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Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
March 18, 2018 – Fifth Sunday in Lent
We come to a pivotal moment in the journey of Christ upon the earth. He was born a Jew and lived as a Jew. His ministry was among the Jews when they had every reason to believe that God had given up on them, was punishing them, and was done with them.
Their past was all that they had left. There was no reason to hope that God would rescue them again as they had been rescued in Egypt…by Moses and Aaron, a burning bush and a long sojourn in the wilderness.
They concluded they were doomed by their own sin and they would suffer and die as a nation, as a culture, as a history of a race upon the earth. Our call to worship today asks God to reconsider, give us a second chance. But here we are, 2,000 years later, remembering them, parsing their story for meanings that still light our path this day.
As Christ still lives, they live also. As we live and still believe in truth and love as eternal and all-powerful, Christ still stirs the embers of our hearts and leads us forward into this day, this hour and the eternal present.
The pivotal moment comes to us as Christ’s own recognition that his hour has come. Some Greeks have come to worship of the Passover, the celebration of Israel’s liberation from bondage in a foreign land some 1500 years earlier, Egypt, and its deliverance back into the land that God had promised Abraham 500 years before that.
It is a promise of freedom, security and eternity in an arbitrary world ripe with oppression and mortality. They are challenged to remain faithful…just as we are called to remain hopeful…even though the forces around us can crush us at any moment.
We are asked to believe in the face of disbelief. We are asked to sacrifice…to serve willingly…when we see others profiting by serving only themselves and caring about nothing beyond what they want.
The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. But still the just are called to persist in their faithfulness.
To answer the question with a question, where would we be without the just?
Yes there was a Caligula, but there was also a Paul. Yes, there was a Herod, but there was also a John the Baptist.
How would we know the good if it were not for the bad? How would we know the light if it were not for the darkness.
While the darkness does not seem to overcome the light and the unjust cannot dispel the just, the light does not banish the darkness and honesty has been unable to do away with lies for all time.
How would we be able to see how good Christ is if it were not for the day the rulers of the world thought they had condemned him to oblivion in death?
He came. He saw. He saved us from our fears and our temptation to give in and give up…with his life and the light and power he brought into the world with him.
Where we pick up the narrative today he has raised Lazarus from the dead and he has come back to a little town…Bethany…less than a days’ walk from Jerusalem.
The word is out that the priests want to kill him…and Lazarus as well because Jesus having raised him from the dead has made many believe in the man from Nazareth as his true self…the son of God.
The split between the power of God and the power of the rulers of the world is becoming manifest. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, has poured a pint of pure nard on him as an expression of her gratefulness to him…and her gratefulness to God that she should see this day.
Judas has complained that the nard should have been saved to give the money it would bring to the poor.
The opposing forces of good and evil are building to a crescendo and the tragedy is gathering…but so is the glory. And then, he recognizes the fact that Greek pilgrims to the Passover have heard of him and want to meet him as a sign that he is known by good people everywhere.
The seed has been planted and the fruit will be yielded throughout the world…not just in Jerusalem. His death will only further glorify him, and the fact that he faces it squarely, without regret, full of faith and without fear is further testimony.
His death is the grain of wheat he talks about that will fall into the earth and die to bear great fruit.
We all die, but we all leave our story as we go. Will we die and be heard from no more? Will our deeds be so false that they die with us? Or will the truth of our story sprout and yield faith and hope and love for generations upon generations to come?
There is a story from the American Revolution…the rebellion that began with the bold truth that all people are created equal… that each soul is as precious to God as any other…that comes to mind as I ponder the predicament of Christ this day.
Nathan Hale was a patriot and a spy for the American cause. In the spring of 1776 the Continental army moved to Manhattan Island and Washington was desperate to know the whereabouts of the English troops.
Hale volunteered and was recognized behind enemy lines. They captured him and General Howe, commander of the British troops, interrogated Hale himself. Physical evidence was found on him and he was condemned to be hanged as a traitor.
That night he was held in the greenhouse at Beekman House, Howe’s headquarters. He asked for a Bible and his request was denied. He asked for a clergyman, and again, his request was denied.
The next morning he was marched …it would be more accurate to say he was exhibited for all to see…to a publick house, or tavern, at what is now 66th Street and 3rd Avenue in New York City.
Before he was hanged he was asked if he had any last words. There are many differing accounts from those who were present and from his brother who asked many people about it after the fact, but the clearest rendition of it is the one American school children have been told since that day.
“I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
The words were so powerful that the British tried to suppress it…but again, the words were so powerful that they might as well have tried to keep the sun from rising the next day. Words of hope spoken in the hour of his death inspired others to live so that still others might one day breathe the air of freedom.
Hale died, but the composure with which he conducted himself and the fact that he saw that his death was for a good cause…greater than his desire even to live, made that impossible. Too many people had seen him. Too many people had heard him.
While he was mortal and while he died that morning of September 22, 1776, his spirit belonged to the freedom that God in Christ sent into the world. America was known from its earliest days as the New World…a world better than the world had grown to be in Europe… and Nathan Hale, at the age of 21, in obedience to the orders of his Commander in Chief, George Washington…was happy in his last hour at the thought that he served a noble cause and submitted to a worthy authority…the cause of freedom…sovereignty of the individual and not some strongman who had been born to a throne on the other side of an ocean.
I once got to go into the Oval Office in the West Wing of the White House with many other state party chairs. It was an effort to anoint us for the campaign of 1996, but the one thing I remember was a small statue, about three feet high, that stood outside the office where we gathered until it was time for us to go in.
It is one of those things that happens sometimes but I knew who that statute was of, and I said to the others, without thinking, “That’s Nathan Hale.” No, they said. You can’t know that.
But they looked at the plate on the statuette and it said, “Nathan Hale.” Then they were suspicious and asked how it was that I knew that.
He had his hands tied behind him, he was in colonial garb, one foot was in front of the other, his head was up and his chest was thrust forward…those were the visible clues…but I had to just say, “I don’t know how I know, but I know.”
Later that day as we headed back to our hotel, I noticed the full size version of that statue in front of one of the U.S. District Court courthouses on Pennsylvania Avenue between my old law school at the foot of Capitol Hill and the National Gallery of Art.
I must have walked back and forth between those two places more than a hundred times 20 years earlier. The statuette at the White House was a miniature of that same statue. That must be how I knew. I still can’t say for certain, but that must have been it.
If Nathan Hale had walked into the West Wing that day in 1996 I think he would have been astonished to see that he was remembered by anyone 200 years later and I think he would have had trouble understanding that his words had become so important that his likeness stood next to the door of the office of the most powerful person in the world…the leader of the free world.
But there it was.
But we read this morning that Christ knew how important his words were to the cause of freedom and the love of God in the world when strangers came from far away to the Passover and wanted to see him.
Whoever serves me must follow me, he tells us this morning. We don’t have to die today or this week or this decade, but he tells us, as Nathan Hale told a cynical world and a noble cause on the day he was hanged as a spy, that there are things more precious than our next breath. Like Jesus, we have all come to earth to die…but until we do we have come to earth to live.
We are asked to look around ourselves and ask what is important and what is unimportant. Then we are asked to give what we have…all we have…to what is important.
This gift of life is so precious that it would be a sin the throw it away for a cause or a hope or a desire that was not as worthy as the God who gave that life to you. Jesus understood that, and brilliant, wonderful and powerful as he obviously was to all those around him, he asks us, “What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time’?”
Then he answers that unfathomable question for us. “No, for this is the reason I have come to this time.” And he adds,“Father, glorify your name!”
How awful it would be…What a shame it would be…How sad it would be…if we were to throw away the gift God sent into the world that is our life.
How wonderful it is that we have been called to serve so great and humble a servant as Jesus Christ. Let us give thanks for all the days that have brought us to this place and this hour.
May we be grateful for all the days that still await us and give us one more breath to whisper the name of Christ to all we meet and show our love for our Creator who loved us first with Jesus.
May we honor the one who calls us to his side…and rallies us to his banner…and bestows upon us a yoke that is so easy and a burden that is so light. Amen.