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John 12:20-33

We reseeded our lawn this year. It was overgrown with crabgrass, to the point where I was unsure we’d ever get a real lawn back without bringing in some sort of mechanical earth mover. (Or a wizard. A wizard would probably do it.) We spread the seed in late winter, and a full two months went by during which the seed did absolutely nothing. This, I’m sorry to say, didn’t surprise me in the least. Of course it didn’t do anything: the soil was too bad, the weeds were too thick, the weather wasn’t right, and I’m sure we were watering it too little– or too much. Maybe too much.

The waiting time is the hardest in something small like reseeding a lawn; it’s excruciating, I’d imagine, in something large like waiting for a diagnosis or for the Roman guards to finally arrest you and take you to the cross. The inevitability of things doesn’t make them easier to wait upon. We see in this passage a Jesus full of trepidation, much like we see him in Gethsemane. He’s resigned, of course, and faithful, but there’s still an air of dread hanging over him as he considers the imminent future: “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.” Jesus, in all of his humanity, is wishing for another way.

So when the Greeks approach with a simple request: “We wish to see Jesus,” it isn’t too difficult to imagine why Jesus doesn’t saunter up and shake their hands, and smile like a politician; their arrival signals the beginning of a very difficult road. Instead, he moves into a sort-of soliloquy about a seed. About the paradox of dying to live, and of losing one’s life to find it. Paradox was never too far from Jesus’ lips, but a politician’s smile, it seems, always was.

It is good for Christians to feel this dread, too, on this final Sunday in Lent. We remember that part of what weighed so heavily on Jesus was the fact that he was calling his disciples to the same road of suffering that he was now modeling. He is, in fact, calling us there. As NT Wright explains, “Here we see, more clearly than John has showed us up to now, how it is that God will save the world through the death of Jesus– which has been hinted at in so many ways since the first chapter, most recently in 11.52. Jesus’ death will be like sowing a seed into the ground. It will look like a tragedy…In fact, it will be a triumph: the triumph of God’s self-giving love, the love that looks death itself in the face and defeats it by meeting it voluntarily, on behalf not just of Israel but of the whole world, the world represented by those Greeks.”[1]

It had to have been confounding to those who watched it all play out. It had to be confounding to Andrew and Philip, and the Greeks, who ask to see Jesus–Messiah, revolutionary, teacher–and are answered with Jesus, sown seed. Dying in order to live. Losing life to find it. ‘Lifted up’–literally, on the cross–as much as figuratively, glorified.

It is good to note, of course, that Jesus is returning to a theme that’s already been introduced earlier in John’s book when Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). The story he’s referencing there comes from Numbers 21, in which the Israelites must look upon the snake– death, in other words, the very thing that kills them– in order to live. Another paradox. And the intertwining stories are rich places from which sermons might grow.

“Father, glorify your name!” Jesus says. He’s searching, perhaps, for the right thing to pray at a time such as this.

And the voice of God, as John identifies it, said: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

But the words sounded only like the clanging of thunder to most of the surrounding crowd, even though Jesus assures them the answer was for their sake. How often have I wished that God would audibly answer me in this way– something booming, loud, and in English? But I also wonder how much of God’s voice we miss because we are expecting it to sound like something else? Expecting it to say something else?

Lord, let us hear your voice in the thunder, to see this Jesus as he is and not only as we imagine him to be.

And, of course, our grass did grow up: luscious, green, and more full than I could have imagined.

[1] N. T. Wright, John for everyone (London: SPCK, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004).