March 21, 2021

Lent 5B

My Soul is Troubled


Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now 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.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
John 12:20-33
“Now my soul is troubled. And what shall I say? Father, rescue me from this hour.”

And in so crying out, the voice of Jesus resonates with the anguished voice of every human being ever born. Who among us has not known: a troubled soul, who has not wrestled with uncertainty, who has not lived in fear of the consequences of making a mistake or the consequences of doing the truth?

And who has not believed that the only way out, was to be plucked out of the present moment by some miraculous intervention or at least by sneaking away into one illusion or another?

John chooses this moment to show us Jesus fighting His inner battle. On the one hand, the struggle involved His longing to avoid the cross. No one wants to be powerless. No one wants to suffer. No one wants to be rejected. No one wants to be abandoned. No one, including Jesus, wishes to die at the age of thirty-three. No one, including Jesus, wishes to die upon a cross.

On the other hand, the struggle involved the desire of Jesus to be obedient to His Father. Obedient to His Father’s will that He go the whole way in righteousness, that He go the whole way in peace, and that He go the whole way in love, no matter what the personal cost.

This kind of moment requires real courage. And just for the record, real courage does not mean, not being afraid. Rather it means owning up to our deepest fears, and in the face of, and in spite of those very fears, doing the truth.

More often than not, doing the truth means seizing the courage to change direction or to hold to the road less traveled. That was the courage of Jesus. As one writer put it: “Here there met the horror of death and the ardor of obedience.” God’s will that the Christ come in peace, speak the truth, and go in love, given the reality of a world predicated on conflict, deceit, and hatred, meant the Cross. Jesus had to nerve Himself up to accept it.

By the end of the story, the struggle is over. Jesus moves from tension and uncertainty to triumph and certainty. Jesus was certain that if He went on, something would happen that would break the power of evil once and for all. If He was obedient to the way of the cross, He was sure that the ruler of this world would be struck a death blow – Satan as he has always been mythically imaged and known. It was to be one last struggle that would break forever the power of evil to imprison human beings in a place from which there was no possibility of escape. Because of the cross there is no longer such a place for as Paul reminds us, “Death has been swallowed up”.

Further, Jesus was also certain that if He went to the cross, the sight of His lifted up, and of his crucified body would draw all people to Himself. He came in peace wanting only to conquer human hearts, knowing that the only way to subdue those hearts was to show Himself to them, in total vulnerability, on the cross. He began with the tension and ended with the triumph. What came between the tension and the triumph and changed one into the other? It was the voice of His Father.

There was a time when the Jews really and fully believed that God spoke directly to men and women. It was directly that God spoke to Abraham. It was directly that God spoke to Moses. It was directly that God spoke to the child Samuel. It was directly the God spoke to Elijah. But by the time of Jesus, the Jews had ceased to believe that God spoke directly.

The great days were past. God was too far away now. The voice that had spoken to the prophets was silent. But it was not the echo of His own voice that Jesus heard; it was the very voice of God Himself. Here is a great truth. With Jesus there comes to men and women not some distant whisper of the voice of God, not some faint echo from the heavenly places, but the unmistakable accents of God’s direct voice. Jesus is very much the Word of God. When He speaks, the Father speaks.

It is to be remembered that the voice of His Father came to Jesus at all the significant and important moments in His life. It came at His baptism, when He first set out on the work that God had given Him to do. It came on the Mount of Transfiguration, when He finally decided to take the way which led to Jerusalem and to the Cross. And now it came to Him when He had to be strengthened for the ordeal of His untimely and cruel death upon that very Cross.

What the Father did for Jesus He does for each of us. When He sends us out upon a road, He does not send us out without directions and without guidance. When He gives us a task, He does not leave us to do it in the lonely weakness of our own strength. God is not silent, and ever and again, when the strain of life is too much for us, and the effort of His way seems beyond our human resources, if we listen, we will hear Him speak, and we will go on with His strength surging in our frame.

Our trouble is not that God does not speak, but too often we do not listen.

Owning His fear but nevertheless choosing the cross, Jesus continues…. “And when I am lifted up, I will draw all the world to myself.” In speaking about being lifted up, Jesus was referring to the cross and the people knew it. And once again, inevitably, they were moved to incredulous astonishment.

This cannot be! The Son of Man was to be the invincible leader of the irresistible armies of heaven! His dominion was to be an everlasting dominion and His kingdom would never be destroyed! He was to be prince forever! The Son of Man will never be lifted up upon a cross! We want a Christ of our fantasies and not the Christ of God. We want the Christ without the cross, not the Christ crucified. Give us life without suffering, without rejection, without pain and certainly without untimely death.

But the lessons of history are that Jesus was right in pinning His hopes on the magnet of the cross. Whether it be in the testimony of one more obviously broken than holy, like Princess Diana, or in the testimony of one more obviously holy than broken, like Nelson Mandela. Love lives long after power is dead. Power lives in memories. Love lives in hearts. Memories fade, but love is forever.

Diana of Wales reminds us that the only sure foundation for an earthly kingdom is love; and I suppose that this is valuable wisdom as long as there shall be earthly kingdoms.

But Nelson Mandela of South Africa reminds us that the only sure foundation for the kingdom of God is sacrificial love. And it is this kingdom that by baptism lays claim to our first love. Yes, to love as we have been loved, not counting the cost but always with a readiness and a willingness to pay the price.

Dietrich Bonheoffer, a Lutheran pastor, suffered martyrdom in Nazi Germany. He was a member of what was referred to as the Confessing Church. The Confessing Church, actively worked to protect Jews and undermine the regime, unlike the established Church, that remained silent in an effort to protect itself, and because it had long imbibed the deadly potion of anti-Semitism. A book entitled The Cost of Discipleship is a collection of his sermons. If you have never read it, you owe it to yourself to do so. What he preached, what he wrote, and what he lived brought him to the cross.

While we are not living in Nazi Germany, the structures of the socio-economic and, in some ways, morally deformed regime in which we live vanquish and destroy the lives of many and will continue to do so with increasing success as we journey into tomorrow.

As wealth is continuing to be amassed by a few, more and more people live in poverty. A few days ago, the racist, xenophobic, and hateful rhetoric that had been the vomit expelled from the most prominent bully pulpit in the world, bore bitter and deadly fruit, in the murders of six Asian women. Yes, as MBS is a murderer, though he did not wield the knife, and Vladimir Putin is a killer, though he did not administer the poison, so too the former occupant of the White House is complicit in murder, though he did not fire the gun.

Bonhoeffer and those like him challenge us in our day and in our time to be a Confessing Church as opposed to a church that goes along to get along and to be believers who personally choose the way of the cross and an offering of self-giving love that others might have a more abundant life. Dr. King once said, “If you can’t do some great do something small in a great way.”

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
March 21, 2021