On 22nd March 2015, the fifth Sunday of Lent, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 119:9-16, Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33
In the Church year we have moved into Passiontide, a time when our focus is on Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Next week we will begin following Jesus through the last week of his life. This is the part of the year when there are many special services as we try to walk through as much of that week as we can. We begin with Palm Sunday when we walk from the Peace Garden to the cathedral to recall Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus was actually approaching that critical week, in fact according to John Palm Sunday had already happened just before what we have read. Despite the many warnings, it seems likely that the disciples still didn’t understand what was about to happen or why. I’m not sure we would have done any better. The idea of Jesus dying – the Messiah, the Anointed One, being killed like a common criminal – is really hard to accept if you stop and think about it for a moment. Jesus continued to teach his followers, to give them some insight into what was about to happen and also why it had to happen.
Last week we read that Jesus talked about being ‘lifted up’ and compared this to the lifting up of a bronze serpent which healed the Israelites when they were bitten in the wilderness. The bronze serpent saved those who looked at it from physical death. Jesus said that those who looked at him with belief would be saved in an even greater way; they might die physically eventually but they would have the gift of eternal life.
Once again, Jesus in today’s passage states that: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself .” There it is again, the reference to being lifted up. John states that this is to indicate the way Jesus would die. As we know he was lifted up on a cross so that all could see him there.
Jesus was dying so that he would draw people to himself. In that way he would be very fruitful in his mission. He compared his dying to that of a grain of wheat which is lost in the ground when it has been planted. The energy in the seed is used up to allow the embryo plant to develop and grow. However, once it has grown that are many grains of wheat on the new plant. One grain, by dying, becomes many. One man, by dying, would become many who loved God and who chose to belong to his family.
Jesus’ death was the beginning of a whole new way of relating to God. It fulfilled what Jeremiah promised. Jesus’ death sealed the new covenant in his blood. The old covenant was one of rules which people tried to keep to please God. They needed to remind one another how to please God, what to do, what not to do. Out of that came all the work of the Scribes and Pharisees who interpreted and meticulously followed the Law. The new covenant which God promised did not have rules written down in books but written directly on people’s hearts. It would be part of the people.
The Psalmist highlights how important it is to have the commandments in our hearts, not just in books or even in our heads. In verse 11 he says: “Your words have I hidden within my heart, that I should not sin against you.” It is only when God’s ways are a part of us that we can behave as we should. Of course, as we are fallible human beings, even with the law written on our hearts we will do wrong at times. However, we are reassured that God will forgive us.
Jesus really struggled with the idea of the suffering he was about to endure. In this passage Jesus says “My soul is troubled”. Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, once more Jesus would struggle with what he had to do. Yet he knew that this was the reason for his being on earth. He came to give the gift of eternal life to EVERYONE who chose to believe in him. He stated that ALL people would be drawn to him as a result of his death. God’s promise to Abraham that he was being blessed to be a blessing to all nations was coming true.
Of course, no one can or need do what Jesus has already done. Jesus’ death is enough to achieve what he said he would do. However, Jesus expects that those who wish to be his disciples will follow him. They will follow him eventually to live in the place he has prepared for them. Before that they are expected to choose to lose their lives, just as Jesus did. Most of us will not risk anything as extreme as choosing death on a cross, although for some people around the world following Jesus may lead them to death. If making a choice to suffer was hard for Jesus, we must expect it to be hard for us to make some of the choices that are right in our Christian life. Sometimes, unlike Jesus, we will decide that the price is just not worth paying.
Much of the value of Lent is the opportunity to think a little deeper about Jesus’ journey to the cross and to compare our journey through life. We have time to face some of the ways we have behaved that we are not proud of. Sometimes some of the prayers we say each morning and evening seem to really emphasise our many sins. That can seem rather too much to listen to through the six weeks of Lent. However, there is always reassurance that God forgives, and that each day, each hour, even each minute if needs be, we can confess our failures to God and begin again.
Jesus said that those who serve him must follow him, which is not easy. He also promised that those who serve him would be honoured by God. That’s a promise worth hanging on to when the journey seems a bit too difficult.