Sunday, 18 March 2018

To die, or not to die, that is Christ’s question: a sermon on John 12:20-33

John 12:20-33; Hebrews 5:5-10 

‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’

Three times previously in John’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus’s hour—the time of his crucifixion—had not yet come. Jesus says this first about himself at the wedding in Cana, when his mother pointed out the lack of wine to him. And on both the second and third occasions we are told ‘his hour had not yet come’, Jesus had been speaking in the Jerusalem temple, leading some people to try to grab him; but they couldn’t, because ‘his hour had not yet come.’

Now, however, in our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that his ‘hour has come’. For some reason, the arrival of some God-fearing Greeks at the Passover festival wanting to see him was a clear indication to Jesus that his hour had come. Soon he would be crucified—and after that, raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God his Father. And Jesus seems very accepting of this. A grain of wheat must ‘die’ if it is to yield a good crop, he says, suggesting that his coming death is a good thing and necessary for the establishment of God’s kingdom. Jesus sounds very matter-of-fact here, very nonchalant, as though he is taking it all in his stride.

But verse 27 suggests otherwise. ‘The hour has come,’ says Jesus, ‘but now my soul is troubled.’

Don’t let the NRSV translation we’ve used weaken the force of what Jesus says here. While Jesus seems quite deliberately and carefully to have been preparing for his hour, now that it’s here—he’s absolutely bricking it! And why? Because even though Jesus is the eternal Son and Word of God made flesh, the mystery of Christ’s passion is that God will taste death—will die, will be killed—in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. ‘Now my soul is troubled,’ says Jesus. It’s the understatement of the year!

John’s Gospel doesn’t include an account of Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus asked his Father to take the cup of judgement away from him, but verses 27 and 28 here are his equivalent. Unless you think that Jesus was simply play-acting, even here, even in these two short verses, we can see something of the dilemma facing Jesus now that his ‘hour has come’. Up to now, Jesus has obeyed God his Father to the letter and has been focused on his destiny. But now his ‘hour has come’, now his destiny is around the corner, now that he’s hurtling towards the events of Holy Week and his bloody execution on a cruel, cruel cross—now that his ‘hour has come’, he needs to think very carefully about what his greatest desire is: is it to please and obey God his Father in heaven, who seems to have set all this up from the very beginning of his ministry; or is it to reject his calling and, quite understandably, go down the route of self-preservation? In almost literal terms, Jesus is at a crossroad.

We know in hindsight that Jesus committed himself to the way of the cross; he chose to obey his Father and overcame whatever natural desire he had not to go through with it. But I think even here in John’s Gospel, a Gospel which tends to show Jesus in control of his situations; even here in John, I think we see Jesus struggling to line up his natural desires and motivations with what he knows God wants for him. ‘Now my soul is troubled,’ he admits. ‘But should I ask my Father to save me from this hour? To spare me from the agony and humiliation of death by crucifixion? Should I offer to do something else, anything else? Should I . . . ? No. This is why I’m here; this is why I’ve come. Father,’ he says, committing himself, ‘Father, glorify your name!’

Should we be in any doubt about the significance of Jesus’s struggle here, or about the enormity of his decision, let’s look briefly at our reading from Hebrews 5. ‘In the days of his flesh,’ verse 7 says, ‘Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death’. Hebrews doesn’t say what specific prayers and supplications Jesus offered, but the fact that God is described as ‘the one . . . able to save him from death’ surely suggests that Jesus was pleading with his Father for another way, struggling with a perfectly natural desire not to die, and an equally strong desire to put God first above all else. Again, we know in hindsight what Jesus did; all I want to emphasise here is that for Jesus—even for Jesus!—it was a struggle on this occasion to focus on God and do that which pleases him. But this, in the overall scheme of Hebrews, is what makes Jesus our great high priest—the fact that he knows through his own experience how difficult life can be in all its many aspects, including our relationship with God.

I’m sure we all experience something of a struggle with God, knowing what we must do in order to please God, but all too often failing to carry it out because our own desires and motivations get in the way. We constantly have to face moments of decision where we must choose between pleasing God and pleasing ourselves. In our fallenness and sinfulness, we often give in to the temptation to do what we want rather than to see how we can be like Jesus in any given situation. Jesus was tempted, true—but he didn’t give in to temptation. Instead, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he submitted himself to God and ‘he was heard’, Hebrews tells us, ‘because of his reverent submission.’ Jesus submitted himself to his Father, and because of this; because Jesus considered obedience to his Father more precious and desirable than even his own life; because of this, the world has been judged, Satan has been dethroned, and now the risen and exalted Christ himself sits enthroned at the right hand of the Father. This is the good news of Jesus we are called to announce!

If there’s anything to take from what I’m saying today, it’s that as we follow Jesus, we should be prepared to reflect on our desires and motivations and work to line them up with God, so that in time God’s desires become our desires. We already do this to an extent every time we share our time and possessions, when we put ourselves out for other people, when we give of ourselves for those who have nothing. But sometimes our reasons for doing these things are more about how they impact us than for how they impact others. My point is that if we are following Jesus faithfully, then we will always come across situations where we have to decide, sometimes very quickly, but always by the power of the Holy Spirit, what being Christlike means in that situation. There will be a struggle as we decide between what we are naturally inclined to do and what we know from the Bible will please God and be honouring to him. The Christian life is about aiming to make sure that the former lines up with the latter so that we naturally and instinctively desire to please God. The more we, by the Holy Spirit, learn to reflect on our desires and motivations, the more we will spot the negative ones that prevent us from going forward and deeper with God, and the more we will be wanting to put them to death by the Spirit. But none of this is easy; it’s a struggle.

Ultimately, we are the children of a good God, a God who loves each and every one of us. This means we don’t look to our failures but to Jesus’s successes. He has shown us what a life pleasing to God looks like, and he calls us to follow him and his example. And because he is our great high priest, we know he is always there for us. We know he sympathises with our weakness. We know he is sitting at the right hand of the Father praying for us to live Christlike lives in a world that rejects him. But we also know that Jesus can do this only because he himself struggled with his own desires and motivations to please God. We may never have to face an ‘hour’ in the same way as Jesus; nonetheless, our struggle to please God is a very real one—but one we can get through, thanks to our God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


  1. Never mind that the necessary prerequisite for real authentic human life is to thoroughly Understand at an all-inclusive somatic level the meaning & purpose of death, or what death, and therefore life altogether requires us, as described in the book introduced by this reference:

    But what did Saint Jesus of Galilee (who was never ever in any sense a Christian) really teach and demonstrate while he was alive in a living-breathing-feeling human form. The Secrets of the Kingdom of God.

  2. Hello! You've not posted links for a while . . . I thought you'd given up trying to convince me that Jesus is not the risen Lord of all! :)