Lent 5, Year B, RCL
18 March 2018
Every year when my Community, the Rivendell Community, gets together for our annual meeting, we always make sure to carve out time in the agenda for telling stories. In part, we want to tell the stories of our twenty years of life together for the benefit of our new postulants who don’t yet know them. But also we want to tell the stories for our own benefit, not just to reaffirm our memories, but to reinterpret them. And not just to reinterpret them, but to let them reinterpret what is going on right here and right now. Because of that, the stories of our life together are as vastly important as any other business on the agenda — our lives are knitted together by these stories.
There’s something similar going on in today’s readings: there are at least three backstories going on in this passage from John’s Gospel, stories that knit together our understanding of what’s going on and interpret and reinterpret one another, past interpreting future and future interpreting past.
There was that time, as you may remember from the readings from last week, that God’s people Israel were kvetching in the desert, wandering and hungry and thirsty, and found themselves attacked by snakes. Moses made a bronze effigy of a snake and put it up on a pole, and anyone who cast their eyes on that effigy would survive the bite.
Then there was the time, before Abram was Abraham, when the future father of God’s people joined forces with the king of Sodom to win a great battle. And after the battle, a priest-king called Melchizedek brought Abram bread and wine, received his offering, and blessed him. Since this was before the birth of Isaac, this means that Melchizedek was ordained by God before the hereditary line of priests that was established by Moses’s brother Aaron — before and outside of the dynastic authority that governed the Temple of Jesus’s day.
Then there’s the story of the covenant itself. When God led his people Israel out of the land of Egypt, God made a binding agreement with them — cut a deal, made a blood pact. God promised to be, not just “the Lord,” but their Lord, close to them and bonded to them like spouses are.
So in today’s gospel reading, we hear that some Greek converts have come to Jerusalem for the festival, and they find one of Jesus’ disciples who has a Greek name, and say, “We want to see Jesus.” That is, they don’t just want to clap eyes on him, they want to see him, as you would “see” a doctor or “see” a date. Philip tells Andrew, and they both go and tell Jesus. And Jesus says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
So let’s set the scene. In all probability, we’re back in the temple, in the court of the Gentiles that Jesus cleared out with a whip a couple of Sundays ago. Jesus upended the temple at the beginning of his ministry. Now we’re at the end of his ministry, and some Gentiles have now come asking to see Jesus. Up till now in John’s gospel, the repeated phrase has been, “It is not my hour” — “they tried to arrest him but it was not his hour” — not yet, not yet. But when Jesus hears that these Greeks want to see him, he finally says, “Now.”
Now is the time when the effigy will be lifted up for people to look to and be saved. Now is the time when the priest and king will displace the ruler of this world and consecrate God’s people. Now is the time to get ready to leave Egypt and make a new covenant. The stories that God’s people tell are being invoked to interpret this hour, and this hour will reinterpret all those stories in turn.
Jesus, following the direction of God, is to be both the king and the condemned man, the priest and the sacrifice, the perfect flower of God’s people and the cursed effigy that will save them. This is why he came, not to save out heirloom seeds but to put them in the ground and grow a new crop. “And when I am lifted up from the earth,” he says, “I will draw all to myself.”
I will draw all to myself. Like a strange attractor, the cross gathers in the whole universe, God’s greatest glory at the moment of deepest defeat. Earlier in John’s gospel, the feeding of the multitude ends with Jesus directing his disciples to “gather up the pieces, so that nothing may be lost,” and later, in the depths of his Passion, Jesus will thank God in prayer that “I have not lost one of all whom you gave me.” To gather everything and everyone up so that nothing is lost requires an event of great gravity, and Jesus knows that he has reached the horizon of that event.
This is all very cosmic, and amazing if you think about it. But what does it mean for us, here and now, on the future side of that fulcrum event, scrabbling along in the twenty-first century? We are all here, in some measure, because we want to see Jesus. Not just to clap eyes on him like a snake-bitten person looking up at an effigy for rescue, but really to see and be seen, to be gathered up and not lost.
I want to invoke one more backstory to inform this desire of ours. God’s people Israel get their name from the man who was born with the name of Jacob. You may remember the story of how Jacob, the younger son and the underdog, tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance and skipped town. Many years later he comes back, with two wives and many children and a great wealth of flocks and herds, and he is afraid of how his brother will receive him. He sends everyone ahead of him and spends the night alone by the riverbank. And in that fearful darkness, someone comes and wrestles with him all night. As day is breaking, Jacob clings to the man and demands a blessing, and the blessing is his new name: Israel, the one who contends with God. “And what is your name?” Jacob asks in turn. “Why do you want to know?” says the man, and disappears with the rising sunlight. And Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face!”
Not only has Jacob seen God’s face — he’s punched it.
Think about it: the people of God is named for the man who punched God in the face.
The God who is responsible for the whole universe, whose thoughts breathe the very life into all that we see and hear and are: this is the God who stoops to wrestle with us, who honeymoons with us in the desert, who patiently disentangles us from bondage and draws us out into the light of dawn. Who comes to us again and again, even when — maybe even because — we strike out and struggle and thrash blindly and destructively against our most intimate friend. Who has proved that our relationship is unbreakable by coming in the flesh and undertaking the consequences of all of our agonized fear and hatred.
“I will put my law within them,” this God promises, “and I will cut it — not on stone — but in their hearts, and they will all know me equally, and I will forget their sins.” I will not lose anyone. Nothing will be lost. The Psalmist says, “You look for truth in my inmost parts; in the secret quiet you will make me understand wisdom.”
I can think of times — and maybe you can, too — when I was in the desert; struggling, agonized, fearful, obsessed with my own failures, striking out against God. Those times were paradoxically the times when I was also most blessed. Not because my suffering was in any way good, but because in the midst of it I was granted an intimacy with God that was entirely a gift. God doesn’t treat us the way we treat God. God has promised to lose none of us, yet God does not use any of the tactics that we think are necessary in this world — coercion, physical force, shame, dynastic authority. No, the ruler of this world has been displaced by the triumph of the Cross.
Next week we will enter into what the collect for Palm Sunday calls “the contemplation of those mighty acts” by which God saves the world. And yet the world begins in this little world of our hearts, where we struggle with God through the night and receive a new name in the morning. Where we can do our worst, and still God can absorb it and turn it into triumph. Where we see and are seen, where we love and are loved.
We want to see Jesus. And the hour is now.