John 12:20-33
the great reversal
Lent 5 March 25, 2012
Roy W. Howard

Once upon a time we had a garden. It was not large by any means, but it was big enough to allow for several rows of peas and squash, cucumbers and cabbage and a couple of rows of corn. The corn didn’t grow that well, but the rest did pretty well. All in all, the garden was a delight and we enjoyed the fresh food.  Actually, as much as we enjoyed the fresh vegetables, what I really love – and miss –  is the planting of seeds in the little holes in the dirt. Looking back I think I even enjoyed pulling weeds or at least having a beautiful garden. (But that’s for a different sermon – -the wheat and the tares.) Anyway … walking the rows with seeds in my palm, I carefully place them in the ground, cover them and then walk away with the anticipation of little plants breaking the surface in due time. I would check it every day. Eating the produce was sheer pleasure too but not anymore than the planting; the joy of eating was the culmination of the whole process. It’s all so very simple, of course, but I took great delight in it; perhaps because I’m a novice gardener and certainly no farmer. The seed going into the dark ground to produce abundant food in a short time is simply a joy.

From a child’s point of view, it would seem that burying a seed in the ground would be the end of it. Dark, dirt, and death: it’s all over. But no; wonders of wonders, little shoots appear and soon enough a bright yellow squash begins to form and little pea pods, too. I love it all.

And I love that Jesus takes this wonder-filled process as a metaphor to describe God’s way with the world.  He breaks down to our level what is very difficult for us to comprehend.

Listen to Jesus’ description of redemption in today gospel reading.

Death is death, period. To our ordinary way of thinking this seems matter-of-fact. Jesus though says the opposite. Death is real – and often terribly sad – but it’s not the conclusion; Life is the final word, not death. This is Jesus’ great reversal that he will enact in his own life. Death yields to resurrection. How is this possible?  Remember the garden?

“Well,” Jesus says, “it’s like a grain of wheat that must die, be tossed to the ground, that it will rise and produce abundant life. If it doesn’t die, there will be no life. Yet, if it dies, it will rise bringing life upon life.” In this metaphor – which Jesus enacted in his own life – we see the whole of the Christian gospel – the good news of God for the world tangled in the patterns of death and destruction.

In last week’s text and sermon, LeAnn encouraged us to explore the profound mystery of God’s love for the world in Jesus, who came among us fully human, fully God, given for the salvation of the world. This is the Christmas story in Lent, reminding us of the full purpose of God who came to us as a child that culminates his death and resurrection for the redemption of the world.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him may have life eternal. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the entire world would be made whole.”

I think we would do well to sing a Christmas carol in Lent if only to remind us that the death of Jesus on a cross is not a gruesome event isolated from the rest of the story of God’s redeeming love for the world. It’s actually the culmination of love – so amazing, so divine. This is the main problem with movies like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ.” They give the mistaken impression that the cross of Christ is disconnected from the birth of Christ, and misses the point that both – death and life – are expressions of God’s profound love for the world that will not be deterred by death, anymore than a seed will be destroyed by the dirt that covers it. The cross of Christ is about the sublime beauty of God’s love from beginning to end and beyond the end. Rather than the cross being the source of the salvation of the world, it is a demonstration of relentless divine love that risks everything for us, even fully embracing the most damming, cruel, death dealing practices of humanity gone awry. This is love that will not let you go, even if you choose to hang him up to die.

“What looks like the perfect proof against Jesus’ authenticity – his execution – proves by longer exposure to it to be the supreme argument for, and the major display of God’s profound love for the world.” (Dale Bruner)

If that is not shocking enough, there’s more: this seed-in-the-ground-God says his death is the necessary prelude to life, just like that grain of wheat tossed in the ground. As that seed wondrously brings food to all, so all of humanity will be raised to life when seed-in-the-ground-God springs forth in resurrection. And this is the point of it all: abundant life for all humanity.

At this point you might say with all honesty – what’s not to like about this love story of God with us?

Perhaps that is the real scary scandal of this story. There are those who love the self-destroying, buzz-killing ways of this world so much that they reject the love of God that brings abundant life. It’s easy to misunderstand this business of “hating ones life in this world” unless one understands that “this world” is John’s code language for all the hurtful, neighbor-killing, self-promoting practices of this fallen world that bring human misery. As Jesus puts it, “as long as you hold on to that life, you will lose everything; but if you let go of that self-promoting, me-first way of life to embrace my counter-cultural death-defeating, neighbor loving way, you will find life eternally.”

How is this possible? How does one actually let go of habits, desires, practices that are embedded in our way of life but fail to satisfy at the deepest level? Jesus is not naïve about the question nor should we be; there is a cost of discipleship. But neither does Jesus make it a complicated as it often appears. He says simply – follow me. As one commentator puts it “Do you want to be where the life really happens? “Then come on,” Jesus is saying, “walk as closely to me as you possibly can, and I promise that you will be right there where life’s deepest events and issues are, in fact, taking place.” (Dale Bruner)

We follow Jesus from whose death flows life and liberation for all, so that life will flow from our lives, too. This is the strange and wonderful way of God – the great reversal – death brings life. Just so: we follow Jesus, clinging day by day to him rather than to ourselves, so that joy and love may be come to our neighbors as abundantly as a field of wheat shimmering in the summer sun.