature comforts of this world then that’s all the comfort we’ll have. If we are, instead, less concerned about things and more concerned about the meaning of things and the way they connect us, then we will have life in abundance.
Robert Farrar Capon talks about this very thing in his book, The Supper of the Lamb. He says, “…how much curious and loving attention was expended by the first [person] who looked hard enough at the insides of trees, the entrails of cats [although it was actually lambs], the hind ends of horses, and the juice of pine trees to realize [that they] could be turned into the first fiddle.” He goes on to say that if that person had known what we know, then he (or she) could have responded to critics by saying, “Don’t bother me; I’m creating the possibility of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas.”
He goes on to say that it’s probably a good thing that the sonatas were not part of the original vision, because such a reward could only result in the love of the creation above and beyond a love for the Creator of all things. And though we may have a tendency toward idolatry – of self, of things, and even of ideals and expectations – we are yet called to live a redeemed life.
We are called to live a life that recognizes what Jesus has done for us and responds with gratitude and obedience. Now, those are heavy words, and I want to acknowledge that we have to be really careful with this idea of Jesus learning obedience through suffering. Suffering may have the side benefit of stripping down our defenses and encouraging us to look to God for help, but God does not intend or inflict or even like suffering one little bit.
Yet God allows it. And yet God allowed Jesus to suffer. And yet this man who was not the fullness of God but who was fully immersed in God’s will suffered. And he did not suffer because God’s anger required it. He suffered because God’s compassion for us demanded it.
He suffered so that a little girl named Autumn would know of God’s presence. When Autumn was four she had a tumor removed from her brain, and they had to sever her optic nerves. When her dad told her, she would never see again, she said, “It’s OK, Daddy. God will see for me.” Fast forward to her freshman year of high school and summer band camp. A blind girl at band camp is something that would not have happened in previous generations, but we’ve become the type of society that demands more and more equality. So, there she was.
A Senior named Rachel was paired up with her. Rachel had experience and knew what she was doing, so she became Autumns’ guide as they moved through routines together. It became so natural that Rachel gave her spot in the marching band, in her Sr. year of high school, to Autumn. Through the next year they marched as one, and I am certain it was to the joy of the Lord.
Now, you may say that Rachel was the one to give sight to Autumn, but I’m willing to bet it was the other way around. I bet, if you asked her, that Rachel would say that giving up something so dear was the key to receiving more than she could have imagined.
So, it is with each of us, as each new day gives us the chance to consider what we might give up, what we might put together, and what kind of music our lives will make before God.
As we conclude our Lenten journey and make our way to the Palms and the Passion and the Cross and celebration of the resurrection, let us again consider who the Greeks might be in our day and age, and how badly they want to see Jesus. Let us consider how threatening the gospel can be to all of our lives and let us give thanks for that!
For the gospel promise is not for a life without suffering. It is for a life filled with such meaning and purpose and joy that not even death itself could keep us from experiencing and expressing the love which will not let us go. And thanks be to God for that, now and always. Amen.