Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, July 24, 2021
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Life Through Death

(Jeremiah 31:31-34), Hebrews 5:5-10, and John 12:20-33

John records this event, which none of the other Gospel writers mention. During the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, while he was in Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and the crucifixion, a group of Greeks sought him out. There’s an obvious reason why John records this event: He is the evangelist to the Greeks. His Gospel is targeted at them and appeals to the Greek mind.

But who are they? There are three possibilities. One is that they are Greek converts to Judaism. They were born Greek but became Jewish. And so now they are there for the Feast, as was required of all Jews, including proselytes.

A second is that they are “God-fearers,” Gentiles who are interested in God, perhaps who worship God, but have not taken the step of full conversion.

But the most intriguing possibility, I think, is that they are just curious Greeks. That was a distinctively Greek thing, to be curious about the world. They were the first culture to latch onto the idea of “tourism,” wandering for the sake of just seeing and experiencing the world. You’ve heard of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, right? The pyramids, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, and so on. Well, that list was compiled by a Greek about 100 BC. It was basically a guide for tourists. Hey, you want to see the great sights of the world? Well, these are the ones you shouldn’t miss! And there was an intellectual curiosity, as well, a seeking for the truth. They may have thought they were the smartest people in the world, but they were still curious what other people thought.

So maybe these Greeks were just tourists, checking out Jerusalem. What is this Feast of Passover all about? And while they were there, they hear about Jesus. Maybe they saw him in the Temple courts when he overturned the tables of the merchants and money changers. Or maybe they saw his Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday. “Let’s check him out, too.”

In any case, they seek out Jesus’ disciples. They go to Philip, the disciple we know only by a Greek name. And they are brought to the man himself. And, of course, this fits with John’s purpose. He wants to show Greek people seeking out Jesus.

Jesus tells them that the Son of Man is about to enter into his glory, a reference to the cross and his death. His glory comes by way of his death, and resurrection, of course.

The picture Jesus uses here is that of a kernel of wheat. Unless it “dies,” that is, unless it is buried in the ground, it remains just a single kernel of wheat. It must be planted to become something more.

Planting is an act of faith. There’s a perfectly reasonable argument against planting, after all. That’s food. You can eat it. You’re taking perfectly good grain and burying it. Who

knows what will happen if you plant it? There might be a drought or a snowstorm or a plague of locusts. The safe thing is to hold onto what you have. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, right? It was an act of faith for human beings to begin planting. There was a time when we were hunter-gatherers. At some point, we transitioned to agriculture, and it took an act of faith to get there.

Jesus is taking a step of faith, too. He knows that if he dies on the cross, the death of one man, then it will produce an abundance of life. The salvation of many happens through the death of one.

And Jesus asks us to follow in his path, disciples walking in the footsteps of the master. We are also asked to choose death, not necessarily a literal death, but the death of self-will.

We can’t love both life in this world and in the world to come. We must hate one and love the other, Jesus says. Now, the language of love and hate is often used hyperbolically in the New Testament, especially in the words of Jesus. They refer to the idea of choosing for or against. To love something is to choose it. To hate something is to reject it. It’s not that we are supposed to hate life in this world. But our love for the life of the world to come must be greater.

In this way, we choose the death of self-will. We surrender our will so that we can become obedient to God’s will. Only when my will is dead can thy will be done. This is the way of the life of obedience.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to walk a road that he has not already walked. Jesus walked the difficult road of self-denial and death before he asked us to do so. As he says here, “My soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from what lies ahead?’” John doesn’t record Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane as the other Gospel writers do, but there are certainly some hints of it here. Should I ask to be spared when it is the very reason I came, he says. “Bring glory to your name!” God is glorified by Jesus’ act of obedience. God is always glorified when his children obey his will.

God speaks from heaven. Many Jews at this point believed that God no longer spoke through prophets, but occasionally he would speak directly from heaven. What I find fascinating that some hear it and others don’t. I think there’s something to be said right there about how God can speak but not all of us are ready or able to hear from him.

“When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” That would include these Greeks, John’s target audience. He is saying here that this message is for all people, Jew and Greek and all others.

And of course, there is something attractive about the sacrificial love of Christ. Last Sunday we talked about John 3:18-21, where Jesus talks about judgment being based on a

person’s response to the light. The light of God is the love revealed in his death on our behalf. A person who rejects God’s love brings judgment on him or herself for their response to God’s gift.

Our Savior walked this difficult road of obedience ahead of us. And the letter to the Hebrews reminds us this was necessary. He is the sinless one who suffered and died for sinners. Only in this way could he become both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice which takes away the sin of the world. And it was a sacrifice. He was not a victim. As Jesus says in John 10, “No one can take my life from me. I lay it down voluntarily.”

The Old Testament text for today is Jeremiah 31:31-34. We didn’t read it, but I do want to lift up a little bit of it here: “I will make a new covenant… It will not be like the covenant I made when I brought them out of Egypt… I will put my law in their minds and write in on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will say to one another, ‘Know the Lord.’ For they will all know me.”

What I hear in there is that what we really need is transformation, not regulation. We don’t need more rules. We need a change of our heart and nature. Laws can’t change behavior in the way that a change of heart can. That’s why God will write his word in our minds and on our hearts.

And this New Covenant will be based on personal relationship. We will obey God if we know God much more so than if we just know about God. We obey God through relationship more than rules.

Have you ever heard the story of Daryl Davis? He’s a blues piano player who has spent most of his life convincing people to leave the Ku Klux Klan. It all started when a man came up to him and talked with him after hearing him perform. In the course of the conversation, he found out the man was in the Klan and had never sat down and shared food or drink with a black man before. Eventually, they became friends and the man left the Klan. And that became Daryl’s inroad. To date, he has convinced over 200 men to leave the Klan, not by telling them that they are wrong, but by coming into relationship with them. And eventually, they decide for themselves the Klan is wrong.

Relationship is more powerful than rules. Jesus enters into relationship with us. And out of the context of relationship, he asks us to follow him. He asks to choose the death of self-will because only in this way can we enter into the life of the world to come.

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