25 March 2018

The Hour of Crisis

John 12:12-36

Palm Sunday

Do you know what time it is?  He knew what time it was.  In John’s Gospel, we find that Jesus was always conscious of the time.  For him, timing was everything.  Do you remember what Jesus said to his mother at the wedding in Cana, when she said to him, “They have no wine”?  Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (Jn. 2:3-4).  To the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus said, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (Jn. 4:21). To his fellow-Jews inquiring after his message, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn. 5:25). In fact, Jesus said, “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice” (Jn. 5:28). John tells us that there was at least one attempt to arrest Jesus, “…but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come” (Jn. 7:30).

And then, in our text this morning, in John 12, we hear Jesus announcing, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). It was his arrival in Jerusalem, the ancient city of God and the prophets, that signaled to Jesus his hour was quickly approaching.  We know the story of the palm branches and the shouting, “Hosanna!” Meaning, “Save us!”  The crowds gathered around him as he processed on a donkey through the city. John tells us that the disciples who were there that day had no idea what was going on around them.  They had no idea what Jesus was doing or why.  Perhaps they were just caught up in the moment, lost in the spectacle of it all.  The city was buzzing with energy, excitement, and expectation, for it was Passover.  It was only later, John tells us, “when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written, ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt’” (Jn. 12:16, 15).

On this Palm Sunday, I don’t want to dwell long on the procession and the palms.  They’re significant, of course, and make for good liturgical theatre.  In John’s Gospel, the entry into Jerusalem is significant because it leads Jesus one step closer to the defining moment of his life.  It brings us one day closer to that day of days when the Son will be lifted up and glorified.  His entry into the city brings us to the hour—the hour that Jesus knew, all his life, was coming. It’s the hour when he would take on the powers of death and be crucified.

And we need to make sure the waving palm branches don’t obscure a significant detail that only John gives us about the entry into Jerusalem.  In the previous chapter, we have the raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-48). According to John, that was the event that turned the religious authorities against Jesus.  The fact that he demonstrated this kind of power, power over death, the power to extend life, all of this was a threat.  “So from that day on they planned to put [Jesus] to death” (Jn. 11:53) and Jesus had to walk in secret, in fear of his life. Six days before the Passover, Jesus had dinner at the home of Lazarus and Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair (Jn. 12:1-8). When the religious authorities knew that both Jesus and Lazarus were together, they planned to put Lazarus to death as well (Jn. 12:10).  Then we learn, and this is unique for John, that the crowd that was with Jesus when he called Lazarus out of the tomb was with him in Jerusalem, and that they continued to tell everyone about the power Jesus has over death.  Word spreads.  Soon Greeks in town for Passover want to meet the famous Jesus.

And it’s in his conversation with the Greeks that we learn that the hour has arrived.  “I solemnly swear to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if 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” (Jn. 12:24-26).  Jesus is obviously alluding to what is coming and the meaning of the impending “hour.”

The prospect of what was coming troubled Jesus to the core of his being.  “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” (Jn. 12:27).  Everything in John’s telling is leading to this hour. And what is this hour? The hour is the cross.  And what is the cross?  In John’s Gospel, from his perspective, the cross is where Christ is glorified, “lifted up.”  In John 17, at the end of his Farewell Discourses, we’re told that Jesus, “looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you’” (17:20).

Glory, glorify, glorified are words we find through John, they are special words used to describe Jesus’ death on the cross.  But they can sound so antiquated today.  Jill Duffield, editor of the PresbyterianOutlook, says these words are “churchy.”  We use them in the church, in worship, in our hymns. 

What is glorification?  It’s not the praise of the world or recognition or adulation, it’s not even the “Hosannas.”  Instead, glory is the manifestation of God’s power in and through the life and death of Jesus.  When Jesus manifests this power, God is glorified.  In his life, in his ministry, Jesus glorified God by being a servant of the liberating power of God, which what we saw in the raising of Lazarus. That’s why it’s significant that the Lazarus crowd is with Jesus in Jerusalem, because they saw—first-hand—the power of God at work in him, they know his power over death.  And now Jesus is about to fulfill the destiny of his life, demonstrating the power of God’s love by taking on the forces of death, himself.  He will enter into the tomb himself.  He will give his life over to death, wrestling with death, taking it on, defeating it, redeeming it.  And he will enter death in order to put death to death.  By death, I don’t mean physical, biological death, but death as a force, a force that struggles, fights, and wages war against God’s determination to be creator, force that undermines God’s desire to yield life, to grant life, for come alive in us.

The word that John uses to describe this deadly force, this force that resists and wages war against God’s resolve to grant life, a force that is within us, within our psyches or soul, within our relationships, in our family histories, a force that is operative all around us in politics, in the halls of government, in economic systems, and the history of nations, in oppressive ideologies that shape us and enslave us and sometimes even kill us, the one word John uses for this deadly force is kosmos.  The Greek word kosmos is often translated “world,” which is what we have in most English translations. But kosmos must not be confusion with creation or the natural world, as in “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”  That’s not what John is talking about.  Therefore, it’s best that we not translate it from the Greek and just leave it as kosmos, preferably with a “k” to set it apart.  I’m grateful for David Bentley Hart’s new translation of the New Testament, because he doesn’t translate kosmos as “world;” he retains the word kosmos, although it’s spelled with a “c.”[1]  

Why am I stressing this? Because when Jesus says the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, time for the power of God to be manifest in him on a cross, taking on death, entering death, losing in order to gain something greater, like a seed dying in order to yield a great fruit, when Jesus manifests the power of God, the power of life in the domain of death, he is wielding his redemptive power in the domain of the kosmos—taking it on.  The “hour” is the cross. It’s the moment, the time when the love of God judges the forces of death and destruction in the kosmos.  It’s all there in John 12:31, where Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of the world….”  Now is the judgment of the kosmos; now the ruler of the kosmos will be driven out” (Jn. 12:31).

And the Greek word for judgment here is krisis.  This means that the cross is the hour of glorification, and we also discover the cross is a time of judgment.  The cross in John is not Christ taking on the judgment of God for us.  Instead, the cross itself is doing the judging and, thus, causing a crisis!  And what is being judged?  The death-dealing forces of the kosmos.

The kosmos is a powerful force within the created order, within creation, a force that is at odds with God’s hopes and dreams for creation, for us. The kosmos is working against God’s vision of love and grace and justice and healing. The New Testament scholar Walter Wink called it “the Domination System;” it’s a destructive force in society; it’s everything that binds us, holds us back, that alienates us from God.[2]  Those who are being shaped by this anti-God force belong to the kosmos, they are “in the kosmos.”  Jesus wants us to be “in the kosmos” but not belong to the kosmos (Jn. 17:14-15).

So, what is the crisis?  The kosmos realizes that its time is up. This was the reason Jesus was sent to us, for this hour, to take on the kosmos and to free everyone and everything in its death-grip. The cross is the crisis-hour for the kosmos.

The cross is always a moment of crisis. But it’s so easy to forget this.  Karl Barth (1886-1968), the magisterial theologian, discovered during the First World War, which was a crisis for Western “Christian” Europe, that the gospel is always crisis because it judges us. The cross is always judging the kosmos.  The light of the gospel exposes the darkness of the kosmos; the truth of the gospel exposes the lies that destroy our lives. “The Gospel is not a truth among other truths,” Barth said.  “Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths.”[3] What is revealed in the cross is a “crisis that breaks into general time.”[4]  The cross judges the kosmos not to destroy it—and this is significant—the kosmos is judged in order to save it, to redeem it.

Where do we see the kosmos today? It’s everything that resists God’s redemptive love and mercy.  Everything that is evil, destructive, and demonic.  Everything that breeds hate and fear.  Everything that threatens the safety of our children.  Everything that divides and alienates us from ourselves, one another, and from God.  Everything that dehumanizes us.  Everything that oppresses us and enslaves us.  Everything that kills, and tries to kill us.  Everything that hinders mercy and grace and forgiveness and healing.  Everything that tries to resist resurrection.  All this is the kosmos.  The kosmos is everything that questions or denies or pushes against the power of God’s love.  It’s everything that requires redemption.

Because Jesus is generous and loving he shares his “hour” with us. The cross was not only an isolated fact of history, it’s also a present-day experience for those who walk in the light of Christ.  We share in the cosmic crisis of the cross.  For whenever the cross is preached today it’s always crisis-hour for the kosmos. The cross judges the kosmos in order to free us from its death-grip.

Do you know what time it is?  Jesus knew what time it was.  Do we?  Is this not our “hour”?   The children that led yesterday’s March for Our Lives in DC, they certainly know what time it is.  Some of us were there yesterday along Pennsylvania Avenue—it was moving, tearful, powerful, prophetic, inspiring, convicting.  I was crying my way down Pennsylvania Avenue.  Similar marches were held here in Baltimore and around the country.  I don’t know if the organizers had any idea that for many Christians it was Palm Sunday weekend, but they couldn’t have picked a better weekend for a procession through the streets of a city wielding enormous power, led by children effectively saying, “Hosanna!  Save us!”, taking death-dealing power of the kosmos, saying, “Enough is enough!”   Those bold, courageous, honest speakers were preaching, they were effectively saying, “Now is the judgment of the kosmos….”  That’s what I heard, that’s how it felt being in the crowd, that was my experience.  If you didn’t follow the march on television, I encourage you to go and find them online.  And—my God—Emma González’ speech, which lasted six minute and twenty seconds —the time it took the gunman to kill her seventeen classmates at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL—ended with a prolonged period of silence, offering perhaps the loudest silence in the history of social protest.  She was screaming in that silence and judging the kosmos, exposing its lies, holding it accountable, dismantling its hold over us.  There was a lot of truth-telling in those speeches, and what was shared was ultimately done with and for love.  For, you see, we all need to be saved from the kosmos. 

And on this Palm Sunday, the threshold of Holy Week, we need to remember that Jesus didn’t take on the kosmos with “thoughts and prayers,” but with action, with his body, with his life, summoned by the power of God’s redemptive love.

In fact, it all comes back to love.  Jesus judges the kosmos, in love.  For as we know, “God so loved the world, the kosmos—meaning, all that which is against God—“that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have life eternal life,” that is, life touched by eternity, God’s life in a new age (Jn. 3:16).  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the kosmos to condemn the kosmos, but in order that the kosmos might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17).  

The kosmos has been saved—it just doesn’t know it yet.  The kosmos has been saved and is being saved.  That’s the good news!  So, Jesus sends us out to wage love in the kosmos!  As the women discovered at the tomb that first Easter morning, his “hour” leads to resurrection. For God’s will is that all of it, including the kosmos, shall be redeemed. For even the kosmos is worthy of God’s love.

[1] David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).
[2] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 37ff.
[3] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1980), 35.
[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1980), 68.