Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s estimated that one of every four-hundred thousand babies will be born with a rare genetic disease called dysautonomia. Victims are unable to feel pain and usually die early. Some athletes have their careers altered because they take drugs to dull pain instead of discovering and treating the source of the problem. Or think about leprosy, otherwise known as Hansen’s Disease. Those afflicted with leprosy don’t feel pain due to their nerve endings being destroyed. The result is infection and death, all because they could not feel pain! In this broken world, pain sometimes serves a useful purpose. This morning’s Gospel reading is about the glory that is hidden in suffering.
The Glory of the Cross
Andrew and Philip came to tell Jesus that there were some Greeks who wanted to see him. They were foreigners who found Israel’s God and religion attractive. But instead of saying, ‘Great! Bring them here and I’ll talk to them!’, Jesus declares that, if he is ‘lifted up’ from the earth, he will draw all people to himself. In other words, if the Greeks want to see him, if they want to benefit from him, Jesus’ proper response to their request is to go to the Cross and be executed. If you wish to see Jesus, look at the cross.
The crowds of course, don’t agree with Jesus. This language suffering was not the sort of talk they would associate with the Messiah. They’ve suffered enough at the hands of the Romans. They think that the Messiah should be telling them to sharpen their swords and help him repel the Romans occupiers. They want the glory of this world, the glory of battle, fortune, prosperity, and to be famous. Suffering and death just don’t fit into the way they see the world.
Jesus had just said that the hour had come. (v. 23) And was he … proud that he had got to this point? No, I don’t think so. Exhilarated? Yes, so it seems, but that’s not the first thing John says. Was he ready to meet the moment with head held high? Well, eventually, yes, but that again isn’t what John says. “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour,” (v. 27). Troubled. Yes: the God that had become flesh, the one in whom the Father’s own love and power was truly seen, the one who healed the sick, turned water into wine, opened blind eyes and raised Lazarus to life: he was troubled. God was deeply troubled, troubled right down in his heart. Is your picture of God big enough for that? Or, when God speaks, do you just think it’s thundering?
Jesus was, after all, the Word become flesh, human flesh, flesh that shrank from suffering as we all might. His natural instinct as a flesh-and-blood man was to say: the time has arrived—and is there some way I can avoid it? But, Jesus was totally committed to doing whatever was necessary to bring glory to his Father. He knows sliding safely past suffering will not let God’s glory shine out to the whole world. Suffering and cross are the only way for the world to be rescued.
That’s how God, the true God, the God of astonishing, generous love, would be glorified. Swords don’t glorify the creator-God. Love does. The self-giving love of Jesus Christ, best of all. God will save the world through the suffering and death of Jesus. Jesus’ death will be like sowing a seed into the ground. It will look like a tragedy, but in fact, it will be a triumph. “For this purpose I have come to this hour,” Jesus said. Jesus was born so that he would suffer and die for you. In his incarnation, Jesus Christ joins our humanity. The sinless Jesus stands in the place of us sinners. His life was lived perfectly, always loving his Father, always loving his neighbour, always self-sacrificing, always denying himself. The evil of the cross is the good of our salvation. The miscarriage of Roman justice is God’s justice for the sins of the world. The rejection of Christ is God’s reconciliation to the world. The innocent victim is the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the world’s sin. The triumph is in Jesus’ self-giving love, the love that looks death itself in the face and defeats it by meeting it head on, on behalf not just of Israel but of the whole world, even you and I.
The Invitation to Die
We are not excluded from suffering either. Jesus said, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” (v. 25). He tells his disciples about seeds and plants, about life and death, about servants and masters. If we really want to ‘see’ Jesus, to get to know him and understand for ourselves what he’s about, we must get ready to be ‘planted’ in the same way. Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis reminds us, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The glory of God is attained through the cross and death, and this is true not only for the Saviour but also for Christians.
As it is with Jesus, so it is with all who would follow Him. Death and resurrection are the only way. To live we must die, not just once, but every day. Dying and rising is a way of life for the Christian. Unless the grain of wheat dies and is buried in the ground, it cannot bear fruit. You can’t hold on to the grain. You must let go of it, bury it. We understand that of wheat and other seeds, but do we understand it of ourselves and our lives? Christianity involves death–dying to what you want, drowning your sinful desires beneath the waters of your baptism, choosing to submit rather than to assert. To be as a kernel of wheat planted in the ground is to give up all that you are and aspire to be, to be utterly at the mercy of God, to rest is the damp soil of God’s goodness, and receive everything from Him as a gift.
It wasn’t a popular message then, and it is still not a popular teaching today. When faced with suffering, we should drop our preconceived notions of how we think God should deal with us and put the cross of Jesus at the centre. When we see disaster, tragedy, senseless suffering, large scale loss of life, we are prone to ask “Where is God? Why doesn’t He do something?” Where is God during during this Coronavirus epidemic? And why doesn’t He do something about it? Isn’t that exactly what many are thinking? People want God to send in the tanks. When people start to suffer, they want God to do wonders for them.
In Jesus day, that same attitude was behind the expectations that the messiah would send in the tanks and throw out the Romans. God does not send in the tanks. But God has done something. God himself, in Jesus came among us. He lived with us. He suffered with us. He grieved and mourned with us. And then, he suffered and died for us! Why doesn’t God do something? The cross is where God has done something! It is there, upon the cross of Jesus, where we see God; the God who declares that he is for us in the midst of our suffering. The cross shows us that God hides life in death; victory is hidden in defeat. God displays his power in weakness. He buries his divinity deeply in our humanity and then suffers, dies, and rises to save us. God is glorified and exalted most when Jesus is put to shame. This is the God who is present yet hidden in, with, and under creation as the incarnate Word. This incarnate God embraces our suffering and death in his own death on the cross.
The God we believe in is the kind of God who can take the worst things and transform them to his own Glory and for our good. God knows the pain and sorrow of the world. And in Christ, God shares in our grief and sorrows. He calls a community of fellow Christians together to share and lament with us as we suffer. God doesn’t send in the tanks, because he’s sent you! The question is not why isn’t God doing something about it. The question is: Why aren’t you doing anything about it?! He sends us out into the world, as Christians, “little christs”, to be like Jesus. To grieve with those who grieve. To suffer alongside the suffering. The be friends to the friendless, and to remind the lonely that they are not alone. He sends us out to share the God’s Word which reveals this God suffers for us and with us, and in Christ he has set the world right again.
The point is that the glory of God is hidden under the suffering and death of the cross. What is the purpose of our suffering? In the weakness of suffering we finally come to see our need for God, our need for his forgiveness and help. When faced with the loss of control we see that we cannot solve all the problems in our life. We need help to deal with our sin and with our suffering. We need help to learn patience and trust. Here, hidden in your suffering, God reveals himself. Through the suffering of Christ we finally understand God is the one who deals with our suffering. That’s how God, the true God, is glorified. God saved the world through the suffering and death of Jesus. And that means we can be confident in God’s promise to save us through suffering. He continues to be with us through our own sufferings. He is with us with his Word and promises. He is with us in our fellow Christians. He grieves with us and suffers alongside us. Under the cross we realise that God has not left us alone. God helps you bear patiently with, even embrace suffering and death, because Christ by his suffering and death has embraced you.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.