But If It Dies

John 12:20-41

If I was alive during the time of Jesus and had heard the stories about him; if I knew I was going to be close to where he was, I would want to see him. Wouldn’t you? Even if it wasn’t because of belief, everyone was curious to see what he might say or do next. John tells us that at this last Passover, some Greeks came looking for Jesus. They found one of his disciples, Philip, and made a common request: “We would like to see Jesus.”

We would like to know more about these Greeks. No doubt they were Jewish proselytes or they wouldn’t have travelled almost 800 miles to come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, so they were dedicated to their belief in God. John tells us only that they came wishing to see Jesus. Their request is such a simple, open-ended one – there is no pretension to it, not really any expectations of something grand, no request for a miracle or a healing – simply to be ushered into his presence seems to be all that they desired.

Philip, as we have come to see is not the most resourceful of the disciples, so he goes and finds Andrew. Andrew is the one who is always bringing people to Jesus. And together they take the Greeks to Jesus.

What is interesting is that there is no record of what happens with the Greeks, but when Andrew tells Jesus of the request, it seems to be a signal of readiness – this is the one piece that was yet to fall into place. (Perhaps a fulfillment of the cleansing of the Temple earlier in the week in which Jesus said it would become a house of prayer for all nations.)

Jesus’ reaction to the request clues us into the significance of the request: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

Remember that eight times in John’s Gospel, Jesus has said, “My hour / my time has not yet come.” The request of the Greeks now triggers this announcement that the hour has arrived. And with this, Jesus begins to speak to his disciples of his coming death.

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (Jn 12:24-28)

What he says here speaks on two levels. First, he is speaking of his own death, and the ramifications of it. He is that seed, and only in his death and burial will the full effect of his coming to earth be realized. He didn’t just come to teach and heal and perform miracles, as wonderful and amazing as those were. He came to die in order to take away our sins. We hear his struggle that he will voice later in his prayer in the Garden, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”

Jesus came to save us from our sins, and only in his death would that occur. And so, despite his very human feelings of wanting to avoid the cross, he knew it was for that very reason he came. And so he concludes, “Father, glorify your name!”

We’ve heard Jesus speak often of glory and glorification. He uses the words 41 times in John’s Gospel. And surprisingly, they are almost always in the context of his crucifixion. Only in God’s logic does the cross become glory. As everyone else looked on, they saw humiliation and shame. The cross was a curse in the law, it was a tragic, senseless end. But it is precisely in the cross that God reminds us of the truth of Isaiah 55: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

And so Paul will later write: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18) The writer of the Hebrews letter will encourage us: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

We think of glory as the reward of success and accomplishment. Glory is bright lights and adoration. Jesus knew glory was in honoring God by living fully and completely in his will – even if it took him through the humiliation and pain of the cross. Glory for Jesus is to glorify the Father. By being “lifted up” on the cross, Jesus is lifting up the Father.

On a second level, Jesus is also making a statement about the kind of life we should live. As long as the seed remains in the bag, it is immune from the struggles of life, but it also remains incapable of fulfilling the purpose for which it was created. Only when it is planted in the ground can it accomplish what God created it for. When that seed is planted in the ground, a transformation takes place. Wondrously, it begins to change, the husk is discarded, the plant begins to grow, it begins to put on leaves and blooms and finally it produces fruit. As long as that seed remains in the packet, it remains fruitless.

Our human inclination is to avoid pain and at all costs to avoid death. But Jesus says when you try to save your life you lose it. The very reason you were created is squandered. Only in dying to self can we fully experience life; only in dying to self can we truly live.

Jesus also talks about servants and serving. For Jesus, serving was at the very center of his being and the very definition of the cross. In Mark 10, Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Here in John 12, Jesus makes this connection with his followers. If you want to follow Jesus, you will be a servant. There is no following without serving. And serving is at the heart of who a follower is.

This is where so many of us struggle with following Jesus. We want to reduce it to where you are on Sunday morning and what you believe in the Bible. If church attendance and doctrine are all that make us followers, we will live timid and shallow lives of faith.

Being a real follower of Jesus means imitating him in the way he served others and laid down his life for others. Abundant life in Jesus is experienced in serving and sacrificing; not in trying to hold on to this life but in giving it up. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

We try to hold on to this life, and in the process it slips through our fingers. But when we let go of it and surrender it to God to use us as his servants, he not only fills up this life, but gives us eternal life as well.

Now, when Jesus said, “Father, glorify your name!” the voice of God came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” This is the third time God had spoken acknowledging and affirming the authority and sonship of Jesus. But Jesus said it wasn’t for his benefit but for theirs. The faith of his followers needed strengthening. They needed to know that what Jesus was about to experience wasn’t the tragic dismantling of his work, but the fulfilment of the plan and purpose of God.

In fact, Jesus then says, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

Satan had had free rein over the earth. He had worked without hindrance since the garden – he was literally the “prince of this world.” But that was about to come to an end. In the most amazing reversal, what will look like Satan’s victory over God will be his defeat. As Jesus is nailed to the cross and lifted up for ridicule by the Roman soldiers, he will be sealing the fate of Satan. When the women look in that empty tomb on the third day, the angels will proclaim, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” In Jesus’ death and resurrection, Satan is dealt a blow from which he will never recover.

The cross will ultimately be the one compelling reason for following Jesus. It will be the one thing that draws all men to him. And I’ll have to admit, that doesn’t make much sense. Modern church growth wisdom says, “Get rid of the cross, don’t talk about sin, be positive and affirming. People don’t want to think about negative things when they come to church and the cross just reminds us of our sin and failure.” And many churches have done just that – they have taken the cross out of their preaching, sin has been reframed and sanitized so that we don’t feel guilty.

But the cross is still the power of God for salvation. Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20) You don’t need a cross around your neck or hanging on a wall to make you a Christian, you need one imprinted on your heart and on your life.

Someone in the crowd shouted out, “… How can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this ‘Son of Man’?”

Jesus’ only response is, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.” (John 12:35-36)

I hope you hear what Jesus is saying. People love the darkness and would rather live in their belief that they are fine and there is nothing that they can’t do on their own power and intelligence. But Jesus says that is the worst kind of blindness – not seeing that you are blind. Jesus is the light so that we can really, truly see for the first time. Only when we trust the light can we become sons of the light.

At this point, Jesus must have reached his tipping point of frustration. It’s as if everything he has said has fallen on deaf ears. In fact, John continues in verse 37, Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.” Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him. (John 12:37-41)

There in verse 36 John wrote, When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them. That marks the end of his public ministry. For the next five chapters Jesus will focus on preparing his disciples for life without him. Those five chapters will cover only a few hours of time on the last night of his earthly life, but will be some of the most important things Jesus will say to his disciples.

If you had only a few hours left with the people who are most important to you, what would you say? Would you reminisce about the good times you had together? Would you focus on the past and talk about the regrets you had and the grudges you held? Jesus talked about the future and the vision he had for the lives they would live and the things they would need to know without him by their sides.

Jesus words to his followers would be good guidance for us this morning: “Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.”

Let Jesus give you sight and let him guide your steps. Become a son or daughter of the light.

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