A Sermon for Holy Week (3): The Son of Man and the Glory of God

The Son of Man and the Glory of God
 John 12:20-33 

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
This is the high-point of Jesus’ earthly ministry The moment when his popularity among the people was at its greatest. If there had been opinion polls in the 1st century,Jesus would have been heading them. His opponents the Pharisees have just bitterly observed: 
“You see, you can do nothing. The world has gone after him.” 
And as if to prove their jealous point, a group of foreigners, Greeks, approach one of the disciples, who has a Greek name, looking for an interview with Jesus. Philipp and Andrew the other disciple with a Greek name, both of whom were from the same half Greek city in Galilee, Bethsaida, approach Jesus with the foreigners’ request. Jesus recognises that the high point has arrived. Again and again through his ministry, beginning at the wedding feast at Cana, he has had to deflect the ambitions of his supporters and declare that his hour has not come. Well the time is now His hour has come.  
“The Son of Man is about to be glorified.” 

We like glory. We like success, triumph. We like a procession. Jesus offers this thought, the declaration that the time is now, shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem The high tide of his popularity is reached just after the crowd has sung their “hosannas.” This is the kind of Jesus we like Jesus the triumphant king. True, he was humble enough to come riding on a donkey. But he still appears to be  the kind of king who is sweeping all his opponents before him. Jesus the king who is enthroned and crowned by us to fulfil all our longings. The crowd welcomed Jesus because they expected that Roman rule was about to end. We still sing about a Jesus who will take power, assume glory in the world, who will conquer this land. So much of our effort is directed towards demonstrating the power and success of our beliefs in the world’s terms. We want the church to be able to display size, influence, even wealth and power. The final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry is about the collision between what the world thinks of as glory, and the true glory of God. And in the world’s terms there is a precipitous plunge from this moment, when all the world seems to go after Jesus, to the conclusion of the week’s events on Calvary, the apparent abject failure and defeat of the cross. In a normal year, by accident or design few of us are in church between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. Few of us follow the story of the events of Holy Week day by day. We jump directly from the excitement of Jesus arrival in Jerusalem to the surprise and joy of the resurrection. We go from one Sunday of triumph to the next without experiencing the plunge into despair in between. We feel comfortable with a Christianity that moves from triumph to triumph. A faith that promises success after success. The trouble is that kind of glory, the kind which the world knows and understands, is an illusion. That kind of Christianity is false. Jesus himself says “Beware when all speak well of you.” He knows his hour has come, but his glory does not lie in success. It lies in the humiliation and failure of the cross.

You will sometimes see  signs in a shop, evidently placed there by the staff, that humorously comment upon their circumstances. So next to the sign that says, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps,” there is also the sign that declares, “This is a non-profit organisation. We didn’t plan it like that. It’s just worked out that way.” Both of which might appear to be signs we could hang up in church. But God is not committed to human failure,  in the world’s terms,  it just works out that way.  We are not saying that God positively encourages or looks for failure. What we are saying is that God and the world may have rather different ideas about what success and failure might look like. Those who are faithful to God seldom gain success in the worlds terms Indeed the invitation of the Gospel is an invitation to apparent failure that ends in death. The glorious names of Christian history are not names of people who triumphed in the world’s terms. As it happens the anniversaries of the martyrdom of three modern saints occur, at this time of year, within a few weeks of each other; Oscar Romero on March 24; Martin Luther King on April 4; And Dietrich Bonhoeffer on April 9. Whilst they are remembered and celebrated, glorified even, by Christians and others beyond, in historic or biographical terms the lives ended in apparent failure. Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis for his part in a plot to kill Hitler that failed. It was not his actions which defeated the evil he saw,  nor was he able to prevent the destruction of his homeland which was a large part of his aim. Oscar Romero did not end the killing of the poor in El Salvador, nor indeed was he able to protect very many of them from the death squads which ravage his country. And for all the success which the civil rights movement did have, Martin Luther King, as he expected, did not live to see the promised land where children would be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their souls. And even 50 years on, even after black man has sat in the White house, the racism and poverty which Martin Luther King fought have not been defeated in America, let alone the rest of the world. The conclusion of Jesus’ final week of ministry in Jerusalem  was not the defeat of the Romans and the re-establishment of an Israel that was free to worship God. The conclusion of that week was Jesus’ betrayal by a friend, the dispersal of his supporters and his death by the most painful and humiliating means possible.
But this is not because God is cruel or contrary. Jesus knows that: 
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains a single grain” 
The church knows: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Failure and weakness in the worlds terms is not what God is interested in for their own sake. But then neither is success, in the world’s terms. God is interested in the Glory of God. And what glorifies God best is the strength of what he has made. Which for a human beings is obedience to God. Jesus is that strong one. His stance before God is obedience. He pays its price. Betrayal, failure, death are not what God wishes for Jesus. They are simply the world’s price for his obedience to God. The hour of Christ’s glory is the crucifixion. But it is so because it is the sign of his obedience to God. He does not baulk from God’s plan, even though it leads to his death. He does not turn back from God’s methods, the refusal to use violence or coercion, even though it seems to lead to failure. Christ’s obedience gives glory to God.
Obedient men and women, like Jesus, long to be delivered from this hour. No one, not even Jesus, can walk down a road that leads to death without some hesitation. We would all prefer success and triumph. We would all rather see the positive results of our actions, instead of evident failure. But the stronger, the more faithful course is to accept God’s will and God’s methods. Jesus plays the debate over in his own mind and in the hearing of his followers:
“What should I say. . .” 
But he stays his course. He accepts a method that appears to be laughably weak and for practical purposes a failure. He renounces love for his own life and the desire for safety that brings, in favour of obedience to God. Since it is only in that way that God is glorified and the word from heaven is fulfilled. God speaks directly into this scene:
“I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.” 
The faithful may wish to be delivered from “failure” into “success” but they know that if obedience is to be perfect there is no ultimate earthly deliverance. Where Jesus is, there the servant must be also. The seed must die. One’s life must be spurned. The follower must take up a cross and go to the extremity where Jesus is. If earthly exile is to end in glory.
It’s hard to be a Christian when it’s easy to be a Christian. Martyrdom doesn’t appear to be an option for us. Faced with the massive scale of evil that confronted them, the path which Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Archbishop Romero took was easy to find. Though no doubt it was very hard for them to walk along. For us, our walk as Christians may seem easier. It is hardly more than a stroll.  But finding the right path is more challenging. The old adage is true: no cross no crown. Our difficulty would seem to be that there is no obvious cross for us to take up. And therefore no crown seems to be available. I wonder if our difficulty in locating a cross to pick up isn’t simply a product of our reluctance to spurn the life we have. We still crave success. We still chase after effectiveness. We look for survival of our churches and of our own comfort, rather than embracing obedience to God’s will and accepting God’s methods. We are not prepared to see the death of the things we value, not least of them the church as we have known them. We are not prepared to stop doing things that look as though they might work. We won’t stop planning for growth, we won’t stop using 7 steps for effective leadership. We’re determined to have 40 days and 40 years of purpose. The realm of Bonhoeffer, King and Romero’s obedience to God was straight forward, it was facing evil expressed in Naziism, racism and poverty, and in death squads. The realm of our obedience may be in some ways more discomforting. It is the church itself. The American theologian Stanley Hauerwas has put it succinctly: “Bonhoeffer had the Nazis, we have the Church Growth Movement.” All because we love our life, all because we like the parade on Palm Sunday better than we like the agony in the Garden on Thursday night and rejection and death on Friday morning. But: 
“Those who love their life will lose it.” 
There is no way to Easter from Palm Sunday except through Good Friday. There is no way to glory except through renunciation. We need to let go and let God. Stop doing what looks like it might work, because in truth it won’t. And do the things of God that look as though they won’t work. We need to waste our time in more worship, and not the kind of worship that is an easy shopfront to appeal to the unconverted. And we need to waste our time in more prayer, and not the prayer that asks always for what we want. We need to following Jesus into loving and serving those who won’t be converted by it, won’t appreciate it or be grateful for it, indeed who will resent and even hate us for it. But that way is the way to the glory of God. 
“Where I am there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.”

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The Son of Man and the Glory of God by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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