An Unexpected Voice – April 2, 2006
Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:20-36
April 2, 2006
As I said, this is my 1000th sermon. That’s an unbelievable number to me! And I’m so glad to be sharing that milestone with all my new friends here at Eddington Church.
As anyone reaching such a milestone would do, I have looked back and thought of all that time spent in the pulpit. I did the math, and I found that if I were to preached all those sermons end to end, 24 hours a day, it would go for almost two weeks! (Shall we try?) I told some folks I was thinking about just reading you all the titles! That ought to be just about right.
Actually, anyone who takes themselves seriously enough would cringe at the though of preaching earlier sermons – even more than those who might be on the “hearing end!” As a colleague once said, “It would be scary to think of what I said then, and how I said it!” I would echo those sentiments. I know I’ve grown a lot over those years, and I know I’ve still got a lot of growing to do!
Over the years I’ve tried to remember the words of David Willis, one of my favorite seminary professors. One day, while speaking about preaching the word, he told us that, through the Holy Spirit, the preacher “becomes the word of God to other people.” And he concluded, “If that doesn’t scare the socks off of you, then you don’t understand what it’s about!” I’m happy to say that the prospect of that still scares the socks off of me!
I’ll give you a few more thought about that later. For now, let’s look at the passage in the Gospel of John.
If you haven’t noticed before, the Gospel of John is unusual. The other Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar in their stories and structure. Even much of their wording is similar. Because of that Biblical Scholars have called them the “Synoptic Gospels.” That’s a fancy word that simply means “they look alike.” If you have twins, I suppose they would be your “synoptic children.”
John’s Gospel, on the other hand, looks different. It’s different in its presentation, in its structure, and even in its time line. But the biggest difference is that John tells some stories that are found nowhere else! He’s the only one who tells us of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. He’s the only one who tells the story of the woman caught in adultery where Jesus says “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” But the biggest difference is that John is only one who tells the story of the raising of Lazarus. The other Gospels don’t even mention that. And John gives it great importance. He even says that many of the people in the crowd on Palm Sunday were there because of that miracle.
Now, there are some theories about why John is so different, but don’t want to get into all that today. For the moment let’s say that one of the great things about John’s Gospel, is that it tends to make the stories of Jesus more real. John tends to bring out more of the emotions in these stories. He gives us more of the dialogue. He brings out more of the tension and conflict between the characters.
So true to form, we have in this story for today more of the dialogue and more of the emotions of the characters – particularly the emotions of Jesus. There’s even a bit of oddness here. This story actually takes place after the Palm Sunday account in John, and our passage starts out with these Greek folks coming to Philip asking to see Jesus. Philip then consults Andrew and together they go tell Jesus. And we have his response here. And the odd thing is that it doesn’t seem to even acknowledge the question about the Greeks. I don’t know why that is, but I wanted you to see it. That’s how this monologue begins.
Jesus answered Philip and Andrew by telling them that the time of his passion was fast approaching. And that was no small thing! I think sometimes we read these things about Jesus and we think he just knew all this stuff was going to happen and he just took it in stride.
In verse 27 he says, “My soul is troubled.” He was starting to show them the anguish he was to go through. Here we have some of the debate we would later see in the garden of Gethsemane. “Father let this cup pass from me, but not my will, but yours be done.” In this passage he says, “What shall I say, ‘Father save me from this hour’? No, this is the reason I’ve come! Father, glorify thy name.” And just at that moment, there is this unexpected voice from heaven answering him. “I have already done so, and I will glorify it again.”
Well, that expands this conversation. Because some of the crowd standing near them heard the voice. And they started to comment on what was happening. So Jesus gives this explanation, and he leads into these words about what is about to happen to him, how he is going to suffer and be put to death. And then we have this little debate that centeres around the biggest misunderstanding the people had with Jesus. “If you are the Messiah, why do you say you’re going to suffer and die?” “Surely that won’t happen to the Christ!” Even Peter said that.
Their understanding of the messiah was that of a political savior. They wanted freedom from the Romans. In fact, the people at Palm Sunday thought it was happening that very day! They didn’t want to hear anything different about the Messiah. Political freedom was so important to them. Even when the religious leaders were mocking Jesus as he hung on the cross, there was a little of that. “If you are the Christ, come down from the cross and we will believe.” Yes that was mocking, but might they have changed their mind about him if he did so?
Can you see the irony here? It is the almost unbelievable irony of the whole story of Jesus. People had the son of God right there before them. Yet they wouldn’t accept him because he wasn’t the Messiah they wanted him to be. They even heard the very voice of God himself, and still they resisted. And I ask you, is their problem gone from the world? Or are there people today who resist God and refuse to listen to him on any other terms than their own.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say they couldn’t believe one thing or another about God. “I can’t believe in a God who…” and they end that sentence in various ways. And I often answer them by saying, “What if that’s exactly the way God is?” “What makes you think that the nature of God has to do with what you want it to be?”
I heard someone say once that “I can’t believe in a sovereign God.” And I had this vision of God looking down and saying, “Oooh, I don’t know if I should be sovereign or not. I’d better check with so and so first!” That’s bizarre, isn’t it? Yet how many people do that? And, do we do that ourselves? Do we have our expectations about God? Do we say, “I understand things a certain way, and don’t tell me anything different”? Sometimes I wonder.
Think about this. People sometimes ask me if there is a Satan. My answer sounds evasive, but it’s really not. I’ll often say to them, “I’m not going to say there’s not.” And I say it that way because I want people to understand that whether or not there is a Satan is not up to me! Either there is or there isn’t – regardless of what I’m comfortable with! You see, then I can go on to talk about my understanding of the spiritual realm and what kind of beings exist, and the nature of evil, etc… But I still try to deal with my best understanding of the truth of things. And I try not to define them according to what I’m comfortable believing!
I think the most uncomfortable thing about understanding God is getting it into our brains that God is not confined to what we are comfortable believing him to be. He’s so much greater than our understanding. And there’s nothing wrong with referring to God in familiar terms, as long as we realize that such terms, though comfortable to us, probably fall far short of reality.
It’s like sermons. You see, sermons are more than just talking. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend in my running club, not too many years ago. He said, “It must be an incredible thing to stand up in front of all those people every week and give your opinion.” And I said, “No!” I almost bit his head off! A sermon is not the preacher’s opinion! And if that’s what I thought a sermon was, I would stop right now! (And believe me, there are some people who don’t get it, and should stop!) To me, a sermon is listening for the Holy Spirit, and then attempting to bring the truth of God to life – with the help of one’s learning and life experience.
It’s an awesome responsibility to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church! And I’m astute enough to know that sometimes I’ve heard and said it right, and sometimes I haven’t. And I am grateful, more than you can know, for the grace of God (and the grace of those listening!) when I’ve blown it!
So here we have these people questioning Jesus, having heard the voice of God, yet still they would not believe, as John says in verse 37. What would we say to these people? Would we recall the words of God on the mountain of Transfiguration? Would we say, “Hey! This is God’s beloved son. Listen to him!” We would know, wouldn’t we? Well, I would venture to say that those people thought they knew, too.
We need to remember over and over again, and particularly this Lenten season, that God is far and above our understanding. He still speaks with an unexpected voice. And it is a scary thing to wait on and listen to and to try to understand a God who is beyond us. It is a much easier thing to listen only as far as we are comfortable and then to shut our ears.
God is sovereign – despite what my one friend was willing to believe! That means it is God who is in control, not us. It is he that knows and is the truth. We cannot determine truth by our just wishing something to be truth! That is the hard reality of the life of faith. But there’s good news! There’s great news! There’s amazing news! Overlying all of that is the amazing fact that God has called us to be his people, despite the fact that we do blow it, despite the fact that we do fall short of him, despite the fact that we do stray from his will from time to time, despite the fact that we sometimes attempt to create God in our image.
Not only that, but this amazing God wants to be in relationship with us. He wants us to be in a living, vital, joyous relationship with him. He wants us to share our lives with him. He wants to share his love with us. The real trick is to be open to him. It is to say, “God, I am yours. Show me your will.” Too many people want it the other way around. They want to show God their will.
So, this Lenten season, as we get close to Easter, let me leave you with these thoughts. Do we try to understand this God who is above what we can ever ask or think? Do we put in the time trying to determine what is his will, his truth, and his glory? Does any of this scare the socks off of you? It should!
Eternal God, you are so far beyond us that we cannot even imagine it. Help us to seek your will. Help us to listen for your still small voice in our lives. Speak through our weakness and the occasional hardness of our hearts. Help us to hear your message of peace and joy. Give us the strength to follow more closely Jesus our Lord, for it is in his name we pray, Amen.