A homily on the Gospel lesson for the 5th Sunday in Lent, Year B – John 12:20-33

Gerard Sloyan, a 95 year old Catholic priest from New Jersey, made a statement on which I would like us to meditate today. Hear these words: “Faith in the cross is the world’s great exorcism. Anything else, whatever its flamboyance, is powerless.” Now let that thought settle in the back of your mind.

This message of Jesus is a message about atonement, but not in the way that atonement is often understood or presented. It is a message about “the System,” or the ways of the world that seek to draw us under its own power and to play by its rules. It is about evil and our search for the means by which evil is overcome. So how do we typically envision that?

Perhaps, when thinking of atonement as a victory over the powers of evil, we think of something like the heroic actions of the sailor man we know as Popeye, who in ransoming his true love, Olive Oil, from the grips of the evil, burly bully Bluto, opens his can of spinach which bulks up his muscles so he can knock him out and then rescue his dame from whatever entrapment Bluto had placed her. Sometimes that sort of caricature gets read into our understanding of the way in which Christ redeems us or rescues us from evil. Or, more often, we go to the pragmatic side of things and search for how we think we are to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” as our vows of faith in Christ put it.

To buck the system, in other words, we think we have to play by the rules of the system – which often abides in cycle of ‘violence.’ It’s clear based on the evil we see and experience in the world that we need an exorcism of the system, and it certainly looks as though the only potential for a successful exorcism is a violent one. The way to bring order out of the chaos of “the System” is through violently defeating “the other.”

The revolution of Jesus as the Son of Man, the Messiah, is coming to a head and the sign that the time is nearly there is when a group of Greeks, or outsiders, came to the disciples and wanted to see Jesus. This can be a sermon unto itself. When “the others,” the outcast, the ones who ain’t our kin, come and want to see Jesus or even just want a cup of coffee, how do we respond? Suspicion? Do our defense mechanisms come into play?

When the request makes its way to Jesus, he doesn’t say, “Well, bring them here.” Instead he goes into an odd diatribe of some agricultural reference of a grain of wheat being planted, dying, and bringing about a harvest; then speaks about the honor to be conferred upon those who serve him; and then expresses his inner turmoil about the fact that “this hour” had come and that it would glorify God. And after a mysterious encounter between earth and heaven, between a voice from the sky and Jesus in the flesh that sounded like thunder came from heaven, Jesus says these words: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Now before we get to what he says next let’s think about what this means.

This is a cry of revolution; a seeming appeal for a great exorcism of the evil ruler of the world. Time to overthrow the empire, time to buck the system! This is the point at which it would be oh, so inviting, for everyone to grab their swords and weapons of destruction to take out the enemy. This is what so many had been waiting for! Time to end the evil regime that has oppressed us for years, decades, centuries! Time to, as they say, “open a can” of spinach…or of something else that you’re likely familiar with…and wipe ‘em out!

Now here is the turning point. Jesus is going to buck the system, alright; he will perform the great exorcism, but after he says the time has come for it to happen, he uncovers the means by which it will be done; and that means is not by opening a can, or taking up a sword, but this – “I, when I am lifted up from the earth…” – to indicate, as John interprets for us, “the kind of death he was to die.” Now this is an exorcism that does more than turn heads; it is one that Jesus says will draw the whole word to itself, to a love so amazing, so divine; and this is done not through violence, but through the death of God’s own Son! How odd!

Why didn’t Jesus take up the sword? Why isn’t that the means by which to overcome evil? Walter Wink says something quite remarkable about Jesus’ point here: “Violent revolution fails because it is not revolutionary enough. It changes the rulers but not the rules, the ends but not the means.”

On the contrary, Jesus changes not merely one throne of tyranny for another, but changes the entire system. He bucks the system not by playing according to the rules of the system, but by exposing the system for what it is and where it can only lead by his own willingness to die at the hands of that very system. Jesus changes not only the end, but the means, by appealing to a tradition that sounds equally odd to our modern ears – “being lifted up.” Here is an allusion to the somewhat obscure passage in Numbers 21 when God, so it seemed, sent poisonous snakes into the camp of the Israelites because they complained about having a hard time in the wilderness. But when the Israelites confessed of their sins and asked Moses for a means by which to be saved from the poisonous snakes, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it upon a pole and that if a poisonous snake bit an Israelite, it could look at the bronze serpent and be healed. Now digging deeply into that passage would uncover some interesting and heavy questions about what in the world is going on there. But where this meets Jesus’ words, I think, is that a poison had infiltrated the system of the world and of God’s people. And the means by which to be healed of the poison is not to fight back with poison but to look upon the one who is lifted up, and see the poisonous system for what it is and where it leads.

A serpent lifted up on a pole, as the means of healing for the people of God - see Numbers 21 (photo credit: cathnews.com)

A serpent lifted up on a pole, as the means of healing for the people of God – see Numbers 21 (photo credit: cathnews.com)

To use another metaphor, the world is caught up in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence that operates like a whirlpool. Think The Hunger Games and you’re really in a no-win situation where the world grimaces at you saying, “May the odds be ever in your favor,” all the while pleading for a blood bath to keep the system going the way it always has. The human tendency is to think that the way to stop the whirlpool is to react violently by spinning in the opposite direction, or by joining in so long as you’re the last one standing.

But Jesus’ action is something wholly different. His action, as theologian Mark Baker put it, was like that of a rock in a river that absorbs the energy of the whirlpool and stops it. Baker writes:

In a definitive way the cross broke the cycle of increasing alienation and violence because it absorbed the worst act of violence in the world—the killing of God incarnate. God did not respond to this by lashing out with a vengeful counter blow, but with forgiving love, thus responding to the root causes of a violent society. The ultimate act of hatred was answered with the ultimate act of forgiving love.

What does this look like, practically speaking, for us? Maybe something like this. I was in a covenant group with an elementary school teacher when I lived in Nicholasville. One day my friend came to our group on edge and broke down before us about a student in his class who was having difficulty at home and appeared to be caught up in a cycle of violence for generation upon generation in his family. My friend looked at the future of this boy and wept over what seemed an inevitability of the continuation of the cycle. But what we were able to encourage our friend to do was to, with the help of Christ, be like the rock, the catalyst that for this young man could be drawn in and see an alternative way to be human that doesn’t have to go with the flow nor attempt to fight against it alone. I believe the same could be said of the way things are in downtown Jackson and the world around us. The world needs some rocks, not to be thrown at it, but to stop the whirlpool.

Jesus’ way of bucking the system is this: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

“Faith in the cross is the world’s great exorcism. Anything else, whatever its flamboyance, is powerless.” – Fr. Gerard Sloyan

Let’s pray…

Oh Christ, who was lifted up and has drawn us unto yourself. Forgive us of the times when we have caved to the systems of the world and fought using its weapons rather than allowing them to be transformed into plows and pruning hooks. Help us to mind the good ground and patiently wait for the bearing of fruit that comes not through suspicion or drawing boundaries around which we demarcate “us” from “them,” but through the faithful following of your way of obedience, humility, and putting others before ourselves. Grant us the freedom that comes with learning the art of “letting go” rather than tightening our grips to the ways that ultimately lead to the destruction of others and ourselves. May we join your loving embrace of drawing the world to yourself. In your holy name, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father, we pray. Amen.

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…So begins what is perhaps the most moving, disturbing, and haunting of statements ever uttered. Per Matthew’s telling: “And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'”

Each year on Good Friday we commemorate the event which brings out the very worst and the very best of humanity. The very worst is obvious in the vitriol, the hatred, the mockery, the torture of One who told his right hand man to put away his sword yet who was tried and assailed as a terrorist. It’s too easy to distance ourselves from the crowd and it is our tendency to do so. That is part of why I think it is so easy to miss what is behind Jesus’ troublesome cry. And until we can see ourselves somewhere in the midst of this scene: either as the disciples who betrayed or scattered; or as the crowd or the soldiers who mock Jesus; or even as the One condemned by the crowds, we will miss something quite significant about what Jesus screamed.

I don’t think, as others do, that Jesus was making a theological statement about him being sin and God not being able to look at sin. That concept is frequently read into Jesus’ cry of dereliction (or forsaken-ness). The idea (from Paul in Galatians 3) that Jesus became a curse for us is seen as the backdrop for Jesus’ words rather than looking to another passage…the very one Jesus was quoting, which was a lament psalm (#22) in which the speaker is wondering where is God and why hasn’t God come to the rescue. The psalmist experiences the things Jesus experiences: being scorned, mocked, despised, ridiculed, stripped of clothes which are divided amongst the assailants. And I am among them.

…………….

As I read the psalm and I witness the worst of humanity in what is done to Jesus, my heart changes and aches, and I observe the Psalmist knows something about the character of God, that God has come to the rescue of those who cried out to and put their trust in the Lord. Surely, Jesus knows that character, too! And in that knowledge, Jesus cries what people cry when an injustice is being done: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

(credit: journeywithjesus.net)

(credit: journeywithjesus.net)

So now I see the Psalm (and Jesus’ utterance of its beginning at the cross) as a cry of the righteous innocent calling upon the faithfulness and justice of God and asking why God hasn’t come to the rescue in this case. The garments of the innocent are shredded and divided among God’s enemies all the time. Faithful people are and have been oppressed countless times in history. Many people die alone, being rejected and despised, or worse, ignored by others. Maybe Jesus, in making such a loud cry in his greatest moment of desperation, is resonating and empathizing with the suffering of ones such as these through all of time and saying, “Where are you, God?” So they (or we) are not alone in feeling abandoned by everyone, including God. That’s good.

But wait…he breathes his last. Did God really not rescue him? But I know he was innocent! Surely he was God’s Son! Where were you, God? Where are you, God?

For several years now, I’ve been drawn mostly to Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’ during Advent. I’ve tried to suggest that it’s the best hymn of Advent, but Jerry Walls, my philosophy professor from seminary, has rebutted that while Charles’ lyrics are rich in theology, it does not carry quite nearly the narrative richness nor the robust pathos as his favorite, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel.’ And I’m beginning to be convinced that he might be right.

I was so looking forward to preaching this Gaudete Sunday. The third Sunday in Advent, whose candle is typically pink, or rose colored, contains the theme of joy, and usually sparks a little more of an upbeat than the other themes. After all, joy is a hallmark of the season that focuses on happiness: it brings a smile to our faces as we share beloved memories with our faith and biological families, as we say ‘CHEESE!’ for family photos, and receive more mail (i.e., Christmas cards) during any other time of the year. (Who doesn’t love getting good mail like that?)

Joy filled the air with the evangel message brought by a host of angels to a group of lowly shepherds, saying, “I bring you good tidings of great JOY, which shall be for all the people…”

This Sunday, I was ready to burst out singing ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come’ at such a volume that would’ve put to shame Clark W. Griswold’s prelude to his first failed attempt at turning on the lights on his house.

My heart and mind were tuned to the songs of joy, the notes were lined up, the outline was all typed out. I was ready to preach by mid-week. Then…Connecticut…

How am I supposed to talk about joy in a world, in a time, like this? It would come out rather hollow, it seems. And if I had talked about joy the way we tend to think about it, then yes it would have.

But then I realized that the joy that we discover in Advent is not a happy-go-lucky type of joy that ignores evil and darkness that exist in our world. Nor does this joy focus on us “holding on” long enough until God takes us out of this seemingly crappy world so that we can enjoy heaven on the other side. For as I read the pages of Scripture I find that the curse (Genesis 3 and thereafter) is not the beginning; that something joyful existed before then; that the world wasn’t originally crappy, but good, “very good” in fact; that the Advent of Christ’s Incarnation has begun the work of undoing that curse

I realized that ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come’ are not the only lyrics of the hymn, but that it also proclaims that Christ “comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found“…and might I add, “and even farther”? Isaac Watts, in penning these lyrics, knew that the curse was hanging around. And so do we. And it hangs around by paralyzing and captivating its victims with fear.

In the final stanza (3:14-20) of his book, Zephaniah gave us a melody of hope, and it found itself in the image of God singing over God’s people with joy, removing disaster from them (note: NOT removing them from disaster). But this final stanza is really the only bit of good news that Zephaniah offered the people. The rest was just bad news upon impending judgment upon bad news upon…well, you get the picture. Upon hearing all this, it would seem to be rather easy to be held captive by a fear that they (or we) wouldn’t be able to make it. But even this final stanza still wasn’t the fulfillment of that joy…just an invitation to believe that disaster would not ultimately be victorious over them but would be removed one day.

Musically, it would be like that moment when, in a song filled with dissonance yet concludes with a consonant chord, the instability is just about to be overcome by the final note, which provides the stable resolution we most long for.

A dissonant chord (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

A dissonant chord (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

When I first heard ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ as a child, there was something, musically, I didn’t like about it. It sounded dissonant to me. Like it didn’t seem to fit one of the few lyrics I then understood in the song: “Rejoice!” How could a song telling me to “Rejoice!” sound so…off? But perhaps that is why it is so appropriate, because the feeling is so familiar to our world, which is still cursed with dissonance…with evil that often holds us captive in fear. But this ‘joy’ we talk about, especially in Advent, is not identified with hollow happiness nor shown by fake smiles. Instead, it is of an expectant variety that in recognizing evil, is not held captive by it, for we believe that evil’s defeat has been guaranteed, and that we can pave the way (tune our instruments?) for the harmony to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s not escapist theology…because if it was about going away from the earth, then the music would stop. God created the world in harmony with the creation responding appropriately. And God intends to take the dissonance away, so that beauty prevails. That’s what we long for.

As a later verse of (maybe) my new favorite Advent hymn says, “O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer; Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!