May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, Our Rock and Our Redeemer. Amen.
The Grand Canyon is very old and very big. Carved by the Colorado River over the course of 5-6 million years, the steep cliffs expose over 2 billion years of history in the strata of the rock. The canyon is 446 km long, up to 29 km wide, and at its deepest point, 1857 m down. The whole area is sacred to the aboriginal Pueblo Peoples, among them the Hopi, Yavapai, and Navajo or Dine. But standing on the edge of a lookout, it is difficult to grasp the scope of its majesty and significance. A recent venture by the Hopi Nation offers a wider perspective. For $89 U.S. and a fair amount of courage, individuals can zip-line over the Grand Canyon at up to 80 km an hour and 300 meters above the river floor. The YouTube videos taken with 360 degree cameras are amazing. Would I have what it takes to let go the starting rope and soar into the void? I imagine I would feel pretty overwhelmed by the immensity of it all.
And yet, this is what Jesus does in John 12:20-33. God’s plan for salvation is very old and very big. But it is Jesus, now that he perceives the hour has come, who has the courage to take the leap. How does he get there? How do we?
One of the reasons we can get to know Jesus better is that he endures the full range of human emotions. He is angry at the way the worship at the Jerusalem Temple has degenerated into a business transaction. He cries when he gets news that his friend Lazarus has died. He feels overwhelmed in the garden of Gethsemane when he asks God to let the cup of death pass from him. He feels abandoned on the cross as he is dying. Jesus is a normal human being. He doesn’t go cheerfully to his death: he questions and prays and wrestles with the meaning of this suffering sacrifice. And he tries to prepare his disciples for their experience in following him.
Jesus tells his closest friends, “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23). Opposition to his ministry is indeed peaking. Recent events have seen the raising of Lazarus from the dead, which has also raised Jesus’ profile with the religious authorities. Necromancy is not something they can ignore. His anointing by Mary at Bethany is a sign that some of his followers understood how dangerous the road was getting. Rumours of the reverence being paid to him don’t sit well with the scribes and elders. And now that he is in Jerusalem at the Passover celebrations, Jesus is getting noticed by a much wider audience. Crowds of Judeans greeted him at his arrival with palm branches and shouts of Hosanna for a new king of Israel. That’s going to cause political trouble. Even Greek seekers have shown up, preferring Jesus’ teaching to that of the Pharisees. All the world is taking notice. That means action needs to be taken.
Jesus can feel the undercurrents. He tries to prepare his disciples for what is to come. The cost of love is a sacrifice that has to look beyond self. He tells them, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). A love that is narrow misses the point. God’s salvation is universal and communal. That’s why the great commandment has two parts. We are called to love the Lord our God and we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. If we just have our own interests at heart, and we just rely on our own resources, there is really no room for God’s glory in our lives. We end up without empathy and compassion. It’s not really living. Jesus’ admonishment is that a life that is loved to the exclusion of others’ needs diminishes and constricts our souls. But when we reach beyond the status quo to give of ourselves to others, life abundant awaits. Our lives are threatened and upset when change wins out over self-preservation. It takes courage every step of the way.
Jesus doesn’t just “snap out” of his depression. His soul is genuinely troubled by the truth that he is heading towards arrest and probably death. He can’t rely on his human self. He still has choices. He can run away. He can recant. He can demand that his disciples step up. But he takes the wide view. God’s salvation is very old and very big. And he is going to trust that the road leads to glory. The initiation comes from God, who comes from glory into the suffering of the world. And God is not going to deny that suffering exists, but enters into it by way of Jesus on the cross. What gives Jesus the strength to go on is the assurance of God’s plan working in and through him. God’s glory becomes his glory because he is willing.
There comes a time in all of our lives when it is too much. We have tried to balance the commitments and the responsibilities, but the strain of carrying on brings us to a breaking point. There may be those around us that are criticising for not doing enough, or doing the wrong thing, or meddling in the first place. There are voices that tell us to give up or run away. There is our own guilt at wanting out and feeling that we do not have enough love or energy. Where can we turn for help?
It is simplistic to say that God will give you the strength and courage to cope. You’ve heard it said, “God never gives you more than you can handle”. I believe that is not helpful on two counts. First, I don’t think that God is specifically sending you griefs and struggles as if it were a test of your faith. Secondly, there are times when there is more than you or I alone can handle. But what I do affirm is that God is with us in the suffering, and that in the suffering there is a sacrificial kind of love. For our sakes, God shows us this glory: a love goes beyond our narrow view of who and how we can love and be loved. We can trust that a next step is possible not because God orders us to do it, but because God is willing to enter into this suffering love with us. The name of God was glorified in the work of Jesus’ life and climaxed in his death on the cross because God was fully with Jesus in life and in death. And that glory led to resurrection and the drawing of each of us towards salvation.
In the book and screenplay, “A Man Called Ove”, an elderly Swedish pensioner is bitter as a result of his personal tragedies. Every time he tries to end his life, however, an opportunity is presented to help that delays his way out. On the third attempt, Ove decides to jump in front of a train.
“He checks his watch. One minute left. He stands at the edge of the platform. Balancing on the soles of his shoes over the edge. It’s a fall of no more than one and a half meters, he estimates. One sixty possibly… The sun is just up; it shines obstinately into his eyes like a child that has just been given a torch. And that’s when he hears the first scream.
Ove looks up just in times to see the suit-wearing man in his black overcoat start to sway back and forth, like panda that’s been given a Valium overdose. It continues for a second or so, then the suit-wearing man looks up blindly and his whole body is struck with some form of nervous twitching. His arms shake convulsively. And then, as if in the moment is a long sequence of still photographs, the newspaper falls out of his hands and he passes out, falling off the edge onto the track with a thump, as if he were a crate of cement mixture…
‘For Christ’ sake,’ fumes Ove to himself at long last as he jumps down onto the track. ‘GRAB HOLD HERE WILL YOU!’ he calls out to one of the backpackers on the platform. The stultified youth drags himself slowly to the edge. Ove hoists up the suit-wearing man in a way that men who have never put their foot in a gym yet have spent their entire lives carrying two concrete plinths under each arm tend to be able to do. He heaves us the body into the backpacker’s arms in a way that Audi-driving men wearing neon-bright jogging pants are often incapable of doing. ‘He can’t stay here in the path of the train, you get that don’t you?’” (Fredrik Backman, pp.125-126)
And after that, the train stops short of Ove. For Christ’s sake, indeed. Through his growing re-engagement with his neighbours, he learns how to love and be loved again. He finds community in the service that he gives. And he draws a community around him that learns in the process what it means to have the courage to serve, even when it hurts. Amen.