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Monday, August 30, 2010

The Father Honors the Servant (John 12.20-26)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
August 29, 2010

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New: some of the service music
Crown Him With Many Crowns (DIADEMATA)
That's Why We Praise Him (Tommy Walker)
With Me All Along (Terrell/Slade)

Lord, Whose Love (arr. Austell)
This summer we have been considering the “follow me” sayings of Jesus. We have seen more than once that Jesus didn’t wait in the holy places for people to come to him, but went where they were, out in the community to where the people were. He did not hesitate to go even among the so-called sinners to issue his invitation, “Follow me.” We have looked at several key passages describing what it looks like to follow him. It involves a yielded life, sacrifice, and sometimes even at great cost; but we have also heard the claim, from Scripture and from testimonies from some of you, that he is one worth following.

All this has been more or less chronological, following the course of Jesus’ life and ministry. And today we get near the end of his earthly ministry. Today’s passage takes place during the third Jewish Passover recorded in the Gospel of John, marking the last week of Jesus’ life in the 33rd year of his life. And in this text Jesus announces that “the hour has come.” We start to turn to the events surrounding his betrayal, crucifixion, and death. But right there near the end, a group of people come to see Jesus, to see if he will welcome even those outside the Jewish faith, the so-called “God-fearing Greek” who was interested in the God of the Hebrews. Under the shadow and weight of his impending death, Jesus receives these seekers and again speaks of following him.

I found this text hard to follow at first, because there is an overlap between Jesus talking about what he is about to face and his describing what is involved in following him. And yet he offers a simple picture to help explain both. Let’s look. I’m going to key off three short phrases in the passage. The first is in verse 21, where some Greek people of faith say, “We wish to see Jesus.”

“We Wish to See Jesus” (v. 21)

There are several significant things to note about this phrase. First, it was spoken by some “Greeks” (v. 20). These were not Jewish people living outside Jerusalem, but non-Jews who demonstrated interest and faith in the God of the Jews. They were in town for the Passover Festival. While later expansion of the Church would include Gentiles like these, Jesus had primarily focused his ministry on his own Jewish people. It is significant then, that here at the end of his ministry, he speaks to these Greek people of faith about matters of salvation and discipleship. As an interesting side-note, several commentators notice that the Greeks don’t approach Jesus directly, but first approach his disciples, and specifically the only two of the twelve who had Greek names. At any rate, Philip and Andrew come and tell Jesus.

The other thing I’d note is that these people were seeking Jesus. Interestingly enough, many of those to whom Jesus issued the invitation to “follow me” were just doing their thing – fishing, tax collecting, or whatever. But these people came to Jesus, wanting to see him. Nevertheless, his message is basically the same: listen, believe, and follow. And just as Jesus didn’t distinguish between a tax collector and a Pharisee, or between men and women, neither does he between Jew and Greek. Indeed, this encounter anticipates Paul’s declaration later in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus answers in what seems a roundabout way. He first seems to speak of his own death, but eventually gets back to the core message of “listen, believe, and follow.” Perhaps here, near his death, he is proclaiming what will become the heart of the Gospel, that one died for all who believed. Then, having given the Greeks the opportunity to listen and believe in what he is about to do, he invites them to follow.

He first responds in verse 23 by saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Every indication is that Jesus not only knew that he was about to die, but that he understood the spiritual implications of it. In the passage that follows this one, he wrestles with it as an act of obedience. Here he speaks of it as his “being glorified.” That is, something in what is about to happen will bring honor to God the Father. His obedience will fulfill a great and yet unseen purpose.

Granted, that’s hard enough for us to wrap our minds around – can you imagine what it would have been like for the disciples, much less these Greek visitors who were seeing him for the first time? And he also speaks these incredibly hard words in verse 25: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. Let me offer several things to understand that. One is that when you hear “love and hate” together in the Bible, it is often (or always?) a Hebrew expression meaning more than and less than. A second thing is that Jesus is first speaking of his own death, which is wrapped up in God’s greater purpose for humanity. A third is that he is not just speaking of physical life. The word here is actually “soul,” which to the Hebrew mind meant the whole person – body, mind, and spirit. He is speaking of the bigger spiritual picture – which we would describe using words like “salvation” and “eternity.” Indeed, he will mention “life eternal” in verse 25. And while there is some overlap with our understanding of our own lives, Jesus is first speaking of what he is about to face. He is the one whose love for his own life is not as great as his love for God’s plan, and it is he who will secure eternal life for all who follow him.

Confused? It’s okay – it’s hard for me to follow, too. What is wonderful is that in the middle of this talk about being glorified and dying for life eternal, Jesus offers an illustration – a word picture to explain. And it’s much easier to understand. These life and death matters are like a seed which only blossoms or flowers or bears fruit when it is put into the ground. So it will be with his own life and death, bringing more than they could see at that time. In fact, the seed is such a helpful analogy for us, even 2000 years later. Have you ever planted one? You could keep it with you in your pocket, and always know it was there, but it wouldn’t bear fruit. When you put it in the ground, there is an element of faith, right? You no longer see it, but you trust (or at least hope) that it will sprout and bloom. So it is with Jesus – both with his own death and our faith in him.

You Must Follow Me (v. 26)

After this theological excursion, Jesus comes full circle back to the Greek seekers in verse 26. There he says this, clearly addressed to his listeners now: “If anyone serves me, he must follow me….” Finally, we are to those words that we’ve been studying all summer.

So what does it mean to follow Jesus?

Verse 26 answers this question most directly. To serve is to follow. Not only is ‘serve’ part of the core meaning of worship, it is also something Jesus spoke of on many occasions. We are to serve the Lord; we are to serve one another. Serving means putting others before ourselves, or put most famously, it is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” It is how we apply in our lives what Jesus has just taught about life itself. If we cling to life on our own terms, with ourselves as most important and serving ourselves, then we have missed the purpose and the glory of life just as surely as carrying a seed around in our pocket misses the purpose and beauty of seeing a seed blossom and bear fruit. Rather, if we give our lives away in service of God and neighbor, we will both discover our purpose and bring glory to God.

There is some overlap between what Jesus did and what we are to do, because he is the one we follow. We are not to die on a cross for the sake of the world, but we are to follow his example of living for God and others rather than living for self. That’s what it means to follow him.

What does that look like? Let me offer two questions to ask yourself:

1. In what I am about to do or say, what would most honor God?
2. In what ways do I live for myself alone and in what ways can I live for others in a way that honors God?

Mind you, we can twist that “living for others” into something very unhealthy, so hopefully the “in a way that honors God” helps guard against co-dependent or other damaging interpretations of that idea.

In addition to a servant-life being one of purpose and beauty, Jesus ends by mentioning two other explicit blessings.

Where I Am, You Will Be (v. 26)

When we serve God by serving Him and others, one blessing is that we will be “where Jesus is” (v. 26). This can be understood in two ways. One is that when we serve God and/or others in Jesus’ name, Jesus is present with us. I believe that is true. But I think the particular wording here is even more pointed. We have said and seen that God is still living and active today. And just as Jesus went out of the holy Temple and down among the people, so God doesn’t dwell in temples made by human hands, but moves over all the earth and among all the peoples. I believe this sentence is a challenge – our challenge – to seek where God is at work and go THERE. We are to follow Jesus THERE in service to him, so that where he is, there his servants will be also.

Somehow we’ve gotten this whole thing turned around. We have said that becoming a follower of Jesus means asking Jesus into our heart, where we are. And that is how we express and experience faith in him. But following Jesus also means FOLLOWING him where he is and where he goes. So if his heart is for the folks down the street who can’t buy a jacket this winter, then that’s where we must go. And if his heart is for six guys across the street who are trying to learn how to live in a world that’s just a little bit beyond them, then that’s where we must follow. And if God’s heart is to see people of every background, reputation, and opinion come to know him, then that’s where we must follow. Where he is, there his follower will be.

Secondly, Jesus says that the Father will honor this kind of service. That is what is pleasing to the Lord.

One of my favorite lines from the movie, Chariots of Fire, is a quote from athlete and missionary, Eric Liddell. He said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” That is also a picture of what Jesus said in this text. God has made each of us for a purpose, and he made us to be worshipers, those who serve in faith and love. When we do that, when we fulfill that purpose, we will feel the pleasure and honor of God.

How will you follow Jesus this week?

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