A sermon for the fifth Sunday of Lent

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,”[1] Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel.

But what he says next doesn’t sound much like glory: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies … “[2]

In his public ministry Jesus has never hesitated to speak truth to power, and now it’s all catching up with him.

His hour has come. This is the crisis that will finally test him.

Will he stand firm?

And another question maybe even more important for us today: Will we?

So how did it come to this?

What brought an itinerant preacher who went about healing the bodies and souls of people in pain to the attention of the authorities—and to the brink of death?

What those authorities fear isn’t the way evil spirits depart at his command, but rather his power over the crowds who come after him.

His popularity has been growing—or, from the perspective of the authorities, maybe we should say his notoriety has been growing. Throngs of people follow him everywhere.

Watching this movement grow, the leaders who fear for their own power are increasingly alarmed. The crowds are growing so large that the chief priests and the Pharisees have called a meeting amongst themselves to decide how to deal with him.

“If we let him go on like this,” they said, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”[3]

These authorities are puppet leaders who understood that whatever power they have comes from the Empire, not from the people they govern. There was no separation of church and state as we know it, and their authority was both civil and religious. And in both spheres, Jesus represented an enormous political threat. If they let things get out of hand with these crowds, the leaders knew what would happen to them.

As we go through this season, when we read through the Passion Gospel next week on Palm Sunday, and again on Good Friday, listen carefully to the statements of these authorities and to the questions Jesus is asked at his trial.

For example, Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”[4][5]

It’s not a question out of nowhere. It’s Pilate acting on what he’s heard and what he sees, and trying to figure out what it’s all about. And Jesus doesn’t deny it, and that’s the inscription—“the King of the Jews”— they put over him as he dies.

Of course, Jesus never spoke of taking over the government, but what he had been saying all along was that his authority came from a higher source, that there was a higher power than the empire, and that in itself was an unacceptable challenge.

So Caiaphas, the high priest, tells the others at their meeting, “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”[6]

And “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”[7]

And after that, Jesus goes more or less into hiding. “He therefore no longer walked about openly,” John tells us, “ … but went … to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.”[8]

But he wouldn’t stay hidden.

Passover was coming, and the people were going up to Jerusalem to prepare for the festival. And as they talked among themselves, they wondered whether Jesus would come, too.

They guessed that he wouldn’t be there, because “the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”[9]

But we know that he does go, and the crowds turn out waving branches of palm trees and shouting, “Hosanna!”[10]

And among those who went up to Jerusalem are the Greeks we heard about this morning.

We don’t know exactly who they were. They might have been sympathetic gentiles, or diaspora Jews coming in for the Passover festival, but most scholars today think it’s more likely they were recent converts to Judaism, proselytes.

They go to Andrew, one of two disciples who has a purely Greek name, someone they thought as one of their own.

And they tell him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”[11]

It’s a statement that’s almost poignant in its simplicity. Isn’t that ultimately what we all want, to see Jesus?

These Greeks want a one-on-one meeting with him. They want to get to know him, to find out for themselves who he really is.

So the worst fears of the chief priests and Pharisees are coming true: the stories about this man Jesus are spreading far and wide.

“Look, the whole world has gone after him,” the Pharisees are saying to one another,[12] and these Greeks are the proof of that statement.

They seek out Andrew, who brings their request to Philip, the other disciple with a Greek name, and together these two go to Jesus.

We don’t know if the Greeks ever got their private interview, but Jesus does begin to talk about who he really is, and what it will mean to follow him.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,”[13] he says. But he knows that pain will come before the glory, and he offers that beautiful metaphor of the grain of wheat that must fall into the earth and die in order to bear fruit.[14]

“Now my soul is troubled,” Jesus says. “And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”[15]

The hour has come. This is the time of decision. Our time of decision. Our time to be tested.

Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. The season is coming to a close. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, followed by the days of Holy Week, when in our worship we’ll relive in detail those last days leading to the execution of Jesus.

Everything we do in our lives will be tested through the lens of this story.

As the theologian Miroslav Volf says, finding our place in “the story of God’s engagement with humanity”—“ … gives meaning to all we do, from the smallest act to the weightiest. Is what we do in concord with that story? Then it is meaningful and will remain … . Does it clash with the story? Then it is ultimately meaningless … ”[16]

Like those Greeks in this morning’s Gospel, we come here to church hoping to see Jesus—but what are we really looking for?

Are we here hoping to find a comfortable Jesus, the one who will heal our pain and send us on our way—or are we willing to follow the Jesus who challenges the authorities and stands up against the accepted way of doing things, pointing always to a higher power.

Can we walk with him all the way to the cross?

As Volf says, “if faith only heals and energizes, then it is merely a crutch to use at will, not a way of life. But the Christian faith, as a prophetic religion, is either a way of life or a parody of itself.”

The hour has come. The time of decision is here.

In today’s Gospel, we see that Jesus has made his decision.

“Now my soul is troubled,” he says. “And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”[17]

Are we ready to follow his lead?

Not just today, but every day, because we face our own times of decision again and again—those times we’re challenged to live what we say we believe.

Those moments when we’re asked to die to ourselves like that grain of wheat, to let go of whatever it is that keeps us from wholeheartedly following Jesus.

What are those challenges for you? Where are those places where it would be so easy not to act, so easy to turn away and go back into hiding?

I can only speak for myself, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how hatred and anger seem to be growing all around me, and what my role should be in healing those wounds.

I’ve been remembering all those times when I’ve heard someone make a racist comment or joke, and more or less pretended I didn’t hear it. When I didn’t speak up because I didn’t want to offend that person, or because I didn’t want to get into an argument.

When I’ve even said something along those lines myself.

I’ve been thinking of those times when I could have spoken truth to power in other circumstances, as Jesus did, but I failed to do so—sometimes not even because I was afraid, but because it was just too much trouble.

I’ve been thinking of those times when I could have been a healer, as Jesus was—but didn’t because I was tired, or because I didn’t want to get involved, or because I figured I’d already done enough for one day.

“Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus said, “and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”[18]

The hour has come for us to truly live those words. Amen.

[1] John 12:23 NRSV

[2] 12:24

[3] NRSV

[4] Mark 15:2

[5] John 18:33

[6] 11:48

[7] 11:53

[8] 11:54

[9] 11:57

[10] 12:15

[11] 12:20

[12] 12:19

[13] 12:23

[14] 12:24

[15] 12:27

[16] Miroslav Volf, Public faith: how followers of Christ should serve the common good, pp. 16-17.

[17] 12:27-28

[18] 12:26