The earthly ministry of Jesus is nearly over. It won’t be long now, before the most loving person who ever lived and walked on this earth will be arrested and put to death as a common criminal. For three years now, Jesus has preached good news and hope. He’s cured the sick, healed the lame, and given sight to the blind. And he has taught everyone, including us, how to live in relationship with God. Every person who has ever met Jesus has discovered that their lives have been powerfully impacted by this unusual man from Galilee. They have either loved and adored him, or they have hated and despised him. They have either received new life from him, or they have wished for him to be dead.
And now, the forces who hate and despise him, who wish him dead, are gathering strength. They are planning and organizing, scheming and plotting, and things are quickly falling into place, and much better than expected. In fact, they’ve been very, very fortunate. One of Jesus’ own disciples has come to them with an offer to betray Jesus. And they have greedily accepted his offer.
The grief and sorrow and fear in Jesus’ heart is truly beyond the ability of our finite minds to comprehend. We have all experienced grief and loss. Some of us may even have endured the shock and horror of betrayal. We know the awful pain of grief and loss and betrayal, and we know how utterly overwhelming and defeating that pain is. And so we have a sense of the agony that is tearing at Jesus’ heart. But we cannot know, nor will we ever experience the full extent of the horror and dread that is burning in his soul. The emotional pain of betrayal, the anticipation of the physical abuse that he will endure, and the agony of being nailed to a Roman cross is but a small part of the indescribable trauma that Jesus is about to face. Jesus will die not just the death of one who is being executed, but he will also die sacrificially. He will bear the necessary punishment for the sins of the whole world. He will take on the punishment that you and I deserve. He will die our death for us, so that we will never have to die it ourselves. We cannot imagine the deep agony of our Lord, because he has saved us from it.
And so as Jesus visits the city of Jerusalem for the last time, he says, quite simply, “My soul is troubled.” And in that simple statement is all of the grief and loss, and the agony and the fear, and the dread that I have just so pathetically attempted to describe. In the other Gospels, Jesus throws himself on the ground and cries out to God with great, agonizing sobs, pleading for a way out, begging for a way to avoid the horrors that lie ahead of him. But here in John’s Gospel, Jesus simply says, “My soul is troubled, and what should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour? No it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
Because I am not always obedient, I cannot fathom the depth of profound obedience in that statement. Because I am too often swayed by sinful impulses, I can only try to comprehend Jesus’ resolve to remain faithful to his mission and calling. Jesus’ prayer is that God would be glorified; that God would be exalted in his life and in his death.
That, of course, ought to be the life prayer of every person in this room. We ought to pray that God would be glorified and exalted in every thing that we do, in every thought that possesses us, and ultimately that God would be glorified and exalted in our deaths. Jesus’ perfect obedience ought to be the pattern and the model of who we are and who we hope to become.
But we are failures, and we know it. Like the psalmist, our sins are ever before us. In fact, the more that we struggle to be obedient to our callings, the more we become aware of our shortcomings. We are constantly discovering that our level of obedience is inadequate. And so we cry out with the psalmist:
“Have mercy on me, O God,
According to your steadfast love;
According to your abundant mercy
Blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.”
The man who wrote those words is described in the Scriptures as being a man after God’s own heart. In may respects, he was a faithful man, and often, he was an obedient man. But he was also an adulterer and a murderer. But he was not beyond the grace of God. He was never outside of the realm of God’s mercy; and neither are any of us here this morning.
And when David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me,” the psalmist was praying for forgiveness. But he was also praying for a new heart; a new heart that would be more responsive and more obedient to God. A new heart, an obedient heart, is a heart that glorifies and exalts God.
When Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify your name”, a voice from heaven responded to him. It must have been a pretty loud booming voice, because almost everyone who was there, thought that it had suddenly thundered. I guess I’m good with that. Somehow I think I’d expect God’s voice to break the sound barrier, both spiritually and meteorologically. It makes sense to me. Others, perhaps being a bit more perceptive, thought that an angel might be speaking to Jesus. I’m good with that one too, because it shows that people are thinking, trying to make sense of things and trying to find meaning in their experiences. Perhaps they understood a bit of the seriousness with which Jesus was speaking, and it seemed right to them that somehow an angel might respond to Jesus. Jesus was, after all, perceived to be a holy man, and holy men probably ought to be hearing from an angel from time to time.
But a few, and apparently a very few, heard actual words. They heard God speaking. They heard God say, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
And curiously, even though only a very few people actually heard and understood the words that God spoke, Jesus said, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.” So it isn’t thunder at all, and immediately, the scope listening crowd is narrowed considerably. The ones who merely thought it thundered are probably going to miss this. They are apparently, dull of spirit and could not discern that the voice was anything more than a loud volley of thunder. And so what Jesus is about to say to them is likely to be as meaningless to them as the thunder was.
So Jesus is speaking then, only to the perceptive and the somewhat perceptive. Jesus says that judgment has come into the world. Normally, when we think of judgment, we think of it as being a frightening thing. That’s why perceptive people try to keep themselves as close to the mercy and grace of God as possible. But in this context, judgment has a slightly different connotation. Jesus has just announced that his presence on this earth has dramatically changed everything. His presence has created a crisis of judgment, a turning point for the entire cosmos. Never before has God walked the soil of the earth in human flesh. But because God has now done this, nothing will ever be the same again, in heaven or on earth. From this moment onward, all human lives depend on their reaction and response to Jesus Christ. And this is the judgment, some will love and adore him, and others will hate and despise him. It is, essentially, a judgment of self.
And so it stands to reason that the illegitimate ruler of this world, the devil or the Satan, or whatever it is that we want to call it, is driven out. God, and the forces of evil cannot occupy the same space: not on this earth, and not in our lives. The presence of the living God on this earth abolishes the powers of evil and darkness.
And about himself, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.” And it is this statement that stirs up the perceptive people. I’m guessing that the children of thunder have probably wandered off by now, having lost all interest in the conversation. But the folks who remain are probably understanding that Jesus has just indicated that he must die. But that was a bit of a puzzler to them. Some of the folks present that day were hoping that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. They were ready for a messiah to appear. And from what they had seen of Jesus, he was a very good candidate. But now, maybe not such a good candidate, because messiahs were not suppose to die. Messiahs were supposed to stick around forever. And so the perceptive folks ask Jesus about this. “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”
Here we have an even stronger indication that the folks who are with Jesus at this particular moment are pretty perceptive. Jesus hasn’t mentioned the Son of Man at all. They are the ones who have introduced it into the conversation. That tells me that this is a group of people who’ve been following Jesus for a while. But as much as I would like for him to do so, Jesus doesn’t respond to the fact that they have, on their own, made the connection between Jesus, the Messiah and Jesus. the Son of Man. Actually, he ignores it.
Instead, he issues an invitation. He invites people to live in the light, while the opportunity is still available to them. And this gets us back to the thunder. Some said it thundered, some said it was an angel speaking, and a few actually got the message. If I had the chance to go back and speak to this crowd myself, I’d say, don’t dismiss the thunder so easily. There’s probably more to it than you think.
This is now the last Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and in addition to celebrating with the Palms, we’ll also focus on the final days of Jesus’ life. We will see the awesome sacrifice that he made on our behalf. The truth of the matter is that not all of what Jesus did and said makes sense to us. Not all of it is understood by us. Some of it, in fact, seems a whole lot like a noisy volley of thunder, and we don’t always get the message.
But in the midst of all of that, Jesus still issues an invitation to us. He still invites us to walk in the light, to live in the light, and to be born as children of the light, rather than as children of the thunder. Jesus says to all of us, come, come to me, and in coming to him, we move from mere thunder into eternal glory. Let’s not waste any time in coming to Jesus.