The Way Down Is the Way Up – John 12:20-33

John 12:20-33

This week, I came across a picture of a pulpit. The pulpit looked just like most traditional wooden pulpits, but right near the place where the preacher would place his or her Bible and sermon notes, there was a sentence engraved into the wood that read, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” a reference to the passage from John we’re looking at together.

And even though many pulpits do not explicitly contain those words, they are words that should always be in our minds as we read and study Scripture. Through a series of teachings and examples that defy our ideas of logic and our sensibilities, Jesus gives us a clearer picture of the work that he is going to do, and though his words are difficult, they are the looking glass through which we can see Jesus.

Looking back at chapter 11, we see a movement that is beginning to snowball and gain traction. Jesus raises Lazarus – Mary and Martha’s brother – from the dead, and many people who were there believed in him. After Lazarus is raised from the dead, Jesus eats with him, and Mary, Martha, Judas, and perhaps some of the other disciples, and it is at this meal that Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume.

A great crowd of people learned that Jesus was with Lazarus, and the people came out in droves. Who wouldn’t want to see the man who had once been dead, and the one who had called out to him and brought him back to life? The swell of people who believed in Jesus because of the raising of Lazarus was a concern to the chief priests, and so they began to plot not only to have Jesus put to death, but Lazarus as well. But, despite the growing fears and plots of the religious leaders, the crowd continues to grow.

The great crowd of people that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was going to be there, and they took branches of palm trees and met Jesus as he came into Jerusalem. They called out to him, “Save us! Hosanna!” and they cried out to him as their king. From the moment Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, until the moment he rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey, the crowd of people who believed in him continued to grow.

The crowd had seen that even death was no match for Jesus, and they were moved to belief. They saw amazing things, and they believed in him. The Pharisees were deeply concerned by the growing movement of people believing in Jesus, and they said, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

And here’s where our passage begins. “Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.” And they have come to see Jesus. They find Philip – a disciple with a Greek name who came from Bethsaida and possibly spoke Greek – and make this powerful inquiry, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Indeed, the world has gone after him, and we get a powerful glimpse here. The news of Jesus is not intended for only one people group, or one time period, or one geographical location. It is for the world. Interestingly enough, we never learn whether these Greeks got to see Jesus. As soon as Philip and Andrew tell Jesus that some Greeks have come to see him, Jesus begins a difficult teaching filled with tensions and reversals.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…” imagine with me what you might expect Jesus to say next. Jesus has risen someone from the dead, been anointed with costly perfume, and come into Jerusalem to fanfare that was fit for a king. Now is the time for Jesus to be glorified because the world was coming to him. This is why Jesus came into the world. As we read back at the very beginning of John: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” For the one who has come into the world to enlighten everyone, the one who is proclaimed to be Messiah, his glorification was probably expected to be even more triumphant, bigger, and better than anything that had already happened.

Jesus continued, “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.” Now that we’re officially in the season of spring, and new shoots and plants are starting to break through the surface of the ground, we can appreciate Jesus’ metaphor of the grain that needs to die. We dig up bulbs and let them dry out before planting them again. And for many bulbs, this is the only way they can be ready to grow. Before they can bring forth new life, they have to die. “Sir, we want to see, Jesus,” and the answer is that we have to be prepared to look for him in the right place. When we look for the glorified Christ, we can’t look for him by journeying up. We have to look for him by journeying down.

Because the way down is the way up.

Father Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, in his brilliant little book Falling Upward takes a look at the journey of life each person is on. He writes this: “One of the best-kept secrets, and yet hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” [1]

Jesus continues his difficult teaching on the grand reversal – the ones who love their lives will lose them; those who hate their lives, will keep them for eternal life. The way of greatness is in service and humility and sacrifice.

The way down is the way up.

This passage of Scripture – like so much of the Gospel of John – is packed with so many theological gems and puzzles that nearly every verse could be expanded into its own sermon. We could connect the voice that came from heaven in this passage to the voice that spoke at Jesus’ baptism. We could connect Philip’s role in this passage to Philip’s role during the feeding of the 5,000. We could look at the importance of the gospel going out to the ends of the earth. All of these things are here. But, for today on this fifth week of our lenten journey, let’s focus on two pieces of what Jesus teaches: there is room for struggle in the Christian journey, and in the cross the outside is brought in.

Every time I read John 12 this week, I got stuck on verse 27: “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.” And I would get stuck because in all of the other gospels, we read about Jesus praying in the garden, and asking that if it be possible that the cup be removed from him. In Matthew 26, for example, Jesus prays not once or twice – but three times! – for the cup to pass from him, concluding his time of prayer with, “Your will be done.” His soul was troubled. He was deeply grieved. He struggled with the difficult journey he knew he needed to walk. And we can find great comfort in this.

John Calvin in his commentary on the Gospel of John seems taken with this verse. He approaches it in all its beauty and difficulty, and he writes,

Here we see, as it were, before our eyes, how much our salvation cost the Son of God, when he was reduced to such extremity of distress, that he found neither words to express the intensity of his sorrow, nor yet resolution as man. He betakes himself to prayer, which is his only remaining resource, and asks to be delivered from death.

Faced with the “bitter and shameful death of the cross,” as we pray in our communion prayer, Jesus was anguished.

Calvin continues on,

If the dread of death had occasioned no uneasiness to the Son of God, which of us would have thought that his example was applicable to our case? For it has not been given to us to die without, feeling of regret; but when we learn that He had not within him a hardness like stone or iron, we summon courage to follow him, and the weakness of the flesh, which makes us tremble at death, does not hinder us from becoming the companions of our General in struggling with it. [2]

In other words, Jesus struggled in the face of death. Even though Jesus was perfectly obedient to the will of God, he also struggled with the difficulty of what was coming. And this should give us a tremendous amount of comfort.

There is room in the Christian journey for struggle.

There is room for our weakness.

There is room for us to wish that our roads would not need to be so difficult.

There is room for struggle in the Christian life, and in the cross, the outside is brought in. In verses 31-32, Jesus says this, “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.” Once again Jesus uses the phrase “lifted up” to refer to the kind of death he would die.

The world used in the Greek is one that could mean “exalted,” and yet the kind of lifting up Jesus is speaking of was one of humiliation and suffering. Just like Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on a pole, Jesus would be lifted up. Just like the people who had been bitten by poisonous snakes in the book of Numbers had only to look upon the bronze serpent in order to live, life would be found in Christ.

But now, on top of the strange and confusing paradox of being lifted up while being brought down low, Jesus tells his disciples that when he is lifted up he “will draw all people to myself.” The ruler of this world will be driven out, and all people will be drawn in. What exactly does this mean?

Visualize with me three circles, each one a little bit bigger than the one before it. In the smallest circle, we have the ruler of this world. In the next we have those who are caught in the thick of what’s happening. And in the last circle, we’ve got the ends of the earth. In the very middle of it all, we have the ones who seem to be in power, the ones who are first in this world. We have the ruler of this world.

Out in the farthest circle, we’ve got the ends of the earth. We’ve got the people who are on the fringes and margins. We have the powerless, the downcast, the outcast. Jesus says the ruler of this world will be driven out, but in the Greek, what he says is that the ruler of this world will be driven out, way out – or driven way out past the boundaries and margins.

On the flipside, he will draw all people to himself. All people, including people like the Greeks who have come seeking Jesus. All people, including those deemed unexpected or unworthy. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, the circles are turned inside out. The margins are brought in and drawn to Christ. The ruler of this world is pushed back beyond the margins.

This is the grand reversal of the gospel – that the shame of the cross would be our glory, that our weakness would show forth God’s strength, that the ruler of this world would be pushed to the margins so that the margins could be drawn in to Christ in glory. As we seek to live out this complex and mysterious truth, may we find the courage in the midst of our struggles, and comfort knowing that Jesus is not unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses. There is room for our struggle.

And may we be ready and willing to participate in the drawing in of those who are on the margins. May we be ready to hear and receive those who come wishing to see Jesus, even when they are those we least expect. And may we do all we do for the glory and honor of the holy and precious name of Jesus.

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  • [1] Fr. Richard Rohr, Falling Upward
  • [2] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom35.ii.v.html

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, wife, mom, and lover of words. She finds inspiration under the big Nebraska skies, in the garden, in the yarn aisle, and in the kitchen. Learn more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Anna Marion Howell

    I seriously wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being the best, most thoughtful, and most on-point sermon anyone’s managed to write this week. You wouldn’t even know the lectionary was tough this week from the way you dealt with it, moving seamlessly from illustration to lesson to application, and all of it was both poignant and understandable. I especially love the call to action. This is an amazing sermon, even by your standards. Well-done!

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  • April,

    I love your treatment of the text for this week, and I really enjoyed your pulpit illustration. I’m not saying I’m going to carve it into my own pulpit, but…maybe use a label maker or something. Haha
    The gospel is for everyone, like you stated, but I also like how you drew attention to the fact that it is especially for those on the margins. A great reminder in the midst of Lent.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Nick